Thursday, 21 January 2016

Cuba City Scenes

We are not lie on the beach and get a tan people. Well, that's not true. We are those people, but not for days on end. Our family will last for a day on the beach, but then we want to go try something different before coming back for another day on the beach. What I am saying is that we like time away from the resort as much as we enjoy our time on it.

Since this trip was in Varadero, there were three cities we decided to visit:

  • Varadero town - this is really just a tourist trappy sort of place that offers little apart from trinkets for sale, resorts, and vacation rentals. On the edge of town there are some oil wells and a refinery, but apart from that, the only real industry is tourism, so you won't get a feel for the culture and heartbeat of Cuba here. 
  • Matanzas - Matanzas is a working town about 15 minutes from Varadero. Many of the resort staff live here, it has a number of factories and farms. A small university, and is a real city. We did a bus tour of Matanzas but only got out at the town square for about 15 minutes. 
  • Havana (AKA La Habana) - The capitol of Cuba, Havana is a longish drive from Varadero. It took us about an hour, maybe a little more to reach it. The highway to Havana is a rural freeway, but the mix of vehicles along it includes everything from donkey carts to Russian built trucks. The city itself is as vibrant and busy as any large city anywhere.


Since I have dedicated the entire previous post to the resort and Varadero, I am going to give it only a very brief nod here. If you like straw markets and taxis, then Varadero is a good place to visit. It's a pretty town and everything looks nice.

One of the things I keep wanting to do in Cuba (but never have) is to get off the resorts and rent a room in a "Casa Particulaire" These privately run B&B's utterly litter Varadero, and are a real budget option to staying on resort. For around $30 CUC per day you get a nice room and sometimes a meal. You can negotiate additional meals into the room for a fee. If you see this symbol on a house, it has tourist rooms for rent (text optional):

Of course being a tourist town, old American cars are everywhere, running as taxis. Rates are highly negotiable, but generally get higher the farther you are from town. Between our resort and town the drivers would start by asking for $15 CUC but could be negotiated as low as $7 CUC. These cars are the epitome of beauty being skin deep. Often they have been re-engined with diesel or japanese engines, have a subframe from a different car, and generally are cobbled together from whatever is left over from other cars. Be careful getting into one for a long drive. Seatbelts don't exist, floors may or may not be solid, steering and suspension may or may not work. Most have an inspection sticker on the windshield, and if the inspection is more than 2 years old are considered stale dated. This does not prevent drivers from continuing to use them.

In downtown Varadero there is a childrens' playground. One thing that can be said about Cuba is that they truly value children. A cute kid will always get to jump cues, get little gifts, and get special attention. The country is madly in love with kids. The boys also loved Cuba and all the attention they got. Also note the chicken in the park. Chickens are everywhere in Cuba.

We stopped at a restaurant to give the boys a pee break, and while I waited for them, I snapped this picture of some backyards. I always think you can tell more about a town by what is behind the facade, and this gives a good feel for life in Cuba. Varadero backyards look a whole lot different than the front yards:

I'm going to leave Varadero with that backyard shot and move ahead - we tend to put a 'Canadian' view on this and see poverty and dirt in that backyard, but you can't impose the ideas of Canada on a tropical place with a communist government. Lets leave it at that and hop ahead to Matanzas.


The trip we took included a half-day excursion to the Matanzas Caves. We only realized this once we had booked our trip, so it was a nice surprise. The caves are very nice, and the tour guide was quite good. I think I enjoyed the caves on our trip to Shenandoah better, but these were still very cool. The preservation rules and visitor protection were very different between Virginia and Cuba - that was to be expected though.

I love this next picture because to me it shows the progression of the Cuban economy through the vehicles on the streets. First the era of US investment and the 'playboy' attitude toward Cuba, then the stoic soviet era where survival was the only thing that mattered, and finally the here and now of new Chinese/Japanese investment, reopening the economy, and the general spirit of optimism the island seems to be in. For sure, the times are changing. All this on a colonial Spanish cobblestone road.

While we're talking cars, a lot of people go to Cuba just to see the lines of old American cars. I don't blame them, there are many around. There are also a lot of Soviet era Ladas and Fiats. Mostly you see the old American cars lugging tourists around and living a hard life as taxis. They are expensive to drive and maintain, and often the only original parts are the body. According to our tour guide, a good condition 67 Chev would fetch a price of around $80,000 since it is a guaranteed money maker. More if its a convertible. I also believe our tour guide was manufacturing a lot of facts on the fly. Regardless, if you have an old American car you can make around $100 a day which is a very big number by Cuban standards. Russian cars though - they tend to be not-taxis, and more utilitarian.

