We were not initially sure that we would ever make it to Fidel’s island. With our flights being cancelled due to swine flu and Patters being temporarily “detained” in customs, there was grave concern that Team Mex (John, Pete, Cath and I) would not enjoy Mojito’s and Cuban cigars with Team London (Lisa Bantich “Banto”, Steve Cook “Cooksie”, Chris Stone “Stoney”, Richard Hill “Jawbone”, Leigh Bennet “LeighB” and Craig Lake “Puddles”).
After a 15 hour journey via Panama, which should have been only a 45 minute flight, the effort proved to be more than worthwhile after the incredible couple of days we have had in Cuba?
Cuba is a hard place to describe. It is a melting pot of people, architecture and culture. However, we got a good feel for the diversity of the country as we managed to visit a few towns, all distinctively unique.
Our first stop in Cuba was Havana. Being the start of our trip, we visited the Revolutionary Museum to educate ourselves on the history of Cuba, the revolution, Fidel and Che Guevara. We also learnt the art of drinking Mojito’s sitting in the old school Edificio Bacardi bar. It was also here that we had our first of many Cuban cigars (even me!). Not settling for anything but the best, we smoked Cohiba cigars and caught up with Team London and the latest victims to get “crunched” in London!
Some of my favourite memories of Havana are the walks we did in Vieja Havana (Old Havana). The rundown buildings, the 1950’s cars, the live music coming from corner cafes and people lazily sitting in doorways chatting to the friends across the street are all common sights. Haggling (bordering on accosting) is also not uncommon in Havana and easy targets were:
- Cooksie, who saw his life flash before him when he was taken to a druglord’s apartment in the search of a good cigar;
- Patters, who was distracted by a haggler while the rest of the team fell prey to the haggler’s henchmen; and
- Puddles, who is incapable of being rude to anyone and would dutifully listen to each haggler’s offer.
Havana was also our first introduction to “casa particulars”, which is economical accommodation in which local families offer a room in their house to travellers. We loved our first casa and it was not due to the fact that we stood on the toilet while we showered but it was because we really liked our owners, Maria and Manuel. Maria took us into her home and made us feel so looked after. She fussed over taxis, breakfast, laundry, etc and she really made us feel like we had a “Cuban mom”! We met awesome Cubans, including the guy who rented us our car who made the legendary quote of “drink and drive, no problem but drink and crash, beeegg problem”!
Oh my word the monstrosity of a building that was Sunbeach Hotel! Described in the guide book as the “EYESORE OF VALADERO” our pink, blue, green, orange, purple and BROWN coloured hotel was a sight to behold! We were experiencing our first all inclusive package, ie all booze and buffet food free! The catch being that they served beers in tot glasses and no one wanted to touch the majority of the buffet!
After our first lunch, T, forced to eat a processed 2 day old chicken burger broke down into tears in the privacy of our splendid room, “I just want my mum..”! Shame my poor little madam was in a place where they didn’t served Woolworths standard food, the toilet didn’t work and CHAV’s roamed the corridors looking for easy prey!
Another unfortunate lapse of Fidel Castro’s was the banning of ladies spa’s. (Far too elitist for Cuba!) The result being that moustaches are making a come back on many of the Cuban woman! Our waitress, Boom Boom, was sporting a moustache that would have made Magnum PI proud and she took a liking to me! I got rashed at every meal. Hugs, Kisses, whispering in my ear. Its not cool feeling a woman’s facial hair prick each time she pecks u on the cheek! Not even Nico Patric’s would have taken down this one..
All of the above was just another day in Sunbeach Hotel! Any way, when in Rome.. So we ordered beers in groups of 12 shot glasses and we chose our buffet food carefully! Things definitely improved as we settled into our surroundings and soon enough we were having a cracker of a time!
