Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

Cuba

Santiago de Cuba 1

After only a few hours sleep, we got up at 3 am, whispered goodbye to Lourdes’ husband who got up just for us and took our pre booked taxi to the airport. The streets of Habana Viejo were dark and completely quiet when we left, which was very special. The airport was quite confusing, since the check-in for AeroCarribean was done at the Cubana-desk and vice versa. Also everything took a lot of time, and Cubans obviously don’t know how to stand in line. An annoying tour guide tried to get ahead of us in the line and was constantly at the desk asking questions. We went up to departures, but not much happened and the annoying tour guide was no where to be seen. We went back down, and was told to go through a door in the end of the check-in area instead. It was obvious that most passengers were less frequent travelers than us. Most of them had to go through security 4-5 times, because they had jewelery, belts, coins etc. We also saw a lot of people coming back out of the security room throwing away lighters, so we moved ours to smart locations and went straight through without any problems. In the waiting room there were no information at all, other than a screen saying check in, even after scheduled departure. 30 minutes later there finally was some information in Spanish about boarding order, but no one listened and they had to check all boarding cards manually to queue people up. We boarded our ATR-72 which had very little space, hardly any reading lights working and baggage lockers who didn’t stay open. It was also strange for us to see people struggling with understanding the seat belts etc.

We made up some time in the air and arrived 20 minutes late in Santiago de Cuba. Before entering the airport everybody had to wash their hands, and people were again doing what they could to be first in line. At the baggage claim everyone got big trolleys and went to the front. When we saw our bag they would hardly let us through to pick it up. On the outside our host Yalissy was waiting for us and took us to a very shabby Lada taxi who took us to our casa for 15 CUC. We got a double room, but since we booked twin room they had put in an extra bed. After settling in we had breakfast in the kitchen 7 hours after we got up. We walked to Hotel Melia to get some more cash, and had to wait in line for quite a while since they didn’t have an ATM. We also went on the internet there to check a few things regarding our rental car to Pinar del Rio, our flight ticket back to Havana and possible busses to Baracoa. We continued along Ava Victoriano Garzón which was partly closed and full of stalls, small restaurants, carousels and pretty much ready for a huge party. We later checked with Yalissy, and she told us it would be closed until January 6th. The Cubans definitely knows how to party!

We continued to the city centre and had a beer at Patio los dos Abuelos on Plaza de Marte. They had a very nice back yard and are known for genuine local music in the evenings. Should probably go back there one night. We walked through a lot of pedestrian streets with loads of people, stalls, live turkeys etc. Among the things we saw on our walk were Plaza di Dolores, Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau, Liberia la Escalara (a very charming bookstore where we bought some notebooks), Casa de la Trova (Cuba’s first trova house), Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Parque Céspedes, Balcón de Velázques (great view and good ice cream, but the terracotta-tiled roofs described in the guidebook was pretty much all gone), Padre Pico steps (a terracotta staircase built into the hillside), El Tivoli (not as picturesque as described in the guidebook after hurricane Sandy), Clock Tower, Parque Alameda and plenty of other beautiful houses and squares. All over the city we could see signs of the hurricane, lots of trees had fallen down, roofs were gone and some restaurants and houses were completely destroyed. But it seemed that they had gotten a lot of work done in the past months, so it was a lot better than we expected.

We stopped at a supermarket to buy a lot of beer, rum, coke and some water, before taking a taxi back to our casa. It had been a very long day, so we relaxed with a beer on our balcony, had a shower, did some blogging, had some Cuba Libre and didn’t really want to go out again to eat dinner. Instead our host Yalissy made us som warm sandwiches and we went to bed around 11 pm.

