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Cuba

Ending How We Began

sunny 30 °C

Overnight Stays: Havana; Varadero (7 nights)

DW - An eternity ago (in April 2011) we had a month not to forget in Playa del Carmen, on the Caribbean side of Mexico, one (1) of our favourite (if not the) places of the Wombat Tour. At that time we had the chance to pop across, only a couple of hundred kilometres, to Cuba, but for whatever reason we opted against it, not really knowing anything about it. 20 months later, when we were over the continual clouds and rain in Brazil, we made the decision that Cuba was going to be our 'Playa del Carmen' for the end of the trip; we were going to (almost) end it as we (almost) started; lazed on white-sandy beaches, and swimming in water warm enough to cook in and clear enough to wee in and be seen.

On the short plane trip from Panama I started looking through our travel insurance specifics, as we'd read that you cannot enter Cuba without health insurance, no problem. We're not really attention to detail travellers (which I've documented numerous times) and had never considered that our insurance doesn't cover the Caribbean. Turns out it doesn't, shit, we may not get into this country. Feeling pretty nervous, we acted calm as we walked through Immigration without even the question of whether we had insurance or not, phew, time to get an injection of Communism.

Cuba is deep embedded with history, especially with all the actions of the Cold War (Bay of Pigs Invasion, Nuclear Missile Crisis) and a place you don't hear a lot about in Oz, I guess because it's so far away, at least a three (3) flight job. We didn't really know what to expect, except for a bunch of cigars and rum, otherwise known as awesome. Our first sights of this wonderful island were interesting and educational in themselves; everything looked about 200 years old. The houses looked only a step up from the slums of Buenos Aires, and the cars were really cool old-school, creating as much smoke as a high-school disco with every acceleration, and we knew we'd found what we were after, somewhere totally isolated from the rest of the world.

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Loz booked all our accommodation for the nine (9) days which was the butt of hours of laughter over the past months. Turns out that most of the beach destinations are resort havens offering all-you-can-whatever packages, not dissimilar to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. But we weren't after that this time, we wanted to get down and dirty with Cuba, do as the Cubans do, so Lozza found us a couple of houses we could stay at. While she was researching she found that it isn't uncommon, in these casas (houses), to book in advance, only to be walked down the street on arrival to their friend's house, as they've since booked out, weird. It first happened online which was fine; our first choice wasn't available so they recommended their friend, Pablo (his house is called 'House of Pablo', awesome), who took us in for our first night, in Havana.
The taxi pulled in, amongst the rundown streets of Habana Viejo (old town), at Pablo's Casa, which from the outside looked like an abandoned shearing shed (as did the rest of the street, and neighbourhood for that matter). On the street, there were Cubans sitting, drinking, smoking, staring at these Gringos, clearly out of their comfort zone, but we were loving it. On the inside Pabo's place was beautiful and tranquil, and him and his sons were incredibly hospitable.

We dropped our bags then went out and about, eventually boarding the HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) Bus for a measly $3 each. We figured, as we only had the one (1) day planned in Havana, that this was going to be our best chance of seeing all the sights. Turns out it was just a bus for tourists that stopped at every hotel, that's pretty well it. The lady on the microphone spoke first in Spanish, then sometimes in English, and all she talked about was what hotel we were stopping at, interesting for no more than half a second. But the bus did take us through some cool parts of the city and the sun was out so it was a great chance to soak in some nice weather and fresh air.

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The food is Cuba certainly isn't world-renowned; in-fact I challenge you to name one (1) traditional Cuban dish. We'd heard from a few sources that it's pretty bland and salty, not heavy in spice and okay at best, certainly no Mexico. We first tested the food out near the end of the HOHO run, at a little cafe near the water, which was in its' second day of business. The burgers pretty well lived up to what we'd expected, but these weren't going to be last or best burgers I'd have for the week, they were merely a warm-up.

Off the bus we decided the best way to see Havana was going to be to talk through Habana Viejo, down random streets, follow the locals. We strolled for ages, with no particular direction, and loved every minute of this rundown unique city, but didn't spot Castro sadly. On every block a local would approach you subtly and whisper, "cigars?" in your ear, to which a simple ignore or shake of the head was enough to get them working on the next tourist. Because of the once Communism, now Socialism in Cuba, every resident is given an allowance per month (I think it's monthly), so they are all equally poor. This is why you have this black market of cigars; dudes who have clearly acquired them illegally, making a street profit to try and get ahead of the game. There's saying that no smile comes for free in Cuba (I don't think it's a famous saying, in fact I don't know if it's actually a saying, but I heard someone say it, so lets say it's a saying), and you can understand why; everyone is so poor so they'll do anything for a tip, anything to give them an edge, so be careful who you smile at in Cuba, they may ask for a handout. On our way back to the casa, cigarless, we popped into a store to check out the price of rum, $5.90 for 700mL of Havana Club, holy cow that's mental!