Nights consisted of us joining in the Hotel game of Bingo!! Yes bingo! What a crazy vibe! Locals were left cursing as Patters managed to sneak a victory and take away the bottle of Havana Rum. A massive game of Kings ended me in downing a glass of straight rum that would have made Stomps proud! Spook (Steve Cook) was in incredible form and streaked through the pub around 10.30 pm. This was not an everyday occurrence for strong contingent of visiting Poles (ie from Poland). Reactions varied from the cursing balding 90 year old to the 20 year old who watched spook with utter glee! (I think it was the first circumcised penis she’d seen) T started feeling the vibe and jumped on stage with the live band to help play the bongo drums. She did a brilliant job too! We definitely made the best of our free drinks, live band and bingo! Patters has decided he may even settle into a career of hounding old age homes in JHB and making his living on Bingo!
Our Sunbeach days consisted of lots of buffet food, chilling on the beautiful Caribbean beach, beach volleyball, reading on the beach, chilling on the beach, chilling on the beach, chilling on the beach? We did nothing but relax, moving only to douse our bodies in the ocean. Times are rough!
With tears in our eyes we bade farewell to Sunbeach hotel! Great times had by us, but I shan’t be back!
From Varadero, we travelled south to Trinidad. Even though John was nursing a serious rum hangover due to losing a vicious game of Kings, he was appointed to navigate Jawbone through the mazes of Cuban roads. Navigation is no easy task in Cuba as there are no road signs, useless maps, pot-holed roads and 8 different set of instructions coming from the back of the Puegot! The fact that we got to Trinidad was solely down to the random locals who noted how out of place we were and pointed us in the right direction!
On the way to Trinidad we stopped at Santa Clara which is aptly nick-named “Che town” as the whole town is dedicated to Che Guevara. The major attractions are monuments of him, a museum on his life and his grave.
Onwards from Santa Calara, we trudged up the Topes de Callentes pass. In a 4x4 this would have been a feat, but with JB at the helm and a rented car, we made it to the top feeling like we had just got off a cheap roller coaster ride! The views from the top of the pass were incredible although I am not sure if the elation of the team was due to:
a) The view
b) The fact we were still alive after the treacherous roads
c) The team was allowed the first “cerverza” (beer) of the day!
After a 7 hour trip, we eventually arrived. Trinidad far exceeded our expectations and stands out as one of the highlights of our Cuba trip. The cobbled streets, the simplicity of the locals’ lives and the location at the foot of mountains, all contribute to the appeal of Trinidad and justify its status as a world heritage site. Walking through the streets in the early evening is a photographer’s dream with the brightly coloured colonial buildings in the sharp contrast to the dilapidation of the town. It felt surreal as Rouxie chatted to a 94 year old Cuban man, we were offered free salsa classes and Cooksie played soccer with kids in the street.
We all stayed in various casa. John and I stayed at Casa Raul, whose owner was so excited that we were introduced to Raul’s mother, father, grandfather, wife, son, daughter and grandchildren! Team London stayed as Casa Roguillio’s, which was probably the biggest building in Trinidad and had previously housed Spanish diplomats. Roguillio was a legend and gave us all sorts of advice from saying no to hagglers offering horse rides on half-dead Shetland ponies and where we could buy the cheapest beer. John and I even got to drive with him in his motorbike and side car in exchange for “mach 3” razor blades which are a scarce commodity in Cuba!
On our first evening in Trinidad, we were supposed to meet up with Team London at their casa. It was only 3 blocks away so we decided to walk. When we left our casa, it was drizzling so as hardened travellers we grabbed our flimsy umbrellas and set off. What ensued was a torrential downpour and our umbrellas proved utterly useless in the tropical rainstorm! I had a “slight” sense of humour failure as I stood soaking wet, ankle deep in the sewerage river that was the street in my YDE shoes and screamed at John, demanding to know what was so funny!
