Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sancti Spiritus, Camagüey and Bayamo

Sancti Spirito

Lots of people spend a good couple of days in Trinidad but not us, we wanted to get away from all the locals after two days. We felt we'd done all there was to do except go to the beach, which involved negotiating with taxis and neither of us was keen on that. So Jan-Pieter and I decided to ditch one of our nights in Trinidad and check out the nearby city of Sancti Spiritus instead.

This was the only place that wasn't on our itinerary and we didn't have a casa particular booked. Since this is not a touristy town (everyone just goes to Trinidad), no welcoming committee of touts were waiting at the bus stop. This was annoying cos it's the one place we would have actually liked people to show us pictures of their casas and argue with each other to get our business. So we start walking into town (which is pretty far from the bus station) thinking we'd find something on the way. 

There are some weird local buses here. They look like Soviet built train cars, but on the road.

Locals also get ferried about in cattle trucks. We never worked out where any of these go, so I'm guessing tourists aren't allowed on them. But they are always full and would be really unsafe if they roll.

Anyway, the first place we found closest to the bus station was 20CUC. We tried getting it for 15CUC but the guy wasn't budging despite the fact we were the only people who got off the one tourist bus stopping at Sancti Spiritus that the day. So we continued into the city centre. At one point walking around with the backpacks became a bit hard, so I minded the bags and Jan-Pieter went off to do the searching and negotiating. Since he brought FOUR Cuban guide books with him (hmm... excessive much?) I was confident he would be able to find something. After about 30 mins he comes back and he'd got us a room for 15CUC including breakfast. None of the Magnolia network casas included breakfast, so this was a bonus.

This is the view from our room overlooking the plaza.

We were really surprised that hardly any tourists come here cos it's nice. 


They also have one of Cuba's oldest bridges. You could mistake this photo for being taken in England if it wasn't for the blue sky!

The residential area around it has been restored and is really nice.

Since Sancti Spiritus is not full of annoying people it is my favourite place. That said, one woman in the street tried hitting me straight up for $20. This is stupid since US dollars get slugged a 10% tax on conversion. She should have asked me for Canadian dollars or euros!. Not that I would have given her any but still. She would theoretically have been better off.

As an added bonus, all the restaurants in the city centre are peso restaurants. After checking out the main tourist sites we had some time to kill so we found a place that sold peso beers (about 40c).

This local beer was ok.

It also had the gayest poster I've seen in a very long time.

Since there is an abundance of peso restaurants here and I'd had three beers I thought it was time to try the government issued spaghetti napolitana. We found a place with a so-called Italian theme about 2mins walk from our casa. Of course the standard issue meal comes with cheese so I had to ask for that to be left off. It still came out with cheese. The second time they got it right.

The pasta was about 10 minutes past 'al dente'.

Clearly there was no little old Italian lady out the back lovingly making her family's secret sauce from a recipe that's been handed down through the generations. The sauce comes in big 2L cans you can buy in the tourist supermarkets. I looked at the ingredients to check they were vegan. Apparently they contain spices but you wouldn't know it. But hey, for about 40c you can't expect to much. My overall impression was it tasted like the canned spaghetti kids eat. Actually kids would probably like Cuba since there's not usually a vegetable or spice in sight when you eat out.

We also went to another local restaurant later on (which looked like a tourist restaurant cos it was a bit fancy) but they wouldn't let Jan-Pieter in cos he was wearing shorts. Hello. Have they been outside recently? It was at least 35C every day while we were there. I was also wearing shorts but since Latin America is sexist they didn't say anything to me.


Our next stop was the city of Camaguey. This was one of the scariest casas we stayed in, since the owner was REALLY into stuffed toys. They were all over the house. Annoyingly she was always around which made it difficult to take any photos.

It was Jan-Pieter's turn in the small bed. Single beds and 195cm Dutch men don't really go.

After safely navigating our way through the house and not knocking over any knicknacks we went exploring. Unlike the other cities with grid layouts this place is a maze. To make matters even more complicated, they've renamed half the streets so even if you think you know where you are, you might not. 

More Che. They love him.

This cracked me up. Possible trademark infringement?

A wall mural painted by a local famous artist, Joel Jover. There is also a gallery you can visit and buy stuff from.

