Valentina and I spent another couple of days exploring Havana, hitting "cultural sights". We wandered around the Plaza de Armas and headed to the Plaza de la Catedral to have a mojito and listen to a band play some classic Cuban songs. I have to say that I make better mojitos. I had two in Cuba and neither had the love that I muddle into the ones I fix up at BBQs. (my recipe: few lime wedges, few sprigs of fresh mint, splash of simple syrup, muddle it, add ice, one shot of rum, top with club soda, garnish with mint... mmm, refreshing) Anyhow, we headed to the Museum of the Revolution which was filled with Fidel, Che, and Camillo artifacts. I don't think I was in a very Revolutiony mood and lost interest after seeing one too many shirts or pens used by so and so during such and such. Outside, there were tanks and missiles used in various conflicts. Who doesn't like tanks?
"Cuba is for Lovers". I kept repeating this to Valentina throughout the trip because I noticed so many couples everywhere. Holding hands, looking very much in love. I think it's pretty easy to get caught up in the romance and energy of the city. As I walked around, I heard music coming from every corner, I watched people dancing in the street, dancing in their houses, men and women being affectionate, and everyone checking each other out. There's something in the air.
Val and I took another long walk out to see the Jose Marti Memorial which is a 129 meter tall star shaped tower and well guarded structure where Fidel Castro delivers some of his biggest speeches. Across the plaza is the Interior Ministry which features an interesting line-art portrait of Che Guevara on its facade. We hopped a cab back to the house and washed up before going to Casa de la Musica, one of Havana's popular night clubs.
The House of Music in Havana features a number of different performers and seemingly non-stop dancing. We went in early at around 6pm and things were pretty hopping. I can't imagine going anywhere in Los Angeles at that hour and seeing people salsa dancing with the same energy as the Cubans in this club. Especially considering that the party really gets going at around 11pm. Val and I didn't really go out late at night because we pretty much wore ourselves out, walking in the heat most of the day.
The next morning, we went to the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. I wanted to tour a cigar factory and I had read that Partagas cigars were a pretty good brand. The tour was 10cuc and pretty interesting. I was surprised to learn that cigars for many different brands are made in the same factory. These include Robaina, Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, as well as Partagas. We watched tobacco being prepped, sorted, and rolled by rooms full of workers. (There's even a guy who has to smoke six cigars each day for quality control) Each roller earns a set wage and bonuses depending on the number that they rolled. They also received one or two cigars a day to keep or sell to tourists.
As you make your way through Cuba, you'll often hear locals asking you if you want to buy a cigar. "Cigar amigo?" "Cohiba?" They say that the odds of you buying a real cigar from someone on the street is one in a thousand. Most street cigars are fakes rolled from lower quality tobacco or even tobacco scraps. I've also read about people buying sealed boxes that are filled with paper instead of cigars. The more reliable source for authentic Cuban cigars are shops within the factories themselves. But here, a box of 25 cigars will run you around $150. Singles are anywhere between $5-$20 a piece.
We spent a few bucks on cigars in the factory shop before grabbing our things and hopping a 25cuc Viazul bus to Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage site nestled between the coast and the Topes de Collantes mountains. The bus ride was a pretty interesting. We passed through different towns and caught glimpses of life in quieter towns that didn't bustle as much as Havana. Things got pretty surreal when an attendant popped in a VHS copy of Speed (the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock hit where Dennis Hopper puts a bomb on a bus in LA). You haven't lived til you've watched Speed on a moving bus through Cuba.
While riding to Trinidad, we noticed a lot of random fires in fields and around the mountains. I never did figure out what that was about. We even passed right through a brush fire with flames close enough to warm us through the windows. At one point we also witnessed the crabs of Baconao. Hundreds of red and orange crabs can be seen crossing the highway from the hills to lay eggs in the sea. Apparently a lot of them are smashed by passing vehicles. Fortunately we missed that part. When we arrived in Trinidad, we were greeted by Abel of Maritza's Casa Particular in Trinidad. Our hosts in Havana had set us up with this place and we were very pleased with our rooftop room.
The first thing that I noticed when I entered the bathroom in our Havana Casa Particular was that there was no toilet seat. Just the clean porcelain rim. I wondered, "Do Cuban dudes pee sitting down?" Even if you're careful, you'll usually make a little mess of the rim from back splash. In our Trinidad casa and a Santa Clara public bathroom, it was the same- no seat. How men pee in Cuba is still a mystery I have yet to solve.