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At night we returned to the old town, walking everywhere, feeling pretty safe in a low-crime country, in search of a local bar, somewhere where the locals smash down rums like there's no tomorrow, and pay pennies. Sadly such a bar didn't exist, certainly not that we saw anyway. There were a few hole-in-the-wall takeaway places and plenty of tourist bars (bugger that), but we just couldn't quite find what we were looking for. We found something close but immediately walked away when the waitress tried to stitch us up by offering only $7 cocktails, telling us the beer was too hot to drink, what a joke. So we returned home slightly disappointed that we couldn't share a rum with a local legend, oh well.

Pablo's son whipped up some ripper omelettes for breakfast the next morning and roasted one (1) hell of a coffee, probably the best espresso I've ever tasted. We then said our goodbyes to the House of Pablo (love that name) and taxied to the bus station for the three (3) ride to Varadero, time for paradise. Being one (1) of the most popular beach places to visit in the Caribbean, we expected Varadero to be filled with high-rise hotels, and more sold-out than David Jones on Boxing Day. Nice surprises are wonderful, and Varadero was a nice surprise; small, quiet, relatively untouched, perfect, exactly what we were after. Turns out the hotels are mostly out of town, up towards the northern end of the peninsula, well away from the House of Esperanza, our digs for the week. As I mentioned before, Loz booked all our accommodation in Cuba, and the House of Pablo got full marks in Havana. We'd originally wanted and planned to stay at the House of Betty and Jorge in Varadero, but we received these hilarious emails from Betty, whose English was obviously unpracticed,
"Dear David
We really sorry about your booking
We really feel sad about that
We have a big problem in your booking time in our place
The place have a lot of problems
So we give you our apologies because you and couple can't be with us in our place
But we talked we other friend of mine that she have a good place nearby of my house
Her name is Esperanza sure you gonna like this place"

"You can't imagine what we feel about you won't stay with me and my family
Well the next time sur we gonna be together
Have a nice day and see you soon
Lisbet and family"

Loz and I had so so many moments when we just read a re-read the emails, laughing more than we've laughed for the entire trip I reckon, so comical.

So we found Esperanza, who spoke absolutely no English, checked in, and made our way across the road to the beach, fingers crossed. Much to our delight Varadero Beach is the nicest beach we've ever been to; bright clear blue water gliding onto silky white sand, paradise as you'd expect to see it in the dictionary. Despite Betty's clear disappointment of us not being able to stay with her, we were in one (1) of the most beautiful places in the world, the perfect way to end a perfect trip. And the bed we had was bigger than a king-bed I reckon, mc'massive and comfortable, it just gets better.

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At the supermarket we bought a 10L tub of strawberry yoghurt for $3 and a bottle of Havana Club ron (rum in Spanish) for $5.90, a tough week clearly ahead. We also checked out a coupe of cigar stores and were shocked to find prices of $5+ per cigar, ouch, so much for buying heaps as presents for home. Instead of being royally stitched up, we went against our plan, and grabbed a handful off a local whisperer, seven (7) cigars for $5, that's more like it! Now had the rum and we had the cigars, all that was missing was the hat, a problem we quickly resolved, now we're feeling Cuban.

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It's fairly predictable what we did for the entire week:
1. Sunbake
2. Swim
3. Eat (I had about a thousand delicious burgers from this one restaurant that we went to at least twice a day)
4. Drink ron (ha, ron)
5. Smoke dirty Cuban cigars
Not a bad way to end the trip of a lifetime, you might say.

Having learnt how to Scuba dive only a few hundred kilometres away, in Mexico, I decided to spend a day diving at the Bay of Pigs, on the south coast of the island. The water was a toasty 28'C and you could see so far I think I actually spotted China at one (1) stage. The coral was beautifully colourful, the best I've seen diving (I haven't dived the Barrier Reef yet, only snorkelled), and the sealife was very nice, lots of lionfish. It was a great spot to dive, and I managed to see my first wreck which was loaded with fish (sadly it wasn't a sunken US vessel from the failed invasion, but a deliberately sunken fishing boat). I also dived much deeper than I had ever before, plunging to 34 metres, 16 metres below what my diving licence allows. But this is Cuba, and it's not about rules, it's about money.

I haven't got a whole lot more to say about our time in Cuba, except that we really couldn't have picked a better spot to (almost) end our amazing adventure, the Wombat Tour. It's a place full of history, culture, mediocre food, and amazing beaches. Communism, Castro, Canadians (because Seppos aren't allowed to go there still), and cigars; cool.

Posted by Team W 23:01 Archived in Cuba

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