Cuba Part 3 – Sweating it Out in Santiago de Cuba

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The Best Laid Plans of Honeybadgers….

So I had figured I was being smart by booking a flight to Santiago rather than slugging it out on a 15 hour bus ride.  Well not quite.  It turns out the only flight was via a regional air carrier, Cubana, and regional carriers are notorious for delays and in fact cancellations. Consequently I got to know the domestic airport terminal in Havana quite well, as I had an “extra” seven hours due to a flight delay (on top of me being there 2 hours prior to the scheduled flight).

Not a lot of English spoken at this terminal, so it was a bit of a challenge for me to find out / figure out what was up etc.. I had no idea if there was any food on the other side of security, so I opted for “a can of Pringles in your hand is worth two mythical restaurants at the gate” – although it turns out there actually was some Cuban sandwiches (and beer of course) on the other side.

Clap if you Survive?

An interesting quirk I have found with flying some routes in South America, the passengers actually “clap” once the plane’s wheels are solidly on the ground.. but its not all flights I have taken here that this happens with, and its a bit disconcerting, i.e. clapping is usually reserved for things that are unusual or extraordinary, so should I assume that there is some level of frequency that they don’t clap, i.e. bad or failed landings? Is there a registry or list of routes that one should clap for, i.e. the Routa de Morte list?  Just asking….

Casa “Fidel’s Torture Chamber”

Arrived at 10 pm in Santiago de Cuba, grabbed a cab and we headed into town to find my Casa, after of course the obligatory stop along the way for the driver to ask someone else for directions. Thankfully the Casa was expecting me, and once I dumped by suitcases, one of them even escorted me a couple of blocks down the road to find some Agua and some Cervesa.

The room itself was big, and nicely done up with marble tile floors and lots of dark wood that had a nice scent… initially I thought the scent was due to it being recently oiled, but as I was to find it, perhaps the scent was due to being baked in the heat of the day. In fact at 10 pm the room was still very warm, so I turned on the air con.. AKA El Freight Train, damn it was noisy, I checked it with a sound meter app on my mobile, and it never dropped below 60 decibels, it was like having someone talk to you all night.  Just wonderful.

But I had one more surprise, the bed.. “lumpy” would be an understatement.. in fact it had so many hills and depressions, there was not one single place that it had even a bit of comfort. I kid you not, sleeping on a rack of cannon balls would have been more comfortable. I even took a painting off the wall to use the straight edge to measure/estimate the difference between the hills and valleys..

For the next three hours I tossed, turned, banged my head, and even started complaining in a load voice (I figure if its impossible for me to get to sleep in your Casa because of the crap bed, I am going to keep you up as well). Eventually I passed out due to exhaustion and perhaps a small chemical inducement (sleeping pills are sometimes a travelers best friend)… After traveling in 40 countries, and staying in something like 500 to 1000 hotel rooms, this one gets the prize.. WORST BED ON THE PLANET.. and I have even slept better on sailbags in a locker on a sailboat.

Here a Bus Station, There a Bus Station – where the heck is the real bus station?

Lots of coffee and a pretty decent breakfast in the morning, got me going, and I took off to explore, part of which was to find another Casa to change to, and part of which was to figure out my exit plan for the town in a few days, i.e. which bus station, located where, and at what times did the buses depart. I had talked (in my version of Span-glish) to the people at the Casa to pinpoint the location of the bus station, so off I went.

Along the waterfront, I ran into some guys effectively crucifying a pig’s carcass to BBQ it.. It was getting strategically nailed to a pole in preparation for spit roasting.. quite friendly people, and we bantered a bit before I continued on down the Malecon (seawall).

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The bus station I thought was the one, was a local/regional drop off, but the lady behind the counter was kind enough to figure out what I wanted, and point me down further down the road, so off I went. It was getting pretty hot though..

Hit the corner of what google maps said was the “Train Station”, the tracks of course were a confirmation, and I started to complain to myself that the kind lady had misunderstood what I wanted i.e. a train not a bus. I sat down along one side to get out of the sun and try to figure things out.. the workers nearby were friendly and wanted to know where I was from, but communication beyond that was failing.. Finally I approached a bicycle taxi, and I thought I had Span-glished my way into explaining that I wanted a lift to the National Bus station.. off we went.. We were heading towards what was on google maps as the National Bus station, but then he kept on going and dropped me at the Revolutionary square.. this was no help, was looked like a bus station on the corner was in fact empty.. and it was getting even hotter..

I started walking, figuring that I had just hit the backside of the terminal, and that I merely had to go around the block to the front. Nope. No buses here.. the bicycle taxi came back for another feeding at the trough.. he pointed down the road, and with no better option I got on. After quite a few blocks we came back to the train station, this time the other side of it, where lo and behold was the Viazul bus terminal.  Grumbling about my round trip back to where I started, I paid off the bicycle taxi for the second time.  Although if you are going to wander around Latin American countries without barely any Spanish speaking ability, you have to take a few on the chin, and not blame the locals for your own lack of language skills.

Tout of the Flies..

Ah I was truly fresh meat walking into the bus station looking dazed and confused in the heat. Out come the touts, with a chorus of “Where you want to go”! Indeed I was looking for options, so I was willing to listen a bit.. I told them I wanted to go to Camagüey, and they gave me the standard line touts use all around the world.. “Do you have reservation, because all sold out for the next week – I can send you by taxi, good price, when U want to go”.. So I got their price, about $20 CUC, and walked around to the other side of the bus station offices, where the schedule was clearly posted, and in big letters it said NO RESERVATIONS.. I started laughing about the touts, good try boys, but no sale.

