April 18th, 2010, 4:35pm is when we landed at one of Caribbean’s most mysterious place, Cuba. “Yes!!! finally made it here.” If you would have asked me, before I started my trip, where am I most excited to visit, you would definitely hear me scream loudly Cuba! A place where Americans are forbidden to visit, and one of the few remaining communist countries in full operation. Old American cars from the 1950’s are a normal street occupants and cigar smoke is a common encounter.
Viva Havana Cuba! “Scarred by its past and flummoxed by one of the worst economic fallout of modern times, Havana is no Paris. Here, at the provierblar heart of Cuba’s great paradox, seductive beauty slides up to spectacular decay, as life carries on precariously and capriciously, but always passionately.”
Havana, definitely a very passionate, loud and proud city. Driving in a cab to our “casa de perticulares” in Havana, Vieja, we were totally psyched and super eager to jump out and start touring. But before we did all that we came across a very funny situation.
“Hola tienes un habitacion, para dos personas?” as we screamed at a woman who was looking out the second floor window, she disappeared and came back shortly with keys flying from above. “hahah this is just like Poland” Iza laughed. As we entered the red living-room an older man shows us our room, “It’s 30 CUC per night and breakfast is not included”.
“cool we take it” after a short Spanish talk he asked us where we were from and here is the shocker.
“ohh dzień dobry, ja studiowałem w Polsce w Gdańsku przez 5 lat, od 1973 do 1978 roku.”
Perfect polish with a slight accent. “WHAT?” this is totally something else. A Cubano who lives in Cuba, studied for 5 years in Poland, and speaks perfect Polish!! Awesome, after he left our room, Iza had to lay down and overcome her emotions. Lol. Totally something we did not expect to come across but it made our stay more pleasant. After talking to him a bit more he told us that back in the 70’s it was very common for Cubanos to travel to Poland and vs.
April, 19th, Havana:
Woke up early, and wow another shocker breakfast was on the table, hmmm i thought he said breakfast was not included. “Is this free?” “tak tak tak” so we had a huge huge breakfast, mango, guava, banana, papaya, piña, mango shake, hot coffee with hot milk, hot bread, omelet with veggies, and nothing else would fit I swear! Barely made it back to our room through the tall but super narrow door, we got ready packed our 4 lenses and took off to explore Havana.
We decided to follow Lonely Planet’s recommendation tour of Havana Centro. Click! We walked, passed different levels of eye stimulation and just clicked away with as many cars, buildings, and people that would fit into our frame of mind and cameras.
Red vintage Buick, click! 1958 blue Chevy click! three girls wearing the same color shirts, click! Cuban flag, click!
We walked for over 5 hrs. Seen everything and anything, flying baseball balls, crumbling side walks, hair buzzing, people rocking on chairs, dying and smoking cars, smiling and screaming people, veering cyclists, blasting Mambo Kings in every restaurant and Che Guvera’s image on every corner.
Imagine architectural mosaic of tall colonial baroque, art deco, neoclassicism, and gaudi-esque experimentation buildings that are falling apart with multiple color paints showing through.
It’s like a once lived beauty that through years have not done anything to keep up her youth, resulted in grayness and broken bones, yet it still can dance till the sun shines.
“Wow, this place is something totally different, never expected it to be like this”.
“I love it, and I don’t know why.”
We ended our tour at the Malecon, a strip where all the locals hang out. As we sat down we were instantly approached by many people trying to talk to us with small talks and always with the same question “Where are you from?”. In minutes we had two Cubano guys singing and playing drums and a guitar for us. Click!! I took a pic.
We talked to them for no more than 5 min before the police approached them and checked their ID’s. Then they were told that they can’t sing and play here.
Just like that, for no reason “you just simply can’t play here”. I guess Fidel is really scared that we going to take these boys away. They were eager to share their music with us, but were not allowed. That freaking sucked, we were totally enjoying the armature tunes of Buena Vista Social Club.