Havana 2

The day before we had agreed to have breakfast at “ocho y media” (0830) but we overslept because we had a room that did not have outdoor window and to have a dark room in the morning was kind of new to us. We used a long time this morning, looking at the view and the street life, meeting their daughter and grand daughter etc, and did not leave the casa before 11 am. When we were about to go out the door, a couple from New Zealand got out of their room, and we started chatting. They were going to Trinidad, and we gave them of course all the tips we could remember before they left in a taxi. We started our day walking towards the train station and the remains of the city wall, avoiding all streets with tourists. It was fun to see the normal life in the streets, boys playing baseball and small shops out off the window of private houses. After strawling through the streets for about 15 minutes we arrived at the city wall. It was not much left, but we got an impression of the size. The train station was more impressive, but when we got close we saw that it could use some restoration as almost everything else in the city.

We walked back to Plaza Viejo to have a beer, the microbrewery seemed closed so we did go across the plaza to a place called Cafe Taberna (more about that later). After the short rest, we took an elevator up to the highest building around the plaza where they have something called “Camera Obscura”. This is an optical device that gives you a live 360 Degrees view of the city with zoom and focus. Very impressive! There was also a great view from the terrace on the top. From there we had a plan to go to the chocolate museum, but since there was a long line to get in and we”re not really that into chocolate, we continued to the Havana Club Rum Museum instead. We walked around on the first floor, to the bar and shop, but skipped the museum part since we already did that last year at the Rum Factory. Then we went to a official cigar shop, to check out the prices (all cigar and rum prices are fixed) and buy a cigar cutter.

We followed another of Lourdes” recommendations and had lunch at the roof terrace of Paladar La Moneda Cubana by the cathedral. Great views and good food. We stopped by Museo de Farmacia, before we went to several car rental companies to try to book a rental car for Pinar del Rio in January. None of them had any cars available, and we started to think of other options to get there. We ended up at a business center in a large hotel, and learned that internet has gotten slightly faster in Cuba since last year, but it”s still really slow. We didn”t manage to book bus tickets online, so just in case we did a search for rental cars (the same companies that we visited), and actually found one available car that we booked. 🙂 We started talking to some locals and bought them a couple of mojitos in a bar. They gave us a couple of sigars and two local pesos for souvenirs. A girl claimed to be a hairdresser and braided Gunnhild”s hair, using plastic from cigarette packs as hairbands. Lots of people started showing up, so we made an excuse, payed the check an left before it got expensive.

We stopped by Las Estaciones for a beer. The waitress from last night (Lily) came over and talked to us, asked where we were from and wanted to be friends on Facebook. The lady on the table next to us (Vilma) had picked up that we were from Norway and wanted to say hi. She told us that she had worked at the Cuban Embassy in Norway for 14 years, but now had moved back to Cuba. She had travelled a lot around Norway and the Nordic countries (more than us), and had several very good friends from Norway she met trough work in the embassy (politicians, union, culture etc). She told us many great stories of her travels and official meetings, some of them including people we know from the media. Her husband, Ernesto, turned out to be a chef at Cafe Taberna where we had a beer earlier that day. He went home to get some sigars that he gave us as gifts and he also showed us some tricks regarding cutting it, lighting it etc. In return we went home to get the last rest of Akevitt we brought from norway, it was not much but Vilma loved the guesture. Vilma had also travelled quite a bit in Cuba, so we got a lot of suggestions regarding what to see and do around Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. We had ordered a taxi for 0330 the next morning, so we planned to go home early, but we had such a great time, and when some of their friends came by we had to have a beer with them as well. One of them was a painter, and we agreed that when we got back to Havana in January we would go for dinner at Ernesto”s restaurant, and he would take us til his friend”s studio. Vilma wrote down her address and all contact information so that we could stay in touch and maybe stay at their place the next time we visit Cuba. Lily”s nephew was hanging around in the restaurant, and we gave him some drawing paper and a flashlight. He really connected with Fredrik, and was laughing out loud when Fredrik lit up his ears or fingers. We finally said goodbye to everyone around 10 pm, and went back to the casa to pack and get ready for Santiago de Cuba.

