Backpacking through Cuba: Day 1 and 2. Preparation and Takeoff. From Havanna to Baracoa.

Note: To fully understand my following travel diaries please know that 1CUC (1 Peso Convertible) corresponds to 1 USD or 25 Pesos Cubanos. For further info on the double currency in Cuba read “Prices” in First Impressions.
Quick resumen for those who don’t want to read all that yakediyak: The double currency is an unnecessary, complicated and shitty thing to have that ends up ruining the country.

20/10. Day of preparation.

Just a few minutes before I wanted to go to the bus station to figure out some ways how and where to start my trip Maricel, friend of my tutor calls me and asks me whether she could join me for the adventure. I already know her, we’ve gone out a couple of times together and always had great fun. I accept, delighted with the idea not to have to travel alone, and we meet in the train station to check out all the train and bus connections to different places in the country. Once in the train station we sit down in a cafeteria with a beer to plan some possible journeys and to go through some of the details.

Question number one: Where to? We decide to begin in Guantanamo, the easternmost city of Cuba which lies about 934km from Havanna, and then make our way back through the country, passing through Guantamo, Baracoa, Holguin, Guardalavaca, The Cayos, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Topes de Collantes until arriving back in La Habana. Then maybe even possibly continuing to Pinar de Rio and Viñales but we decide on not establishing a fixed route, spontaneity should be an important factor.

This is the route we figured out – in the end we stuck to it perfectly:

Question number two: How will we travel? Well, for traveling in Cuba there are, as in every detail of every day life, two categories. There is the tourist’s way (air-conditioned, fast, luxurious and quite expensive) and there is the cuban way (mostly painstakingly slow, crowded and difficult). To put this generalization into a concrete example: For traveling by train for example is extremely cheap (about 1.50 euros from Havana to Guantanamo) but it’s difficult to get a place in a train, extremely uncomfortable and it takes you about 2 days to get from Havana to Guantanamo. 2 days, calculation that your train doesn’t break down as it’s very often the case) and considering that you’re lucky enough to get a train ticket. Then there are the busses. For foreigners, there is VIAZUL, which offers an expensive but good service which connects all big cities in the country and there is ASTRO, the cuban corresponding company. ASTRO offers just the same service and disposes of a fleet of relatively modern busses which even have air conditioning and toilets. The only problem here is that foreigners are not allowed on these (by the sate heavily subventioned) transportation and of course that you have to deal with quite some problems obtaining your ticket.

Let me quickly explain the procedure to get a ticket: If you’re cuban you have basically three possibilities to obtain a ticket.

If you have enough time you can reserve a bus or train ticket 2 to 3 weeks before your journey. If your trip is somewhat more spontaneous you will have to put yourself into one of the famous listas de espera, waiting lists, which will fill the remaining places in the bus once the reservation period has ended. Those listas de espera are basically a list of people on a sheet of paper – the higher you’re up on that list, the more probable is you can get on the bus. Once you’re on one of these listas de epera you’ll have to show up at a certain time to confirm your will to travel. If you don’t show up, the guy behind the counter will cross you out and you can say haste luego to your traveling ambitions. Thirdly, there is of course the illegal way to get a ticket. Pay a dubious guy at the train station some CUCs and get a reservation directly. 

So, quickly resuming our traveling expectancies were to either pay around 7 Euros and break your nerves and backs on a train wreck (no way!) or to spend around 54 Euros for a VIAZUL ticket (noooo way!). ASTRO wouldn’t let me ride on their busses because I’m only a student and/but don’t have a temporary residency in Cuba. Being cuban, Maricel tried to put herself on one the waiting lists for Guantanamo, just to see what will turn out, and ended up with list place #411. For two busses!

Pretty frustrating, our first and only day of traveling preparations ended with me demanding my way up to the director’s office of the entire Havana Central Bus Station- only to be told what I already knew and what I had already been told 20 times: Without a temporary or permanent residence in Cuba I cannot travel on ASTRO. Not even the black market would sell me tickets without a temporary residence.

We decide to meet the next day at 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the bus station to go by Viazul.


Day 1 and 2: 21,22/10. From Guantanamo to Baracoa.

