Horse riding in Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), Cuba

valle de los ingenios

We went on this excursion as a result of miscommunication. Marysia and Maria wanted to go horse riding. This is how it started. I didn’t care much. Adam didn’t want to go. And Michal from being indifferent came to a point of excitment. So this is how it happened. Marysia asked me if I want to go and I said “Yes, if Adam is coming” (knowing he is afraid of horses and doesn’t want to go), so she went on to him saying that I’m coming and if so he wants to come as well. He said “ok”. I guess this is because earlier we said that we will enojy the trip more if he comes. In a meantime we found out Maria is afraid of horses and she wants to go in a cart. This was easily arranged. And so Maria and Adam went in a cart and three of us on horseback. Destination: waterfall near Topes de Collantes.horses Trinidad

Valley of the Sugar Mills is a series of three interconnected valleys: San Luis, Santa Rosa and Meyer. As the name suggests they were a centre for sugar production. I don’t know if you know, but Cuba became the world’s foremost sugar producer in XIX th century.  Most of the sugar mills are in ruins, intact structures endure at some sites, including Guachinango, where the plantation house remains, and the plantation of Manaca Iznaga, where the owner’s house, a tower and some barracones (the original slave quarters) still stand.

Horses CubaThis reminds me of Sugar Barons I read about in one of the books I read before coming to Cuba. They were the “Rockefellers” of Cuba. I found an interesting article with shocking facts, more as a trivia than anything else. Here are some of them, if you want to read it all click here.

  • One Cuban sugar baron tiled the floors of his Havana palace with Italian marble bedded down in sand imported from the Nile
  • Tomás Terry, the most successful sugar planter of Cuba’s colonial years, left $25 million on his death in 1886
  • Julio Lobo was known as the King of Sugar, not just of Havana but of the World, with an estimated personal fortune of $200 million, about $5 billion in today’s dollars
  • At age 21, just out of college, Lobo brokered the most lucrative sugar deal at that point — worth $6 million — with the British firm Tate and Lyle
  • In 1957, over fourteen thousand new cars manufactured in the United States were sold in Cuba and some 200 000 cars were registered on the island (1958 national vehicle census (reported in the magazine El Automóvil de Cuba). BTW some ifty thousand of those same vehicles were still in use in 2010, although not a single spare part was shipped to Cuba from the United States between October 1960 and late 2010.
  • In the decadent jet-set heaven of 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana, a pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revelers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K.
  • In 1956, the Tropicana nightclub premiered its first promotional flight from Miami to Havana on Cubana de Aviación—it was billed as the “Cabaret in the Sky.” The front seats of the plane had been taken out so the musicians could all fit in with their instruments – piano!!! bongo, drumms, trumpet. The passengers started off with pink daiquiris, and then, as soon as the plane took off, Rolando and Ana Gloria bounded out and started the show. They came out singing and dancing, prancing down the aisles, pulling the Americans up from their seats to dance and sing with them. Can you imagine???!!! That’s how they brought Nat King Cole to Havana that March, the first of three times he performed at Tropicana. ( our taxi driver in Havana told us Tropicana is now a place for old people. I still wish I have seen it! More on tropicana here)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQORZXIoXi8]

Back to our trip. Two Italian girls (first time on a horse) came with us. They spoke very good German as they lived near Austria’s border. At the beginning the guide had to prod the horses that didn’t want to keep up. I noticed mine and Marysia’s were always the first to lead. TrinidadEither one or another. It took me some time to get used to be in a saddle again. I tried rising trot and saddle seat (or basic position). The later is used in gallop mainly as far as I remember. Let me just say I I haven’t had such bruises on inner tights in my life! Anyway on the way to the waterfall the cart went separatley as part of the road was impassable for vehicle. We stopped on the way and had some refreshments (cerveza for me) where they offered us dinner on our way back, but we decided against it.