Havana

We got up at 0730 for catching the plane to Havana. The airport in San José was very structured and efficient, so we had plenty of time for shopping. We found most of the things we needed for Cuba, and managed to spend all the colones we had left. At boarding there was some chaos because a lot of passengers didn’t have their Cuba visas, but they were able to get them there if they just payed what was probably a high price. The plane was only half full and we got seats by an emergency exit, so we had plenty of space. We were a bit delayed from San José, but with a flight time of less than two hours we landed ahead of schedule. At the airport in Havana there was no lines at all, so we got through immigration and the health check in no time, but then Fredrik got stopped in customs and we ended up answering a very long questionare about our jobs, our travels, our previous trip to Cuba, our cameras etc. The customs officer was really nice and quite jealous of Fredrik’s camera, and wished us a good trip, merry Christmas and happy new year when he was finally finished with all the questions. In the arrival hall we were welcomed by our taxi driver with a sign saying “Fredrik & Gunnhild”. We went to the ATM to get som CUC before heading towards Habana Viejo.

When we arrived at Casa Lourdes she was waiting at the balcony with the key to the front door in a long string. We got a very warm welcome, and got a small but nice room in the back. We had a beer from the honor bar and looked at the view towards Capitolo while she was doing the paperwork, and then walked to Plaza Viejo just a few blocks away. We had a couple of beers and some light snack at the microbrewery there (Taberna di la Muralla), and then walked around in a lot of small and unknown streets to really get into the Havana vibe. We had a cheap mojito (2 CUC/USD) with mainly rum (since that is cheaper than the other ingredients) before we ended up up in Bar Monserate. There we had a few drinks, a cigar and listened to the band, but since the guests were mainly tourists we felt it was time to move on. We couldn’t really find a nice bar in the area without all the tourists, so we asked a police officer if he had a suggestion. He told a young female officer to take us to Bar dos Hermanos. She even came into the bar with us to make sure that there would be music later. The bar had a mix of locals and tourists, but only the right kind of tourists. We started talking to Carolina and Andrés from Columbia, and had a great time there for a couple of hours. In the evening we went to a paladar suggested by our host Lourdes called Las Estaciones. We ordered several different local “tapas dishes” which was all really, really good. We also liked the mood of the place, and talked a bit to one of the waitresses. Back in the casa we had to knock on the door (as agreed), and were let in by Lourdes’ husband. He didn’t speak much English, but we quite easily ordered breakfast for the next morning in Spanish before going to bed.

Looking forward to Christmas

This Christmas will be celebrated in Central America. We will fly in to Panama City from Amsterdam; from there we will go to Boca del Toro. This should be perfect for watersport.

After Boca we will leave Panama for Costa Rica where we will start with turtle watching :). Then we will travel inland up to the cloud forest and volcanos. After six days we will travel by bus to San Jose and from there we will fly to Cuba.

If we can manage to get a casa particular in Santiago de Cuba we will fly down and celebrate New Year and National Liberation Day (January 1st) there, and from there go to Baracoa which are the oldest city in Cuba. The last days we will go to “Tobacco land”, Pinar del Rio, where we hope to meet up with José and Daniel who we met the last time we visited Cuba.


Destination Arrival
1 Panama City, Panama 8 December, 2012
2 Bocas del Toro, Panama 11 December, 2012
3 Liberia, Costa Rica 15 December, 2012
4 Tamarindo, Costa Rica 16 December, 2012
5 Monteverde, Costa Rica 19 December, 2012
6 La Fortuna, Costa Rica 21 December, 2012
7 San Jose, Costa Rica 25 December, 2012
8 Havana, Cuba 26 December, 2012
9 Santiago de Cuba, Cuba 28 December, 2012
10 Baracoa, Cuba 2 January, 2013
11 Havana, Cuba 4 January, 2013
12 Pinar del Rio, Cuba 5 January, 2013

Cienfuegos – Havana

At 0900 we left Cienfuegos and drove via Bay of Pigs towards Havana. We might have missed something, but we didn’t find any nice places on this route. It was mostly forests with no views and tourist resorts wherever we got close to the ocean. We ended up stopping at a banana plantation by the autopista to eat our take-away breakfast.

