Havana fun time

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Lois Kuhle
Lois Kuhle

Cool cars, shame about some of the beaches, writes LOIS KUHLE after her trip to Cuba

We were a merry band – three gals and a guy – travelling from Havana to Santa Clara and Santiego de Cuba of Cuba for 2,500 kilometres, staying mostly in casa particulars (home stays).  Still stuck in a 50s time warp, this fascinating island – 1,250 km long with an average width of 100km – is a dichotomy on every level.

Our merry band of four!
Our merry band of four!

Road signs are dubious, dropping or adding kilometres. For seasoned African drivers, self-driving in Cuba is not difficult. It is run on a horse and pedal power. They have the right of way and are not intimidated by large trucks. Overtaking on bumpy roads can be hair-raising. Rob and Llyris drove.

Joan and I settled in the back. When it became hazardous Joan would curl into a foetal ball wedged between her seat and the door. We knew things were bad when Joan started to wedge. Without maps it’s a miracle we ever found our accommodation. The trick is to pick up a runner who literally runs in front or hops in – with Llyris growling from the front “who is this man?” Classic cars are a familiar sight. Initially we photographed every car we saw.

Buanito
Buanito

In Santiego de Cuba the biggest disappointment was the awful beach at Buanito, well stocked with annoying beach boys, mangy dogs and an old lady washing her dirty plates where we were swimming. At the beach bar we had a good meal of fish and langoustine washed down with beers.

On the Atlantic Ocean we went to Coya Coco, crossing over a 20km man-made causeway, the Pedraplen.  Beaches are polluted with fully inclusive hotels bulging with overweight tourists. We slipped into a hotel beach bar where Pepe fed us beers and Cuba Libras, probably pocketing the money.

When it comes to living with Cuban families, it’s warts and all. Get referrals from a trusted source for accommodation. Take soap and a towel. Water is drinkable (preferably boiled), with a distinct chalky flavour. It can sort out the most stubborn constipation!

There are no regulated standards for casa particulars, all priced between 35-40CUC per room (R300 – R400). Home cooking is restricted to pork, chicken, and seafood accompanied by salad (cucumber, tomato, grated cabbage and sometimes avo), rice with black beans, bread and fruit – guavas, papaya and white pineapple. Be careful bandying the word papaya about. In Cuban it has another meaning and you may be requesting female genitalia.

Trinidad
Trinidad

Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site with magnificent buildings, is a fascinating town of 75,000 people with around 4,000 tourists (local and foreigners) passing through daily. Take a city tour  before retreating to the beach.

Cienfuegos has an intriguing cemetery built in memory of a sugar baron’s son. Tombs are above ground and bodies are exhumed after a year when families gathers to wash bones, which are replaced in a separate section of the grave, thus recycling the tomb. If your fella was a Casanova don’t be surprised to find a group of senioritas to help you.

Every major town has a memorial site for those who fought in Angola. When Mandela came to power he enabled the Cuban Government to collect bones of the fallen soldiers to be washed and brought back home. It was an important gesture from South Africa.

Horse and pedal power
Horse and pedal power

Llyris, who only started jogging in her 50s, ran 21kms in the Cuba Marathon in Havana. Wearing a shirt with the SA flag she was cheered on with shouts of ‘Mandela’ and ‘South Africa’! Her avid fans (us) stood by waving her SA flag swimming shorts. Other European supporters were better organized. This was not an easy race, but an excellent achievement in an exotic location.

  • Cuba has an interesting monetary system:  locals use pesos and foreigners have a dedicated currency called CUCs, available only in Cuba. Exchange rate: R10 or US$1 around 1 CUC. Cafeterias along the road are inexpensive so it’s worth exchanging CUCs for pesos.
  • Alberto Barrientos who made our car reservations and occasional hotel bookings and Sergio Ameneiro,  our man on the ground come highly recommended.