Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

2012/2013 Central America

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

Panama city

Panama city

After 19 hours of travelling and now sleep the night before, we arrived at the airport more or less on time, everything went smooth through customs and we found our driver that we had ordered from the hotel. Karloz told us that we had to wait for another couple that was arriving soon, so we went outside and was hit by the warm, humid weather. It was around 32 degrees Celsius. Since we went through the airport so fast, we had to wait for a while, but then we had the opportunity to change to some lighter shoes and relax. Ross and Sarah that we were waiting for was a great couple that we have spent more or less all the time together with until now. When we arrived at the hotel we got checked in and met up with Ross and Sarah on a brewpub (La Rana Dorada or Golden Frog) two blocks from the hotel and actually managed to stay awake until 11 pm.

The next day Ross and Sarah had booked a city tour with Karloz, and we decided to join them. We started the day by driving to Panama Viejo, which are ruins from a city founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila, and was burnt down and abandoned after the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan attached the city in 1671. Panama was after the attack rebuilt a few kilometers to the west in what is now called Casco Viejo (where our hotel is located). The next stop on our tour was the causeway islands Isla Naos, Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco. The road out to the islands are made of rock extracted during the excavations from the Panama Canal. The islands had several yacht clubs and american style restaurants and was not that interesting, but the view of the city was fantastic. Then it was time for the Miraflores locks, the first lock on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. The lock consists of two chambers lifting (or lowering) a vessel 16,5 meters. It was an amazing sight to see the big container ships moving through the locks. Our city tour continued to Ancon Hill, the hill was under american jurisdiction during most of the 20th century, so it has not been developed as the rest of the city. Today it is a protected area, with a great view over the city. The tour ended with a walk around Casco Viejo which has a lot of beautiful buildings in a mix of architectural styles and lots of charming squares and monuments. Karloz took us to a hat shop, where Fredrik ended up buying two Panama hats. In the evening we had a few beers with Ross and Sarah at a roof bar and a great dinner with wine.

Panama City 2

The rest of our time in Panama city was spent sightseeing by foot, with plenty of pit-stops in places with air-condition (and often beer). Casco Viejo has a lot of beautiful buildings, but a lot of them are empty and in bad condition. Foreign investors are now restoring some of them, building hotels, jazz clubs etc. We visited the ruins of the church and convent of Santo Domingo with the reconstructed 15 meter arch, Arco Chato. Legend says that this arch was the reason why the US decided to build the canal through Panama instead of Nicaragua with it’s volcanoes and possible earthquakes. We stopped by the cathedral (build between 1688-1794), the church of San Jose with the famous Altar de oro (a massive baroque carved alter covered in gold), the fish marked and walked down the pedestrian street La Peatonal.

On our last evening in the city we ended up back at our favorite pub, La Rana Dorada, where we met an American-Bulgarian couple, a Finnish couple and an american girl living in Panama. We introduced the Finnish couple to our guide, Karloz, so that they could go on a city tour with him the next day. We went for dinner at Monolo caracol, a great restaurant with no menu. Great small dishes just kept coming. Delicious!

Bocas del Toro

We left Panama City by plane from the small and chaotic Albrook airport, and arrived at the even smaller Bocas del Toro airport, where kids were playing soccer at the end of the runway. We were picked up and taken to our charming guesthouse, Bahia del Sol where we have a two bedroom suite with a large balcony.

Our hosts are really nice and told us a lot about the area and what to see and do. After a couple of beers at the public patio, watching the sunset, we took a taxi to the city center and had a great dinner (ceviche and tuna) at El Ultimo Refugio Restaurant.

The next morning we got up early, had a big breakfast and got ready for a full day boat ride around the islands together with some of the other guests at the guesthouse (a Canadian couple, a Finnish couple on their honeymoon and an american girl. All great people!). The boat picked us up at the patio and took us to Dolphin Bay where several very large dolphins where playing around.

After navigating through narrow canals between the mangrove islets we snorkeled for one hour in Coral Cay just off Isla Bastimentos. We also had lunch at a famous local restaurant built over the sea there. The tour continued to a bay where we saw several sloths in the trees, and finally we spent a couple of hours at Red Frog Beach, named after the red poison dart frogs that live in the forests by the beach.

In the evening we went to a cozy wine bar overlooking the main street and the bay with Kim, the American girl from the boat ride. We spent the evening drinking wine, sharing travelling experiences and watching the street life. She was leaving the next day, so we had a goodbye-beer on our balcony before going to bed.

Bocas del Toro 2

Bocas is a synonym for relaxing. We started our second day, after another big breakfast by Jack, on our balcony watching the locals doing their local stuff 😉 After a few hours doing nothing, we took a taxi with Tina that we met at breakfast, to Boca del Drago (starfish beach) for lunch, swimming and seeing the starfish. When we got there we found a “restaurant” that got fresh fish in when we arrived and ordered lunch there, then it was time for more relaxing and looking for the starfish. We had ordered a return taxi trip so we were picked up at 4 pm going back to our guesthouse for a shower before we went to our pre-booked restaurant (Guari-Guari), that we were told that was probably the best restaurant in Panama. We were not disappointed, this restaurant had a 6 course set menu that was fantastic!

Our last day in Bocas del Toro was a very wet day, so we spent a big part of it on our balcony watching birds, reading and looking at our happy neighbors filling up cans and bottles with water. A wet Tina stopped by, and dried up on our balcony for a while. A group from our guesthouse went on a boat trip in the morning when the sun was up, and they arrived back very wet wearing garbage bags. They were still very happy though!

In the late afternoon we went into town, walked around a bit and had a late lunch at Raw Sushi bar. We took a water taxi to “Bibi’s on the beach” at Isla Carenero where we met Tina again. Very cozy restaurant on the water “in the middle of nowhere”. We had a great whisky sour and a very strong Mojito, dinner and beer, good conversations and nice views. When we got back to town there were people everywhere, and it turned out to be a Christmas Parade, with loads of colorful floats with blinking lights, Santa Claus throwing candy to the children, TV cameras and fireworks. Fun, but we didn’t stay too long since we had an early flight to Costa Rica the next morning.

Liberia

We got up and checked out before 7 am, and it felt way too early for breakfast. But Jack had made us a “small portion” which looked and smelled too good to skip. We said goodbye and took a taxi to the airport. The check-in process was quite chaotic, and we were sent from office to office to pay departure taxes, get boarding passes, go through customs and immigration. In the security check Fredrik were chatting with the security guard about Norway and went straight through. Gunnhild on the other hand had to unpack all electronics and give away 3 lighters. No problem, since Fredrik still had two. 😉

We were 19 people (full plane) in a small Twin Otter to San José, and got some good views of Bocas del Toro after take off. In San José we arrived at a very small terminal with mainly helicopters and private planes in addition to the small Nature Air planes. Immigration, baggage claim, security and customs were all in a small room, but with only 19 people it went pretty smoothly.

After a couple of hours our flight to Liberia was boarding. When we booked it it was only going to Liberia, but now it turned out that it would continue to Tamarindo which was our next main destination. Too late to change the tickets, so we got off in Liberia, picked up our bags by the plane and walked to the terminal. We found an ATM and got 100.000 colones (felt like a lot of money but equals 200 USD). We got a taxi to Liberia Hotel which is in Calle Real, half a block from the main square.

