Monday, November 25, 2013

Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad


Jan-Pieter and I decided the first place we would go outside of Havana is Vinales. We worked out when the tourist bus goes and left early in the morning with our Korean friend to get a taxi to the bus station. Now normally when you are walking around in Cuba you hear "taxi amigos" about every 10 seconds. Except, it turns out, when you actually want one. We stood on the main road trying to hail a taxi for 20 minutes. Outrageous. We fucked up the bus time so we ended up having an extra half hour, but the other girl basically had to push to the front of the line though to buy her ticket and board her bus in time.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Vinales. At the bus stops where the tourists arrive are a massive amount of touts standing around with signs trying to get you to stay in their casa particulars. 
Casa particulars are people's houses where rooms can be rented out to tourists. Basically Cuba invented Airb&b but without the internet. They all have this sign out the front. 

If you've booked a casa already then someone will be holding up your name or some version of it, like 'Ana and Yam'.

If you haven't booked something you could walk around and look for the signs and knock on doors (if you can make it past all the touts since this a common scene in every city). However, since we stayed at Hostel Hamel in Havana we were hooked into the Magnolia network of casa particulars. We told Magnolia where we were going and she rang all her friends and booked our accommodation at a flat rate of 15CUC per room. Since all prices in Cuba are per room, it makes sense to find a travel buddy. Pretty much every place we stayed had a double bed and a single bed. If you wanted to save even more money, then three would be ideal number as long as two people don't mind getting cosy.

In the afternoon we went for a 5km (thinking it was only 2km) walk to a big hotel on top of the hill with awesome views. Then it pissed down rain and we got stuck there for about an hour.

While we were waiting for the rain to stop we checked out the hotel's tours and booked a cycling one for the next day for 20CUC. This is good value since you get the bike, entrance fees to the mural and cave 
(which are significant), lunch and a guide. You can’t do this cheaper by renting a bike yourself and going to the places so you might as well book the tour.

This is the mural. It's interesting from an art perspective but I can't get past the fact it looks like graffiti of nature.

Next up we visited a tobacco farm. Neither Jan-Pieter or myself were that keen on this part of the trip but it was included. Apparently this area is the best place in the world for tobacco. I wonder if that means it results in the most amount of cancer and smoking related diseases? Hmm... 

We learnt how tobacco is grown, dried, fermented and then rolled. Then the farmer offered us a free cigar each so we could light up and enjoy his quality product. I didn’t want one cos I hate smoking and I'm rubbish at inhaling anyway.

At first the farmer was all nice and friendly to us. Then after showing us the process he's like "so how many cigars do you want to buy?". Unless you're American I think you can legally bring about 20 Cuban cigars back into most countries without paying tax. Anyway we both said none cos we don't smoke and don't know anyone who smokes at home. Gee you should have seen him change instantly from Señ
or Friendly to Señor Really Pissed Off! It was awkward. We wanted to leave. He clearly wanted us to leave since he wasn't getting our money. And that was the end of that part of the tour.

Next up was the caves. This was pretty good cos I've never been on a boat in a cave before. 


On the way to the cave boat we stopped and watched some dudes make a pressed sugarcane and fruit drink. Then they offered some to us. This is where we made the rookie mistake of not asking the price first. Of course it turned out to be the most expensive sugarcane and fruit drink ever at 2CUC. It should have cost at least half this amount. Stupid tourists.

After lunch back at the restaurant (which was ok; salad and sweet potato chips for me) I headed off to Pinar del Rio for a look around. Jan-Pieter was not feeling well so I left him at the casa particular and went to find the colectivo taxi. After questioning the other passengers to see how much they paid I was satisfied I was not getting ripped off. 

Product advertising is illegal in Cuba so unlike everywhere else you don't see any signs or billboards here. Running a private business must be really difficult if you can't advertise anywhere. It's really stupid. BUT, what you do constantly see is the benefits of socialism and how great it is! 

I think I'd like to see these types of signs for capitalism, since let's face it, it's the only economic system that actually works in terms of wealth creation. Not that we have that anymore. The West seemed to have moved to a new system called 'socialism for banks'. So far I don't think it's working that well.

