Cuba (part 2 of 2)

Vinales, Day 4 through 6

Cuba, Day 4

Two farmers in Vinales, engaged in small talk.

The mix of gasoline fumes and fresh cut grass makes for an unusual combination.  As I am writing this, I am speeding along a highway in a rackety van complete with about 12 other tourists.  Our luggage is piled precariously on the roof, tied together with string that inspires little confidence.  Our driver, a man that could be aged 35 or 55 speaks no English and the few people in the car who speak Spanish are our bridge to the driver.  Our drive is short, only a few hours away is Vinales, a natural paradise or so I am told.  As you know I have no plan.

One advantage of staying in a hostel is that you make a lot of friends, quickly.  One of my hostel mates. A lovely French young woman named after a constellation – Orion, had accommodations booked in Vinales in advance.  She offered for me to come with, in part to share the costs and in part to share the company.  After 3 days in Havana I got a pretty good lay of the land.  Truth is you can spend months exploring Havana and absorbing its unique vibe, but I do not have months and my feet are, once again, restless. 

There are several ways to get to Vinales from Havana.  The first, and most frugal, I am told, is to take a state run bus.  The buses are comfortable and air conditioned, and the cost is about 12 cuc.  However, to guarantee there will be space for you on the bus, the tickets must be purchased a few days in advance and the internet ordering system does not work.  So you must trek to the bus station a few days before you travel to secure your ticket 

Alternatively, you can hire a private car to get to Vinales.  The cost is about 100 to 130 cuc, so this is a good option if you plan on having a more high end trip. 

As for myself, I took the third option.  My hostel arranged a collectivos, a group van to pick up me and my new friend at our hostel and to take us to our final destination.  Our ride costs 20 cuc and its anything but luxurious, but we do have the advantage of being picked up from our doorstep and delivered to the doorstep of the next hostel. 

My french roommate, enjoying the view from our rooftop in Vinales.

Vinales is a province of Cuba widely known for its nature and its tobacco farms.  If Havana is dedicatedly urban, Vinales is unabashedly countryside.  In Havana the official vehicle is the classic American car, reworked with a Japanese engine.  In Vinales the vehicle of choice is the horse and buggy.  Green and hilly it is famous for its horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.  Vinales also has an easy access to several underused beaches complete with perfect white sand and warm water.  To see the full balance of Cuba during a short stay its important to experience both the countryside and the urban center, so a week splitting your time between Vinales and Havana is a perfect balance. 

To book your accommodations in Vinales you can use Airbnb or one of the websites I listed earlier.  Again, keep in mind the issue with the hosts being paid by Airbnb on time, and try to use the sites first.  Accommodations, as well as anything else here is cheaper in Vinales than it is in Havana.  Our private house was 54 euros with two beds for 3 nights. It does not include breakfast, which can be purchased for about 3 cuc per day.  Your host in vinales can make any necessary arrangements for the tours you chose to take.  Food in Vinales is less expensive as well, and a full lunch can be easily had for under 10 cuc.  The people of Vinales are as relaxed as their countryside and this is a wonderful place to come after the hussle and bussle of Havana. 

Food in Cuba

I find myself generally disappointed with the quality of food in Cuba.  As someone who has been lucky to travel the world and grow up in one of its the great foodie paradises (NYC) I am definitely spoiled.  I am surprised to discover the food here lacking flavor and served with no spices at all, even salt seems to be missing from many of my dishes. Some of the worst food I have had has been served in the nicest looking restaurants, and some recommended to me by my hostel host.  I wonder if the lack of culinary advancement in Cuba is due to the embargo as they can get few ingredients in that they do not grow themselves.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, and I highly recommend to try them.

My host in Vinnales is a fantastic cook.  She makes simple country meals, such as pork with rice and chicken with rice, but the ingredients are fresh and properly salted, and it comes with fresh fruit and vegetables.  Eating in my casa in Vinnales is definitely a treat. 

The coffee here is outstanding.  I am a bit of a coffee snob and the cup I was served in the coffee farm is definitely the best coffee I have ever had. But even in simple restaurants coffee is just outstanding.

Enjoying a cup of coffee in Vinnales. Fabulous everywhere.

