Friday, May 28, 2010

Cuba - Havanas, Varaderos

Hi Everyone, sorry for the long hiatus. Been so caught up in the We got married korean variety episodes and work that I havent got the time to update.
So here is the long awaited Cuban series :)

First time going to be in a communist country, I was so excited as to what to expect.

Abit about Cuba (Wikipedia) before I begin :
The Republic of Cuba ; Spanish: República de Cuba, is an island country in the Caribbean. It consists of the island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city.

Cuba is home to over 11 million people and is the most populous insular nation in the Caribbean. Its people, culture, and customs draw from diverse sources, including: the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples; the period of Spanish colonialism; the introduction of African slaves; and its proximity to the United States.

Because the flights to Cuba were only in Cancun, Mexico, my friend and I flew into Cuba via Cuban airlines to the main city of Havanas. We had not gotten a visa because we were told we could get one immediately in Cancun by paying a certain amount. We were escorted into a room with 2 policemen and guess what they asked us whether we had boyfriends haha. we looked at each other and tried to make it like a joke especially since our visa was not chopped and signed yet. But thank God it was just fun talk , no asking of handphone numbers and all. We got a visa stamped and we said thank you and quickly made our way to the counter to check-in. And gosh, my friend realised she had booked both ticket under her name. So I had to buy a ticket at the Cubana airlin counter immediately. Thank God there was tickets but now the problem was that we had to get a refund for the extra ticket and being in a foreign country, where was the refund and how was it going to be done? We had no idea and they had no idea too other than the fact that we had to go to the cubana airlines office in Cuba to check out the procedure. The ticket to Cuba was not cheap to begin with. So we were really hoping for a refund as soon as possible.

Before going there, I went online on couchsurf to find out more information about Cuba and tried to find accomodation in Havanas. But it was harder than I thought. Finally after many days of trying, I got a 'secret' response from a fellow couchsurfer. But because internet was not very stable in her house (according to her), she had a hard time logging on. She was not from Havanas but in Santiago hence she introduced me to an accomodation that she heard from another couchsurfer who went to Havanas a while back. So thankful for that help because when we got to Havanas, the feeling of standing out on not-being a Cuban was very obvious. Black people were everywhere and they were really staring at us, 2 girls in an unknown city. Having the address and the instructions to sit only the airport tourist taxi, we quickly grabbed a cab and went ahead on our destination to the 'casa'.

After rounds of turning round and round and our cab driver calling our 'landlord' we finally got to our destination, by then it was pitch dark, and our 'casa' was in a dark alley with black people standing at the side. At first, when the driver stopped us and pointed us to the door that had a sign on it which stated 'licensed guesthouse" , we were really considering whether to go out and leave the safety of the cab onto an unknown street.

So I left my friend in the taxi while I tried to knock on the door of the 'casa', a lady came and in my broken spanish, I asked " este casa is (address) ? si? " and she said yes but said it was full so she recommended me her neighbour which was a door away. I confirmed the pricing of the stay and quickly informed my friend and we took our luggage, thanked the driver and paid 'alot' for the taxi ( it was quite a long trip and cuba is not cheap! since we tourist have to use the tourist pesos also known as convertible peso)

According to our guidebook, it was illegal to use the local peso and that as tourist, it is a must that we used tourist peso otherwise if caught, we might be jailed. Staying in a cuban jail aint really a comforting thought actually. But in desperate measures when things are so expensive in the tourist peso in comparison to the local peso, ahem, we.........

Attached below more on the pesos difference for the locals and tourist for clearer understanding: (Wikipedia)
The peso (ISO 4217 code: CUP, sometimes called the "national peso"- it has the face of Che Guevara) is one of two official currencies in use in Cuba,

the other being the convertible peso (CUC)- Tourist;informally called a chavito.

It is subdivided into 100 centavos.

There is some confusion, since "pesos" may refer to both non-convertible - colloquially known as moneda nacional - and convertible pesos - colloquially known as CUC - even in cases where (to the tourists, at least) it is not obvious which currency is being used. Cuban state workers receive a portion of their wages in convertible pesos, the rest in the normal pesos. Shops selling basics, like fruit and vegetables, generally only accept the normal peso, while "dollar shops" sell the rest.