Pinar del Rio isn't really a tourist town, but there are some nice things to look at and you can pass a few hours there.

As usual people kept talking to me whether I wanted them to or not. Some guy asked me if I wanted to buy some of his unrefrigerated street sausage (like those big dog food sausages you get in the supermarket but bigger). I’m like “sorry, vegetarian” and he starts yelling at me as I walk off. Since no one understands Cuban Spanish except other Cubans, I’m not sure if it he was then offering me other meat products, or whether he was abusing me since it’s probably illegal to be vegetarian here unless you’ve got government permission.

The best thing about Pinar del Rio was the pina colada I had here. I bought one for five local pesos (20c) in a local restaurant and it was delicious and came with cinnamon on top. So far, it’s the best thing food thing I’ve had in Cuba.

Back in Vinales the food is surprisingly not terrible if you go to the street carts. I’ve had no problems buying tomatoes, avocados, capsicum, cucumber, limes, mangoes (which are massive and awesome), papaya, guava, and pineapple. As long as you have a knife, something to cut on and a bowl (which I do), you can eat really well and cheaply since it’s all in local pesos. Some of them try to rip you off but after a day or so, you know the prices so if they decide to inflate them cos you're a tourist, just move on to the next cart.

The town of Vinales is pretty boring. 
Once you've done the tour of the main attractions, it's time to move on. This sign indicates the pace at which things move around here. 

One thing that became obvious being in the country was the high level of animal slavery going on in Cuba.

Slave cows.

Slave horses.

And yes I know most people are poor and can't afford tractors and good/ any cars, but this doesn't really make animal slavery alright. I just felt sorry for the animals I saw and their shit lives. Seeing them being forced to work and the shit conditions they live in made me really sad. 


The next day we travelled to Cienfuegos. Since a shared taxi was 2CUC more than the bus and saved us a few hours, it seemed worth it. Now most cars in Latin America don't have working seatbelts in the back and people in the front rarely wear them unless they are going through a police check. However, this the first time I've seen a car where they've been physically removed from the socket! Really??? Manufacturers install them FOR YOUR SAFETY people.

This greeted us at the new casa particular. Mmm, it's lovely.

It turns out that Cubans are VERY into shiny, polyester bedspreads. This is not the only highly flammable room we encountered on our journey around the island.

Unlike the rest of Cuba's towns which have a Spanish influence, Cienfuegos is distinctively French.

Cienfuegos turned out to be my second favourite place in Cuba. Mostly cos the city centre looked nice and there were hardly any annoying people there. I also got laundry done here for about 50c, which is the cheapest I've had it done anywhere. This was an interesting experience since it was a self serve laundry. Everywhere else I've been takes your laundry, washes, dries and folds it, and you come back at an appointed time and pick it up. Here, there were already about 10 old people in the line before the laundromat even opened. Since there were about six working machines, I thought I'd come back in 45 minutes when their cycles had finished. I got back and even though some new people had come in, my place had been reserved in the line. Nice. I guess this is the old "el ultimo?" advantage of not having to be in an actual line. However, when I came back the second time I brought my laptop and plugged it into the wall so I could watch tv. That lasted about two seconds before I was told I couldn't use their electricity for free. Oh well, win some, lose some!

In terms of people annoying you (and this did happen in Cienfuegos), locals will try and sell you the three peso note for significantly more than three pesos since it's hard to come by as a tourist. Because it's got Che Guevara on it, tourists want it as a souvenir and consequently a market for these notes has developed. This means every time locals get one in change, they keep it and try to sell to tourists at an inflated price. However, you do not need to buy some crusty old note from a local waving it in your face yelling "Che Guevara?". Instead you can just ask for them at the Cadeca (the money exchange places) and they will give you as many brand spanking new ones as you want to buy for three pesos each.

The top one is 3CUC (tourist money) and the bottom is three pesos (local money).

Cienfuegos' famous historical resident is this guy, Benny Moré.

This is his famous quote which translates as "the city I like the best". Apparently positive, uplifting quotes are allowed on billboards.

