Day 8: Topes de Collantes, or: I love Cuba

Days pass by so quickly… It was already 22 December, and I had spent my first week in Cuba. In order to also see some of the nature, and honestly, to be in touch with some tourists (I had really enjoyed the company of the backpackers yesterday, it was nice to exchange my experience with someone. I missed talking to people who would actually be nice to me without trying to rip me off), I had bo20141222_155838oked a tour with Cubatour (my host helped me with it, since he works for Cubatour). At 9.00 in the morning, I was ready and waiting for my group. After a while, an army-style truck arrived and our guide asked us to enter the truck- and yes! The tour was in English! And the guide’s English was fantastic! I was a bit disappointed when I climbed into the truck and realized that I was the youngest one- apart from two little children. Other than that, most of them were between 40-50. I sat down next to the family, and it turned out that they were also German. Actually, the majority of the group was German. Other than that, there was an Irish American and a Frenchman. The truck started to move, and our trip to the m20141222_121814ountains began- to the Topes de Collantes.
It was fantastic. The wind rushed through my hair, the weather was fantastic, and I was in a great mood. I had a nice chat with the dad of the young family, and he told me what travelling was like with two small children. Their last trip was to Palestine and Israel, and now they are also kind of backpacking through Cuba. Great! I always thought that it is the end of people’s travel life once they start to have children…
Anyways, the view of the mountains was fantastic. We stopped at a small station where our guide had to give out the information of the tour (the Cuban government registers everything! They always collect all the entry tickets of museum visits, etc. since they have to report how many people from which countries visited, how much money was spent, etc. Socialist bureaucracy!)
Then, we visited a little coffee museum where our guide explained to us how coffee was made. Cuba is known for its great coffee culture. It was really interesting. However, the super interesting part was still to come. We hiked t20141222_113614hrough the ‘jungle’, where our guide explained to us the significance of the different trees. The leaves of one tree could be used like toothpaste, the other one was a powerful cancer drug, the next one was a contraceptive plant, the other one could be used to heal a cold,… I was fascinated. This guy was a genius. He told us that he lived here and grew up in this area and that his grandparents taught him everything about ‘’the natural pharmacy’’. He also explained that in Cuba, natural products are very often used instead of chemical pills. We talked a lot about how pharmaceutical industries don’t want us to know about those things, since they need to sell their super-expensive drugs to make a profit. If people actually knew, that raw garlic is the most powerful cancer preventer, and that eating the hard core of a pineapple everyday makes you lose weight super quickly, who would then still buy the products?
This discussion reminded me again of my actual reason why I had started to admire Cuba in the first place- they try to deal with things themselves. We don’t necessarily need globalization. We don’t necessarily need international corporations extracting our resources if we can produce the end products ourselves. And sometimes, progress and technology is not the solution. I mean, where does cancer actually come from? Do we know how much harm the stuff we are consuming does to our body? The rays of our mobile phones, genetically modified food, chemo therapy,… sometimes it is best to go back to the roots maybe. Isn’t this general idea great?
Of course, sometimes we need technology. But we cannot solely rely on it.
I was amazed. I was standing there, in this bea20141222_124629utiful jungle, crossing waterfalls and learning about mother nature. Fantastic.  And then, the best part of the whole trip. We went swimming in a natural basin from the cold, fresh water which was the final destination of the waterfall.
The water was absolutely amazing. It was cold, clear, clean,… beautiful. And in the middle of the jungle in the Cuban mountains.
In this moment, I was alone. I was in a group of strangers, in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have phone service, I had had 30 minutes of internet in the past 7 days, 2:50 phone talk, and other than that, no further communication with my loved ones. But in this very moment, all I could do was to smile, dive into this crystal clear water and to think what a lucky person I was. I was the happiest girl in the world in this moment. And nobody could take it away from me.

After our swimming break, we continued our walk to a Finca-Restaurant. It was a government restaurant, but it looked really nice and the food was delicious. I got tortilla (eggs) with rice, vegetables and potatoes. During lunch, we had nice conversations, especially with our tour guide.

