At ScoutTech we’re constantly testing out gear on all types of trips and searching for new travel and adventure ideas. We thought we’d try sharing some of our stories with the world to inspire anyone to get outdoors and enjoy the many sights and experiences our planet has to offer whether their taste for adventure is a guided walking tour in a foreign metropolis to trekking through a rainforest or kayaking a gorgeous coastline.
This travel blog entry is a first so I’d love to hear your feedback on future editions about what you’d like to hear whether it be more details or less about certain things such as accommodations or gear configurations. I hope that you enjoy!
Doing Cuba a Little Differently
I’d been to Cuba before about a dozen years ago, which was in fact my first excursion outside of North America and planted the travel bug inside me. What I vividly remember from that trip was not the whole resort and beach thing but it was the day that my friends and I spent off resort driving a Skoda SUV in a small convoy exploring the countryside from Cayo Coco to the mountain top of Bolivia, Cuba to the city of Moron. I also remember the incredibly friendly people and the stories about their home and as I departed I knew I would be back some day to see more.
The goal of this trip was to see some of the many wonders (from UNESCO to natural) and immerse ourselves as much as possible in Cuban culture while backpacking through the island on a budget. We chose to take advantage of a fairly new accommodation option which was not available on my last visit called Casa Particulars. A Casa Particular is where the Cuban people graciously open up their homes to tourists for reasonable fee. We figured what better window into the Cuban way of life could there possibly be!
Day 1: Toronto to Santa Clara (Abel Santamaria) Airport to Trinidad & Getting Acquainted with Cuba
It was 5:35 am and we had just lined up to board our plane. We had decided to maximize our limited time and budget for this trip and take the first flight out on Saturday morning in the hopes of being able to catch a bus from Santa Clara to Trinidad (Cuba). As we disembarked the plane we were greeted by a perfect combination of warmth and tropical breeze. Our plane, they first of four that had just arrived from Canada for March break had landed a few minutes early and we were hopeful that we’d soar through customs, collect our baggage and be on the next air-conditioned bus to Trinidad.
We did indeed move through customs at a reasonable pace even though they were taking everyone’s photographs at the customs booth. However we were held up at the baggage claim for over an hour waiting for our luggage to arrive. I had packed for carry-on and at first regretted that last minute I’d decided to bring along extra liquid toiletries to give away but was quickly comforted by the fact that a little bit of impatience on my behalf was nothing compared to the smiles that the good deed being done here would bring. During this wait we were unable to leave to wait in line for currency exchange which was outside and then return so a note here is splitting up may be worth considering if you are travelling with someone and are on a bit of a schedule. I was a bit groggy from our early start and wish that idea had occurred to me at the time and we might have been lucky enough to make for our early bus as the currency line took about another 45 minutes. It was certainly possible to find a bank and withdraw money elsewhere (highly encourage by taxi drivers that approached us while we waited) but we felt very uneasy about setting out into the country without any funds in hand.
Our backup plan for the day if we missed the early bus was to head into Santa Clara and explore a bit until the evening bus came. But some good that did come of our wait in the currency line was that we were able to negotiate with one of the cab drivers to take us directly to our Casa in Trinidad. At first he was unwilling to drive such a distance but once we arrived at his car he took off for a minute to chat with some other drivers and we agreed on a rate of $60 CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) for the journey.
I’d done a bit of research online before leaving and knew that was actually a very good rate and given that a cab to Santa Clara plus 2 bus tickets to Trinidad would have cost us approximated $40 this was an easy decision. It turned out to actually be incredible added value as the taxi cut our travel time in half as the buses take a roundabout route to other cities. The drive was a really friendly guy and went a bit off the beaten path and stopped to show us some sites such as coffee plants and Spanish citadel. The scenery we drove through ranged from rainforests to mountain tops and turned out to be the most beautiful drive we’d experience this trip. Most of the trip was on asphalt roads and was pretty smooth as long as our driver skilfully dodged the many large craters and uneven stretches. Keep in mind when travelling by unofficial cab you definitely need to willing to sacrifice some creature comforts. I took notice of the broken speedometer and the lack of air-conditioning, armrests and working doors and travelling without these may be a bit scary for the faint of heart! To note here from my experience throughout the trip, some basic Spanish is often required to negotiate rates of much of the transportation throughout the trip and I was fortunate to be travelling with a fluent speaker though we did meet folks that did not speak Spanish and seemed to be getting along just fine.
As we reached Trinidad we noticed our asphalt roads quickly turned to cobblestones and then the largest and most uneven cobblestones I’d ever come across! Once I was through observing the streets I looked up and we were surrounded by winding, hilly streets of colourful houses. Well there are many pictures of Trinidad available on the internet and in magazines they just could not capture parts of the real beauty of this place, the hustle and bustle of the many types of friendly people going about their daily lives. The cab encountered some heavy traffic so he let us off a couple of blocks away from our first Casa where we quickly discovered the dynamics of how using this system of accommodation really worked.
An important note about the style of accommodation we chose is that prior to departure we had only been able to establish regular contact with our first host. We had read quite a few stories about how once you are in the Casa network the hosts typically always have a friend they can refer you to wherever you are travelling next so we were confident when left that we would not have any trouble finding hosts. I found that since internet in Cuba is scarce and costly for Cubans that often receiving a response could take 2-3 business days and commonly the response could be “sorry no rooms available”. If you have enough time to start making Casa arrangements at least a month early you could most likely find multiple options however even solid arrangements don’t always work out as planned as we were about to discover.
Our first Casa was a beautiful Spanish Colonial mansion owned by a European gentleman and his Cuban wife. It was
very nicely kept up with an open air courtyard full of plants and sculptures and winding staircases with several rooms for tourists. Unfortunately we quickly discovered this would not be home for us during our stay in Trinidad. Even though we had been in touch with the owner the night before he had to leave in a rush to attend to some urgent needs back home why exactly they didn’t have a room still available for us was never really made clear. The owner’s wife was happy to welcome us in for a few minutes while she called some friends and then proceeded to walk us a few minutes down the road where we were greeted by a friendly couple and their mother who were eager to accommodate us while we toured Trinidad. The rate at this Casa was 35 CUC for the two of us per night. To my benefit one of our hosts here spoke some English and shared some stories about themselves (he was an architect and his wife a chemist) and was very helpful when arranging plans during our stay.
After quickly unpacking, our hosts suggested a restaurant atop of a hill at the Plaza of the Monuments with a great scenic view of the city and ocean beyond. After dinner we wandered around the busy square taking advantage of the incredible lighting for photographs as the sun was setting and then found a nice spot at a café situated on an expansive cobblestone staircase at the very top of the hill to pause and reflect on what an incredible day it had been. As we were leaving the cafe we experienced a city wide black out which would last most of the night and interpreted that as a sign to head to bed and rest up for our trip to the national park tomorrow. Fortunately having experienced a few blackouts in my travels I had brought along a headlamp just in case of such an event or spontaneous night or caving adventures.
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