Backpacking in Cuba – one month time travel (Part 2)

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I arrived to one of Cuba’s most popular and well-known holiday destinations, to Varadero, on the second of February, 2018 with a charter flight full with tourist seeking summer holiday during cold winter. As far as I saw I was the one and only backpacker on the plane which seemed to be obvious for the immigration officer as well, who has been checking my passport, so he immediately take me out from the queue to ask a number of questions. I used to travel mainly in EU, and to Turkey – but it counts like my home – so it was a bit weird to get through this process. By the time I finally got out of the transit, not only my travel mates disappeared, but the luggages too and I could not see my black backpack anywhere. I ran up and down in the airport, asking everyone I could but nobody seemed interested about my problem. “Look around!” – they said. Where, though? – I was thinking naively. An unattended backpack cannot just be left anywhere at an airport … Oh of course it can! I found it in one of corners, it was there sadden, left alone. I reminded myself again, Csilla, you are not in Europe! The fact that my Airbnb host did not wait at the exit, as promised, did not surprise me. I bought an internet card and a beer, sat down on a bench and informed my relatives that I arrived. Then I negotiated a bit with the taxi drivers and headed to Matanzas. It’s going to be an adventurous journey, I thought, smiling, as I watched the sunset behind the palm trees over the window of the taxi.

In the previous post I shared some general information and useful advice about Cuba, and now I would like to tell you a bit about my experiences and feelings from each destination.

Matanzas

For the first two nights I booked accommodation in Matanzas at a much more favorable price than I would at Varadero. Besides, I was not particularly attracted  by Varadero, I just stayed in the area for a few days to acclimatize a bit. Matanzas is not one of the main touristic destinations, there are relatively few attractions, but one or two days can be spent actively in the city. It’s called the home of poets, even Cuba’s Athens, but I feel this as an exaggeration. The low number of foreigners, however, keeps the prices low even in the city center. In addition, we can taste the ‘real’ Cuban everyday life.

Attractions:

  • Pharmacy Museum – the first such museum in Latin America
  • San Severino Castle
  • Sauto Theater
  • Palacio de Junco Museum
  • Cuevas de Bellamar (Bellamar caves) according to the photos and reviews it did not capture my interest, so I did not visit it, but if someone is on vacation in Varadero it can be a nice option for a half-day excursion program.

Varadero

White sand, turquoise sea, palm trees, cold beer, good (and expensive) restaurants, all inclusive hotels. I thought if I was there, I should take look at the holiday paradise as for a day trip. At the end it got more expensive for me than it is worth. I wanted to get one of local buses, but in the ticket office, the lady said there was no bus (for me) and redirected to the Viazul desk. I had nobody to share the taxi collectivo with, so the tourist bus remain the only option. The ticket costs 12 CUC for 2 ways, which is not cheap, especially because in the next day it turned out that the information was misleading at Matanzas station and the night bus to Camagüey does not go from there directly but from Varadero, so I had to go back.

Attractions:

There are some attractions nearby but I can not report on these. I spent my day relaxing in the golden triangle of sun bathing – cold beer – shade of palm trees.

Camagüey

Cuba’s third largest city. It’s historic downtown, and houses dating from the 18th century and it is the part of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage. I spent a day here from early morning arrival to late night departure to Baracoa. Since I did not have accommodation there, and there was no luggage storage at the bus station, both my backpacks accompanied me to the trip, for the delight of my shoulders. Nevertheless, I spent a very cool day in town: talked to friendly locals, drank fine coffee and ate good food.

Attractions:

  • Get lost at the downtown labyrinth. According to the legend, the city’s winding streets and labyrinthic arrangements were designed to prevent pirates and other groups from attacking and plundering the city. The only way out of the way was known the locals only, so they could catch the bad guys.
  • Parks, museums:
    • Plaza de los Trabajadores: Of course, a with building of a Che Guevera monument on it.
    • Ignacio Agramonte Park: bars, restaurants and a monument of a hero of the local Independence War, Ignacio Agramonten
    • Casa de la Diversidad: it was closed during my visit, but the building itself is an interesting sight too
  • The city is rich in beautiful churches. Among these my favorites are:
    • Inglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad – inevitable, is located on one of the main squares of the city
    • The Inglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced has been dating the city since 1748
    • Inglesia de Sagrada Corazon de Jesus – situated near a pretty park, which is a good location to take some nice pictures while you rest a it under the shade of the trees
  • Other:
    • Hollyood of Camagüey- a movie decorated street in the downtown
    • Railway station with old vehicles. Be careful, because the rails pass through the middle of the city and there is no barrier!
    • Calle Maceo – downtown street with old buildings, hotels and cafés

