Roamingbear's Blog

Travel adventures in Ecuador, Cuba and Vietnam

Mompiche

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Friday 11 November – Saturday 12 November

The bus pulled into its stop at Atacames on the coast at 6:30 am. It wasn’t exactly a bus station, more a stop on the side of the road and there were men on bicycle taxis everywhere. I was the only tourist, so stuck out like a sore thumb with my backpack. It was interesting, the vast majority of the population on the coast is of African descent, originally bought as slaves by the Spanish but when they were freed,  for some reason which I don’t know, most settled on the coast of Ecuador and Colombia. Because of the African roots of most of the inhabitants, the coast had a very different vibe to other parts of Ecuador I had visited.

A ship on the beach at Mompiche

After asking around a bit I discovered that I’d have to catch 2 buses to get to Mompiche, and I waited for the first one on the side of the road for about 1.5 hours. The ticket inspector said he’d tell me when to get off to get to Mompiche, and I asked the guy I was sitting next to to tell me when to get off for Mompiche so I was set. He was a bank teller and a dad with a big gut and a wooly vest and he was super friendly and told me all about the region.

I was directed to get off at a T-intersection and apparently there I could catch a passing bus to Mompiche.  I really did feel like I was way off the tourist track, but that was a nice feeling. I didn’t have to wait long for a bus that was headed to Mompiche, and after buying my breakfast of freshly cooked, piping hot empanadas from same elderly ladies on the bus, I was starting to feel much better.

The scenery was very much that of the countryside. Mompiche, at first glance, didn’t seem to be anything that  special – the town entrance was a bit dirty with lots of rubbish everywhere, although when you got into the town centre and saw the magnificent beach I could understand why Igor had raved  about the place. It had a kind of hippy, surfer vibe, with all the shops and houses made from wood with thatched roofs and nothing overly commercial like supermarkets or fancy hotels.

'El Erizo' hostel

As I was wandering around the owner of a fresh juice and smoothie stand, who introduced himself as ‘El Negrito’ leapt up from his stall and greeted me with an enthusiastic handshake and a huge smile. I bought one of his smoothies, banana and coconut which was absolutely amazing, then found a hostel called ‘El Erizo’ which I thought looked good. It had dream catchers on the balcony, driftwood and hammocks on the patio and it was reasonably priced. It was run by a family, and the son, Jose, when I enquired about surfing lessons said that he was a surfing instructor and could take me the next day.

Cerviche con patacones

Near El Erizo was a great restaurant which specialised in cerviche. For only $6 I had the best cerviche I’ve ever eaten, made from the freshest prawns and seafood. For the rest of my time in Mompiche I combined El Negrito’s incredible smoothies with cerviche for lunch and dinner, which kept me very happy.

El Negito's incredible smoothie

Along the beach I happened upon a tiny baby turtle which was stranded in the sand, on its back, flapping it’s fins in exhaustion. I was told my some passer -bys that many sea turtles lay there eggs on the beaches of Mompiche, they take about a year to hatch and most of them hatch in December, when there is no moon as it is safer for them to cross the beach and make it to the sea in the dark. I slid the little turtle onto a piece of wood and took him deeper into the waves, I hope it survived.

Although Mompiche is a super-cool place, I think it would be easier to return with a friend or with Pablo. Being a foreign girl on your own here gets one lots of attention, which can get a little tiring! With 3 invitations to go out that night from random men that had started talking to me in the street or on the beach,  I elected to have a seafood dinner and have an early night. I ate some amazing steamed fish with onion, thyme and lemon juice which the owner promised to show me how to make the following night. It was interesting, the owner of the restaurant told me that there were lots of works and cranes on the beach of Mompiche at the moment, because the government had ordered them to build a wall along the beach to protect the town after the Chilean earthquake in February 2010. Apparently after that earthquake, massive waves had flooded Mompiche, which surprised me given its distance from Chile. Just goes to show the immense power of that earthquake.

Mompiche beach

The restaurant owner also told me that tourism in Mompiche had  been damaged by the recent construction of the luxury resort chain ‘De Cameron’ which had been built just a few kilometres away. Apparently De Cameron is packed with tourists all year round, who pay something like $70 a night for accommodation, food and all activities, like surfing and fishing and sailing. Apparently the staff at De Cameron have said things like ‘if you go to Mompiche and eat the food there, we won’t be responsible if you get sick’ which has meant that many tourists now don’t even set foot in the town. So ‘De Cameron’ is not overly popular with the people from Mompiche.

Saturday

I had my surfing lesson with Jose, who was a real character. He was a complete stoner, with a massive smile and one of the happiest, most chilled out person I’ve ever met. He was super content with his life, helping his family run the hostel but also working as a surf instructor. He gave lessons to people like me, but also was employed by De Cameron to give lessons to their clients.

He was a good teacher and was very encouraging which was a great help. I started  with a long board and learnt to lie down on it further back and not too far toward the front of the board. He taught me how to sit on the board while waiting for a good wave, then when you saw one you’ve got to lye down and paddle fast, then when you’d caught it to jump up quickly on the board.  I stood up around 6 times I reckon and it is a really amazing feeling.  Ill have to rent a long board and practice more as I caught a few all by myself so it’s very possible to do it now.

 

That night I went with Jose to a party at the hostel next door. They were a cool bunch of people and eventually we all went to a club and danced salsa until the early hours of the morning. There was an Australian women who was living in Mompiche who was super interesting – her name was Barbara and she was around 40 years old. She had worked as a Chef in Sydney in a restaurant with some really difficult people who didn’t treat her so well. She said that one day she just cracked, resigned in the middle of service time and went home. She flipped a coin and gave herself 2 options – heads = got to Turkey, tails = go to India. It landed on heads so she bought a ticket that night online and the next day was  on a plane to Turkey. She knew no Turkish but learnt it all in the street. She got a job quickly at a restaurant and later was offered a job as a journalist for a newspaper that was written in English for the expats. She had no formal  journalistic training but thought it sounded interesting so accepted the job. She worked there for years, then in 2003 was approached by Reuters press to do war journalism in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said it was the most full on experience of her life, and that many of her articles were changed enormously by the time they went to print. She said she’d often report that 3 people had been killed, and then when she saw her article in print it had been changed to 240, ans she could do nothing about it because it was all published in ‘Reuters press’ and not with her individual name. She said she got paid a stack of money but was nearly killed many times, she had an enormous scar on her leg after a member of the Taliban swung his machete at her in an attempt to kill her.  She said it was such a stressful and unpleasant time in her life that she’d spent the last 2 years chilling out in Mompiche, smoking pot and generally being hedonistic. I found her story fascinating, I suppose I’ve always thought that being a war journalist would be really interesting, but after talking with Barbara and I can how it could really mess you up. She must have seen and experienced some shocking things to feel the need to escape to Mompiche and do nothing for 2 whole years.

 

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Written by roamingbear

July 14, 2011 at 4:31 am

Banyos

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Sunday 7 November – Thursday 11 November 2010

On Sunday morning, slightly hungover, I caught a bus from Latacunga south to Banyos which is a really nice, very touristy and safe feeling town in the mountains.

The terrace at 'Plantas y Blanca'

I stayed at Plantas y Blanco, one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It was really clean, the staff were helpful, the dorms locked and the beds were comfortable. What’s more, it had a super cool terrace up the top with a bar and kitchen which had great views and was a really good spot to socialize. You could also order breakfast in the morning which they cooked for you and they had some extremely good meals at decent prices.

