I was pleasantly surprised with the standard of the bus from Havana to Trinidad.
It had air-con and I had a couple of seats to myself to sprawl. The ‘bus-guide’ (different to the driver) didn’t speak English but after he’d done the intro in Spanish and French I’d gathered that the journey should take about 5 hours. Re: his role as ‘bus-guide’: I’ve noticed throughout Cuba that there are certain jobs that just don’t exist in the UK. In the Casas there are often about 3 people other than the host family working.
I settled down for the 5 hours, getting rapidly more peckish. We had a stop after about 3 hours, and I hopped off optimistically to the snack counter. Unfortunately my timing coincided with the arrival of a bus full of Cubans, who were given priority in the ‘queue’. I’ve also noticed in Cuba that individual transactions are often very slow (I.e forms to be filled out for a cup of tea….) I therefore decided to try the shop instead. All I could find were some crisp-like snacks. Slight shock upon tasting, the closest description is Garlic Cheetos…. I was actually quite keen on them!!
In Havana I’d been baffled by descriptions I’d read that Cuba’s roads are relatively deserted, but this became evident on the drive to Trinidad. Very few people own a car, and I was overwhelmed by the volume of people hitch-hiking by the motorway!
In the end it took about 6 and a half hours to get to Trinidad. I’d arranged my accommodation through Luis-Miguel and Doris as they are part of a network of Casas across the country Doris had told me that my host in Trinidad would meet me from the bus with a sign, but I hadn’t banked on there being more than one stop in Trinidad! The coach, struggling to navigate the tiny cobbled streets, made its first stop, announced by Mr. Bus-Guide but no one got off, so I stayed seated. It was only once the bus had made a 20-point reverse out of the street that I spied a man alongside the coach holding up a little bit of paper with my name. Much to the driver’s annoyance I piped up, forcing him to re-park!
Trinidad is virtually as it was in 1850. Old cobbled streets, low-rise brightly coloured buildings in colonial style, making it very picturesque to walk around. This was negated somewhat by the constant pestering on the street. I had expected it in Havana but had hoped Trinidad would be more calm. I know that traveling alone invites more attention, but I was already starting to grow really weary of not just being able to walk around the streets and look at the city without feeling self-conscious and like I needed to ‘get somewhere’. I found the safe-haven of the bell tower in the centre of town and spent an enjoyable 10 minutes climbing that. Then I went to sit in the square outside, listened to 2 wrinkled old Cuban men playing music; they genuinely seemed to be playing for enjoyment and the social aspect rather than for the benefit of tourists.
I sat on the bench, and at the prospect of 3 nights in a new town by myself started to feel a little lonely (tiny violins tuning up…) however, just as I was feeling lonely the musicians finished playing and walked past me. I fished out a coin to give them, and they promptly made me the 3rd member of a trio, thrusting some maracas on me and cracking out a tune. A German man approached who wanted a photo of them, they posed with me and with wonderfully German tact he said “NO, not her!! Just you” 😂
The musicians invited me back for 2pm the next day to play with the band – evidently unperturbed by the German’s dislike of my presence, and naturally impressed by my maraca skills.
There was a little old man in the corner of the square selling coconuts, so I headed over to buy one. I was juggling my newly acquired coconut with my purse and someone offered to help, he was traveling too, and I went and sat with him and his 2 friends whilst I drank my coconut. 2 of them were from Germany and 1 from Portugal. Whilst speaking with them I realised that I had definitely not been haggling/pushing prices as much as the standard backpacker whilst in Cuba, they were trying to find rooms for $5 a night each, whilst I was paying $25 (admittedly they were sharing!) but I decided I’m very happy to just be comfy and clean and settled before I start negotiating.
My casa was lovely, I had 2 double beds to myself (a little excessive!) and it had a wonderful patio at the back for breakfast and a roof terrace. Aracelys was the hostess and she lived with her granddaughter who was 19. There was a big photo of her granddaughter dressed in what looked like a wedding dress on the stairs. I’d learnt in Havana about the tradition of Cuban girls having professional photos taken for their 15th birthday. In fact in Havana I’d heard that some of the photos have recently taken a turn towards the provocative. Whilst on the terrace of the Hotel National we saw a girl in high heels, a very short skirt and a backless top being photographed leaning against a lamppost. I gave our guide a knowing nod, that “ah this is one of those that you mentioned” and rather disconcertingly it turned out this was a plain vanilla shoot!! Goodness knows what the raunchy ones are like…
My first evening I had dinner at the casa with Mailla, a French woman who was staying there, on a week’s holiday from her job with MSF in Haiti. We went into town afterwards to ‘the steps’ where there’s live music and salsa dancing every night. We ended up on a table with 2 guys from Trinidad. Mailla spoke some Spanish, I chipped in with my one or two new phrases. For various reasons I decided they didn’t have the best intentions, however we’d already said that we were planning to go to a club in a cave just outside of town the next night so they were insistent we’d meet at the steps at 10pm the next day…
The next morning I headed to the beach. I’d read that Playa Ancon is the best beach on the south coast of Cuba. So I rented my aptly named “Caribbean bike” and set off on the supposedly 16km cycle to the beach – I think it was more like 8! It was mainly downhill on the way there, which was great but didn’t bode well for the return. Especially given the limited gears on the bike. It made me wonder whether my triathlon performances this summer were really due to fitness, or just my bike carrying me!