Rainforest CubaAfter trotting along muddy roads, crossing streams and field gates we entered the rainforest. The path was marked out by sharp edged stones. I got worried something might happen to our horses but we got through fine and dismounted them in previously prepared place. Trekking was now ahead of us. we passed the stand with manualy roasted and grounded coffee and headed for the waterfall. The path was narrow and sometimes barely visable. I felt a bit like those first explorers as the nature around seemed untouched by human presence. No litter, no bins, no benches, no concrete. Just water, stones, trees, lianas, plants, sun and fresh air with this distinctive smell.

And there it was. Waterfall.

Waterfall CubaThere was naturally formed pond and cave where we could swim and enjoy refreshing water. More and more people were coming so it became less and less magical. I remember us girls could see it as a scenery for a perfect romance. Let me enjoy this notion.

Trinidad waterfallOn the way back our horses regained the will to live, or rather, seen in the imagination the end of slavery and we managed to gallop. This felt really good. Like I broke off the leash. It was worth all the bruises and John Wayne’s walk for the next week. At least for me that is. Adam and Maria complained about their cart. It was uncomfortable, they thought they gonna fall over more than once and they had to get off from time to time because the cart would be too heavy otherwise.

You know how they say the journey is more important than the destination. What I love abot my travel is that I’m almost always on the way. To see more, to experience new. New thoughts, new faces, new feelings, or the same ones just transformed by the change inside me. Every travel changes me as I try to leave my convictions behind and absorb. As today is the New Year’s Eve I wish you all:

Experiencing the diversity of the World and overcoming the fear of what is different and unknown, as this truly is, in my opinion, what makes life worthwhile. Happy New Year!

 

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Salsa Cubana, dancing Trinidad, Cuba

viva Cuba

We were walking down one of the cooblestone streets of old town when we heard the laud voice of a rock guitar. We were heading back to our Casa to meet the rest of our group so we hesitated for a moment, but then thinking ‘you only live once’ we followed the music.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q58dC14GyP4]
If I was to give one advice on how to have the best time in Cuba it would be ‘follow the music’ which might sound simple, but not necessarily is.

Casa de la Musica Trinidad

Up to now music we came across in Cuba had either little to do with salsa cubana or had commercial, tourist flavour. We almost gave up after missing the salsa show on our first night in Trinidad. That night we followed promise of a stranger and ended up in club called The Cave. And this is what happened. We were all dressed up and ready for dancing when we arrived in Plaza Major where Casa de la Musica in Trinidad is. We had to climb terraced, cobblestone stairs full of people and tables, just to find out the salsa show was over and all we could do is pay to get into a club with popular music. Disappointed we tried to enquiry if there is any place where we could dance salsa. This is when somebody told us about The Cave.

ayala-cave-discoWe didn’t know what to expect or how to get there. It was already after dark and we were heading for a deserted and unknown (to us) part of the town. We asked again and again for directions and as they were given in Spanish I didn’t understand a thing, so jst followed the rest. When we thought we were lost we asked for directions one more time and this time a Cuban decided to walk with us. It was getting more and more scary. We were heading outside the center of old town, there were no people on the streets and less and less street light. At some point we heard male voices from behind and thought we were trapped. Or maybe it was just me.The Cave Trinidad

Suddenly our guide stopped and pointed towards the top of a muddy mountain. We could see a lamp post and some people underneath it. Well, I guess it felt safer than going back. The man who brought us there turned around and walked away. He came all this way just to make sure we don’t get lost. I felt bad about being so untrusty. The thing is I never used to be like that but this year (2012) was a hard one and I got hurt one time too many. I never wanted that to happen. I believe in people, it’s a councious choice, you can choose what yo want to believe in. So now I try to get rid of limp distrust and be back myself.