April 20th, Havana
Another day and another walk tour, this time we decided to explore what all the tourist brag about in Havana, the Vieja. A neighborhood with amazing architecture, and tourists on every corner. True, it was very nice, many buildings were reconstructed, painted and looked brand new. However, we favored Centro and the more run down parts of Habna a bit more, it has a bit more of the everyday life and a true character.
In Vieja, we also felt that there were a bit more locals that were preying on tourists. We were approached couple times, and asked to give up our clothes, watches. I didn’t care until one lady asked me to give her my, ring that I bought in Taxco, with the eye of the cat stone, that pissed me off and I told her to get lost! C’mon!!! Not my ring! She is got to be crazy!!! We barely have anything!!
We ended our tour, at the beer factory with a pint local beer and one burger to share. Iza’s heart could not resist to give half of her half burger to a begging cat. Yep! Cuba has begging cats at the outside tables. Mexico has begging kids that just put their fingers into your food when you eat, and Cuba has cats, that almost dig their claws into your legs.
The day ended up similar to the first, somehow we end up checking out the sun set at the strip, smoking a Cuban cigar, when two guys approached us and wanted to talk and practice their English with us. No problem! But again, five minutes passed and police showed up, and were checking their ID’s.
April 21st. Vinales, Cuba.
Vinales, 3.5 hrs west of Havana, a tiny city, with 14,000 people, surrounded by Mogotes, mountains with flat tops which are very rare in the world.
Vinales was recommended to us by Geraldo, our Polish Cuban padre. He said that it’s one of the best places in Cuba. So of course we had to check it out.
When we arrived on the bus to the small town Vinales, we were greeted by a mob of people trying to bring us to their casa perticulares, apparently there are over 250 houses that have rooms for rent.
“ohh shit Iza, look this guy has our names on a card board. Agnieszka and Izabela, lol”
It turned out that our padre called a friend, and told him we were coming. I’ve always wanted someone waiting for me with a cardboard and my name, but never expected it to be in Cuba. Hahah, love it!
After settling down, we took off to explore the area as its know for the national park that has many natural springs, caves and mountain climbing. Since the plan was to only come here for one day we were limited with our activities.
We hiked up the road for 3km, appreciated amazing views, checked out many local tobacco farms and just clicked away. Eventually, we made it to the top of the hill, where an expansive hotel was located and had an awesome view of the valley. We got trashed on two mojitos and on the way back came across a group of young guys who I convinced to jump with Iza, and I continued to click away.
When we got back to our casa, it was dark, and the food was on the table, ate like queens and passed the f… out.
Morning of day two in Vinalles, April 22nd.
We rented bikes from our casa to explore more as we had our bus to Havana at 2pm. We made it to the famous “Mural of Prehistorico”, a massive mural on the side of a mountain with snails, dinosaurs and sea animals that represents evolution. It took 5 years and 15 artists to complete it. We really don’t know why, as this should have taken 2 people and no more then few months 🙂
On the way back, far far away from our casa, my chain popped, it broke! Thank god for Iza and our Swiss Army knife, she got her hands dirty and with the use of our Swiss knife and two rocks she fixed it. It only took three tries to get the chain on right! Whoop whoop!! Freaking Cuban bikes.
Evening of April 22nd, Havana
Psssit!!! Hey lady!! Where are you from? Hey!? Psssit. Hey sexy lady! Where are you from?! Ninia! Taxi? Lady! Where are you from???!! Do you wanna fuck?! Hola?! Hello!? Where are you from? Hola…
And the voices continued to come out from different directions as we walked in the dark after 9pm across three different neighborhoods to get to what is known as one of the top jazz spots in Havana, La Zorra y El Cuervo.
“Are you scared?!? omg I’ve never seen you like this, you are acting like me. I feel super safe here, I read in our lonely planet guidebook that Havana is a very safe city” said Iza.
“No! I Am not scared, but walk faster, this place is sketchy.”
