Before I start a short explanation on internet on Cuba and why I didn’t post anything for the last two weeks. While there is internet on Cuba it is not really what you would call easily accessible. There is no such thing as private internet, wifi is only available in public places, usually the town-square. Those places are easy to recognize as there are dozens of people (local and tourists alike) hanging around with their phones. But you can’t just go there and get online, you have to buy an access card first. Those are sold in small stores close to the wifi-place and are once again easily recognized by the long queue of people standing in front of it waiting to get in. Depending on the length of the queue you can wait up to a couple of hours to buy the code. Once you have the code you are confronted with terribly slow wifi if it does work at all. Well after finding out about all of this I decided not to waste my time waiting in line and therefore did not go online at all. The first time I had easier access was in the hotel in Varadero, here you could buy the access code easily at the reception and use the wifi in the lobby. Still it was 2 CUC for an hour and only reasonably fast but I gave me the possibility to finally upload this post. But now to the real stuff.
The final stop on my incredible 200 day journey around the world was Cuba. I stayed here for two weeks and explore the western part of the island as well as spending my last couple of days in a hotel for some holidays before going home. Cuba was a completely different experience to travel than anything before, it had its very unique challenges (i.e. internet, accommodation) but great people and beautiful cities made for an incredible time on this island and a perfect last stop before facing the reality of coming home.
I arrived in Cuba at the Havana Airport coming from a long stop-over in Mexico City. The immigration and customs were no problem at all, they didn’t even want to see the forms I had to fill out during the flight. Even though I arrived in the middle of the night it was no problem checking in at the casa I had fortunately pre booked. In all of Cuba there are no hostels, only a couple of rather expensive hotels and the only cheaper alternative are the so-called “casa particulares”. These are basically rooms in the homes of private people. It’s sort of like an Airbnb. Those usually cost about 25$ per night. That makes it rather expensive compare to where I was used to stay as they only offer private rooms and if you are traveling alone and can’t find anyone to share a room with well than you just have to pay for the whole thing. Luckily I did find some fellow backpackers along the way.
Havana is an incredible city. It’s so full of energy and vibrant and with the beautiful architecture and classic american cars on every corner it feels like you have travelled back in time. The most important part of the city is Vieja, the old town. Here are all the great sights and it is in the best condition. That’s just a fact that Cuba is rather poor and so most of the houses away from the main attractions are in rather bad shape. But still this is what gives the town its charm. And with music everywhere and great Mojitos you quickly forget all of this.
In my opinion Havana isn’t about checking of sight from a list it is just about wandering the streets through colonial houses and enjoying it as a whole. Almost every corner waits with great new photo opportunities, there is always something happening around here. Usually people in the streets are very nice and I never had any problems taking pictures around here. Of course this was made even easier by the fact that Obama was due to visit a couple of days later and the streets were bustling with journalists. One more guy with a big camera wasn’t any special these days. The Obama visit also meant that the whole old-town was getting a makeover. Streets were repaved and houses painted. I even spotted a guy polishing cannons at one of the old castles.
But as great as Havana is after a couple of days it does get really exhausting because it is always full and loud and sort of dirty. Well pretty much complete chaos. The most annoying part for me and that holds true for basically everywhere I’ve been except OZ were the taxi-drivers. They are standing on every corner shouting at you or making incomprehensible noises from across the street. Every time they drive by they go crazy on the horn trying to get your attention. Once a guy almost ran me over trying to block my path to convince me I needed a taxi. Whenever you exit a bus or even if you just took a taxi and get out they swarm around you shouting and grabbing you. All of this behavior made me never wanted to take a taxi at all. Anyways it was time to get out of the city.
First stop was Vinales, a small town west of Havana and gateway to Valle de Vinales home to many of the nation's tobacco-plantations and just incredible nature. To get there I took a Viazul-Bus, the state operated public bus system which is almost exclusively for tourists. They are cheap, safe and work well. Just ignore the hordes of taxi-driver when getting on or off the bus. Vinales itself is a rather small town of just one street and full of tourists. But the valley is very beautiful. Instead of joining one of the many expensive tours I just took the Vinales-Bus for 5$ and walked the trail on my own. It’s a bit difficult as they are no markings at all but with GPS on your phone you should be fine. There are even some cool caves you can explore for a bit. Unfortunately it started raining like crazy in the afternoon so I had to cut the hike short.