AyalaSo we did climb the hill and found ourselves in front of a hole in the rock type of entrance. It looked promissing but no music was to be heard. We decided to pay 3 CUC each just to see it inside. The Club is called Ayala, located about 100 feet underground in massive nature cavern, is one of the most unique clubs I’ve been to anywhere. The music was laud, coctails strong (you get one in the price of ticket) and the dance floor full. Worth having a look and you might as well as love it if you hit the right time.Art gallery Trinidad

Let’s go back to the rock guitar. I think we were just on the corner of Calle Francisco Gomez Toro, we turned into it and went half of it’s lenght. There were three lads and two girls (one in my age the other around seven/eight). They were artists sitting in front of their gallery, drinking vodka made from bananas and celebrating the birthday of one of them. 30th. They invited us to sit down and join them. We didn’t speak Spanish, they spoke English a little bit, the willingness to communicate and laugh  on both sides made us feel comfortable and open to non verbal communication. Or maybe it was the bananas. Adam exchanged cigarettes (modern age calument). Lucky Strike for Holywood and some local brand without the filter. We still don’t know if what they were saying meant that LS are better or shit. We listened to Nirvana and Iron Maiden. I didn’t want to leave but loyalty and guilt made us stand up and go to pick up our friends, so they could join the party and have some fun.

IMG_3524We came back with the rum, which Cuban told us is crap. Well we drunk it anyway. Maria was with us and alcohol was in our veins so suddenly conversation became very easy. More people joined and among them a couple that danced salsa. I asked them to give us a show, reluctantly they agreed. We couldn’t find a way to play the music and had to sort out a separate recorder but finally music was on and we were on our feet. First we watched them dance and then Marysia, Maria and I took some lessons. I had a great time. My dream came true. I think I need to make list of all the dreams that come true just so I keep track. Just a joke.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU2N5cSME90]

Our merry company:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvkOquBA7As]

And it really wasn’t only me:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkAnYBjZVt0]

Afterwards somebody said to go to Casa de la Musica to watch the salsa performance. And so we did. We saw band playing and people dancing. Phenomenal couple in blue. Maria and I wanted to dance but no men seemed to be eager. We left them behind and took the dancing floor by force. This is because there were so many people it was hard to find space. After a while we saw our Cuban friends looking down at us with disapprovement. No, no, no, no… and now we danced in couples. Great night!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fioiSz-qt5A]

Some more pictures, next post will be about horse riding, trekking the jungle like the first explorers and swimming underneath the waterfall.

 

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Trinidad, Cuba – the city feel

Trinidad Cuba

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba. My main point of reference while navigating the old city of Trinidad. After one day I already felt familiar with the citiy’s layout. The Plaza is the historic centre of the town and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.

Trinidad CubaI was walking the streets early in the morning when all tourists are sleeping, during the busiest times after the children were coming back from school and adults from work, early evenings when the youth occupied benches of the squares  and late in the night when everyone was either in night club or bed.

Trinidad CubaThe colonial houses of Trinidad have red terracotta tiled roofs supported out beyond the walls by wooden beams. The walls are pastel-coloured with wood and plasterwork details picked out in different colors to the brickwork. The large main door typically has a smaller entrance door cut into it. Majority of the houses has windows from floor to ceiling, opened to let the draft in. Through those you could observe the amazing insides of Cuban houses. The everyday life. Medical practice, children’s after school lectures, home businesses. I have even seen a birthday party with children and their parents singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in English.

Trinidad CubaThe old town is separated from the rest of the city by gates guarded by police. Only locals transporting tourists can enter it by car. Any pedestrian can do it though. The cobblestone streets are narrow so walking is a more efficient way of transportation. When we entered old town in a taxi our first night we had no problems. We encountered them though wen after 20 minutes we wanted to leave. The policeman was very suspicious. We were leaving in only because they had no available spaces in our Casa and we were recommended another one outside the old town.

Trinidad Cuba

The last day of our stay we could see how the city changed in preparation for tourist season. Empty streets were now full of market stalls with traders recommending their goods. Music bands played popular Cuban music while crowds roamed packed streets. I’m glad it’s not the only sight I’ve seen in Trinidad. Buzz, crowds and music sweeping the streets have their charm but so does peace.

Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad

In Trinidad I found the Cuba I was looking for. With people playing domino on the streets, listening to music in front of their houses and dancing salsa in the streets.

Trinidad Cuba

Among the local customs noteworthy canary cages, suspended by the residents at the entrance to the warm colors painted houses, to ensure good luck and prosperity. Trinidad is famous in Cuba with producing lace. My friend brought back two tablecloths.

It was the first place where we saw salsa and African dance performances. I even got a dancing lesson from a couple of Cubans. It will be the subject of my next post. For now I just wanted to give you a sense how the city looks like, so enjoy the pictures.

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Santa Clara, Cuba – the city of Che

santa clara

In Varadero we decided to split. Michal and Marysia were to stay enjoying the beach and the three of us to go on to Santa Clara. We were supposed to meet the same evening in Trinidad. And this is what happened.Varadero sunrise

The three of us got up early morning. Somebody told us we need to be an hour before departure at the station to get tickets. As we hurried through out the empty streets I noticed the beautiful colors of the dawn. We got to the station 40 minutes too early and so I still got some time to get us a breakfast 3 x Pan de Tortilla and 1 Pan de Jamon, 5 CUP each. The ticket to Santa Clara was 11 CUC. We got luggage tickets. I have to say this surprised me as I didn’t expect they would take such precautions.

Before I went to Cuba I read a book about it written by a well know Polish voyager/traveller. During her visit she was looking for the truth about Che. Che GuevaraWas he an idealist or simple murderer? As we all know the truth is never that simple. I guess you have better chance of finding the truth about a person when you meet him than from reading thousands of books, personal letters, watching photographs or videos. There is no harm in trying but certainty is unreachable. I myself was more interested in Hemmingway than Che, but for Maria the second was a real romantic hero. Her favorite song is Hasta Siempre, Comandante by Cuban composer Carlos Puebla. All our stay the meaning of the song was a mistery to us. Now finally I found the translation of lyrics. Enjoy:

We learned to love you
from the historical heights
where the sun of your bravery
laid siege to death

Chorus:Here lies the clear,
the dear transparency
of your beloved presence,
Commander Che Guevara

Your glorious and strong hand
over History it shoots
when all of Santa Clara
awakens to see you

[Chorus]

You come burning the breeze
with springtime suns
to plant the flag
with the light of your smile

[Chorus]

Your revolutionary love
leads you to new undertaking
where yearned is the firmness
of your liberating arm

[Chorus]

We will carry on
as we followed you then
and with Fidel we say to you:
“Farewell, Commander!”

Varadero bus timetableWhen we arrived in Santa Clara there were crowds of locals and taxi drivers. As we wanted to get to Santa Clara the day before we did, we enquired in Varadero about accommodation. We were told the owner of the Casa wouldn’t be able to host us as late in the night as the last bus arrives. This is why we took the first morning bus the next morning and decided not to stay overnight.Vaizul

It seems the woman still thought we would come as she waited on us in the station. Hounded by taxi drivers from which we could not get free we tried to enquire about buses to Trinidad. There was one taxi driver in particular, quite old and determined. He didn’t speak English and kept saying he will show us four museums. He followed us everywhere. To the office of Viazul (where we found out there are no more buses to Trinidad), to the left luggage (where we left our backpacks), to the place where we ordered pizza and hugo natural and finally when we sat down on the steps of the bank to look at the map. I don’t know how it happened that he left us alone but his silent presence was annoying. We grew impatient as we were worried how we are going to get to Trinidad.

