These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba
April 18, 2017 – Viñales
Before taking a big walk in the valley, we went to the Cadeca early to change the last bit of our money. When we arrived there was already a line, and after a few minutes it opened but we were told they didn’t have CUC yet… there was much confusion, but we sat tight in line and ten minutes later we were ready to go. Sheena went to the Cubanacan (government tourist agency) office while I waited and go bus tickets for the next day to Havana. There is a feeling here that we should support enterprising Cubans and not government companies like Cubanacan. It’s difficult to know the affect. Money changes so many hands in the collective taxi market and I never know who benefits most.
This theme came up again later on the tour when we visited a coffee plantation and a tobacco farmer. The government took 30% and 90%, respectively, of the product to sell abroad and allowed the remainder to be sold locally by the farmers. The farmers lives have improved since they have been allowed to sell their own product, we were told. It’s not hard to see why because the coffee and cigars were expensive! $3 CUC each for the 10% of product the tobacco farmers could sell. But of course this is quite cheap when compared to stores and totally natural (no chemicals). If I wanted cigars I would buy them here. It seems to make sense to support the farmers in this case, even though profits from government sales go to social benefits like schools and daycare… both seem good. Who benefits from Cubanacan profits? Probably the Cuban people, through social benefits. And we prefer the bus over collectivo taxis!
The hike was a good one, with a great local guide named Changa (an apodo). He knew everyone and was very chatty. We asked a lot of questions and got some great Spanish practice! The valley is beautiful and it’s obvious why this place is so popular. The amount of people out in groups on horses was incredible. The horses looked pretty skinny and we asked Changa about this. He said there wasn’t much to eat for horses during the dry season, but not to worry because the rainy season was just starting!
We walked for hours in the hot sun, taking breaks at the fincas, happy for the shade. A worker at the coffee farm has a dad in Portland, OR and he was excited to talk to people from the region. Everyone is excited to talk to us. We speak Spanish and the USA is very interesting to Cubans. Many of them would like to visit. We have asked several people about the changing relationship with the USA and they say they are happy it is happening. The Danish girl asked yesterday during the taxi ride about if there was any hostility toward us. The answer is a huge no. It has been so warm and full of curiosity. Someone told us “La gente es gente, politicos son otra cosa.” Cubans are also proud of the things they do well. They know it is safe here, that social services are great. They want more freedom and money, but they like (or seem to like) Cuba. It is always a good conversation to have. Yet, we learned that the coffee worker’s father went to the USA illegally. It’s like there is this specter overhead of the desire to go so badly. Hope for change is high.
We have seen a lot of animal life in this area. It reminds us of the Colca Canyon or something. Chickens everywhere. Pigs and piglets. Cows, horses, oxen (to plow fields!). A large rodent called a jutia. The plants are great too, with the majestic ceiba tree a favorite.
The rainy season seems to have officially started. We don’t like it, but all the locals are happy. It was a long, dry winter. Rain is always good for farmers. It’s funny to hear the locals all mention the rain in passing. Changa said something to half the people he talked with on the trail. It makes things interesting and reminds us of Colombia. Cuba in general reminds us of Colombia. The people, the music, the landscape (in places). The food, sometimes.
We had a nice time last night chatting with a local “tres” guitar player in the plaza before dinner. We made plans to meet up later, but we made them loose enough and maybe he bailed in the end because we never saw him. I had steel guitar strings in my pocket (given to me by another tourist, meant to be a gift) so it was really too bad! We watched a live band and a bunch of locals and tourists dance salsa for about an hour.
April 19 – Travel to Havana
A tough travel day today. Are there any easy ones in Cuba? We took the Cubanacan bus, leaving in the afternoon, so we had a half day to kill. This seems difficult in the hot and humid climate. Not the first time we have done this, but should be the last… it’s better to take an early ride and get somewhere quickly, with lodging already prepared. Instead we’re booted out of the room and have to putter about town for a number of hours. That wasn’t awful today. We took a cab up to a lookout and then walked back to town. We had a nice lunch and then picked up our bags and waited for the bus.
Of course we were too early and it was hot and the bus was late… Then a young girl puked on the bus 30 minutes into the ride and the bus smelled awful the rest of the journey. That almost did Sheena in as well. Since it was a bus run by a tourist agency, it made stops at all the big hotels, slowing things down and taking about 4.5 hours in the end. We wished we had chosen a taxi for the journey and avoided all the hassle.
Today we took a cab to Vedado to photograph some buildings. When we got into the taxi the driver berated us. When searching for a taxi we had been approached by a Cuban who asked if we needed one. We said yes, but that we needed a car. We told him the address and he said there was no way he could take us because he only had a bici taxi… but then he continued to be very helpful and run everywhere trying to get us a taxi. We didn’t realize, but he would demand a tip from the driver. The driver was pissed about that and yelled at us for about 2 minutes! He turned out to be a very friendly and jovial guy who knew all the policemen he passed. We learned a lot from this guy. He said he had to be friends with certain cops so that he could name drop them if a policeman every tried to get a tip off of him.
While in Vedado we stopped at the famous ice cream shop, Copellia. We were immediately confronted by a security guard and asked what currency we had. We thought it might be more correct for us to say and pay in CUC, so that’s what we did. Unfortunately, we were then directed to a small little room with weak A/C where we had to order. There were only 5 other people in that area, even though the place was bustling with Cubans. We felt tricked and disappointed, especially because the ice cream was served in bowls and we had to sit there and eat it. We were put in a little tourist box.
Later on we stopped by Rodney and Laura’s house. Only Laura was around but we had so much fun catching up with her and telling stories from the trip. She got excited about the architect of the building we went to go check out (Antonio Quintana). She also told us about some of the shortages the country goes through. Right now it’s hard to find toilet paper and there’s no cheese. She told us a funny saying that people say because of the toilet paper shortages, when Cubans have to use newspaper instead: “Even the assholes here are educated!”
We have lucked out and get to stay in the apartment until leaving for the airport, as there are no other guests tonight. Marley came early and cooked us another great breakfast. She is cheerful, chatty and eager to please her guests. It’s really a wonderful stay at the end of our trip. We had cheese with breakfast today, but it was bland. Marley apologized, saying it was all she could find! I hope she didn’t go through too much trouble to get it for us…
We are ready to be going home. It has been a good trip, but exhausting. The climate especially, but also the mosquitoes and transportation has been difficult. But the trip has also been a success in many ways. Our Spanish was extremely useful and we had many wonderful interactions with Cubans. They are certainly very open and friendly and up there with Colombians. It is also nice to be taken care of while traveling, which often doesn’t happen in Latin America. We learned a lot about this country; a place where there is always something interesting to learn.