We arrived in Havana at 1400 and went straight to Hotel Lincoln where we had booked a cheap room. We delivered our rental car without any problems, and tried to get on the internet for the first time in two weeks. It took us 30 minutes to check one email and book a shuttle for Mexico. Really slow!

Back at the hotel we met up with Peter and Ute. He took us to Plaza Vieja, a really nice square in the old town with a brewery pub where we sat down for a few beers and a small dinner. We walked a bit around in Havana, and took a goodbye drink with Peter at the hotel before he left for the airport.

Cienfuegos

We started the day at the delfinarium, where Gunnhild and Ute had a swim with the dolphins. When we got there a group of 8 were already in the water, but only one more person showed up after we arrived so we were only 3 people swimming with 2 dolphins. In the beginning it was mainly a photo shoot with kissing and clapping for the camera. Later we got to play and swim around more, and the highlight was standing on the tip of the dolphins’ noses.

We drove out to the entrance of the Cienfuegos Bay where we could see over to Castillo de Jagua, the fortress on the other side and also had a nice view over the bay towards Cienfuegos city.

Back at the casa we managed to get our host Maritza (who didn’t speak English) to help us book a hotel in Havana, copy the dolphinarium pictures from a CD, agree on take-away-breakfast for the next morning and find the most scenic route to Havana. We went to the main street, bought a beer and sat down on a bench watching people and cars. We met Ute at 18 and went to an Italian restaurant where we had a great dinner with wine and paid 15 USD for all three.

While walking around trying to find a nice bar we met a local named Ricardo. After asking where we were from, he told us he had a brother in Røros. We went to a small, local bar for some drinks and a great conversation. We had a good laugh when Ricardo told us that he learned that Norwegians got “drita full” (very, very drunk) on the weekends.

Cienfuegos + Santa Clara

We decided to take a day trip to Santa Clara which was the site of the last battle in the Cuban revolution in 1958. The roads from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara goes through a lot of small villages, and since it was quite early in the morning there were people and animals everywhere and a lot to see and a lot to pay attention to. We stopped at the main attraction, the Che Guevara monument. We tried to go to the museum, but with a lot of tour busses and school excursions the line was too long for us.

We continued to the city center where we stopped in Parque Vidal before going to the Parque del Tren blindado. On our way back we stopped at the Che Guevara monument again, and this time there were no lines. We were also surprised to see that both the museum and the mausoleum had free entry.

Back in Cienfuegos we went for a walk in the old town, before catching a bicycle taxi to La Punta. We had a drink there before walking to Palacio del Valle. Sadly the terrace was closed for renovation, so we only got to take some pictures from the outside. We also went to a nearby park which had a lot of sculptures made of recycled bikes, radiators and other stuff.

After yet another very good and too big dinner at the casa, Gunnhild went to bed while Fredrik had a beer with Maritza and her teacher in Italian.

Trinidad&Cienfuegos

Since we stayed a few days longer in Trinidad than originally planned we ran out of money, and there were no ATM’s in the city. We got up early to go to the bank, but got bad directions and ended up in the wrong bank where they only exchanged money. With all our Euros and a small loan from Ute we managed to pay for the casa and still have money left for the dive. This morning there were a lot more people on the beach since one of the big Ancon Hotels had an organized snorkeling trip. There was also a few more scuba divers. Again Pedro took Ute for a dive and borrowed our camera which now was set to video.

