My collectivo journey from Vinales to Trinidad was not a smooth run. The entire journey usually takes from 7 to 9 hours to drive. Unfortunately in my case, after 2 hours from leaving Vinales the taxi broke down. Oil was leaking and so the driver parked, got out his tool box and deftly began fixing the vehicle himself. This was how I learned all taxi drivers in Cuba are also trained mechanics! After half an hour or so of us passengers lurking around the roadside (thank goodness I had water to drink), it was fixed and we resumed our journey. After another hour an a half, and without warning, the taxi pulled into the grounds of a tourist resort. There I was beckoned to leave the vehicle and some fellow passengers as it was going on to Havana, not Trinidad. I joined a group of tourists I saw standing beside a parked vehicle in the car park that I guessed was another taxi, and waited another half hour or so in the blistering midday heat. During this time I realised I needed the toilet, so I entered the restaurant, found the facilities and gave a very desperate looking Cuban lady a whole 1CUC. Finally we embarked on another bumpy, hot, taxi journey, stopping off en-route in Cienfregos.
Once the taxi entered the colourful city of Trinidad, our driver started dropping passengers off. As the taxi drew into road that was the most crumbling, dusty and dilapidated I had seen of yet, with residents sitting outside their houses or on the crumbling curb, it dawned on me with dread this was the road where my casa was located. I was immediately regretting my choice of booking. However, once inside my casa it was quite nice (not crumbling on the inside, at least). As I had come to predict, my hosts did not speak English. They were very welcoming and humble, “thank you for staying with us!”, they kept saying. I was disappointed that my room did not have a window; this was not mentioned in the description I had read on homestay.com. It felt slightly like a cell. Upon arrival, my hosts greeted me with a freshly blended papaya smoothie and a small plate of sugary cakes which I ate whilst registering my passport in their book.
On my first day in Trinidad I was not sure what to do, but after consulting my trusted guidebook I walked to the historical center, Plaza Mayor where I stumbled across some tourists I had shared a collectivo with; Nina, Martin and Susan. They kindly welcomed me to join them on a walk around the plaza to take photographs. Afterwards we ate at La Taberna la Botija, which was very good, a restaurant that sold cheap but very decent food including American style burgers with plantain chips and french fries as well as held nightly live music. I ordered a tuna sandwich with plantain chips (this was not like a British sandwich). I was so impressed with the food and the building, I went there another two times. After eating, the group were wondering what do to next as most museums were closed. I suggested we walk to the looking point in the hills to which everyone agreed was a good idea. The walk was uphill, on the way we passed a popular an intriguing tourist nightclub inside a cave, “Disco Ayala”. Once we reached the top, there was a building surrounded by a fence. A Cuban was waiting for our arrival to act as a guide and earn some CUCs. We stood on the roof of the building while he gave information about the area, and then offered us each a Mohito (at $2.50 each). The Mohitos were served in plastic cups but there were tiny bugs crawling around the mint leaves. Not as fussed as the other ladies, who started filtering the bugs out, I drank mine anyway.
The following day I was planning to visit the beach with a Spanish friend I had made at the airport, who was due to arrive in Trinidad the next morning.
Before my friend arrived, I headed to the Paradiso tourist office to see if I could book a tour into the mountains. I chose a jeep tour into the Topes de Collantes National Park for a reasonable $29.00.
Once my friend arrived (late, as her taxi driver had got lost), we inspected the bikes that my host had sourced for us (renting bikes is forbidden in Cuba). Both were antiques and neither had proper brakes. Both of us were a little hesitant to use the bikes, nether the less we gave it a good go. We got so far out of Trinidad when my friend decided it was too risky. I agreed. I felt bad for my host as he had borrowed the bikes and was doing his best, but we felt our safety was more important. We returned the bikes and asked a passing tourist who was cycling where he rented from. “Somewhere near the square”, he responded, not very helpfully for us!? We searched and searched, was almost going to give up under the pressure of time passing, but luckily we chanced upon the bike rental store and managed to rent more modern looking bikes with brakes.
The cycle ride was tough, as it involved a few undulating hills. The weather was really hot though and once we reached the coast, the views of the sea and beaches was stunning. I spotted a big group of Cubans basking in the sea next to rocks.
Once we reached Playa Ancon, we locked our bikes (handing over a few CUCs to an awaiting bike guardsman) and made our home on the beach under an umbrella. The beach was busy so we shared an umbrella with a little girl who resented our presence, complaining to her mother about us. But we remained as there were no other free umbrellas.
A few hours later, we left the beach when we spotted a huge black cloud looming above us, hoping to escape the rain. Too late, as we got going on our cycle ride, the skies opened and heavy tropical rain poured down on us. Part of the way back, a local Cuban women cycled up next to us, chatting about her fishing and waving around a plastic bag with her catch of the day in it.
We cycled as fast as possible, my friend being a better cyclist than myself zoomed ahead. By the time we returned to the rental shop, my legs felt utterly gone. We then rushed back to our casa and showered, and got ready to meet some Spanish friends at La Taverna Botija. Once there, a massive queue was waiting outside. We were hungry but waited 45 minutes! Inside, a live jazz band played while we tucked into our meals.
