Adios Muchcahos!

Sunday May 19, 2013


It’s finally time to leave Cuba after only a week here, and we feel we didn’t get to enjoy or experience a fraction of what this amazing country has to offer. We never made our way up to Havana or spent time snorkeling and fishing the cays.  We never got a chance to really get to know the people here because of the language barrier.  We never even walked up the road to Punta Gorda to enjoy views of the bay from the cute little gazebo I spotted on our way in.  So there’s only one thing left to do.  Learn Spanish, load ourselves up with cash, and come again back this fall.

Our last few hours here and there was really only one big mission for us to complete, getting a bottle of Havana Club rum.  All the cool kids were doing it (Tamarisk, Rode Trip, Skebenga), and buying it at the source where it cost cents on the dollar?  Sign us up!  We may have to stock our bags up with just few bottles!  To find out how much money we’d have left for rum, we had to first check out with the marina.  This meant me first checking out with immigration, and sitting alone in the office with the official where he kept mentioning how pretty my eyes were, and that next time I make a visit to Cuba, it should be without my husband.  No moves were put on me by the Harbor Master, thankfully, but he did tally up our stay as well as inform we that we need to pay for an exit stamp, so our rum fund was now down to 3 CUC.  Those multiple bottles of Havana Club that were supposed to be weighing down our aft end now may be turning into one little airplane sized bottle to be enjoyed with a can of Coke.

We decided to  take our chances that we could still find a bottle in our new price range and make the 2 mile walk down to the prado one last time anyway.  A few blocks out from the marina, Matt realized he left the money back at the boat, and since he was just about suffering from heat stroke, I told him to wait in some shade while I went back to grab it.  Now ‘single’ while walking down the street, I was offered one free tuk tuk ride from a young Cuban guy, and shortly after, another one.  Only, the second guy to offer already had a family of three riding in the back of his.  What he was offering me, was a ride on his lap.  I wish I knew some more Spanish so I could have told him off, but all I could do was mumble “No gracias”, as I walked by with my head down.  Getting back to the boat I put on my big wide brimmed hat, which coupled with my sunglasses, at least made it look like I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t right in front of me, and I could happily ignore all remaining tuk tuk drivers on my walk back to Matt.

Getting to town and walking down the pedestrian street, we made sure to steer clear of the English speaking woman with a stand full of souvenirs including a beautiful set of wooden dominoes that we told her we’d definitely be back to purchase the next day.  I don’t think she’ll give a 70% discount on them, and the excuse of ‘Sorry, we don’t have any more money’ just sounds so cliche and insincere, even if it happens to be the truth.  Hurrying into the clean and upscale convenience store at the corner of the UNESCO World Heritage Urban Historic Center,  we browsed through their extensive selection of Havana Club, and spotted a 500 ml bottle for only 2.85.  Score!  We’d be able to have at least one bottle on our boat after all!  Getting our 0.15 cents in change back, we strolled out to the historic center to take in a few more glimpses of the city before leaving.

Back at the boat it was time for a little more passage prep before departing that evening.  Matt took care of organizing and stowing away all items while I worked on food related things, such as turning our plantains into a fried and salty snack that I could bag up.  It should only take us 36 hours to get to Grand Cayman, but we’re starting to get a little bored with the trail mix packets we usually survive on while passage making.  As a final task, customs spent about an hour on the boat filling out exit papers and asking if we had any beer we could give them.  Not having bought any Bucaneer, and not willing to give away 4 of my Red Stripes (I’m sorry, but I love my Red Stripe, and I won’t dole them out to just anyone), I offered up some of my Jamaican ginger beer instead.  I think the one guy that accepted this offer was a little surprised and disappointed when he took the first sip, expecting some kind of actual cerveza.  That’s fine, I didn’t want anyone hanging out on my boat for hours this time.

Getting the final go ahead to leave the country, we made our way back to the sea and on to our next destination.  I feel so lucky that we were able to stop here, however briefly, to experience a part of the world that many people will only read about.  I will not get into the politics of the country or try to figure out if I think the Cubans are happy with their lives there, that’s not for me to decide.  What I will do after leaving, is take with me an amazing week of once in a lifetime sights and experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.

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Saturday May 18, 2013


 Yes, that is a pirate ship at our marina.


Our trip to Cuba has begun to wind itself down, and as much as we’d love to stay for months and months more, our cash is slowly dwindling and a weather window for Grand Cayman is coming up.  We’ve been squeezing in a lot of time with friends in here, and last night made our way over to Skebenga to do some photo sharing with Lukie and Elmarie.  They showed us the highlights of their trip to Havana which they had just gotten back from, and we gave them a glimpse into Trinidad.  While on my way over there, I had a slight snafu with Georgie that almost make me scared to leave her out of my sights.  Normally we’re at anchor so she has the full run of the boat and we don’t need to worry about her going anywhere.  Now that we’ve been at a dock, however, she’s found that she likes hard ground under her feet and will try jumping off any chance she gets, even if it’s just to lay on the cool evening pavement next to the boat.

I thought I could remedy this by strapping her into her harness, clipping her into her leash, and securing it to a cleat or a winch, often like we do on passage.  For most of the afternoons, I wouldn’t say she’s exactly happy, but she’s content to be tethered in to her spot in the cockpit.  Until I left for Skebenga.  As soon as she saw me leaving the boat, she wanted off too, and tried to join.  Her leash gave her the slack to almost make the jump, but not quite.  Luckily I heard the commotion behind me and looked down to see her dangling between the boat and the cement dock, about a foot above the water.  The harness wraps around her chest and not her neck, so she wasn’t in danger of choking, but she must have been taken by surprise because she made no noise at all, only gently rocked back and forth, probably wondering what the hell just happened.  Scooping her up I adjusted her leash so she couldn’t get as far as the side of the boat again, but through each photo at Skebenga, I kept my ears out for any little cries on the other side of the dock, just in case.

Today was lots more ‘friend’ time with a trip into town with Rode Trip in the morning, just to wander the pedestrian walkway, and then beers at the marina bar in the afternoon, along with Lukie and an Australian couple, Roger and Sasha, that are on the boat Edenbal next to us.  We ran the keg dry and then started moving on to cans of Bucaneer and Cristal.  I love being at a marina that will charge you the same cheap price for a can of beer that you’ll be charged for it in the store.  The plan for after our afternoon full of drinking was to check out one of the nicer restaurants down on the prado, which according to our first day friend Christine and her crew, has the best ropa vieja in Cuba.  We were also told that the meals would be cheap, about $3-4 CUC a person.  I wasn’t sure what ropa vieja was, but it sounded like a win-win to me.  We freshened up for a night on the town, and Stephanie and I took a few minutes to play with a stray dog that’s been wandering around the marina.  We’ve named him Double D, for ‘dirty dog’, and we’ve come to think of him as our pet during our time here.

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Stephanie and I adore Double D.

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Brian….not so much.

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Locating the restaurant out on the malecón, we climbed the stairs to it’s second story spot and were greeted by the owner.  A very energetic guy with bouncing blonde curls and looking like he belonged in Australia, or maybe even Europe, but definitely not Cuba.  He had some good English under his belt too, which was great for us trying to decipher exactly what we getting, or even what we wanted.  As he came by to get drink orders, Stephanie asked “What’s a good traditional Cuban drink?”, to which he promptly replied “Mojito”.  “No, I’m not talking about for the tourists.  I want what the Cubans drink.”  To which he replied a second time “Mojito”.  “Oh”, Stephanie inquired, “You guys actually drink those?”  So three mojitos were ordered up while Matt chose to sip on a Cristal.  We were then left with our menus, which were in English for us, as we looked over the feast of foods available and the very low prices.  Each of us wanted to try everything on the menu, but settled for soups, brothy for Brian and I, and a deliciously thick and unhealthy creme kind for Matt and Stephanie, and meals that were served with bread and salad.  Matt got the ropa vieja, which was a scrumptious tender pork, shredded and marinated in some kind of sauce that I will have to get my hands on someday.  I ordered the lamb, which was just as tender and savory.  I think all of us were quite disappointed that we waited until our last day in Cienfuegos to come here.  Had we known earlier how great the food was here, even though my entree turned out to be $7 and not $4, I still think we would have been here every night for dinner.