Since we did quite well on our first dive, Mandi took us out to 7 meters depth before going down. At 10 meters we left our camera in a coral since it couldn’t go deeper and we dived through a tunnel out to the reef edge where it was several hundred meters deep. Fredrik brought his computer to the beach so that we could copy the movies onto Pedro’s memory stick. The only problem was that the movies were 6 times bigger than the memory stick, so we ended up giving away a couple of memory cards.

We went back to the casa for a shower and a very late check-out, and after so many great days it was hard to say goodbye. We drove 1 hour to Cienfuegos where Mirella and Ivan had booked a casa for us. When we got there the owner was waiting for us, and told us he had no water so he would help us find a different place to stay. We ended up in two different casas owned by two sisters. Ute got a room at Barbara’s and we stayed at Maritza’s. After getting settled we went over to Barbara’s since she was known to make the best mojitos in Cienfuegos, and they were probably right! After a couple of mojitos and a nice chat with two newlyweds from Argentina, we went to Maritza’s for a lobster dinner and some red wine.

Trinidad day 4

Our dive instructor, Pedro, picked us up at the casa and we drove to La Boca in our car to pick up the diving equipment. We continued to a small beach between La Boca and Ancon where the reef was really close to the shore. Except from two Swiss girls we were all alone on the beach. We started with some snorkeling while they were diving, and then Pedro took Ute out for a dive. She was a bit worried, but he was very calm, patient and professional so she had a great experience. We also brought our new underwater camera, and Pedro was documenting Ute’s dive. The two of us had a great dive with dive master Mandi. We went down to 8 meters and Mandi caught two lobsters with his spear. He also took plenty of pictures, and they were both very excited and a bit jealous. We agreed with Pedro that he could come to the casa to get a copy of the pictures.

When we got back to the casa we ordered soup for dinner, thinking it would be a light meal. Mirella and Ivan were in Havana fixing some papers after their trip to Switzerland, so the neighbor made a large bowl of chicken soup for us. While we were sitting in the kitchen going through the dive pictures we smelled something great being cooked somewhere, and Ute went down to ask what it was. Luckily it turned out to be our dinner!

Pedro came by later with a USB-stick borrowed from a friend of a friend, and he was very happy to get the pictures. We also agreed on another dive early the next morning. In the evening we finished the rum, went out to by more but the store was closed. So we had to open a couple of the souvenir bottles bought in Havana.

Trinidad day 3

We were recommended by a lot of people to take the old steam train from Trinidad to Valle de los Ingenios, so this was our plan for the day. We got up early and asked Iván if it was possible to buy some flowers for Ute’s birthday. Mirrella quickly showed up with some freshly picked flowers from one of the neighbours’ gardens that we put on Ute’s place at the breakfast table. At 0930 we boarded the train from 1906 with open carriages and a small bar in the middle carriage. We moved slowly up the valley, stopped a few places to fill water and pick up some locals. At one point the track was a bit too steep for the train, so they had to put coal on the tracks to get us moving.

Our first main stop was Manaca Iznaga where we had an hour to explore and climb the famous Manaca Iznaga Tower, once used to watch the slaves on the plantations. On the way back we stopped for lunch at a ranch and for a toilet stop in another small city. Here we gave away a few pens to a kid waving to us, and suddenly all the kids in the neighborhood was surrounding the train. Luckily we brought a lot of pens…

On the train we met Anthony and Martine from the UK, and shared a lot of travel experiences. They are travelling for up to six months in Middle and South America. After the train ride that arrived at 4 pm instead of 2 pm as expected, we invited them for a drink on our terrace. We had a great time and they almost forgot that they had to pack before leaving to Cienfuegos.

We had a quiet evening with dinner at the casa. In spite of the language barrier we had a long conversation with our hosts and they showed us pictures from their trip to Switzerland, where the highlight seemed to be that they saw snow for the first time.We also managed to explain that we wanted to go snorkeling or scuba diving at the reef if possible, and it turned out that they had a friend who was a diving instructor and he came over 10 minutes later. We agreed on a dive the next day, so we took an early evening.