Category Archives: Cuba 2015

Havana – Sights and Sounds

In Havana, people are lively and colorful. Regardless of age or body shape, men and particularly women wear super-tight clothes. It does not always seem charming or flattering to us, but the Cubans don’t seem to mind. Lots of people on the street, neighbors talking or playing domino in the evening. 

The general noise level in this city is rather „lively“ as well. Cars, people, construction, music and barking dogs create a phenomenal cacophony. We had a bit of bad luck as on top of it, the government decided that the underground sewage system needed an upgrade in the quarter we stayed. So one needs to add the sound of a few jackhammers to the above and imagine lots of streets ripped up and looking like recently bombed. 

In the city there are all kinds of people selling all kinds of things, shouting out „panadero“ (bakery man), „maní“ (peanuts) often with fantastic voices carrying their messages up the walls into every apartment.  

One of our highlights in Havana was a guided architecture tour by a young Cuban called Julie who studied English in the Havana university and recently graduated. She showed us the restored part of old Havana and explained about their agency’s renovation work. Quite some renovation was done over the years but a lot more is waiting. One major problem with that is that the skills needed to renovate those old buildings respectfully are missing. So the government has decided to educate some young people, offering some sort of aprenticeship in special crafts. Looking at this fantastic town with all its renovation need, a lot of youngsters are needed.

Cuba – a socialist country in transition

We have lived and traveled to different countries and cities but we never experienced a country like Cuba. During our trip we got to talk to many Cubans such as tour guides and case particular owners, and the country made us question the positive and negative sides of their system and our own.

Cuba provides all Cubans education and health care, which are fundamental rights for people. Our young, very smart tour guide in Havanna, a recent university graduate from Santiago de Cuba told us that anyone could go to a university, as long as one had good grades. Even if you are poor, you get sick and you are surly treated here. When we think of the richest country in the world, the USA, the Obama government is still having difficulties in getting his healthcare plan passed. Which country is better to live in? 

Of course, when people with education don’t have an opportunity for a better life, then odd things might happen. One of our tourist guides told us that he used to be an English teacher, but he could not make the ends meet with his month salary of CUC 25, which is equivalent of US$ 25. So he decided to become a tour guide where salary and particularly tips and commission make him earn much more.

Now people are hoping that the recent talks from the Cuban and US presidents about getting closer again and particularly the prospect of the US embargo being lifted creates a lot of hope in Cuba. Casa owners and tourist guides, those in the tourism sector whom we got contact with, all welcome this change as positive, but they want to have a slow change so that Cuba will be able to adapt to the changes without losing its identity to capitalism. Faima, one Casa owner put it: “if one who used to have only CUC 10 in his pocket gets CUC 1,000 all of a sudden, he might do something stupid he better not do. So it is better we go slowly.”

We wish all the Cubans a happy transition, should it happen, hoping that this lively and resourceful people will find a good path on the way….

Dancing away in Havana

After a few years of Salsa practice in hip-stiff Switzerland, we decided to join one of the cuban dancing teacher at Salsa Rica, Ismaray, on a trip to Cuba. Ismaray is that kind of person who looks like she is dancing even while walking or writing an SMS :-). Body parts seem to be disconnected and movable at her will. Pretty much the opposite of me. Dancing, culture and concerts were on the agenda. What a revelation. Looking at how the Cuban dance, at the joy, spontaneity and energy produced on the dancefloor, we asked ourselves what we are doing wrong (and the Cubans most certainly did as well). When I started dancing Salsa about 3 years ago I had to overcome, over time, all kind of things to feel comfortable. Things like pride, fear, emancipation, or sheer disbelief that my feet were made for anything else than, well, to carry my body. During that week in Havana, I was thrown back exactly to that time. Back to square one, so to speak.

We had four days of group classes three hours each every morning. We left our home turf by looking into Afro-Cuban, Timba, Rumba, Son and Yambu with lovely and brutally honest Jenny. Jenny, a well-known professional dancer, tried hard to beat Switzerland out of us. She was sensual, flirty, female, secure and challenging.