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Stomachs full to the brim, we still decided there was room for after dinner treats.  Matt got the only sweet thing they offered on the menu which was flan, and I settled for a coffee with milk.  Stephanie, however, was still on the hunt for a real Cuban drink.  Something that isn’t also served at the trendy bars back home.  Asking the owner once more, he thought she should try a Canchanchara, and described all the ingredients, which include rum, lemon juice, and honey.  Forgetting what might even be in the drink, we spent the rest of the time at the restaurant just trying to say it’s name. ‘Can-chan-chara’, I would tell Stephanie, and she’d repeat ‘Tar-an-tula!’.  ‘No Steph, it’s not a spider.’  ‘Caaan-chaaan-chara’.  ‘Can-chen-tura’.  That’s ok honey, you keep sipping on that drink, we’ll work on it later.  When the bill was paid, we made our way back out to the malecón, which was now being overrun by teenagers, out on a Saturday night just to be seen.  Picking a spot in front of the bay, we propped ourselves up on the rail and pulled out some Cuban cigars that Matt and I had purchased the other day.  Just mini Romeo & Julietas, but we couldn’t leave here without getting something.  Taking puffs of our miniature cigars, we enjoyed the night time breeze that rolled through, watching all the kids as they passed by, dressed to the 9, and the repeated sound of Stephanie crying out “Can-chan-chara!!”.

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Market Fresh

Friday May 17, 2013


It feels like we’ve been doing nothing but running around ever since we got to Cuba, so Matt and I decided to take a nice day to ourselves to relax.  We slept in, made ourselves a nice breakfast of pancakes, but nothing could compare to all the fresh fruit we were served yesterday, so we thought we’d finally make it up to the market.  Getting tipped off by our friends on Skebenga of where it was located, we started slowly making our way through the heat to the center of town.  The marina, which happens to be located in a beautiful area on the bay, is still a mile or two walk from town.  Now don’t go calling us wimps just yet, we’re not ones to shy away from a hike, but it’s just the heat that’s been killing us here.  High’s are creeping past 90, there’s suffocating humidity, and never a hint of wind.  Getting here was the first time we’ve allowed ourselves the luxury of staying at a slip in a marina while traveling since the mast went up in the Catskills (I’m not counting St. Augustine), and most days we find ourselves wishing we were at anchor so we could have any resemblance of a breeze rolling through.  So, while away from open waters and any chance of a fresh breeze rolling through, that mile and a half walk into town is a killer.

Stopping along the way for a bite to eat, we found a little chicken shack, or at least I’m calling it that, because everything on the menu is made from chicken.  Chicken hamburgers, chicken meatballs, chicken nuggets (at least, that’s what I think they were).  My Spanish must be getting a little better because I’ve noticed that instead of getting blank stares I’m only left with a few snickers, but ultimately what I was trying to get.  Ordering up a little bit of everything with a side of french fries, we sat in the shade and drowned our sorrows in a nice chilly liter of TuKola.  When the food came out, it was mostly burnt breading, but we managed to find a little processed meat in there as well.  Again, we’re not foodies, so we’ll eat just about anything as long as it’s cheap.  And at $0.10 per nugget or croqueta, whatever those are, we were more than willing to suffer through it just to get some food in our stomachs.  The fries however were fantastic, and I think next time we’ll make a meal just out of those.

Continuing on to the market, we walked inside to find stalls upon stalls of food.  Many of the tables were serving the same items, just filled with different people trying to get your business.  Glancing around each table, we tried to decide what we wanted to buy since we had not made any kind of list to bring with us.  No surprise there.  Eventually I started picking random things that I thought could get use at some point.  Onion, green pepper, tomatoes, maybe for an omelette.  At the fruit stand I picked out a few guavas and a pineapple, and made sure to grab a few very green plantains that I might be able to turn into chips.  We’ve heard that the starchier they are, the better.  Having just found out that morning from my travel guide what ‘papaya’ is slang for in Cuba, I made sure to steer clear of that one.  We also picked up a few other things, garlic, potatoes, something else that kind of looked like a potato, and a pound each of beef and pork.  This market was all in pesos, and the grand total for filling our backpack to the brim was the equivalent of $8, almost half of that being on meat alone.  Going from paying $4 for a pineapple in Jamaica to paying only $0.40 here?  I’m almost starting to wish that official had run away with our passports our first day here.

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Trinidad Part IV: Off to the Races

Thursday May 16, 2013


(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


As much as we were enjoying our stay in Trinidad, we were literally out of money and needed to begin our trek back home. (Knowing that we needed $5 to fill the fuel tank, we actually ran that much short on paying for what we thought was a complimentary breakfast at our casa particular and had to short change that wonderfully nice woman that put us up in her home. We’re such horrible people!!) With empty pockets and no way to use an ATM or credit card, our main goal for the day was to get back to Cienfuegos. Ok, that may have been goal number two, as goal number one was to stick together this time. No matter what, we did not leave each others side. If our bikes got to far apart or we thought we might lose sight of each other for any reason, one bike would honk their horn to get the attention of the other one. So after ingraining the main goal into everyone’s head, we stopped by the ‘Welcome to’ sign to plan the route home. All of us were excited to try some new roads, maybe actually get up in those mountains we kept passing by, but at least throw some new scenery into our day. Hopping back on the bikes I noticed some dark and nasty clouds off in the distance, hovering over the mountains we were just about to take ourselves to. A few days here in Cuba though, we’ve noticed that it will sometimes look like it’s going to storm, but the rain never comes. Completely exposed to the elements, I hoped that was the case today.

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Now put your back into it.  Yes!, the camera loves you!

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Pshh.  We totally know where we’re going.


Making the turn after a few miles to bring ourselves to the Topes de Collantes, we curved down and around steep and winding roads that Matt would have died to take his old Z4 on, but I was enjoying them just as much on a scooter, only going 40 kph. It wasn’t long before we stopped curving down and began curving up instead. The pedal was to the metal as we tried to force our little scooter up the hills, using all the force we had just to maintain forward motion. There was a small break for us along the way up to try and get a few photos in of the view. Hopping back on, we could see the dark clouds moving closer and it all of a sudden became a question of not if it would rain, but how soon? The last thing we wanted while taking these bikes up or even down the steep mountain roads was for slick pavement underfoot that could send us skidding off to the side. Not that there looked to be any sign of civilization close by, but we were hoping to make it to some kind of town before the skies opened up on us.

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(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


Continuing ever further up, I kept glancing back and down at the alluring views of Trinidad as it fell away below us. That is until the cloud cover grew thicker and thicker and there was only the faint haze of ground below us. We were not going to outrun this rain. It fell in a few light drops at first, clinging to and distorting the view from my sunglasses, until it was a full fledged downpour. For a climate that’s so hot and humid, the rain was cold against our skin, and I burrowed into Matt’s back to try and keep warm. He pushed on with our bike as we climbed ever higher and instructed me to make as little movement as possible so not to throw off the balance of the bike on these now slick roads. The rain wasn’t giving any indication that it was going to let up, and we needed to find a place to pull over and wait it out. We lucked out as just a mile more up the road was a rest area with a covered balcony. Pulling into the gravel parking lot we ran up the steps for cover and into a miniature restaurant area that served drinks and snacks. Coffee or hot chocolate would have been at the top of my list at that moment, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t accept form of payment in smiles or even pitiful pleas.

While waiting for the rain to clear we looked at an enlarged map inside the rest area to check our route again. This one broke everything down into categories of main roads, side roads, hiking trails, ect. Tracing our finger up the road we were taking, we saw the color turned from white to red. Now curious of why it would do such a thing, we looked at the decoder to find out what a red line meant. Surely a main road turning into a side road, right? Wrong. Just a few more miles along the way, our nicely paved road was going to turn into an ATV trail. I don’t know about you, but after looking at these bikes, I don’t think they’re meant for all terrain. We decided the best thing to do would be to drive back down the 10 miles we had just come up, and take the same route home we had come in on. Wanting to give the roads a few minutes to dry up after the rain had finally stopped falling though, we walked about 150 steps up to a nice observation platform with views all the way down past Trinidad and the Caribbean coastline. Even though Matt and I were starting the day on a low fuel tank and we’d now just driven 20 miles out of our way, running out of gas on the way back would be completely worth the views we were treated to.

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Finally starting to clear up.

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Views down into Trinidad.

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Already aware that we’d need to squeeze out every drop of fuel, we turned the engine off on our way back down and kept a tight hand on the breaks until we’d get to an even area to coast before gliding down another hill. Stopping in a few areas to give the breaks a rest as well, we enjoyed the afternoon sun as it came back out and finally started to dry us off. Starting the engine back on once more as we joined the main road to Cienfuegos, it looked like we would be treated to a magnificent view on the way home anyway, golden rays reflecting off the fields and trees. That lasted…about 30 minutes. The rain we had just fought while going up the mountain was now coming to get us once more since we had changed direction. Matt had originally laughed when I noticed clouds coming again and put on a long sleeve shirt to cover up my bare shoulders, but soon we were once more in a cold and heavy downpour. On a flat surface this time, we hoped that slick roads would not be as much of an issue, but when the handle bars began wobbling back and forth we decided that it would be best to once again pull off and wait it out. Only this time there were no roadside rest stops with pretty views to entertain us. We took shelter under a tree, each couple huddled together to try and stay warm.