He told us that he used to be an English teacher and that he loved the English language. Of course, we started talking about Cuba and the future. He said something like the following:

 ‘’I am tired of it. I am 56 years old, and I have never left my country. The government has taken away my opportunity to travel the world, to see places. I am an English teacher, and I have never visited an English speaking country. I would have loved to see the US, go to Israel, learn about different cultures and actually see what I am learning. But no, I was not allowed to. Now, I am working as a tour guide. The government takes most of the money what you guys are paying, and I barely get anything of it. And well. I have internet here in my office. But yesterday, I tried for the whole day to download a video, but it was not possible since the internet is too slow. How is that possible? In 2014? Cuba needs to change. Now, with the possible cooperation with the USA and the end of the restrictions, this can happen. But of course, the natural beauty has to be protected, like this beautiful place on earth. It cannot fall into the hands of corporations and profit-led vultures.’’

During my travels, I would hear many more people speak like this. Funny, how a change is a)seen as an opportunity, and b) as a risk. The Western World doesn’t seem to see the risks anymore. The IMF and World Bank enter African countries like Zambia in order to extract their resources, and all the government sees there is the economic opportunity. Environmental risks are ignored, the risk to get exploited and pushed into dependency is ignored, the risk that the money, thus economic opportunity, will end in the wrong hands is ignored. But the Cuban government and the Cuban people still recognizes that every opportunity also has its risks. Another thing which I admire about Cuba. Rational, realistic, social thinking. Wonderful (Leave a comment in case you don’t agree!)

After lunch, we drove to the very top to take some nice pictures. And yes, look at this beauty:


I had enjoyed the company of other tourists during the day, and I had had some really nice conversations. However, I noticed how I was just much more… ‘’knowledgeable’’ about the Cuban reality than they were. They stayed in hotels, had internet, TV, etc…
And when we went to a place where people tried to sell some ‘’natural candy’’ to us on the streets, such as peanut bars, coconut bars, etc. I told them that they could buy it much cheaper if they bought it just somewhere on the streets and paid in Pesos ($MN). They looked at me surprised and asked ‘’What? It is possible to get Pesos?’’ So I explained to them, that yes, they can get Pesos and that with Pesos they can eat at the cheap Cafeterias where Cubans eat their sandwiches and pizzas, and that then they can buy a peanut bar for $6MN instead of $2CUC. (again, $25 MN= $1CUC, 1 Euro= $1,24 CUC)

I felt really proud to somehow ‘’teach’’ them about those things which I had already found out in my first or second day in Havana.

After this great trip, I came home, had a shower, and a great dinner. I didn’t feel like leaving Trinidad, but my landlords told me that there is another guest who would arrive the next day. And somehow, I didn’t want to stay longer in the city if I couldn’t be in my lovely casa. I loved the food, the nice couple, the dog… Plus, I was determined to make it to Santa Clara and Remedios for Christmas Eve in order to be part of the biggest festival in Cuba.

My casa in Trinidad (I REALLY recommend it):
Hostal Rigo
Casco Historico de Trinidad
Calle Francisco Gomez (Callejon de Pena) No. 8, entre Simon Bolivar (Desengano) y Piro Guinart (Boca) Trinidad

(+53) 41 992615


Day 7: Trinidad, or: Beach time& a historical moment…

After a wonderful breakfast, I took the bus to the beach- direction Playa Ancon.
I got off at the first stop, so basically a small beach next to Playa Ancon. I just wanted to be in peace and to enjoy the beach. The water was great, the weather was great…. But damn it, I should have brought a book with me or something.
Instead of boring you with lots of text, here some pictures:


Anyways, there was a price that I had to pay for these beautiful pictures.
Sandfleas! After about 4pm, my legs started to itch like crazy. And then I noticed tiny flies sucking blood out of my legs! At one point, it was impossible to stay. The bus would leave at 6pm, but it was already 5 and I could20141224_135722n’t stay any longer. And there I saw a group of young people my age, jumping around and scratching their legs the way I did. So, I joined them and we started talking. They were waiting for a cab, and thank god, they had one spare seat and they told me that I could join them. Amazing! It turned out that those were all backpackers who had met in Havanna. They were from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Australia and Italy. But only one of them spoke Spanish. I was already excited, as I thought that I could maybe join them in their travels. But it turned out that they already wanted to leave the next day to Santa Clara. And as I felt really comfortable in Trinidad, I didn’t want to leave yet. They told me that there was a festival in Remedios for Christmas Eve and that I sould definitely try to go there. And maybe, we would see each other there then.

