Travels to the Oriente
Trip Start Sep 25, 2007
50Trip End Jul 25, 2008
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So about 5 weeks into my time Cuba, I started my travels around the Eastern part of the island, and was joined by Adrien, the French dude we made friends with in Vinales. I had just been suffering from a bad stomach so after a diet of coke and white rice, we set off by coach.
Camaguey was our first stop, about 6 hrs from Havana. We arrived at night and wondered the quite and quaint streets for a Casa Particular. The place really reminded me of San Cristobal in Mexico, as the streets are narrow and windy, and the colonial houses are painted different colours.
It felt really refreshing being somewhere peaceful after Havana
Walking the streets of Camaguey was confusing...The roads are shaped like a labrynth, complete with sharp bends and curves. Anyway, I decided not to hold the map, and was quite content to just follow. This is how we spent our day there...just wondering around. By night, we went to the Casa de la Trova (a venue where live bands play traditional music) to dance and sip mojitos. Scattered about the place, we could see some graying foreign men with young pretty Cuban girls eagerly drinking their rum
Tourist Resorts in Cuba
We decided to venture to the coast for a day, and ended up going to Playa Santa Lucia, a stereotypical Cuban tourist resort. We flagged a private car to take us to Nuevitas, and our driver was stopped and fined on the motorway. Our fare more than compensated for the fine, and since its not really extortionate, both the drivers and the state can benefit from this kind of activity. Dragging my huge suitcase along with me (I really should have brought a backpack), we caught a local buss to a crossroad where we then flagged down a big truck to take us to Santa Lucia. After a bumpy, windy ride, we got to the resort...I wasn't too impressed with the clouds, rain and complete isolation. The streets were empty, and there was nothing Cuban about the place. Around the corner we saw the big, decaying blocks of flats where the hotel and resort workers lived. I guess seeing this really made me appreciate the fact that I was living and traveling in the real Cuba most of the time. Cubans aren't allowed to visit tourist resorts such as Varadero, Santa Lucia, Guadalavaca and more. Supposedly it's to do with preventing Cuban thiefs and prostitutes hassling the tourists, and to control information flows etc. I guess I can see how having so many hustlers trying to sell things to tourists may really put them off coming here in the first place
That day, we checked into Hotel Escuela, a hotel-training-school for students of tourism, where I was bed bound for the whole day after suffering a bad stomach. After more rice and coke, watching TV, long political conversations with Adrien and listening to a few of his monologues, I woke up much better...and ended up scuba diving before we set back off to Camaguey.
Scuba diving was excellent...and incredibly cheap. As I hadn't been for about 6 yrs, the instructor held my hand. We dived to about 35m and entered a cave at first...we saw a small barracuda and a moray eel...and the water was quite warm...and nothing went wrong either!
Nice people back in Camaguey
That day we caught the guagua (Cuban term for a bus) back to Camaguey, where we played chess in the local club and danced salsa in the Casa de la Trova (where we saw Alberto Alvarez, a famous Cuban musician amongst the audience) before catching the night bus to Santiago. They have a chess club in every city and town, and every time I have passed one, there are at least several games going on
Salsa en Santiago
I arrived to Santiago, the second city of Cuba in the far South of the Oriente. Its streets are so vibrant, and the place is hilly so they incline steeply at points giving you such great views of the Sierra Maestra mountains. It has been raining here consistently for the last 20 days, and now that it has stopped, there is a real atmosphere of a town that has just re-awoken.
Immediately I fell in love with the city, and I knew I would stay there for several days at least
We stayed in a Casa with another really lovely woman, and wow, did she love to talk! The next couple of days we adopted the routine of sight seeing by day, having a salsa class with Jorge (our salsa teacher and friend), practicing our new found moves in a Salsa club...and eating bread with mayonnaise (kebab replacement food) before crashing. I was quite impressed by our progress, as by the end of it, we could put in about 6 plus different moves into our sequence. It's always more difficult when you are dancing as two beginners...without the support of a professional or advanced salsa partner to dance with. Anyhow, I still have a long way to go before I am as good as the Cuban dancers here...