From Vinales I went on to Cienfuegos. This town south-east of Havana is also known as the Paris of Cuba. Well the old-town really does has it’s charm and the buildings are really beautiful although that’s about it. It really small and it’s the only attraction of the town. You can also go to Punta Gorda which is the southern part of the town and used to be a 1950s american summer retreat but it’s pretty much empty nowadays. My recommendation is to only spend a day in the town as it is beautiful enough that you should see it but not big enough to spend more time. If you are there make sure you go to the far side of the town-square and opposite the Arc de Triomphe you will see a blue palace. You can pay 1$ to climb up the stairs of a small tower and top of it and you’ll have the best view of the whole old-town Cienfuegos.
Next Stop was Trinidad. What an incredible town, it really feels like it is stuck in time. The beautiful old town-center is rather large full of churches and colonial houses all in great condition. Especially at sunset there are great photos on every corner. Of course it is all very touristic. There are open-air markets all over town selling the same souvenirs and almost every house is a casa or restaurant. Nevertheless it’s great fun and after sunset it’s perfect to just hang around Plaza Mayor and drink a refreshing Mojito while listening to live salsa music.
Apart from the old town the other main attractions of Trinidad are the beach and Valle de los Ingenios. The beach is about 15min away from the center and is either reachable by taxi or with a bus which cost basically the same. It is a beautiful beach with great clear water although not as beautiful as Varadero beaches as I should later discover. It is also the perfect place to escape the crazy chaos that is a cuban town for a while.
Valle de los Ingenios is a small valley outside of town which was mostly famous for its old sugar-plantations. Although they no longer crow a lot of sugar there it is still beautiful to see and if you take the train even the journey itself is worth it. While the trip into the valley was fun (I was even allowed to take photos in the cabin of the train) the really good story happened earlier. The day prior to going to the valley I went to the train station with a friend to find out some sort of schedule, well as it turns out there is none but we did meet the station master. A really nice old man who really loves trains. He was carrying around old books about german and swiss trains and showed us pictures of his favorite ones as well as explaining everything about the old steam-trains standing in the station. The oldest one is over a hundred years old and according to him still runs although every repair on it look rather improvised. It was a great experience and showed me again why I love traveling independently so much. In the end he was also happy to pose for a picture in his favorite train.
The last highlight in Trinidad was the Good Friday Procession. As I found out while I was there it was easter time and well in Trinidad they really like to celebrate it. There were hundreds of people gathered in front of the main church to watch the procession, light some candles at the church and pray together. I’m in no means religion but events like this are always great to see and of course with perfect light and so many people it is always great fun to photograph. That seems to be the theme throughout my time here. Similar to when I was in South East Asia I almost never used my tripod and focused more on the people and capturing their live.
I spend about three days in Trinidad before getting on a bus again and going to Santa Clara. This bigger town right in the center of the island is mostly known for the big Che-Memorial as well es being a big student-town. Well yes the memorial is impressive and nice to see while you are there, by the way there are actually a lot of them. The big one is the most famous one and also where he is buried. It’s conveniently located on the way from the bus station to the city center. Then there is another memorial to the place where he derailed a train and thereby started the revolution and then there are many many more all over town. Well and then of course there is his picture almost everywhere in Cuba. As graffiti on the walls or on taxis but mostly on cheap merchandise. Even all around the memorials you could buy the obligatory Che-Shirt. Incredible how well the biggest anti-capitalist symbol sells. Apart from Che there was also a book-fair in town and as you should know by know I always love events while traveling as they are the best opportunities for people-photos or in that particular case coats.. Well all in all unless you are a diehard Che fan one day here is definitely enough as the town itself isn’t all that pretty.
But that basically concludes all of my sightseeing and it was time for some last days of holiday before going home. For that reason I went to Varadero. This peninsula in the north of the island is basically a slice of modern-day Florida exported to Cuba. There are white beaches, clear water and gigantic resort style hotels. While this isn’t usually my style after almost 200 days of constant travel I’m exhausted and just wanted to spend my last days relaxing and not having to worry about a thing. That’s what Varadero is perfect for because there isn’t much else to do. Well it did give me the opportunity to sort through my pictures and finish this post before going home and eventually having to face the responsibilities of adult-life.
So this is it: 200 Days, almost 7 months and 17 different countries has all lead to me hanging around a pool with a cocktail enjoying the Caribbean sun one last time. Once I’m home and settled in I will post some more final thoughts on my trip, what I liked, what I would have changed, the ultimate travel tips and my next plans. But until then check out some last pictures and thank you all for following me through this adventure and a special thanks to all of the people I met along the way for making this as incredible a journey as it was.