The Good, the Bad and the Truly Awful: Our last weeks in Cuba

Time for an update from Vets without Boundaries, aka Rob and Elaine. We arrived in Grenada to start our next volunteer project with Carriacou Animal Hospital on March 25, 2018. You may be wondering, where the heck is Carriacou and I am still deciding if I want to tell the world about this sweet little spot. It’s kind of like our home in Rossland, BC where our community needs the tourists and jobs but we really don’t want to see things change too much and destroy what makes it so special. Before I tell you more about Carriacou, I need to backtrack and fill you in on what has happened since my last blog.

After volunteering with the Spanky Project in Havana we headed off on our bicycles to see more of Cuba. Our first day back on the road took us approximately 80 km to Los Terrazas, a small community located in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. After making a wrong turn on the way out of Havana, we eventually got ourselves “un-lost” and then made good time along the Autopista heading West. After traveling this road 5 years ago we were quite surprised by the increased amount of traffic and were happy to turn off the highway towards Los Terrazas. The final 7 km was a mountainous uphill push, but we were rewarded with a beautiful setting for our first night outside of Havana.

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Los Terrazas

The village was designated as a Biosphere Nature Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and the 5000 hectare nature reserve was replanted using terraces to prevent erosion after deforestation. With a population of approximately 1000 residents, it caters primarily to tourists. There was was a large eco hotel but no licensed casa particulares, at least none that we could find.  After a long, hot day we ended up splurging on the hotel as the thought of another 25 km, uphill to Soroa, was not going to happen for this old lady! The following day we packed our panniers and decided to check out the San Juan Pools, a 6 km detour out of town.  We are so glad we did as it was a beautiful little spot with hiking paths along the river and numerous fresh water swimming holes. 

We discovered little camping cabins, basic but clean, beside the pools, for a reasonable $25 CUC per night. It was such a lovely spot, we wished we had discovered it the night before and avoided the expensive “eco” hotel! After a swim and some relaxation, we decided to delay our departure and stay overnight.

The next morning we enjoyed the second worst breakfast in Cuba (the winner for worst breakfast was the dry ham bun at La Mula Campismo) and headed west towards Soroa. The ride was beautiful with pavement in excellent condition, little traffic and lots of hills to keep things interesting.  The last uphill stretch prior to the Soroa junction was long and relentless.  After walking up the last half km, I was cranky and my attitude was likely not improved but the minimal breakfast provided at the San Jan Pools restaurant. It was obvious Rob wanted to press on towards Vinales and I grumpily agreed! In the end, I was glad we did, as the road was in great condition, the breeze kept me from overheating and the scenery was spectacular. 

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Farmers selling fruit on the route to Vinales – delicious!

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We were a little unsure about the availability of casas along this northern route and watched for a good option as we road through small farming and fishing communities.  We did end up finding a great casa, a warm welcome and delicious food at Villa Jose Otano.

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Elaine “dog tired” and taking a break on arrival at our casa

The next day we pressed on to Vinales, to find the sleepy country village of 5 years ago, completely transformed. Vinales is definitely on the tourist radar these days and the once quiet main street was lined with restaurants, shops and the sidewalks crowded with tourists.  We ended up riding out to a cheesy cave tour the next day and decided to leave early in search of a more authentic Cuban experience. The Viazul bus to Jaguey Grande was full so we were directed to a fellow booking a mini bus for the next morning.  After leaving a $20 CUC deposit advised that we needed to be at the bus station at 8 am. I was assured the mini bus would be a direct route to Cienfuegos and we would be dropped off on the highway at Jaguey Grande with no stops along the way. The next morning we arrived early and were again reminded that in Cuba, it is best to leave your assumptions and expectations at home. When someone says “mini bus” I picture a small, bus or van shaped motor vehicle. I joked with Rob as each old “van like” vehicle passed by us by saying, “there goes our mini bus”. But I was not far off when an old run down car with a large roof rack backed up to us (we had been advised to stand at the top a street which had a slight incline) and started loading our panniers and threw the bikes on top of the load. The driver managed to find some rope, really it was more of a string, to tie on the bikes and then motioned for me to get inside and for Rob to push!  With a bump he popped the car into gear and the engine started. Rob quickly hopped in as we rolled down the hill and off to pick up several more tourists headed the same direction. We noticed at each stop, the driver was careful to either leave the engine running or park on an incline in order to bump start his car again!