On the map it looked near, but when we actually walked the distance from our casa to the jazz club it wasn’t that close. Technically we walked thought three different neighborhoods but it felt like a million of them. It was definitely a walk that gave us a look into everyday life in Havan. And in a way I mean it in a literal way, wide open doors where you can see, families watching TV, woman wearing head rollers and half naked man sitting by the entrance, smoking cigars.
The streets were very dark and scratchy looking as they don’t have good power that lights the city. Once we got to Vedado the neighborhood where the jazz club was located, it felt very similar to New York’s Madison avenue near Harlem, taller buildings more trees, just less light.
We got to the jazz club quite early so we had a good spot close to the stage. Two cocktails were included in the $10 cover, yey mojitos.
Iza was tired and almost falling asleep, but when the musicians came on, holy shit did she woke up!
“Look at the pianist, what energy, if he treats his woman like he plays his music then I want him.”
A group of 4 guys, pianist, drummer, contra-bass, and an older guy who played multiple instruments like the flute, sax, and clarinet. Two of the guys were from Buena Vista Social Club, but all of them were extremely talented.
I had guess bumps all over, and Iza had a huge smile the entire time. These guys played all different styles of jazz and each song had so much passion and energy. The guy on the piano, young African-cubano was definitely the star and the one that operated the entire band, his energy drove everybody including ours. His facial expression and smile was definitely something to be mesmerized about. I’ve seen many jazz players and performers, but this was something else. A true jazz lovers who truly enjoyed playing.
We left the club on a buzz after having 4 mojitos each and so inspired that I was ready to go back to school for music.
We took a taxi back home, I was not going to walk through that again :). And for the record I was not scared.
April 23rd, Havana.
Yey beach day. Anywhere in Cuba, you are always close to a beach. We managed to get some Cubano currency and we were going to take the bus to the closest and nicest beach near Havana.
Packed our beach gear, bathing suits were on and ready for some waves. When we got to the bus stop, we encounter so many people, lines were around the block and overall a chaos.
“amm what is going on here? Are all of these people going to the beach?”
This is what happens in communist countries, lines lines and more lines. Felt like back in Poland in the early 80’s. We waited on the line for over 30 min, it barely moved and it was hot. After realizing that this was going to be a total nightmare, we gave up and returned to our casa.
In Cuba, there are two different types currencies. CUC which is used by tourists and you can buy almost anything with it and the other one is moneta nationales which are 24 to 1CUC. Cubans mainly use the Moneta Nationales as it’s much cheaper for them. On average they make 15 to 25 CUC a month so makes more sense for them to use the Moneta Nationales. However, they are limited to less varieties of food in stores, have to wait on long lines and overall can’t buy much with them.
“So, no beach for us today” as we walked back, and decided to enjoy the rest of the day walking around in the city.
April 24-28th, Trinidad.
Another place recommended by everyone who has been to Cuba and visited Trinidad. A small town 6 hrs south east of Havana where it feels like the time has stopped in the 1850’s. Its known for its beautiful colonial architecture with cobble stone streets. Consists of the most museums in all of Cuba and is near one of the nicest beaches in Cuba, Playa de Alcon. The area is also popular for hiking, waterfalls, scuba diving and fishing.
We planed to be here for four days. Two days too many. We stayed in our padre’s friends house where he gave us a good deal 27 CUC a night with breakfast and dinner included.
“Omg, I can’t move, my belly is so full, it’s going to pop!”
I was whinging after I finished eating fruits, salad, soup, chicken, rice, french fries, and mango purée dessert. Don’t know why people said that Cuba’s food is not the best, so far it’s been great.
For the rest of the stay here in Trinidad that was our topic.
“I am so full”
Here is probably where I had my first crisis of gaining weight. My belly is sticking out, I look like I am about three months into my cycle of having a baby.
“Iza!!! No more sweet stuff, I am serious!! No more nutella, no more cookies, and no ice cream! We need to start working out!! Look at my flabby arms, my belly and the jello on my tights.”
But they kept feeding us and we kept eating, with huge regret right after.
