Cuba – Trinidad

Throughout Cuba, I was mistaken for a local and I began telling people that my grandfather was Cuban. Trinidad was the place that I chose to tell people that my fictitious grandfather was from as it was easy to remember due to the Caribbean Island that it shares a name with.

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The 2 hour bus journey, from Santa Clara to Trinidad cost us 8 CUC each (less than when we got ripped off a few days previously) and took us on a winding journey through lush greenery. Trinidad itself was a fairly touristy area with Belgium style cobbled streets, spectacular views of rolling hills in the distance and lots of bars and restaurants. One of those restaurants provided us with by far the best food that we had whilst in Cuba.

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At ‘La Botija’ Karen and I shared an amazing Spag Bol, a kebab with beef, onions, prawns and pineapple after fish cakes and loaded potatoes for starters. The food was really well presented and just 22 CUC (£15) each for two courses and a drink.

There were plenty of excursions being offered around the town at a variety of prices and we opted for a horse ride to the waterfalls. Now, I’ve never ridden a horse before and enjoyed the first 20 minutes but after that I was kind of bored and extremely sore!!

Any apprehension of riding disappeared after we met our guide Jorge. His son, no more than 5/6 years old came trotting along on one of the horses, feet not even reaching the stirrup and a mischievous grin on his face. He got told off for trying to ride too fast. The apprehension quickly returned as we had to walk the horses down a steep cobbled path and my horse kept stumbling and losing its footing.

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The guide explained to us how to control the horse (simply pull the reigns to the side that you want the horse to go) but might as well not have because my horse just did what it wanted. On many occasions my horse cut across Karen’s, sometimes pushing them into the bushes, to ensure that we remained in front. We stopped for fresh coffee and a cigar on the way to the waterfall and food on the way back. I was glad to make it back in one piece on my horse that was anything but sure footed. My everything hurt and a relaxing beach day was perfect for the following day.

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The beach in Trinidad wasn’t even close to as nice as in Valadero, despite recommendations by Jorge the horse guide. I did go swimming in the merky water but quickly got out having been scared by a stingray that decided to jump out of the water just a few meters behind me.

The evenings had a nice vibe in Trinidad. Live music, bars and restaurants were all around and on one night down in one of the main squares there was a live DJ and a sort of street party. We also went to a really cool nightclub that is built within some caves.

On our last day we arranged a taxi to take us the 4 hours back to Havana. The taxi we shared with another couple and cost us 20 CUC each, which was the same as the 7 hour journey on the bus. We watched England reach the semi final of the World Cup and then drove back in the afternoon. We went to our original hostess Ani who organised for us to stay with a friend as she was full that night.

We spent our last night in Cuba in a huge nightclub. It was a long wait to get into the big building with about 6 different rooms that included music rooms, an Art gallery and a cinema room. The barman gave me the bottle to pour my own drink and looked at me disapprovingly when I politely only filled the massive glass half way (so I finished the bottle off instead).

The next day we got a taxi to the airport and flew back to the future, where there was nice food, modern cars and WiFi in Cancun.

Cuba – Santa Clara

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Travelling from Matanzas to Santa Clara (The home of Che Guevera), Karen and I had another taste of how difficult it was to find transport around Cuba. After watching Mexico lose against Brazil in the morning we made our way to the bus station. It took a while, speaking with people that didn’t have a clue, but we eventually learnt that the next bus to Santa Clara wasn’t until 7 in the evening. This would have meant arriving very late in an area that we didn’t know looking for accommodation that we didn’t have.

We decided to take the adventurous route and basically take buses in the correct direction using Google maps. The first bus, a collectivo, took us to Colon for 2 CUC (£1.50). In life you get what you pay for and we paid very little for a two hour trip and ended up on a rickety old bus that looked like a War transport. I was not surprised when a girl had to lean out of the window to throw up because I wasn’t feeling so bright myself.

We gratefully got off the bus in Colon a small town that could have been used as the set for a Western. Cart horses were the main mode of transport and the town was essentially one long road with smaller ones running off. We’d been told before that local transport is just for locals and we had a dodgy experience getting on a coach (which was very normal in comparison to the previous ones).

The coach we were getting was parked outside of a lunch hall and when the driver finished his break lots of people just appeared out of nowhere. A guy who looked to be in charge negotiated a price (30 CUC which seemed excessive) with us, he then proceeded to try and skip past all of the people in the line and wouldn’t allow us to speak with the driver. He personally took the money from us and on reflection of the event we are sure that we got hustled. But we were on our way, and for half the original price of 30CUC each that he asked for.

The rest of the journey and stay in Santa Clara was pretty uneventful. We found a modest Casa Particular, 15 CUC per night and got upgraded to the owner’s second, more spacious property, after our first night due to a problem with his water tank.

We visited the Che Guevara memorial museum, where one of the army guards, as the theme of the week, mistook me for a Cuban. The museum was loaded with a bunch of junk that Che had once touched or in some cases belonged to someone who had been under Che’s command, things that had no way of proving the authenticity.