Canyoning in Banyos

On my first full day in Banyos I went canyoning, which is essentially abseiling down numerous waterfalls. It was fun but not amazing, I didn’t get any huge adrenalin rush and don’t think I’d do it again, but it was nice.  That night I went on a ride in a Chiva, which is like a big party bus, with a bunch of other tourists to a look out where you can at times get a glimpse of the active volcano towering over Banyos. It was extremely tacky and of course we weren’t able to see anything from the lookout although there was a nice view of the town at night. I later heard a local in the baths   that the lava from the volcano hadn’t been visible for months. Because of course, the town is called Banyos or ‘Baths’ due to the fantastic thermal springs that you can bath in due to the volcano. I spent most nights lounging around in the steamy thermal water, looking out over the town and up at the moon and stars.

The town of Banyos

Back at the hostel I met a German hippy called Hans. He was a bit weird but he lighted up when he heard that I had worked as a lawyer. He said he needed a lawyer because he had been fined back in Germany for ‘painting walls with art.’ His life passion was graffiti art and for him the most painful think to see was a blank ugly wall, as cities look so much more beautiful with artwork on those walls. He actually had a website, which he showed us, that recorded all of his graffiti art. Most of it was in Germany but he had been busy while here in Ecuador and showed us some of his works here in Banyos. He works in a team back in Germany and they always plan their projects carefully and carry out the painting in the middle of the night. They use paint that they find on the streets when people are throwing it out. His graffiti actually was pretty good and he was immensely proud of his work. He was clear to differentiate himself from taggers, who ‘just give us artists a bad reputation.’ He certainly gave me an alternative view of graffiti artists and opened my eyes to this thriving sub-culture.

Views from the outskirts of town

The following day I rented a bike and rode to Rio Verde. It is a really beautiful ride, downhill most of the way with spectacular views of mountains and valleys. The waterfalls in Rio Verde where well worth seeing p the Plainton del Diablo was particularly impressive, the extreme force of tones of water smashing onto the boulders below certainly was sobering. It was also possible to crawl through this rocky path and stand right beneath the waterfall on the top of the cliff, which was pretty cool.  The day of exercise ended with playing drinking games with some of the other backpackers up on the terrace in the Hostel which was fun.

A monkey from the zoo

There is also a Zoo in Banyos, which I visited the next day with Ron, a lovely German guy from my dorm. The animals were stir crazy, one bear just paced around in tiny circles non-stop the whole time we were there. I think the enclosures were too small for them which was a sad thing to see. Ron spoke very good English and had travelled around Australia a few years ago. He said when he first arrived his English was pretty basic and he worked for a month in the outback in Western Australia doing fencing work on a huge rural property. He said he learnt a lot of English from the Aussie blokes that he was working with, and when he left the property he was saying sentences like “so I left the fucking door open, and then all these fucking flies came in I was like ‘fuck!’” Luckily he soon met an English girl who became his girlfriend and she very quickly fixed up his English!

After the zoo we did a long walk, up many steps to the huge virgin statue on the hill, then around the mountain until we finally reached the café de cielo, which is an expensive resort but also a café with great coffee and food and a fantastic view.

 

Some exotic bird behind bars

I had planned for that to be my last day in Banyos, as my next destination was Mompiche on the coast. Igor, the Ukranian guy whom we helped with tree planting near Las Tolas had recommended Mompiche as one of the best ‘secrets’ of Ecuador. It certainly wasn’t on the tourist track as no-one had heard of it or knew how to get there. I was told by a Mexican necklace-maker that I had chatted to at the waterfalls that to get to Mompiche I should catch a bus to Atacames, which is a popular town on the northern coast for Ecuadorians to go on holidays. From there, I should be able to ask and find a bus that would get me to Mompiche.  A bus that passed through Banyos from Puyo went directly to Atacames on an overnight stretch, so I if I waited on the side of the main road at around 9pm in Banyos I should be able to stop it. It was impossible to book in Banyos and the ‘Latino America’ bus company in Puyo wouldn’t take phone bookings. I waited for ages for the white and purple bus to come, but one went straight past me which may have been my bus. I was getting cold and didn’t want to hang around any longer, so headed back to Plantas y Blanco and was warmly welcomed by the gang I’d been hanging out with at the hostel. I spent the night with them drinking rum and coke and then went to a bar called the leprechaun which as alright.

The next day I was on a bus for 3 hours to get to and come back from Puyo, as I wanted to be sure to book a seat on the bus to Atacames so that I wouldn’t miss it again. I got the ticket, and had a lovely breakfast in the markets for $2 which was much cheaper than eating at the hostel. I went to the baths that night for the last time, and had a chat to a tour guide called William. When I told him that I was off to Atacames and then to Mompiche he looked very concerned “be careful on the coast, don’t trust anyone.” He proceeded to tell me that the first and only time he had been to Atacames, he had escorted a European backpacker whom I assumed he’d picked up in Banyos. He was carrying her backpack and after arriving at night, he suggested that they catch a taxi to their hotel. She wanted to save money and said no, lets just walk. Unfortunately, on a bridge near the beach they were robbed by a gang of young men who carried knives and threatened them with the knives if they didn’t hand over all their gear. He hadn’t taken much with him, but his friend lost her passport, camera and all of her travel gear. “Take a taxi if you arrive there at night” William begged me. I promised him that I would.

 

The facade of the church at sunset

When I got back to the hostel I was greeted with another pleasant travel story about the Ecuadorian coast. A new girl in my dorm was said how she had planned to go to a place Canoa, which is meant to be a real backpacker party town, as a friend from the States had been living there for a while and working in a bar. Her friend had abruptly canceled on her as she was heading back home, after being recently drugged, raped and having all of her gear stolen. Apparently this friend partied hard with lots of pills so probably wasn’t being super careful, but what a bloody horrible story. Hearing 2 really bad things about the coast made me slightly apprehensive about going there the next day, although I had heard many, many good things about it during my trip.

And stuff got stolen in Banyos too, which is generally regarded as a safe touristy town. One of the girls from the hostel was upset as her passport was recently stolen. She thinks it may have happened in the hostel, as she had the passport in her daypack, unlocked, and had left the daypack behind the counter all day the previous day while she was out. I personally think that was an extremely stupid thing to do – there are heaps of staff at the place, not to mention other backpackers and randoms that can easily access that room. Leaving your bag unlocked with your most valuable possession, the passport, is not overly intelligent.

An exhibit from the Banyos 'museum.'

Banyos also hosted another entertaining lost passport story. An Aussie guy called Ben who was also staying at Plantas y Blanco, rented a bike and while riding it around town accidently dropped his daypack, which had his passport, ipod and some money. He turned his bike around to pick it up but during the 20 seconds that it took him to do that, the backpack had vanished. Ben somehow managed to put an add on radio, saying to contact him at Plantas y Blanco for a reward if anyone found the backpack. The thief who had picked up his bag heard the add, and contacted Ben at the hostel, saying that she had only found the his passport and demanding $200 USD for its return. Apparently it was a women on the phone making all the demands, but there was a man in the background who was telling her what to say. They arranged to meet at the bus terminal the next day to exchange the money for the passport. A staff member at the hostel overheard what was happening, and was obviously disgusted at how Ben was being extorted. She had a friend who was a policeman, and she contacted her friend and told him about the situation. The policeman met with Ben and arranged to be at the bus terminal in plain clothes tagging behind Ben. A women approached Ben and asked “Do you have the money?” He replied “Do you have my passport?” She gave him the passport and as Ben hesitated with the money, another man came up behind her, the one who had been pulling the strings on the phone, and demanded that he give them the money. At that moment the plain clothes police swooped and handcuffed the thieves. No-one at the hostel knew what ended up happening to them, but Ben was just glad to have his passport back.

