Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba


Today we were going quite a long way, from Bayamo to Baracoa which is one of the most easterly points on the island. Everyone told us that this was THE place to go in Cuba so we were excited. 

Lonely Planet said the bus goes at 4.45am even though the bus station guy told us yesterday the bus would not arrive until 5am. His time didn't make sense to us cos we knew what time the bus leaves Camaguey, which is what Lonely Planet says. Thankfully we didn't listen to him cos if we did we would have missed the bus. See? Cubans are liars.

Then, even walking to the bus station at 4.30am biki taxis are like "taxi amigos?", including 20m away from the entrance. I was yelling "we're here!". They are so annoying. I hate all the biki taxi drivers in this country.

We tried to buy a ticket but the staff were sleeping.

There is a weird thing in Cuba where you can't actually buy a ticket until the bus gets there. Then obviously there's a big rush cos no one wants to miss the bus. Like so many things in Cuba, I don't understand the logic behind this.

But the bus was fine and we get to Santiago de Cuba where we have to wait about an hour for our next bus, which takes about four hours. This is the bus that goes to Guantanamo. We drove through the city but it looks boring. Plus the military base isn't even in Guantanamo but 25km away near Caimanera. And you can’t get near it anyway, so there's really no point stopping here.

Then you start winding through the mountains and next to the sea, which is actually quite nice. However, considering you pay more to go on the tourist bus than locals pay, it’s very annoying that it stops whenever the driver and ticket guy want to make personal deliveries, pick up and drop off locals for free, stop to talk to their mates (er, has anyone here heard of a mobile phone? Oh wait no, that sounds like modern technology), or stop at a mate’s house for 20 minutes so you can buy overpriced fruit and chocolate. Seriously, this stupid bus stopped about 30 times unnecessarily between Guantanamo and Baracoa. I'm sure this journey could be a lot quicker than it actually is.

Here's the bus driver delivering a light fixture to his mate.

Finally we get to Baracoa and the girls from the casa particular are waiting for us with a sign. We get to their house and they start giving us the hard sell on meals and tours. We then take our laundry downstairs and ask for our passports back and their dad starts on us. After 10 minutes of him ranting about what good value everything he offers is, I interrupted and said we really need our passports back so we can go. Because they were so annoying we did not buy anything from them. I also bargained down the laundry price since that seemed overly expensive.

We went for a walk through the town. Despite what all the Cuba loving backpackers we met in Havana said, Baracoa is not overly interesting and everyone is really annoying. I think I've worked out why Cubans they are far more irritating than in the rest of Latin America. Everywhere else, if you say no, they walk off and leave you alone, but here, they keep on trying to sell you shit. And they are always like "sorry for disturbing you, but…" Sorry for disturbing me? No you’re not, otherwise you’d leave me alone. Grr. Fuck off!

Also, people here kept asking us for our clothes. Jan-Pieter has a USSR red t-shirt that everyone here LOVED. I was worried he was going to get mugged for it. Then some lady wanted my crappy, worn out, and permanently stained $10 Supre t-shirts. If I was at the end of my trip, I probably would have given them to her to make room in my backpack to buy shoes. However, I still have a few months of travelling left so I need them. Sorry lady.

Baracoa also has the slowest internet in Cuba. At the time of writing, the internet cable from Venezuela clearly hasn't made it through the mountains so using the internet here was like being back in the 90s.

From this viewpoint at the top of the steps you can see more quality government owned beach side hotels (second photo).

Jan-Pieter really wanted to go to Parque Humbolt, which like everything in Cuba is a UNESCO site. Why there are so many UNESCO places in Cuba, I don't know. My guess is they stole the stamp and just put it on everything to attract more tourists.

We organised a government issued tour to get there but on the day we were the only ones so we got to go in an old taxi that wasn't too shit.

Obviously the driver picked up and dropped off his mates and a police officer along the way. None of them paid.

Along the way you also pass Cuba's main chocolate factory opened by Che Guevara (of course) in 1963. I will say this: Cuban chocolate has a very long way to go to reach Swiss quality.