A few minutes after meeting Maricel at the Central Bus Station in Plaza de la Revolución a man comes up to Maricel and discretely pulls her away from where the security guards are standing. He couldn’t help overhearing our conversation about Astro and that they wouldn’t let me travel. For 10 CUC he offers us a student’s ID which, for traveling on governmental busses, is just as valid as a temporary residence. We accept and quickly run to have a passport pictures taken of me on which I look like a criminal. But justly, I feel a little like a criminal… 1 hour later I hold a laminated ID in my hands. My name is Benno Schmidt, I’m a surgeon in the second year of my master’s, currently matriculated at the faculty for medicine in Holguin, Cuba. The ID card I’m discretely inspecting under the cafeteria’s table is nothing but a laminated print, freshly out of an inkjet printer with my pictures on it. At the back there seems to be something like a stamp but the lamination’s heat has made the ink dissolve into the paper. For 10/20 more CUC we even get a reservation on the bus which takes us to Guantanamo. No questions asked, ready for take off.

The bus ride itself is worth another forty pages of description but I will keep it short: Freezing cold air-conditioning (12 degrees!!!!!), throughout all the 14 hours, horrible music and one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

After 14 hours of freezing, musical and cinematographic torture we arrive in Guantanamo. Beautiful sunrise throughout all of the morning hours, I have hardly slept a minute and Maricel doesn’t seem to have done any better. Guantanamo itself turns out to be just the way my friends have described it: Relatively uninteresting, noisy and dusty. The famous American Military Base actually lays far away from the city and can neither be visited nor reached by any transportation. During the bus ride we had roughly planned the next days and  have decided to use Guananamo only to hop on a Bus to Baracoa which supposedly is a really charming city in the far East.

With a big hole in our stomaches we strap our rucksacks to our backs and take off to search some banana, vegetables and bread to eat during our upcoming trip to Baracoa and to find ourselves something to eat. We end up in a little market where we can collect some fruit and end up in a charming restaurant particular/(Casa de La Mariposa de Cristal) where we stuffed ourselves with delicious meat with rice and beans, cabbage and salad. Cost: 40 Pesos each, around 1,20€. Our friendly host is even willing to let us charge our cameras, make us some coffee with the coffee powder we have brought and explains us how to best get to Baracoa.

With recharged batteries (both metaphorically and literally) we hop on a mototaxi and rush to the Punta, the place where all the camiones gather.

Camiones are a common transportation medium in rural Cuba. Trucks, mostly of russian origins, are being converted into somewhat that can only be described as a pigstall for human beings. At the back of the truck (with or without hard top) there are 2 benches welded to each side. Around 50 people press themselves into these benches, roughly 20 find place in the middle on foot and altogether form a beautifully noisy and less beautifully smelly acconglomerate of sweaty ,shouting cubans. See also chapter “Guaguas”.

After some 20 minutes of waiting our camion, a russian T3, took off, taking us through one of the most break taking scenic tours I’ve ever seen (Loma de la Farola). Tight curved roads through an incredibly green caribbean jungle, small dwellings of campesinos along the road and petrol stink combined with rum drinking and guitar playing farmers in the back of the truck made this journey forget about all of our 14 hours of suffering in the Astro bus.

When we arrived 4 hours later in Baracoa (one of the drunks had already vomited and passed out on the floor of the truck) it was around 5 in the afternoon. At the bus station we asked around for a good place to camp at and we directed to a beautiful white beach, about an hour’s walk from the city centre, past the beach and a small fisher’s village. With our heavy luggage on our backs we took a bicitaxi to easternmost part of the town from where we started walking along the beach in the direction we had been given.

Hardly any sleep for 24 hours, around 20kg on our backs, our feet sinking into the soft sand with every step – you can imagine how exhausted we were! An unforgettable image for me is Maricel, pulling behind a heavy bag through the sand which contained her Slackline which she had decided to take with her.
To get to the beach we had to cross a little fisher’s village where we learned to know Baracoas’s beaches lifeguard who very kindly explained us the way.
When we finally arrived at the beach it was night. Like zombies we put up the tent in complete darkness (forgot batteries for torch at home) and sat down with a sip of rum of some cigarettes, only to be disturbed some 20 minutes later by some military guards who told us we mustn’t camp here. Apparently we had chosen one of the beaches that’s (due to it’s remote location) popular with illegal bands who traffic cubans to the United State. Only very recently there had been some cases of lanchas taking off to the US we were told by the soldiers, there seemed no point in arguing with them. And yes, we had to pack our backpacks again, dismantle the tent and went on walking to the far less attractive beach of Baracoa, accompanied by our group of 4 soldiers who kindly carried part of our luggage. When we finally had crossed the village and the picturesque bridge we could hardly put up the tent and literally fell asleep like a pair of stones. Heavy rain during the night.

What a first day. More then 1100km, 4 different mediums of transportation and some 34 hours without sleep.

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