The fruit juices as well as all the fruit here is outstanding. Highlights include fresh mango, gorgeous and perfectly ripe avocado and pineapple.  For breakfast be sure to request mango juice.  For breakfast in Vinnales have some country eggs, they are as fresh as it gets, usually delivered by chickens you see on the property in the last 24 hours. 

The local water is not properly cleaned so do not drink it.  If you have a sensitive stomach request your drinks without ice as well.  Drink only bottled water. 

Havana airport has only one small shop that makes sandwiches with a huge line. Don’t count on having lunch here before your flight. 

Back to the USSR

Although geographically Vinales couldn’t be further from where I grew up in Russia, in many other important ways it feels so close. I don’t know if it’s the old soviet cars, the long lines for basic goods and services, or the general feeling of sovietness about the architecture in the newer districts, but something about this place is definitely giving me a case of major de ja vu.  It may sound strange but many of my soviet memories are good.  Childhood is a precious time, and no matter how complicated yours was I suppose you will always feel nostalgic for the kind moments.

As I am writing this, I am resting on a rooftop in Vinales the idyllic picture of slow country life layed out before me.  Some of my best childhood memories took place on slow winding dirt roads, unhurriedly crossed by chickens and cows.  Horses and their riders pass in my distant field of vision. We certainly didn’t have palm trees or picturesque mountains in the country side of Leningrad where I spend my summers, but something about that village life, completely disconnected from town feels very similar. 

Children in Vinnales work early. Boys are busy learning to manage and ride horses.

In Russia we used to pick trees and enjoy fresh cherries, apples and berries. Here a different kind of fruit can be easily bought or in some cases picked off the trees.  Fresh mangoes, pineapple and avocadoes can be bought from street vendors.  Mango should cost about 10 cup (local currency), avocado between 15 to 20 cup and pineapple about 8.  Be careful not to get taken advantage of, some unethical street vendors will try to sell you fruit for 1 to 2 cuc, many times the price you should pay.  Its best if you exchange a few cuc to cup (you can easily do so with your host or when you are exchanging for primary currency at the bank) at the rate of 25 cup to 1 cuc.  It helps to have small change to buy fruit or even local pizza and snacks if you want to patronize restaurants not used by tourists. 


Cuba, Day 5

Vinnales, the nature capital of Cuba, offers several wonderful activities organized for tourists, and most everyone takes part in them. The easy going manner of the locals and the relaxed atmosphere in Vinnales makes a newcomer feel instantly welcome. 

The lake we swam in, beautiful and peaceful.

Last night we met some British boys in our hostel traveling for 3 weeks across Cuba. Together with them, and the hostel owner’s son, a handsome young man in his early 20s we sat chatting the afternoon away.  In the evening the five of us (including my French friend) made our way to the local club.  To say that Cubans are great dancers would be a serious understatement.  To watch an entire floor merengue as though you were on a movie set or the part of a Broadway show where everyone simultaneously breaks out in dance was both impressive and intimidating.  Other tourists around me seemed just as intimidated and impressed by the musicality of the local people.  If you wish to go out dancing the club is fairly easy to find off the main road.  The action starts around 9 pm and finishes by about 1 am.  Ask your hostel owner for directions but if possible come with a group of people. 

It was quite bothersome to me to be constantly approached by men to dance, which seems to be part of local custom.  In New York men rarely approach a woman they have not made eye contact with or have not had a signal of interest from, in Cuba the culture seems to be quite different with men being very comfortable with the role of the aggressor.  I was somewhat protected from it as I was accompanied by 3 gentlemen but together with my female French friend I was approached maybe a dozen times through the night. If you are a single woman travelling alone consider bringing a wedding band and wearing it.  All in all the night was a great success and my new French friend started a flirty romance with the hostel owner’s son, an adorable couple if there ever was one.

Waking up with the roosters in Vinnales is a tradition one must partake in whether one wants to or not.  Great earplugs are necessary here, because the walls are thin as paper and glass on windows is not existent.  In any case, you may wish to get up early on your first day because most tourists, myself included, chose to do a horse ride on their first morning in Vinalles.  The riding should cost about 3cuc per person per hour, and you can take a local horse together with a few other tourists to the tobacco farm, a coffee farm and a local lake.  Some less than scrupulous owners in town will attempt to charge you 5 cuc for the same experience, but do ask your hostile owner for 3 cuc or make arrangements yourself at Glady’s and Tony’s house.

