These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba
April 13, 2017 – Travel to Cienfuegos
Today is a waiting day – the worst kind of travel day. We wait around until 4:30pm for the Viazul bus to Cienfuegos. It is kind of a wasted day and is fairly awful. We feel like we are bothering the casa owner, as we come in every few hours to use the bathroom. We don’t really have a place to be. We go to the plaza with all of our stuff to be out of the way. We eat a pretty terrible lunch in a local place nearby. We go to the bus station early and sit around waiting for our bus to arrive. We don’t have tickets and are repeatedly told this isn’t a problem, that there are always seats and we just pay on board. Finally the bus does arrive and there are seats and we pay on board.
We arrive in Cienfuegos after the Viazul office closes, so we won’t be able to buy tickets for the next day. We walk to our casa, which is run by the eccentric Wenceslao. He is Polish or some combination of eastern European, but also Cuban. He seems to have traveled everywhere and speaks many languages. This is so uncommon for a Cuban. We ask more and learn that he has dual Spanish citizenship. He worked in hospitality. We have a great dinner in his casa, but are a little put out by his eccentricities. Still, he is nice and the place is nice and there aren’t many mosquitoes. Not a great day all around. We walk around a little before going to bed. I’m struck by the wide sidewalks and the pedestrian streets leading to the main plaza. It seems like a better place for pedestrians than most cities in Cuba. We leave so early we have no time to explore further.
April 14 – Travel to Playa Larga
We went to the bus station in the morning in Cienfuegos to try and get on the 8 am bus to Playa Larga. It was coming from Trinidad though, so that meant it was completely booked up. Once we found out there was no room, we negotiated a taxi colectivo with a German couple that was also trying to get on the bus. We got a pretty good price, $50 CUC for everyone. They didn’t speak any Spanish, so they were very glad to have the help. We hung out with them some more on the beach in the afternoon in Playa Larga and they were very nice. They were getting married soon and were planning their honeymoon in the USA. We gave our info and told them to look us up if they come to Seattle. Funny how you are forced to hang out with people and then you end up liking them and being glad for it. This happened with the Dutch couple and the Spanish couple, and now these guys.
Playa Larga is much more relaxed than other places. The roads are mostly dirt, and there are few buildings over one story. At the moment, there are some Cubans on the corner playing guitar, which is nice.
April 15 – Snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs
An excursion to the beaches for snorkeling today. We (the tourists in town) piled into an old French school bus and took a rickety ride through town. The snorkel gear was very patchwork with Sheena’s flippers repaired with bits of tire sewn to mend tears. But is all worked great! Very representative of many things in this country. The snorkeling was also great! Lots of coral islands filled with fish. Went to tow different sites and had a fantastic morning.
On the way home stopped for lunch in town. We had castilla de cerdo, and Sheena’s half comically slipped off her plate and onto the floor! There was no hiding what had happened and they brought us a little more… it was super funny and embarrassing. The waiter said that it could happen to anyone! We hate to waste food here, as it feels like it’s so hard to come by.
Interrupted by a huge rain storm just now! Very heave and lasting 10 minutes maybe. Being back in the tropics, and in small towns, reminds us of Concepcion, Bolivia.
April 16 – Cienega Zapata National Park
Well, Marilyn and her husband, who love to take care of us here, really made us nervous this morning, heading to the national park. We came out of our room in shorts and crappy shoes and they thought we would die quickly from mosquitoes on the trail! We hurried off with an extra long shirt and thought bad thoughts about our decision to enter the park… but Sheena’s “yes” decision making came out ahead yet again. We had a great time and it was a successful outing.
We arrived about 8 am at the national park office, as directed the previous day, and waited a little while to see if anyone else would show up to share a taxi colectivo with us to the park entrance. Unfortunately, everyone else who showed up already had a vehicle, so we climbed into a wreck of a 1955 Cadillac and rattled up the road. It was a short journey thank goodness. We had dust and water coming through the holes in the floor, and I couldn’t sit all the way back in the seat, as I would hit my head on the ceiling. The seat was a makeshift thing, bolted into the metal floor and was only 6 inches deep. Truly, this was the worst car we had been in so far.