It takes soooo long to get to Humbolt cos the road is really, really shit. But eventually you do and the views are gorgeous. 

I think there are two guided walks you can do through the rainforest. We chose the shorter one, which is about 2km. It was nice but not the best nature walk I've ever done. The highlight was getting to this crystal clear river where you could go swimming and cool off. SO nice!

We then ran into a guy selling fruit and cucurucho. Since he was not selling them at rip off tourist prices, I gave the cucurucho a go. This turned out to be the BEST food I ate in Cuba. It is so delicious and they only cost 1CUC.

Cucurucho looks like an ice cream, but it's better. It's basically coconut, sugar/ honey, papaya, guayaba, mandarin and nuts all crushed up and mixed together. Then they wrap it in a palm leaf. It's surprisingly filling. Yum! I wish I had one right now.

There are very few local peso places to eat in Baracoa since it's so touristy. I self catered most of the time since I didn't want to eat in overpriced tourist restaurants. However, unlike the other cities I visited, the fruit and veg sellers here were all grumpy shits. I have no idea why. Maybe they were sad that mango season is now over? Who knows.

On our way back into town from Humbolt we stopped at Playa Maguana (I think). It was a really nice beach until you got out of the water and people kept trying to sell you stuff. One guy tried really hard to get us to swap our towels (which were actually the casas) for 20 mangoes. Considering there are no mangoes anywhere in Baracoa, I was intrigued by where his stash was supposedly coming from since he wasn't carrying a box of them around.

The next day we went to the archaeological museum. It is up a lot of steps. Interestingly none of the biki taxis offer to take you up there.

It was a bit lame but the cave was nice and cool after sweating your way up all those steps. Plus we were the only ones there so that was good.

The highlight was obviously the ceramic penises.

We also spotted some cool looking snails.

There are signs up everywhere in Cuba telling people not to take these yellow snails home as they are native to Cuba and endangered (because people want to turn their beautiful shells into things).

I had no desire to take it anywhere, I was just glad I got to see it since they are so unusual.

After lunch we headed back to the bus terminal to get a bus to Santiago de Cuba. However, some guy stopped us outside and asked if we wanted a taxi for the same price. He said we could leave right now and his car has air conditioning. His car looked pretty new (definitely the best one yet) and even had seatbelts in the back. Interestingly many taxi drivers are actually qualified professionals such as engineers and doctors. But, since the government dictates their (low) salaries a lot of them have become taxi drivers because they can make more money ripping off tourists. It is so stupid. Talk about a waste of tax payer money on education and an internal brain drain of skilled labour.

Anyway, our rich taxi driver (given his new car and new Samsung Galaxy phone) knocked about an hour off the driving time (see I knew that bus ride here was ridiculously slow!) Of course he still stopped seven times to buy bananas and other fruit. He also slowed down when the Guantanomo Bay Military Base came (slightly) into view so we could lean out the window and take photos.

Santiago de Cuba

As a bonus of getting the taxi our driver dropped us off directly at our casa, saving us an extra cab ride from the bus terminal. Hooray.

After checking in, we decided to go for a walk and had dinner at a peso restaurant we found not far from the casa. It had very good salad as well as beans and rice, but the table cloths looked like they hadn’t been washed in a long time. I tried not to think about how many DNA samples were on it and used hand sanitiser on my fork since it was touching the table cloth. Despite the questionable hygiene standards we went back the next day for lunch since the food was good and cheap. To our surprise the table cloths had been replaced. Maybe they do wash them daily and Cubans are just gross and treat them like napkins? Clearly it's safer to go at lunch rather than dinner if you want less DNA with your meal.

Lonely Planet says you either love or hate Santiago. I will put Santiago in the plus column for Cuba. The architecture was nice, the food was ok, and there were less annoying people around than some of the other places we went. 

We decided to do the Lonely Planet walking tour to cover off all the main sites.  

This is an innovative way to sell a house!

