If If anyone had told me that I would be up before 7am most mornings on holiday, suitcase packed, taken to the lobby, and ready to be loaded onto a coach, I wouldn’t have believed them. It would not be my idea of a relaxing holiday. It’s amazing how you can adapt when you have to; now I know how travelling salesmen or musicians on tour must feel. Except me and my fellow travellers did, at least, have the luxury of enjoying the scenery and cocktails at the end of a full days travels.
The first day after our arrival in Havana, we were afforded the luxury of not having to deposit our suitcases in the Lobby, as we were still recovering from the long flight the day before and a day of sightseeing on foot awaited us. We wandered through the old town, stopping outside El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway supped, then onto Ambos Mundos, the hotel where he stayed for long spells at a time.
We visited several Plaza’s; my favourite being Plaza Vieja, but also Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Cathedral where colourful ladies in traditional costumes sold their wears. The Havana Club Rum museum was a firm favourite with most and produce was sampled and despite the obvious reason that I wanted to visit; it was interesting as well!
Then it was time for lunch and the first encounter of the coach and driver, the lovely Emilio, who we were going to spend the next two weeks with. Erik told us to make a note of the number; 191 of the Transtur fleet. There was a reason for this; the Transtur company are State owned and there were many at the places we visited on our travels, so it was confusing to know which one to board if faced with several in a coach park.
So we were whisked off to the first of many lunches together, where we made new friends and got to know each other. Myself and Rosie were the only solo travellers but that didn’t make a difference because we were welcomed into the group of eight couples and a pair of old friends, Jane and Jacqueline, making twenty of us in total. The challenge was, in the beginning, to remember which wife went with which corresponding husband and the names of everybody. This was too much to absorb at first but as the days went on, I mastered it.
After lunch we were taken to Revolution square, which resembled a huge car park but had to be that size to accommodate the amount of people wanting to show their support for the Revolution. There were a lot of Transtur coaches there, funnily enough, so it was handy to know that ours was number 191! Back on the coach, Erik told us about the supply of bottled water carried on board for our convenience at a CUC a piece (Convertable Cuban Peso), which proved an excellent idea, given the climate. All we had to do was add the amount we had taken, 1 at a time and we would settle up at the end of the trip.
Now we had joined Emilio and his coach, we were joined at the hip and were escorted everywhere, like VIP’s. Although we became more like a family, with Emilio after a while calling us his niño’s (children in Spanish) and I stated calling him Papa. He didn’t know much English but we understood each other very well.
We were taken to the Revolution museum, which was closed early that day due to some important visitors, so we had to revert to Plan B and go the next morning. Another endearing part of the trip was that sometimes (well quite often, actually) some flexibility was needed. Erik would tell us the situation, ask our opinion, then we had to decide whether to do Plan A or Plan B regarding what order we would visit a place, or time we ate etc, and we would have a vote. Sometimes there was need for Plan C but it was always decided amicably.
So we returned earlier to the Hotel Parque Central than planned, but that was good because we had a voucher for a free drink up on the rooftop bar, where there was also a pool. I bumped into Mary and Roger who were having a drink and asked if they minded me joining them, which of course they didn’t and we admired the wonderful views of the city from our vantage point, while some of the others enjoyed the pool. After that, we were taken to the Nine Cannon ceremony at La Cabana Fortress, performed every night since the eighteenth century, with all the pomp and ceremony that they executed all those years ago. Again, there were many Transtur buses there the crowds were huge because it is a spectacle not to be missed on visiting Havana.
After negotiating our way out of the crowds and Erik rounding us up, with many of the head counts he had to perform, we were taken somewhere else for dinner. Being last to the table, I was perched at the end of one of the two and made conversation with a different group of people. Walking around Havana, we tended to drift into different groups and talk to different people, aclimatising ourselves with each other gradually. But when we ate together, it was a better opportunity to socialise and get to know people in depth. This was the pattern that developed as the tour went on and after a while, I for one, gravitated towards the people I got on best with and I’m sure the others did the same. I was in a better position I think, because there was only one of me to decide who I wanted to sit with, instead of being part of a couple where both had to decide.
The next day was the first of the suitcases in the lobby situation. Though not at dawn, at a more acceptable time of nine. We had to go to the Revolution museum before we left the city, as Plan B but Emilo still had to load the coach and take us there and Erik had to make sure we had handed our keys in to reception and collected our passports. There were a few occasions where people did forget to hand their keys back and were taunted by the whole bus in a jovial fashion. It soon became a bit of a joke to guess who had forgotten something each time we left a hotel!
After the museum, we were on the road for the first time, a four hour journey, travelling to Cienfuegos along the “motorway”, which was a loose description for a real motorway and where we encountered our first “yellow man” (as described in first blog) and the travellers waiting with a fistful of CUCs to be “lifted.” I took in the scenery which got more mountainous as we approached Cienfuegos, as well as the sugar cane plantations that came to be a common sight as we traversed the island.
Cienfuegos is known for its neo classical archetechture and was colonised by the French in the 1800’s. The pastel buildings were beautiful and even our hotel – La Union was a gorgeous mint green colour and full of character. It didn’t have a lift but very steep steps, so I needed a bell boy to take my very heavy suitcase up to my room. This was a routine that followed me to every hotel we stayed at; as I was manless, I didn’t have the means to transport my heavily laden suitcase up and down many flights of stairs. Consequently, many CUCs were spent in tips! We had dinner in the hotel that night, so Emilio had a night off. The hotel had a terrace bar, so I headed up there to join the others and have some “time out.”