That night the bus to Atacames stopped at about 9:20 pm. At the bus stop I drank a delicious glass of sugar cane juice which can be found everywhere in Banyos, and it gave me some energy and warmth for the chilly overnight bus ride to Atacames.

Written by roamingbear

July 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Latacunga and Cotopaxi

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Wednesday 3 November 2010

After staying the night at Hostel Chicago in Quito I caught a bus to Latacunga which is the capital of the Cotopaxi region. The bus trip was only a few hours and my first impression of Latacunga was not great. The city itself is pretty dirty, packed with people and just generally not overly pleasant, however it is the ‘gateway’ to the region. I stayed the first night at Hotel Santiago which was actually really nice, the people running it were lovely and its was only $6 for a private room and the place had cooking facilities. I had a chat with the 7 year old son of one of the Hotel workers who was super cute, he was crazy about dinosaurs and was stoked to take some photos with my camera.

The dinosaur-crazy kid from Hotel Santiago

I went out to find out about going to Cotopaxi and after several discussions with tour groups it looked like it was a bit difficult to get there on your own as you really needed a car. I ended up booking a tour for the following day with Hostel Tiana which was much more set up for the backpacker, it had a really friendly vibe, lots of other backpackers, a court yard, wifi and internet, and very helpful staff there to tell you were to go and how to do things. That’s what Hotel Santiago lacked. I was feeling a little lonely at Santiago, it would be great if I was travelling with Pablo but on my own, I didn’t meet anyone there, and I’d heard there was this big fiesta called ‘Mama Negra’ which started on Friday night and ran all of Saturday. I wasn’t too keen on going to that on my own and it looked like there would be more of a chance of hanging out with people for the fiesta if I moved to Hostel Tiana. So I made the move and felt a bit bad, because the staff at Hotel Santiago where lovely and it was cheaper and more comfortable, but in terms of making friends to go to the Fiesta with I think moving was the better option.

The volcano Cotopaxi

 

Thursday 4 November 2010

I met my tour guide Marciel, our driver Marco and another tourist from England called Andy as we departed early from Hostel Tiana to head to the south face of Cotopoxi. We were lucky with a really clear, bright day and Cotopaxi was very visible. It has such an impressive towering cone with constant snow, most of which is glaciers as I soon discovered, since our destination today was to the glaciers on the south face. Sadly, like many glaciers around the world they are rapidly diminishing due to global warming.

The hike up the south face of Cotopxi

It was funny getting there, it was quite a drive through the countryside and there were about 4 roads where we turned down and there were road works and blocked roads. There were no warning signs beforehand or directions for another route, just a massive hole in the ground or boulders on the road and a rope across it. So we lost a bit of time getting there, but the scenery was nice with lots of gum trees which I learnt today were introduced to Ecuador about 160 years ago by President Garcia. He introduced them because the ground was wet in some parts and the plan was for the eucalypt trees to reduce the water. Now they a real pest, but also a useful plantation tree.

Roadblocks on the way

Marciel told us that the name Cotopaxi came from 2 Quechwan words which meant ‘neck’ and ‘moon.’ Apparently at special times of the month the moon rises over the top of the volcano, and the volcano looks like a neck with the head of the moon on top.

The view from the refuge

Marciel also explained that the festival that was starting in Latacunga this weekend called Mama Negra celebrated 2 events, both of which occurred in 1877. First, it celebrated the end of the Haciendas, the Spanish-run plantations, after the people (who were essentially slaves) revolted, got rid of the Spanish and won their freedom. At around the same time, on 24 and 25 September, Cotopaxi erupted (this was its last eruption and it’s apparently well due for another.) The people prayed that there wouldn’t be a secondary eruption as their often is one. Cotopaxi did not erupt again at that time, which the people believed was due to their prayers. A black lady, the ‘Mama Negra’ had visions of the virgin Mercedes, and when everyone was celebrating the 2 events in the streets, she led the parade sitting on a donkey with a statue of the virgin. So that’s why the festival is called Mama Negra.

Marco drove us up to 4,100 metres, which is where we commenced the trek. By this stage we were so close that the cone of the volcano was simply amazing, looming out of the lunar landscape of pebbles and old ash, an omnipresent figure. I was puffing hard within the first 100 metres which was not a good sign. I didn’t quite realise how high up it was and I hadn’t given my body time to adjust to the altitude, particularly since only a few days earlier I had been at sea level in the Galapagos Islands. I struggled to start with and it just got worse and worse as the trek progressed. By the time we were near the refuge, which was just a few hundred metres below the glaciers, I could barely walk. I was just gasping for air but with every breath it didn’t feel like I was getting much. I felt dizzy, had a sharp headache and my chest felt tight, as if it had a metal vice crushing it. I got to the stage where I could only walk a few steps then had to sit down and rest. Embarrassingly, Marciel had to help me walk then practically carried me to the refuge as he was worried about us getting down in the afternoon before the weather turned bad. Worse, I even vomited, and I think part of it went on his shoe.

I made it! To the refuge anyway, the glaciers are close behind.

It was so good to get to the refuge and lie down on this little make-shift bed. Marciel made us a light lunch, which was nice and I was looking forward to the energy it would give me, but then soon after I vomited it all up again. Seeing the volcano peak so close and feeling the awesome power of the volcano, the wind whipping you as it flew off the icy glaciers and the incredible views of the surrounding countryside made it worth it, although altitude sickness truly is a horrible experience. What made it bad was that you’d push yourself to keep going, but with every step you felt worse and worse.

That’s why the descent was so nice, because with every step I felt better and better as there was more air and it was physically easier to move as gravity was doing all the work for me. We saw condor on the way down which was rather picturesque, and soaked up the wildness of the place which was pretty special.

On the way down...the vegetation-less landscape and expansive view

We had a funny ‘lost in translation’ moment on the way down from Cotopaxi. The vegetation was very sparse due to the altitude but there was one tiny plant with little seed pods so I enquired as to its name. Marciel replied very seriously ‘It’s called the Penis Plant.’ Andy the other tourist and I both raised our eyebrows said ‘oh, right!’ “Yes, look’ Marciel grabbed the little seed pods, which I guess looked kind of phallic and opened them up and said “See, here are the little penises, the animals eat these ones but there are bigger plants, much bigger ones that humans can eat.’ He kept talking about these penises and when he asked me “Have you eaten penis in Latacunga?” I knew there must be some bad translation happening. Andy burst out laughing and I didn’t really know how to reply. I asked him “So is the plants name in Espanol pene?” He looked taken aback and said “no, no pene is something else, no its …” and then I told him that penis meant pene in English, it turned out he was trying to say pea, or seed! That made a lot more sense. So it was really called the pea plant.

Friday 5 November 2010

 

I was glad that I moved to Hostel Tiana as I was able to meet a few people who I could hang out with at the Mama Negra festival. On Friday I went with a German girl called Elisa to the Lagoon at Quilotoa. I’m really glad we went because the countryside was amazing, there is a track that you can take called the Quilotoa loop which is meant to be really lovely and the lagoon is one of the attractions on that loop. We caught a bus from Latacunga and it took about 2 hours, maybe a little more. The countryside had huge mountains but with a dry and open landscape. Parts of it reminded me of Australia although it was more mountainous.

A small town on the way to Quilatoa

The town of Quilotoa is tiny; I think it only exists because of the lake because everything in town is geared up for tourists. It was pretty annoying, people would start talking to you and you think at first it’s because they’re being nice but then they ask “Do you need gloves? A jumper? What about a lift in a truck to get back to Latacunga? The people were more indigenous looking and the women all wore green bowler hats with peacock feathers, traditional dresses and had their hair in long braids.

