January 2013 - Cuba

1 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We had a chill-out day, nursing our hangovers – why do we always start a New Year with headaches?

I caught up on editing our web site and played the guitar.  Glenys just read a book.

2 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
To Glenys’s astonishment, I went for a run.  I went past the local airport where there is a skydiving centre – it’s all geared up for doing tandem jumps for tourists at a cost of $180 per jump, which is not a bad price compared to the UK.  My route also took me past a small oil pumping station – we’ve seen many of these dotted around the country. I guess that the Cubans have to use every resource that they have.

We walked into Varadero, booked the bus to go to Trinidad tomorrow and then explored the town a little bit more. We found a pleasant public park with a small lake complete with the obligatory pedallos.  There was also a fun fair next to the park which was crowded with Cubans - not many tourists in sight.

On the way back to the Marina, we had a slight detour to Santa Marta and bought a huge lunch for only $3.50 each.  Pork and beans of course – they had fish on the menu, but we’ve not been able to find anywhere that actually has some yet.

We walked bloody miles, so we chilled out for the rest of the afternoon. “Catrine” and “Windfall” left today, so there’s only Debbie and us around.

3 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We were up early to catch a bus to Trinidad, which took six hours, but at least it gave us both a chance to concentrate on our audio Spanish lessons.  It was chaos when we arrived at the bus station in Trinidad – the officials had strung a wire across the entrance to the bus station and a horde of people were lined up behind it, touting for business;  wanting to show us to a Casa Particular or shouting “Taxi, Taxi”. 

Parque Cespedes, Trinidad, Cuba

We declined all offers and walked the half a mile to our Casa Particular.  The house looked very basic from the outside, with huge plain doors and windows encased in wrought iron bars that stretched almost all the way to the floor.  Our apprehension dissolved as soon as we were shown in.  What a lovely place – marble floors and nicely decorated with mahogany furniture.  Our room had an on-suite bathroom and opened out onto a small courtyard in the centre of the house, with lush plants and a table for breakfast – not at all bad for $25 per night.  

The people were lovely as well.  The owner was a very small lady, who was quite a character and very patient while we tried to talk to her with our limited Spanish.  Unfortunately, she only had a room for us for one night, so she organised another room for us with her niece in a nearby casa.

We went for a quick wander around to orient ourselves and ended up in the centre of the small town having a few beers and listening to local groups playing Soco or Salsa music.  The Cubans love to dance and will salsa away in any small spaces between tables in the crowded bars.  We had fabulous dinner at the Casa with another guest - an Italian lady who lives in the UK.  It was brilliant value for $55 for the night including the evening meals and breakfast.  The casa was called “Dona Ramonita”, 68 Camilo Cuienfuegos, Trinidad.

4 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
After a huge breakfast, we were taken around to the niece’s casa, which was in a rougher street, but again once inside, it was very well decorated and a maze of corridors and spiral staircases.  The landlady arranged a guide to come tomorrow morning to take us horse riding for the day. The casa was called Hostal Trinicuba, 70 Calle Miguel Calzada, Trinidad. 

Salsa band, Trinidad, Cuba

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Trinidad, which is a sixteenth century Spanish town with large mansions built from the wealth of the sugar and tobacco plantations.  The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many of the buildings are well preserved as are the old cobbled streets.  The architecture around the central “Plaza Mayor” square is very photogenic, but wandering only a short distance north of the centre takes you in to very poor and rundown areas of town.

The town is heavily geared to the hundreds of tourists that wander around the streets, with nearly as many “jineteros” – street hustlers and opportunists.  However, it’s a very relaxed atmosphere and the jineteros are not too pushy.  Our Casa Particular was in a residential area, very close to Parque Cespedes, which is a local shopping area, so we were able to escape the tourist areas and do some serious local people watching.

Confusingly, there are two currencies in Cuba, the Moneda Nacional which is what the local Cubans earn and spend; and there’s the Cuban Convertible Peso (“CUC”) which is what tourists spend.  One CUC is roughly worth 1 US dollar and you get 25 Moneda Nacional pesos for one CUC.  The only time that we can use Moneda  Nacional is when we buy food or snacks from local street vendors otherwise we have to pay at least twice as much for things in CUC.  No wonder that the locals just see us as dollars on legs.

We stepped out in the evening, visiting some more bars and checking out the local music before returning to the Casa for dinner.  The meal wasn’t as good as last night, but it was filling.

5 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
It’s not cheap being a tourist and we were running out of cash, so I nipped off to the bank to get some more money.  I had no problem in getting cash from my debit card apart from the fact that the bank only had $3 notes - $200 dollars was 66 bank notes which is a fair old wad.  When I arrived back at the casa there was a Caballero (cowboy) standing outside with his horse. 

Horse riding, Trinidad, Cuba

We walked across town to a street near the Plaza Mayor, where we found our horses tied up to a lamp post.  There were another two ladies in our group – an Argentinian and a Venezuelan.  We rode out of town and into the Valle de los Ingenios which is where the sugar estates are based.  It was very pleasant riding past houses with banana, coconut and sugar cane growing everywhere.  The horses were very responsive, which was a surprise since they are often ridden by tourists who don’t know what they are doing.

We stopped at a bar for a drink and spotted cocks in cages, which we were told are fighting cocks – still a popular activity in Cuba.  At another stop, we were shown how sugar cane is crushed in a mangle to produce sugar cane juice, which is lovely with a big splash of rum…

We ended up at a waterfall in the National Park which has a very nice pool below it – the swim was very refreshing after being out in the beating sun for three hours.  Retracing our route, we called in at a bar for lunch before returning back to town.  We had a great day out – 6 hours horse riding for only $20.

In the evening we walked into town, had a few beers and let a jinetero take us to a Paladar, which is a privately run restaurant.  The restaurant was just outside the centre of town in a run-down area and there was only on other couple in there, but we had a nice meal for only $6.  As a bonus, we had a small band playing us Cuban music – I think that it was “Son” with two guitars and bongo drums.  I chatted to one of the guitarists, who showed me his “tres” which is a Cuban guitar having only three, double strings - each pair of strings is tuned to be the same note, but an octave apart, giving it a rich tone.

6 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We caught the bus back to Varadero - another long six hour trip, but this time the route took us along the south coast where there are lots of beaches.  From the bus station, we managed to negotiate a ride on a horse-drawn carriage for only $5 back to the marina.  Normally these are very expensive for tourists only, but the guy was going back to the stables, which are just across the road from the marina, so he gave us a bargain trip.

Back at the marina, we found that Vic and Marilyn on “Whisper” had arrived from Marathon a few days ago and “Saltwhistle III” with Tony & Rachel arrived yesterday.  “Saltwhistle” is a Hallberg Rassy 42 almost identical to Alba and we first met them in Long Island about four months ago.  It’s very strange that out of five boats arriving here in the last two weeks, three have been Hallberg Rassys.

We had a few beers at the meeting table next to Debbie’s’ boat and caught up with everyone.