It’s often the case that you judge a country on first impressions, which aren’t always the most genuine ones however those are the ones that stick. Luckily, with Cuba they were all good ones, especially so after the debacle getting here and a serious lack of sleep.
I flew into Santa Clara because the US-Havana flights weren’t scheduled to begin for another couple of weeks, but as it turned out this was a perfect introduction to the land of Che.
Landing in Abel Santamaría airport felt like going back in time. The reverse culture shock of hitting America yesterday was equalled and exceeded by my arrival to Cuba. Incredible really given the physical proximity to the US, despite them still being such worlds apart. A suitably brown 1980’s airport and a forbidding line of immigration counters where you had to wait to be buzzed through the door into Cuba.
Still, these early moments were entirely positive. A polite and friendly immigration officer. And then catching sight of an absolutely beautiful woman in a strange hockey skirt-type outfit who then greeted me warmly and asked how I was… just a security officer working by the x-ray machine. And then, indeed, the final obstacle of a customs officer who pointed out I’d filled in the form wrong, gave me a new one and smiled pleasantly. If this was a propaganda exercise, it was a GOOD one.
Exiting the airport, I was determined to avoid an official international rate taxi to the town (25CUC= £20- Everywhere. You know it! Think about every airport you’ve been to, it’s always £20!). I found the official money exchange counter and changed up some bucks, and again the extremely pleasant young guy pointed me to the carpark where the private cabs (Boteros) hung out. You Sir, are a STAR.
As it happened, whilst I was crossing the road I saw an absolute howler of a car leaving the car park. Words defy me, but it was some sort of ancient Peugeot “stretched” by the expedient of welding a new front end in the middle. Driven by the archetypal guayabanera shirt-wearing, cigar-smoking and slightly grizzled old Cuban guy that I’d hoped it would be.
Two gringos were in the back- An American/English couple who I’d boarded the flight with. “Where are you going?” “Downtown, hop in!”. Muy bien. The fare for this cab was 10CUC between the three of us. A lot better than 25CUC just for me. I decided to check out their hotel since it was only a couple of blocks off the main square. Beautiful. Seriously so. But unfortunately not only did they not have a spare room for me, the couple’s online booking had failed too, so we all trooped up to the Casa de Maria a few more blocks out of town. Presided over by the seriously lovely Maria, her elderly husband and Nemo, the flatulent but friendly old sausage dog.
I knew Nemo liked me after he waddled into my room as I was sorting out my bags, regarded me briefly through misty eyes and farted both extravagantly and noxiously before waddling out again. A clear sign of affection. Casa de María was lovely too, with a bright, airy double room a reasonable 25CUC per night.
Suitably settled in, I headed out to explore the city.
We were around 3 blocks from the main square Parque Vidal, generally a good place to start and the centre of life and activity in the cities. Surrounded by grand old buildings, the square nonetheless bears the scars of the past. You can see the bullet holes on the facade of the hotel which date back to 1958.
Around the square you also find museums centred around old-style furniture and decoration, however these did not interest me- I was on the trail of Che. Santa Clara has a rich revolutionary history and here is where Dr. Ernesto Guevara and his band of rebels achieved their most unexpected victory, the derailing of an armoured Government train. El Tren Blindado. Indeed here there is a museum dedicated to this event, on the spot where it happened.
It’s fascinating to see such history in action. Santa Clara was the tipping point in the war against the previous Bautista dictatorship, and now proudly holds its strong associations with Che aloft. So much so in fact that, the other side of the city there stands a mausoleum dedicated to key members of the revolution. It’s a few blocks from the main square but a good interesting walk. Along the way there are areas full of anti-imperialist, pro-peace and pro-Cuban wall art.
Arriving at the mausoleum, it’s very difficult to work out where to go. Lots of the Cuban tourist sites are very much designed to cater for tour groups rather than individuals, and as a solo traveller I quite often found it challenging to find my way around the groups.
I’m not entirely sure why, but the predominance of tourist traffic here is older French and German groups. The former, based on my experience here, are quite often incredibly mean, during my time at the museum I was practically run down by one group, with associated Gallic tutting and ‘bof’ing for daring to stray into their monolithic path and then berated by another group’s tour guide for not knowing whether or not to enter the mausoleum (She actually yelled ENTRE? NO ENTRE?! right in my face, what a charmer). I did secure minor childish revenge on this one by smiling broadly at her face and telling her she was a ‘complete wanker’ later on…haha. But yeah, the tour groups here are predominantly awful people. Just awful.
To be fair, if a similar class of crusty English bus tour pensioner actually decided to go ABROAD (especially the ‘scary abroad bits where all the darkies are’) then they’d be just as bad. Sin dudas.
The memorial itself is standard-issue Soviet large scale brutalist architecture, but nonetheless a fascinating place. The mausoleum is a sombre affair containing an ‘eternal flame’ and eulogies to all 26 of the celebrated revolutionaries, and there’s also a museum with interesting and not interesting artefacts within (Here is a radio that Che once may have listened to… etc)
Around the memorial there’s a wide open public space where children play baseball, and fly kites. Also, in Cuba you only get (paid) wifi access within such public spaces, so dotted around the park were families talking to their loved ones in the US and other countries via the unifying magic of the Internet.
