After months of anticipation and planning we began our "Year of Awesome" (our name for our year of travelling) on the 12th of May 2011. We were excited to say the least.
We actually started our travels in Mexico before hopping into Cuba, but since we are still in Mexico for a few days we thought our first blog entry should be about Cuba!
We travelled to Cuba on an old Russian jet from the 50's or 60's. On take-off the plane started filling up with smoke, to say the least, we panicked and spent the rest of the flight looking like idiots as it had only been the air-conditioning system kicking into action. Haha.
Our first stop was Havana, where we stayed in the Casa Particulares of Mercedes and Jorge, two elderly Cubans in their late seventies. They have a beautiful home in the middle of Havana Vieja (the old part of Havana). It was an extremely humbling experience to realise that we were staying in what must have been their old master bedroom. Mercedes and Jorge do also live in the Casa but their bedroom is limited to a small cordoned off area on one side of the house. As If this wasn’t enough, they are two of the most friendly and helpful people we have ever met, giving us instructions on where we should go in Havana, alerting us to potential scams, helping us to structure our entire 10 days in Cuba and speaking slowly and patiently with us in Spanish.
The brief glimpse of Havana on the drive from the airport had us out of our minds with excitement. After a quick chat with Mercedes we headed out to explore.
Havana is everything you expect and so much more. There are the “Old American Cars”, brightly coloured buildings, cigar smoking old men, traditionally dressed old women and a general buzz of liveliness and excitement. It is eclectic and vibrant and from a completely different era. It is like time travelling back to the 60’s, I would guess. We realised immediately that this is a place completely cut off from the rest of the world, the domination of the USA and the modernisation of the world. There are no advertisement’s, there are no familiar brands, familiar cars, sights or sounds, at all. Accompanying this amazing “Untouchedness” are some seriously “Untouched Buildings”. 30% of the buildings are about to fall apart, 30% are falling apart, 30% are being re-built and 10% are absolutely abandoned. There are absolutely no “New” buildings being built. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to determine whether Havana is in a state of constant repair or constant disrepair and the people of Havana also seem to be struggling with this distinction. Some are a little depressed and disillusioned and some are carefully hopeful for the future. One of the first things we noticed was that everyone seemed to have a money making scheme, a way of getting you to tip them, or another method of obtaining additional funds. Some examples: Every youth full person would offer to show us where a great night club was but when they get you there they want a tip for showing you where it was; If you want to take a picture of the old women in their traditional dresses, smoking a Cigar, you have to pay (I found out the hard way); There are Taxi’s everywhere and every single driver wants to give you the cheapest ride; There are illegal cigar sellers on every corner (that’s a whole other story on it’s own). Every restaurant wants your business. The maitre’d will literally follow you down the street with the menu to get you to go to his restaurant. That evening we walked along the Malecon (the walkway along the harbour) and stopped off at one of the local restaurants for a Mojito and a snack.
On our second day in Havana we went on a “Hop On/ Off Bus” around Havana to ensure we didn’t miss anything. The highlight had to be “Revolutionary Square” which has massive images of both Che Guevara and Fidel Castro looking over the Square and the Revolutionary Museum. One thing we noticed was that throughout Cuba Che’s (we are on a first name basis now) face is everywhere and Fidel’s, surprisingly is not. We couldn’t figure out if it was because of Fidel’s turbulent rule or if dreamers and visionaries or even dead people are simply more popular.
Day three in Havana was spent on a day trip to the Cigar Region of Vinales. We had a great traditional Cuban meal and enjoyed learning about the finer details of Cigar making. The secrets are strictly guarded (although i can confirm that there were no virgin’s rolling tobacco on the inside of their thighs) and cameras and bags were forbidden in the tiny factory which produces thousands of hand made Monte Christo’s and Cohiban’s every day (Remind me to tell you why Cigar makers are considered the best paid persons in Cuba and how they are responsible for most of the “Illegal” Cigar sales therein). Later we enjoyed a walk and boat ride through some beautiful caves before stopping off at a tobacco farmers residence on the way back to Havana. All in all, a pretty special day.
Our next three days were spent in the tiny but beautiful colonial city of Trinidad. The Casa Particulares was that of Raphael, his daughter Honey and her daughter Sophia. Raphael, who looks and acts just like Obelix (from the cartoon) provided endless entertainment and some heartfelt thoughts and dreams of where he believed Cuba could be in the next 5 – 20 years. We spent our first night in Trinidad recuperating from our hectic start in Havana but (to Nena’s delight) we went Salsa crazy (me, not so much) at Casa De La Musica on our next night. Our days were spent walking the cobbled streets of Trinidad and soaking up the sun on Playa Ancon, just a 20 minute bus ride from Trinidad. Our last night in Trinidad was spent feasting on Lobster (Nena’s first) and ended off with a quick visit to Casa De La Musica for a quick Salsa (well Nena did).
After much deliberation we spent our next three days and nights on the beautiful beach of Varadero. The beach is 22km’s long and made Cancun look like a sandpit. The shallow turquoise waters extended 200 metres into the sea and the white sands were unending. It really was paradise. Only pictures can accurately describe the beauty of this tourist Mecca.
Back to Havana for our final night in Cuba. We indulged, sipping Mojito’s and smoking a Fat MonteChristo at the nearby Floridita bar.
Hope you are all well, keep the news coming, we love hearing from you all!
Rob and Nena.