Baracoa – “A farmer without machete is not a farmer” (local tour guide)

When I was planning my tour to Cuba, my eyes were caught by a blog post: Baracoa, the heart of Cuba. I’ve read a few traveler reviews, checked Google’s image results, and added Baracoa with 3 exclamation marks to my list. I planned to spend three days there, and ended up with eight great days. It became my favorite city in Cuba, where I would like to go back once.

Christopher Columbus reached the shores of the island here at first in October 1492. He was enchanted by the beauty of the place that he wrote in superlatives about the landscape to his diary. The origin of its name is probably derived from the native language of the Aracua, meaning “the presence of the sea”. Baracoa was the first town on the island founded by the Spanish in 1512 under the leadership of Diego Velázquez, and for a short time it was listed as the capital of the country. (Followed by Santiago de Cuba in 1514 and by Havana in 1515.) , Even so it was isolated for a long time, only accessible by boat. The road was built in 1960, which connects the city with the province’s capital, Guantánamo. This is probably the reason why the natural environment of the town is intact, crystal clear, and the people living there are infinitely friendly and curious. Unfortunately, like many other settlements in the area, Baracoa was also suffered by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and it’s signes 2 years later are still visible.

National parks, waterfalls and mountain trails can only be visited with local tour guides. If you arrive on your own, a guide will be delegated to you at the entrance of the park. Another option is to buy a package in the town (Cubatur, Havana, etc.). Does not matter which one, you are going to pay the the same amount of the money and they actually work together. If you choose this solution, you will also get an English speaking, professional guide, transfers, and entrance tickets in return for the paid price. No need to book ahead just to appear before 10 minutes before 9 at one of the offices. You have to wait until they fill jeep with people (telephone calls between the offices) and then the journey starts. How many people can fit in such a car? More than you might think!

In Baracoa there is rain every day, prepare for this if you are planning to visit there. Usually, these are short tropical rain showers, which refresh the air and make the area beautifully green.

Sights, tours:

  • Boca de Yumuri tour – it is most probably obvious for you that I’m not a fan of organized trips, I like to explore the places I’ve visited in my own way, but I did not regret having this tour with a tour guide. First, we went to a nearby village where I got a couple of new interesting information about the exotic plants of the area and about the real handmade chocolate:
    • Cocoa trees produce new fruits every 6 months, from which they produce a medicine, and therefore it is also called “the tree of life”. Only one become fruit of a thousand of flowers. Their color may be different, but eventually each will be yellow when it gets mellowed. Baracoa is the country’s largest cacao – producing area. Majority of it goes to the factories, but the government leaves some for the locals, so the knowledge of preparing traditional chocolate in the surrounding villages has been preserved and inherited. The cocoa beans are get roasted, crushed, the massed into the form, placed in a fridge for 15-20 minutes and then packed. They said to in this way it can be stored for years without adding preservatives. It’s not like anyone would keep it for years. For breakfast, they provide a big mug of thick chocolate drink, which I was happy to drink on every single day. Not only because it was very tasty, but because I needed energy for the adventures.
  • Coffee: I did not really drink tasty coffee in Cuba, except in Cubanita coffee chain. Most probably expensive restaurants and hotels provide good coffees, but I assume that most of it is exported. I also heard that coffee which is sold for locals is mixed with bean in order to to increase it weight. It’s sad if it’s true. According to our Baracoan guide, a cup coffee with rum is the solution to calm down the nerves and get rid of stress. As we learned the strong sunshine is not good for the coffee plants, it needs the shade, so banana trees are planted among the plants. The banana has fruit only once, then it gets cut out, but right next to it the next plant grows.
  • Baracoa is orange – producing region as well. The medicine made from green orange is used in liver cleaning cures. (Unfortunately, it is a common illness due to the limitless rum consumption). I was also “lucky” to try a natural medication. Traveling on two consecutive night buses, in addition to the crazy – level air condition usage, resulted to get cold and coughing. In response to my complaint I received a brown bottle in the pharmacy. It smelled very bad, and tasted even worst. The following text was written on the bottle: miel con ajo (honey with garlic). I’m not saying that I immediately recovered, but it helped to reduce coughing.