We took a walk around the colorful little town, wandering around Plaza Mayor, and up to the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria de la Popa for a nice view of Trinidad and the ocean. Up there we met an old woman who invited us to her house to eat a big meal. We declined as I was being very cheap after the expensive bus ride. In fact, I think our host at the casa must have taken me for a cheap American as I also declined his home-cooked 7cuc dinner. (We would later learn that he made the best meal we found in Trinidad). That night we tried the Colonial Restaurant instead. While Valentina saved money by eating rice and fries, I tried the chicken, rice, and vegetables (sliced tomatoes). Not a great meal and not a great price.
Meals in Cuba are rather inconsistent. You can go to a touristy restaurant in Havana and find pretty good food for $7-$15. Local restaurants seemed to serve mediocre food that was pretty bland. People on the street will go up to tourists and invite them to a paladares. These are private restaurants run out of people's homes. These can be pretty hit and miss. The one we tried in Trinidad was a miss. We found that the best food was often found at the Casas we stayed at. Meals here run about 3cuc for breakfast (eggs, bread, fresh fruit and juice) and 7cuc for a chicken dinner (usually, chicken, plantains, rice, potato, cucumber/tomato salad, and fruit/dessert). Paladares near the coast often offered 10cuc lobster dinners although the government prohibits serving lobster, beef, and shrimp (these items are controlled and served to tourists and the privileged).
What really got us excited was street pizza. These little pizzas were pretty decent and often sold out of doorways and served up on a piece of thick paper (napkins are hard to find). Very often you could buy them using the national peso which meant a pizza for about $0.25US. Such a deal for a budget traveler.
We hit Ancon beach the next day, splitting a cab with a nice Australian guy named Matt, from Melbourne. The three of us cooked on the beach for about three hours, talking about French politics, world travel, and Cuban women. I took a walk down the shore and witnessed my first topless sunbathers ever. (That was sadly the most "action" I got in Cuba) We snacked on 1cuc pizza and finally headed back to town after I kept bugging Val about how bad our sunburns were going to be. That night, we went to an AfroCuban show with Matt at Las Ruinas del Teatro Brunet. After the band's set, we walked to the steps next to Iglesia Parroquial leading to Casa de la Musica. The steps are filled with tourists in the late evening enjoying salsa dancing and live music shows nightly. We had a couple of beers and watched sexy dancers (and cute tourists) move their hips.
You'll find two main beers in Cuba. A 4% abv, Cristal , which is a lighter pilsner and a 5.4% abv, Bucanero Fuerte which is a fuller lager blended with a touch of Cuban sugar. There's also a Bucanero Max which I think has a 6.2% abv and causes hangovers (so says the Irish).
Next for Valentony was horseback riding. For around 17cuc, we were picked up by a horse-drawn carriage at 9:30am. Along the way to Rancho de la Luna, we swooped up two Irish guys, Michael and Shay, and a Turkish-German girl named Jaylin. We rode horses (My first time! Unfortunately, the condition of the horses was pretty poor) for an hour up to Valle de los Ingeneous, a huge park in the mountains where we took a half-hour hike to a waterfall. The swim in the waterfall was refreshing though the swim into the bat cave behind the waterfall was creepy. While jumping off a little cliff, I met a super-cool Israeli girl named Mayann who invited us all to La Trove, a nightclub built inside a real cave. We decided to meet at the steps around 10pm that night.
Val and I went for a drink at Bar Daiquiri and chatted about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness for a bit and met a French guy named Nicolas. We also invited him to meet us at 10. We did a little more walking around, snapping photos of kids playing ball in the streets and locals making window transactions. We'd often see bird cages hanging on walls or being carried by locals. Someone told us that they were just for entertainment. Little bird boom boxes I guess.
By 11 o'clock that night, our group was made up of people from the UK, Ireland, Spain, Israel, France, and the US. Valentina could not take her eyes off of a local dance instructor whose speedy moves hypnotized her into a high school crush filled with fantasies of moving to Cuba and having little salsa-dancing babies. Meanwhile, Mayann informed me that her Colombian friend thought I was the most beautiful guy she'd ever seen in her life. Fortunately, the girl was pretty good looking herself. At some point, everyone had decided that it was either too late or too early to go to La Trove and half of the group (including the Colombian) went to Casa de la Musica instead. Shay and I investigated the club and decided it may be worth checking out.
Valentina was pretty tired and decided she would rather go home and dream about her salsa dancer so I walked her back and quickly rushed back to the club to speak to the girl who thought I was the most beautiful guy she'd never actually met. Alas, they were gone. I had a Cuba Libre with Nicolas before the Irishmen and I decided the club was dead (I didn't think I'd have luck with the locals since they were throwing beer cans at my head. Oh well.)
So ended our time in Trinidad. Valentina's heart was cracked. Mine was intact, having narrowly avoided what may have been, with the mysterious Colombian.