Santiago de Cuba

My Spanish classes finished at the end of July and my long-waited vacation started. I had planned to go explore the eastern part of Cuba. Initially, I intended to start my travelling in August. However, normally a carnival takes place in Santiago de Cuba during the last week of July. This year, the carnival was more grandiose as Santiago de Cuba celebrated its 500-year anniversary. Therefore, I planned to pack my backpack one week earlier than initially planned.

You can find more pictures from the gallery.

The plan to go to Santiago de Cuba was grand, but it was rather complicated to make happen, as getting bus tickets seemed like mission impossible. At the end of July, vacation period starts for most Cubans and they travel to other regions of Cuba to visit their relatives. Therefore, there is a lack of bus tickets. I was planning to go to Santiago de Cuba with Omnibus Nacional (a bus company meant for Cubans) together with Sinaia (my Chinese schoolmate) as it is seven times cheaper than Viazul (7 CUC and 51 CUC, accordingly). Cubans reserve bus tickets a long time in advance, which need to be bought out at least one hour before the departure. Therefore, a so called waiting list is created. If somebody doesn’t buy out his ticket, then there is a possibility for people in the waiting list. We added our names to the list one day before the planned departure. At that moment, approximately 700 people were in front of us on the list. There is no point to put your name onto the list too early as it is a living list. If they reach your number and you are not present, you are removed from the list. That’s why timing is very important. When we went to the bus terminal the following day, the number of people in front of us in the waiting list had decreased by 300 people. Nevertheless, the situation was rather hopeless. Sitting on our backpacks, we realized that we would not be able to get tickets for today and would need to come back to the terminal the following day. Hopefully with a little more luck. I didn’t want to spend the whole day waiting; therefore, I decided to use an alternative option – to go to Santiago de Cuba in a bed of a truck. These trucks are rebuilt for passenger travelling. Bus seats have been installed into wagons and comfortness is quite close to that of a bus. Sinaia refused to use this possibility due to her stubbornness, so I went without her. The truck departed around 7 p.m. and arrived to Santiago de Cuba the following morning at 7.00 a.m. This means that the journey lasted around 12 hours (it takes 14 hours by bus). It wasn’t very hot and I was able to sleep most of the ride as we drove at night. As a result, my trip on the truck was quite comfortable and rather cheap (14 CUC) compared to Viazul. Sinaia waited in the terminal again the next day and finally gave up on coming to Santiago de Cuba as the chance to get a bus ticket was close to zero.

It is very hard to find accommodation during the carnival in Santiago de Cuba as there are a lot of tourists and also prices are increased due to the peak season. At first, I went to the place recommended by Sinaia (she stayed there in April), but there was no vacancy. The hostess was so helpful that she started to call her friends to find accommodation for me. After several calls, she found a place for me for one night, the next day I had to find another place for myself.

During the carnival, Santiago de Cuba turns grand street festival. Several streets are closed to traffic and cafeterias and other traders have settled themselves on the streets. One of the favorite point of sales are places where it is possible to buy draught beer. It is interesting that you have to have your own beer mug, if you want to buy beer. At first, I didn’t understand why people are walking on the streets with their own mugs. I didn’t have any other option; therefore, I bought a personal mug (circa 1 liter) for myself. The beer was rather cheap (1 liter costs 0.2 EUR), but the quality wasn’t the best. Although, after two mugs of beer, I felt a little bit tipsy.

In the evening, different types of musicians and DJs were performing on the streets. When passing one place where music is performed, another place next. Like they were competing with each other.

On the first night in Santiago de Cuba, I got a Cuban flag painted to my shoulder (like a tattoo). It was a way to present my respect to Cuba. I have lived here quite some time now, but I still make the same mistakes as I trust people too much. I got cheated when I got the painting made. When I observed how the guy was making paintings to other people, it cost around 1 CUC, but I was charged 5 CUC. I complained that it is too expensive compared to the other paintings he had made to other people, but he claimed that every painting has a different price and the Cuban flag costs 5 CUC. I knew I got screwed, but I didn’t have any other options than to pay the requested price.

