What does one do when they need a break from their own island in the Carribean? They go visit another one of course!
Ah, Cuba. A Canadian holiday institution. You go from plane, to shuttle, to resort and drink at the beach until you can drink no more. I had absolutely ZERO interest in going. My travel partner, however, wanted to see the real Cuba before, well, the Americans invade. And so, I was persuaded to give this island nation known for socialism, cigars, and old cars a try.
So, we set off first by boat to Chetumal Mexico, then by ADO bus to Cancun for the night. No complaints here, Mexico means tacos and what could be better than the real thing. In the morning we boarded our plane and landed quickly in Havana. Cuba currently has 2 forms of currency, essentially one for tourists (CUC) and one for locals (CUP). They’ll exchange American dollars but with a stiff penalty, they’d prefer Canadian or euros. The prefered language is of course spanish, even a little goes a long way.
There are some government run hotels but most travellers that are not resorting it will book a stay in a Casa Particular, this is a room in someone’s private home. There is often a/c and a private bathroom attached. These are government regulated and big business in the tourism sector, somewhat equivalent to a bed and breakfast. Our first casa was in Old Havana, where we stayed for three nights.
At first glance, Havana appears to be stuck in the automotive past. The promise of old cars was easily fulfilled as we saw many American cars from the 1950’s and Russian vehicles from the 70’s and 80’s. Newer vehicles where often little known brands from Asia.
We spent days walking around Old and Central Havana. Down little streets where people still live and work, filled with dogs playing, old ladies smoking cigars, and often interesting smells of sewage. There were plenty of monuments, old buildings, forts and churches to appreciate. The heat was nearly unbearable at this time of year, but luckily we’ve had plenty of practice!
Churches (Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis; Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana)
The Fort (Castillo de la Real Fuerza)
There is plenty of old interesting and sometimes colorful architecture to see as you walk along.
Habana Viejo (Old Havana)
We visited a variety of Museums while in Cuba, about 6 in all. It helped me to learn the history of their country in relation to where they are in present day.
Museo de la Revolution and Museo Napoleonico
Drinks and food are relatively cheap, just perhaps not always easy to find. Stores are not easy to come by and restaurants are not always where you’d expect them to be in a tourist area. We did enjoy plenty of rum. I would say that as a food destination, Cuba is only just starting to come into her own, but we did enjoy some tasty treats. I will say that I may never need to eat another ham and cheese sandwich though! We most often ate breakfast prepared by the lady of the house at each Casa that we stayed in. We also sometimes enjoyed a home cooked dinner of pork, rice and beans, sweet potatoes, flan, and fruit. One of my favorite dishes was “fried garbanzo beans”, which had chick peas, tomato sauce, and sausage. I ate so much tropical fruit I nearly turned into a mango.
Food and Drinks
We then boarded a Viazul bus for the 4 hour ride west to Vinales. This is a valley town and national park that is recognised with Unesco World Heritage status. We stayed at another Casa here just a short walk from the main street with a view of the mountains.
Our Casa Particular and View
The main thing to do here is go on a tour in the National Park. The valley part of the park is still used for farming, mostly for tobacco. Laws for the park state that no chemicals can be used here, nor can tractors or mechanized equipment. All the work is still done by hand, horse, and oxen. Although cars are common, horses are used everywhere for work and transportation. Farmers are required to turn over 90% of their product to the government. In this area they also grow some fruits, nuts, and coffee mostly just for their own use. Tours of the tobacco plantations are offered mostly by horseback. As my travel partner has an aversion to this, I found myself sitting precariously on a sliver of wood (referred to as a “buggy) with two full grown men and a horse named Simone. It was comical to say the least, but a really great morning.
We also visited a cave in the park and walked well inside by flashlight.
Cave of Silence
After two nights in Vinales we were on the bus again for the eight hour journey to Cienfuegos. Here we spent a full day exploring the town square and looking at museums.
We then returned to Havana for a night before catching a flight back to Mexico. Cuba is changing and more change is coming fast. I enjoyed the artistry, the history, nature, and the language. It is by no means an easy place to live, there are definitely many challenges under the current regime.
The fun, however, was not quite over. From Cancun we easily took a short ferry ride to Isla Mujeres. This is a small island, but is a quickly growing tourist destination. For a great price we had a view like this.
View from Hotel
Really, the whole place is beautiful.
But, what they are really famous for, is snorkeling with whale sharks! Every year from about May to September these giant beasts come swimming by about 30 miles offshore. As the name implies this is a shark that looks like a whale. The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. They grow up to 40 feet and 10 tons. They feed on things like fish eggs and plankton, opening their giant mouths and directing water out through their gills. On the list of things to do and see in this world, swimming with whale sharks was high up there for me.
So, I got up early to set off alone to meet up with my group from Mexico Divers. After a slight incident on the dock involving me, skinned knees, a jammed toe, and a bruised ego, we were off. Although moderately medicated I was still feeling the severe effects of motion sickness, but hey, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wasn’t going to let anything ruin it! I was not disappointed. Although we were warned it could take hours to find one fish, we arrived in the area to find many other tour boats and dozens of whale sharks swimming around.
My Boat and Some Fins in the Water
We quickly organized into teams of 2 and each took turns with 1 of 2 guides getting in the water to snorkel (scuba diving is not permitted with these animals by law). As soon as my face went in the water it was like a dream.
The guide Jenny would sometimes grab us by the hand to get a closer look, of course NO touching is allowed. Their tail was enormous, as was the mouth when they were feeding.
Tail and Mouth
It wasn’t easy to keep up with these giant fish. You had to swim hard, plus try to get pictures, I kept telling myself silently in my head to remember to enjoy it. What an amazing experience!
Whale Shark Videos
So, if you dare, try travelling around to see what a country really has to offer. Not just what the resort or the cruise ship shows you but the REAL thing. You might be surprised, you might even like it!