Trinidad is only about 10km from the beach, so spurred on by Pete’s request for a “cat-meringue” tour and Team London’s desire to tan their pommy skin’s, we took a day trip on a catamaran to Cayo Blanco (small island off Trinidad’s Peninsula Ancon). The boat first took us to snorkel at a reef near the island. We saw awesome fish and coral and were treated to a fish feeding frenzy sponsored by a sea sick Lisa. We had an unforgettable afternoon on the deserted island as we all enjoyed seafood paella and heavily taxed the free beer and coconut rum cocktails. A game of lie dice upped the ante. The symptoms of a boozy afternoon were best exhibited by:
1. Jawbone – who numerously came close to stumbling off the cat and the subsequently passed out with “willy” sun-screened on his arm
2. Puddles – who offered CUC 400 (approx R4000) and his soul to buy an old fishing rod from our communist captain who was uninterested in Puddles’ capitalist bribes.
The afternoon continued at Casa Roguillio’s, where John was tasked with making us legendary mango daiquiris. Roguillio and his wife also cooked us an incredible dinner of fresh fish and prawns. The day and our time in Trinidad ended perfectly that night as we all sat on the roof of the casa overlooking the town, watching the stars, smoking Cuban cigars and listening to JB’s tunes, absolute magic!
Cayo Coco (John)
Up early and off to Caya Coco. The 17 km stretch from the main land out to the Caya (Island) was beautiful and surrounded by water birds that not even Charles Marais has seen! The all inclusive hotel was beautiful. Magnificent in comparison to our beloved Sunbeach hotel. The only problem was the mosquitos! Swarms of mozzies engulfed us as we stepped from the combi. The surrounding mangrove land was the perfect breeding ground for the cretins! This problem was later solved when the hotel staff bombed the place with mosquito repellent from gas omitting “leaf blowers”.
The next day was Rooksie’s birthday and we wanted to bring her birthday in, in style. After a swim and a jog – more like a race, as we were chased by the mozzies – we returned to the hotel deck and nestled into our first round of celebratory drinks! We had an absolute ripper of a night and Rooksie was over the moon. The highlight of the night definitely listening to Rooksie and Banto reciting the Tom Newby Preparatory anthem.. “School is my life, Tom Newby..” unplayable.
After a dance off we hit the pool around 2 am. Unbeknown to us there was a pod of Canadian naked hippos which had also decided to return to the waters edge. As we all know Hippos are very territorial animals and the Canadian Hippos were no different. Rooksie and T were happily swimming when a naked female hippo popped up between them. They both got such a fright (it was a frightening sight) that they both screamed and swam away. The hippo cow took exception and called a hippo bull to resolve why “the stinky ugly people” had swam away! Goldstein flexed his pecks and then explained very nicely that our ladies had just got a fright by the sudden immersion of the hippo cow, fight over!
The next day we couldn’t move and spent the day chilling out incredibly hard!
Vinales Valley (John)
Vinales valley was incredible. The major tobacco growing area of Cuba is framed by large dolomite mountains and looks like a picture from the 1960’s. The small farm holdings maintained by local Cubans are immaculately kept. There are no mechanical machines or farm labour. Each farmer ploughs and harvests his own land. We settled into our Casa and then left for our 5 hour walk into the local tobacco farms and national reserve. The walk was amazing, awesome, incredible! We all loved every second of it! We walked through caves and national reserve looking at the wildlife, we met local farmers, tried their crops – mangos, pineapple, sugarcane etc – and sampled their cigars. By far the best (MUM which you would LOVE!) being the Cigars whose base was coated in wild honey. We sat drinking rum and sugarcane juice and smoking honey coated Cuban cigars in a local farmers shed. The skies grew dark around us and then the heavens opened! Life was good! When the rain subsided we began our 2 hour walk home in earnest, the mozzies were out with a vengeance!
That night we were fed an incredible local meal. Unbelievably it is illegal to eat fish in Vinales! Castro at his best! We were smuggled Red Snapper and were spoilt rotten by Artiaguita, our Casa owner.
The next morning T and I woke up and ran through the farmlands and up into the mountains for undoubtedly one of the most beautiful runs of my life. T was sporting a skimpy little running outfit and she looked like the Pied Piper as we made our way through Vinales.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Vinales I love you!
Tomorrow we fly out at 7.20 from Havanna, 19 hours of travelling ahead of us as we head South to Belize!