The lady behind the desk was of course used to dealing with confused tourists, and told me to show up about 30 minutes before the bus I wanted in order to buy the ticket. More problematic for me was that fact that it appeared from the schedule that the only bus OUT of Camagüey, was going to be at 2:30 am in the morning, so in fact I need to think this through a bit more, as I had planned to spend a day getting to Camagüey, one night there was already arranged, and then move on to Trinidad. Cheap enough bus ride though at $18 CUC.

The Tourist Highway

No internet at my Casa again was screwing me up. I photographed the schedule at the bus station for reference and then headed into the center part of town in order to scope it out, and see if any travel agencies had better info & options.  Along the way another bicycle taxi wanted to take me around, and I did my usual, “I must get more exercise, I am getting too fat, I have to walk many kilo each day” – once we got past the fact I wasn’t going to be a customer, we had a great chat as I walked along and he bicycled right beside me.

Santiago is in fact a cruise ship port, and there is a very nice “highway” of a walking street leading up the hill from the cruise ship terminal into the center of town, lined with many tourist shops of course. I decided to “go with the flow”, thinking the odds of finding a travel agency were better on this path than some of the much more decrepit streets just a block or so on either side.. and in fact close to the center square there was an agency, and he indicated that a private taxi was not going to be a cost effective option at $200 CUC or more.

The Oasis

As I wandered past the photo homage to Fidel on display in the middle of the town center square, I picked up an internet access card from a tout, and it turned out that the big hotel right on one side of the square not only had a great balcony for people viewing (along with cold beer).  The signal for the govt WIFI access node seemed to be pretty strong… so I passed an hour or so sipping on a cervesa and surfing, one site was the Viazul company for its schedule to confirm things.

I was looking for some good nosh for dinner, and had found a restaurant that seemed to fit the bill.. I arrived very early by Cuban standards, just after 5 pm, and wolfed down a very delicious steak dish Creole style, but I was still hungry (I had eaten no lunch), so I ordered a skewer of prawns. I think they must have thought I was one crazy gringo, eating two dinners, but I was famished, and in fact ate both, although I did leave some of the veggie sides on the prawn dish.

Whingeing About Cuban Wine

On my way back that night to the Casa from Hell, I came up with what I thought was a great plan, when buying beer at the bar close to my Casa the first night, someone had bought a bottle of wine, so I figured I would make some Sailboat Sangria (1/3 red wine, 1/3 sprite, 1/3 fruit juice) for the evening in order to numb my spine to the bed, and I succeeded in finding the ingredients.. The bottle of wine was from Cuba though, cheap, but it nearly tasted like what I would imagine “horse piss” would taste like.. The numbing effect worked though, it only took me an hour and a half to fall asleep this time.

My next full (and last day in Santiago), was even hotter, and it was explore the town more while looking for intriguing photographic subjects and compositions. 

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On the way walking to the central square I was heading up this road, when Gordo the Guard Dog (“gordo” means “fat” in Spanish) launched himself out the hole in the bricks as far as he could squeeze and gave me a tirade of barks. I was laughing so hard the local guy down the street noticed and started laughing with me when he saw what was up.

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The Fortress that MC Echer Designed

At the center square I grabbed a taxi out to the nearby fortress – built to defend the harbour from marauding pirates looking to pillage the gold that the Spanish has pillaged from the Central and South American natives, and wandered around for a bit, crazy hot though, and the layout was pretty confusing / topsy-turvey (see image at top of page).   I reckoned it was purposely done so to confuse any pirates trying to enter the place, but it might have been a touch of heat stroke that was addling my brain.. In truth though, the city of Camagüey is apparently laid out like a maze for just that specific purpose, slow down pirates trying to storm the city.

View of the Harbour from the Fort

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Certainly the most decorative Cannons I have ever seen!

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The Packrat of Santiago

It was like walking into an archeological dig in this place I found walking through town.

I spotted a cloth banner on the right side that had a eye embroidered on it, almost like a Masonic symbol. The gentleman said (in Spanish) that it was a loincloth of some sort from the Amazon, and then proceeded to dig out the very book that supposedly had a description of it.

I swear he knows every single item in his shop.

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Captivating Creole Cuisine

I had found yet another restaurant specializing in Creole Cuisine, and again I wasn’t disappointed, dinner was absolutely delicious and the Sangria (made with Spanish wine) was delicious. I stopped by the big central hotel on my way back to get a nightcap Mojito on the rooftop that provided a good view of the square.

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The Little Bite

In the morning, getting the ticket and on to the bus was simple and straightforward, but not without its own amusement.  We had to deposit our luggage with the luggage handler, who basically expected a tip as his cap was upside down sitting on his counter, with some coins in, and a note if I recollect saying it was a “voluntary” donation.  Now who “isn’t” going to drop a peso into the baggage handler’s retirement fund, when he is the guy ensuring your luggage gets properly tagged and put into the right compartment of the right bus.

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So I  waved goodbye to the heat of Santiago (while shivering on the massively air-conned Cuban bus).  One lady wore what appeared to be a winter coat ha ha. The bus was quite comfortable, but although it actually had a toilet in the back, the door was permanently locked shut.  Something I have encountered in other countries as well, they would rather deal with stops every few hours than have to keep the facility on the bus clean and operational. I am not sure I blame them either.