It’s a bloody long way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba! One doesn’t generally think of Cuba being a big island, but it is actually over 1200km long and anyone who has bused it from one side to the other will testify that takes some time to traverse!
I decided to fly into Havana and catch the night bus to Santiago de Cuba (well actually, I was going to fly but then procrastinated so long all the flights had sold out) so I would arrive in time for the what I presumed would be the start of the Festival del Caribe or Festival of Fire (it seems to have 2 names). Presumed, because information on the internet was scarce and I wasn’t able to find a program online at all. I knew it was going to be a tough trip, but I didn’t quite count on only getting about 4 hours sleep in the 24 hours leading up to it.
Arrived to the humid heat of Havana (I really didn’t miss the heat in Antigua and this was even worse than I’d experienced in Central America!), spent 4 hours waiting in the bus station for departure and then 16 hours on a bus [a proper air-conditioned coach (no chicken buses in Cuba – I guess the US wouldn’t sell them to them) and I’ll write a whole other blog post on my bus experiences] with a broken toilet. Fortunately, we did stop relatively regularly (unlike in Central America), but unfortunately I didn’t have any small change for the toilet people. I pulled out my smallest note each time (equivalent of $1), they looked at me as if I were crazy asking them for change and always begrudgingly waved me through (the toilet was about 4 cents).
We stopped for dinner about 4 hours into the trip and for the life of me I couldn’t find anything that looked anything like a meal. Ended up eating ½ litre of icecream instead, and I wasn’t the only one! It was actually pretty good!
Back on the bus we were treated to a subtitled Jean Claude Van Damme movie (no idea how anybody further than 4 rows back in the bus could have seen the subtitles) and a dubbed Mark Wahlberg movie, then, mercifully, they turned off the TV in the bus and let us sleep (there were actually 4 more Van Damme movies in the playlist!).
It was a good thing I’d read on the internet before travelling how cold the buses were – I had my hoodie and my windstopper fleece jacket, long pants, socks, shoes and I was *still* cold! My feet were ice when I emerged at Santiago de Cuba having slept to some degree on the bus (was so tired) and there waiting for me was a taxi driver with my name of a card.
The Casa I stayed in (Casa Colonial Nivia) was incredible, but Santiago itself – well, let’s just say it is not the best introduction to Cuba! I was truly staggered by the amount of hassling I got from Cuban men offering me a taxi every 2 seconds, asking me where I was from every other second, and even offering me Cuban men every now and then! Seriously, a single woman traveler (or even 2 women travelers walking around together) cannot walk 1 block within the main centre of Santiago without being harassed (I spoke to several other women who’d had the same experience). It really does wear you down very quickly and – if it your first experience of the Cuban people – makes you a little wary as well.
In addition, Santiago is full of fume-belching desperately-in-need-of-a-tuneup low-cc motorcycles which are ridden far too fast for the narrow streets and are absolutely everywhere. Let’s just say Santiago is not a pedestrian paradise!
Eventually I located a program for the festival only to find out that the opening parade wasn’t to be held until Tuesday afternoon (it was Saturday). And the vast majority of the program was actually just talks – definitely not what I had in mind when I pictured a Festival! Fortunately, met a Belgian woman – Wendy – on the Sunday and we ended up hanging out together for the next few days.
Including on a hugely overpriced trip to La Gran Piedra – one of the main attractions in the area. There were the two of us + guide + very large driver in a very small car heading up a very bad road. The “coffee tour” consisted of us stopping by the side of the road and the guide pointing out some coffee trees. Given all my coffee tours in Central America, I was able to add more than what the guide did around the process of growing and producing coffee.
Then we stopped at a coffee stall where they showed us (kind of) the process for making genuine Cuban coffee. However, the coffee wasn’t included in the price of the trip so that was extra thank you very much. I declined given I don’t particularly like coffee anyway (though am working on it).
Then we went to an old French coffee farm that has been restored. It was pretty, but there wasn’t really that much there – the most disturbing thing being a hole in the concrete floor of the house where they laid a pregnant woman down to beat her for running away (pregnant belly down the hole), and the most impressive thing was the enormous coffee grinder that was powered by slaves. Sorry, no pictures, it was another 5CUC if you wanted to do that, I actually took this picture before I knew about that rule.
From there we climbed La Gran Piedra – the Big Rock – which is (as the name suggests) a big, 63,000 tonne volcanic rock. 452 steps to the top and, had it been a clear day, it would have been a really nice view of the area. As it turned out, we did it on the one day where it wasn’t clear. There was even a lady with an artesania stall at the top!
Last stop was at the Botanic Gardens, where a lady wandered around with us naming flowers – many of which we’d seen in our own countries. The coolest part of this place was that it was built on another old French Coffee Finca and they used the stone ruins to assist in organizing the beds.
The nice thing about the trip was that it introduced Wendy and I to each other and got us out of Santiago for the day and into the fresh air. I wouldn’t recommend it though for the price they charged!