We had read that Liberia was a charming colonial town, but it was only a few buildings and after visiting Cuba last year it was not very impressive. It was nice to be in a more genuine city again though, and we walked around most of the city center. It was very, very hot, but there was a cool breeze all the time which made it bearable. In the evening we had our own little beer tasting session in the back yard of our hotel with all the different local beer we could find in the super market. The winner was without a doubt Bavaria Dark.

Tamarindo

Tamarindo

In the morning after a significantly smaller breakfast than we got in Bocas, we ordered a private taxi to take us to Tamarindo (one hour drive). We got to Hotel Villa Amarilla around 1pm, and got a tequila shot with one of the owners (Cinde) at arrival :-). We immediately fell in love with this place, it had a big garden with hammocks and sitting areas in the shadow for complete relaxation and in a corner of the garden they have massage. We got a big room with three beds and a small fridge. Amarilla is located on the beach, so to get in the water we had to walk about 5 meters on high tide and 30 meters on low tide. During the day we watched the surfers, walked on the beach and off course had a swim.

At sunset we had a good risotto with lobster dinner on a beach restaurant two minutes walk from the hotel. We had scheduled a turtle watching tour this evening and got picked up by the hotel at time. We were told that there was few leatherbacks, so we couldn’t expect to see any of those, but there should be 95 present chance to see black turtles. They are smaller, but still quite big turtles. We walked to the end of the beach to have the moon shine helping us spot the turtles when they came up of the water. On the walk to the end of the beach we walked by a few big hatching holes (1.5 meter in diameter) one with hatched eggs from yesterday. We ended up seeing 3 black turtles but no hatching 🙁

When we got back to the hotel, we started talking to Zak, Jesse and Sharon. This talk ended up with playing Norwegian music until 3 am with a lot of beer and tequila. Nice!

Tamarindo 2

We did not get up very early the next day, and things did not go very fast. We ended up cooking our own breakfast bought at the super marked in the kitchen at the hotel. We had a few swims, laying in the hammock relaxing, reading books, talking to TJ (the other owner of the hotel) and in the afternoon watching the beautiful sunset. In the evening we went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. Later we sat at the patio with Zak, sharing traveling stories and got early to bed.

Another lazy morning, but we got out of the hotel for breakfast at a cozy beach bar. We had booked a sunset snorkeling sail trip (also known as booze cruise) with Zak and Jesse and went out on the boat around 1 pm. When we got there they told us that they had 40 cases of beer and we agreed that we should do what we could to empty their coolers.They also had a special drink that seemed to get stronger and stronger during the trip. When we got to the snorkeling ground we got disappointed because the snorkeling was not very good, but we still had a great time in the net at the front of the catamaran and met a lot of nice people from around the world. The sunset was also a bit disappointing since we were almost on shore when the sun sat, and it actually looked better from the beach by Villa Amarilla.

When we arrived back at the hotel the gate to the beach was closed so we had to climb over, but that was not a problem for four “young” people getting off a booze cruise 🙂 Off course we could have walked around and used the key on the other side of the hotel… We found what we had of beer and tequila to continue the party in the garden. TJ came and joined us with his bottle of tequila and we had a great evening with plenty of laughs. We actually enjoyed it so much that we decided to cancel two nights in La Fortuna and come back to Tamarindo and Villa Amarilla for Christmas instead. Can’t think of a better place to celebrate!

Monteverde

Our last day in Tamarindo (for now) started with a morning swim and a breakfast in the garden. Suddenly a howler monkey came climbing over the fence, crossing the lawn and going into the bushes. One of the other guests tried to feed him with bananas, but he backed off pretty quickly after a mean stare and a scary howl from the monkey. We had a lot of fun watching them climbing around in the trees though. We also had a large lizard relaxing on the roof. At 11 am, Zak and Jesse left to go home to Salt Lake City. We had such a great time together and will definitely stay in touch!

We still had a few hours before we were leaving, so we went for a walk in the city and on the beach, found a crocodile in a small pond by the beach and had some ice cream and fruit at one of the beach bars to cool down. At 2 pm we were picked up by our shuttle that we shared with 4 other people. After a few hours we stopped in a small village where two of the passengers were getting off.

We had a break here and noticed that there were quite a bit of wildlife in the trees. We saw three large parrots, monkeys with babies and lots of other birds. The last part of the ride to Monteverde was very bumpy and we were going up and down steep gravel roads with plenty of curves. We finally arrived in Santa Elena around 6.30 pm and got a warm welcome at Casa Traquilo.

The owners were taking most of the other guests on a hike to a hot spring shortly after we arrived, but we needed to unpack, find some warmer clothes and get something to eat, so we did not join them. We had dinner in the Tree House Restaurant which is built around a large tree and stopped by the supermarket on our way back to buy some beers and a bottle of wine. We had some wine and tried to read a bit in our guidebook, but we soon got too tired and went to bed early.

 

The next morning we woke up really early, since our room had ceiling windows with no curtains and it got pretty light in there. Bread, eggs, fresh fruit etc. was available in the kitchen all day so we could make our own breakfast whenever we wanted. We decided to go to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve for a hike, and one of the other guests (Henrik from Sweden) decided to join us. We took a taxi to the entrance, got a map and a suggested itinerary and started walking. In the beginning it was very cloudy, so we didn’t see much from the lookouts. We changed the itinerary to go deeper into the Reserve and on natural paths instead, and we started spotting a lot of birds, butterflies and insects. It was very steep and quite slippery in a few places, but after a lot of relaxing it was quite good with some exercise. We also went over a very high hanging bridge, and stopped at a beautiful waterfall. We walked most of the trails, in total around 8 km.

After leaving the Reserve we stopped at the Hummingbird Gallery where masses of different hummingbirds were flying around, visiting feeding dispensers filled with sugared water. We took loads of pictures before tasting some local coffee. We decided to walk back to the casa as well (around 5 km), and spotted an animal crossing the road. We didn’t have time to take a good picture, but got one from a distance so we can figure out what it was.

Back at the casa we were told that they would have an End-of-the-world-barbecue in the evening, so all the guests went shopping for food and drinks, and we all had a great time preparing everything. We all gathered in the backyard, some brought drums and guitars, and later in the evening we got our travel speakers. Several people from the neighborhood and some tourists from other hotels also joined us at that time. It was very international and very fun, and luckily the world didn’t end after all.

La Fortuna

Our last day in Monteverde we also woke up early, this time mainly because of heavy rain and wind. So we took our time packing, checking out and chatting with the other guest. When it cleared up we took a hike to a strangler tree the other guests went to before we arrived. The people at the casa were more than willing to take us there for free, but we decided to go on our own. It didn’t look far at all on the map, but since most roads in Monteverde are very, very steep, it was a good hike, especially after hiking all day the day before as well. The host tree that the strangler tree was growing around had died, so it had a hollow core which could be climbed. Sadly it was very slippery after all the rain in the morning so we didn’t dare climbing it all the way to the top, but it was still cool though.