After waiting fifteen minutes and being given no sign it would clear like the last time, we made the decision to keep pushing forward. Not only was daylight going to start quickly fading, but Matt and I still needed to fuel up at the station we visited the previous day and we had no idea what time it might close at. 6 o’clock? 7? I had visions of us pulling up ten minutes too late and being forced to sleep on the side of the road. Not only because there were no hotels, hostels, or casa particulars in that area, but because we wouldn’t have had enough money in our pocket even if there was. Pushing our bikes back out on the road I kept my body pressed close to Matt’s back, having chills sent down my bare and wet collarbone anytime I let the cool air pass between us. Getting down to one flashing bar on our fuel tank, we finally spotted the split in the road that would lead us to salvation. The fuel station was open, and quite busy actually, plus we had the added bonus that it finally stopped raining. We may not have made it back yet, but at least we knew we wouldn’t be sleeping in the dirt that night.

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We found fuel!!

(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


The remaining drive home was still not an enjoyable one. Even though the rain had stopped, the clouds never parted to give the sun a chance to break out and dry us off. We were wet, we were cold, and wanted nothing more than to climb under the covers of our bed. It wasn’t long after we left the fuel station that darkness fell and the temperature plummeted even further. It was nothing if only uncomfortable, but now the roads seemed like endless stretches in front of us, giving nothing to look at, and few familiar landmarks. Five miles outside of Cienfuegos the rain started for a third time, and I began to curse our choice of travel method. If we were in a cab, I could be dry and sleeping on Matt’s shoulder right now. But what is that thing people like to say? Getting there is half the fun? Maybe I’ll be able to tell myself that when I’m back in my warm bed.


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Trinidad Part III: How the West was Done

Thursday May 16, 2013

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(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


In the morning we set our alarms bright and early so we could enjoy the complementary breakfast at the casa particular before heading out to spend the morning on horseback. Getting a very quick shower under cold running water in, I ran down the steps to the restaurant to find a nice little spread waiting for us. Breakfast that morning was a mix of guava, papaya, pineapple, meat and cheese, and fresh espresso plus a very thick mango juice. I know a certain set of friends that told us the meals here in Cuba were the worst part of visiting (ahem, Tamarisk!), but this was really one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. Probably one of the most fresh, and definitely better for me than my usual bowl of Lucky Charms. We were going through it so fast that I even had to bring the coffee pot back to the kitchen and ask for ‘Mas cafe, por favor’.

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Good morning sunshine!

(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)

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Our room at the casa particular.


True to his word, Daniel met us on the corner of our casa particular, sharp at 9 a.m. What he also had with him, and what we weren’t expecting, was for the horses to be joining him there as well. I guess we all assumed that we’d be caravaned to a ranch at the foot of the mountains where our caballos would be waiting for us, but nope, they were here at our door. Putting on our helmets and learning the Spanish names of our horses, no Buttercups here, so of course the names were promptly forgotten, we saddled up and were ready to go. Clomping down the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, I almost felt cool as we headed out toward the mountains, passing the locals on the street and thinking ‘That’s right. I’m pretty bad ass on my horse here while you’re down there using your two feet to get around.’ It was pretty damn awesome. Then the town gave way to a steep winding hill in which we tried to keep our horses from sliding down the sometimes slick cement, and definitely off to the side of the road from the trucks that came whizzing by us at lightning speeds. Soon though, we were on and open road, lazily ambling toward the mountains ahead as we watched farmers and crop workers leaving their little huts on the side of the road to start their daily work.

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There were times we’d be moving forward at our lieserly pace when Daniel would crack a little whip, or whatever he had at his side, while yelling “Ya!…Ya!”, and the horses would pick up to a trot, making the ride a little bumpy and just a bit uncomfortable for most of us. Stephanie, an equestrian in her previous landlubber life, showed us how to stand up on the stirrups to give an inch or two between yourself and the saddle when the horse was riding like that. If it took a lot of bruising and possible future infertility away from me, I can only imagine the wonderful effects it had on the guys. Along the way we met up with another couple using a different guide, but all of us headed toward the same destination. They were from Australia, and taking seven weeks to travel around the Caribbean. Their children were out of the house, they had vacation time to burn, and this is a part of the world they hadn’t been yet. They swapped stories with us on great places to visit in the Caribbean, and we told them where they could find a good 5 peso beer in town. Merging our groups together, we chatted between steps and trots, and even a few gallops until we made it to a plantation where it was time to take our first rest.

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Set under beautiful rolling hills, which there doesn’t seem to be a lack of here in Cuba, this ranch specialized in bananas, mangoes, and sugarcane. From the amount of animals roaming around though, I’m guessing there was a little bit of meat specialized as well. Once the horses were tied up, I took a quick moment to run walk around while playing my own version of ‘Old McDonald’ in my head. I think they contained a lot of the same things, as this farm came complete with pigs, a 7 day old calf, hens, chicks, cats, but this one was run by a cute little old man named Juan. I’m pretty sure his last name wasn’t McDonald. This wasn’t a resting break though, and soon all of us were put to work, getting the sweet water out of sugarcane. After watching the demonstration by the farm workers, each of us took a turn behind the crank, running a piece of sugarcane through once, and then bending it in half a sticking it through a second time just to make sure we got out every drop. This was much easier for most other people than it was for me.

Once all six of us had our go at it, the water was mixed with lemons and rum, making a sweet little treat for us to enjoy as we enjoyed some time in the shade. Juan played a few tunes for us on his guitar, seranated Stephanie a little, and then her and Brian danced along for a bit, turning and twirling to the beat of the music. We sat down down enjoy some more tunes and tried to decipher the Spanish words being played out. Brian, who has been building his vocabulary with Rosetta Stone, was able to pick up on the chorus that was being sung of “Mi casa es su casa, mi mujere es su mujere”. Which, if translated right, means, ‘My home is your home, my woman is your woman’. These Cubans, they really are a friendly and sharing bunch.

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I may have had to put all of my weight into it.

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Juan, trying to sweep Stephanie off her feet.

Juan playing guitar in Trinidad, Cuba from Jessica Johnson on Vimeo.


Back on to our horses, before we could find out what else Juan wanted to share with us, we were on our way to the waterfall. This was the two hour rest stop we had been told about the previous day, and the $6 fee that was being payed by our leader and we had to keep our mouths shut about. Changing from open air and fields, we transitioned into a tree covered forest where the horses were tied to posts, we were pointed in the direction of the falls, and told to be back in two hours. When we came out to the falls and I saw there was a nice pool underneath for swimming, just like back in Jamaica, I cursed Matt for making me remove my swimsuit from the small backpack we both shoved all our things into for the trip. “When would you possibly need your swimsuit there?”, he asked. I don’t know why he can’t get this through his head. I am always.right. Since none of us did in fact have our suits on us we decided that underwear would suffice, or a tank top and underwear in my case. Stripping off our clothes we placed them down on the surrounding rocks and got ready to jump in.

The guys, taking cues from one of the locals that ran a drink stand just next to the fall, were quick to scramble up the rocks to make a jump in from dizzying heights. Watching them plop in one by one, I was pretty sure that the slick climb alone would kill me and I was much better off only jumping the three feet from next to the pool. The water was cool and fresh, and we divided our time between swimming beneath the trickle of a fall, and sunning ourselves on the rocks. When our time was up we hiked the trail back to our waiting horses and guide to begin the trip back home. Not however, without a stop at the ranch once more for lunch.

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Thanks, but I’ll just watch from here!

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Not part of the packaged deal, but still pretty low at only $10, we were served one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Anywhere. So much for crappy food in Cuba. (Ahem, TAMARISK!!) First was a bowl of veggie soup and a key lime on the side for an extra kick of flavor, and wow, just that little touch makes a huge difference! Then I was served a heaping plate of fresh salad greens, rice, and perfectly cooked and flavored shrimp. Dessert was fresh banana and mango, products of the very plantation we were sitting at. It was one of those meals where I should have put my fork down long before I did, but I could not keep myself from heaping all the delicious food into my mouth. One more tour around the grounds to say goodbye to all my little animal friends, play with a couple of kittens, and take what is possibly the cutest photo I will ever capture, it was time to leave once more. Ready to fall into a food coma, I was glad that the horses knew their way home by heart and I had to do little more than keep myself upright with my eyes open, which didn’t become very hard considering all the beauty surrounding us. Daniel also took it easy on us after our big meal and kept the horses at a walk, although after 20-30 minutes, Brian and I decided we were ready for some action and would command our horses into a gallop and race each other back and forth ahead of the group.