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Mini bus number 1

About 2 hours into our journey we arrived at a junction along the highway. Turning in and stopping, the driver motioned for us to get out, removed our bikes and told us to wait there for another car. 90 minutes later another car arrived, reloaded our gear and delivered us to our destination; the side of the highway, outside Jaguey Grande and about 30 km from Playa Larga. 

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Mini bus number 2

If you are looking for a beautiful beach, few tourists and great snorkelling, head to Playa Larga. At the top of the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs and just over 30 km from Playa Giron it is an important site in Cuban history. On April 16, 1961 cuban exiles, financed and directed by the US Government assembled in Guatemala and Nicaragua then set out by boat to Cuba, in an attempt to overthrown Fidel’s revolutionary government.  They landed at Playa Giron, on the Bay of Pigs and were defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, within 3 days, under the direct command of Fidel Castro. Now the Bay of Pigs is a quiet area, catering to tourists who come for the amazing diving or just to relax. 

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Snorkel spot along the Bay of Pigs
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Who says Cuban food isn’t good? Our picnic lunch from a street cart $2

We found a small, family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

We found a small family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

After leaving Playa Larga we spent one night in Playa Giron and then got an early start for the long ride to Cienfuegos. We were up at 6 am and started packing our bikes in the dark.  Expecting the usual sunrise at 6:30 am, we finally figured out daylight savings time was in effect when the sun was not coming up! We decided to leave in the dark, using our headlamps in order to beat the tropical heat. Rob stepped off our deck in the dark and sprained his ankle very badly. After hearing it “crunch”, we delayed long enough to decide it wasn’t broken and Rob decided he could still ride to Cienfuegos. It was a beautiful morning ride, watching the sun come up along an empty road with no traffic. As the day progressed the heat wore us down and on arrival at the outskirts of Cienfuegos, I stopped to wait for Rob and look at our map. My exhaustion was apparent, when in slow, cartoon motion, I tipped over and fell onto the street! Coming up behind me, Rob saw the whole thing and after I stood up, unharmed, we had a good laugh and he admitted to feeling equally exhausted. We headed for the main plaza to find shade and a cold drink. As we rolled our bikes off the street we heard someone call out, “Hey Canadians, bicycles over here”.  We were thrilled to find Frankie and Nick two cyclists from Germany that we visited with while snorkeling outside Playa Larga. They introduced us to Pierre, a cyclist from Quebec, and then directed us to a good casa nearby.  We agreed to meet again that evening and enjoy dinner together.  We had a wonderful evening, sharing stories from the road and getting to know each other. It is always amazing how quickly you make friends and bond with complete strangers when traveling! The following day we said goodbye as they were leaving for Trinidad and we planned to spend 3 nights in Cienfuegos.

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Cienfuegos is a great city, with few tourists, a lovely plaza, great music and friendly locals. There were far fewer jinteros trying to take advantage of us, as compared to places like Vinales, and food, beer and accommodations were reasonably priced. We spent our first day finding a tensor bandage for Rob’s ankle (now officially a “canckle” and triple its normal size), finding internet to FaceTime the kids and eating ice cream. 

The next day, Rob felt his ankle was up for a 20 km ride to Rancho Luna and a quiet day at the beach. We decided to return via the local ferry and enjoyed seeing Cienfuegos from the water. 