On the way back we stopped for pizza and went back to the casa to say goodbye to everyone before our shuttle at 2 pm. It turned out that 4 other guests had decided to join us in the shuttle, so we got a “private” car the first part of the trip. The road to Lake Arenal was very scenic, but also very bumpy. When we got there we had to wait almost 30 minutes for the boat that would take us to the other side. In this boat we were also joined by people from another big shuttle bus. Some of them were standing outside in the front to take pictures and look at the view, but they all came in when a wave totally soaked all of them. On the other side of the lake we were all crammed into one bus with way to much luggage in the back, so some bags fell down but no one was hurt.

We arrived at Arenal Hostel Resort at 5:30 pm, and we got a nice room with good views towards the volcano (except that it was very cloudy and we couldn’t see anything). We got a free welcome drink in the bar which was very good, and after that ordered our favorite local beer, Bavaria Dark. We went for a walk around the city (which is not very big) and went back to the hotel for a small dinner and a couple of more beers. By this time the bartender had filled up the fridge with Bavaria Dark, hoping that we would stay there all night. Instead we went to bed early, planning to do two tours the next day.

Again we woke up to heavy rain, so we had to change our plans. We had breakfast by the pool, relaxed in the rocking chairs outside our room and finally got up to date on the travel blog. We also got our laundry done and had a great lunch with jumbo shrimps in pineapple sauce and a local dish with rice and chicken. It started to clear up, and we were even able to see the top of the Arenal volcano for a short time.

At 3 pm we went on a canopy / zip line tour to Paraiso. We were the only two people in the tour, and had 3 guides following us around. We started with a short walk through the rain forest before arriving at the first zip line platform. The guides showed us how to do it, checked our gear and sent us off the platform. Fun! In total there were 12 platforms and some of the zip lines were over 350 meters long and 80 meters high. The canopy is located at the canyon of the Arenal River, so we also got great views. We went past two waterfalls, over the river, sometimes over the treetops, other times below or between. On the way we saw two sloths, a snake, a tucan and several other birds. At the bottom we were picked up by a tractor and had a bumpy ride back to the entrance, where a car was waiting and took us back to the hostel. We walked towards the bar, and the bartender remembered us from last night and found two Bavaria Dark before we had time to sit down. At 6 pm they started happy hour, but only on the cheaper beer, but compared to back home the beer is more than cheap enough on full price as well, so that was not a problem. A lot of people gathered around the bar and the pool in the evening, so we stayed there all night, talking to great people from all over the world and giving some recommendations to the people going to Monteverde the next day.

 

Christmas in Tamarindo

We had ordered a shuttle to pick us up at the hostel in La Fortuna at 8 am, the morning persons as we are, we grabbed a fast breakfast before leaving. It was a long drive but better roads than the drive from Monteverde. We arrived at Villa Amarilla around 1 pm. Several of the same people were still there, and we got a very warm welcome. So nice :-).

We went out for a quick lunch, we had decided to go to the best sushi in town, but that was closed. We ended up eating in a pizza place. The rest of the day was swimming and total relaxation. In the evening we went to the Lazy Wave, to taste stingray and the best see bass in Costa Rica. We were not disappointed. Later on we sat in the backyard chatting and having fun. We took an early night.

On Christmas eve we had a late breakfast bought at the supermarket and around 12 pm Fredrik went out to rent a beginners surfboard. He came back with a big board with soft edges, so now it was time to start learning. Lisa (another guest at the hotel) showed us the basics at the beach and then we got into the water. Fredrik was able to stand up on the board tree times 🙂 Gunnhild managed 1 time. It was fun but tiring. A group from the hotel had left early that day to go fishing with TJ. They came home with a big Amber Jack and we had a big dinner in the evening where everyone were invited. The best Christmas eve we could imagine on this side of the Atlantic. Perfect! We also got to talk with some family back home using Skype. It was fun to see the snow and the Christmas decorations, but even more fun to show them the beautiful surroundings we had.

 

Christmas day in San José

We enjoyed our last hours in Tamarindo to the fullest, but at 1130 it was time to say goodbye and leave for the airport. We had such a great time here and met so many great people, so it was sad to go, but we will stay in touch with everyone, and hopefully go back one day. The tiny airport in Tamarindo was only a 5 minute drive from the hotel, and was very basic with two check-in counters and some outdoor benches. Our flight was a bit delayed, so we relaxed with a book in the shadow. We had a direct flight to San Jóse in a small Cessna with 12 seats.

We took a taxi to the hotel, checked in and went down to the restaurant for some lunch. But the restaurant at the hotel was closed and so was pretty much the rest of the city. So we ended up at Sportsmen’s Lounge where we not only got some lunch, but also got to taste two craft beers from Costa Rica. We startet talking to a couple sitting at the bar tasting the same beer, and it turned out they both worked at a brewery in Michigan. Great people! They wanted to go to a place with some more music, people and dancing later, and we agreed to meet at a place suggested by the bartender at 8 pm. In the meantime we went back to change our clothes (it’s a bit colder here than in Tamarindo, only 21 degrees celsius), and went for a walk in the city to try to buy some gifts to bring to Cuba. But we only found a few stores that were open, so we only got a couple of the things on our list. Let’s hope for better luck at the airport tomorrow.

At 8 pm we went to the club as planned, but it was not open yet, so we went back to Sportsmen’s Lounge which was the only place we knew was open. We had some bar snack and another beer, before heading back to the hotel to finish our Costa Rica blog. Tomorrow morning we go to Cuba, and will most likely be completely offline until January 8th.

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.

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.

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.

Santiago de Cuba 2

Gunnhild woke up with a fever (probably caused by the ice cold air condition on the flight from Havana), so we had a slow day. We started with a huge breakfast as always, and walked to Hotel Melia to print the necessary papers for our rental car. It was very sunny and very hot and no shade anywhere, but we continued to the Viazul bus station anyway to buy bus tickets to Baracoa (we couldn’t find the bus online, but Yalissy called them for us to confirm that there was a bus leaving on January 2nd). When all the travelling arrangments were taken care of it was time to be tourists again, and we crossed the street to Plaza de la Revolution. It’s a big square with a huge statue of the local hero Antonio Maceo on his horse, surrounded by a series of bronze sculptures. We also stopped by the museum, but since the guides only spoke Spanish and all signs were in Spanish it wasn’t very interesting.

We found a driver that agreed to take us to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro and back for 20 CUC. Again it was a shabby Lada, but this one actually had a good engine, so it was quite a pleasant drive out of the city. The San Pedro fort is located at the entrance of the Santiago harbour, 10 km southwest of the city. It was built by the Spanish and finished in the early 1700s. It has been an Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997, has a small museum and great views of the coastline and the Sierra Maestra in the background. Our original plan was to also visit Cayo Granma, a small island not far from the fort. But Yalissy told us that this traditional fishing community was hit very hard by hurricane Sandy, and she did not recommend going there. We could see from the fort that a lot of houses were ruined, and some completely gone. But rebuilding seemed to be ongoing all over the island.

