Two mature aged people who love travelling and learning along the way... Our names are Rob (Robyn) & darian in the 60+ vintage of travellers keen to visit parts of the world which will stretch us mentally, physically and emotionally.

29 June 2016

Cuba - Mojitos anyone?

Two hours later after leaving a very modern Panama City behind, we seemingly descended through a time warp and landed at Havana’s international airport in Cuba, a country we had been keen to visit before any changing relationships with the USA had more profound impacts on its way of life... if you know what I mean.

Four out of our original six travelled to Cuba for a 11 day private tour arranged through two Australian based companies, ‘Please Yourself Travel’ who partner with ‘Cuban Adventures’ (http://www.cubagrouptour.com).  We added two extra days in Havana onto the suggested itinerary and the rest of the time we visited in order, the towns of Viñales, Cienfuegos via the Bay of Pigs, Trinidad and Santa Clara.  We even passed through a town named Australia… seriously.

Now for a few maps, the first showing Cuba's location relative to Central America and the USA and then the towns we visited are shown below on the actual route we took through what is essentially only a small portion of the 1,250km long island of Cuba; yes it’s a lot bigger than we thought also.
Flight from Panama to Havana

Actual route around Cuba... big isn't it

Actual towns/cities visited
Now rather than a blow by blow type of description of our tour around Cuba, I would prefer to focus on some of our experiences, the people, their culture and a little of Cuba’s history to try and put some of how Cuba works into context.
Some cool dudes busking not far from our Havana accomodation
Anything written from here on needs to be read in conjunction with a few key Cuban historical events which helped explain to us at least, why Cuba is the way it is, so please bear with me because this country really is a fabulous place to visit, but more on that later.

Cuba’s modern history begun when Spain’s Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492!  After many years under Spanish rule and domination, Cuba became the focus of a few other countries aggressive attention by way of attacks and invasions over the last 150 years.  For example:
ð   The British navy in 1741, 1748 and 1752 conducted various attacks around Cuba and in 1762, Great Britain wrested control of Cuba from Spain but then returned it to them in exchange for Florida in 1763.
ð   There were frequent attacks on Cuba by pirates and buccaneers operating in and around the Caribbean.
ð   In 1898 after the Spanish/American wars, America gained control of Cuba but then Cuba achieved formal independence in 1902.
ð   After a rapid build up from 1953, in 1959 a revolution lead by Fidel and Raul Castro overthrew the USA backed and Mafia linked, corrupt President Battista.  In Fidel Castro’s team was the famous Argentinian, ‘Che’ Guevara.
The revered 'Che'
     In 1959, Cuba became a communist country and remains so today.
ð   1960 saw the commencement of severe trade embargoes enforced by the USA on Cuba.
ð   In 1961, a CIA (USA) financed and trained group of Cuban refugees invaded the Bay of Pigs and was comprehensibly defeated.
ð   1962 was the date of the Cuban missile crisis between Kennedy vs. Khrushchev, that then lead to the cessation of any relationships between the USA and Cuba, and even further tightening of trade restrictions.

Now keep in mind that Cuba sits a mere 145kms from the coast of the USA and is not very far from the very vital Panama Canal, a trade route aggressively protected by the USA to maintain its trade revenues.

Everything went really smoothly and exactly as promised for this tour, so a credit to the companies we booked through.  We met our guide for the tour on the first night in Havana, Olexis, a former English teacher at a University, and he ensured we learned about Cuba as we visited each town.  He was very good and balanced in his approach, with an obvious pride in being Cuban but very open about those things the population aspires for, increased prosperity.

A local enjoying cuban cigar
Olexis had changed to the tourism industry to increase his prosperity because a very good average wage in Cuba is around 36 USDs equivalent per month, and a normal average is around 16 USDs per month.  Make no mistake, this is not a wealthy country but Cuba’s most important assets, its people, seem happy and a real delight to be with.

