(Just kidding. We did escape from other parts of Cuba... But didn't get to the infamous secret prison part)
Warning: get your cup of coffee (or rum) ready now as this is a huge post because we have been in outer space for the last 3 weeks (or perhaps merely in Cuba with no Internet access)!!!!
But first, our last few days in Mexico.
Guanajuato was a really beautiful city, and I'm disappointed we only had one day there. We wandered through the steep cobbled streets and climbed to the statue La Pipila which had an amazing view of the town which mirrored the view from our hostel on the opposite hillside.
We grabbed some cervecas and headed back to our accommodation to watch the sun set over the city.
It was Saturday night so we played cards and had some more beers with a big group of intentional travellers at the hostel. Disappointingly we didn't seem to be fluent in Spanish at this point, despite our recent 5 day course.
The next morning we headed to an old silver mine, the original source of Guanajuato's wealth. In classic Mexico style, no one turned up until 30 minutes after it was due to open, at which point we were regarded suspiciously for loitering at the entrance. The tour was...... interesting, our guide didn't speak any English so we did our best to get the gist of what he was saying but also did a fair bit of nodding while not understanding everything! The mine had a 200m drop at one location which naturally we dropped rocks down to listen for the splash. The whole thing was very casual, with our guide bashing pieces of rock from the walls for us to take. Unfortunately none of these souvineers had obvious silver deposits.
That afternoon we caught a bus to San Miguel de Allende, a similarly beautiful colonial town where we stayed with a family friend of David's, Jackie. She was an energetic and fun host, and we rushed off to see a museum about the history of the town as soon as we arrived.
After that we got some enormous margaritas, had a beer on her balcony, then headed to her place where a chance encounter ended up with us spending a pleasant evening at her neighbours'.
The next morning we headed to a cactus garden, which was very pretty and David got a haircut and a shave for only $5 (not at the cactus garden - at Jackie's neighbours front room in San Miguel)!
Then we had to dash to catch a bus to Mexico City before flying out to Cuba!!!!
Customs and immigration were a breeze and we were soon listening to some banging Cuban beats with a friendly taxi driver on our way to our accommodation in Havana, where we were greeted with a mojito. What a fantastic first impression!!!! The place we stayed was so nice we came back there for our final day in Cuba, and the lady who ran it was really friendly and helped us book accommodation at local houses ("casas particolares") at each of the towns for the rest of our stay. Our accommodation was on the 11th floor and had quite a spectacular view as not many other buildings were as tall.
In Cuba we had nothing but time, and everything is at a slow pace - on island time. We made sure we maintained our exercise regime! And here's the view from our lovely place in Havana itself (after a run on day two):
On our first day in Havana we met Rosina, yet another one of David's family friends who was visiting Cuba with her Cuban husband (local insight!) and 7 year old son. They kindly helped us find somewhere to use the internet (to load money on our credit cards) and gave us invaluable advice. We went to an amazing beach with white sand and clear blue water, where we paid $4 for a bottle of Havana club (Cubans drink it straight but we added mango juice) and generally had a great time.
That evening Rosina took us to a local restaurant in someone's front room where coffee was 4 cents and meals were $1!!!
The next day we got an open air bus around Havana which was a nice easy way to see the city. We met Rosina and her family for dinner, where there was a really good band playing. A few of the patrons danced salsa to a couple of songs, including Rosina and her husband (they are dance teachers back in NZ). We went to a salsa club they recommended to try out the basic steps they had taught us the day before. The other dancers were excellent, and we were shockingly bad but it was fun people-watching anyway.
We spent quite a bit of time wandering through old Havana, tried delicious Cuban chocolate, and went to the Museum of the Revolution. While it was very pro-Fidel Castro and glossed over some areas such as the effects of the embargo, it told the story reasonably accurately.
Our next stop was a tiny town called Viñales in a beautiful valley. The valley has sheer cliffs on a number of nearby sudden mountains, visable from our dinner stop:
It was like stepping back in time, with most transport via horses, and chickens and pigs in the backyard of a lot of places. The town was also paradoxically, extremely touristy, with 80% (honestly, I am not exaggerating) of houses in the town centre advertising accommodation. Here was our casa and family:
The funniest thing we saw was a guy with a house and cart who had been pulled over by a policeman.
The chickens look very different to the fattened versions we are used to.
