Cuba - Fly-Drive March/April 2011

Below you will find a list of pictures, taken on our Fly-Drive trip to Cuba from March 21 2011 to April 9 2011.
The most interesting images have a red bullet in front of them. In a hurry? Just want to see the pictures? Check out the slide show.

March 21: Amsterdam - Havana

Around 2p.m. our Martinair flight took off to Cuba. Fortunately we had a direct connection so it would not take more than 10 hours. We did have a little turbulence, but arrived without problems in Havana around 7p.m. local time. We exchanged some of our euro's to CUCs (more about the currency later) and then left the airport where our taxi was already waiting for us. Before 9p.m. we arrived in our room in the Plaza. After unpacking we went to the top floor to enjoy a Mojito before heading to bed.

March 22: Havana

Early breakfast on the rooftop terrace and then to the lobby where we met Liliana, who had the vouchers of the locations where we would stay. After that we went to Habana Vieja (Old Havana). We went to see the cathedral, some palacios around the square in front of it, the seminario and the Bodeguita del Medio - famous because Ernest Hemingway frequented this. We then went to the Plaza de Armas (more palacios), the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, el Templete and some book stalles. Then on to the Plaza de San Francisco and the Fundacion Destileria Havana Club, home of the world famous Havana Club Rhum. Of course - drinking it quite regularly - we had to take the tour around the distillery.
We then strolled along the bay with the Castillo del Morro on the other side and via again Plaza de Armas into the shopping street of Havana: Calle Obispo. We had lunch at the "Lluvia de Oro" and then went back to the hotel to relax a bit.
In the afternoon we walked on the Malecon (famous boulevard) to the quarter "Vedado". We accidentally ended up at Coppelia, the famous ice cream store (featured in the movie Chocolate y Fresia). The ice cream was delicious. Patricia thought that it would be nice to check if we could attend a baseball game so we walked all the way to the stadium (via the Plaza de Revolucion), only to find out we had to come back the next day. We turned out to be lucky as the game the next day would be the last of the season... We then walked back to the hotel, by then our feet were quit tired... After a shower we went to the Palader "La Julia" for dinner. The food was very good at a reasonable price! We found out that a Paladar (privately run restaurant) is allowed to run 12 tables. Prices are in CUC (aka "convertibles") which have a 1:1 exchange rate with the US Dollar. This CUC is the currency for the tourists. Cuba has a second currency, the peso, which is used by the locals for most products (for some they also have to pay the price in CUC or the equivalent amount in peso). The exchange rate of the CUC with the peso is around 1:20. So for some products, the locals pay some 5%, but that makes sense as they earn their wage in peso too. Basically everything that only goes in CUC is out of reach for the locals. Unless they work in tourism or related industries as that gives a chance of tips in CUC...

March 23: Havana

Around 9a.m. we took a cocotaxi (something like a tuk-tuk) to the stadium. We had to search for the ticket booth for tourists (separate from locals) and had to wait nearly an hour but then we could buy our tickets and enter the stadium. The Industriales (home team) played the Matanzas. Untill the 9th inning everything went well for the Industriales but then they made some mistakes which lead to the tying run: 7-7 and extra innings. After 4 hours finally in the 12th inning, the Matanzas scored a lot of runs, ending the game 14-8.
We walked towards the Plaza de la Revolucion as the taxis near the stadium were quite expensive (15CUC, the way over there was 6) and found a taxi there which brought us back to the hotel for 5CUC.
We had lunch at Florida (accompanied by a great beer: Bucanero Forte). We walked around the Capitolio - an impressive copy of the US Capitol. We took a shower and went to bed early.

March 24: Havana - Viñales

Around 9.30 we met Liliana again as we had to hire the car. Lots of forms to be filled in... Finally we got our car: a Huyundai Atos with clear marks the doors had been bent open before. We checked out and by 10.30 we hit the road. Fortunaly we had clear directions as there are very few road signs providing clues where you are in Havana (or Cuba in general apart from the main highway). Once we were on the highway we encountered all kinds of vehicles we had not expected: bikes, horse and carriages, horses, etc. sometimes even heading our way...
In Viñales we had trouble finding our casa particolar (we're still not sure we stayed at the correct one). But we ended up at Azcuy Norte #9 "El Niño". We stressed that our voucher meant we already had paid, and that was acknowledged. As it turns out, most money is made off the food you eat at the casa, which means it is lucrative to steal customers from other casas, don't cash the payment for the stay, but earn a living off the food.
The people at the casa were very friendly. The Spanish courses Arjen took earlier in 2010/2011 paid off as they spoke only Spanish. We booked an excursion for the next day: walking around the mogotes, tobacco fields, cave and ending with a swimming pool.
We walked to the town center - the whole town was celebrating carnival, echanged some money and had a beer at a terrace - watching people is fun, also in Cuba. We had dinner in the garden behind the casa - very good, but way too much...