The horses here are far tamer than in most other places in South America and so I had no trouble controlling my gentle steed, which is more than I can say for my French friend.  Her horse definitely took advantage of the rider’s easy going nature and stopped to eat snacks along the way whenever it chose.  We kept the owner’s son (also our guide for the day) busy with our mediocre riding skills.  Vinnales did not disappoint. The gorgeous vistas layed out before us, the lake warm and welcoming and we passed as many animals as we did people.

At the cigar farm we got a demonstration of how the cigars are made.

Visiting a cigar farm is a must while in Cuba, and this was our first stop.  The farm owner gave us a demonstration of how cigars are made, and we happily partook in smoking a sample cigar.  To purchase cigars at the farm you should pay about 3cuc per cigar.  You can also purchase much cheaper (unlicensed) versions in town and in Havana but you will get what you pay for with inferior quality.  You can get licensed cigars from cigar shops at higher cost, closer to 5cuc to 10 cuc per cigar both in Havana and in town.  If you chose not to purchase from a licensed farm or a cigar shop be careful.  The unlicensed cigars, which are illegally produced, and may be confiscated during your exit from the country. I was told that as an American I can carry up to 100 licensed cigars but I chose to stay on the safe side with just 20.  It is a local custom to dip the end of the cigar into local honey which gives it an even sweeter and richer taste.  Unfortunately I am not allowed to bring the honey into United States as it was not factory sealed, but if you are travelling from another country and your laws allow it, this is another great purchase in Cuba.

Our next stop was the lake, the biggest such lake in the province.  I am not a fan of cold water and this one was blissfully warm. We had the lake all to ourselves, which leads me to believe most tourists who do horse tours do not hit the lake on their way.  You can request that stop from your guide or just use the guide we used (at Glady’s and Tony’s house).  The lake is a beautiful break as the weather does get hot and muggy when I am traveling in July.

At last, we stopped at the coffee farm, and enjoyed some of the best coffee I have ever had.  They specialize in Arabica beans and the lovely owner gave us a whole description of the process, unfortunately entirely in Spanish.  Although I could follow almost none of it the coffee spoke for itself.  I enjoyed two lovely cups but was also unable to purchase any to take with me, as they did not have a sealed container for me to take.  The coffee cost 1 cuc per cup and was very much worth the price.


On weather in Cuba

July, which is when I am travelling is summer in Cuba and also their rainy season.  This means the weather is sticky and muddy, more so than most of the other time of the year.  If traveling during the summer months (July, August, and September) expect strong rain showers in the afternoon and be prepared with an umbrella and a good rain jacket. Its very helpful if you have proper raingear covered backpack with you, as you will get soaked unexpectedly.  The rains are hard but fortunately fairly brief only lasting a few hours at the most. 

My suggestion is to find a lovely restaurant in town (in Vinalles there are dozens) to enjoy a late lunch or coffee right before the rain starts (you’ll know its coming because thunder will get progressively louder until it almost doesn’t stop, and the temperature will drop about 10 degrees).  Enjoy watching the rain fall from the comfort of a covered patio in town or in your casa (house). 

Cuba, Day 6

Vinnales is a city that knows how to cater to tourists.  There are hundreds of houses (casas) to rent, several big hotels and too many restaurants to count. One of the best bargains in Vinnales is the green tourist bus which takes you to many of the major attractions in the area.  The bus starts route starts at 9 am and you can catch this bus in center Vinnales as well as by all the major hotels in the area (list the hotels). It’s a hop on hop off bus and you can use it for the entire day until 6 pm. While my roommate and her new friend (the casa owner’s son) were cooped up for the morning, I took the bus together with some other girls staying at my casa.  We took an air conditioned ride over picturesque roads complete with stunning vistas, this part alone more than 5 cuc.  Eventually we came upon the caves, a small but fun tourist activity perfect for a visit on a lazy day.  For an admission cost of 5 cuc you get to tour several good size caves and take a boat in an underground river.  The bus comes every hour and a half and while you wait for it to come back around, try the local coffee at the bar.  Afterwards we took the bus to a large hotel complete with pool and great wifi, where we spend about one and a half hours until the next bus.  The bus also stops at a zip lining attraction, which looked fantastic but did not fit the bill for me on this lazy day.  There are also botanical gardens, several other high end hotels and restaurants to check out along the route. 