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The beach at Rancho Luna and a ghost crab

In 2005, UNESCO placed the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list. With six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the historic centres sewer system is not up to 21st century expectations. The only downside to our time in this old colonial city was the smell.  Our casa was situated right on the bay and throughout our stay, the sewer gas and septic smells would occasionally waft in. On our second night, a huge rainstorm blew in, filling the storm sewers to capacity and resulting in the most putrid odor.  I really try not to be a “princess” when I travel but it was BAD.  Nauseatingly bad.  Rub tea tree oil soap inside your nose bad. I guess the take home lesson is be grateful we only had one night of rain and remember if you want to travel cheap, there are going to be some uncomfortable experiences!

Following Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana to meet friends who were coming to Cuba for Spring break.  A trip organized in anticipation of Jackie O’Reilly’s 50th birthday but also coinciding with Mike Kent’s 48th year of being on this earth. Double the fun!  What can I say about the last 2 weeks in Havana Vieja and Varadero. Perhaps it would be better to describe our experience in a series of verbs:  clubbing, laughing, swimming, vomiting, diarrhea-ing, walking (looking for good restaurants), starving (for the vegetarians in the group) and stealing.  I will elaborate as you’re probably wondering what happened BUT I do not want to focus on the negatives, as re-connecting with our Rossland family was really special after being on the road so much this year. We had a blast on Jackie’s birthday and after dinner out and enjoying some local music we ended up at a disco until the wee hours. 

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Reconnecting with some of our “Rossland Family”

The next morning 3 members of the crew were hit with a severe case of travellers gut.  No this was not from all the rum we consumed (although in Mike’s case I am not sure) as one of the ill members of our party was underage and not drinking.  This “bug” ended up taking out 3 more members of the team (myself included) before the week was out. We were passing out our supply of azithromycin like it was candy! Thanks Dr. Andrea for making sure our first aid kit was so well stocked! We enjoyed the beach at Varadero but not the food. After eating delicious meals throughout Cuba, I have to say Varadero SUCKS when it comes to finding tasty, affordable and delicious food.  I finally understand why people complain about the food in Cuba.  My response is simple: avoid Varadero. This is NOT representative of the rest of the country. Step out of the government run restaurants and be a little adventurous and you will be rewarded. We did have 3 amazing meals at Club Waco a small privately run restaurant near our casa, which is really the only restaurant worth mentioning. The icing on the cake for our Varadero experience was the theft of Rob’s bicycle 2 nights prior to our ride back to Havana. We were fortunate to find a room available, right next door to our friends casa, in a nice neighbourhood and close to the public beach. From the start it had a bit of a weird vibe, compared to the many Cuban homes we had stayed in around the country and we dubbed it Casa Peculiar. The yard was fenced and they assured us the bikes were “secure”, as they had a security camera and locked the gates at night.  However, one night someone climbed over the back wall and was caught on camera stealing Rob’s bike.  True, we should have locked it up and we regret that decision. However I still say it is better to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be eternally suspicious. Initially we had thought we might leave our bikes in Cuba, but we had hoped to choose the person we would give them to. We returned our bike gear to Canada with our friends and will continue our journey with our backpacks only. On the plus side, we got to enjoy an extra 3 days with our good friends from Rossland.

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Beautiful public beach at Varadero

So final thoughts on Cuba?  I still love this country, its history, resiliency and the genuine, fun loving and kind people who are the real reason you should visit Cuba. However, in areas touched by tourism (Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad) things have changed when compared to our visit 5 years ago. Perhaps change is inevitable, but if you are thinking of going to Cuba, do it soon. Avoid the “tourist trail” and head to the East, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo. If you are looking for a beach vacation visit the Bay of Pigs and Playa Largo. Eat at your casa or a family run paladar. Sit in the park and talk to people when you have the chance. It is the people of Cuba that make it so special. Have an open mind, open heart and a big smile and chances are you will learn something new or make a new friend.  And as for my friends in Cuba, may you find visionary leaders and new heroes of the people, with the ability to help you navigate the changes ahead. Finding ways for your country to prosper, while still retaining the values that make Cuba and its people so special.

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Saying goodbye to Cuba: waiting for our taxi to the airport outside our casa in Havana

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