 

Back at the casa we relaxed in our air conditioned room for a couple of hours. Lovely (especially with a fever)! Yalissy was as always taking care of us and brought us two large glasses of fresh juice. In the evening we walked to the nearby Paladar Salón Tropical (which was highly recommended both by the guidebook and Trip Advisor). It was located on a roof terrace at the top of the hill, and had great views over most of the city. Gunnhild ordered a chicken soup (watched to many American movies?) that was almost free (1.40 CUC), and Fredrik ordered a mixed seafood dish which contained lobster, shrimps, crab, fish and more. It turned out that the chicken soup and a couple of beers actually worked, and with no more fever we enjoyed a few more drinks while looking out over the city lights. The paladar was obviously located in what used to be an apartment. The toilet in the back was an ordinary bathroom with a tub, and we had to pass some private rooms to get there. Their decorations were also kind of interesting. They had a huge Christmas crib, expanded with additional decorations of Disney dwarfs, Santa Claus, castles, angels and blinking lights. On the terrace the main decoration was a statue of a naked lady with water coming out of her breasts. We ended the evening on our balcony with a rum, before going to bed around midnight.

Santiago de Cuba 3

Another slow morning. We spent hours just sitting on the balcony watching the daily life. We live a bit outside of the city centre in a residential area, so our neighbour is selling vegetables from his porch, the bakery up the street is very popular, kids are playing with kites from the roof terraces and rush by on home made kick scooters. Ladies wearing hair curlers walk by, people selling flowers, fruit and all kinds of things shout out what they have. After breakfast we did some blogging in notepad and selected some pictures for our blog. We walked a different route towards the city centre, and stumbled upon a group of men preparing a pig for tomorrows traditional barbeque. We stopped at a very local bar for a beer. It was cheap but full of flies, and they only had beers unknown to us (brewed by Bucanero and tasted almost nothing). We tried to find Moncada Museum & Barracs, but since it was Sunday everything was closed, and we’re not completely sure we found the correct buildings. We continued through a lot of small streets, and found several local markets, where people were selling fruit and vegetables, some had a couple of cigarette packs, a few batteries, some hair bands, a pen or two, plumbing equipment etc. In several areas we saw a lot of destruction after hurricane Sandy. A lot of trees were gone, some were still lying there, while other places had been cleaned up and new trees had been planted. Several houses were damaged, and we also saw a couple that were completely crushed. No roofs or walls left, just a mattress left in the corner. So sad!

We tried to find somewhere to eat lunch, and ended up in the terrace bar of Hotel Casa Granda. It’s a touristy place, but with shade and great views over Parque Céspedes. We should have known that eating here was not a good idea though. The pizza was expensive and did not taste good at all. After cooling down in the shade a bit, we walked around trying to find a store where we could buy what we needed for New Year’s Eve, but it seemed that everything in the city center was closed. We stopped for a beer at Patio los dos Abuelos, and walked towards Hotel Melia again. On the way there we found an small store that was open and bought two bottles of “expensive” rum (7-8 CUC each). In a small street close to Hotel Melia they were building a stage and playing loud music. People were dancing in the street and drinking rum on their balconies. One of they offered us a taste. Guess we’re good at finding the streets where hardly any tourists go. We spent one hour on the internet, and that was just enough time to copy the text and pictures into the blog and post a link on Facebook. We didn’t have time left to check emails, Facebook or the news, and that was fine. It’s actually quite nice to be (almost) completely offline.

Back at the casa we continued with our favourite activity in Santiago de Cuba, drinking rum and watching the street life from our balcony. A bit up the street a few guys were trying to fix their car in the dark, so Fredrik went over to give them a flashlight. They seemed a bit confused, but soon the entire family came out to look at the car and the flashlight. Fun! We also shared a bit of our rum with the grandfather in our casa, and gave him the rest of the bottle a bit later in the evening. Our closest neighbours were a family with the most beautiful little girl, and later in the evening we had to go down to give her some hairbands and a small flashlight as well. We took some pictures of her and the other kids/youth in the street, and then her grandfather (we believe) came out and wanted to show us something in his house. In the backyard he had a rooster, a hen and a goose. When we got back out, the girl’s flashlight was being studied by the other kids/youth, so we went back up to find some for them as well. Back on our balcony we put on some music, and noticed that the kids were trying to listen. Instead of playing for the entire neighbourhood (it was getting late), we brought the cell phone and the speakers down to the street. More people joined us and we had a great time playing European and American music, playing with the flashlights and trying to communicate in Spanish. A boy (Pedro) from a bit further up the street came down and brought his guitar. He was really good and had a beautiful voice. The others were clapping and singing along. Another great night in Calle Fernandez Marconé!

Santiago de Cuba – New Year’s Eve

Gunnhild had a cold, so we continued with our lazy mornings on the balcony. It was clear that New Year’s Eve was coming up, because the streets were full of people with shopping bags, cakes and live pigs. The neighbor was very busy selling vegetables, and the ones who didn’t bring their own bags had to make bundles of their t-shirts or similar. We had a few drops of rain in the morning, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. The cheapest and most popular “taxis” in town are motorcycles, and it was quite impressive to see ladies in skirts on the back of a motorcycle, with a large cake in one hand and an umbrella in the other. It might actually be better than the ones carrying cakes around in the sun for hours though. A man with a donkey and a carriage stopped by the sidewalk, and obviously spent too long visiting a friend. The donkey got bored and started walking around in the middle of the street. There are hardly any cars here, so the neighbors just laughed and continued what they were doing. As the morning went by it was less shopping and more talking, hugging and laughing in the street. Two guys walked by with a chair and tried to sell it to us for 50 CUC. I don’t think they really wanted to sell it.

After a late breakfast we went shopping again. Since pretty much everything was closed yesterday, we were hoping for better luck today. And we found most of what we were looking for: Ice cube trays, more rum, more coke, baseballs for the kids, lozenges for Gunnhild’s throat, and on the way back we also managed to buy some plastic glasses from a street bar. When we got back to the casa a German guy and his girlfriend (who we met briefly when we arrived) were back, and occupied the balcony, so we moved down to the porch. The owner brought chairs and offered us a taste of his 15 year old Metusalem rum. Very good! Yalissy offered us cake, but we were still full from breakfast, so we passed. From the porch it was a lot easier to talk to the neighbors, and we shared our rum with several of them and with some people just passing by as well. We also gave one of the baseballs we bought to the kids.

We went back to Paladar Salón Tropical for dinner. We stopped by earlier before they opened, but had some communication problems with the ones who were there, so we were not sure if we would get a table or not. We got there a bit early, so even though they were fully booked we got a table inside. They had a special menu this evening, and we of course wanted to try the special holiday dishes, so we ordered pork and turkey. It turned out that the pork was not ready until a bit later, so we changed our order to rabbit, which we had never seen on a menu in Cuba before. We ordered a bottle of red wine, and had an amazing dinner. This paladar is really good!