The sign for Quilatoa lagoon

The lake really was breathtaking. It used to be a volcano, now it’s dormant but the crater is this enormous, deep lake with a devastating background of dramatic mountains. It was the sort of place where you could just stay for a whole day as there’s plenty of walks around the crater, you can take a horse ride down to the lake and there’s even boats on the lake which you can hire.

The Quilatoa lagoon

We had been told by the bus driver that there’d be a bus every hour until 6pm, but the lady in the restaurant (who kept pushing the services of her husband’s truck to take us back to Latacunga) said there wasn’t a bus. So at around 5:30pm we were happy to see a bus outside the restaurant, which turned out to be a bus full of students who were studying to be tourist guides, ranging from 16 – 20 years old. They were from Quito, but were in Quilotoa to see the lake and then were off to the Mama Negra festival in Latacunga, which was where we were headed. We spoke to the bus driver and he said we could get a lift with them for free, but that they’d be stopping a bit.

God, we had no idea what we were in for. Perhaps because we were both white with blue eyes so looked different we were an instant hit and the centre of attention, we were practically mobbed by girls and boys asking ‘Where are you from?’ which was followed by at least 10 requests to have a photo with us. The students were all really drunk and getting progressively drunk as time went by. We met the director of the school, a man at least in his 50’s, and another teacher who both did not care in the slightest that the students under their care were absolutely wasted. There were kids up the front of the bus next to the driver with fanta bottles full of grog laughing and shouting and falling over, a couple making out in the seats next to us and loud crazy music. The bus stopped and this girl was dragged from the back by some friends to sit outside, she was completely legless, her arms and body were limp and she could not speak or respond to anything as she had passed out from drinking too much. It was awful as she was sitting out the front door of the bus and when they were moving her, her bra came loose and the whole bus saw her left breast. After a while when nothing changed in her condition her ‘friends’ just dumped her on the floor of the bus, the bus took off and people were stepping on her lifeless form as they drunkenly clambered about.

The party bus

The bloody Director didn’t do anything, he just commented ‘Mmm, she’s had too much to drink,’ joined some other insensitive students who were taking photos of her then started chatting to a group of female students. Elisa and I insisted that she sit up so that she didn’t choke if she vomited. While Elisa was holding her up in her seat, I got mobbed by a guy and a girl, who were both wasted and fighting with each other over who was going to talk to me. The both wanted to practice their tiny amount of English with me, but the girl was so annoying, she asked me about 6 times ‘Because you like Ecuador?’ I told her why then she’d ask me again 2 minutes later. The guy was a wanna-be rap artist, and he made up his own song for me about me being on the bus in Ecuador with them. After 2 hours of this we heard from the bus driver that we had another 2 hours to go because they were stopping for dinner somewhere. I sighted another bus which was going to Latacunga so we made a run for it and escaped from our new-found drunken friends. On the bus to Latacunga I was lucky enough to hear a regaton version of Men at Work’s ‘Land down Under’ which was really funny. Latacunga was pretty quite when we got back, and I got a bed in the end so straight to sleep.

 Saturday 6 November

Inn the streets one felt a certain anticipation as the day of the Mama Negra festival arrived.  From the early hours of the morning all of the cars, people and dogs were heading in one direction – towards the parade. Elisa and Else, my German and Belgium backpacker friends, and I headed to the festival. Certain streets in the town were absolutely packed with people, every second store on the side of the road was selling beer and there were stalls with food including roasted choclo corn, whole pig bodies with head attached staring at you accompanied by bright yellow mashed potato. We tried to see the procession from the street but it was so packed we really couldn’t see anything.

Roast pig with potato and choclo - one of the many stores lining the streets

We spied some people on a roof nearby, and Elisa insisted that we go and ask the shop owner. I didn’t want to as I am generally reluctant to ask people for favours, but thankfully she did. She asked the person in the shop for the owner and he called out the back and this gruff, older guy who, unlike most males here, didn’t light up as soon as us young foreign girls.  Before Elisa had even opened her mouth he gave us a look as if to say ‘what the hell do you want?’ Elisa started out in this flirty tone with ‘hola, soy Elisa de Alemania….’ He wasn’t buying it at all at first, he kept saying ‘You can’t see anything from the terrace’ but we gently pushed and asked if we could try and he finally, grudgingly allowed us.

Drinking beer on the terrace, with the parade down below

It was great up there, we could see the parade, and hear and see the party in the street below us. We went down and bought some beer and some food and water and just set ourselves up for the day up on the terrace. The parade was full of people dancing in an array of colourful costumes to the tunes of the marching band. We took lots of photos, and were in lots of photos I think, we kept getting invitations from guys in the street to come and join them and were asked many times by people in the street to pose for photos which was funny.

The 'Mama Negra' parade

At around 4 or 5pm we left the terrace and joined the street party, after dropping off our cameras at the hostel. We heard that an Israeli guy from our hostel had his camera, phone and wallet stolen, apparently the festival is rife with pick pocketers from Quito who come especially for the event. We bought a bottle of rum and a coke for $8 to share with some other backpackers from our hostel and we danced on the street for ages, got asked to dance by every second man on the street which was fun for a bit at first but then a little tiring.

People watching from the terrace

We were given a bottle of warm Canela as a gift from some random guy for all of us, and when we were finally cleared of the street by the army (who were there for security), a few Ecuadorians took as to a club called Galaxy. The club was heaps of fun, we danced a lot and all got pretty drunk, it was just a really fun, funny night. We got back to the hostel at about 2am and luckily I had a bed that night as someone who had booked for the night didn’t show up. I was told that I could stay there on a bean bag which is what I was expecting on my arrival so the bed was fantastic.

Too much beer....a fight breaks out below

Written by roamingbear

July 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Havana 2

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Havana Friday 18 December – Sunday 20 December 2010

As promised, Antonio dropped us off at our casa particular in Havana. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay with Loida again as she was already booked, but we stayed at her friend’s casa which was just around the corner.

On Saturday I ventured into Old Havana in the city centre to do a few things while Pablo had a guitar lesson. As I stepped out of one of the hotels in the main plaza, amazingly I heard someone yell ‘Em!’ I turned around and there was my cousin Richard! We had been in touch via email a few months earlier, as he was passing through Ecuador while I was there, but we didn’t manage to catch up as he was heading through Ecuador pretty quickly to meet a friend in Colombia. I had no idea that he was going to Cuba and he had no idea that I would be there either, it was just pure chance that we ran into each other. Or maybe it was not chance at all.

Our last night in Cuba at La Zorra y El Cuervo

Anyway, that night we met up with Rich and his friends at La Zorra y El Cuervo (the jazz bar we went to on our first night), after eating a magnificent dinner accompanied by 1 CUC rums at Sofia’s restaurant next door. We had such a good experience at the restaurant and the jazz club on our first night in Havana so it seemed fitting to repeat the experience on our last night. The jazz bands were amazing, the rum and mojitos were plentiful and the company great fun, it truly was a lovely way to spend our last night in Cuba.