Their coins are the same.

We were introduced to our 'landlords' and showed to our room which were surprisingly air-conditioned and big, considering the size of the house. And with our stomach grumbling and throat thirsting for water, we quickly put our bags down and asked where the nearest supermarket is. Taking down the exact directions, we made our way down the alley

Along the way, we noticed some people queuing at the alley and a sweet aroma was coming from it, so we made our way there and realised that they were selling fresh bread from the oven. Stomachs growling we made our way in the line, and waited for our turn. We then gave them the CUC, And in return , we got so much money back ( we didnt know that the exchange rate between CUP and CUC differed so much.) From then onwards, we realised that cuba for the locals were cheap but for the tourists, it was really expensive because CUC were compared in relative to US Dollars. Munching on the bread, it tasted wonderful, so fresh and hot. Yummy! I quickly stuff the money back into my pocket and we made our way to the supermarket with air-con that had to be paid in CUC for the mineral water and all. And as we walked back, I realised that I should have bought another bottle so I bought one along the street store, paying in CUP! and it was so much cheaper! The discrepancy was really amazing. We made our way back safely and snuggled in our bed for rest, excited for the next morning tour around Havana (Ciudad de habana as well as the cubana airlines office because of the extra ticket bought.

The next morning, what greeted us was totally not what I had in mind. The fresh air and the sight of a beautiful ocean along the main streets of Malecon.

With its simple buildings with gives the streets a very peaceful feeling

and the locals were relaxing alongside (fishing,taking care of their pets,..)

and the cute 'oldie' cars that on the roads

They also had our primary hop-scotch on the ground.

On our way, I stopped by a store that had people queuing for a bun with fillings.
It was some fish/tuna paste that was reddish-pink in color. Not really my cup of tea. Scrapped off the fillings and ate the bread which as usual was fresh.

Reached the officina de Cubana airlines after about half an hour of walking, we were told that we need to go to cubana airlines office in the airport and that they could do nothing. Frustrated but helpless, we could just cross our fingers and hope we could get our money back.

Not wanting to waste time, we made our way to Plaza de la revolucion, Jose Marti, a famous monument in Havana. On our way there, we passed by a few boards and scrawls along the roadside that really indicated the gist of revolution in the country.

(Hope my translation is right- will do a little of it)
What is revolution?
Revolution is the moment of history;it is the change of all that needs to be changed
for equality , justice and freedom and for human rights and the emancipation of all; ........
At Plaza de la revolucion, the square is where many political rallies take place and Fidel Castro and other political figures addressed the Cubans. Fidel Castro has addressed more than a million Cubans on many important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year.There is an elevator that allows access the top of the memorial, at 109 m one the tallest points in the city. - one have to pay a small sum for entrance fee to upkeep the monument.

Construction of the square and the José Martí monument commenced during the Presidency of Fulgencio Batista. The square and the memorial were completed in 1959 (the year Fidel Castro came to power). It was originally called Plaza Cívica (Civic Square). After the Cuban Revolution (1959), it was renamed "Plaza de la Revolución" or "Revolution Square."

Opposite the memorial on the far side of the square is the famous Che Guevara image with the slogan 'Hasta la Victoria Siempre' (Forever Onwards Towards Victory) that identifies the Ministry of the Interior building.

Next, we moved on to the Teatro de Nacional Cuban. But there were no performances that day and so we were not allowed access into the theatre so we left.

We knew that night fall was early in Cuba so we quickly made our way down to the famous street area, Old Havanas street.
Street after street is graced with grand facades, boasting massive wooden doors, barred windows and narrow sidewalks. The Old Havana was first called "San Cristobal de la Habana" and was moved to its present location in 1519. For over 200 years Habana was the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean.

The best Cuban show "Havana Cafe", Salsa dance is in hotel Melia Cohiba. The decor is
very polished and includes two fifties cars, a gas pump, an old Harley Davidson and other bits of memorabilia including a whole Cubana aircraft. ( I did not go there though - I was busy looking at the paintings in the shops)

Elegant "Gran Cafe el Louvre" is situated in Havana center, in Hotel Inglaterra the Cuba’s oldest and most classic hotel founded in 1875.
Tables are decorated by Cuban contemporary artists. While in Havana, visit the "Bodeguita del Medio" at the side near the Plaza Cathedral, historic quarter. It is famous for its traditional Cuban dishes, unique decor and also for Cuban drink "Mojito". ( My regret, I didnt try the Mojito! Sad! )

It was such a lovely street, with many art shops where we can witness cuban artists painting, with many museums explaining about the cuban culture and the lifestyle.

After a day of walking, before night fell, we quickly made our way back to our guesthouse. We had to get up really early the next day because we wanted to take a morning bus to Vadero , the best beaches as we heard was there. And boy, it was not a disappointment.The tickets to and fro were not cheap either. Tourist pesos CUC! Varadero was 140 km from Havana. But it was really worthwhile.

We woke up really early in the morning the following day to catch the bus to Vadero. It was a destination nearest to Havana that we selected since we were deciding to take a day trip and come back to Havana at night. It was my deepest regret not having more time in Cuba to explore the rest of the places. But for me, I think Cuba should not be travelled alone, do go with a friend because there's so much to share about and talked about and personally I dont think its very safe for a girl to travel alone there especially if you dont really know spanish.

When we reached Varaderos,Cuba, we quickly enquired about the timing for the bus back and made our way up to the beach.

Abit about Varadero (Wikipedia)
Varadero is a resort town in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, and one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. Varadero is also called Playa Azul, which means "blue beach" in Spanish.

The beach was empty and the waters were so clear (so green and blue). It was as if the beach was our private beach. If we wanted to skinny-dip, we could had. But there was chalets there so we better not risk it haha.

After that I wanted to go to Zapata Nacional Park to see the crocodile farm however we were told that it was too far and we had to sit a private taxi there because there was no buses. We hence decided to just explore the city of varaderos, exploring the art shops where were plenty. However in the midst of exploring the art shops. suddenly strong wind started and the trees started to sway and thunders began to strike. Just within a few minutes difference. The storm approached and we thus quickly made our way back to the terminal. It then started to rain quite abit and with the rain, we were close to 'soaking wet'.
Things were flying all around (boards, papers, leaves ) and the wind was really howling - at that moment, I was praying hoping that it was not a hurricane. Thank God it wasnt. Here are the pictures that captured that moment of change :

We huddled at the terminal,cold and fearful of the howling wind that rattled even the roofs of the terminal. I kept enquiring if we would be able to make it back to Havana and even the station master could not confirm. We prayed for the best and by God's grace, the rain stopped though the wind still continued blowing. Our bus itinery was finally confirmed though this time in a small local bus condition. We just wanted to make it safely back so we quickly went up the bus hoping it would take us in the right direction and it did. We reached Havana in the dark.

Back in Habana, the next morning, it seems that the seas were still erratic and the waves were gushing across the barriers on Malecon washing the streets wet.

We quickly made our way to the centro for breakfast, bun with ham. It was nice.

And along the way we saw some dough round fritters and bought them - to discover that there was a bug in it. Thankfully our tummy did not hurt.

Along the way we saw the famous 'oldie'cars

Then next we sat the famous 'coconut' Tuk tuk to the Palacio. It was so cute and it was suprisingly stable. Feels exactly like the thailand Tuk Tuk, except the drivers for the coconut taxis were mostly females and they were pretty young ladies and its a maximum of 2 passengers I think.

The visit to a crafts street market in Cuba marks the last day of our Cuban episode.
Lots of wonderful art, cute figurines, cuban dolls. And of course, doing some trading of my clothes and my bars of soaps left over for some free cuban craft gifts to bring back. (Because its a communist country, they are not suppose to have profits and everthing goes back to the government and to buy things such as soap, sugar etc, they need to use CUC which is costly hence they would rather trade with you! )

Definately regret not having more time there especially since I was already there. Maybe another time. Glad that I came to Cuba : An experience of a lifetime :)
Bye Cuba :) Till next time :)

Hasta Luego Cuba! :)

A video about cuba from a blog I saw online

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