Playa Ancon certainly lived up to it’s reputation. A beautiful white sand beach. I parked ‘Caribbean bike’ in the car park of the Ancon hotel. Having paid the hotel security guard $1 for bike parking, I strolled through the hotel to the beach. It was only once I was happily perched on a sun lounger that I noticed every single person around me had a coloured wristband and concluded that I had unintentionally bribed my way into an all-inclusive resort.
This was unfortunate, and reminded me of the time that my friend Roseanna and I snuck into an all-inclusive resort on Koh Samui, Thailand. We were paying about £5 a night to stay in a little room on the street behind the beach, but the set-up of the beach effectively meant that you had to be staying in a beachfront hotel to access it. We’d met some Aussie sisters the night before who’d invited us to their hotel to use the pool, so we strolled in, trying to look like we belonged there, settled on some sun-loungers, and were quickly spotted by virtue of us having dark red towels whilst every other person had garish yellow hotel towels. We were shamefully evicted to the ‘commoners’ section of the beach. This was a few years ago, I’m sure that now we’d be given VIP treatment given Roseanna’s new found Thai fame on ‘Talking Thailand’ TV show 🙂
I was keen to avoid a repeat of this situation, but equally I wanted a lounger and the shade of a parasol, so had to make conscious efforts to hide my naked wrists whenever someone vaguely official looking walked past…not entirely relaxing.
Thankfully someone approached after an hour or so and told me I’d just have to pay $2 to rent the lounger for the day so I could then read in peace.
Again, I felt a little lonely at the prospect of a day solo on the beach, especially with tonnes of couples emerging from the all-inclusive resort and frolicking in the sea. This was also frustrating because I wasn’t allowed in the sea as the result of a small operation I had to have before leaving the UK, leading to a 4 week swimming ban – which thankfully is lifted this weekend in time for surfing in Central America! Tempting as the bright blue water looked, especially after a few hours in the sun, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of ending up in a Cuban hospital with an infection! (although Cuba does have some of the best healthcare in the world, with a doctor patient ratio of 1:150).
A relatively uneventful remainder of day at the beach, an Aussie called Dave came to chat to me: he’d had worse money dramas than me…none of his cards worked to withdraw cash! He’d come from a wedding in Mexico so had a few Pesos he could exchange but only enough for a day or so, so he was forced to go to the Canadian embassy (there’s no Australian embassy) and eventually they were able to give him some money. I think it must happen quite often here!
That evening I was totally shattered from the sun and the cycling and ended up falling asleep after dinner, but it was Mailla’s last night and she wanted to go to the club in the cave we’d heard about. So she managed to coax me up and we returned to the steps and ended up joining the German and Portuguese guys for a drink. We also couldn’t avoid the local guys and it transpired they wanted us to pay for them to come to the cave. Which would have been fine if I’d actually got on with them but I basically said no so they got in a Latin American man-huff and walked off. A friendly Swiss man who must have been in his 50s ended up joining us at the cave club, very random but he said he wanted to see it and didn’t want to go alone, and I was actually very glad for his presence when we were walking down dark paths to the club. It was a unique setting, when people said ‘cave’ I pictured something claustrophobic and hot but it was actually vast! However, it was full of slightly miserable looking teenage Cubans, dancing in that “I’m not really having fun I’m just trying to impress boys/girls”, so I didn’t stay too long. An experience nonetheless!
Sunday I signed up for a horse riding adventure out of town to a waterfall.
I turned up at the square at 9am as instructed, paid my agreed $10, was told I’d have to pay another $10 for ‘entrance to the national park’, which I refused, and this was accepted on the condition “you mustn’t tell the other guests what you paid”. This was reiterated to me about 10 times before I was actually allowed to see a horse.
I actually then ended up getting on quite well with the other guests, a couple: Jono (Scottish) and Pia (German) who had met whilst living in Australia, so felt somewhat guilty. We ended up going out for dinner that night to a lonely planet recommended restaurant, the main sell of which was the ‘unlimited starter and desert buffet’….the main of pulled beef was actually very tasty but the buffet was a disaster!! Jono and Pia showed me where they were staying – a really lovely art gallery come casa that had only recently opened.
I’d written Monday off as a travelling day, as I was making the trek from Trinidad over to Vinales in the Pinar Del Rio province in the West. Aracelys organised my transfer, and had said that for the same price as the bus (which I’d have to get to back into Havana then get another bus to Vinales) I could get a minibus which would take me directly, skipping Havana. This turned out to not quite be the case…