We did a horseback riding tour of the valley, which included a cave tour, and a visit to tobacco and coffee farms. It was good fun, even if neither of us was very comfortable on horseback and it wasn't the right season to see either crop growing. On the way back we must have been a little late because our guide kept getting our horses to start trotting which was at the upper limit of our horsemanship. The guide would slap our horses and yell their names in a high, stereotypical Latin American voice for my horse Mojito (moHEEEto), and David's Palomu (PalooMUU), which would get them to race along out of our control. Particularly funny to see each other bouncing out of our saddles to the soundtrack of "moHEEEto... moHEEEto... PalooMUU".
Tobacco farmer explained the cigar process.
Cave tour - a bear rock. David translated from Spanish for the Germans whose English was much better than Spanish.
View of impressive sudden mountains after the cave tour, and then back on the horses.
As part of the horse trek we also went for a swim in a small lake to cool off.
The next day we were pretty sore so got a taxi ride with a couple of Germans (who we met the previous day, all four of us clinging desperately to our horses) to see rum and tobacco factories and a science museum in the nearby town of Pinar del Rio. The rum factory turned out to be a shed where they infused guava flavour into rum and the science museum consisted of some stuffed animals and a t-rex statue. At least the tobacco factory tour was good. Rows of workers rolled cigars, with each worker being expected to produce a minimum of 100 cigars per day. Each cigar is tested for air flow through the cigar, length and weight before it is allowed to be sold as an official Cuban cigar. We weren't allowed to take photos in the tobacco factory but here is one which is plagiarised from a Google image search.
Seahorses outside the science museum were the most exciting part aside from the t-rex statue.
The rum factory.
Beers with the Germans at the end of a long day (during the afternoon rainstorm).
Each afternoon at around 3 it started raining heavily in the microclimate of Viñales, with thunder and lightening. We located ourselves safely in a bar for the afternoon. Unfortunately it soon cleared so we felt obliged to go for a walk through the valley, where a stray dog adopted us. We couldn't get rid of him so we went back home and hid in a bar until he left.
The next day we went on to Cienfuegos. It is yet another colonial town, this time built on the wealth from sugar plantations. The old centre of town was very grand, but we were disappointed to be told that the water in the bay, although picturesque, was not clean enough to swim in.
Having had a look at the old town Square, the next day we tried to see some attractions. It was a Wednesday, so the Dolphin Park was closed. The ferry across the bay to the old fort ruins was broken, but at least the naval history museum was open, although only the external displays - the buildings were closed! Also the archaeological museum was undergoing renovations... To top the day off when we got a pizza there were two options: cheese or onion - but they were out of onion. At this point we cut our losses and sought reprieve from the afternoon heat poolside at a local hotel.
Naval museum exterior.
In tourist areas such as town centers, a lot of people would start conversations with us which was a good way for us to practice our Spanish but inevitably led to a request for soap, clothes, money or taxis. That evening we explored the Peninsula near our casa and saw the sunset through the clouds.
I realise this makes Cienfuegos sound like an awful city but I think we just had some bad luck, which admittedly happens more often in Cuba than elsewhere. It has a lot of parks and shoreline, which were so nice we went for runs both mornings. It was also a lot less touristy than the other cities we went to and so it felt more authentic.
Next we took a short bus ride to Trinidad. There are no words too positive to describe our hosts at our casa, Pedro and Carmen. They spoke very little English, but spoke Spanish slowly which was a godsend and we spent a lot of time talking with them. Pedro was a real joker and he and David really hit it off.
The centre of town was stunning, with most of the town's architecture dated from the 1800's. We looked through a couple of museums (no photos of the displays as that doubled the entrance price), one of which had a tower with great views of the town - we did get photos up there!
The next day we got a bus to the beach on a nearby peninsular (Playa Ancon). The beach was nice, but the water was so warm it wasn't much of a relief from the heat. Unfortunately yet again I wasn't particularly impressed - NZ beaches spoil us I know. This beach had seaweed all through the water, and much of the peninsula was the territory of hotels. It did look great as someone had obviously raked up the seaweed deposited from the previous high tide so the beach looked like just white sandy shores.
David aims to do a beer commercial in each country.
That night we went to a bar ("Casa de La Musical") with a live band and tried the traditional Trinidad cocktail which is rum, honey and lime.
Casa de La Musica during the day (at night these steps are full of people enjoying outdoor salsa and cocktails.
Suckers for punishment, we went horseriding again the next day. This put our first attempt in Viñales to shame, as this time we spent a whole day on horseback. We rode through a valley to a beautiful waterfall and pool for swimming where the water was actually cold which was a first for Cuba. On our way we stopped at a country house for lunch and tried juice squeezed fresh from the sugar cane. No one liked it much, it had a bit of an earthy taste.
The waterfall swim, and our guide Jorje.
Sugarcane being squeezed, and our juice.