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Too soon it felt like the horses were exerting themselves in the daytime heat, bringing us up the hill that led back into town and toward our casa particular. It was time to gather our belongings and start the trip back home. We may have only had the previous evening to explore the town that we spent a bit of time and effort getting to, but I think we were all very happy with how we ended up spending it. For an adventure that none of us initially wanted to take, our day on horseback out in the mountains and fields of Trinidad is now one of the highlights on our trip, not just in Cuba, but since leaving Michigan.

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(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


5.15.13 (7b)

Trinidad Part II: The Discovery of the 5 Peso Beer

Wednesday May 15, 2013

 5.15.13 (6b)

Of all the possible restaurants or casa particulars that Brian and Stephanie could have made it to while getting into Trinidad an hour after us with absolutely no communication of where we were going or even wanted to be, them walking into exactly where we were sitting was nothing short of a miracle. Giving them a few moments to catch their breath, we let them have a cocktail at the restaurant, run their bag up to their room, and then it was time to explore. Having to leave by about three in the afternoon the next day gave us just over 24 hours to experience this town, and we didn’t want to miss out on a thing. Walking back to our ‘official parking’ officer to see what the overnight situation for our bikes would be, the man indicated he wanted them brought inside where they would be safe from any rain or possible vandalism, although in a town like this it seemed very unlikely. And where was this indoor space you might wonder? In a garage, or a shed, or behind a gate and under a tarp? None of the above. The place where he was planning to store two motorbikes overnight, was his living room. Having Matt and Brian grab the back end while he used his brawn on the front, both bikes were lifted up the few steps and into the man’s living quarters. Waving, we told him we’d be back the next afternoon to collect them. Now we were free to explore the town, although we set off with no particular destination in mind.

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Selecting any random street to wander down, we strolled for a bit before happening upon an area with musicians playing. Stepping in through the arched entry way, we watched a group in front playing a variety of instruments and singing in very lovely Spanish vocals. As this group finished, another artist brought up his instrument to begin playing. None of us could be sure, because of the language barrier, but it looked as if there were some kind of contest or talent show being held. Even though we didn’t have much of a clue to exactly what was going on, we were just happy to be there and soak up a little of the culture while we were in the area. When the awards started to be passed out we left and continued down any street that caught our eye. Stephanie’s big goal for the afternoon was to find the church that we had seen from the roof top in our casa particular. We followed the steeple as we saw it poking up between buildings, until we finally stumbled upon it. Only, it wasn’t the church we were looking for. Turns out there are just a couple of them here. Stopping to check out this other church as long as we were there we found out it was mostly ruins, and the grass poking up between bricks in the open air center was now being taken over by children playing soccer. One church checked off the list, off to find the intended church now. Which, even though we could now spot the steeple of the one we had originally been seeking out, was easier said than done. Poor Stephanie must have a tattoo on her head that reads “I’m a social worker, please tell me all your problems”, because at each new street she was getting sucked into a conversation of someone asking for money, soap, shampoo, even the shirt off her back (literally), or just wanting to vent about their problems. The first few times we stuck around with her as she listened to their stories. After that, we just kept walking, thinking it would give her an easy out. ‘Oh, there go my friends, I should probably join them.’ But no. Often we were cemented down the street waiting for her for a good 5-10 minutes while she stood there and patiently listened to each person that stopped her. Stephanie, you are much more saintly than I.

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I LOVED this guy’s outfit!

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We found the church we had been looking for although this one we did not go inside. Passing by it we sympathetically smiled at the old men trying to sell pressed flowers, animals woven from straw, or the ever popular horseback tour. I think we turned down ten of them in the space of just two streets. From all our walking we were getting a little hungry at this point, and it was time to search out a meal. Matt and I remembered there were a lot of restaurants where we had first parked the bike when we came into town, and after checking the many maps that line the road since I had managed to store the street name in my head, made the necessary turns to get ourselves there. Getting dropped out a few blocks from the central area we were headed to, we began walking down the street and noticed they were becoming more filled now that it was evening and some of the shops were closing. Outside one restaurant was a long line of locals swarming around a small counter next door. Checking it out, we saw a young man pouring draft beer into little 8 oz plastic cups. A roadie was sounding pretty damn good at the moment so I went to order Matt and I one while Brian came up to take care of him and Stephanie. Having the glasses placed in front of me I was told the price was ‘diez’. As in, we could use our pesos here. Also as in, your two beers only cost $0.40. I honestly think I might never leave this place. For that price we sat right down on the curb to enjoy our first round, knowing that we’d quickly want a second. When our cups were refilled to the brim, we finally headed into the main square to search for food.

Although there were plenty of restaurants for fine dining or even just a relaxed social atmosphere, you might forget that we’re always on the search for things cheap. Our 20 CUC had exchanged over to 480 pesos, and they were burning a hole in our pocket, they needed to be spent! Locating another local pizza stand, we saw they offered a pizza especial with a good amount of toppings, but they also had many other items, one catching my eye in particular, the pan y jamon, or bread and ham. Each of us ordering one, we walked down to a park bench to sit down and eat. They went down way too fast, as also did our beers. Brian and I scooped up all the empty cups and made our way back up the street for one more fill. If we had been smart, we would have done what the locals have caught on to, and started bringing larger bottles from home to fill. Too bad the Nalgene bottles were back on the boat. Going back for yet another ham sandwich as well, we saw a guy across the street selling tamales. Just while talking to him a little bit about his life and explaining that, yes, we were from the states, it was enough time for him to sell out of one of his buckets of tamales, families coming to collect 10 at a time. We managed to grab the first few from the second bucket and make a quick leave as he was trying to sell us on horseback trips.  I’m starting to think that it’s all this town is known for.  ‘Come to this historical World Heritage site and ride horses!’

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When our late afternoon snack was finished we wanted to make our way back to where we had found the second church, because there was also a nice little outdoor seating area with a stage for live music. There had been no one playing when we first stopped by, but now that it was evening, everything was getting set up. Taking a seat at a table just back from the stage, we watched as the band started and mamba sound came out of the speakers. The singer joined in with the music, and shortly after, people were out in front of the stage dancing. It was a great way to relax for an hour, plus it was one of the things I really wanted to do while we were in Cuba, catch some music being played out in the streets. The crowd made the show even better as the ones that came up to dance were amazing, and made me wish I had some salsa lessons under my belt. We didn’t stay too late though, Brian and Stephanie never had a full meal that day and it was time to search out some real dinner instead of a couple tiny sandwiches. On our way to our 5 peso beer stand again, we were once more assaulted by a slew of people trying to sell us things. Most of them were still stopping Stephanie because of that big tattoo on her forehead. When she finally got up the balls to tell one off, she looked back to find out it was actually a guy that her and Brian had run into earlier that day. Daniel had helped them find a gas station as they were puttering into Trinidad with only one flashing bar left on their tank.

Since he had taken the time to help them earlier, we stopped to chat for a moment, until he as well tried to sell us on a trip. “$30 a person”, he advertised, “I pick you up, we go 50 minutes into the mountains, a stop for a snack, 20 more minutes, then a 2 hour break for swimming, and then an hour to come back.” Not only did we not care to spend that money, although it didn’t sound like too bad of a deal, we only had tomorrow morning and early afternoon to enjoy Trinidad, we didn’t want to spend all of it out of town on the horses. Telling him that we were only in town for a short period of time, he kept lowering his price. “Ok, 24 a person.” No thanks, we’re still not interested. “$20 a person, and I’ll pay your $6 fee into the national park.” Not trying to write you off Daniel, we’re just not up for horseback riding. He hadn’t even finished his last offer of $16 a person to let us get a word in when he pointed at each person and said, “Ok, $12, $12, $12, $12, and I pay the park fee.”. In an instant, Matt’s hand shot out as he yelled “Sold!”. We told Daniel where we were staying and he said he be by the next morning at 9:00 to get us. Looks like we’ve now come to Trinidad to take a tour on horseback. Continuing up the road, still in need of our food, we got our beer and went to try the pizza especial at the place we had gotten our sandwiches from. The toppings did make it slightly better, but it’s something about the cheese in this country, and I don’t think we’ll be seeking out pizzas any more.  It’s a good thing they still have $0.20 beer and ice cream to offer.