Pizza Santa ClaraAnyway just one more thing. There were buses for locals that went to Trinidad they just wouldn’t let us on the bus. I read about it before coming to Cuba. The driver if caught “smuggling” tourists would get in trouble. We tried anyhow. First time it was “NO”, second time it was “You look like Cuban Maria you could go, but the other two no way”. I still think if you speak directly to the driver it can be done.Monument and Mausoleum of Ernesto Che Guevara

We decided to walk to the Monument and Mausoleum of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. And it is not far so you don’t have to hire a taxi. It really looks impressive from outside. Mausoleum houses the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and 29 of his fellow combatants killed in 1967. Guevara was laid to rest with full military honors on 17 October 1997 after his exhumed remains were discovered in Bolivia and broughut to Cuba.

Che GuevaraThe most distinctive is a bronze 22 foot statue of Che looming over the whole complex. The adjacent decorative wall depicts Che in the Sierra Maestra consulting with Fidel, beside Camilo Cienfuegos, and in the mountains on horseback. Another section shows Che as Minister of Industry performing his usual voluntary work. Lastly literacy tutors, children in schools, and young pioneers are depicted issuing the daily salute that all Cuban children recite each morning “We will be like Che.”The museum is dedicated to his life, work and fight. You can see there his pictures, notbooks, letters, official documents, pistols, guns, doctor uniform and many other personal belongings or belongings of his fellow combatants.Che Guevara wall

You might wonder why Santa Clara is the city of Che. This is because Guevara’s troops took the city during the final battle of the Cuban revolution called Battle of Santa Clara. Interesting fact: 500,000 Santa Clara residents contributed more than 400,000 hours of volunteer work to the construction of the monument.

Santa Clara tractorOn the way from the monument to the city center we stopped  horse cart (1 CUC for all 3 of us) but I still think you can easily walk if you have time and will. We visited the art museum (2 CUC additional fee for photographs and recording). In the price of ticket you get a guide tour of Cuban/Spanish house. I think it could have been more interesting. I asked some questions but the answers were not encouraging. It holds objects from XVII to XX century. The oldest object being chest for clothes and a cabinet with a secret drawer, that saw pirates times. As you can imagine cabinet creator paid with his life for its performance. I wish the guide told us some pirate stories.troop wagon santa clara

We also saw The Armored Train Park-Museum (Parque del Tren blindado). I didn’t go in but Maria and Adam visited all railway wagons. If you don’t know Che used tractors to raise the rails of the railway and derailed train which transported troops.

After sightseeing we decided to get something to eat. On the way one Cuban started chatting to us and wouldn’t leave us alone. He followed us to a disturbing restaurant with no windows, then took a table next to ours in a restaurant where we had terrible spagetti and followed us throughout the streets on our way back to the bus station. We had to take a taxi to Trinidad and the driver told us that even he that he doesn’t have a licence is worth for him to pay the ticket for the price of our journey.

Now, the best part of my stay in Cuba is to follow. Trinidad! I just can’t wait to tell you all about it!

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Varadero – sea, beach and Bucanero

Sailing Varadero

What can you write about when writing about beach? White sand. The amazing colours of the water? It’s temperature so different to Polish or Irish sea? The feeling that you get while floating on gentle waves with not a care in the World? It’s all truly fantastic and worthwhile, but not that entertaining when you read about it. I’ll concentrate on episodes from our stay in Varadero mostly from outside the beach, but keep in mind, it still is Varadero’s main attraction.varadero

One of my dreams came true on the Haloween night. We had a bone fire on the beach. Funny enough we didn’t plan it at all. It kind of just happened. It wasn’t as I imagined, no guitar or singing, it was more like ‘we need to watch our back’ type of thing.  I hope next time will be more relaxed.

We also saw some mysterious black shapes approaching the sea. It looked like people carrying boats over their heads. Adam suggested they were trying to get to Florida, but after a while we saw light signals coming from one of the houses next to the beach, so I guess they went fishing. The following morning my suspicions were confirmed, I met a guy called Paul in the beach and he told me his brother does night fishing so they can serve fresh fish in their restaurant.Bucanero

Paul (Pablo Alejandro Rivera) is a doctor who worked for fifteen years in his profession before opening a private tourist business. He and his family have a restaurant La Puerta del Sol (Calle 42 y Playa) as well as travel agency. He speaks four languages. His family has two houses. One in Varadero, where the restaurant is located, and another one in the Bay of Pigs. For generations his family was in fishing business and he was the first one to go to college. He told me where the name of Bay of Pigs ( Bahía de Cochinos) comes from. He said it was the wild pigs that pirates saw (and ate) running around the bay that gave the name. But Wikipedia has a different opinion: “In Caribbean Spanish, cochinos may also mean the Orangeside triggerfish (Sufflamen verres), that inhabits coral reefs in Bahía de Cochinos, not swine (Sus scrofa).” The bay is famous bacause of the Bay of Pigs Invasion (La Batalla de Girón) – unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba undertaken by a counter-revolutionary militia trained and funded by the United States. The invasion was launched from Guatemala and defeated by the Cuban army, under the command of Fidel Castro, within three days.Cuba Varadero

Paul also told me to get to know Cuba you need to speak to people living here. I guess it’s true for every country. I wish I could speak Spanish. People in Cuba are very talkative and I know I would learn so much more about it if I could ask questions and understand answers.

By the way you wouldn’t believe how many people que to use public phones in Cuba! We saw long ques everywhere.

One day n the beach Michal retrieved dead langusta from the sea. Probably it died while the fishermen gathered their catch, as it was bisected. It looked amazing, colorful and a bit scary. No wonder they use creatures living in the sea as an inspiration for aliens.langosta

All hotels in Cuba are state owned. Paul told me that castro nationalized only houses that were not privatley owned. This means when you had your own house it wasn’t taken away from you, but if you bought one and were still paying the mortage back to the bank it became state owned.

One evening we went to The Beatles Bar Restaurant (Avenida 1ra. e/ Calle 59 y 60, Varadero, Cuba). There was a band playing covers of rock hits with particular emphasis on hits Bon Jovi.

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They all looked like proper rockmen with a guest “star” who jumped onto the speaker to the dismay of staff and the delight of guests (he is a leader of Sound Blast you can watch him here).  Audience was various from teenagers – most probably friends of band members, typical tourist families to drunk seniors. Most loyal and having the most fun guests turned out to be a group of seniors demanding Carlos Santana all the time (who they never got by the way). Three of us took part in the raffle. We bought the right to draw a piece of paper with a number inside. When 10.30 pm struck the numers drawn were: 48… 49… 24… 50… 50! Adam had 50! He won a bottle of Special Havana Club Rum (0,7l)!

I just thought of it. This was a night of music:

1. We went to Paul’s restaurant and we listened to live music:

2. Michal didn’t like it so we went to a different place – Barracuda Grill (between Calle 58 & 59) and listened to:

3. We went to The Beatles and we listened to:

Ok now get ready to have a look at the best meal during our whole stay in Cuba:

Fish varadero

And now have look at where we got it:

Los Tres Cerditos Cafeteria

And now listen how much we paid: 50 CUP not CUC, I repeat CUP (moneda nacional)!!!!! The place is called Los Tres Cerditos (three pigs) Cafeteria. Make sure you get there! When I was waiting for the food the owner first went in the direction of a shop but came back empty handed. Then he went to his neighbours house and brought back two fresh rainbow coloured fish. I think this fish was then served to me and my friends. I generally don’t like fish. So if I say it was the best meal we had the fish has to be truly extraordinary.

Now have a look at the “best” restaurant in Varadero (at the corner od Avenida 1ar. and Calle 58):

b

Now listen to what we listened:

And now let me tell you that the waiter smashed a huge cockroach just in front of our table, the food was so so and the tiramisu half frozen. The remark of our French neighbours by the next table ‘if I wanted tiramisu I would go to supermarket’ started to make sense.

Enjoy the slide show and see you on the way to Santa Clara next!

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