Luckily, I got some good news when I returned to my casa particular. Sandra (my hostess) said that I could stay at her place the following nights as well because she gave her room to me and moved herself to one smaller room. Officially, I was not permitted to stay in this room. Because of that, Sandra said that I should not mention to anybody that I stay in that room. Otherwise, she will have huge problems with the immigration office. She told me that she is helping me because her children also live abroad and if they need help, then some other people would help them as well. This was very touching.

500 firework devices were lighted up to celebrate 500-year anniversary of Santiago de Cuba. The show lasted approximately half an hour and was awesome.

On the following night, a huge carnival procession took place on one of the main streets. The procession was very colorful and full of music and dancing. People who were participating in the procession danced very energetically in the music rhythms and they obtained the support of audience very quickly. The procession took place on the three consecutive days, mostly the same program with some small variations.

It is so strange to me that there were no trash bins at the street festival. After eating my meal, I didn’t have anywhere to throw my carton plate, so I had to leave it under a tree. After that, I felt myself so badly like I had committed a crime.

When I was looking Cubans during the carnival, I got an impression that, in general, Cubans don’t think about what happens the next day after the party. They take their last money from a piggy bank to fully enjoy the party. On the first day after the carnival celebrations, I heard one group of people arguing on the street, who is the most broke of them. When they have recovered from a hangover, they face the reality which in some cases may be very bitter.

It was the second time for me to be in Santiago de Cuba. The first time was approximately two years ago. I visited familiar places and was looking for new sights as well. One of the new sights was “La Grand Piedra”. If it is not the biggest boulder in Cuba, it is one of the biggest. There is a coffee museum quite close to the boulder, which is remarkable as this area was the first place were coffee was started growing in Cuba. I wasn’t very excited about the museum, but about one kilometer from the boulder is located a flower garden, where is a large variety of beautiful flowers. It’s a real piece of art.

La Grand Piedra is located approximately 25 kilometers from Santiago de Cuba on the top of a mountain. It’s not possible to get there with public transport. The only option is taxi, which costs around 40 CUC. I didn’t want to spend so much money on the transport. Therefore, I decided to take a bus to Las Guásimas from where is 14 kilometers to the mountain top, which I decided to walt. Walking to the mountain top turned out to be very difficult. The temperature was sufficiently hot, my shoes started to get on my feet and the main reason was that the road was extremely steep. I got some positive and extra energy from the extraordinary view (although there was some fog which hid some of the beauty) and mangos, which trees located next to the road. After four hours of walking, I got to the boulder, which was extremely huge. Unfortunately, the view from the boulder was a bit ruined by the fog. Supposedly, it is possible to see Jamaica with clear weather. It took only three hours to walk back. While walking, I took pictures and picked mangos to take with me. To entertain myself, I was rolling some uneatable mangos down from the mountain and I was watching how they were rolling 🙂 .

In general, I have an allergy against the museums; nevertheless, I decided to go the museum of “26 July”. Fidel Castro’s military group was named by the same name 3 years later, when he started a new revolution attempt. The museum is located in an old military barrack (nowadays, it is a school) that Fidel Castro together with his fellows attacked on 26 July 1953. This revolution attempt was unsuccessful and Fidel, his brother Raúl and other survivors were put to prison. To this day, it is possible to see marks caused by bullets in the facade of the building. One of the tourists took an English-speaking guide for themselves; therefore, I followed them secretly with one’s ears pricked up to listen what she is talking.

I rented a scooter for five days so I could explore the neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba in a better way. The scooter gave me more freedom. I can go wherever I want and do it much cheaper. There was rather rare public transport to the places I wanted to go and it would have been too expensive to take a taxi. Thanks to the accident with the scooter and the collected experiences in Viñales, I felt myself quite comfortable with the scooter.