Rich and I at La Zorra y El Cuervo

On Sunday 20 December 2010 we headed to the airport in the morning, after saying our farewells to Loida and Alejandro over a coffee at their house – and promising to return some day soon.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:52 am

Posted in G - Havana 2

Cienfuegos

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Thursday 16 December

Again we experienced trials and tribulations trying to buy a bus ticket with Viazul. We went to the bus station on Wednesday and Viazul would not, they say could not, sell us the bus ticket to go to Santiago the next day. We had to go back on Thursday at 8 am to put our names on a list, then go back again to the bus station at 1 pm to pay, then we could leave on the bus at 2:15 pm that day.  The same company, the only tourist bus company Viazul had completely different systems for buying tickets in each city, some straightforward, others absolutely insane. We couldn’t buy a ticket from Baracoa to Cienfuegos even though we would be travelling with the one company, we had to buy one to Santiago, then wait and line up in Santiago to buy a connecting ticket to Trinidad, then when in Trinidad buy another ticket to Cienfuegos. It was a 5 hour ride to Santiago, we managed to get the connecting bus to Trinidad which left at 7:30 pm. We spent the whole night on the bus to get from Santiago to Trinidad. The night ride was absolutely freezing, I had my thermal underwear, jeans, shoes and socks, 2 jumpers and a jacket and I was still chilled to the bone. It was, unfortunately, a cold night by Cuban standards, there were no blankets and the bloody bus had an automatic air conditioner that could not be turned off so we had the air conditioner blasting cold air onto us all night. It really was, in a word, a horrendous experience. It was impossible to sleep as we were just so cold and uncomfortable. I don’t know how many times I cursed the design of the bus that night – what bus has no heating and only air conditioning that can’t be turned off? Earlier in the trip we were regretting bringing jumpers as we hadn’t used them but that night I was so glad we had bought them, we definitely would have got sick from the cold without them. The bus driver was funny, we stopped for food at 2 am and he said he’d been driving buses for about 20 years and was still waiting to do the route on the bridge from Cuba to Miami, ‘a one way trip’ he laughed.

Another day in Trinidad

When we arrived in Trinidad at 6:30 am, we had one hour to wait until the bus to Cienfuegos left at 7:30 am. Since Zeyda and Pedro (the owners of the casa particular we had stayed at just a few weeks ago) lived just across the road, we thought we’d drop in and say hello. Pedro answered door and welcomed us in for a coffee. It was so good to have something warm in our frozen bodies. We were so tired, cold and grumpy that the temptation to stay there that day and night was too great. We cancelled our booking in Cienfuegos for that night and stayed in Trinidad. We had breakfast cooked for us, a warm shower which was just amazing, and then we had a blissful sleep lying under a mountain of doonas. We took it easy in Trinidad that afternoon, buying 12 bottles of rum for presents and for ourselves and somehow managing to get them back to the casa. I returned to the ruined church on the hill and bought a hat from hat lady and necklace from the lady whom I had naughtily taken a photo off the weeks before. I’m glad that I returned to buy from them, especially the hat lady as she was really skilled, worked really hard and was kind and helpful to tourists – so different to the vultures, she still had dignity and kindness.

A Balcony in Trinidad

We also bought a packet of cigars from Don Juan, Zeyda’s father. He was rapt. I’m not sure if they were the real deal as they were much cheaper than in the official cigar shops and burnt a lot quicker than the one we bought in Havana on my birthday – but what the hell, the one we smoked tasted nice and we were happy to buy them from him.

He knew a lot about tobacco and told us that there were 6 about different kinds of tobacco grown in Cuba, all with distinct flavours.

Zeyda told us about a tourist who had stayed few days earlier. She didn’t like the look of  him from the start and her judgement was proved correct that night when she heard voices from his room. She knocked on the door and found that there was a very young looking Cuban girl in his room. Zeyda yelled at her to get out and told her off for disrespecting her house. Zeyda said that they get really worried when tourists bring jiniteras back to the house because prostitution with tourists is against the law and the owners of the house can get into trouble for allowing the jiniteras into the house. Apparently some jineteras work with the police and report casas particulares that turn a blind eye to prostitution. This country certainly does have a culture of spies, no wonder people don’t trust each other.

Cienfuegos – Thursday 16 December – Friday 17 December

The Viazul bus drew into the station in Cienfuegos at 9am on Thursday and we were greeted by Dianelis and husband Miguel, whom we had booked a room with on recommendation by the Argentinean girls we had met in Baracoa. Dianelis had a bright, charismatic personality. She had sharp green eyes, black curly hair and looked very French, which wasn’t surprising given the strong French influence in Cienfuegos. When the African slave population revolted in neighbouring Haiti in 1789 most of the French population re-settled in Cuba, and many of them in Cienfuegos.

An example of the spectacular architecture in Cienfuegos

The architecture in Cienfuegos was really beautiful and quite French-inspired. The town itself was clean and many of the buildings had been restored and freshly painted. The buildings here were certainly in the best condition that I had seen in Cuba.

Cienfuegos also had the best array of wooden carvings at the best prices. They were much cheaper here than in Santiago and Baracoa, which was unfortunately where we bought most of our carvings. I suspect that they are made here, and that people from other cities buy them in bulk in Cienfuegos then sell them at a higher price in other areas.

More architecture in the main plaza of Cienfuegos

It was well worth it to stroll along the Malecon with its ocean views around late afternoon, so that you can be at the punta gorda (the point) for the sunset. As the point juts out into the ocean the views are panoramic and the array or colours flooding the sky as the sun sinks into the ocean are stunning. Even better, one can sit peacefully watching the sunset while being served a mojito from the suited waiters at the nearby bar. We came across quite a few casas particulares on the point which would be tempting to stay at next time given their verandas and beach views – although they are further away from town and the bus station.

Sunset at La Punta Gorda

We caught a bicitaxi from the Punta Gorda to the bus station. We had to buy the bus tickets for Havana the following day and we had gone earlier in the day, at 3pm and the Viazul office was shut. We were told that the one worker was having his lunch break and would be away for another hour or so, but that he worked until 8pm so we could come back tonight.

Pablo in La Punta Gorda sunset

The driver of the bicitaxi was a nurse who earned 20 CUC a month so he worked with his bicitaxi most nights after working as a nurse and on his days off. He said that he normally earns about 10 CUC a day with his bicitaxi. We told him that Cuba was perhaps the only country in world where a taxi driver earns more than professional. He’d like to buy a car to use as a taxi but they are far too expensive here, leaving the bicitaxi as the cheaper, viable alternative. Plus, he laughed, driving us tourists around in the bicitaxi is good exercise for him. Both Pablo and I had a go at being the driver in the bicitaxi ad my god was it hard work. It’s effectively a bicycle with gears with a carriage attached to the back for the passengers to sit in. So you’re cycling not only your own weight and the weight of the carriage, but also the passengers in the back. He was such a lovely guy, there are so many lovely people here in Cuba – I really hope that things can change for them.

Pablo driving the bicitaxi

We got to the Viazul office at the bus station at 7:00pm and it was closed, contrary to what we had been told that afternoon. So we woke up earlier on Friday morning so that we could line up and hopefully get a ticket to Havana. While we were waiting in the line we were approached by a guy who said he’d take us in a taxi to Havana for 40 CUC, which is what we would have paid for 2 tickets on the bus. We jumped at the offer as it would be much quicker to get there by car and he said that the driver would drop us off at our casa particular. It’s funny, in no other country would I consider for a second getting into a private car (it was not a registered taxi) after some guy just approached me at the bus station, especially with my luggage. No-one would even offer to do that in Australia, and if you ever were approached by someone with that offer in any other Latin American country it would be highly likely that they would mug you. That concern didn’t even cross my mind, to the contrary I was happy to give our $40 directly to a Cuban, as opposed to going to the state like it would through Viazul.

A 2010 Che Guevara Calender in the Cienfuego's bank

Our taxi driver, Antonio was in his mid 20’s when the revolution occurred, so he was able to give an insight into life before communism. He was from a farming family who were not super wealthy but he said that life was good, the Cuban peso was at some times as strong as the American dollar so Cubans could save money and go on holidays. There was Cuban industry and investment. While he didn’t like Batisa turning Cuba into a brothel for the USA, he felt that life offered many more opportunities in Cuba, even under that corrupt regime, than it does now.