After finishing at the Che memorial it was time to wander back to the city. On the whole I tend to avoid getting taxis where I can, simply because the inevitable ripoff really colours my experience of the country overall, generally unfairly so. If you want to save your legs there are plenty of options though, including lots of horse carts here in Santa Clara.
I managed a value-for-money, if not culinary, triumph en route back to Casa Maria, bagging a famous ‘peso pizza’ for the princely sum of 35 cents from a local-oriented Government kiosk. It were alright, an’all!
Suitably showered and refreshed, I set out into the city in search of food. Proper food, the peso pizza didn’t touch the sides!
Most Cuban cities have a bulevar, a somewhat idealistic street containing the best Government shops and restaurants, essentially a version of the popular South American walking streets. Here was no exception.
I went to the Government place (El Gobernador) which received a lukewarm recommendation in TripAdvisor but, possibly fortunately, it was full, so instead I settled for Dos Hermanos restaurant, a private place across the street. What a find. From a reasonably priced menu I asked the waitress what was good. Obviously she recommended the lobster. Hey, it was 7CUC (about £5.50). Let’s give it a go then. Mojito to start? Well of course.
I was bitterly disappointed by the mojito until about halfway down when I realised it hadn’t been stirred. Needless to say the gin half was lovely! The lobster was absolutely fantastic, I didn’t realise that this would probably be the value/price sweet spot of the entire trip. Brown rice and plentiful veg too, they really went all out and I did leave a very decent tip.
After then I was slightly at a loss, but remembered it was the week when Ciudad Metal was taking place… Cuba’s only metal festival. I couldn’t miss that, surely. So, I decided to head to Bar Mejunje, where Lonely Planet assured me crazy and counter-cultural things would be taking place. Sadly, as I arrived there was a small gaggle of distinctly un-crazy looking young German backpackers and a man who wouldn’t let anyone in for some unknown reason.
There was also a group of young Cubans in black band t-shirts with guitars, getting into a tuk-tuk. YES. “Guys, are you going to the stadium?” “Yes sure, hop in”. “Are you performing?” “Yes!” This was epic, readers.
We arrived, and the stadium wasn’t really a stadium, just a makeshift stage with some street vendors hanging around and loads of young Cubans in Slipknot and Pantera t-shirts. So far, so good. I went up to a vendor, and asked for a rum. I received an entire plastic cup of it, a good 200ml, for 1 CUC. Good, good times. Throatwarming.
After an interminable wait the band came on, and they were great. Very, very noisy but great. I lasted a couple of songs before thinking that I really ought to not have another rum and really ought to head in the direction of “home”. That’s the thing with casas particulares, it feels like you’re staying at your gran’s house in some of them and I didn’t want to keep them up late.
Against my better instincts, I walked back the 20 blocks or so, but as it happened it wasn’t remotely dodgy. I was directed every few blocks by polite, lovely people. I was really starting to warm to Cuba, and passing the atmospheric main square en route just confirmed this.
The next morning, I was up bright and early for a tour of the nearby cigar factory. Absolutely fascinating, I’d never considered it quite such an art, combining the different leaves for flavour, aroma and a good burn and all made by skilled craftsmen (and mainly women) at their tables. This factory was one of several across the country, with this one alone producing 15,000 cigars a DAY.
I’d love to regale you with photos but they weren’t allowed, and the woman leading the tour was ON POINT spotting sly ones. I’d slipped off my lens cap and hoped to fire off a few shots but she spotted it and instantly (smilingly) told me off! Thankfully my American friend managed a few covert iPhone shots. She didn’t bother e-mailing them to me though. Minus points.
After the tour, there was just time to walk back to the Casa and meet the taxi to the bus station. He said that I should book a place in Trinidad, my next destination, and Maria did so. I wish I hadn’t, and please don’t do this, there really is no need as there are literally hundreds of Casas in every city. He charged the three of us CUC5 to get to the bus station, another overcharge, but such is life.
Arriving at the bus station my British/American friends collected their Internet-booked tickets, whilst I just had to wait with my name on the list to see if there were free seats. 11am came and went, and it really didn’t look promising. But luckily there were a few people in a similar situation around the ticket office- A Cuban woman visiting family and an Italian couple. So, as things often turn out on the road, we clubbed together and asked a few colectivo drivers for a price. 10CUC each- Basically the same as the bus. Let’s go!
It’s almost not worth using the bus services in Cuba. The main foreigner-friendly line is Viazul, but you have to book it ages in advance and places are seriously limited. Clearly this is excellent for Maria and Hans from Duisberg who love planning, but I prefer a bit of spontaneity.
Colectivos are seriously easy to hook up via your guesthouse, and are generally within a couple of CUC’s of the bus fare. The other great advantage (Particularly when going to Havana as the station is miles out of town) is that they take you direct to your destination guesthouse. And they are a lot quicker.
In my case this was a dubious advantage- But you’ll read all about it in my Trinidad instalment!