March 25: Around Viñales

Viñales was supposed to be quiet - everybody says so - apart from 5 days per year. Right... we managed to choose 3 out of those 5 to be there...
After a night with little sleep due to the party right outside our door we went for the tour around 9. The mogotes are very nice to see. The guide explained a lot about the entire process from the tobacco plant to the cigar. We saw the small new plants, drying leaves and a farmer working the fields and showing us the process of rolling the cigar. We bought a pack of 20. And of course smoked a cigar (well, only a few puffs). Due to a communication error between the lady that took our booking for the tour and the guide, we didn't go swimming, but still enjoyed the tour a lot.
In the afternoon we drove to El Moncada for a tour in the Caverna de Santo Tomás. Really beautiful (and less touristic than some of the other caves in Cuba). We took the guide back to Viñales - hitchhiking is common in Cuba. Back in Viñales we went to the center again and had mojitos at one of the paladars. Around 7.30 we had dinner: lobster! A huge, delicious, lobster, plus 3 courses for 8CUC per person... Officially lobster is forbidden as it is strictly meant to be exported, but usually the paladars manage to get hold of some.
We went to bed early - even though we knew we would hardly sleep because of the noise.

March 26: Around Viñales

Around 9.30 we went for a walk through the countryside. First we headed towards the Dos Hermanas and a huge (and VERY ugly) wallpainting "Mural de la Prehistoria". Then through the tobacco fields and between the mogotes back to Viñales. After lunch we went to the botanic garden. After a few beers in the town center we headed back to our room. Dinner was very good again and then we went to bed.

March 27: Viñales - Soroa

As it would be the last night of the festivities, they stopped even later than the other nights, so we barely slept. Viñales is lovely, just make sure your visit does not coincide with the carnival - or maybe for one night to join in the fun. We loaded the car after paying for the dinners and lunches (in total 84 CUC for 3 dinners and 4 lunches plus drinks - very cheap!). We drove north towards the ocean and took a small detour to stop for coffee near the beach. The scenary was definately different, the closer we got to Soroa: much more palm trees, sugar canes. The road got worse and quite steep, certainly for our car which only had a small engine. We stopped at a viewpoint to have lunch. From there it was a short drive to our hotel "Villa Soroa".
We unpacked and then drove to Las Terrasas. At the info center we explained what we wanted to do and see the next day and they told us what tour to take the next day. No need to book it, but the advance notice, in our opinion, was very useful to ensure there would be a guide the next day. At the terrace of the Rancho Curujey, near the lake, we had drinks before heading back to the hotel.
We went for a swim, then shower and then drinks (mojito - what else) in the bar. The resaturant of the hotel (the only place to eat in Soroa at that time) was clearly occupied by people that were getting paid whether we enjoyed the food and service or not. Very few choices and very poor service - what a difference with the casa and paladars the days before...

March 28: Las Terrassas / Around Soroa

Around 9.30 the guide was ready to start the tour. He led us through the vegetation and explained a lot of what we encountered (birds, trees, lizards and even a snake but also the ruins of one of the old coffee plantations). It is possible to walk around here without a guide (although officially it is not permitted), but you miss out on a lot of information if you don't go there with a guide. After the tour had finished we drove back to the hotel and walked to a very nice viewpoint (steep climb!) and a waterfall (due to the time of year not very impressive to say the least). After a dip in the hotel pool we had a mojito in the pool bar, dinner and then watched some of the Cuban baseball play-offs in our room.