He actually fought in the armed resistance against Fidel a few years after got into power. Most of his brothers supported and helped Fidel and the troops when they took over from Batista, but Antonio never supported Fidel. Antonio said that prior to the revolution, he was told by a friend who had studied with Fidel at university that he was a communist, although Fidel never said that he was a communist when he was in the mountains fighting.

The mini 'Arch de Triumph' in Cienfuegos

He told us how hard life was in Cuba in early 90’s when the USSR collapsed. He said that it was as if their ‘big daddy’ who had protected them so much vanished overnight. Since Cuba wasn’t producing anything they were suddenly absolutely stuffed. There was literally not enough food in the country and people were starving. He said that people were pickling banana skins and selling them and others actually bought it to eat as they were so hungry. Antonio went to the countryside to look for food on trees, and most people lost many kilos a year due to lack of food. Now Cubans have replaced the food they used to receive from the USSR by growing a lot of fruit and vegetables themselves and selling them illegally to each other. Antonio confirmed that the state didn’t do anything to help with the food crisis. He noted, as we drove along the freeway, that Cuba was blessed with a lot fertile land, however most of it was not used to produce food and there were very few large-scale, state owned agricultural projects. He said that because the state charges such enormous taxes for people to register a farming business that produces crops, no-one wants to do it as farming is such hard labour and the taxes are so high that it is difficult to make a living out of it, even if one had a well-run farm producing lots of food. Selling wood carvings in the city to tourists or being a taxi driver is better paid and easier work than being a farmer. Antonio told us that if someone has farm and it is registered and they have some cows or cattle on their land, they actually have to ask for the governments permission and pay tax to be able to kill the own cow if they want to sell or eat the meat, because there is no private ownership, the cows and the crops on the land are state owned. To make it so difficult and unappealing for people to legally produce food in a country that is blessed with fertile soil and could easily feed their own population and export food is, to my mind, the thinking of a mad state.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

Baracoa

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9 December – 15 December

The bus trip from Santiago to Baracoa took about 5 hours and most of the trip was through the most interesting scenery I had seen in Cuba to date. The road wound through banana plantations, mountains, beside the ocean and though tropical vegetation. The town of Baracoa itself is nothing special – the streets were unpaved so very muddy when it rained and most of the buildings were falling apart, there was no nice ‘toursity’ block with renovated buildings like there was in Havana or in Trinidad. The casa particular which Mirtha had arranged for us was OK but it was nothing special and for 25 CUC per night including breakfast was not the best deal. We stayed there for the first night and ate an incredible dinner – prawns in coconut sauce along with a huge salad, beans and rice, all in enormous servings like all of the casas we had stayed at. The region of Baracoa is incredibly fertile and along with many fruit and vegetables, coffee and coco for chocolate is grown there, hence the coffee and especially the hot chocolate in Baracoa is really tasty.

More political graffiti in the town of Baracoa

The highlight of Baracoa is the nature, not the town architecture. We went to an archeological museum which was a little bit out of town in a cave and not so easy to find, although well worth the visit. It was set up by a guy called Noel who was very passionate about the history of the indigenous people in Cuba. Apparently they came to the Caribbean by land and by boat from the north of Colombia. They were small, asian looking people, similar to the indigenous people in South America. They started as hunter gatherers, then cultivated crops such as sweet potato and corn and also lived off the abundance of fruit growing naturally on the island. They really suffered when the Spanish arrived and were the first slaves of the Spanish, although they were soon replaced by African slaves after most were wiped out by the bubonic plague, who were a stronger build and able to work harder. There is a cliff around Baracoa where many of the indigenous people who were forced into slavery committed suicide to end their misery.

View of the ocean from the museum

The museum was small, not overly professional looking and clearly underfunded, although it had some interesting objects like terracotta bowls, stones for sharpening things and actual human bones. In the cemetery which was a short climb above the cave there were more skeletons with the skulls and everything just lying there on the ground with nothing protecting them. They could easily be stolen. We spoke with Noel after and he said that it was too costly to put the skeletons behind glass and that all the glass that we had seen in the museum was from old bus windows. We also suggested that they have more signs for the museum as it was so hard to find. He said that the paperwork to apply for something like that was horrendous and that it could take him years and lots of work to get the signs. We also asked how old the skeletons of the indigenous people were how ever he didn’t know. He said they couldn’t get bones carbon tested in Cuba and the government would not send the bones away to do that so they had no idea of the age. I really admired his passion for archeology and the hard work he had put in to making the museum. It certainly had a lot of potential, but also a long way to go, with lots of barriers to progress.

The moon from Onoria's terrace

We found a better casa particular owned by Onoria which had an amazing terrace with views of the bay. It was just so, so pleasant to sit up there on the terrace with views of the bay, the moon and the stars, Cuba Libre in hand, a cigar in the other after eating a fresh, delicious fish dinner at the house. An Australian man called Bob who was in his 50’s actually lived in one of Onoria’s rooms. He works in the oil industry and lives all over the world, currently in Mozambique and spends 5 weeks in Mozambique then 5 weeks off here in Cuba. He was super wealthy and quite eccentric. He had no desire to live in Australia again as he finds the 9-5 life and footy on the weekend much too boring. He started the first surf school in Cuba as he was the first surfer to live here, and many of the Cubans now competing in surf competitions started in his school. He said that the first time he bought a surf board into country he had lots of problems with customs as the government thought that people might use the surfboards to escape the country. He had to pay the government and sign a document saying that he wouldn’t use his surfboard to ferry people out of Cuba.

The view from Onoria's terrace

We were getting along famously with Bob until he started to share his views on slavery and Africa. He was of the opinion that the African slaves were the ‘lucky ones’ compared to Australian convicts, because the Australian convicts were treated worse than the slaves. He thought that since Australians had got over being convicts, Africans should also get over their history of slavery and stop blaming the past for the mess that they are in now. He said that Africans were shit at organizing themselves and that they really need Europeans back there because “we leave and they run the country into the ground.”

I thought the analogy between the Australian convicts and slavery was pretty unconvincing. Sure, after visiting Port Arthur and learning the history of the convicts they were essentially treated as slave labour, in appallingly cruel conditions, however they were taken as prisoners, not slaves, and when they had served their time they were free men. The slaves from Africa were taken by Europeans for centuries as they were deemed an inferior race and they could rarely earn their freedom, there were generations of Africans who lived their entire lives as slaves and had their children born into slavery.  I am no expert on the current problems that Africa faces, and I can see his point that throwing more and more money at Africa is not the answer given that the system of governance in so many African countries is corrupt at so many levels. I can also see his point that they need to take some responsibility for the mess that Africa is in now and not just continue to blame the past. But I thought it was ignorant of him to completely ignore the horrendous history that they have had to endure through slavery, and to dismiss them as incompetent and hopeless when they have essentially, like so many non-European cultures, been forced to adopt a European-style system of governance in a very short space of time.

The Baracoa moon

He also challenged my rather naïve assumption (one that I’d never really thought through) that someone who is in a relationship with a person of a different racial background wouldn’t be racist. He used that card quite a bit, telling us about his ‘girl’ who is Cuban of African descent, and even saying outright ‘hey I’m no racist, my girl is black.’ Things he said, such as using the word ‘coons’ and saying things like ‘she’s won the bloody lottery with me,’ along with his comments about Africa, made me think that he most likely felt superior to her.