I picked out two main destination where I wanted to go: Pico Turquino (Cuba’s highest mountain, 1,972 meters) and El Saltón (a natural place for relaxing). Pico Turqiono is located 130 km on the cost road from Santiago de Cuba. I arrived to the foothill of Pico Turquino (Las Cuevas) in the afternoon of the second day after leaving Santiago de Cuba. I made arrangements for a hiking trip with a guide to the top of mountain for next day. Initially, we had to start hiking at 5 a.m. as it is much easier to hike with less sun. Especially, for rookies like me. By the evening, the plan had changed a little bit. The start was moved to 3.30 a.m. as we had to meet with another tourist group at the top of the mountain. They started hiking from direction of Santo Domingo. I was asked several times how much water I have. I replied that I have 1.5 liters. For this response, they shook their heads saying that it is not sufficient as 2 liters is the minimum quantity and it would be good, if I have 3 liters. Actually, I had a bottle of 1.5 liters, but I had drunk from it already and when we were departuring, I had only 1 liter of water left.

I woke up at 3:15 a.m. and a breakfast was served to me, which included of thick slice of ham, cheese and several salty crackers. The piece of ham was shown to me as my breakfast last night already. As it was in a box on a table, but not in a fridge, I was a little bit scared that the ham is not eatable in the morning. Especially when taking into account the hot weather. Luckily, the ham was rather fine or I didn’t notice that something was wrong with my sleepy head. I met my guide for the first time in the mourning. He was also worried about my limited quantity of water. When we started to hike, it was dark in outside. Due to the moonlight we were able to walk without a flashlight. These first two kilometers I walked like a zombie, I don’t remember much of it. When we arrived to the sign of two kilometers (it is 10.5 kilometers to the summit), I thought that this sign doesn’t show correctly the covered distance. I assumed that we have walked only 1 kilometer or even less. When I returned, I understood that the sign was correct. I got thirsty quite soon as the breakfast ham and crackers were so salty, so I had to take first sips from my bottle. When we reached the forest, the moonlight didn’t help us anymore. Therefore, the guide took out his flashlight and lit the road so we could continue our trip. I strolled after him as I was able to see the road in the stripe of light. Luckily, we passed mango trees soon and some of the mangos had dropped to the road. Initially, I didn’t notice them myself, but the guide drew my attention to them. I picked up two mangos and started peeling them with teeth. This wasn’t an easy task, but finally I was able to eat them. I got a huge amount of energy from the mangos, but my hands and face were covered with mango juice. Pretty soon, just like requested, there was a pipe with mountain water on the side of the road. The guide disconnected the pipe and he washed his hands and face and then drank some sips of water from the pipe. After that, I cleaned myself and drank some water as well. The guide asked whether I should drink the mountain water. I replied that I have no idea, but I didn’t have any other option. If I hadn’t drunk the water, I would have most probably collapsed due to dehydration. I figured that the water doesn’t cause diarrhea immediately, it should be take some time, so I could get back to the house before that. When I got very thirsty and tired, I asked for some small breaks. The guide was so generous that in one of the stops he gave a little bit of water to me from his bottle. Little by little, there was more daylight. Hiking on the mountain is like walking on the stairs. It is much harder than on the slope, as it is required to lift your legs much higher than in normal walking.

Between 7 and 8 kilometers, there was a sign that walking on the road is dangerous. It was a correct warning, because in some of the places there was only 50 cm space for walking and at the edge of road was a gorge. The guide told that some time ago a cadet had fallen to the gorge during climbing on the wall of mountain. A little bit further up the road were fresh marks on the road and the guide explained that a mule had slipped and fallen into the gorge. Knowing about these accidents scared me a lot.

Finally, when we arrived to the summit, I was disappointed a bit because I hoped there is an extraordinary view. However, the only thing I saw was a bust of José Marti which was surrounded by bushes and brush. I had hiked four hours to the top of mountain, which located 1,972 meters above the sea level and I expected to see more than the monument.