Anyways, I got home with my burning legs and the senora of my casa immediately gave me some cream to put on in order for the itching to stop. I had great dinner then, and afterwards I had coffee with my hos20141220_192005t and her husband and we had a nice chat. They are both working in tourism, which explains why they are that well-off. They are both around 50 years old, really modern and completely supportive of the Cuban system. Both of them appreciate the education system and health care and they underline that they are happy that Cuba is safe and that there is no violence like in Cuba’s neighbouring country. We talked a lot about violence in Europe and the United States, and they praised my Spanish! This really meant a lot to me. I am used to people saying that my English or French is good, but I always felt very insecure about my Spanish. So, this was nice.
A20141221_215209t the end of the evening, I went out for a drink- a Pina Colada in a Pina, freshly made, for $3CUC. This was the cherry of the cake, and I went home happily.

In bed, I watched some TV. It was Raul Castro, reading a speech out in parliament. But I was a bit late, and I didn’t concentrate much. I just understood a part when he mentioned something about the United States….? After the parliament speech, there was a concert on TV, for the ‘Cuban Five’. They were released?? What? In this moment, I wasn’t really aware about what was happening right now. I had no clue about the historical moment which I had just witnessed.

Day 6: Off to Trinidad! Or: Are we in 1870 again?

Well, this is also Cuba. After I had bought my Viazul bus tickets, I sat down in the waiting hall. And the elderly lady that sat next to me just started a conversation with me out of the blue. ‘’Que tal, mi amor?’’- How are you,love? My heart was melting. She was absolutely lovely and we just chatted for a bit. Then, an old man passed by and sold some peanut-honey-bars, for $6MN (again, $25MN is $1CUC, and 1 Euro is $1,24CUC). I felt really nice. I assume, that the older generation is friendlier than young people. The older generation still remembers what Cuba was like prior to the revolution and they appreciate the things which they have now, whereas young people now only see what they don’t have: Internet, fancy smartphones, computers, Western clothes,…

While I was waiting in line to enter the bus, I met another German backpacker. This was already his sixteenth visit to Cuba (!) and he talked a lot about the Cuban way of working. It had taken both of us a while to buy our tickets before, as the office lady worked very slowly, kept chatting with a friend of hers, etc. Well, in Cuba the office pace is way different from what we know in Europe. Was this the effect of communism? Working as if it was a permanent holiday? He also told me, that last year, Raul Castro allowed Cubans to buy imported clothes. This triggered a huge chaos, as somehow the country was flooded with clothes from abroad and there were window-shops selling them everywhere. As the situation escalated, Castro reversed the policy again and instead, a new Cuban textile factory was built. Was this a sign that Cuba is not ready for a transition? …

After my short bus trip through the beaut20141220_130739iful landscape, I finally arrived in Trinidad. My casa in Cienfuegos already arranged my next casa in Trinidad, and a friendly looking woman was already waiting for me with a paper sign with my name on it.
We walked for about 2 minutes and arrived at the house. It was located in a busy market street. My room was in the second floor, next to the big terrace. The room turned out to be a little apartment actually. I had my own floor (including the terrace), a big bedroom with a double bed and a single bed, including a TV (!!), and a nice bathroom. What a difference!! In my room in Cienfuegos, the toilet didn’t work properly, it was really dirty and the mattress was a nightmare. My host was extremely nice. She brought me coffee and gave me brochures and advice on what to do in Trinidad. And, the family also had a dog! I was very happy.

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Also, she told me that I could have dinner at the casa for $7CUC, and for me there would be fish (I don’t eat meat, I only eat fish when it is local which of course, is the case in Cuba). I couldn’t be happier.

20141220_155342After a quick shower, I decided to explore the city. My casa was located less than 1 minute from the Plaza Mayor. And it was just simply lovely. Stone streets, cute little houses, many small churches and towers,… it was great. I spent the day having a look at Trinidad from the top of a tower, and of course I had some nice beers in a bar on the stairs next to the Plaza Mayor.
And my evening ended with a wonderful dinner. I absolutely loved it! My casa was fantastic. Backpacking in Cuba wasn’t too bad after all….?

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad