Sunday, January 26, 2014


Posted by Scot and Sara.  Written Jan. 8, 2014.

I’m not sure how to even begin describing Cuba.  It is full of contradictions and contrasts.  It is remarkably poor, but in spite of that the people are friendly, vibrant, and appear happy.  The countryside is lush, green, tropical, and beautiful, while the cities we have seen are run down and decaying.  Despite that, they are anything but grim.  They are filled with active, busy, well educated people who seem fulfilled just going about their everyday lives.

And there are not just people.  Animals are everywhere.   In the morning, you are awakened to the sound of  roosters crowing, even in the heart of the city.  There are skinny puppies playing in the ditch, goats, cows and horses grazing wherever there is a patch of grass and pigs squealing as they are carried down the city streets, eventually bound for someone’s dinner table.

The transportation is a story unto itself.  Taxis are largely 1950’s American automobiles, which are lovingly cared for.  Anything more recent is a foreign import, with cars like Hyundais, Ladas and Peugeots being frequent.  There are almost no truly modern cars.  Every vehicle is well used, and well taken care of.  Most Cubans, though, can’t begin to afford a car, and consequently the roads are filled with bicycles, horse drawn carriages, motorcycles (many with sidecars), pedestrians, and bici-taxis.  The carriages are drawn by ribby horses who trot along with their heads held high.  And when they aren’t pulling a cart, they are tethered at the side of the road, eating the grass down to the dirt.  After the sleepy villages of the Bahamas, the sheer volume of people out on the roads and the streets in the heat of the day is astonishing.

Most of the traffic on the highways is non-motorized.  Cars and buses are relatively infrequent.
The ubiquitous bici-taxi in Holguin.  These guys usually stopped their calls to us when they realized there was five of us.
Horse drawn carriage from our casa particular.
El Centro in Holguin.
This car would be cool in any country.
We left the Marina Gaviota in Peurta de Vita a couple of days ago to see some of Cuba by land.  We were frustrated by our attempts to rent a car at one of the nearby all-inclusive resorts.  It seems that right now is high tourist season and cars (like many things on the island) are hard to come by.  As it turns out, over most distances of less than a few hours, it is probably cheaper just to hire a taxi and be driven where ever you want to go.

So that is what we did.  Yoel picked us up at the marina in his red 1955 Chevrolet.  We all piled in, Katie and Scot in the front and Alexander, Christopher and I in the back.  In 1955, apparently seatbelts were not an option, and seatbelt laws haven’t made their way to Cuba, so we just hung on tight.  We drove the 45 minutes into Holguin through the beautiful Cuban countryside.

Yoel dropped us off at our casa particular, which is a private house that rents rooms (like a B&B.)  Since Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, more private business, like Yoel’s taxi, or these casa particulars, have been allowed, allowing an improved standard of living for those that can afford to set up shop.  The casa particular we stayed at in Holguin was right on the main thoroughfare, which was a noisy and busy place, just a few blocks from the central square, known commonly as El Centro in Cuban cities.  It was a bit of a shock for the kids to see where we were going to spend the night, and probably a bit for Sara and I too.  But it was an amazing taste of a real Cuban household.

Our casa particular in Holguin.  We had two rooms - one right at the top of the spiral staircase, and one out the back.
The view from the room at the top.
There was a little sitting area outside the upstairs room.
After we dropped our bags off, we set out to explore Holguin.  It didn’t take long for the local touts (called jinteros in Cuba) to suss us out, and before long we had several offers for people to show us around, sell us cigars, toys, flowers, snacks, or anything else they could supply that we might want.  We did take one enterprising fellow up on his offer to help us find a bank, which we had unknowingly walked past earlier.  It took us a bit to get used to the fact that you have to stand in line for pretty much any service you might want in Holguin.  After changing some money, we set out to explore the rest of the town on foot, getting better at saying “No gracias” to everyone who either wanted to sell us something, or was just outright asking us for money.

"Battalando Siempre" with Fidel.
There is a lot of public art in Cuba.  We think this mural shows some of the history of Holguin.
Spot the tourist.  Bet you got it in one guess.
Revolution era playground.  Pretty rare in Cuba.
We climbed La Loma de la Cruz, the hill with 432 steps that towers over Holguin, so we could look back and enjoy the view.  At the top of the climb, we indulged in a rare touristy purchase, buying Katie a small painting on display by the talented artist that had taken his wares to the top.

Walking to La Loma de la Cruz.  Note the jintero in the red t-shirt to our left, who is about to move in for the kill.  He was joined by about 10 colleagues at the bottom of La Loma.
All of Holguin spread out below us. 
Coming back down into Holguin, we stopped for ice cream and bought a phone card after waiting in line  on the street to enter the Etecsa Telepunto (they only let so many people inside the store at one time.)  After many tries and some frustration, we finally figured out how to work the phone card and then called to reserve accommodation for the next night in the seaside town of Gibara.  We had hoped to stay in the Lonely Planet recommended boutique hotel but there was no answer on their phone, so we booked another casa particular.  This one was also a recommendation from the Lonely Planet book so we were hoping for something of a bit higher standard than our place in Holguin.  

For those under 20, that things Sara is using is called a payphone.  Her Spanish has held up well since her year in Mexico, and it was a huge benefit in Cuba.
That night, we had dinner in our casa particular.  It was a wonderful home cooked meal with carrot soup to start, a main of fried chicken, grilled fish and shrimp accompanied by rice, salad and fruit.  Delicious and healthy.

Home cooked meal in the casa particular.
The night was a bit rough with lumpy beds – just imagine a 40 year old pull-out couch – but only Scot and Alexander and I noticed.  Maybe Katie and Christopher are too light for it to be an issue.  The breakfast was delicious –  fresh squeezed pineapple juice, hot coffee with warm milk, plates of fruit, toast & butter, ham, cheese and fried eggs.

At 10am our taxi (another 1950s vintage American car) picked us up to take us the 45 minutes to Gibara.  Once again we all piled in with no seat belts.  When we arrived in Gibara we dropped our bags at our new casa particular before going to check out the sleepy sea side town.  The people who had stayed in the casa the night before had gone to the beach for the morning and were supposed to return in the early afternoon so our rooms wouldn’t be ready until later in the day.

Taxi to Gibara.  This one was decked out with false wood panelling on all the floors.

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