Back at the casa we continued to share rum with the neighbors. We were told that New Year’s eve is normally a family event for most Cubans, so we planned to go to Ava Victoriano Garzón where we were sure that there would be people out. But free rum obviously worked fine, and when we opened bottle number two the neighbor across the street started to place chairs in the street. He played music on a small stereo inside, and we were invited in for some dancing. The roof of this house was damaged by hurricane Sandy, so we were actually dancing under the stars even if we were inside. More people stopped by, and we ran out of plastic glasses, but our neighbor had more (used, washed and saved). A neighbor further down the street had better speakers, so he took over the music and played for the entire street. People realised that we had bought a lot of rum and was sharing it all, so we didn’t have to ask anymore. It all turned in to one big street party with speaking Spanish, lots of laughter, dancing in the street and happy kids running around with their new flashlights. We showed them how they could put them on a string and swing them around as “firework”. One man brought the left overs from their pork dinner and one had a bottle of champagne for midnight. We hugged and kissed a lot of people and wished everyone “Feliz Año Nuevo”! The kids got coke and the shy little girl next door was not so shy anymore and loved sitting on Fredrik’s lap. The adults and the young kids left the party at around 1 am, and suddenly we were surronded by the older kids who had been hanging out across the street all night. They really wanted to talk to us, but we didn’t understand everything they were trying to say. So we got our English-Spanish phrase book, and they were all immersed. We had given one to Yalissy earlier that day, but we still had one extra. And when kids are this eager to learn at 1 am on New Year’s eve, there was no doubt that they should have it. We helped them for a while with the pronunciation, but went to bed before it got too late. What a way to celebrate the new year!!!

Santiago de Cuba 5

Santiago de Cuba 5

We got up at 9 am on the first day of the year! The street was very quiet and Yalissy came with coffee and tea and asked if it was to early for breakfast and we agreed :). We sat on the balcony watching the neighbors get up. Everybody waved and smiled to us when they got out and saw us. Nice, we made a lot of new friends. After a few hours we ate breakfast with even more fruit than usual and a big piece of cake each. We sat down on the balcony again and went trough the pictures that we had from yesterday. A neighbor came over with another piece of cake (Fredrik had to climb over the railing to get it). After two big pieces of cake we agreed that we had to walk it off so we tried to find an open photo shop to develope the pictures from the day before to give them to the neighbors, but no one was open. Before we got out we had talked to Yalissy if she could find a driver to take us to La Gran Piedra, a landmark outside of Santiago de Cuba, so we had to get back to the casa before 2 pm. The driver arrived on time and told us that this was a hard drive for the car so it would be expensive. We agreed that he would drive us for 50 CUC (the same price that the guide book stated that it would cost with a lot of bargain). But before we could leave he had to have a small service on the car, add water, check the breaking fluids etc. When he was finished with that Yalissy had decided that she wanted to come along. Gunnhild closed the door a bit too hard, and we where told that we had to be careful with an old car like this. We soon got the hang of it. The road up to La Gran Piedra was very steep, especially for an old Lada, but with a good driver we arrived on the top without any big problems. We passed a few other cars with overheated radiators on the way up.

When we got outside of the city the destruction of hurricane Sandy hit us, but after we started to get up in the mountain sides it really hit us. The trees that were still standing had almost no leaves left, but most of the trees were laying down with the roots in the air (this was mainly old and very big trees with large roots). On some trees all the branches were ripped off. We saw houses that was completely gone, the only thing that told us that there had been a house there was a small concrete foundation. Our driver told us that this was the first time since Sandy that he was in this area and he was really shocked! When we got up to the top there were 10 cm thick bamboos that were broken right off about 50 cm above the ground. We did not understand how anyone or anything could have survived this.

When we got to the parking at the top we bought water and started to walk the last 452 steps up to the top at 1234 meters. We were told that the steps used to be wet and covered in moss, and that hardly any sunlight got through the dense vegetation. But it was not like this anymore. A lot of the plants and trees were destroyed, and the path was mainly dry. We climed the stairs up on the giant 63000-ton rock laying at the top. It is 51 meters long and 25 meters high and the views were fantastic in all directions. We saw as far as Guantanamo bay 50 km away. After climbing down again we went to Jardin Gran Piedra, a garden built in an old coffee plantation from the 17th century. They had a lot of beautiful flowers but it had probably been destroyed by Sandy as well, because a lot of flowers were just starting to bloom. At the end of the tour around the garden they had a very beautiful orchid garden, and they were also very proud of their “Bird of paradise” flowers. Yalissy filled up the trunk of the car with plants to have at home.

In the evening we had plans to go to a restaurant that was recommended by our guide book, but we were stopped by Yalissy with “something small” which turned out to be a full new year dinner (pork) that she had made for the family. We couldn’t say no. 🙂 After dinner we started copying pictures and videos to a memory stick since we were not able to develop any. We also copied everything to an old cell phone that we agreed that Yalissy should get from us. When we were finished we went inside and showed the videos and pictures on the computer. Yallisy’s kids laughed out load when they saw themselves in the video. We gave Yalissy the phone and the memory stick, and she told us that her cell phone was broken so she really needed it. We helped her get the phone up and running and the text messages were pouring in. We had some crackers in the room and were ready to go to bed when Yalissy showed up with hot sandwiches and fresh juice. What a fantastic host!

Baracoa 1

At 7 am it was time to say goodbye to Yalissy, her family and the few neighbors that were up this early. Yalissy served us tea and coffee before we left, and gave us a bag of sandwiches and juice for the trip to Cuba’s oldest city, Baracoa. It was really sad to leave, but our taxi to the bus station was waiting for us. The check-in was quick and surprisingly efficient, so we sat down in the waiting area and quickly started talking to a couple going on the same bus as us. It took us a while to realise that they were also Norwegian, and that we didn’t have to speak English. They were seated right behind us on the bus, so we pretty much talked the entire bus ride (5 hours). The trip itself was very scenic. We were stopped on a check point when entering the Guantánamo province, and everybody had to leave the bus to wash their hands. After that we continued along the coast to Cajababo where we started on the impressive mountain road, La Farola. This road was not opened until 1964, and before that the only way in and out of Baracoa was by sea. Because of this isolation Baracoa is different from the rest of Cuba when it comes to culture, traditions and especially food.

At the bus station in Baracoa we were picked up by our host José. It was a bit of confusion, since we thought we were staying with Gustavo, we hadn’t booked any pickup and his note said Frederik instead of Fredrik. But as soon as he mentioned Lourdes, which was our host in Havana who booked all the other casas for us, there was no problem. We were taken to our casa in two bici-taxis, one with José and our suitcases, and the other one for us. Baracoa seemed like a small and charming city, with a lot less tourists, and because of that less people yelling “Taxi!”, “Sigars!”, “Casa!”, “Guide!” etc. Lovely! We got a nice room with twin beds on the first floor of Casa Mary y José. There was a back yard just outside our room with two rocking chairs, lots of caged birds and a cute little turtle walking around. On the third floor there was a roof terrace, where we had a beer and relaxed for a while.

After unpacking a bit, and giving 3 bags of laundry to Mary, we went out for a walk in the city. It was a small town, so it didn’t take long before we met the Norwegian couple (Hans & Jorunn) from the bus in the street. We went with them to Cafetería el Parque for lunch before continuing down to Malecon, over to the bus station and back through the city center. We went shopping for some rum to enjoy on the terrace, and agreed to meet again in the evening. We had ordered lobster for dinner at the casa at 8 pm, and finally got to taste the famous Baracoan cuisine. We had a really tasteful soup made on lobster stock, and the lobster itself was prepared with a lot more spices than we are used to from the other parts of Cuba. Delicious!