Despite it being a lovely day out, horses are an unlikely feature in our future - it's just not an efficient way to get around.
The next day we tried to use different muscles by going on a bike ride instead. We went on a round trip of about 30 kms to a valley where there used to be a lot of sugar mills, powered by slave labour. We climbed a massive tower which had some stunning views of the area.
Feeling the heat after biking up the hill.
Climbing the tower and the view from the top
That afternoon we recovered in our room, reading and studying Spanish, more washing (we have less than 10kg of gear each so there is a regular cycle of wearing and washing our four ish outfits), and some solid work on the blog.
Our gear (aka what Laura took on holiday).
That night we ate dinner cooked by our hosts. Laura got the lobster which was outstanding, although the entire meal was delicious, probably the best meal we had in Cuba.
Our next stop was Varadero, a 20km peninsular which is a major tourist hot spot. We had heard it was extremely touristy and so only had allowed two nights there. Our accommodation was really nice, although it was more like a hotel than a casa which made us appreciate the lovely people we stayed with throughout Cuba all the more. We headed straight to the beach which was definitely one of the nicest beaches I've ever been to. White sand, and bright blue clear water with no one trying to sell you anything. The beach had a very gentle slope and eventually gave way to the deep blue of the ocean. This water was a welcome temperature, a nice refreshing cool to relieve us from the hot days we've had through the entire trip. I think this might be the best beach I've ever been to! Hopefully we'll see many more like it.
We continued our tradition of looking for what are called "peso places" to eat - Rosina had shown us right at the start the kinds of places serving food at local prices and in local currency. We hadn't expected Varadero to turn these up, being a resort haven, but we found huge plates of meat, rice, beans and avocado just a block from our place.
Some peso places sold pizzas for $0.30.
We had also toyed with the idea of paying extra for an all-inclusive resort stay but couldn't find a room at any of the (relatively) cheap all-inclusive places. Instead we treated ourselves to cocktails with our dinners in Varadero, and took some beers with us on our full day in town.
We went on a bus tour of the narrow strip of hotels and Beach, taking photos and enjoying the drinks we had brought. We hopped off to see a small but well-known cave which is home to drawings up to 2,000 years old, as well as different types of bats and cockroaches.
Our time in Cuba was almost at an end but we were sent off in true rainy season style with two huge thunderstorms in Varadero, one during our second-to-last supper, and a lightening storm in Havana the night before our flight to Costa Rica.
Overall Cuba was a fascinating and amazing but also frustrating and contradictory country to visit. I think the best way to outline this is by giving a number of examples, such as:
Lack of machinery meaning people cut grass, turn fields etc via manual labour,
Propaganda posters, while not as widespread as I expected, are definitely present and the people are very patriotic, making street art and graffiti such as this:
Supermarkets are often sold out of basic items such as water, and are entirely devoid of fruit, vegetables and snack foods. The first time we entered a Cuban supermarket we were starving but walked out empty handed as there was NOTHING to eat. We even contemplated a sachet of something like raro. They always have an extremely comprehensive and well stocked spirits section though.
Customer service was consistently bad outside of tourist industries. State employees are paid next to nothing and given no incentive to do a good job.
The double currency system here means that tourist dollars are highly sought after. As an example, accommodation for both of us in a casa was typically around $25 CUC (fixed as equivalent to $25USD) per night, which is almost 1 month's salary in a government job. Therefore, a crazy number of people would compete for our patronage which got very tiring after a while. Hopefully it balances out soon, but housekeepers and taxi drivers are currently earning more than doctors.
In the picture below, casa owners trying to win the patronage of any wary travelers who didn't book ahead, or even who were silly enough to call out "casa Nancy" (to which four or five casas would say together "I'm casa Nancy, you've booked with me")
Taxis are often shared. Taxi drivers will pull over to pick up more passengers and some drive set routes and would just drop us off the closest they came to our destination. There may have been a system but we never figured it out.
Also, between towns we almost always paid a tiny bit extra for door to door taxis from one casa to our next. You generally add $3 per person to the bus price to get this - and we made some tourist friends that shared our rides in between towns. One taxi driver had this odd seatbelt/handbrake system:
While Central American fashion is generally quite conservative, in Cuba anything goes. Nothing is too short, too brighr or too tight - and that's just the boys!
All in all, Cuba is definitely a country which I'd recommend as a travel destination. It was the biggest break from technology of my life, and the high cost of imported food meant that packaged and processed foods are rare. The extra time meant we swam wherever possible, read a lot of books, drank a lot of mojitos and restarted our morning runs, which had slipped of the radar in Mexico.