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When the sky turned dark we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do next, so Matt and I suggested we try to find ‘ La Cueva’, a night club that Jason from Tamarisk told us about. It’s a club that’s literally held…inside a cave. Checking those abundant street maps we found La Cueva listed under Entertainment and that it was situated on the far outskirts of the town where there were not even roads leading to it, at least not according to our map. Pursuing the listed street that would take us at least in that general direction, we chased it until the cobblestone did in fact end beneath our feet. A dirt road continued ahead, and although a few people in our party were unsure of the route, especially since the lights ended with the roads, I was still determined to make it there. It had been built up so much to us that I was not going to leave without seeing it. Asking a few people on the side of the road, they would just point further up the street. I nonchalantly followed until this dirt road turned into a dirt path with only blackness lying ahead. Almost getting to the point that I was ready to turn around myself, we asked one more person, an old man sitting on the side of the road wearing dirty and ripped clothes. He made a motion to follow him, which we did, and as soon as we got to the terrifyingly dark area, a motion sensored spot light turned on. We followed the path up a small hill and were dropped out at the entrance of La Cueva.

Paying the man a few CUC for his trouble, we walked forward toward the club. The entrance had bars in front of it, locking it closed at the moment, but we could see a flight of cement stairs leading down below the earth. At just that point, another man walked up, one of the managers for the club. In some broken Spanish we found out that the club didn’t open until 11, and it was only just past 8 at the moment. Brian politely asked if we could be let in just to take a look around, and surprisingly, the man obliged. Opening the gate, we all filed down the stairs into a real effing cave. I don’t know what I was expecting. It was called The Cave. I told it was inside..A Cave. Yet, I thought it would be an Americanized OSHA approved version of a ‘cave’ club that we might have back in the states with drywalled rooms sitting next to a rock that you walked past. No, this was far, far better. It was literally a freaking cave that had a cement floor poured in, a bar standing off to one wall, and a DJ booth suspended above a dance floor. My first thought was, “We are so coming back here when it opens at 11”, but even then I knew I was already far too tired to make that a reality. We thanked the man and headed back out, ready to enjoy a beer or two at our casa particular before passing out for the night, at 10 pm. You can take the girl out of cruising, but you can’t take the cruising out of the girl.

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5.15.13 a

Trinidad Part I: We’re Not Following the Leader….The Leader….The Leader

Wednesday May 15, 2013

5.15.13 a

Before our trip to Cuba, Stephanie had done a lot of research and found out that a little town called Trinidad, about 50 km from Cienfuegos, is a World Heritage Town, and wanted to take a visit there while in the country.  We had discussed the four of us renting a taxi or private driver to get there, but on our walk yesterday, we found something that looked like much more fun.  So at 9 am this morning, after leaving an hour after what was planned since I apparently can not figure out this one hour time change, we were at the car rental agency.  But it was not a car we were renting, it was two mopeds.   After paying the $20/day fee and leaving a $50 deposit, we had our helmets on our heads and were next door fueling up before we took to the open roads.  Having grabbed a few maps when we had first stopped by yesterday to inquire about the bikes, we briefly went over the route we’d take that day, starting out on a few side streets so Brian could get the hang of how the bike felt.  Matt pulled out first with me wrapping my arms around his waist, and Brian and Stephanie pulled out just behind us.  Although the signs from the main road made it appear as if this street we had just turned on to would eventually lead us to Trinidad, it very quickly led us to a dead end instead.  We hooked a louie and then turned right on the next street we came to.  Surely this had to be putting us in the right direction.  Traveling down a very residential area now, the street turned from cement to dirt, but we kept pushing forward.  There was another dead end coming up in front of us, but we figured we’d just get there and take another left.  Cocking my head back to wave these directional symbols to Brian, I looked back to find no one there.

Are you effing kidding me?  Not even five minutes into this trip and we already get separated from each other?  We stopped the bike and waited.  And waited, and waited.  After 5-10 minutes we assumed they must have made the previous left, and so we continued forward on our dirt trail until it led out through a construction zone and to the main road we had been trying to find this whole time.  From where we were sitting we couldn’t see them, so we made a left on this main road to go back to where we think they most likely came out from.  No one was there either.  Trying to figure out where they may have gone, we went back up to the road we had just come out on in case they were there, now looking for us.  Still no Brian and Stephanie.  Knowing that this spot was further up the road and closer to Trinidad, we agreed that they’d have to pass by us at some point, so we stood there to wait some more.  Fifteen minutes went by and we still hadn’t seen our friends.  I wanted to trace our route back, but both of us were certain that as soon as we took our bike away from this intersection, our missing friends would of course show up.  I told Matt just to leave me on the side of the road while he went back to retrace our steps and see if he could find them waiting on any other corners.  For ten minutes I stood on a dusty patch on the side of the road, but didn’t see anything other than the occasional car or horse drawn cart.  Matt eventually made his way back to me with no one following behind him.  We were on our own.  Now having been separated for 45 minutes, we assumed they must have left without us, and we’d all meet back up in Trinidad.  It couldn’t be that big of a city, right?

Traveling there on our own presented another small problem in the fact that we only had two maps on us.  One was a detailed map of Cienfeugos, only telling us to follow ‘Cinco de Septiembre’ to get out of town and towards Trinidad, and the other was an outline of the whole freaking country.  If there were any turns for us to make without road signs indicating it was towards Trinidad, we’d be officially screwed.  Fortunately for us there were street signs, and I’d call them out to Matt, making sure he saw them and had time to make the necessary turns.  After making a couple of turns here and there, and almost getting dive bombed by a gigantic hawk, we were out of the city and on our way to Trinidad.  At least we were pretty sure.  It was a little unnerving when no signs popped up for quite a long time, and then once, a sign told us to turn left and then promptly threw us into a left or right intersection with no signs.  There were two young men on the road, and when I smiled and asked “Trinidad?”, they grinned and pointed to the left.  The views in the open countryside were breathtaking, with rolling hills dropping themselves out into open fields, marked with wooden posts made from chopped tree branches.  We enjoyed sights like these until 1/3rd of the way through the drive when I noticed something I did not want to see.  Because of Matt’s need to ‘see what we can get this baby up to’, we were now on a half tank of gas.  Unless we could find a station along the way, and since we had gotten out of Cienfuegos we had seen none, we’d either be walking the bike the rest of the way or sleeping with it on the side of the road.

Cutting our speed almost in half, we meandered forward until we saw a sign for fuel, four miles up a side street.  Getting ourselves there with only one of the eight bars remaining, we topped off the tank and continued back on our way.  The remaining part of the drive was just as beautiful as the beginning, but with many different ranges from what we had been seeing earlier.  The hills dropped off to coastline, and we were able to view it from the other side, as land travelesr looking out to sea, opposed to sea travelers searching for land.  There were rocky hills with oxen grazing on grass, and weathered old men, wearing their cowboy hats low as they trotted their horses down the road.  There was also another very odd sight along the way, and that was hundreds of little crabs crossing from one side of the road to the other.  We were doing our best to avoid them while only going along at about 35 mph, but there were many remaining bodies of other crabs that had not been so lucky during their crossing.

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The same crabs on the same road, taken by another couple who encountered them a few weeks earlier.

(Photo courtesy of Mr. Mrs. Globetrot)


When we finally got in to the town of Trinidad, it was much larger than we were expecting.  Quickly hopping off the bike, I looked at a map on the side of the road that might give me any clue of where we were or even where we might want to be.  Where we really wanted to be was where Brian and Stephanie were, but we had no clue as to what part of Trinidad that was.  Heading toward what we originally thought was the center, we walked down a few streets, poked our heads into a few restaurants, and decided to carry on to the historic center of town.  After taking the bike up a few cobblestone roads, we stopped it once more to get out and look at a map.  It was right when I was trying to find the ‘You are here’ dot that a big burly man came out toward us.  He indicated that the road we were about to dive down was pedestrian only, and we’d need to leave our bike behind.  That’s ok though, because he was a ‘Parking Official’, with a badge a handmade sign above his door.  With his elderly mother knitting in the window and two small children running around, we weren’t worried that the bike would disappear on us, and moved it to sit right in front of his house.  Using the best Spanish I could to get out that I was hungry and needed food, his sister was brought out to show us the way to a restaurant, one that was of course, in the family.  Coming up to a home that had the national symbol for a ‘casa particular’ on the front, we walked through a living room, down a hallway, and past a kitchen until we were dropped off at a quaint little restaurant on an outdoor terrace.