In the evening we went to Casa de la Trova, house of music. José insisted on going with us, probably to make sure that we got in and got good seats. We were taken to two chairs very close to the stage, but with a view towards the entrance as well. This was perfect because we could see everything happening on stage, and we could also see Hans & Jorunn when they arrived. There was a live band playing, a mix between locals and tourists in the audience, lots of people outside in the street and plenty of good drinks. In the beginning we mainly listened to the music and watched the people dancing in front of the stage. When Hans & Jorunn showed up we moved over to them further back, and later at night it was people dancing everywhere and almost impossible to say no to everyone wanting to dance. A few mojitos also helps you forget that you really don’t know how to dance salsa…

Baracoa 2

We were woken up early because the owner had 5 different bird cages outside our room, again it was a big breakfast, with one of the best coffees Fredrik has ever had. We had decided that we wanted to have a drive outside of town to a river and then to a beach about 20 km outside the city. We were picked up by a big american car that drove us to Rio Toa, where we had a round trip on the river with a rowing boat. When we got back on shore we continued on a very bad road to Playa Managua. The average speed was 15 Km/h, so the 12 km left took almost an hour. When we got to the beach we found Jorunn and Hans that were there with a German couple (Sandra and Christian). We started by cooling off with a dip in the ocean before we ordered a beer from one of the locals selling at the beach. It was one of the better beaches we have been to in Cuba, with no big all inclusive hotels near it. We had another swim before we went back to the car after two and an half hours. The drive back felt faster, but after checking the GPS track the average speed was still 15 Km/h. When we got back to the casa we had a shower and got ready to go out to palidar La Colonial where we had agreed to meet the people from the beach at 7 pm.

We were responsible for booking a table, but our host José didn’t think it was necessary, or at least that’s what we think he said. He didn’t speak a word English. 🙂 Just in case, we went to the paladar 30 minutes early and asked if it was possible to get a table for 6 outside. As always in Cuba, everything can be done, so they moved a big table from inside the paladar out and we had half the terrace to ourselves. We sat down and ordered a beer and looked over the menu, this paladar is known for their special coconut sauce and we agreed that we should order different dishes with that sauce. Jorunn, Hans, Sandra and Christian arrived as agreed at 7 pm. Christian who speaks Spanish took care of the ordering. Gunnhild ordered shark and Fredrik shrimps, and we shared so that we could taste both dishes. Fantastic food! During dinner we ordered 3 bottles of wine and some more beer (all six of us), and after dinner we continued with a lot of rum and cigars. We all told stories, laughed a lot and had a really great time. We had a long dinner and were the last to leave the paladar. We continued to Casa de la Trova, where there was a new and better band than last night.

After more dancing and more drinks, we were standing outside in the street talking after the concert ended. Jorunn bought a CD and got it signed by all the members of the band. Several of them came over to us to talk, and the presenter (or compère) also joined us. He proudly showed us the digital camera he had received as a present from a friend, but he couldn’t use it because it had no memory card. Luckily Gunnhild had a spare one in her purse, and the rest of the evening he walked around with a big smile, taking pictures and promising us a special present if we ever returned to Baracoa. Fun!

Havana 3

BaracoaAnother early morning because of the damn birds. 😀 Since we had to catch a plane to Havana at 2:20 pm we packed our stuff after breakfast, and ordered a bicycle taxi to take us to the airport at 12:30 pm so we could be there the required one and a half hour before the flight. We did not have enough to pay for the room so we went out to get some money. There are no ATM’s in Baracoa and we had to go to the bank, but there was a long line outside. We were advised to go to the exchange office instead, so we grabbed Hans & Jorunn who was also in the line. They had already been at the exchangeoffice and did not get money there because there was a communication problem out of Baracoa. We decided to try Hotel El Castillo, built in the old fort El Castillo de Seboruco. It’s located on a hilltop, so we climed the steps up there in the heat. The view over the city was fantastic, but they didn’t have any possibilty to withdraw money. We were starting to get a bit desperate, since we knew that we did not have enough money. Hans & Jorunn that were going to stay in Baracoa for 2 more, were kind enough to lend us 50 CUC even if they were running out of money as well. We walked down to the exchange office and tried once more just in case, but still no luck.

BicycleHans & Jorunn bought us a beer before we had to say goodbye and go back to the casa to pay before we were leaving. We ended up paying with both CUC and our last USD, since we needed a little bit of money for the bicycle taxi as well. We got both our suitcases on the bicycle and got in i the seats when a man came over and started to talk to us. When he heard we were from Norway, he started talking about his friends there who once gave him two CDs with A-Ha. He really loved them, even though he didn’t have a CD player. He had so many things he wanted to tell us, but we had to leave for the airport. Baracoa is fairly flat, but with two suitcases and two persons it was a bit hard for our taxi “driver”. In the last hill we had to jump off and he pushed the bicycle up before he asked us to jump on again and he took us the last 100 meters. The airport in Baracoa is small and the check-in was quick. We went outside again, but after a short while one of the guys from the airport came out and told us that we had to go in and through security, we did not understand that but did as he said. When we got through security there was a small shop where you could buy water and soda but nothing else. We sat for 1 hour just waiting for boarding to start.

When we arrived in Havana we did not arrive on the international airport, but a small local airport, funny enough named Playa Baracoa Aeroporto, around 1 hour outside of Havana. The Airport was only slightly bigger than the one in Baracoa and they had only one baggage trolley. Since we were the second airplane landing, we had to wait for them to empty the other plane before we got our suitcases, but it was still more efficient that a big airport so we did not complain. When we got out of the airport a taxi was waiting for us. We explained that we needed an ATM to be able to pay him, and he told us that he would stop by one in Havana. Of course the ATM he stopped at did not work. He drove us to Lordes and said that since he knew Lordes we could pay him tomorrow. The first thing on our minds was to get money and since we knew that there was a big “tourist” bank with several ATM’s in Calle Obispo (Tourist street) we went there and finally got money! And when we had money we could go and grab a beer. Perfect! We went back to Lordes, Gunnhild ran trough the shower before we had a Cuba Libre at the casa. Since we had an invitation to eat at La Taberna, we went there and found Ernesto. Jorly He booked us a table for the night before he took us to his artist friend Jorly. When we got there we were welcomed with open arms. Jorly, his wife and his mother were all there and he showed us a lot of his work on a computer (installations, hotel lobbies and paintings) before we were shown up to the second floor to see some of his work that he had there. The work was impressive, but too big for us to bring home (and too expensive). After the look we got all his digital pictures and we were allowed to print them back home for free. That didn’t feel right, so we left some money on the table, even though he refused. When we were about to go to dinner Jorly came with a gift to us, an original painting that he signed and packed so it would not be damaged on the trip back.