After the farm, we visited the Yumuri canyon, which’s history leads back to the time of Taino Indians. According to the legend, the aboriginals who resisted against the Spanish colonization suffered cruel abuse and torment, so they decided to kill themselves instead. They dropped themselves off from the narrow cliffs and shouted “Ya morí!” (I died). From here we got the name of the canyon and it’s crystal-clear river (Yumurí), where we took a small boat trip and swam in the cool water

The next stop was the German Path. The only land route which were passing through this area was surprisingly owned by a German family. Of course everyone was charged who wanted to cross the passage on the picture below.

The last stop of the tour was the charming Maguana beach, where we had some rest, enjoyed the afternoon sunshine before we went back to town.

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  • El Yunque tour – the shape of the mountain similar to an anvil, its name is derived from it. At the beginning I met my tour mates, some European youth and a team of retired Ukrainians. We tried to go along for a while, but the tour guide saw that the pace was very different, so he sent us ahead. On a narrow, slippery, winding steep path, we climbed upwards supporting each other in the warm and humid jungle. The top of the mountain was covered with mist, but the view was not the main thing in this experience, but the nature, the perseverance and cohesion. The way back was “colored” with tropical thunderstorms so the path first became a little river and then a wallow. It was the most difficult and most beautiful hike in my life. All my respect goes for the older team that they completed it. The river at the foot of the mountain (what they forget to mention when you buy the ticket) was useful to wash the mud down. (In return for 1 CUC there is boat service).

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It is also worth visiting those who do not like to climb a mountain. Wiewpoints, waterfalls and easier tours are also available.

  • Alexander Humboldt National Park – Walk along the path until the end of the beach next to the city’s stadium. Go through the path, take care of the little crabs. Go close to the river on the pier. Soon a little boat will arrive. Negotiate on the price and go over the other side. Walk through the narrow woods. Turn left and you are already there. You can choose from several options, depending on what you want to see or how long time you have. One of the most interesting experiences was to having a bath in the water of an underground cave at the back of a family house yard. You will also get a tour guide here.
    I always remember at the days I spent in Baracoa with good feeling, fascinated by the surrounding flora and fauna, the nice behaviour of the locals and the atmosphere of the whole place. And this is what I tell everyone who is asking about Cuba 🙂

Santiago de Cuba

The capital of East Cuba and Cuban culture, they say. I was really looking forward to see it, but for me this city was a huge disappointment. Narrow, dirty streets, typically unfriendly locals, unpretentious buildings and parks, and unbearable, dry heat. (The latter is not the fault of the city, but I was unable to get out of from the house during the day, so it had an impact on the experience.) Besides, I was most faced with the Cuban sex tourism, as it is going on everywhere (restaurants, cafés, bars, and and even on the beach) that European (mainly Italian) and American elder men are happily spending their pension on young Cuban ladies. I do not want to detail it, but I saw a lot of disgusting and depressing things and heard more from my male traveller mates.

Attractions:

  • Here is a very good list of important sights in. Among the attractions I’ve visited, I suggest José Martí’s and Fidel Castro’s tombs, as well as the guard shift change and Playa de Siboney.
  • + 1: Blame on me if you want, but with my friend we found an Italian restaurant on the first night, where we could eat fine food at a good price (measured by the Cuban standard). Also the friendliness of the staff was refreshing in the city. We ate there every night and did not disappoint us. So if you do not want to risk: La Dolce Vita

Trinidad

The first city that I have seen from the most visited places. After the arrival, the sight of lot of tourists in the main square was shocking for a few minutes. Guided city tours? Overwhelmed Internet? 5 CUC for a coffee? Where I am? Then I got over of the initial incomprehensibility and enjoyed the days that I spent there. Hands up for Trinidad, the party town!