One of the things Jan-Pieter really wanted to do here was go to Cafe Cubanitas since Lonely Planet says it has good coffee. The café looked nice and wasn’t too expensive for a tourist place. The menu was actually quite extensive and it does a specialty coffee with egg whites, which he wanted to try. While we were sitting outside three beggars came up to us. One old woman just wouldn’t leave. She just hovered around so she could watch and see if we gave someone else money. You could tell she'd then be all over us like flies on shit til we gave her something as well. Anyway, being constantly approached while you’re trying to sit there and relax was not relaxing so we left as soon as Jan-Pieter's meringue coffee was done.

Then of course every fucking biki taxi in Cameguey called out to us. So annoying!

After the not relaxing cafe experience we went looking for the market but we were too late and it was finished for the day. So we stopped in at a local bar instead and had some beers. 

The best beer in Cuba by far this is one.

I'm putting Mayabe in the 'plus' column for Cuba since it always costs 18 pesos (about 70c) in local supermarkets and most bars (sometimes bars put it up to 20 pesos or 80c). 

Then I needed the loo before we left. The bar guy pointed out the back so I went in search. The so-called toilet was just a wall to piss against with a drain. Um, what did he expect me to do? Seriously, there was no toilet. Obviously no women come here. I did ask the waitress if there was a women’s toilet but she said no (which made me wonder where she went). Also Jan-Pieter told me that as I was walking back to our table some guy was walking towards me and 'the wall' with his pants already half down. So glad I didn't notice that!

Then we went back to the meringue coffee place (since Jan-Pieter drinks about 20 cups of coffee a day) and I used the bathroom there. However, this door did not lock and the actual toilet was too far away to put your hand or foot up against the door. I just hoped that no one would open it exposing me to the table of guys directly in line with the door.

Since I'm on a roll with toilet stories now, I might as well keep going. 

I had to use the toilets at the bus station in Sancti Spiritus. The cubicle walls were a clear Perspex kind of material that had a layer of crappy wood panelling or something to offer privacy. However, half the panelling had been ripped away (why?) so I had a pretty clear view of both stalls on either side. Yes, you could see other women if you didn't look straight ahead. Some small girl was in one stall with her mother and just stood there staring at me while I took a piss. Although I guess it would have been more awkward if it was her mother staring at me. Then there was no toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or water to flush, or water in the sink, or soap, but of course I still had to pay.

Cuba has the most consistently shit (pun intended) toilets I've seen in any country (although Hong Kong still wins for the grossest toilet I've ever encountered). They are all generally disgusting, even the ones in restaurants (which is a bit scary since these people are preparing your food). Most of them don't lock, they stink like piss (since they never seem to have water for flushing), at least half of them don't have toilet seats, and there is never any toilet paper. This is a pretty accurate photo of what most of them look like. And it's not just me being petty, someone else has blogged their Cuban toilet experiences here.

Ok, so back to the cafe. No one opened the door on me, so that was good. But while we were there, some guy came around handing out cards for a restaurant down the road. I asked him if they had beans and rice (since the market was closed) and if the restaurant was pesos. It did and it was. But when we went there the menu was all in CUC. Cubans do this all the time. You ask if it’s pesos and they say yes to get you in, but then give you a menu in CUC. They're such liars!

I guess they think that once you’re there you’ll stay. Not us though. I told the waiter it was too expensive (which it was) and left. Then I had a go at the guy outside who led us there for lying about the prices. We walked off heading back to the casa thinking we'd find a peso restaurant on the way. Old mate comes back up to us apologetic (a first in Latin America) and told us about another place called Solar nearby that was definitely in pesos. We had nothing to lose and it was on the way so went and had a look.

Solar is actually not a bad choice of you're vegetarian or vegan. To get there, go to Parque Ignacio Agramonte and head down Independencia towards the Rio Hatibonico (away from Marti) and it will be on your left hand side. We had dinner there and it was pretty good. I had two plates of mixed salad since they aren’t big. The salad also didn't come pre-soaked in vinegar (I don't know why Cubans think this is a good idea). However, no one must order two salads cos the owner was really confused that I wanted more. The salads included lettuce, green beans, cucumber, radish and avocado. I also got a bowl of black beans. This was for a grand total of 30 pesos ($1.20) compared to like 7CUC for exactly the same thing at the other place. The next day we went back for lunch and the salad included all of the above plus mango. Yum! We also found out why the veggie food is good and the owner had a good understanding of vegetarianism. His wife’s one. Like Bill Clinton, she had some major heart problems, saw the light, and now follows a plant based diet. The owner also speaks some English if your Spanish isn’t up to scratch.

