Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cuba: Cienfuegos

After checking out of our resort, we headed South to the city of Cienfuegos, on the Caribbean coast. We took the Viazul bus, which turned out to be clean, comfortable, and reasonably cheap. It was a pleasant drive, taking us through some small and completely untouristy towns, through the gorgeous lush green countryside, and giving us a tantalising glimpse of the mountains.

We'd decided to spend our second week staying in Casa Particulares - private homes whose owners have purchased an expensive license and pay a substantial monthly fee in order to rent out rooms to tourists. It's by far the cheapest option, and also gives you the experience of staying with locals (although the homes and lives of the relatively well-off people who can afford to start a Casa operation are almost certainly not typical; the homes marked with the official Casa sign were significantly nicer than others in the same town). We chose a likely option from the (excellent) Lonely Planet guidebook, then shouldered our backpacks, said "no thank you" to all the people who'd met the bus to offer accommodation / dinner / cigars, and walked off toward the old square at the heart of the city.

The owners of the Casa answered the door, and ushered us in to their home. It was gorgeous; the internal rooms opened up onto a balcony looking down into an internal courtyard filled with plants and lounging cats. The owners - Armando and Leonor - poured us a glass each of delicious tropical fruit juice, and told us their philosophy: "friendship between nations begins with friendship between people". They asked where we were from, and told us of their travels around the world (Leonor was a physics professor before she retired). They showed us a short video highlighting the sights of Cienfuegos, and extolled the virtues of Cuba and its free education for its citizens, and citizens of other developing country.

And then they told us that they did not have any vacancies.

They were very apologetic, but someone was coming from Havana with a reservation. Armando told us that he hated to turn people away from his home, but it could not be helped. But not to worry, they would call all the other Casa owners they knew, and arrange something for us. While we were waiting, they gave us some small gifts - a black cat necklace for me, and a Che portrait necklace for Mr E Man. We gave them some of the New Scientist magazines we'd brought in exchange.

About ten minutes later, Leonor's friend Esther appeared to take us to her Casa. Armando shook our hands, and Leonor kissed us both. They told us to come to them if we needed anything while we were in town - any time, for anything at all. We walked past their house a few times in the next couple of days, and saw Leonor out on the balcony overlooking the street. She always called to us by name, asked if we were having a good time, and told us "we love you!"


Not so scary, actually.


Off to Esther's place we went, just around the corner. She barely spoke any English, but Mr E Man speaks enough Spanish to (more or less) cover the basics. A tiny lady of 90 years, she barely came up to my chin, and she told us that she'd lived in this house her entire life* and that yes, she had seen a lot of changes. The house was full of faded glory - ornate plaster work, high ceilings, old family photos and degree certificates and an ancient untuned piano. Our room had a crazy spiral staircase up to the roof terrace;

it felt like it might come loose and topple over at any minute, but the view from the terrace was worth it.

Unfortunately, the bed you can see in the top photo turned out to be The Most Uncomfortable Bed In The World. I would be willing to bet good money that the mattress came with the house. After two nights we couldn't take it anymore, and decamped to a hotel for our last night. But Esther and her family were excellent hosts, letting us store our bags there on our last day, and even letting us pay a little late when we ran out of Cuban money and the bank had already closed**. She also called ahead to a friend in the next city on our itinerary, who met us off the bus and took us to her own Casa.

But I'm getting ahead of myself!

Cienfuegos was lovely, but Sunday and Monday were not the best two days to visit. The central plaza was absolutely gorgeous,

Cuba - where the lions play football, and a good mechanic is a God

but its music venues were either quiet or closed. (We did get to see The Worst Musician In CubaTM, but since I'm going to devote a whole post to our musical experiences, I'll save that story for later!) The museums were also closed, so we spent some very pleasant hours strolling the back streets and main streets instead, enjoying the architecture and Caribbean views and sunshine.

From the street...

...and from the roof

There may or may not have been some beer breaks involved.

Overall, this was a very nice introduction to "the real Cuba." But if you go, skip Esther's bed of torture, and try to stay with Armando and Leonor instead!


*after the revolution, Cubans who owned their own homes were allowed to keep them. Business owners, and foreigners who owned property in Cuba, were not so lucky.

**no ATMs, credit card payments, or other normal features of Western finance here; we took cash (Canadian dollars, you can only get the Cuban Convertible Pesos from within the country) and changed it as and when we needed it. It took a bit of getting used to, I can tell you!

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