March 29: Soroa - Trinidad

This day we would have to drive halfway across the country. After about 7 miles we went to a gas station to make sure we would not have to stop for at least a couple of hours. As it turned out, we had a flat tire. Some guys helped in changing the wheel. In the mean time another guy had put in some 35 liters of gas - impossible with our small tank which was only half empty... So Patricia negotiated this down to 20. Still to much, but because of the distraction of the flat tire we couldn't tell what it was exactly.
Close to Havana we encountered a new problem. Our map showed the main highway went around Havana on the south side of the city and would then turn into the main highway towards the east of the country. The problem: the road simply ended in a green field some 10 miles before we were in Havana. We took in a guy (he said he was a student) and girl (his sister he said first, when they were inside the car she turned into his friend) that were friendly enough to guide is in the right direction. We dropped off the guy at the university. He then said his friend could drive along. We asked to where exactly. "All the way where you are going." Uhm... Trinidad? "No problem". And then what would she do? "Anything you want". Okay, so we'd been driving a pimp, trying to sell the services of one of his hookers! That explained why she was trying to catch Arjen's attention in the rear view mirror... No thanks... But then we still had no clue where to go. After asking around, someone told us to follow him for a while and then gave directions from there. Very difficult so at some point we asked again. Bad mistake... We ended up with a boy and older woman in our car that would guide us to the start of the main highway to the east. Arjen specifically said they would not get anything for this. Of course when we finally got there (much later than we anticipated) they said they didn't want money for the service - as discussed before - but they did need money for the taxi back. And not a little but 35CUC! Right... Ofcourse they pull the same trick immediately on some tourist heading the opposite way, but they refused to get out of the car. Patricia got very angry and eventually we agreed that they'd get ten, once they were outside the car.
The rest of the trip to Trinidad went smooth. We had lunch in a roadside restaurant and finally around 3.30p.m. we arrived at our hotel. We decided to head into Trinidad by car to get our flat tire fixed. The office of the car rental company gave us directions to the garage where they fixed the tire within 20 minutes. Back at the hotel we had drinks in the pool bar. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant - quite good - and then went to bed.

March 30: Trinidad

We went to Trinidad on foot. First stop was the bank. It took some 30 minutes to exchange money - there was a long queue... We then went to the main square of the town. Many nice buildings close together. It was obvious why the town center is Unesco World Heritage. We went into the Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos and the Museo Historico Municipal - mainly for the view from the towers. We had drinks on the stairs in front of the Casa de la Musica and then walked back to the hotel. On the way we hitched a ride on a horse and carriage of a local farmer. His wife turned out to be penpals with a family in Holland. He asked if later that evening we could pick up mail for that family and post it in Holland - to make sure it would arrive faster (and in our minds we added "and without censorship")...
Back at the hotel we decided to take the car for a ride in the hills outside Trinidad. If you want to do so, make sure you have a car with a more powerful engine than our Atos... After some 10 miles we had to turn back as the car could not go up a steep part of the road. We decided to take the coastal road to La Boca. Worthwhile too! We also had the chance to see where we would be able to park the next day. We then headed back (taking two women from La Boca some 10 miles towards Trinidad).
Back at the hotel we went for a swim. After a shower we picked up the letter from the farmer's wife and then went to a paladar in Trinidad ("Sol y Son"). Dinner was good. We took a taxi back to the hotel.

March 31: Trinidad - Cayo Macho - Trinidad

After an early breakfast we drove to the harbour. Around 9 we could get on board the catamaran and then it was about 2 hours before we reached Cayo Macho (a.k.a. Cayo Iguana because the small island is inhabited by Iguanas). Some of the group got of the boat, the rest went on for some 10 minutes to go snorkling. Arjen gave it a try, but couldn't get used to breathing through the moutpiece and stopped after a couple of minutes. Patricia had similar problems, but managed to overcome them and saw fish in many different colours, black coral and large seaweed.
After a while everybody got back on board and then we went back to the island for lunch. While the crew was preparing it, Arjen managed to take some pictures of fish near the shore. Besides iguanas, there were also some tree rats on the island. All animals were begging for food and if they didn't get any, simply tried to steal it from your plate. Around 2.15 we went back to the harbour.
Around 6.45 we took a taxi to the center of Trinidad. We wanted to have dinner at Trinidad Colonial, but that turned out to be closed for renovations. We then decided to go to Paladar Estela. The tables are set up in a nice garden. The food was delicious. After dinner we walked to the Casa de la Musica for a beer. The singer performing at that moment wasn't very good. The next band sounded promising, but we had asked our taxi driver to pick us up around 9.30 so we couldn't hear them play for long. Back at the hotel we packed some stuff as we planned to leave early the next day.