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Apart from that, there wasn’t so much to do in Santa Clara. The main square was a place to hang out, there was a short shopping street and a couple of bars open at night. The food, like the rest of Cuba was average with little variety. We took a walk up a hill that provided a very nice view over the city but the three days that we spent there was more than enough.

Cuba – Matanzas

After our stay in Havana, Karen and I had a taster of how difficult it is to travel in a country with limited organisation or WiFi. We chose to make our way to Matanzas using the Hershies train that was once used to transport Coco beans by the American chocolate company.

Having asked advice from a few different people we made it onto a small boat that took us across the Dock. The water was filled with rubbish and had a slick film of oil on the top. Unfortunately all around Cuba you see people carelessly discard their rubbish and it spoils some of the beauty of the island.

The boat took us to Casablanca, where we found out that the train line had been damaged during the Hurricanes 9 months earlier. Apparently none of the 3/4 people that we’d spoken to before knew about it. We walked around the small town of Casablanca, from where you could see nice views of Havana and stopped for a fresh coconut at a bar at the road side. A young guy and girl gave us a few different options of getting to Matanzas and in the end we took a local bus, a taxi that looked like it could break down at any moment (because the second bus we were going to get was crazy busy) and another bus that looked as though it could have transported a battalion of soldiers rather than paying public.

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We stayed in Matanzas for 3 nights, at a nice Casa Particular that had a couple of rooms separate from the main house and a small swimming pool in the garden. We took a bus (again one that looked like a military transport) to one of the most beautiful beaches on the island in Varadero, and did a tour of some local caves.

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Getting to the caves we took a bus that did a lap of the town that took about 20 minutes. We were pretty confused when we returned to the same stop having not reached our destination and even more confused after we got off, found a taxi, only to see the same bus arrive at the caves 10 minutes after us!!

Karen was my translator during the tour of the caves and right at the end our tour guide noticed and apologised saying that he, like so many others on the island, presumed that I was Cuban.

With not much else to do in Matanzas we planned our next stop to Santa Clara.

Cuba – Havana oh na na

If you don’t believe in time machines then you clearly haven’t been on an aeroplane to Cuba!! Everything from the old American cars, seen all over the island, to the lack of Internet access gives off a real sense that you are in a different decade when you visit Cuba.

Myself and my girlfriend Karen spent two weeks in Cuba, visiting 4 different places in that time. It was an awesome and eye opening experience, visiting a beautiful country making a slow recovery from a war they couldn’t afford. On the whole there was a feeling that they are still only just getting used to welcoming tourists to the country. Once the people figure out that there is no way to rip you off or part you with some of your money then they can be very friendly.

Accommodation, outside of the chains of hotels that don’t allow you to explore the country, consist of what are called ‘Casa Particulars’. These are essentially airbnb properties (a lot of them advertised on airbnb) where you rent a room in the houses of local people.

Our first stop, in Havana, we stayed with an extremely friendly and helpful Cuban called Ani. The breakfast was really good, on the whole it was about the only meal of the day that was good in Cuba as the food throughout the country is extremely basic. The scrambled egg, toast and fresh fruit with a smoothie in the morning was also pretty basic but I always looked forward to it.

Walking out of the airport immediately you notice all of the old American cars that look like they come out of an old gangster movie. Although you expect to see them in Cuba I wasn’t prepared for them to be the only type of car around. Some of them were in really good condition, others looked like they have been running since 1950. Havana itself has a rugged beauty with its imposing buildings giving off a sense of danger but just a day or two makes you feel comfortable in the ghetto like surroundings.

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You walk down the street, it’s safe to do so at any time of the day or night, and you can’t help but look into people’s living rooms that are right there beside the path. You get communities of people just sat at the side of the street, outside of their doors, either socialising or watching life pass them by.

We visited Cuba during the rainy season and generally the weather would be hot throughout the day before torrential rain hit in the afternoon/evening. On our first evening we ended up stranded in an athletics stadium where lots of locals continued playing football despite the mesmerising thunder storm going on above them.

We took an open top bus tour around the city, taking in the monuments and buildings, visited the main museum and watched a very loud cannon being fired, with an amazing view across the city with the sun setting, at the Fort.

There is a real sense of national pride and the man portrayed as an evil dictator by the Americans, Fidel Castor, is celebrated as a national hero. You’d have to put more study than two weeks on holiday to really find out the true nature of the former Cuban leader. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps Che Guevara was loved the most because he died a freedom fighter and didn’t have to go through the struggles of leading a country that was in deep debt due to their war of independence. In the wise words of batman: ‘you either die a hero or live to become the villain’.

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All in all I enjoyed my trip to Havana and would highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind going to specific Internet hotpots in the city to use (very slow) WiFi or eat basic rice and meat meals with not much variety. At least whilst eating the meal you can often listen to amazing live, high tempo, music that you can’t help but tap your foot to.