Group lessons are great. But sometimes you want somebody to look at you specifically. So we decided to have a few private lessons. Yasuko started with Harold, a gentle, ever-patient Cuban dancer, among others with the National Folkloric Dance Group. He was an excellent teacher and even just watching him and Yasuko was interesting. Then with Yasuko we decided to have a class together and asked Yuko-san, a Japanese dancer/singer who lives in Cuba for more than 15 years to join. Picture this. Yasuko and me doing simple pasitos and “dile que no”s Herold holding Yasuko’s hips to change her moves and Yuko-san holding mine. I was happy not to have more than an old man as audience. It was a brutal back to square one. What we learned is that you do not make much of your upper body, you just move rib cage from left to right vice versa. Sounds easy, right?  Not really…

In the evenings, we typically went out dancing. Twice at the Casa de la Musica in Miramar. A well-known place where lots of famous musicians perform. For Yasuko and me it was a little too loud and the sound quality not honoring the musicians unfortunately. It was a bit like mashing all together, rather than being able to hear the different instruments. But then there are lots of little bars with live music in Habana Vieja. Some a bit touristy, but mostly a nice venue to practice those pasitos again.

Trinidad, a quaint colonial town

With our salsa group we visited Trinidad for two nights. It was unusually cold with wind and some of us were wrapped with fleece and heavy sweater for the evening dinner!

The group decided to have a relaxing afternoon beach outing to the Ancón Beach, after demanding (!) five-day dance sessions. While our Swiss group lazied around on the beach getting suntan, Philippe and I, non-beach-lying-around-people, went for a swim and then a beach walk. The water was refreshing!  In the evening we all enjoyed watching the sun setting over Mojitos…

The town was colorful with perfectly preserved colonial style houses. Yet it has a peaceful country feeling, local people passing by on the horses or horse carts on the cobbled streets and calling out to sell bread and sweets (white, brown meringue, overly sweet looking cakes, etc.)

After the group left again for Havana, we stayed on and we went up to the hill behind the town. The amiable guy who works at the radio broadcasting antenna let us go on the roof of the building and we had a sweeping view of Trinidad, the sea and its surrounding mountainous area. According to him, the surrounding area used to be sugar cane fields, with the white colonial house in the middle, which turned into a psychiatrical hospital now. 

On the next day we went for a two-hour hike to the Javira waterfall in Parque El Cubano (its steep entry fee at CUC 10 per person!). It was a well maintained path and we enjoyed an easy walk, appreciating quiet nature. It was refreshing to be in the nature and I (Yasuko) got my mountain fix – I am not a city person so I need occasional nature injection to keep going : -)

On our last evening we had dinner at the restaurant Cubita. For the first time since we arrived, we enjoyed excellent customer care paired with a good business sense. Not something very common in semi-socialist Cuba. To finish the day, we went to the Casa de la Musica, which, much more than a „casa“ was a stone stairway filled with people, music and dancing. For the first time, we could make sense of the rumba dance show. Thanks to Ismaray and her crew. 

Hiking in Viñales’ splendid Nature

After the hectic and very loud city of Havana, we welcomed the change of scenery – green lush nature (and a small town). Less hectic it is, no doubt, less noisy, not really. Just differently.  The roster crowing competition early in the morning, the pigs and the neighbor’s blaring TV sound in the evening told us, that we are still in Cuba.

We did an afternoon Viñales tour with Nicole and Zenon, starting with amazingly different piña colada at Finca Ecologica (take a piña colada and add mint, basil, lemongrass and cinnamon on top) looking over the Viñales valley. Also, visited a tabaco factory and farm. The tabaco farmer there was a quintessential Cuban man sporting a Panama hat, who delicately rolled tabaco leaves into cigars, dipping the cigar into honey before smoking.  

Apparently the tabaco farmers have to provide the Cuban government with 90% of their crops. They can keep 10% of the crops/products for their own consumption and sale. 

Another economic indicator: one of our guides used to be an English teacher and his monthly earning was CUC 25 (equivalent of US $25). It was hard to make ends meet so he became a tourist guide to make more money.  Most people try to do some kind of side-jobs in related to tourism so they can improve their economic situation.

Many of Cubans we talked to are welcoming a change in the political climate with the US. Opening the trade with the US means more tourists and more opportunities for better life.

On other days we hiked around Los Aquatios with a guide (we were with a very loud Turkish lady who talked non-stop : (  But the views over the valleys were making it up again.

On the next day we tried to walk the path from our casa to the Valle de Silencio with the help of a hand-written map by Papito. There is basically no real path and no signage and as usual we got lost after walking back on the ridge of the large boulders (or mogote) and maneuvered ourselves down a dense, steep and bushy hill. We finally made it down with only some scratches on our legs : ((  After hiking for 5 hours, we saw menacing heavy clouds approaching and unloading a torrential rain just minutes before we got back home without the need to shower anymore. 