April 1: Trinidad - Camagüey

When we woke up, we heard the sound of a tropical shower. Fortunately by the time we went to the restaurant for breakfast it was dry. Back in the room it started to rain again, but again when we left it was dry.
On the way to Camagüey we passed through Ciego de Avila and Florida. In Camagüey it was quite difficult to find our way due to the narrow, mostly one way, streets. Eventually Arjen decided to park the car and walk to what we thought was the casa particolar. It turned out that we only had to let the people there know we had arrived. We were then guided to the actual casa. We dropped our bags and went out for lunch. We walked through the center of Camagüey - some churches and nice buildings. The only reason to stay here was that driving from Trinidad straight to Santiago de Cuba would be too long. The afternoon and evening we spent reading.

April 2: Camagüey - Santiago de Cuba

We passed through Las Tunas and Bayamo, now and then taking hitch hikers for usually only some 10 miles. In Santiago we had to search a bit to find the hotel, but it was not too difficult to find. We had lunch in the poolbar. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to swim because the pool had to be cleaned.
Around 6.30 we asked for a cab - turned out the bell boy spoke Dutch really well. He even looked a bit Dutch - if only in the Clarence Seedorf way, he could have been his twin brother. The taxi dropped us of near parque Céspedes. After walking through the center we stopped at the Taberna de Dolores for a draught beer. A couple of paladars that we could have tried for dinner turned out to be closed so we ended up opposite the Taberna de Dolores at La Teresite - not a place I would recommend. We then walked through the center again, looking for some entertainment / music the town is famous for. The music at the Casa de la Trova was too loud so we decided to head back to the hotel.

April 3: Santiago de Cuba

After a late breakfast, we took a cab to parque Céspedes. We saw the cathedral - because there was a mass, we could take a peek inside. We then walked to the Balcon de Velazquez, if you want to take your camera, you pay 1CUC, otherwise it is free. Don't take your camera... Then on to the Plaza de Dolores and Plaza de Marte and back to parque Céspedes. At Hotel Casa Grande we had coffee (Arjen) and tea (Patricia). Then we walked to Calle Padre Pico. From there we took a cocotaxi back to the hotel.
We took our swimsuits and decided to drive the "most beautiful coastal road" to the west of Santiago. The road became a dirt road after 20 miles and after that became quite bad, we decided to turn around. We stopped a couple of times to take a walk along the coast. At Playa Mar Verde we wanted to have a drink. We were told we'd have to eat there as well then. Strange, because the place was full of locals having a drink and no food in sight... We decided to drive back to Santiago. Back at the hotel we decided it was time to put the original wheel back on the car - we were still driving with the replacement. Someone at the hotel did it for us.
Around 6.45 we walked to a nearby Paladar (Salon Tropical). We could sit outside on the rooftop terrace. The food was good and the portions reasonable - and by that we mean not way too large like most other places.

April 4: Santiago de Cuba - Baracoa

Around 8.30 we drove onto the autopista. We weren't sure wether we were heading the right way. When we asked some policemen for directions to Guantánamo, it turned out we were 300m away from the sign pointing us in the right direction. Even Baracoa was already on the sign. After Guantánamo, the road became a very nice coastal road. Near San Antonio del Sur we stopped to take some pictures. At Cayo Babo we took the Farola to Baracoa. The Farola is a road, sometimes quite steep, that twists and turns through the hills between Cayo Babo and Baracoa. At times you have lovely views of the green hills with the ocean in the background.
Around 1p.m. we arrived at El Castillo, one of three castles of Baracoa and currently in use as Hotel. As our room wasn't ready yet, we first had lunch. After unpacking we went to Ecotur to see what excursions we could do. The guy at Ecotur wasn't very helpful. No need to book anything, you could simply take your own car and show up at a park gate. We decided we wanted a second opinion and asked someone at Cubatur. There they said the condition of the roads was not good enough to go there without decent transportation. And they offered guided tours that could be pre-booked. We decided for Parque Humboldt the next day and Rio Toa the day after that. We then walked along the Malecon to Fuerte Matachin on the south end of Baracoa, where we had a drink. Back at the hotel we went for a swim. Around 8p.m. we had dinner at Paladar "El Colonial". The dorade there was very good.