We had to meet with other group of tourists at the summit. There are two different tracks how to get to the summit and they started hiking from Santo Domingo. We were waiting for half an hour, but there was no sign of them. The guide suggested that I start walking down slowly and he will wait for the other group and then come down as well. I agreed with this as after half an hour of rest I had rested enough. When I was ready to leave, the guide came out with an idea, which I was already scared of. He proposed that I give him 5-10 CUC as other tourists normally do. In general, I don’t like this type of proposals as I have already paid for his services and why should I pay once more. This I agreed to pay him as he shared his water and food with me. However, I had hidden my wallet between the clothes last night and forgot to take it with me as I was so sleepy in the morning. We agreed that I will pay at least 5 CUC to him when we get back to the house and promised that I will wait for him for 2 hours at the house.

When I got back to the house, I was so exhausted (the way back lasted 3.15 hours). I didn’t have any water left when walking down, but I got some energy from mangos again which I found on the track. I waited for the guide for more than two hours, but he didn’t arrive during this time. Because I didn’t want to leave Pico Turquino very late, I had to leave without paying to the guide.

After leaving Pico Turquino, my next destination was El Salton. It was pretty far awat, so I stayed over in Chivorico and continued the trip in the morning. Based on my GPS, it was only 50 kilometers from Chivorico to El Salton; therefore, I assumed that it would be an easy and smoothe ride. After 10 kilometers of driving, I had to turn left, but that road was a small byroad. To make sure it is a right road to El Salton, I confirmed it with an older man. He said that this road goes to El Salton, but the road conditions are rather crazy. I responded that I’m also a little bit crazy. After that he assumed that I might be able to reach to El Salton with the scooter. After the first kilometer, I realized that climbing with the scooter on this kind of road is rather difficult (at that moment, the road conditions were still quite normal). It got much worse after every kilometer. There were slopes where the scooter was sobbing, but it was able to ramble to up. The water had made channels into the road, which made the conditions much harder. In one of the grand curve, the scooter didn’t have enough power to move anymore and it got stuck between the rocks. I had to came off the scooter and push it up the hill. I was scared of what would happen if the scooter stopped working as I was in the middle of nowhere and there was no mobile signal either. I found out that climbing up with the scooter is easier than coming down. The road was very steep, sandy and gravelly which made it very slippery and also there were large channels in the road. When I was coming down, I pressed on the breaks as much as possible. Nevertheless, the scooter kept moving. In one of the curves, the scooter slipped sideways to down. I was scared that any second I will fall, but luckily, I was able to get control over the scooter again. The first thought was that what will happen with the scooter if I fall. I didn’t have time to think about myself.

After the emotional experience, I finally arrived to El Salton. Then I realized why the guide in Pico Turquino suggested that at first I should go back to Santiago de Cuba and from there go to El Salton by other road. I used that road when I went back to Santiago de Cuba from El Salton. The road conditions would have been good, but also 100 kilometers longer.

El Salton is famous about its quiet and natural location where you can rest in silence and enjoy the beauty of nature. Unfortunately, when I visited El Salton it was drought and there wasn’t much water in a waterfall and a natural pool was dry. If there would have been more water, it would have been an adorable place for a relaxing vacation.

The next morning after a bath in a river located in a short distance from the hotel, I started to go back to Santiago de Cuba (its approximately 110 kilometers). I planned to make a stop in a church of El Cobre. This church is famous as the Roman pope, John Paul II had blessed this place by his visits and the current pope, Francis, will plan to visit this church as well in September 2015. But the sky turned so dark and it got rather windy as well; therefore, I decided to postpone the visit to the church. I was holding my breath that I could get to Santiago de Cuba between two grand clouds without getting rain. I was lucky as I got only some drops of rain. Next day, I went back to El Cobre to visit the church. In general, I’m not very excited about the churches, but this church fascinated me with its beauty and glory.

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