The owner came to greet us and after realizing we spoke very little Spanish, slowed down and enunciated her words so we could get the gist of what she was saying, also adding lots of hand gestures.  She was kind and patient, and an overall helpful person.  We each ordered beer and pasta and talked about how we were going to try and find Brian and Stephanie, something that was beginning to look like a lost cause.  At one point though, I turned to Matt and said, “I don’t know, I have a feeling we’ll find them.  Who knows, maybe they run into the same parking official and he’ll bring them here too.”  He just laughed at me and filed that thought under the category of ‘least likely things to ever happen’, as we continued on with our meal and debated on if we should stay at this place for the night since we did not have any other lodging booked, and I didn’t know how this casa particular thing worked well enough to start fresh at a new place.  We looked upstairs at the two available rooms, found it was only $20, and told her we’d take it for one night.  Plus…is the other room available, just on the off chance that we run into our friends?  She agreed that it was, and we went back down to our table to celebrate the fact that we had just found a place to stay, by drinking daiquiris made from Havana Club rum.

Just as our glasses were getting empty and our plates were being cleared, we heard a noise from the kitchen and looked up to see Brian and Stephanie being led in by, who else, the parking official himself.  We jumped up from the table and wrapped our arms around them as if we hadn’t seen them for months.  They didn’t even have a chance to unsling the backpack from their shoulder before we were rushing them to our table to sit down and tell us their end of the story.  We thought that we had waited long for them by staying in our area in Cienfuegos for forty-five minutes, but they had gone back out to the scooter rental place an waited for an hour and a half!  Serendipitous as it was, once they were in Trinidad they tried to bring their bike down the same pedestrian street we did and were stopped by the same guy.  Once they saw our matching bike sitting in front of this guys house, they explained that they were looking for their amigos, and which way did we go?  Well, having run into only two other gringos that day, the parking official must have known they were talking about us and let them right to our door.  Buddy bikes reunited, and it feels so good.

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Fried plantain chips.  Best.Snack.Ever.

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View from the rooftop terrace at our casa particular.

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‘Official Parking’


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A Tour of Cienfuegos

Tuesday May 14, 2013


After Matt and I had gotten checked in yesterday, we were so excited to go see the town that we never waited for Brian and Stephanie to finish the process.  They had arrived about three hours after us, and as soon as we had the ‘OK’ from the Guarda Fronteras, there was only dust in footprints as we ran out to explore the town.  Sorry guys, a tourist has to do what a tourist has to do.  Don’t worry.  We made it up to them that night when we went aboard their boat and had them serve us their Jamaican rum with real Coca Cola.  We’re such selfless people, I don’t know why we keep on giving like we do…..

So, since we were a-holes the previous day, although I don’t think Brian and Stephanie minded a little time exploring on their own either, we all teamed up to take on the town once more.  After sleeping in on Serendipity like we were sixteen years old and it was Saturday morning, we finally pulled ourselves out of the boat in the early afternoon to do a little exploring.  Brian and Stephanie showed us a very nice sculpture park right outside of the marina that the had found the previous day on their way to the ginormos hotel/resort next door where they had exchanged their money.  Some of the sculptures we admired, and some of them we played on, although the searing heat from the day made them almost too intolerable to touch.  Next on the list was to find Rode Trip some ice cream since they hadn’t encountered any themselves the previous day.  It was a long walk to the soft serve shop and our stomachs were already growling, so we stopped at a more upscale, serve by the scoop, ice cream parlor.  Although the only issue was they served one flavor, naranja.  Orange may not have been at the top of everyone’s list, but it was cold, it was sweet, and we didn’t mind parting with the dollar each to get it.

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Senior picture day!!

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Now that we had our stomachs somewhat full, Brian and Stephanie decided to show us something we had missed the previous day, the pedestrian walkway.  The street was paved with gold, ok, so it was actually more of a glossy brick, and a wide variety of shops lined the sides while benches situated under planted palms lined the center.  Window shopping, we peered in through each glass door to see what was for sale, and found out that it was mostly either clothes, appliances, or photo processing.  A little further down the walkway we came across a soft serve ice cream shop, and although we had just put down about two scoops each, couldn’t turn down one of the strawberry/chocolate mixed cones that were once again going for only five pesos.  Digging into the sweet coconut based milk, we continued down the promenade, admiring all the brightly colored buildings and vibrant life of the area.  After being forced to eat my ice cream at a cruely fasted pace, Matt and I tucked in to an internet shop where we paid 6 CUC for a one hour internet card so we could alert family back home that we had made it safely and were not trapped in any kind of US or Cuban prison.

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Jessica & Stephanie

(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)


The four of us met back up a short time later, now beginning to wander through the side streets and let ourselves get lost in the city.  There wasn’t a road we could walk down that didn’t have some kind of amazement and beauty.  Even though the buildings were becoming run down with the paint fading off the side, they still had a charm about them that was enticing and hypnotic.  I could have stood on one corner all night and never gotten sick of the views in front of me.  So many of the areas were like a step back in time, with classic American cars lining the sidewalk and mothers walking their uniformed children home from school.  Vendors would be selling fresh fruits and vegetables off a stand on the side of the road, and little old women would wheel their produce home in tiny metal carts.  No one seemed to be in a rush and almost everyone was wearing a smile.  The children would be out in the empty streets playing games with sticks while the mothers stood in doorways, watching and taking shade from the afternoon sun.  Even though I’m sure their lives are far from simple, they made them seem very much that way.

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Getting ourselves back to the prado and crossing to further side streets, we were seeing much of the same thing of kids and families out enjoying the evening.  There was something about this side that seemed to feature more animals though.  A happy dog, wagging it’s tail and chasing a girl down the street in roller skates.  A cute little cat, snuggled up in the open door of a building to take an afternoon nap.  Plus, plenty of birds in cages.  Some were chipper little parakeets, and others were chickens, possibly that night’s dinner.  Wandering in front of a very large and old cement church, we poked our heads inside to see if it was ok to look around.  The woman sitting at a small desk in the corner waved us in with a smile, and we spent a few minutes ambling through the pews and admiring the stained glass perched above our heads.  We felt bad that as soon as we walked out the door she began to close things up, it was now after 5, and it was time for her to go home.  Which also meant that it was time for us to start looking for dinner.  Besides a measly breakfast, the only thing I had eaten was more ice cream than a person should ever have in a day, unless they’ve just had their tonsils removed.

Having heard there was a burger place back by the marina, I didn’t even mind that I’d have to walk the two miles back there before getting anything in my stomach.  For some real beef patties, I think I would have done almost anything at that moment.  We entered the very crowded restaurant and pushed our way through the throngs of people milling about to make our way to the counter.  Pulling out a menu I saw exactly what I was looking for: hamburgesa.  Looking at another menu next to me, Brian noticed they served a beer tower and asked if I wanted to go in on it.  How could I possibly not want a draft beer with my hamburger?  Getting in line to place our order I found out that, sadly, the towers were all in use.  That should have come as no big surprise since there wasn’t even an open table to sit in.  They could still pour me a tall draft of Bucaneer into a glass though, and that seemed good enough to me.  When our food came out, no tables had opened and we ended up standing up at a candy display counter to eat, our ‘hamburgesa’ turned out to be made with chicken, and what we thought were going to be a side of fried potatoes came out as sliced hot dogs covered in ketchup and mustard.  I did the only thing you could do in a situation like this.  I laughed, and dug right in.

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Busco Dulce de Leche

Monday May 13, 2013

5.13.13 (b)

Our first order of business now that we were checked into Cuba was to exchange some of our US dollars for CUC.  Fortunately our neighbor/translator Christine was back and was going to help us do just this.  Since there’s not much most Cuban’s can do with US money (remember, we’re not supposed to exchange anything between our countries) we pay a higher exchange rate than most countries and only get $0.88 on every $1 we change out.  Canada apparently has one of the best exchange rates at $0.96.  Christina, for today at least, was able to help us out with this exchange rate.  She hails from Washington very near Vancouver and travels around with Canadian cash on her just for stops like this.  She was leaving the next day and still had a decent amount of Canadian money on her so she traded us our US money at a 1 to 1 rate so we could get a better exchange while turning that money into CUC.  Then going above and beyond (as if just trading the cash wasn’t enough) she walked us out to a little exchange shop on the street, no only so we could locate it for future necessity, but so she could handle the translations and we wouldn’t be left there babbling and making wild hand gestures which would happen if we were left to our own devices.  In rapid fire Spanish that would leave my head spinning even if I had been studying the language for a few years (which I have…..15 years ago….) she joked and laughed with the tellers as she exchanged some last minute cash for herself and then separately exchanged the $200 we had paid her back at the marina.