On 12th December we unfortunately had to move to another casa as our room at Onoria’s was booked. A friend of hers that helped us move opened up to us about life in Cuba. He explained that all Cubans have food cards, and with these cards they are assigned one small roll of bread per person for day, along with other basics. However this food is not free as I had assumed, they still have to pay for it. So the whole point of having the food cards was kind of lost on me. As we had noticed, all the shops are state owned, there are no supermarkets, butchers or green grocers, the only shops selling food are very expensive, there is just tins and packaged food at exorbitant prices, all in CUC. The state-owned legal shops simply do not have enough food to feed the population. Hence people have to grow their own food and secretly sell it to each other as they can be heavily fined for doing that. To me, it is absolutely insane that a State makes it against the law for people to have their own private enterprise of selling food to each other, when it does not provide enough food for them to live. He said that there is a code sign for eggs and bread and that people pass though the neighbourhood at night or early morning knocking on the doors with the code sign in order to sell their produce. It is the same for the fisherman, they have to smuggle out fish that they have caught so that they can sell it themselves.

Kids playing at the beach at Baracoa

I guess that’s why there was a noticeable lack of street food in Cuba when compared to every other Latin-American country I had been to. The only street food they had was a very mediocre pizza with only tomato sauce and cheese. I have no idea where that came from, I often asked myself why there was pizza, originally from Italy, when most of the population had African, Spanish and French backgrounds.

He also told us that there was an emerging group of Cuban and American protesters who are funded by groups in the USA and who openly demonstrate against the regime in Cuba. Members of the group haven’t been imprisoned because these protesters are under the eye of Amnesty International and the regime uses the fact that these rowdy protesters haven’t been imprisoned to say that there are no human rights problems in the country. He said that the normal Cubans, who can’t go back to the USA are too scared to join them because they know that the regime will have no problems crushing them since no international eyes would be watching them. Apparently Raul Castro’s daughter is next in line for the leadership. Interestingly, she is openly gay therefore the regime is currently big on promoting gay and lesbian rights. Baracoa is apparently one of the more conservative towns in the country, and recently they were ordered to have a huge festival like a Mardi Gras to celebrate homosexuality. Of course they all went because they had too, although we were told that most of the people did not want to be there.

The Baracoa beach

Another interesting thing that we noticed in Baracoa (which may have something to do with their resistance to homosexuality) was the rising popularity of religion, particularly smaller protestant sects. Yindra and Ruben, the owners of our new casa particular, said that religion had surged after the earthquake in Haiti. Baracoa is the closest point to Haiti and was actually flooded by enormous waves due to the earthquake. There was one church which we could see and hear from the casa. It was packed with people, many young people, who were singing, clapping and playing drums for many hours without stopping. On Sunday night we went to have a drink at the casa of some Argentinean girls and Didiere, the French guy who had stayed at our casa in Trinidad. Their casa was near another church which was also going off. We walked past the church at 5pm and people were hysterically singing and clapping, we had dinner, came back to the casa and they were still going. We had our drink together and when we left, at 11pm the congregation was still going absolutely mental with no signs of slowing down. They had been singing and dancing, praising the Lord preacher-style for 6 hours non-stop. I have never seen a church so packed, people were swaying and dancing and flinging their hair and arms around – it honestly looked like they were all at some rave and on ecstasy.

Pigs on the beach

We met Yindra and Rubens daughter, Claudia, who was intimidating quick with the guitar. She had a lesson with Pablo and picked up complicated things in a matter of seconds. Pablo said he’d never taught someone as quick as her. She was studying architecture in Santiago de Cuba. As Santiago is 5 hours away, she boards there at the University and only comes back to Baracoa some weekends. Her University education, board in Santiago and food in Santiago is all free, which compared to the expense of my university education sounded fantastic. The free University education was, I think, the only good thing that I heard about the Cuban state. Claudia said that the quality of the food in her boarding house was terrible, and that her parents always sent her back from her weekend stays with lots of tins and food to survive the weeks to come – although that sounds like boarding houses in many parts of the world.

Pablo at the beach

I suppose that one might be able to have semi normal life here in Cuba until they finish their education. I guess it’s when they start working and find that they can not live and support their family on their wage, after years of studying to be a professional that life would become really bleak. Not being able to save for anything like a holiday, or being faced with the impossibility of buying your own home or apartment even after being married since there has been no new construction since the revolution  – living with your parents or parents in law and knowing that there was no option of leaving – that would be really hard.

Baracoa is a really special place nature-wise; I could have spent a lot more time there exploring the beaches and rivers. One beach called Maguana was about a 30 minute drive away from town on a rough road, but the site that greeted you at the beach was well worth the trip. The beach had white sand, lots of palm trees and warm, aqua coloured water that was deeper and had more waves than the beach in Trinidad. Like in Trinidad, there were deck chairs with umbrellas for shade, and some nearby restaurants that served the obligatory mojito. Better still, some enterprising locals with houses nearby offered their services to cook lunch for us when we arrive in the morning and deliver it to our deck chair at our elected time. I ordered with a guy called Flaco and had exquisite octopus the first day for lunch, and for an experience I had turtle the next day. Like all the food cooked by the people here (not the restaurants) the quality was great, the portions huge and the prices reasonable. It also differed form the beach in Trinidad as it had a very rural feel as there were lots of farms nearby, hence the sow with her litter of 12 piglets scurrying around the beach eating our left-overs, along with chooks and dogs which was very funny. The image of a huge, fat pig snuffling around this idyllic beach is something that still makes me laugh.

The river

There are also beautiful rivers around Baracoa where you can swim and explore. The river de Miel is the most famous but there is another river close to town that we went to, a favourite place of our taxi driver taxi drivers favourite spot. I heard from various people that there are caves nearby with a river inside where you can swim.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:39 am

Posted in E - Baracoa

Santiago de Cuba

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6 – 8 December 2010 Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba was our next destination, a slow and not so direct 12 hour bus ride away. We arrived late at night, and luckily Zeyda had a contact at another casa particular in Santiago whom she called so we were met at the bus station by Mirtha and her driver.  It was great after such a long day on the bus not to have to deal with the mob at the bus station trying to offer us taxis or casas, we just saw Mirtha with a sign with our names on it and she had a driver and it was all done. Mirtha’s house was in a great location, right near the historic centre of town so easy to walk to most of the attractions. The house itself was big, the bed comfortable and our room had a fridge, TV, an air conditioner and a clean bathroom. She even had dinner ready for us too which was perfect as we were starving and she cooked really well. We really enjoyed our time with Mirtha, she was such a funny character but really loveable. She is from Guantanamo and has a very unique, sing-song accent. She is the most popular person I think I’ve met, in terms of her phone, it rang from 7am to 10pm every day at least 10 times. She played the cheesiest latino love songs that I’ve ever heard which just added to her character, which was very warm and motherly.

Mirtha, our lovable host from Santiago

Santiago de Cuba as a place was alright, perhaps worth seeing for a couple of days but for me, it wasn’t a highlight of Cuba. It’s the second largest city in Cuba, but it lacks the energy and action of Havana. The main plaza is nice, the old buildings have been restored, one of which was the first house in Cuba, built for the Governor of Santiago de Cuba. The foundations of the original building and the kitchen are still there and the rest of the building is from a later date, each room decked it out with furniture used in Cuba from the 16th, 17, 18th and 19th Centuries. It was interesting that it was only in 18th century that people started putting tables and chairs in the centre of the room, in the prior centuries they had always been on the side of the room leaving the centre empty. The church in the Plaza is also impressive, although it has a sad history of being sacked by pirates and destroyed in earthquakes, however the 18th century version still stands.