Maybe because of walking in the intense sun for 5 hours and/or of getting completely wet in the rain at the end, Philippe did not feel well and he was in the bed for a day. We cancelled our beach outing and I was lazing around in the terrace, occasionally checking on Philippe.

Our Casa owners, Leybis and Papito, were super-friendly and we had a really good time (see our entry on Leybis). 

Havana in Ruins?

One of the most impressive things about Havana is the rich architecture. At the first glance, a building might just look like waiting for demolition. It is often at the second glance only that one can see the richness of details most buildings show. We were wandering around the town thinking that this place would be a renovation architect’s dream. Havana is like that frog waiting to be kissed – ready to be reborn into its past splendor.

Diving in Playa Larga

At the first sight this beach town looked forlorn and run-down. We looked at each other and talked about moving to another destination. But once we started diving, we changed our mind completely!

Between Playa Larga and Playa Giron there are more than 10 dive sites where you can simply put on diving gear, walk over the sandy beach and swim over to fantastic dive spots. No need for takig a boat was a great relief especially for me, because I get easily seasick :((

The water is cobalt-blue and we had superb visibility. Fish is abundant and swimming around you all the time. We saw crab, langoustine, lionfish, barracuda, enormous green moray eels and numerous schools of blue striped grunts. It was idyllic to see a big school of blue fish streaming down to the coral wall in front of you. The walls were impressive – it is said 300 m deep and it is a bit scary, you feel like you would get sucked in the blue-dark abyss…

In the end we dived two days and did a total of 4 dives at Punta Perdiz and Cueva de los Peces. Our dive guide was a young blond Cuban called Jankierl. He was friendly and helpful, especially because I (Yasuko) did not dive almost two years and was a bit nervous at the first dive – the rather rusty tanks and did not help neither :-).

For the rest of our stay we hanged out in the terrace of our casa, Kiki Hostel.

Cuban Transportation

The cuban transportation system seems to lack in just two things: vehicles and spare parts. But the Cubans have become incredibly resourceful and creative to keep their vehicles running. A 1947 Chevrolet with a newer Mitsubishi Motor – works perfectly well. From sheer beauty to sheer imagination – impressive.

The Cubans are very proud of their cars – all of them are completely polished!

Casa Particular “Leibys & Papito”, Viñales

We stayed four nights at a this super friendly, clean and well equipped “Casa Particular” of Leibys y Papito Zapatero in January 2015. Leibys is the soul of the house, takes care of her guests and the dog. Papito likes to chat and help his guests. Despite our helpless Spanish and with the help of Leibys pretty OK English we got to talk quite a bit. One day, Leibys had us cook with her, as we love to get to know local cuisine from within the kitchen. A great experience, as Leibys is a rather good cook with a well equipped kitchen.

Cubans have great difficulties to get internet access. Anything beyond email is often considered a miracle and if miracles happen, then painfully slow. That leads to a lack of information, among others about accommodation options for travelers. So we decided to write a little something about this house we liked so much.

This casa particular is located about 7 walking minutes from the center and bus station. It rents out two rooms. Both have external, individual access, two queen size beds with a good mattress, a bathroom with shower, AC, a table, mosquito nets, and a big fridge filled with beverages and whatever else needs to be cooled. There is a wardrobe to hang a few clothes, but that’s it in regards of storage space. A lot of small touches show that Leibys previously worked in a hotel. There is for example a small booklet describing the services the house provides. Laundry, meals, trips in and around Viñales, massages and a small selection of drinks and cocktails are offered in-house or organized through external providers. The night was 20 CUC for the room, breakfast 4 CUC pp.

But our preferred feature is a little outside lounge looking out to the Viñales valley. It was a perfect place to hang out and relax sitting in a rocking chair, enjoying the breeze over a cold beer. The owners are apparently planning to build a small swimming pool next to the lounge which should be ready for summer 2015. Oh, and if you need your shoes fixed, Papito is a shoemaker.

One thing you’ll have to accept is the relatively loud noise level due to early morning roster crowing competitions and potentially loud neighbors (TV). But Cuba is a loud country. Travel with ear-plugs.

Below pictures contain a map and the business card with detailed contact information. But anyway:

Phone: +53 1 53 59 14 61

Enjoy… and say hi to the lovely hosts when you see them…