Gunnhild, Ernesto & FredrikWe got back to La Taberna just in time for the show, and to have the best view possible to the band, Ernesto had set up our seats inside of the bar! He told us he had gotten special permission from the owner. We quickly realised that this was a very touristy place, with no locals in the audience. But the band was really good with several of the members from Buena Vista Social Club, so there were plenty of locals standing outside the windows listening in. We were served a mojito and then a really good starter, and the tourists on the other side of the bar were all looking at us, wondering how we managed to end up there. Funny! We had earlier agreed with Ernesto that we wanted him to select the main course for us, based on what he considered to be his speciality. That was seafood, so we ordered a bottle of white wine, and got a large dish with a lot of different sea food. Really good! Ernesto came out and told us that he had made our food personally, and he was really happy that we loved it. The other guests had plenty of mojitos, and during the last part of the show most of them were standig up, clapping and dancing. Some dancers were also part of the show, and we were really happy to be safely on the other side as they started bringing tourists to the front for “dance lessons”. When the show was over they brought us the bill. 14 CUC for the wine, and the other one just said Ernesto. We did not expect that!

TrolWhen Ernesto finished in the kitchen, he took us to see their apartment which was just next door. We met Ernesto’s daughter, and found Hanne’s (Vilma’s daughter) room very charming with a lot of pictures from Norwegian fairytales. They had art by Jorly on the walls and a very nice balcony. We still had one more friend we wanted to meet in Havana, Lily at Las Estaciones, so we agreed with Ernesto that he would meet us there as soon as he could change out of his chef uniform. Lily was so happy when she saw us and hardly left our table all evening. We had a really great time and talked a lot with Ernesto and Lily mainly in Spanish. At closing time Lily brought us the bill, but said that it was no problem to order more afterwards. Time just flew by, and suddenly it was 3 am. We said goodbye to Ernesto and Lily, sent our regards to Vilma and went back to the casa for a few hours sleep. As always we had to knock on the door, and Lourdes husband opened for us smiling as always. After way too much food the last few days, we wanted just a small breakfast before we left the next day, so we asked if it was possible to skip the omelet, the bread, the ham, the cheese ++ and just have some fresh fruit. That was of course no problem so we went to sleep happy after yet another fantastic but surreal day.

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Pinar del Rio 1

Lordes and the keyFor breakfast we got a large platter with a big pile of fresh fruit. So much for trying to order a small breakfast. 🙂 Our friend Tom back in Norway had given us his old digital camera, and we had decided that Lourdes who has been taking care of us the entire trip, changing our bookings when needed, arranging airport pickup etc. was the one who deserved it the most. Also she is a grandmother to 3 girls and is one of the few casas with a webpage. She was so thankful for it, and immediately took a picture of us and said that she would always keep that as the first picture on the camera. After packing our bags, we paid for the room and the taxi from the airport, and left our luggage in the living room. We walked the few blocks to Hotel Plaza where we were supposed to pick up our rental car. But since pretty much everything is paper based, they had no idea we were coming and didn’t have a car ready for us. After a few phone calls they found an available car at another rental office, and they sent a driver to pick us up. After a lot of paperwork and a quick look at the map, we were ready for the drive back to Lourdes to pick up our luggage, and at around 11.30 am we were heading towards the autopista to Pinar del Rio. Like last year we were offered help by the rental car agency to get out of Havana, but again we did it on our own without any problems.

We arrived in Pinar del Rio around 13.30 pm. We found our casa, but the guests already there wanted to stay a few days extra, so we had been moved to a different one. We had a small car and had put the back seat down to fit all our luggage, but the owner of the casa still jumped in there and guided us to our new casa (Casa Nonna), only a few blocks away. We had a quick look at the room which had two beds, a small kitchen, a fridge and a large bathroom. It looked great, so we moved in right away and had a beer on the terrace while the owner did the paperwork. It turned out that our new casa was only one block from the restaurant where we met our friend José last year, so we walked over there hoping to find him. We didn’t see anyone we recognized, but we sat down in the rocking chairs on the patio for a mojito and a beer. It got a bit too warm after a while, and we took a walk around the city center instead. We realized that it was Saturday, and that banks might be closed the next day. After our previous experience with running out of money, we decided that we should get some extra just in case. We were told that only one bank were still open, and we walked down the main street to find it. And then we suddenly saw a familiar face on the sidewalk; José! We stopped, he looked at us a bit confused, and we all ended up in a big hug. He introduced us to his friend Pedro, and tried to explain who we were, but he was too exited and pretty much ended up saying “Incredible!” over and over again. José and Pedro followed us to the bank and José went in to try to get us in front of the very long line. Gunnhild went into the bank with José, while Fredrik stayed outside talking to Pedro (who spoke very good English). Only one of the cashiers were allowed to handle tourists, so we still had to wait a while. We got a receipt that was about 40 cm long, had to sign 4-5 places and a second cashier was called over to check and sign the transaction. Crazy!

Homebrewing Equipment

Homebrewing equipment outside the roof resturant

We stopped by the casa to change our clothes, because José and Pedro wanted to take us to a classy place where no shorts were allowed. We also picked up some presents that we had brought for them. We went to an appartment building a few blocks away. At the top they had recently opened a restaurant and a bar, and we went to take the elevator up to the 12th floor. José pressed the button and then knocked on the elevator door. After a while the elevator came, and there were a guy handling the buttons, because it seemed that they were not all working as they should. Knocking was probably a good idea. 🙂 At the top we went through a dark bar and out to a large roof terrace with a view of the entire city. Beautiful! We ordered some beer and rum and told Pedro a bit about our last visit in Pinar del Rio, how we got to know José and what we did and where we went. José suggested that we should buy a bottle of rum instead of glasses of rum, since one glass costed 1 CUC, while a bottle of Havana Añejo costed only 6 CUC. Good plan! Pedro & Fredrik Fredrik had brought a couple of left-over cell phones from home, two HTC Wildfire which we gave to José and Pedro. We had put all the photos from our last visit on there along with some pictures from Norway. We also added our contact information and helped them set up time zones, date formats etc. Neither of them had a cell phone, so they were really, really exited. The funniest part might have been when we showed them the game Teeter (the classic labyrinth game where you control a steel ball), and they both got completely hooked. It was probably the first time any of them played a “computer game”. José kept polishing the screen and showed his new cell phone to everyone he met. He was so proud! Pedro was more interested in all the possibilities and Fredrik showed him all the settings, applications etc.

Gunnhild, Jose & FredrikLater in the evening we had a look into the restaurant that was on the same floor. That’s where all the tourists were sitting, eating boring food in air-condition with a view in the wrong direction. So happy we were sitting on the terrace with all the locals instead. We ordered food that was prepared on the outdoor barbeque. José and Pedro ordered pork, while the two of us ordred chicken. We thought that would be quite boring, but it might actually be the best chicken we ever had. We also got to taste the pork, and it was really juicy and good. When the bottle of rum was empty we went down to our casa instead, and emptied the rest of our Santiago de Cuba rum on the terrace. We got our small travel speakers and played European music from our cell phones. We had such a great night with old and new friends, that we decided to go to a local beach about 20 km out of town together the day after. Before that Pedro would take us to the tobacco plantation to buy some sigars.