This picture was taken in the main square of Matanzas. Our tour bus is in the background. The two young people walking toward the camera are students. Many workers in Cuba wear uniforms, and all students wear uniforms to school. Elementary/junior grades are blue, College is brown. There is a university just outside the square where these two likely study.

Policy in Cuba is that as long as a student can maintain a high GPA, their education will be paid up to two doctorate degrees. The onus is on the student to maintain a GPA that qualifies them to continue in their studies. It is illegal to hire a child under 18 yrs old, so kids who drop out of school or don't maintain a high GPA are left in limbo. I am not sure what becomes of them. This education/work policy is a big contrast to Canada where college/university is expensive and many kids go to work to raise college money, then never return to school. FWIW, Cuba follows international standards in its degrees, so although it is a poor third world country, its education system is on par with most first world nations, and its literacy rate is higher than most. Cuba produces more doctors than it has space for, and deploys them to other countries on humanitarian work.

This next photo is in the town square in Matanzas. Since Cuba has been through multiple regime changes and internal wars within  the last 100 years, war memorials and statues of heroes abound. Dictatorships love reminding their people of the greatness of the leaders, and Cuba is no exception. Everywhere you go there is another statue celebrating another hero of the revolution. Momma and I had a corny kiss here.

The building below is a old fire station from the 1880's. It needs some restoration, but it looked really cool, so I snapped a shot. The traffic geek in me loves the painted island though. Around here a plow would tear that mo-fo out in the first snow. Also, the radii on the departure curve seems a little tight...

I think Matanzas was probably the kids' first exposure to poor Cuba. Some of the neighbourhoods here really showed neglect and a need for some work, but we never saw anyone begging or anyone who looked unhealthy. Yes some of the roads were coming apart, and the electric grid has a certain charm, and yes there is certainly less 'stuff' than we have here, but although there are many poor Cubans, there is little poverty in the sense that poverty is a state of spirit while poor is a cashflow situation. Many windows in Cuba are covered in steel bars - this is a throwback to island architecture and not a crime issue. The bars were originally incorporated in the architecture to keep pirates away and were wooden. Then the french came with steelwork and it became a prestige symbol to have ironwork on the front of the house. The bars are now largely decorative - and they are everywhere.

On the edge of Matanzas sits the baseball field. Every kid in town wants to make it to MLB - and this is where those dreams come true. Here the Matanzas team plays. All amateur, no paid players (a point of pride). All of them dreaming of making it to the big league. Baseball is Cuba's national sport, and the fandom is as feverish as it is for hockey here.

Leaving Matanzas, we aim for Havana (La Habana). On this drive was saw all manner of vehicles, and drove through heavy rain. It is not uncommon to see trucks such as this one with families seated around a table in the back, or a crowd of workers in them. Often they whistle and wave as they go by.

La Habana (Havana)

You come into Havana along a beautiful boulevard, than go under a tunnel and emerge in the city. Within the city three layers of post-European history emerge - the old Spanish history, the newer American era, and then Castro's Cuba.

There is much propaganda. It makes me wonder how the transition to trusting Americans will work. It seems that most Cubans are eager to see American money, but care little for the culture, the investments, or the people. In the words of tour guide "America will only bring us MacDonalds and Rock and Roll. What good is there in that?" another zinger - "The only reason you need American dollars is if you are going to defect. Anyone collecting US currency is a traitor. Don't give it to them."

And Havana is bustling with tourists without Americans. The queue of cars below are all taxis booked for the day by foreign tourists. Here, along the Malecon the taxis sit and wait for their clients to return. Drivers lean on each others cars and a staccato Spanish fires up and down the lines of cars as the drivers compare notes. On the seawall, young men fish, and tourists promenade all day long walking along the famous strip. As we walked, the oil vent in the background burned, an English cruise ship came in to port, and a foreign tanker left. Yes the blockade prevents trade with the US, but not all trade; and Venezuela, China, Russia, and others are poking enough holes in the blockade for this experiment to continue to work.

Streetscapes in the city range from opulent to run down to abandoned. Being visitors we don't understand all the change here, but wondered what to make of the various buildings and their condition. Especially in sports like below where a brand new apartment block sat next to rows of crumbling buildings.

In the photo below, you see the line-out of cars again showing the various eras of control. I love these pictures where the traffic is so mixed. Also, the countdown pedheads showing 70 seconds - and thats just part of the phase. 

In old Havana we visited Hemingway's bar and the cathedral. We saw the national Hotel (beautiful!) and were overall impressed with the city. Unfortunately it rained a lot while we were in town, and Cubans have a fear of catching their death in the rain. This lead to some complications with our tour guide, an ubrella, and the boys. (Save the children!)

Eventually we were lead to the rooftop terrace of a hotel where we could see over the city. We were supposed to be impressed with the view of the old fort and the city from here, but Momma and I both found ourselves snapping shots of the backs of the buildings that were "uninteresting". This had the tour guide perplexed.

We took a family photo at the National Hotel. Havana's National hotel is quite beautiful. It is where foreign dignitaries and diplomats come to stay, and has all the lavish outfitting appropriate to such a hotel. But it also has the 'famous room'... which was a little... weird? In this room there are giant cardboard sheets with all the famous people who have visited the famous room - going back to pre-blockade times - many national leaders, cosmonauts, singers and dancers, artists, etc. Just pictures of heads, with a name and title under them. Bill Murray was there, as was Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.  Its sortof a National brag book of all the people who have come to Cuba. Strange. Many of the famous people there I had never heard of, but nodded solemnly when the tour guide pointed and said their names. 

The Havana tour was cut short when the boys got tired. So we all made the long drive back to Varadero and the resort, arriving back in time for dinner. In Varadero, Momma made a stop at the flea market for some trinkets, then we went to our room and packed up for the trip home.

At the Varadero airport, James snapped this picture of planes on the runway. the big plane had just been loaded for a domestic flight. Since Varadero is advanced, they used a bus to carry guests to that plane - in other airports we've had to run across the tarmac to the plane. International flights from Varadero board at the gates per normal. Varadero is a "very modern" airport. having been built in 1989. It even has 2 x-ray machines!

So that's it for the Cuban cities we visited. I'm not sure whether I'll add a third piece to this triplog or not. still thinking about where I'd go with it and what I'd say that hasn't already been said.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Cuba - Third time's the charm!

We are just back from our third Cuban vacation. This time we elected to take the boys along, and as usual Cuba proved to be fantastic. Unfortunately, the weather and the resort were not, but Cuba is a charming place regardless. Our original plan had been to wait until summer, then make a trip to the southern US, but with the political turmoil down there, and our weak dollar, we decided to do a winter vacation to Cuba instead.

I think I'll break this trip report into bits - first on the resort and cute kid pictures, then old cars and Havanna, and then maybe a little politics and emotion, but first - the fun stuff. Resort life.

We flew out of Toronto with Cubana airlines headed to Varadero - a small tourist town featuring some 50 or so resorts strung out along a sand peninsula into the straits of Florida on the north side of the main island of Cuba. Flying with Cubana always produces 'interesting' meals, and this time was no exception.

I present our airline breakfast:

That's a greek salad, chicken breast, dinner roll, orange juice and coffee. I think the orange juice is what makes it breakfast. Not sure. Of course its still better than what they serve on Sunwing flights (nothing).

We landed early in Varadero, put our bags in the luggage locker, and headed to the beach and the hotel pool/snackbar.

The resort itself was very pleasant. The layout has a 'quiet section' and a main hotel. The quiet section is far from the shows and noise of the main hotel, which is good if you are travelling with boys. If you come to Varadero to party, this is not the section of the hotel for you.

It didn't take the boys long to figure out "Uno pina colada por favor" and soon they were best friends with the bartenders all over the resort.

Buddy adopted this banana tree, and checked every day to see if the bananas were ready for picking. If they had of ripened, I'm sure he would have had them for lunch.

Unfortunately, it rained A LOT while we were in Cuba. That meant it was hard to get in beach time, but we made the most of it when the weather improved to overcast, and had a really good vacation with lots of beach time and lots of trips into town, and even a few volleyball games.

We did some hiking on the beach, and found coral and shells, and we jumped and dove in the waves too! Unfortunately, the schedule at the resort didn't allow us to catch many of their shows - although we did see an animal show with dancing puppies and a cheeky pony, and a monkey.

It rained so much in Cuba, that the rooms below us were sometimes flooded out. Despite this, guests continued to be put in them. I can't think of much that would ruin your vacation faster than having your room flooded, and when I say flooded, I'm not exaggerating. This is the baggage car between our rooms and the next wing of the hotel. It is on the cart path. Luckily we were on the second storey.

In fact there was a lot about the resort that suggested we could have picked a better spot. Things like only hand towels in the room (no shower towels at all!), no beach towels until day three, very late meals, and then long lines to get in, beds with only one sheet on them, no pillows to speak of, many sick guests (food handling??), and so on. Its not a resort we'll return to.

Despite all this, the vacation was really quite good. we rode a Cocotaxi into town, and did some shopping, and we took an old car for a ride. There were bands playing music all over, and the bartenders were always friendly.

So what made the trip good? Well, a mix of things. We made friends with some really great people, and we brought along some card games that are really a lot of fun for all of us (seriously, get Saboteur - everyone loves it!) and when the weather was really bad, we just laughed and ran in the rain. Sometimes, that's all you can really do!