Youths like to party
One night we hung out with Jorge and his friends...and it was a surprisingly normal experience, reminding me of a night out back home. We went to a house party where they played all music from techno to R&B in the backyard (but strangely no one was drinking), after which we were wondering the streets for some other club to go to (and failed miserably...as you do in London too)
It is strange though that the youths don't have that many places to go out in Cuba's second largest city. You can see them in hordes wondering the streets as most of the clubs here charge in CUC, completely out of the normal Cuban budget.
Other sights in Santiago
The sunset at El Morro (the fort) was stunning. Perched on a hill over looking the Caribbean Sea on one side, and the bay of Santiago on the other, the views were incredible.
We also went to the Museum of Religion, but as it was under restoration we ended up having a conversation with a fortune-teller about the Yoruba religion (carried over to Cuba by the African slaves). Its still widely practiced here, and the Orishas (Yoruba gods) are represented in a wide variety of Cuban music and art
After Adrien left Santiago, I decided to stay a couple more days, and Ondina took it upon herself to take me to visit some of her family members. How sweet! I also met Deniz and Hana, a couple from Harvard who I spent my last day in the city with, climbing La Gran Piedra. It is meant to have an incredible view, that at times allows you to see Haiti and Jamaica. Unfortunately we saw nothing but clouds. After a final Salsa session at the Casa de la Trova, I continued my journey to Baracoa in the Guantanamo region.
La belleza de Guantanamo
I took the 5 hour bus to Baracoa, on the far eastern tip of Cuba. The descent through the mountains was incredible to see...with the views of the coast, sea and leafy vegetation. From what I saw, most of Guantanamo is like this...really lush. My time in Baracoa was split between lazing on Maguana beach, a pretty crescent shaped white sand beach with plenty of natural shade, and hanging out by the Casa de La Trova with some Spanish and Italian travelers. I must have had about 6 cups of coffee one day, at it was the best I have ever tasted..... seriously! Really dark and has an earthy taste.
Corruption of the Bureaucracy
After wondering the town and doing the usual sight seeing, I met a tourist guide who I started talking to about farming here
He then went on to talk resentfully of the CDR, who supposedly benefit from their positions. They apparently always hold back a little of what they distribute, and generally look plumper than other Cubans. All the way up the bureaucracy, he said, the state hold back money, earn higher salaries etc. When I asked why after serving their terms nobody says anything, he explained that after their positions they are secured with good jobs (as managers or chiefs) and recurring rewards so that they can live indefinitely better in the future.
Tourisim in Trinidad
So after 15 hrs in a freezing bus, I arrived in Trinidad
This is definitely the most touristic city I have been to yet. I hadn´t seen such a concentration of travellers in Cuba before, and it was clear that the town had changed because of it. There were a lot of old and young people shamelessly begging for things on the street (some who were even dressed quite well), and the youths generally looked qutie materialistic - supporting Adidas trousers, designer labels and sunglasses that they had received from tourists (perhaps in exchange for something of theirs).
Walking down the streets, there was the usual "where you from?.....friend, do you have something for me from your country?". Sometimes you would just enter a normal conversation with someone, and 3-4 minutes into it, they would ask you for something. Having said that, only a minority of people in Trinidad are like this, but it was all really exposed.
The morning I arrived, I ended up going to Playa Ancon with a Swiss couple (Phillip and Sarah) who are renting a car for a month. My first experience on a Carribbean beach was really something. The water was crystal clear, and as calm as a lake. After spending the day relaxing on the beach and snorkelling, we drove along the coast to catch the sunset. The place we stopped at was rocky with a lot of coral, and Phillip decided on a pre-dusk swim. As he was changing, he dropped his car keys into the water....and we completely freaked out! Luckily he managed to find them again before it got dark, so we were OK. In the evening we sat by las escaleras (the steps) outside the church, where everyone gathers to dance and listen to live salsa music...before moving on to a club deep inside a cave on the mountainside. This was really impressive as you had to go down a couple of flights of stairs until you were quite underground. The DJ box was perched high above the dance floor, almost hitting the roof of the cave.