Locals queuing to change money.  There are queues for lots of services
When we first arrived in Cuba it becomes obvious almost immediately that this is a country which has almost stood still economically for a very long time as evidenced by all the old cars in various states of repair and buildings which are very time-worn and in need of considerable maintenance.  

It reminded me of when I was growing up in the late 1950’s where everything was recycled somehow and people were very inventive about how to repair and maintain things, or re-purpose them.
Old train being repaired using what they can scrounge together
Cuba however has very good education and health systems that are free to residents and its historical trade opportunities have been centred on sugar, rum and cigars.  We can confirm they REALLY do make good rum and cigars after we bought some from a local in their home, his elderly mother asleep in a bed behind us.
Rob & Lorna enjoying good Cuban rum
Tourism has now become in recent years, probably the primary means of increasing wealth for Cuba and the locals are very well aware of this.  As a result, no matter where we travelled in Cuba, we were made to feel welcomed by very warm, friendly and engaging people who have a wonderful sense of humour and fun, despite their lack of personal prosperity. 

Breakfast at one of the casas
In each city or town, we stayed in casas or homestays; very similar to B&B’s back home and this was a truly rewarding experience.  Most of our hosts spoke little or no English and we spoke virtually no Spanish but it didn’t matter one iota.  

Their warmth and enthusiasm to ensure we enjoyed ourselves was refreshing and we were able to engage in some communication and sharing by using offline Google Translate, very helpful indeed. 

The ability of residents to be licenced to run casas as a private wealth creating business is relatively recent so hosts really protect this opportunity and we would recommend this style of accommodation to anyone planning to visit Cuba… stay in casas!

There are a few things you need to get used to in Cuba very quickly. For example, there are 2 physical currencies they run, one the locals use and one we tourists use and the tourist’s currency is called CUCs (Cuban Convertibles), with 1 CUC roughly equal to $1 US.

Cuba is a very cost effective destination for tourists to visit with the usual cost for mojito, pina colada or margarita cocktails of 3 CUCs.  They have a nice local custom in many venues having ordered say a pina colada when they deliver the pina colada mixture in a good-sized glass and plonk a bottle of rum down next to it.  You then decide how much rum you have with your cocktail… no extra charge!
We enjoyed some good healthy food in Cuba

Local acquiring monthly rations
A meal plus drinks in a good Cuban restaurant, was cheaper than a normal pub meal back home and the food was really good, especially if you ordered pork or chicken and their seafood offerings weren’t at all shabby either.  

Now whilst we were enjoying all this, the locals still receive Government sponsored rations for staples like rice, cooking oil, beans etc. each month and they have shops only the locals can buy things in. 


In each town we found amazing old buildings in various stages of restoration, each telling its own story of elegance brought to Cuba by the Spanish particularly but also by the Americans during the 1930’s.  

There are also huge numbers of formerly beautiful buildings falling apart and unable currently to be fixed because their owners simply don’t have the money and wealth creation capacity to do this.

Negotiating horse drawn taxis on main roads
Transport is a huge issue throughout Cuba and cars or trucks are extremely expensive, so what we did see in every town and in Havana were horse drawn carts being used as taxis, or people getting around within each town on horseback like in the old west. 

Buses for locals usually consisted of a tray top truck with bench seats in the back and a metal canopy over the top with holes cut out of it for a view and some glass to help during the rainy season.

Bus on the freeway

local trasport - Trinidad
The locals do a lot of hitchhiking to get around and we would see large groups of people standing at road intersections or freeway overpasses trying to hitch a lift.  Yes there are some freeways in Cuba, built from around 1927, but again we did have to avoid some large holes due to a lack of maintenance.

First ride in old car, 1959 Buick convertible
Now to the cars, those wonderful old cars!  We thought that Havana would be the main location to see the old cars Cuba is famous for, but no, they were everywhere we travelled.  