The next day we walked around some more. The church where the cool silver coffin is located was open, so we got to see that.

I like this street art, even though the bronze was so hot it was burning my arse and legs.

Ooh, it's so cold, better warm my hands over this pot of stew cooking in the street! Don't ask...

There are a few places around the city where they have carved faces into the brick work of old buildings. It's pretty cool. We went past some awesome ones on the biki taxi from the bus station to the casa, but despite our best efforts we could not locate them by walking around.

In the afternoon, Jan-Pieter once again felt the need to satisfy his newly developed meringue coffee addiction. We thought we'd be smart and sit inside to avoid beggars. This did not stop them and they just came inside and up to us.

Camaguey was definitely the most annoying city we went to (although Havana is also really annoying). Jan-Pieter hated it more than me and wanted to escape earlier than we'd planned. Even though we'd paid for the night, we decided to cut our losses and try and get a bus to Bayamo, which would give us a full rather than half day there.


Lonely Planet said there was a bus at 18.55 so we phoned our next casa particular to see if we could arrive a night earlier. Then we negotiated with a biki taxi to take us to the bus station. We get there and try to buy tickets but that bus is not going. The guy told us the first one would arrive at 00.35 which would mean waiting seven hours in the bus station. We decided to see what the taxi drivers had to say since they are always lurking around bus stations trying to convince you to take a car to your next destination instead of the bus. I wished Jan-Pieter luck and off he went outside to see what he could get while I minded the bags. He comes back five minutes later and says there’s a local bus leaving now for 15CUC each (so 4CUC more than the tourist bus). This is a rip off considering locals pay 38 pesos (about a $1.50) but then it's also not that much for us since we have to pay 11CUC for the tourist bus and it would save seven hours waiting in a bus station.

Basically the bus was leaving right then so there was no time for thinking about it and we decided to go. However, we weren't allowed to board the bus at the bus station cos it’s illegal for tourists to ride the local intercity buses. So, the guys doing the dodgy deal make us run out of the bus station and down some side street where they stopped the bus. The bus ticket dude gets off and we give them 30CUC and get ushered on. Then the driver tells us not to speak cos he isn’t meant to know we are foreigners. Apparently if the bus gets pulled over, the bus drivers get massive fines for taking tourists (nothing would happen to us). It's such a strange country.

Also Jan-Pieter did a stand up job on the negotiation getting the fare down from a starting price of 100CUC to 50, 40 and then 30 (for two people). At the start of the negotiation the guy is like "but you can pay 100CUC and go now or you have to wait for seven hours in the bus station". Jan-Pieter was like "dude, we have seven hours, we don’t 100CUC". It took a while for the guy to understand this since he has clearly gone through the government's brainwashing program and thinks all tourists are rich.

The good bit was this bus was express and got us in 1.5 hours earlier than the tourist bus (since it likes to make 30 minute stops at expensive tourist restaurants and goes 100km to another city out of the way). We were also outrunning a storm the entire journey which made for some fantastic lightning shows. Ironically, this 'illegal' bus was the best one we took since it was on time and didn’t make any annoying, unnecessary stops. The bad bit was, it smelt like piss the whole time even though there was no toilet onboard. Hmm...

We also went through some rain and the emergency escape in the roof leaked on the head of the woman across the aisle. Bus guy’s solution was to open up an umbrella and get her to hold it over her head. As you would expect, opening an umbrella inside a bus does not work that well since seats, the bag rack and other passengers heads get in the way. She was as dumbfounded as we were by his half-arsed solution.

Like getting on the bus, we had to disembark before getting to the bus station. But this actually worked in our favour since none of the taxi drivers saw us and we could escape to our casa hassle free.

In the morning we went for a walk.

This tower is all that remains of Bayamo's oldest church, which was destroyed by fire.