The walk around the savanna was extremely interesting. The guide was knowledgeable, and excited. He really liked this tiny bird (a tody) and kept using a recording to try and attract one for us to see. We also saw owls, hawks, and lots of “rare and local” species like some kind of woodpecker and the pygmy owl and a dove of some kind. The national bird of Cuba, the tocororo, was the most beautiful, with a great looking tail feather.
The afternoon was spent on the dirty little beach a few steps from our lodging. There was a great rainstorm again tonight. I watched it over the patio, looking across the road and into the open door of the neighbor’s house. Their TV is turned on to baseball. There are fluorescent lights on the porch and the light of the TV from the open door. The rain is just pouring down. It feels strangely familiar, like some kind of classic Latin American scene.
Earlier tonight we went for a walk and were on the main road when our host’s son called out from the balcony of a new house. He invited us up and explained that the new house would have 8 rooms for guests and that they were selling the existing house. We were led to each of the rooms to inspect. He was very proud of the new construction and said it would be open this time next year. It was surely a bigger house, and would probably be better, but a little further from the beach than the existing house. An interesting symbol of hopes for the future here.
April 17 – Travel to Viñales
We had a long way to go to get to Viñales from Playa Larga. Our old Ford car arrived around 9:30 am with a nice Dutch couple. We had a good time getting to know them and Sheena chatting away with the driver up front. When we arrived at Havana chaos broke out. The new driver (we switched cars on the side of the highway) didn’t know that the Dutch couple was going to Las Terrazas. We went through that uniquely Cuban confusion of drivers calling other drivers and trying to figure out what the hell is going on . Finally it was confirmed that they had paid for Las Terrazas but the driver wouldn’t go (it was 30 km extra on bad roads). He would drop them on the side of the highway with $5 CUC each for the remainder of the ride. The Dutch couple didn’t speak a word of Spanish and their English was (surprisingly) not great. We had to act as translators for all of this, and they were understandably very nervous. We assured them that the driver would drop them off at the “entrance” to Las Terrazas, and that all cars passing them, turning off the national highway, would be going that way. Hopefully the $10 CUC was enough of an enticement!
We transferred all the baggage to a big van and piled in with 5 couples total. There was the Dutch couple, us, two British couples (one old and one young) and a Danish couple. Sheena and I were the only ones who spoke any Spanish. At this point it was 170 km to Viñales from Havana. For some reason Sheena thought it was only one more hour, so she was pretty surprised. The van did not have air conditioning and wasn’t all that comfortable, so we missed the small Ford immediately. The other couples had transferred from a different car, but they hadn’t even been together the whole journey. It seems that one of the couple’s was on their third car. I can’t imagine this if I didn’t speak the language!
The Dutch couple were dropped off and we wished them luck! We didn’t get their contact information, so we’ll never know how that rest of the trip went. There was a little shelter beside the road, so at least they could wait in the shade. When we arrived in Viñales more hilarity ensued. The driver asks for the address of everyone’s lodging and all the cards are passed up front. It turns out that the elderly British couple are booked into a casa in Puerto Esperanza, which might be in Viñales province… They were totally confused and to make matters worse, Sheena and I were the first to be dropped off, so we just grabbed our bags and left them without an interpreter! Ha, that would have been a fourth taxi ride for them on the day… tough day.
Our casa was very nearby and we met Estela and were quite happy with the big room that appeared to have very few mosquitoes. A big rainstorm (first of the season in Viñales, we’re told) shut us in the room for 1.5 hours, but we were so tired from the journey it didn’t matter much.
In the evening we walked through town to explore and stopped at the Cadeca (money exchange), which was closed. We chatted with the security guard for a minute and he was surprised to learn that we could not use our bank cards at ATMs in Cuba. He didn’t think that was true (something we weren’t willing to test), and said “everyone thinks there’s conflict between the USA and Cuba, but the only conflict is the language.”