Cannot tell you how many times we would stop walking, just to watch an old car go by and the first one we travelled in for a 1hr tour was a red and white 1959 Buick convertible still with its original motor.

We did hear sadly that Americans are already offering big bucks to buy old cars and freight them back to the USA.  The money being offered could change the lives of a Cuban family, but the loss of the old cars out of Cuba would change forever the character of the country and one of the reasons tourists are flocking to it.  It is one of many dilemmas the country is facing going forward!

Never tired of looking at the parade of old cars
Our taxi for a few days back in Havana
During our last 2 days in Havana we had two exceptional experiences in old cars.  

The last casa we stayed in was about 30 mins from old Havana so they organised a taxi for us to use a number of times, in fact he was a neighbour. 

We had the pleasure of travelling in a fully restored and immaculate 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, which was great when being picked up at midnight after enjoying a cabaret at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a landmark hotel.

Colourful Cuban cabaret, Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Our other experience came after visiting the oldest still operating fort in the world, 

Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro built originally in 1589, to witness the nightly ceremonial firing of an original canon and to watch the sun setting over Havana, both very spectacular indeed.  After the firing, we needed to get back to our casa and were hawked by one of many to accept their taxi, the slight deviation being he wasn’t the driver.

Nightly firing of the canon ceremony - Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro
After negotiating a price, almost as if out of behind a tree, popped this very young man who then lead us to the ‘taxi’, oh boy, it was a Russian Lada, a very old Lada missing most things except doors, tyres and steering wheel.  Being bigger I crawled into the front seat without any foam, the other 3 squeezing into the back and we were away, exhaust smoke sneaking in from behind and the rear windows unable to be opened.  I wound down my window to help clear the air but also to let out the sound coming from the boom box.

In front of our 'Uber Cuba'
After a few engine stalls and almost cleaning up a few pedestrians, we made it back to the casa and when we stopped, the driver jumped out and ran back down the street into the darkness and we hadn’t even paid yet.  

A bit dumbfounded we stood and waited until back out of the gloom he appeared and we paid but never did know why he took off.  With all that, Geoff quietly said, “welcome to Uber Cuba!”

There was just experience after experience after experience in Cuba, simple things like searching out the source of the music wafting out of a café, or bar, an old building or within an open air park and finding some locals playing music whilst others are enjoying dancing the salsa. 

locals dancing in a park...
...in front of a hotel
lots of music happening everywhere
When sitting at an open air bar enjoying a band, a local sitting a few rows away spotted us and using only a few words of English, asked if we were enjoying ourselves.

Enjoying the music and yes... more rum
Being asked if we're having fun
On a tobacco farm, at 11am watching the owner hand roll a exquisitely crafted cigar the Cubans are renowned for, whilst enjoying yet another mojito in one hand and cigar in the other.
Land cultivation the old way
Watching the cigar craftsman
Simply amazing how it all happened

Enjoying a cigar and mojito
We also happened to be in Cuba when they celebrated May Day and found ourselves smack bang in amongst how they party together, it was noisy, it was friendly and there was a lot of rum.

May Day celebration and party - Trinidad
Every great experience we had invariably involved some sort of wonderful interaction with Cuba’s greatest resource that could be found everywhere… their people and we hope it never changes.
one of the great faces of Cuba
So hopefully by now you have gained a sense that we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cuba and if you harbour a dream to go there sometime, do it soon before the Americans do what they do when they swamp a developing country, but we hope Cuba has the strength and foresight to grow in prosperity whilst retaining who and what they are.

With that, and Cuba being our last country to visit on this trip, we bid a very fond farewell to Olexis then via Mexico City and Los Angeles made our way back home, a lot ‘richer’ for the experiences over almost 8 weeks travelling with good friends.

So till next time in a little while… go well!

till next time...
...as the sun set over Havana from Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro

For more photos of Cuba, just click on the link below:

CLICK HERE for more photos of Cuba 2016


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