April 5: Parque Nacional Alexander Humboldt / Around Baracoa

We had to be at Cubatur at 9 to meet our guide. We were a bit early and while waiting there, Arjen found a tiny frog. Turns out the smallest kind of frog in the world lives in Parque Humboldt and apparently one of them had found his way to Baracoa.
The road to the park was in a terrible state so we were glad we hadn't taken our own car - that would not have survived... We arrived at the park around 10.30. We took the Balcón de Iberia (about 4.5 mile). Our guide provided lots of details on the wildlife (mostly birds) and the plants. A farmer showed us how coconuts are harvested and we could have a taste of them too. The path lead to some nice viewpoints and a waterfall. Around 2.30 we arrived back at the start and were taken to Playa Maguana. It had a beautiful white beach and blue water. Around 4.30 we drove back to Baracoa.
Around 7 we walked to the third fortified structure "Fuerte de la Punta", currently in use as a state run restaurant. Our experience so far with state run restaurants was not very good, but this one proved to be the exception. It had just re-opened after having been damaged by a hurricane a couple of years before. The fish and crab was delicious!
After dinner we had a cocktail in the hotel and spoke with a couple of Belgians. One of them gave a couple of cigar bands when he found out an acquaintance of us asked us if we could bring back some for his collection.

April 6: Rio Toa - Rio Duaba / Around Baracoa

We were at Cubatur much too early. Arjen stayed and Patricia strolled around the town looking for some photo opportunities. She passed a school where the kids were just doing their daily excercices - including dance. At 9.30 our taxi arrived and together with two other Dutch people (Marijn and Remco) we had also seen the day before, we were driven to the first stop: a factory where coconuts were processed to cocos. They are pealed and burned so the white can easily be taken out. The oil is then pressed out. After that we went to Rancho Toa to see the cocoa trees and there we learned about the process of making chocolate.
One of the employees of the rancho took us by rowing boat down the river Toa to a small strip of beach near where the river enters the ocean. We then walked towards Rio Duaba. On the way we passed a farm where small Palm Trees are being grown untill they reach the point where they are planted in the field. We bought some cocunut and almond cookies - very nice. We went for a swim in Rio Duaba and also the ocean on the other side of the strip of land. As the current was too strong, it was difficult (and probably dangerous) to swim there so we went for the sweet water of the rio again. We then walked back to the Rio Toa and were taken back to the farm. Remco rowed a while as well - he comes from a part of the Netherlands where there area lot of lakes and rowing is a common activity. Back at the farm we had drinks (grapefruit with Rhum) and we bought some bars of Baracoan chocolate.
Back in Baracoa we continued with mojitos on the square. Around 7 we said goodbye to Remco and Marijn and headed back to the Hotel. Around 9.30 we had dinner - sandwiches in the bar.

April 7: Baracoa - Santiago de Cuba - Havana

Our last full day in Cuba we started early. We packed our stuff and drove back the long way to Santiago de Cuba. We had to plan for unforseen delays and a queue to return the car, but as we had no delays and there was only one person already returning his car before it was our turn, we we sitting in the departure hall of the airport at 12.30. Our plane was scheduled for departure at 6.30 so we had a long wait ahead of us. The flight was delayed too so it was 8.30 before we finally took off.
Our plane was an Antonov AN-26. I suspect they weren't meant for civil transport as the front rows had no window. Around 11 we arrived at the hotel. We had a drink and a snack and then quickly went to bed.

April 8: Havana - Paris

Our last day in Havana we started with a tour around the "Partagás" cigar factory. Impressive to see around 600 people doing their part in the process which turns leaves into cigars. We bought some different types in the store as a birthday present for Peter. After that we tried to find some cigar bands for an acquaintance who collects them. We asked around near the factory and were taken to an appartment behind the factory where some of the cigars coming from the factory ended up (being thrown out of a window of the factory, into the appartment...) They didn't want to sell many types of bands as these are the only things proving the brand of the cigars. Without them the cigars have a much lower value.
We then walked towards the Plaza de Armas. As it turned out, they sell collections of bands on the square. We bought a nice collection of pre-revolutionairy bands. After lunch at the Lluvia de Oro we went to the hotel. Around 4p.m. we took a taxi to the airport. When we arrived it started to rain - quite hard! Checkin went smooth and we managed to get euro's for the few CUC we had left (usually the cashiers want to get rid of the dollars). We left Havana later than planned, around 8.45.

April 9: Paris - Amsterdam

It was a bumpy flight during the night. We arrived later than anticipated in Paris, then had to wait for someone to connect the plane to the gate (don't you love the French!) but then the bus quickly took us to the terminal for our flight to Amsterdam. That flight went smooth and quick so we arrived in Amsterdam around 2p.m. and could take public transportation to our house. We had dinner at friends to end our holiday.