The main square is really nice. Lots of trees make it a cool (as in temperature) place to sit and relax. 

It also has this bust of Perucho Figueredo, who I think wrote the Cuban national anthem, which is inscribed here.

This is the birthplace of Cespedes, who proclaimed Cuba's independence in 1868.

I don't know what this is. It looks like a giant's grave with goats sleeping on it.

Then we heard some music in a park and thought there was a Sunday market going on. It wasn't a market. Turns out half the town likes to go down to the park for some kind of Sunday sesh that involves eating ham sandwiches and getting pissed on very cheap booze before drunk cycling home again.

We left them to it and walked up to the arty main street.

That's when I saw this!

You can't imagine my excitement at finding an actual vegetarian restaurant in Cuba.

It was pretty short lived.

First we thought it was closed since the door was locked and the curtains drawn. But no it was actually open, they just keep the door locked. I'll assume it's because they don't want to encourage healthy eating. Anyway, we go in and it all looks ok except that the tables are laid so that both people are expected to sit beside each other facing the front. Like school. We ignored that and sat opposite each other like normal people eating together in a restaurant do.

Then the waitress brings over the menu, which is bound in leather (not ideal in a vegetarian restaurant). After perusing the menu for a second we notice some of the dishes contain chicken, bacon or pork. 

My first response was they must be fake meats, but then I think, wait a minute, this is Cuba, there’s no fake meat here. So I ask the waitress if those dishes contain animals and she confirms it. Um, ok. This vegetarian restaurant is turning out not to be overly vegetarian friendly. But the rest of the menu looks harmless enough. Jan-Pieter and I order some soup each and a main and a cucumber salad. The salad arrives first and it is the standard Cuban cucumber salad which is sliced cucumber soaked in vinegar. Next up the soup arrives. Normally I never order soup in Latin American countries cos I think that 99% of the time it will be made with meat stock. I made this mistake at the start of my trip. I was told the soup was vegetarian but when it arrived you could see the bits of meat. They claim it's vegetarian if they pick out the actual chunks of meat and give you whatever's left. Um. No. In vegetarian restaurants I give soup the green light unless it contains dairy. So I ordered a vegetable soup in a vegetarian restaurant without giving it a second thought. 

It came out with beef in it. WTF????

Thankfully I saw this before eating it. I call the waitress over and ask her if the soup is made with beef and she says yes. Then, for the first time EVER, I had to tell a waitress in a vegetarian restaurant that I am vegetarian and this means I don’t eat meat. She looked so confused I decided not to bring up veganism. I'd just work out what dishes were vegan myself.

After sending my soup away (which I wasn’t charged for) the mains came out. I had rice and veggies. Again, nothing earth shattering and kinda bland. I asked for some pepper but they didn't have any. Jan-Pieter ordered scrambled eggs with veggies and said it was ok. I also ordered some fried platanos, which were ok. He also got the chicken cos he could.

After we ordered dessert because we were intrigued by the menu. Jan's was a chocolate pudding that looked like one of those Nestle chocolate puddings you buy in a four-pack in the supermarket, but emptied onto a plate. I ordered the marmalado de fruitas thinking, surely they don’t just bring you a plate of marmalade? Well guess what? They do. We had been to the bakery on the way so I had some bread and just made sandwiches for later.

All up it was a very disappointing experience and was the worst vegetarian restaurant I've ever been to on the following grounds:

A) It serves meat.
B) The staff clearly don’t understand what vegetarian means. 

On the plus side, our entire meal for two people cost 35 pesos ($1.40). It was also the most amount of vegetables I’ve seen on a menu anywhere in Cuba. If you’re a vegetarian who eats eggs then this restaurant is not a terrible choice. Just stay away from the soups and anything that lists pollo, bacon or cerdo in the ingredients.

After lunch we found the Beatles and I annoyed them.

I don't know why there are Beatles statues in Bayamo, but it was cool. I'm glad Jan-Pieter found them since they are not listed in Lonely Planet. (Maybe he read about them in one of his other guide books!)

I'll end with another uplifting billboard message, which basically translates as homeland or death. We will overcome (or conquer, or defeat, or win).

Doesn't really make sense if you ask me but it sounds like fighting words, which Castro seems fond of.

Next stop: Baracoa.