We thanked her profusely while she replied that it was no big deal.  On our way back she asked if we wouldn’t mind quickly stopping off at one of the pharmacies so she could grab something.  I’m getting incredibly low on my hypothyroidism medication and since this may be our only time in a Cuban pharmacy with a translator I asked if she could request a refill for me.  It turns out they had exactly what I needed, but not knowing how a new brand would affect my system I only took two boxes of 20 tablets.  Christine paid for both hers and mine and when I asked how much I owed her she just laughed and said, “Well if you can spare it, yours came to $0.025”.  Yes, that’s right.  Six weeks of my medication cost me less than three cents US.

Second order of business was food.  We dropped off most of CUC back at the boat and took once more to the streets of Cienfuegos.  Wanting to have some more cash on us for the rest of the week we grabbed some USD and went back to the exchange shop we had just come from.  We converted another $200 to CUC, and once we had that we pushed $20 back towards the teller and asked for Peso Cubano, or local pesos.  For the most part, tourist, American or not, are not supposed to be spending with the local money and should only be paying for things in CUC.  The topic on dual money in this country is more than I could explain in this post, even if it were the only thing I was writing about, so if you’d like more information on it just click here.  So we weren’t supposed to be spending local money (ok, we weren’t even really supposed to be spending CUC), but one thing we did know about the local money is that if you can get your hands on it and take it to the right places, you can buy things cheap!  And the two things we heard were abundant and cheap here were pizza and soft serve ice cream.  We were now in Cuba, we now had Peso Cubanos in our hands, and we weren’t going to sleep until we had these two items in our stomach.  The mission was on.

Weaving out of the side streets back to the main Melecon we walked past the waterfront of the bay and towards the center of town.  It’s a lovely place with old French inspired Neoclassical buildings and a prado running through the center of town, lined with trees and benches.  The area was so beautiful and we were surprised we didn’t see more people out soaking in the ambiance, although it was still fairly early in the day.  We couldn’t forget about our mission and had an eye out for ice cream or pizza past every pastel building we passed.  After a good mile or two of walking we realized the main road was probably for tourist and we’d do better on one of the side streets.  Taking a random turn we walked passed groups of kids that we just getting out of school and I’d have to stop every 30 seconds to look around me and say “Oh my god, this is so beautiful!”.  I was so busy looking at all the buildings that I almost missed two school girls in uniform walking down the sidewalk with ice creams in their hand.  Running up to them I asked “Con permiso, busco dulce de leche”, and pointed at their cones.  They looked at each other, then and me, and then back at each other, thoroughly confused.  I pointed once more to their ice cream and asked “Donde esta?”.

Now, for anyone who knows Spanish, you’re probably about on the floor laughing.  What I had done was walk up to them and ask “With permission, I’m searching for sweet milk”.  The only part I may have gotten right was the end where I asked “Where is it?”.  Stupid high school Spanish.  I think I did get my point through enough though, since they looked back to the direction they had just come from and pointed.  We had a lead.  Following the street we saw more and more school kids with cones in their hands.  The further we got down the road the taller the cones were, meaning they had to have just purchased them.  Finally we spotted it.  Tucked into a small door with no sign indicating what lie there, was the ice cream shop.  I indicated to the guy passing out cones that I wanted 2, and handed him 10 pesos.  In return I was given two tall soft serves, at the grand total of $0.40.  With one of the two items checked off our list, we made our way back out to the main street to oggle the buildings and prado a little more.  People were beginning to get out of work and it was becoming more bustling.

We kept going until the center walkway ended and decided to take one of the sidewalks back so we could get a closer view of some of these buildings.  There was a large group of people crowding the doorway to one shop and spilling out into the street.  Looking to see what all the hubbub was about we peeked in the door to find out….it was a pizza shop.  And they would serve you up your own double cheese pie for only 10 pesos.  Jumping in line I ordered one for each of us along with a couple of tamarind juices which were quickly shot back while we waited for the pizzas to cook.  Once they were done they were placed on small cardboard sheets and we walked out the door.  Taking a seat on one of the benches outside we dug into the pizzas only to find they weren’t quite what we were expecting.  The dough was very soft and the cheese had a distinct but strange taste that neither of us were very fond of.  Eating what we could, we sat and people watched in the golden rays of the setting sun.  When I couldn’t touch any more I passed my leftovers to a few of the dogs wandering the streets.  I wanted to stay in that spot all night and take in the city, but my eyes were fighting the fatigue I had been battling all day and it was time to go.  Taking in as many images that day as I still could, I made my way back to the marina, utterly exhausted and completely content.

5.13.13 (1b)

Boat in repair at the marina.

5.13.13 (2b)

Strolling the Paseo del Prado.

5.13.13 (a)

Welcome to Socialist Cuba

Monday May 13, 2013

 5.13.13 (a)

*For many people there is a debate on if Americans are allowed in Cuba.  Most people think we are not.  It turns out that we in fact are allowed into the country, we’re just not allowed to spend any money there due to the embargo we have with them.  Which is nearly an impossible thing to do and for the most part Americans will just stay out, although there are new laws being passed to let certain groups or people in.  One way cruisers can legally get around this obstacle is by getting someone from another country to make the trip with them and be their sponsor, paying for absolutely everything and not being able to take a penny in return.  For legal reasons I will not indicate if that was or was not us.

Through our planning of this stop, I hadn’t been too worried about us entering Cuba with an American boat and being of American citizenship.  We weren’t making the trip from Miami to Havana where the US Coast Guard would have a watchful eye on us, and from what we’ve heard from other cruisers and general travelers, Cubans themselves are more than happy to have us visiting and traveling through their country.  I didn’t know much about what to expect from entering the country, just that a lot of other people claimed the high amount of paperwork was a hassle and the Cubans were sticklers for their guidelines.  Knowing this beforehand, I planned to have a full day devoted to checking in, if that’s what was necessary, so that I wouldn’t get impatient when the process wasn’t done in 30 minutes to an hour like it was in the Bahamas and Jamaica.  The only time I felt a twinge of anticipation about entering Cuba was when we were 15 miles out and I needed to hail the Guarda Fronteras to alert them we were now in their waters.  I wasn’t worried because I thought they would deny entry or because I barely understand or speak Spanish and didn’t know how I’d communicate.  I was worried because just before I made my call out on the radio I heard the US Coast Guard talking with a vessel in distress.  The call moved to channel 22 alpha, which I am unfortunately, a little too familiar with, but that didn’t keep me from thinking that someone else from the US Coast Guard might be listening to me on 16.  I even debated using an English accent to throw them off my track, but I figured if they were close enough to hear me, they probably had me on their radar already and knew I was an American vessel in Cuban waters.  Should they give me any trouble, I could always try playing dumb.  “What do you mean I’m not supposed to be allowed in Cuba?”

Luckily the US Coast Guard did not break in on my call to the Guarda Fronteras, but there was also silence on the end of the Guarda Fronteras.  I figured I’d try again in a few hours once we were closer and went to wake Matt up for his shift.  I was only down for about 90 minutes when I was rustled out of bed and told we were just an hour away and could I please try the GF again.  After two more calls there was no response from them, but I did have another cruiser who was making their way out of Cienfuegos respond and tell me that they had never gotten a hold of GF on their entry and had just continued on into the bay.  I wasn’t about to wait around all day for someone that wasn’t going to answer me, so we did the same.  Having gotten a lot of helpful information from this cruiser along with waypoints to the marina, we came through the channel and into the bay.  Both of us were very excited and even a little giddy as this is the number one place we wanted to visit on our travels and now we were actually here.  Even though there was terra firma in front of me I had to hold my excitement in for the fear that however unlikely it was, I would be just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, getting to my anticipated destination only to be told that it was closed to me.  But as we came up on the marina we were guided into a slip and between some of my Spanligh and the help of a fluent American in the slip next to us, we were told that the check in process would start shortly and we’d be able to sit on our boat until the hoards of officials began making their way to us.