View of the city

In the centre of the plaza a band played most days, although if you took a photo of them they would follow you, obviously wanting money. To the left of the band was an old lady, sporting a crumpled straw hat, cigar in mouth and with a wrinkled, interesting face.  The photographer in me thought that this was too good to be true, she would make a picturesque photo, she could be, without a doubt, the front cover of the next edition of the Cuba Lonely Planet. On a second glance it was too good to be true, another tourist had fallen for the lure of possible Lonely Planet grandeur, snapped a photo of her and there she was in an instant, hands outstretched in front of the tourist asking for money. She sure was not the real deal, for the rest of our stay in Santiago de Cuba I spotted her seated in a prime location in the Plaza, with the same cigar which I later noticed was never lit, posing for tourists to make a living. It was a bit sad, the fakeness of it all. I felt that too at La Casa de Trova, where we went at night to see some live music. With a cover charge of 5 CUC it was clearly not for a Cuban audience. Upstairs the band was great, but the room was filled with seated tourists, with the obligatory 4 Cubans dancing amazingly well together, then asking tourists to dance. They obviously worked at the place and where there to provide a ‘Cuban atmosphere’ to improve the tourist experience. I liked the ‘Casa de Musica’ in Trinidad more, since entry was free for everyone and lots of Cubans went there to enjoy their music, along with the tourists. It felt more genuine.

Political graffiti in the streets of Santiago

It was in Santiago that I reached breaking point with the bureaucracy in Cuba. I hate bureaucracy everywhere, but it seemed to be particularly bad here. So many processes for the most basic items where not streamlined and lacked any ounce of logic. For example, when we wanted to buy bread, the only places that sold them were bakeries, bread was not sold in the corner shops and supermarkets don’t exist in Cuba. To find a bakery took a lot of asking for directions and a lot of walking, when we finally found one at 3:00 pm for some reason it was closed and we were told to return in 45 minutes.  Not wanting to wait for 45 minutes, we asked for directions to another bakery, and when we finally found it there was a line trailing out the door of it the size of one of those lines from the movies of the Great Depression. It looked like we’d be waiting in that line for at least 40 minutes so we just gave up, it was too much of a hassle to buy bread.

The view from the castle

The following day we were looking to buy a different type of rum to try. A Cuban guy who had sold us some wood carvings recommended a corner shop that was for Cubans, as the prices were in CUP, so were supposedly cheaper. There was a great selection of rum, however we were again recommended Santiago de Cuba as the best brand and we had enjoyed it so much previously that we decided to buy it again. Strangely, the price for the Santiago de Cuba rum, and only that rum, was the equivalent of 10 CUC in CUP’s, which meant it was more expensive to buy it in the shop that was meant to be cheaper for Cubans than the other shops that had prices in CUC. The bizarre thing is that since all the shops are state owned, whoever was setting the prices must have consciously made that one rum more expensive in the CUP shops, which makes absolutely no sense.

The fort

Early in the morning on the 8th of December, we caught a taxi to the Viazul bus station to book a ticket for the 9th to Baracoa. In Havana and in Trinidad we had been able to pre-book the bus tickets for the next day so we didn’t envisage that there would be any problem. We were told at the ticket counter that we couldn’t put our name on a list for Barocoa, nor pay for the tickets today. We had to come back tomorrow morning at 6:45 am, an hour before the bus left to Baracoa. There was no explanation as to why we had to do this, its just what we had to do. So we got there 6:45 am, which was the same time that another bus arrived. The ticket counter area is really small, narrow, and in front of the exit so it was filled with people like us trying to buy tickets for the bus that day, people trying to leave who had just arrived, everyone with their huge backpacks and the vultures at the exit trying to win the business of the new arrivals, poking their heads through the door when the guard wasn’t looking to scream ‘lady taxi, taxi!’ with hysteria. One vulture opted for different strategy, instead of yelling ‘taxi’ he had a piece of brown glass from a bottle which he tapped incessantly on the window pane ‘tat tat, tat tat tat’ in the same pattern whenever anyone walked by. It had an irritating pitch just high enough to attract people’s attention, and when anyone made eye contact with him he would raise his eyebrows and, with his hands do the motion of a wheel to indicate he could drive them. I had to wait near that window pane and after 30 minutes that ‘tat tat, tat tat tat’ sound of glass on glass became ingrained in my brain.

Another photo from the fort

After much waiting we were finally able to buy a ticket, the ticket operator used an old 1960’s machine to print the ticket, which looked like it existed before the typewriter. It certainly wasn’t computerized, so you had to show your passport to buy a ticket, then wait for them to fill out the passport details on the ticket, stamp the ticket, then fill out the passport details again in a book. It was a very slow, outdated process but we finally got our tickets. As it turned out, half the bus had reserved their ticket the day before and just rocked up at the last minute to catch the bus. It turned out that you could book the Viazul bus tickets from the travel agencies, but not, in some cities, from Viazul themselves.

A rusted canon at the castle

The highlight from Santiago was el castillo de San Pedro del Morro, which was about a 20 minute taxi ride from the city. The castle was originally designed in 1587 in order to protect the city and its treasures from pirates. Cuba used to be swamped with pirates from England and France, as England had its colony of Jamaica nearby and the French had Haiti – useful bases for attacking the Spanish ships laden with Peruvian and Colombian gold. The Spanish ships used Cuba as a base to re-load and group together in flotillas for the long journey back to Spain. The history of the region is fascinating, Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which is the same island) was initially the Spanish base in the Caribbean for ships carrying South American gold to gather and group together for the voyage to Spain. However, when the French took over Haiti, instead of using the Dominican Republic as the entrepot, they moved the base to Cuba – perhaps for strategic reasons with the risk of being so close to a French colony.

There was some information about Henry Morgan, the English pirate who, for his efforts raiding Cuba and stealing Spanish gold was knighted by the Queen of England and made Governor of Jamaica. Even today he still has a Jamaican rum in his name.

The castle was truly amazing and very photographic. Its design was improved upon throughout the centuries until it was used a s a prison in the 1900’s. Now it is only a tourist attraction, but you only need to use a slight amount of imagination to picture the raiding pirate ships heading for its stony walls.

Again...the castle

We met a man called Andres in the street and he was selling some beautiful wooden carvings. He said that clothes were really expensive here in Cuba and even offered to sell us wooden carvings in exchange for any clothes that we did not want. About 6 years ago he tried to leave Cuba in boat destined for USA, however he was caught by the Cuban navy and the boat was sent back to Cuba. He then spent 4 years in prison as punishment for trying to leave, and then had to serve an extra year because he couldn’t afford to pay the guards to release him. He was a friendly guy, although pretty pushy with his sales and then with any other service we may want such as finding accommodation in Baracoa or buying rum. I could understand why though – we, the tourists are the cash cows in a tight, tight economy.

A friend of his, an older man, told us how his son had gone to the USA. The family met a Mexican tourist who gave the son a letter of invitation to Mexico. It cost the father $8000 in total for his son to be able to go, god knows how he paid for it but somehow he did, probably with his whole life savings. His son reached Mexico, then crossed the boarder illegally to USA. Luckily he survived and is now living and working in Miami. Although the man didn’t go into detail about how risky that journey is, form what I have heard it is incredibly risky. If he had been caught by Mexican drug lords at the border, he would have been forced to be a mule for them and carry drugs into the USA and shot if he refused. He could have died from dehydration or from the rattle snakes and scorpions in the desert. If he survived all of that, he still could have been killed by American vigilantes patrolling border or arrested for carrying drugs. It’s a true maze of danger. Knowing about all of those risks, and the huge cost to his family of getting him to Mexico, he still did it. It must have been so terrifying for the father, waiting for weeks to hear from his soon, not knowing if he made it or not. The father confessed to us that he had depression and that a lot of people here did. He said life here was just so hard and hopeless. He was happy that his son has a chance to live a better life in the States but he has no hope of going there himself, he has tried but the USA won’t give him the visa as it is a risk for them that he will stay.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:21 am