Topes de Collantes Tour
The next day was booked my tour in the mountains. As the jeep climbed the mountains, it was a little cooler and this was refreshing. We had coffee at a little coffee house and then began walking through the forest, where we passed a little cave and then on to the descent to the waterfall. The climb down was via zigzagging, narrow uneven and sometimes slippery path, in my mind it took a long time. Once at the bottom we took photos of the waterfall and changed into our bathing wear, to go swimming in the waterfall and pool. The pool was very deep and murky and cold, however I enjoyed it. On the way up, I was chatting to a Dutchman about Genesis the pop band…of all topics. After we returned to the jeep, we had lunch at a restaurant somewhere in the mountains. A really nice meal was put on, nicer than a lot of the food I had eaten in Cuba. I was the only British tourist in the group. Given I was there July 2016, the main topic of conversation was Brexit. I was impressed how informed everyone was on the details. I recall one lady saying, “now is a good time to visit London…”Hmmmm.
In the evening I returned to my favorite eating place, La Taberna Bojita. Once again I was met by a queue. On this occasion a German family invited me to sit with them and that was lovely. Afterwards they joined me to watch the salsa dancing at La Casa de la Music and drink some Mohitos. We also discussed the differences between German healthcare and the NHS.
Back to Havana
This is the part of my trip I regret. I had booked another 4 nights in Havana before my flight home. The taxi ride to Havana I had shared with a Chinese solo traveler William (who was on his final few days of his holiday) and a couple from Australia. The couple were serious travellers who came with a lot of luggage. They were intending to travel for months or years around the globe, their next destination was Mexico. In the taxi they were reading some non fiction books on the history of Cuba.
This time my casa was a different area of Havana Centro, in Animas. My casa was a whole apartment at the top of an apartment block, located right next to a popular tourist attraction called Callejon de Hamel, an alley that is painted with bright Afro Cuban murals. My host did not live in the apartment so I was provided a phone and I could call her (or her English speaking sister) for assistance. Breakfast was delivered on a tray each morning by the host’s friend George or his son, who lived in an apartment in the same building.
That evening, as luck would have it, I spotted William outside Hotel Ingleterra and we had dinner together at a cheap but good restaurant next to La Floridita. Afterwards I was invited to his casa as I hoped to book his casa host (who was also a taxi driver) to take me to the airport. We shared a mohito on the balcony and chatted the evening away.
Whilst walking from my casa to the central Havana, I was accosted by a man who shouted “English?”, in a Canadian accent. This man was Bob and after talking to him on the street for an hour, learned he’s from Vancouver originally, retired 12 years ago from working as a founder and CEO of a building firm, and had lived in Cuba for the whole length of his retirement citing easier access to other islands as a benefit. He held some interesting views on Brexit, such as that he viewed it as a positive thing for the UK given the £ has weakened against the Euro, that the EU wants to be bigger than the US so that it no longer needs the US, and disagrees with wealthy countries like the UK subsidizing poor economies such as Greece. (Disclaimer: I do not agree with any of his views nor fact checked any of them).
On my last day in Cuba, I met a German girl I had made friends with called Laura for dinner. What was meant to be a pleasant way to end my holiday turned into a bit of a nightmare! As we were dining I could see dark clouds forming as I looked out of the window. Not only that, it was getting dark. As a precaution I didn’t want to walk back to my casa in the dark. When we left the restaurant, the clouds opened and the heaviest torrential rain poured down on us. Everyone scattered for cover. Laura and myself took cover under the roof of a large hotel. I was keen to get back as I had packing to complete and my taxi was booked for 3.30am. Many taxi drivers hassled us to have them drive us but each time they quoted $10 each. I was stubbornly refusing. Eventually we took a rickshaw which was absolutely mad, the poor driver had to cycle through deep puddles, heavy rain and wind. The canvas that covered our heads fluttered madly in the wind. We were under the understanding we were being charged $10 for both of us. Laura’s casa was much closer and on the way. Except after Laura had been dropped off, the driver wanted $10 each. Eventually he took me to my road and I paid $8, he complained but this was all I had and ran into my accommodation as quick as possible.
Arriving at the airport the following morning, I was a mixture of feelings. I am sad to say I was looking forward to out of Cuba mainly to be free of the constant harassment. I was looking forward to feeling free and anonymous. My adventure was still not over though, because my neighbor on the plane to Canada and I shared a really interesting conversation, on income inequality. My neighbor was an Indian Canadian businessman who had been to Cuba seeking new business opportunity. And came away empty handed. His view was that Cubans are generally not innovative, they are not inspired to stay in Cuba and help enhance what it has to offer. They just want to find a way to leave. When our conversation alluded to world politics, even though my neighbor was very wealthy, he felt inequality has gone too far and a re balancing is way overdue.
Should you go to Cuba?
Without hesitation, yes. My holiday regardless of all the anxiety and awkward experiences I had, it’s one of the best holidays I have ever had. I learned so much about myself. Cuba is unique and special. It is slowly politically and economically changing, at some point soon the place will lose it’s charm. If you can, go.