A view in the caves in Vinales.

Beyond all doubt, my favorite part of being in Cuba is how disconnected I am from the world. Being here is a necessary reminder that the world will go on without me, that my school will function even if I do not have access to internet and that basically I can take myself out of the equation for as long as a week with few ramifications.  Over time, living in a very technologically connected culture I have become addicted to internet and technology. In fact, its hard to sit a few minutes doing nothing, when the siren call (or rather the ping) of the cell phone is so figuratively loud.  Being here I learned once again to do nothing for minutes at a time, just exist.  To produce nothing, to provide nothing, for hours.  And my creativity has, as it always does in these situations, flourished. This is the longest post I have ever written about a trip, and most of my pictures are already edited and I am only on day 5.  It’s important, with as much as we have going on in our lives to take a few minutes a day to do absolutely nothing.  Some may call it meditating, some like I call it being stuck without a cell phone. 

Cuba, Day 7

As in any true adventure, things must invariably go wrong.  A few days ago, in Vinnales my French friend and I walked into town to book a bus.  The bus was intended to be a more comfortable ride to our next destination than the collectivo, with proper bag storage, comfortable seating and air conditioning. To book a bus you must always do so a few days in advance, and the only way to do so is by coming into the bus station.  There is an internet ordering system, but it does not work. The cost of the bus to Havana is 12 cuc, and Trinidad, where many other travelers go after Vinnales is 37 cuc.  My friend and I said goodbye and left on the same morning, a couple of hours apart. I went to Havana and my friend to Trinidad, to continue on her journey. Her short romance with the handsome hostel owners son seemingly over, as many such love affairs on the road burn out quickly.

Last view in Vinnales.

Our first two hours on the not quite full bus were rather uneventful.  However, about three quarters of the way there, we pulled up on a side of a highway.  Dozens of other travelers came on board and I was surprised to discover my French friend among them.  I had not expected to see her again so soon! Turns out her bus to Trinidad had broken down about 2 hours into the ride and the entire bus waited for another ride on the side of the road.  There is not enough space for everyone, with most the newcomers being forced to stand and their bags not fitting into the storage space.  It seems in Cuba even when you said goodbye it may be not a goodbye after all.

It is not clear where the bus is actually taking us now. The bus driver has not made any announcements, and Trinidad is not in the same direction as Havana.  I do hope I get to my location eventually, but I am at least grateful to have a seat as my friend and many others do not.  I offered to switch with her periodically but she got swept into a wave of people and is now stuck far behind where I am sitting, surrounded precariously by suitcases.  I hope there is no emergency or we will all be in big trouble.

Back to Havana, Day 7

Back in Havana, rooftop bar at Ambos Munos hotel.

I finally made it back.  Turns out the bus was going to Havana after all, and then will be rerouted to Trinidad.  It looks like another bus full of passengers were holding tickets for Trinidad in Havana, which is a seven hour ride.  I am entirely uncertain how they plan on negotiating so many people onto one bus for such a long drive, but after ensuring that my friend was able to board to her destination, I said goodbye to her again.  I took a cab from the bus station back to my hostel.  Prices for cabs here vary widely and, once again, be sure to negotiate a rate before you go.  Depending on your negotiating skills you should be able to get a car back to center town for anywhere from 5 to 8 cuc.  Of course some smart ass offered me a ride for 15 to which I promptly laughed in his face. 

I have little left to do in Cuba then wander old town to take the few pictures I am still missing.  Being back in old town feels a little like the transition from the suburbs of NYC back to Manhattan.  The energy is contagious and my pace is noticeably faster.  Cuban music is pouring out of every shop and I finally get to have my breakfast (lunch). Its 12 pm on a Sunday in July, a small island just off the coast of Miami is stuck in time, and Havana is the most alive place in the world. 