The next morning I rose fairly early and decided to go into the main square to take some photos, as we didn’t need to leave until ten. With my suitcase in the lobby, porter paid, I had an hour to kill, so went for a wander. It was Sunday morning, so there was a relaxed atmosphere. I bumped into Bridget and Richard down on the quayside and walked back to the coach with them to go to our next stop, Trinidad.
On arrival in Trinidad, we did the sights, had lunch in a buffet style restaurant where flies covered the cold food and I had a nasty suspicion that I would suffer the consequences of eating there. My suspicions were correct and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the stop at the sugar plantation that we visited next because I didn’t dare go up the tower that the others climbed, incase I got “caught short”, so instead sat on the porch of the Plantation building and had a cup of tea. It was very nice sitting on that porch though. I managed to get through the experience without any mishaps and joined the coach again to travel to our next stop Sancti Spiritus.
We arrived there late afternoon, had a quick look around and had to park the coach away from the hotel, which was in a pedestrianised part of the town. We dragged our suitcases to Hostal Rijo, which I was pleasantly surprised was a very nice hotel. I loved my room, so much so, I took some photos of it. I only took photos of the hotel rooms I really liked and there were ten of them in the fortnight! The only problem was that, we had to take our dinner and breakfast in the sister hotel down the street. In the morning I was the last one to breakfast and had to have it on my own! I had adopted a routine of getting ready and taking my suitcase to the lobby before I had breakfast and the others did it the other way around, so they feared I would be late for Emilo. I wasn’t. In fact, I was so scared of oversleeping and missing the coach because I didn’t have anyone to wake me, that I woke earlier than I needed to most days!
Day five on the itinerary was a proper day on the road – nine hours! We were to travel to Camaguey for lunch, after four hours and then onto Bayamo which was another five hours. This was a lot of time to spend sitting down but I had prepared myself for it and as I had the luxury of having two seats to myself, I could spread out a bit. I had my iPad with me so I could listen to music, read an iBook, watch a film I had downloaded, so I was entertained. I also read my Lonely Planet guide to Cuba to swot up on the places we were going to visit. And, of course part of the trip included Eriks informative talks about Cuban lifestyle and history, which we found riveting (most of the time, anyway). Sometimes I just switched off but most of the time the things he told us were very interesting. Other people read their kindles or books or listened to music. Some just slept with their mouths open, catching flies (not really) but we just did whatever it took to get to the other end.
When we arrived in Bayamo, it was nearly dark. Erik took us on a whirlwind tour, then to our hotel. My room just had to be on the top floor, so I got my CUC out again and after I started unpacking, found that my air conditioning machine was literally spewing out water all over the floor. They moved me to another room, I was late for dinner and had to give the girl who helped me move another CUC. This was getting expensive!
The next day we were meant to go to a museum, I’m not sure what happened to plan A or B but while we were waiting on the coach, suitcases loaded, breakfast taken, we saw some lovely little children in cute sailor costumes on the street below us. Apparently it was a national holiday to celebrate one of their forefathers, I can’t remember which one. Bayamo was a bit of a blur to me; it must have been the long day of driving the day before. Goodness knows how Emilio felt.
Day 6 was the one that I was looking forward to with trepidation. Today we were travelling to the Sierra Maestra mountains and a six km hike was involved in order to visit Fidel Castro’s hideout while the Revolution was going on almost sixty years ago. The coach had to be left at a halfway point and two four by fours were to take us up to the next level, along with our suitcases. We were quite excited, as we didn’t know that we were going so far up into the mountains and wondered where Emilio would be staying. We had become attached to Papa! There was a bit of a delay with our lift and Erik became impatient with the drivers who had let him down. Eventually they arrived and one at a time they took us high up into the mountains, it was so steep, I could see why they coach wouldn’t have made it up there. We got to our accommodation, checked in and were then informed that we were to be taken even further up the mountain to join the guide who would lead us to Comandancia de la Plata.
The next road was so steep, I don’t know how even the jeeps got up them, at times they seemed to be at a 90 degree angle. But we did make it to the top and the view was stunning once there. The hike was arduous but rewarding and I felt accomplished at the fact that not many people have actually been to the heart of the Revolution headquarters and I would probably never meet anyone else in my life who had. Erik now named us Rebels for completing the mission! I was so knackered after, I had to have a lie down when I got back to my very basic room. Though the accommodation was basic here, the location more than made up for it. The damned cockerels woke me up at four am the next morning though, which I wasn’t very happy about.
After breakfast, the routine of suitcases in the lobby, key check, head count continued to our next port of call, also in the mountains but in nice log cabins and a much more leisurely day was ahead of us, unlike yesterday. There was an optional walk through El Salton Park, which I declined because I was still feeling the effects of yesterday’s hike, so I rebelled. My fellow rebels had been gone a while and I started to miss them and wished I had gone! So I went for a wander but all I encountered was an empty waterfall and a couple of cows grazing near the river, so I went back to my balcony with a couple of beers from the bar and read my book. I was so glad when they returned, I missed my new found friends!