Wednesday, July 19, 2017

6/21/2017 Cuban Honeymoon: A Scenic Journey by Car

It took us two days of checking multiple car rental locations to get our hands on a car, but finally we were off for three days of adventure at our own pace, which we found to be quite slow on Cuban roads between the potholes and horse carriages. We drove through Playa Larga and stopped by Cueva de la Pesca, 70m deep cenote (natural well) connected to the ocean on the other side of the highway with beautiful tropical fish. A great place to dive or snorkel, just as we started to spot all of the fish we realized we were being absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes and since Cuba is know to have Dengue and Zika, we booked it back to the car before heading to the dive shop.

We drove on to Playa Giron, famous for being the Bay of Pigs landing, we found huge crashing waves against the breakwater and beautiful coral along the beach. It is also a noted location for a huge land crab migration, occurring every spring millions of crabs migrate across the streets and through the yards from the forests to mate in the ocean creating quite the spectacle as everything seems to turn red.

Cienfuegos surrounds a beautiful bay and is centered around a wide walking street. The city has a sleepy charm we spent our afternoon enjoying the many flavors of delicious ice cream and marveling at some of the colorful palaces near Punta Gorda at the southern tip. We found a lovely casa particular with a fantastic view over the bay for the night. Casa particulars are government approved, privately owned accommodation and they are one of the only options Cubans have to earn their own private income. Homeowners pay the government a monthly fee in order to legally be able to host guests in their homes. If an unregistered casa rents to a tourist, penalties can be steep and likely will include jail time. Just before we went to bed at our casa, all of the electricity went out and after an hour of men scurrying around trying to resolve the issue with no success, we were moved to another place next door. Casa owners always have a friend next door who also owns a casa and can help out whether it is an electricity issue or a lack of vacancy.

The next day we drove to Trinidad, a colorful Spanish colonial city from the 1850's. We meandered around the maze of cobblestone streets and took in the slow pace of life here. It is a UNESCO heritage site and the buildings show a bit of restoration as they were some of the most vivd buildings we saw in the whole country. Playa Ancon is a beautiful beach just 8 kilometers away where we managed to find our own private beach with loads of coral and blow holes forcing the ocean spray up at us. We stayed the night in Remedios, a town so quiet and sleepy we could barely find a place for dinner.

The next day we drove 48 kilometers on a manmade causeway out to the beautiful beaches on Cayo Santa Maria for another day of sun and sand. Almost all of Cayo Santa Maria is bought out by all inclusive resorts with private gates. We did manage to find Playa Perla Blanca where a modern but sleepy shopping center has beach access for 5$ including a cocktail, beach lounger and shade. The beach was phenomenally clean and beautiful and we enjoyed our afternoon swimming and reading.

We drove slowly back over the causeway in the afternoon thinking about how little earth was separating us from a whole lot of ocean, we made it all the way back to Matanzas where we found an awesome casa to spend the night. We stopped at Coral Beach the next day but it wasn't as nice as Varadero and since we were close we packed up and headed that way. Of all of the beaches we encountered Varadero was not only our first but our favorite beach of the whole trip; for its beautiful beaches, abundant and decent food, accessibility and overall vibe.

The area is famous for land crabs, similar to this statue which march en masse to the sea to lay eggs every spring

chorizo and ham pizza, a staple

Playa Larga
Cueva de la Peces
Playa Giron

Our Cienfuegos Casa Particular

Cienfuegos walking street

Dominoes, a favorite pastime for Cubans young and old

Batido or milkshake bar
Ice cream another favorite cuban snack, cones are only 3CUP (.12 cents USD)

Colorful Trinidad, a UNESCO protected city

Clearly food safety is a top priority

The mango trees were absolutely loaded with mangoes the size of your head

A typical coffee/food stand in Remedios
Agro-ecology in a communist state

6/18/2017 Cuban Honeymoon: Varadero, Our Beach Paradise

In Cuba locals can't fathom walking very far, if something is 1-2 kilometers away they will tell you,  to take a cab. If you are trying to take a bus, they will tell you it doesn't exist and when we told them we wanted to take the train they said its too dangerous. We quickly began to sense a pattern, Cubans do not like to make life any more difficult. We were determined to take the scenic route from Havana to Varadero aboard the Hershey Train. Built in 1916, the Hershey Train was created to deliver workers from the city of Havana to the nearby sugar fields and factories, its a rickety old electric train that still chugs along today. During the ride you will bounce along grown-over tracks, enduring constant horn blowing at cows and other livestock roaming freely on and around the tracks. We encountered a small number of local passengers stepping on between villages and even stopped to help locals load coffee bag sized sacks full to the brim of mangoes and proceeded to drop them off at a village a few stops further along the route. We couldn't have gotten a more authentic local experience for the $1 fare we paid. It turned out to be a fantastic adventure regardless of the fact that we ended up waiting 5 hours for the next scheduled departure, plus one more hour while the electricity was being reinstated on the grid. Our goal was to get to Matanzas, but the bridge was currently out of commission, so we were let off at Canasi where we easily hitchhiked to Varadero. When the country went through its Special Period, (a deep economic recession) after the embargo and after the Soviet Union collapsed Cubans had to learn how to cope without a lot of things, cars were a huge shortage, so every car became a taxi and hitchhiking became a legally binding form of transportation which is still common today.

Arriving to Varadero we realized the 25 kilometer beach peninsula was everything we had hoped for with beautiful and clean beaches for us to spend a week on, we found a casa particular just a half block from the sand for 25CUC (25$) per night. Reading about Varadero I had been nervous it might be way too touristy with no real locals, but luckily for us all the all inclusive hotels and tourists are kept on either the first two kilometers or the last five on the peninsula, almost the entire middle of the 25 kilometers are taken over by locals and visiting national tourists. Of course there are plenty of tourist jineteros (touts) but they are not overly pushy and the place still feels authentic, maybe I'm a little biased based on the gorgeous beaches.

While we were in Varadero we found some of our favorite paladars (private, not state owned restaurants) including the Comida Criollio near the beach and Calle 52 with fantastic fried chicken, near Calle 54 Julia Paraiso is open later (most restaurants close around 2-5pm) and everything on their menu was great, especially the smoked pork, (lomo ahumado) and their milkshakes (batidos), mango please! Our last favorite restaurant was right next to the huge shopping center, near Calle 45. This place had fantastic pork, chicken, anything they make seems to be pretty awesome, however the line or lack thereof can be a madhouse. Cubans don't stand in line they ask "¿el ultimo?" (who is the last person in line) and take their turn after they see that person go, that is how you queue in Cuba. This made the huge horde of hungry Cubans an even more hectic scenario. 
The Hershey Train

Cuban street signs
Cigars on the beach
Pina Colada
Theres almost as much espresso as condensed milk in this cafe Bonbon

Fried chicken, Kevin's favorite
I love churros

Crystal clear water on white sand beaches

24 hour hamburger hotspot

Our daily favorite breakfast