The rooftop at Ambos Mundos hotel is a must visit on your tour of Old City.  Famously known as where Hemingway spend 10 of his most productive years, this lovely old hotel rests right in the middle of old town. To get here walk directly from Central Square statue about 7 to 8 blocks.  On your way you’ll pass by wonderful galleries, a crafts market and more restaurants than you can try in a year. You’ll also pass by another beautiful hotel, The Floridian.  This one does not have a rooftop bar but is definitely worth a visit, its old world interior design classically perfect in 2017. 

The pina colada at the Ambos Mundos hotel.

Once you get to the Ambos Mundos Hotel, ask the operator of the old fashioned elevator in the lobby to take you straight up to 6th floor.  Here you’ll see a plethora of tables, some of them in the shade.  Feel free to ask to share a table with someone if you don’t see a free one, as it is culturally appropriate here to do so.  I got the pina colada served in a half pineapple, a perfect mid day “snack.”

The view from the rooftop is second to none here, and I sat for a while hoping for the same muse that inspired Hemingway will visit me.  Muse or no muse it is safe to say Hemingway remains well out of my reach, but I sat on the roof top for a while anyway, enjoying the cool breeze and the presence of the ghost of greatness. 

Classic Cars in Havana

Renting a car in Havana is a fun – if very touristy experience.

It is an iconic picture, I bet you have seen it before.  A tourist, happy and tanned next to a beautiful American car from the 50’s, probably a convertible.  Although it may be a little cliché this is a fun experience, and one that supports local entrepreneurs.  To rent a classic car simply find one you like in Central Park and stand next to it.  You’ll be quickly approached by the driver.  As always, negotiate before you get into the car.  A common price is 25 to 35 cuc per hour, never more.  It is customary to tip as well.  While negotiating we started at 40 and agreed to 30, which seemed fair. 

You can not drive one of these car, they are technically taxis and so must be driven by the Cuban drivers.  In any case the drivers probably wouldn’t want you to drive even if you were allowed to.  The men who own these beauties take great pains to keep them in pristine condition, no small feat in a place with such limited resources.  Be respectful when going for a ride, remember that these are a source of livelihood and pride for these men.

During your purchased time (usually from 1 to 3 hours) the drivers will take you down a well traveled route, with several stops for pictures along the way.  They time the rides perfectly so that you will get every minute you paid for and be back in Central Park precisely one hour after you started. 

What I wish I had done differently

Last Sunset in Havana.

Looking back on the last few days there isn’t much I would change if I could.  I would bring more fun art and crafts supplies with me, such as stickers and glitter pens.  Those goods aren’t readily available to kids here, and it would have helped to overcome the language barrier between me and my littlest photographic subjects, not to mention bring a smile to their faces.  I wish I had brought some hotel lotions and soaps as a few women here requested them, thinking I had a bunch with me. Those would have helped with my older photograph subjects as well.  I wish I had brought my trekking bag instead of a little suitcase.  I had grossly overestimated the quality of the roads here and had to take a cab several times when moving hostels instead of walking as I could have easily done had I been more portable.  I wish I didn’t exchange quite as much money, it seems that living in hostels has made me more frugal than I realized.

I must admit, there is a big part of me that does not wish Cuba to change, all for selfish reasons. I love the lack of connectivity here, and I needed it badly.  The classic cars, the cash only lifestyle, it all feels so lovely and slow, and I want to keep it this way forever.  However, my desire to keep Cuba as it is, is small and selfish compared to the struggle the Cuban people have to face every day.  Their lives are complicated, and my trip here has been made far smoother by virtue of American income and passport.  I do not know if I will be allowed to come back.  I booked this trip in the few short months when restrictions for travel to Cuba for Americans had lifted, and since I booked they had been imposed again. Because of fortunate timing, I was allowed to travel under old rules.  I am not sure if I am allowed to visit here twice under journalistic visa, and what the new requirements would be.  For the first time in my life I consider getting my Russian passport, just so I could travel here again.  As a dual citizen of United States and Russia I would have no trouble going back and forth. 

Cuba, Day 8

As I say goodbye to Cuba I do not know if I will get to see it again.  I hope, for the sake of Cuban people, that their government’s relationship with our government improves and does so quickly.  I hope, that their lives will be made simpler, and not more complicated by such improvement.  And most of all, I hope to be back, to Cuba as I will always remember it, one fine summer day.  

Havana, July 2017

For all our sakes – I hope they do.

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