Trinidad was also very vary hot. One night the temperature hit 38C degrees. So most of our day we spent on the bed without movement with the fan on full speed and reading our books. This gave us time to read up on Cuba and here are some cool facts that Iza found and observed:
• Cubans can create anything from everything
• average salary for a month is $25 US
• they deliver cakes on wobbly bicycles
• often 3 generations of the same family lives under the same roof, this cramps their love life and they often end with a divorce
• they take baseball very seriously, and love boxing
• they only have three channels in the TV without advertisements
•in the daily news they always mention something good that Cuba did and something bad that Americans are up to
• 2006 the year of energy revolution when Fidel brought three new things into Cuba: pressure cooker, new Eco friendlier refrigerators, and light bulb LEDs
• Internet use is monitored, and limited
• 85% of all the guys in Cuba are ripped, awesome body shapes and buffed muscles, ladies trust me as I write it!
And there are many more things that I am sure I am forgetting to write.
On our last day in Trinidad, we went to check out Palanque de Congos a lounge where everyday they have a musicdance performance about the tradition of Cuba. We went there with only 7 CUC’s as it was the last of our budget money. We sat down ordered 2 mojitos and were left with only 1 CUC.
“I can’t believe that we have no more money, we brought $1,000 with us and spent every single dollar.”
We only had enough for our last night in Havana, the taxi to the airport, and $50 for the tax to leave Cuba. Our debit cards don’t work here so we were on our last dollar.
“Ladies tonight we have a special raffle where the .50 CUC a ticket will go to a donation to a local children hospital, would you like to purchase two tickets, you might win a cd with music?”
As we gave her our last dollar, we smiled and hoped we were not going to need it for anything.
The show was hilarious and the music sounded like from the 50’s radio since the speaker was blown out. At the end of the performance the lady came on with a hilarious English accent and announced the raffle ticket.
“and the ticket number is 29” she screamed, “lol that is us” I laughter and took the number and went up there.
Yey we got a CD with what is supposed to be the best Cuban music. We have no idea what is on it as we don’t have a CD player.
We left the place with two American boys to another outside place where they dance salsa. After some conversations, the rain started pouring and made all the people cramp up under a small bar.
Jason insisted on buying us a drink, as he learned that we have no more money. I felt bad but “sure I will have a mojito” Iza didn’t have one she didn’t want to use them. Lol.
We returned home completely soaked as the rain never stopped pouring.
April 28th, Havana.
After we got back to Havana to our casa we asked our padre to lower our night rate as we had no more money for food. He smiled and offered us his dinner. “Sure all we really needed the money for was food so why not.”
Best dinner we had in Cuba.
“omg not only he speaks polish but he also knows how to cook”
We had cabbage/veggie soup, pulled pork with rice, delicious salad and flan for dessert. Again we walked away barely able to fit through the door.
April 29th, on the flight coming back from Cuba.
“I am scared to fly in this plain” Iza said with wide open eyes after finding out that it’s a Russian plane.
Apparently she thinks that all things made by Russians are not the best quality. And I think after this flight I have to agree with her.
When we sat into our seats, we quickly learned that the seats in front of us were easily folded in half, never seen that on a plane but I liked it as it gave me more room. Also there was a cold air coming out through a ventilator right by my foot, didn’t think much of it until we took off.
“what in the world is going on!!” i said, while a cloud of steam was rushing out from underneath our chairs. It was a thick cold steam. People in the back started to whistle to get the flight attendants attention. Shortly after the pilot got on the air and said not to worry about the steam that this is perfectly normal.
“Perfectly normal!?!?! I’ve never seen anything like this and this is probably my 30th time on a plane!”
Iza was right. I was super happy when we landed. My friends when ever you learn that you will be fighting a YAK 420, be aware that thick steam that looks like smoke, coming from underneath your seats is apparently normal.
Quite an experience, I had to break the rule of not using any electronic devices and clicked away as this was proof just in case.
So, Cuba in a nutshell, I can’t fit it!! This is one of those places that you just have to visit for yourself. Is unexplainable. Make it there quick as things will change soon.