In the first step of the process, a young gentleman from one of the departments, immigration most likely, came and took our passports.  By this time our translator was gone and my Spanglish wasn’t working on him.  He was able to get out the word ‘passport’ which I gladly handed over, and without another word he walked away.  We were given no indication on when or even if he’d be back with them and left me wondering for a moment if we’d now become permanent residents of Cuba.  Luckily the Harbor Master, who spoke just a little bit of English, was by a few minutes later to confirm that our passports would eventually make their way back to us and then explained as best he could how the rest of the check-in process would go.  He also gave a run down of the expenses for what it would cost us to check-in.  We needed Visas to get in the country which would cost $50.  A $10 stamp for our forms, $10 for the cat, and $20 to customs/immigration.  He also explained that we would need to purchase health insurance there for the cost of $3/day since any medical claims could not be sent to the US to collect payment.  We told him we’d be happy to pay any medical expenses out of pocket, but he said it was non-negotiable and the money for this would need to be paid upon our departure.

Knowing full well that we wouldn’t have any CUC (or Cuban convertible pesos) on us to pay the officials for these fees, he said that he could exchange our money for us, but since he was not licensed by the government to do conversions, there was a small extra charge that would apply for this inconvenience, which was an extra 8% as we figured from the math on the scrap paper he was tallying everything up on.  We’d heard that normal US to CUC conversions come with about a 12% charge and this was costing us 20%.  He knew he had us since we couldn’t walk off the boat and exchange the money ourselves, and what was the chance that we had any CUC on us on arrival?  All in all an extra $12 in the mix which I was ok to pay even just for the ease of being able to hand him all the necessary money and have him distribute it appropriately between the officials.  From this point we were able to just sit back and wait for them to come to us, since they were delayed and hadn’t yet arrived at the marina.  I don’t know if waiting like this would make most people impatient, but we were just happy to have a chance to clean the boat up since even calm passages apparently turn it into a disaster area where we are too lazy to clean up our messes when they’re first made.

We had just settled ourselves into the cockpit with a bottle of ice water to combat the already dizzyingly hot day when the first group of officials came down the dock.  There were four of them in total, the doctor, the vet, quarantine and one other that I’m not exactly sure what she did. We filed down the stairs to the salon and after setting up the table I began looking over forms they passed me. Reading through a checklist for the doctor I signed it stating that no one was sick on board that we knew of, and luckily no one had died due to accident or illness on passage.  (That Ned guy that’s listed on our crew list?  I don’t know who he is, I’ve never heard of him before….)  For quarantine I read and signed another list stating that we did not have certain foods on board that we were not supposed to bring in the country, and Matt showed her all of our canned goods as she checked through the dates to make sure they were not expired.  I handed the vet Georgie’s paperwork and he verified she was vaccinated and luckily didn’t take take her out of her crate to question why there was a huge bandage around her neck.  (We still can’t stop her from scratching a few bug bites she got in the Bahamas and keeps opening the wounds.)  They were on and off the boat in 30 minutes and next we just needed customs and immigration to come.

While the first group to come through had a more relaxed apparel of jeans and button down shirts, the two gentlemen from customs and immigration had full military uniforms on and this made me worry that maybe attitudes would match the attire, and they would not be as easy as the last group.  The worry was all for naught because they came in with big smiles, firm handshakes, and I think tired to make a couple of jokes because they both burst into laughter, although I could only make out one or two words in the conversation.  The man from customs took a look at our crew list, asked for a copy of our passports, stamped a few forms and was on his way.  Immigration was there a bit longer and we initially thought it was because our translation skills were so terrible and every time he’d ask us a question we’d need him to repeat it about five times before the point finally came through.  Eventually we got through all his papers as well and I expected him to excuse himself like the previous guy.  While organizing all our new papers and putting them back in our folder Matt noticed the guy eyeing a bottle of Kraken rum we keep displayed in our galley and asked mimed if he wanted a taste.  The guy shook his head yes and Matt poured him a healthy shot into a glass.  It’s quite a strong and flavorful rum so Matt gave him a cold Red Stripe to help wash it down.

We’d heard through the cruising/forum grapevine that it’s common for the Cuban officials to ask for some kind of bribe, maybe a monetary one, or just a cold Coke or a beer.  So far no one had asked for anything, and since this guy had been so patient with our lack of his language, we didn’t mind offering a little something up (although I had also freely offered cold water to everyone else that was on before).  Right then a cold beer was sounding really good, so Matt and I also served ourselves and sat back down in the salon while the three of us tried to keep cool with beverages in our hands and fans blowing full blast.  Trying to have as much of a conversation as we could we found out the guy’s name was Yosani and he had two little kids at home.  We tried to ask him how long he had been working in the field and he tried to ask us how long we had been traveling, where we had been, and most importantly, if we had any kids.  (You know, I had a feeling I was leaving something behind in Jamaica.)  Then he began asking if we had pasta.  Pasta?  Didn’t we just go over this with quarantine?  Seeing that we didn’t understand he held his finger up to his teeth and made a brushing motion.  Oh….. Toothpaste!  I went into the head and fished out a fresh tube, wondering what to make of the question.  Presenting it to him he made the motion of putting it in his briefcase, his way of asking if he could have it.  “Si.  No problema”, I replied with a smile.  This gift may have made him a little more bold because then he started moving around and looking at other things.  I had a pair of sunglasses that were laying on top of the nav station and he reached for them to try them on.  I was not about to pass those over as a gift as well, but luckily he had picked up my prescription pair and soon found out he didn’t want them anyway.

By this point we had all finished our beers and were running out of conversation.  I motioned to the papers and questioned, “Esta bien?  Algo mas?”  He just smiled and nodded.  I don’t know why I thought it would help any more, but I moved to English.  “Are we finished?  Can we leave the boat?”  He smiled and said yes but made no motion to leave.  Huh.  How do you politely ask a person who does not speak your language to leave your boat so that you in turn can leave as well?  Matt and I may have only been going on 4-5 hours of sleep each, but we were ready to go explore town.  So we sat there for a few more minutes making polite conversation in which I tried to drop hints often that we’d like to leave the boat.  Matt may have thought I was being rude (and maybe I was), but my social etiquette begins to break down with less than six hours of sleep and I can’t be held liable for the results.  It was when I was seriously debating telling Matt that he could talk to the guy for however long he felt like while I lied down for a nap, when we heard a group of footsteps outside.  It was the Guarda Fronteras coming to do a search of the boat.  No wonder Yosani wasn’t leaving, we weren’t actually done yet!  Now I really did feel like an ass for dropping all those hints, although at least they all came out with a smile while I was saying them.

I don’t know why I had forgotten about this part of checking in to Cuba, or maybe I thought we were just lucky enough to escape it.  Maybe I had tried blocking it from my mind since we had heard so many horror stories about this process.  An account in our Nigel Calder guide where a boat was ripped apart down to the floorboards and the owner had to spend 6 hours putting it back together, to even our friends on Tamarisk, where they were swabbing seaweed stuck to the boat and testing to see if it was drugs.  I was glad I had a beer in me at this point otherwise I didn’t know how I was going to handle this invasion on our boat.  First came….the drug sniffing dogs.  Two little cocker spaniels that happily wagged their tails as they bound down the steps and began sniffing around.  As much as I wanted to give in to my normal response to bend down and scratch the dogs behind their ears I refrained from touching them as they did their job.  The only thing they seemed interested in was Georgie or places she had been lounging around the boat, and once it was apparent we were not hiding drugs they were ushered off back on to land.  The manual search followed and I waited for the boat to start getting torn apart piece by piece.  The head of the Guarda Fronteras was there supervising and we offered him our last cold Red Stripe as he oversaw everyone else do their work (there were now 4 officials on our boat).  I don’t know if it was the kind offer of the beer or Yosani telling him we were good people and to go easy on us, but search was the easiest thing possible.  The man conducting it opened a bag that we store extra toilet paper and paper towel in, rifled though my clothes without actually pulling them out of my bag, and pulled out an eye glass case and asked what purpose it served.  (“Por mi ojos.”  “Ohhh.  Si.”)

Taking less time than we thought imaginable, the search was over and the last necessary papers were signed and stamped. All the gentleman aboard shook our hands as they all made their way out of Serendipity. Our passports were returned (without a stamp), Visas placed inside, and we were told to enjoy our time in the country.  We were checked in, legal, and free to go.**  The excitement I had been holding down all morning was finally burst to the top.  Cuba was not closed to me.  It was wide, wide open.

5.13.13 (1a)

5.13.13 (2a)

Matt’s just as dumbfounded and giddy as I am that we actually made it here.

“We’re….in Cuba…”

5.13.13 (3a)

5.13.13 (4a)

**  Yes, as my friend Ron put it, this is the longest way possible to say ‘Hey American cruisers, guess what?  You can get into Cuba!’.   But I promise there were people that wanted to know the details, hence, the extremely long winded post on an otherwise mundane topic.