Pinar del Rio 2

Ready for the beachShortly after we finished our breakfast we heard the doorbell. We expected it to be Pedro, but outside the door was Pedro, José, Ada (Pedro’s sister), Galia (Pedro’s daughter) and Annie (Pedro’s niece) and they brought a huge flower arrangement for us. They told us that it would take to much time for us to go to the tobacco plantation, so José had called them and gotten one of them to come to Pinar del Rio instead. So we placed all five of them in the back seat, stopped outside a house where José ran in and came back after a couple of minutes with a package wrapped in newspapers. We continued out of town towards the small beach town. The roads were pretty bad, so the 20 km took a while, but finally we arrived and stopped at a small restaurant that were normally only for locals (paying in pesos, not CUC). We opened the newspaper package and found a big box of Cohiba Robusto. The price was 120 CUC, which is a lot cheaper than in the official stores where it would cost 340 CUC, so we agreed to buy it. At the restaurant we had some refreshments, the girls showed us their Christmas presents (in Cuba they exchange gifts on January 6th (Epiphany)) and still had a lot to talk about. José had been to a cell phone store in the morning, checking the phone he got from us, and they told him that in Cuba it would easily be sold for 220 CUC, which is a lot of money for them. We explained again that the phones didn’t cost us anything, that they were no longer in use in Norway.

Pedro and Galia After a bit more relaxation we were served a huge platter of lobster. We had a late (but big as always) breakfast and were not very hungry, but José kept feeding us with lobster. And it was really, really good! After eating it was time for some swimming, and we walked down to the beach. Actually there was not much of a beach, but long piers going out in the shallow water. We walked to the end of the pier, sat down to look at the beautiful surroundings for a while before we jumped in the water. We brought our snorkling gear, and saw plenty of fish, a crab and a jellyfish. Two local kids joined us, and the boy got to borrow one of our diving masks for a while. He quickly got a hang of it and went diving for shells that he brough on shore. Galia, Annie, Ada and Pedro also came down after a while, and they told us that it was the very first time on the beach for the girls. So glad we decided to take them there! Pedro also borrowed a mask and a snorkel. It was his first time ever, and Fredrik had to go into the water to show him how to do it. He was so exited about everything he could see, and when his daughter wanted to go with him, he continued to use the snorkel while she was sitting on his back. We relaxed a bit more at the restaurant terrace, having a couple of beers and drying up, before driving back to the city. José paid for everything. On the way back all five in the back fell asleep. We paid for the cigars and gave them a big bag of clothes and other stuff. They could pick what they wanted first, and the rest was for the people at the plantation.

PiñataAfter a quick shower and a change of clothes, we were all back in the car. This time we were going to a birthday party to the son of a friend. Ada had dressed up in one of Gunnhild’s old t-shirts, and the girls had beautiful dresses. The party was in the street, and it was full of kids and grown-ups. There were some benches, but most people were sitting on the sidewalk. Some of the kids were playing “kick the can” without a can. All kids (and tourists obviously) got a cardboard box full of Cuban cakes. We were still not hungry, and especially not for cakes, but we managed to finish most of the box while sitting on the sidewalk with the others. We also brought presents to the birthday boy of course. He got a baseball that we bought in Santiago de Cuba, and lots of paper and color pencils. Jose & Fredrik The highlight of the party was the Piñata. They didn’t hit it with a stick as we expected (probably to be able to reuse it), but opened it from the balcony while kids and grown-ups were standing below “fighting” for the gifts inside. From what we could see there was a littlebit of candy, but mainly it was pencils and school supplies. And the kids were jumping for joy over their brand new pencils. In the car on the way back, we gave the rest of our papers, color pencils, hairbands etc to Galia and Annie. We parked the car outside the casa, and went back to the roof terrace at the 12th floor. This time we ordered a bottle of rum right away, and we also brought 4 of the Cohiba sigars and shared them with José and Pedro. We were still not hungry, but it was clear that our friends were really hoping for something to eat, so we ordered some small tapas dishes. At least that’s what we tried to do, but it was not small and it was not cheap. But everyone got very full and very tired, so we actually left before the bottle was empty. Pedro brought it home, and would save it for another evening.

Going home

On our last day in Cuba, we got up at 8 am, packed our bags and tried to figure out what to wear on the flight back to cold Norway. We spent a bit more money than expected the night before and realised that we might not have enough to pay for the casa and other things we might need on the trip back to Havana. So again we went to the bank, and again there was a long line in front of all of them. We picked the one with the shortest line, and actually managed to get money in less than 30 minutes. This was a “tourist bank” in the main street, so the procedures for withdrawing money was a bit easier.

We got back to the casa, paid our bill and gave away whatever we had left that we didn’t need to bring back to Norway (shampoo, soap, flowers, flashlight etc.). We also got a couple of sandwiches and some cold water for the trip. Just when we started to pack our stuff into the car, Pedro, José and his wife came to say goodbye. They were a bit delayed since José’s wife was recovering from back surgery, and wasn’t able to walk very fast. But they made it just in time, and we gave them a copy of all the pictures from the weekend. Instead of saying goodbye, we said “hasta luego” (see you later), which made it a little less sad. We had exchanged contact information, and hope to stay in touch until next time.

Around 10.30 am, after loads of good wishes and warm hugs we managed to leave and head towards Havana. We stopped along the highway after a while to eat our sandwiches, and shortly after that we picked up a hitch hiker. He seemed very happy with hitching a ride with a quite new car with air condition, instead of sitting in the back of an old American pickup or similar. He didn’t speak English, and was sitting quietly in the back trying not to fall asleep. About half way we stopped for a short break, and managed to talk to him a little bit. He was going to Holguin (quite far), so he wanted us to drop him of where we left the highway. From there he explained (in Spanish) the easiest way to get to Malecon, and we made it there almost without mistakes. Just as we left the highway the fuel lamp started blinking, and after a small detour we didn’t dare running out of fuel, so we stopped at a gas station, using most of the CUC we had left. That was a good idea, because they used the same car to take us to the airport later. Originally we were supposed to deliver the car at the airport, but that was too difficult for the rental company in regards to the paperwork and the deposit. So we went back to the cruise port where we picked up the car, and arrived there around 12.45 pm, 15 minutes earlier than agreed. When we got there the office was closed, and it was almost 13.30 pm when they came running back, worried that we would be late for our flight. But we had plenty of time, so we even let someone else get ahead of us in line, and just spent a little more time looking out on Havana before we left.

We arrived at the airport a little over 3 hours before our flight (they recommend 3 hours for international flights), and our driver was very grateful for the 4 AA batteries we had left in the car. We changed from sandals to more winter-friendly shoes before we went into the terminal. They were just opening the check-in as we arrived, so we got in the line early and were checked in and ready to go a lot sooner than expected. Our flight was a bit delayed, but they said from the start that we would arrive on time in Amsterdam. We were seated next to a nice Norwegian, and had a nice talk with him until dinner, and after that it was time for a movie, a red wine and trying to get tired (it was midnight in Norway when we left Havana). We were able to snooze a little bit, but were quite tired when we arrived in Amsterdam at 9 am. We had less than 1,5 hours there, which was perfect. At 12.10 pm we arrived in Norway where it was snow and -3 degrees Celsius. It’s often a lot colder there in January, so we were quite happy with that. Now the only challenge was to stay awake as long as possible, so that we would be able to sleep through the night and go back to work the next morning. 🙁