There are some interesting buildings if you walk down to Punta Gorda. Actually, this is where you will be hassled the most by bike (biki) taxis. They can see you walking and not waving for a taxi, but in their eyes you must want one cos you're a rich tourist who doesn't need to walk anywhere. Or maybe they think you're American, since no one seems to walk there (see my Vegas post). Some biki taxi guy kept whistling at me like I was a dog. The more I ignored him (since I absolutely refuse to acknowledge whistling) the louder it got, until he was right next to me and practically whistling in my ear. I completely ignored him and eventually he got the message and rode off. 

As far as food goes, I had to crack open one of my emergency cans of chickpeas I bought from a Havana supermarket since we arrived on a Sunday and nothing much was open. The next morning we went looking for a bakery and everyone was eating peso pizzas for breakfast. I can't even think where you would be able to buy a pizza from at 7am at home. Greasy peso pizza is not the breakfast of champions people.

To sum up, Cienfuegos is architecturally pleasant to look at (thanks to the French) but that’s about it. Once you’ve walked around there's not much else to do. The museum is a bit boring according to Jan-Pieter who got sucked in and paid the 2CUC entrance fee (I didn't go). It’s a nice stopover for a day on the way to Trinidad, but any longer and you'll be bored.


Trinidad (as in 'Cuba' not 'and Tobago') was our next stop. Like Vinales, this is one of Cuba's most touristy towns outside of Havana. As such, it was full of annoying people. This is a shame because the town itself is quite nice.

I like this dog statue. I like to think it was a smoker (like everyone here is) and it needed a tracheotomy since there's a big hole in its neck.

Sunset from the roof of our casa particular.

One of the things we did was a tour to the Valle de los Ingenios, or, what I think it should be called - Valley of the Weeds. 

To get there you need to take Thomas the Tank Engine for about an hour or so to go 8km (since it's really slow). This train is a bit of a novelty since it's so old. I'm sure kids and train enthusiasts would love it!  

The journey is ok. You mostly see farmland and brambles. I'm pretty sure these are not native, although I can't figure out why they would introduce what looks like a weed. Although history is littered with stupid things people do. Just look at all the destructive flora and fauna the Brits brought into Australia.

Then you get to the town bit where the slaves used to live. Of course as soon as Thomas stops the touts are all over everyone to buy their shit. Some guy was selling mangoes and I asked him how much they were just for fun. Of course he was selling them at inflated CUC prices and I told him the price in pesos and that his were too expensive. He wasn't happy. I liked making a point that not all tourists are naive idiots.

There is a tower you can pay to go up, which gives you a nice view of Weed Valley. Apparently the slaves built this so the slave master could watch over them while working in the fields.


 This is the slave master's house, which is now a restaurant.

This bell was used to summon the slaves.

Giant sugarcane press out the back.

After about 45 mins we all got back on Thomas and went another couple of km down the road to some hacienda (farm/ ranch), where they dumped us so we could have lunch. 

Like most tourist places, it was a rip off and no one wanted to eat there so we all just sat around since there was nothing to do. After turning Thomas around, the train guys showed up and we talked them into leaving early.

After getting back to Trinidad, we walked around the town again and got annoyed at all the taxi drivers constantly wanting to give us a ride.

Hmm, you don't see this everyday. Except Cuba, where tractors are an acceptable mode of transport in urban areas.

We ended up in a museum with a cool tower you could climb up for views.

It's hard working in a museum don't you know!

Then we walked past an artist studio with this painting, which is so cool. Bit anti-American but whatever, you come to expect that in Cuba.

I'm not sure why, but all the manhole covers seem to be missing in Trinidad. Why? Where did they go? Of course now people just throw rubbish down them, cos that's what holes in the ground are for right?

Eating here is ok. There are lots of fruit and veg carts and stores around. There are also a few tourist supermarkets where you can get some supplies from. Of course you can go to any of the overpriced tourist restaurants and they might have something. But Jan-Pieter and I are refusing to eat in any CUC restaurants cos we are cheap and on a mission not to. He went to a local one for some average but cheap meal containing meat. I self catered. Since they do have a good variety of fresh produce here you're unlikely to starve.

And that's enough for one blog, even though I'm SO behind.

Next stop: the best city in Cuba - Sancti Spiritus!