Attractions:

  • Downtown: you can discover its center very conveniently in 1.5 hours. Well-maintained / renovated buildings, churches, cafes, restaurants and galleries color the streets.
  • Playa de la Boca: we rented a bicycle from our host with the Italian girl I shared my room with. The biking itself is an experience there, the beach is clean and quiet. It’s not the nicest I’ve ever seen, but it’s a nice half day program. If you only have only one day, to visit the beach, select the other playa.
  • Playa Ancón: this beach is a bit further from the town, I suggest you to get there by taxi collectivo. For me the day spent here was my favorite, I was totally amazed at the arrival. Just like the postcards that we are watching on cold winter evenings. I liked it more than Varadero.

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  • Salto de Javira: waterfall in the nearby national park. The attraction can be accessed with a horseback ride (it may be otherwise accessible), which everyone really liked with whom I talked about it. Unfortunately, I did not get it because the girl whom I discussed earlier to go with did show up and I did not wanted go alone. (And I was a bit hangover so beaching seemed a better program 🙂
  • Casa de la Trova: live music, cocktails, salsa. What else would you need? 15272130963957

Cienfuegos

The city of Cienfuegos was founded by the French, perhaps because of this, but its mood differed greatly from the rest of the towns I visited. There was something majestic and prominent in this city. My biggest regret is that I spent most of my time in bed because of an illness. But I got some energy to have a short walk in the center of the city.

Attractions:

  • José Martí Square
  • Provincial Museum
  • Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion
  • El Nicho Waterfall

Viñales – “The rum is the vitamin of Cubans” (a farmer in Viñales)

A small village hiding in the valley of yellow-reddish-colored mountains in the western part of the country. Cuba’s most famous tobacco producing area. It is a popular tourist destination, but I felt much less crowded than Trinidad. The locals are endlessly friendly, smiling and helpful. As a very pleasant memory, I keep my visit to Viñales.

Attractions:

  • The main square and church of the village. If you want to meet someone else, just sit in the square, the person will appear soon. Especially during the weekends, when the square becomes a huge outdoor fiesta, where the whole village attends regardless of their age.
  • Tobacco Plantation Visit: While I’m basically campaigning against the “use” of animals for tourism and other people’s fun activities (dolphin and seal shows,  animal shows in rides, etc.), I chose for this the horse-riding tour and recommend it as well. Firstly I made sure that the travel agency that I selected is working with horse-owners are care the animals and keep them in good conditions. Do not worry, you do not have to be a skilled rider, it’s an easy route, the paths are not downhill or crossing rivers. The horses knows the route very well. During the tour, we rode between tobacco plantations, then visited a local farmer who told how to plant and cleanse, then tie tobacco to drying – all by hand – and that the state takes away 90% of the tobacco and give them the factories to make the famous Cuban cigars that can be bought in the stores. In return, from the rest of the tobacco, can be used by the farmers to prepare hand-made cigars with traditional methods, which they can sell to tourists and keep the revenue.
  • Mural de la Prehistoria – I did not get this sight to be honest. It is a painting on the cliffs of a mountain which suppose to show the origin of life. In my opinion it not just ugly but does not fit to the atmosphere to the area neither.

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  • Palenque de los cimarrones – according to the story, the cave was a place where African slaves used to hide. I did not see exhibition which represents their lives, but I attended on the Saturday night live concert followed by a party and I really enjoyed it.

Havana

The capital was the last stop of my month’s tour. Prices, as I expected were higher than in the countryside, so my accommodation was not in the old town, a but within a 10 minute walk, in a central location between the old and the new part of town. Such as always, I chose the walking city tour in Havana too. So I had a chance to look behind the “scenes”. Walk along the streets where tourist buses do not go and where not lobsters and cocktails are served for dinner. Havana’s atmosphere was truly unique, and for three days I was walking from morning to night in the streets totally captivated. I could write a never-ending list of sights, instead I would like to show you my favorite pictures. Havana with my eyes:

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And to the question of how I liked Cuba, I always say that I have mixed feelings about the country and the things I have seen. It was a unique experience and I’m really glad to have experienced it.

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