Note: guy with shirt rolled up (at least he doesn't have a fat gut hanging out like most of the Latin American men who do this do).

This next place was weird. You could go in for free but if you wanted to take any photos you had to pay them 2CUC. We just took free photos from the outside.

The main square is nice and is also home to Cuba's oldest house.

Later we even decided to treat ourselves to a mojito (in CUC!!!) in a posh hotel bar overlooking the square.

Yes we are that sweaty. Cuba is hot!

More nice buildings.

Then we found a square where Papa Smurf's hat was mounted on top of a monument.

Then we found the ice cream district. Seriously, it was like a whole block with heaps of ice cream vendors on it. But because it's Cuba they all sold one flavour: mango. That's it. And the prices were identical.

We decided to visit the Carnival Museum but you have to pay extra to take photos.

It was quite interesting and the costumes on display are cool. Later we went back for the music and dance show. A couple in cahoots with each other sat either side of us and kept asking for money or trying to convince us to go to their casa particular. Then, the dude is like "I’m a few pesos short of a bottle of rum, can you help me out?". Um, no. If you can’t afford alcohol then maybe you should stop wasting money on it. Obviously these two parasites did nothing to enhance our enjoyment of the show going on around us.

At the end of the day I had to fly back to Havana so this was the end of my and Jan-Pieter's time together, since he still had a week left. We said our goodbyes and I got a taxi to the airport. Obviously the price was negotiated in advance but when we got to the airport he's like “no CUC” to give me change. Thankfully I’m not an idiot so I asked him to give me the change in pesos since 1CUC = 25 pesos. He did, reluctantly. Fucking everyone is a scammer.

Of course Cubana being the highly shit airline that it is was late. And the airport is really crap. Once you go through security it’s like being in a bus station with nothing to do and no information or tv screens anywhere indicating when your flight might leave. So 1.5 hours later we boarded the plane. Then of course when you arrive in Havana you have to wait 45 minutes for your bag to come out because for some reason, Cuba has the world’s slowest baggage handlers.

This is the international departures lounge in Havana. So you can imagine how boring a domestic waiting lounge is.

Also there is bird shit over all of the seats.

Anyway, by the time I got back to Havana and got my bag it was about 1am and I was in no mood to negotiate with taxi drivers. I said I was paying 20CUC and that’s it. Some guys were like "no, no, 25", but I ignored them and found one who'd take me for 20CUC. I could understand his Spanish so that was good to have a conversation with him. He seemed nice enough although he kept telling me I need a Cuban husband. Um, no thanks. I’d rather be a lesbian.

My final thoughts on Cuba

If you want to meet Cubans just go to Miami. There's heaps of them and you'll hear more Spanish than English, but Miami is just way, way better.

If you want to go to a socialist country, try Venezuela. As a bonus it has WiFi, good veggie food, lots of touristy stuff at good prices, an edge of danger to add to the excitement, it's cheap, and people don’t lie as much/ try to scam you as much. Plus you can still see how socialism is an inferior economic model, for example, by watching people line up for basic things like toilet paper.

If you want a Caribbean beach holiday then go to any of the other islands or Mexico, which offer a competitive tourism product compared to the inferior government issued product here.

The lack of toilet seats and general toilet grossness is bad in Cuba. And there's never any soap. Although there was no soap in Venezuela either. Why are socialist countries anti-soap? I don't get it.

People smoke everywhere all the time. It's like the 70s. I may need some patches to quit passive smoking.

Most of the men are just gross and annoying. While this is not unique to Cuba, they are at the more annoying end of the Latin American scale.

While this is one of the worst places for being vegetarian/ vegan, it's is not as difficult as you first think and other blogs might have you believe. The key is you have to go outside the main tourist areas to where all the fresh fruit and veg carts, bakeries and peso restaurants are.

I don't know why, but all the dogs in Cuba have really short legs. It's like all the normal sized dogs got voted off the island. It's so strange.

Once was definitely enough for me. While I didn't hate everything in Cuba (especially cucuruchos), I won't be going back.

Next stop: Cancun!