Sunday, 18 August 2013

Santa Clara, Cuba

An early morning start for the bus to santa Clara, a small town 3.5 hours from Havana. Although we have been critical of other bureaucratic processes the buses are pretty spot on (once you know how to book tickets). Along the route we noticed a lot of people on the side of the road with their luggage holding out money. It is hard to tell for certain, but we were pretty sure these people could not afford the official fare so were trying to either fill the buses with their best offer or get a spot in a car making the journey. Probably a good time to also explain that in Cuba there are 2 kinds of currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which tourists generally use which is close to parity with the US dollar, and the Nacional Pesos which are 1/24 the value. The dual currency has created a divide in Cuba; those who can earn and get tips in CUCs (taxi drivers, Casa Particular owners, wait staff and grumpy hotel workers), and those who cannot. The people on the side of the road were holding up nacional pesos, for them 18 CUC a ticket of convertible money (432 Peso) is just unattainable. To give you an idea a sandwich costs 0.20c CUC (5 pesos).

Anyway we arrived on time in Santa Clara around 12:45, where we were met at the station and taken to our Casa with the lovely hosts Mary (Ma-ri) and Raikol. After settling in we set about exploring the streets and found Santa Clara to be a pretty beautiful town with a very picturesque main street and central park. We wandered to the cigar factory where they hand roll Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Cohiba cigars. Unfortunately there was no tour running but we could peek in the windows to see maybe a hundred Cubans busy away rolling cigars with wooden presses, we imagine the process hasn't changed much if at all since cigars were first made. The smell of tobacco leaves was amazing.

We decided to buy a few sample of cigars at the attached store and will try to send them home (we can't transit through the US with them), time will tell if we got a good deal but either way it is a pretty impressive place to have your cigars sourced from! After a bit of lunch (and the obligatory bad service that goes with state owned places)  we headed to what is suggested as the top place for live music in the edgy Santa Clara. Although a bit early for the main event that started at 10 pm, we saw some freestyle Cuban hip hop and enjoyed a few cervesas. With dinner approaching we headed to the casa particular again where some 10 CUC home cooked lobster awaited, with just enough time to enjoy another cervesa on the impressive roof to terrace (to put it in perspective this pace is 25 CUC a night)

Around Santa Clara

The rooftop

Cristal - our Cuban beer of choice

The rooftop

Cigars! About as large as Paul was prepared to purchase

The park and main square of Santa Clara

Day 2 in Santa Clara and after our enormous breakfast of fruit, juice, rolls, cheese, meat, coffee and biscuits, we decided to wander along to the Che mausoleum and on the way check out some anti imperialism parody murals, I.e. anti USA. Typical of state run establishments, they required us to check our shoulder bags before going in to see the displays, and with very large signs saying 'do not leave valuables in bags' we decided we had probably seen enough Che stuff already (how different could it be?)  After briefly admiring the statue we headed back to town. Oh and people here love che, he is like a bit of a god.

Back in town we decided to hang out at the lovely central park and where the local kids were being pulled around by a goat and a mini carriage. As we were sitting a Cuban guy, Alberto, started chatting to us in Spanish. We fumbled away chatting with him and found out he was an electrician with a 2 year old son who had lived in Santa Clara his whole life, and we told him a bit about Australia, and where else we were going after Santa Clara. Generally when locals approach we are on pretty high alert for a scam or them generally wanting money. Alberto did want something, but it wasn't a scam, he was simply after any t-shirts we might have from Australia (hopefully one with 'Australia' on the front) that we could pass onto him, they don't get many clothes in Cuba and it seems like he had had some luck in the past getting travelers t-shirts, not new but hand me downs that the travellers didn't have much need of. We told him we had no t-shirts, as we were traveling light but did give him some pesos in exchange for a photo, which seemed like an OK deal. After chatting for 15 minutes 3 police approached and asked for his ID. It seems that locals like him chatting to foreigners is not a regular occurrence, or at least one which requires investigation, we had mixed feelings; on one hand the police are trying to make sure everything is legit, and that is a nice safety thing. On the other hand Alberto was clearly uncomfortable with 3 police questioning him and then taking down his details - of course who wouldn't! He told us they need to check that people aren't smuggling contraband both in or out of Cuba, we suppose because everything is government controlled, including the export of Cigars.

After our friendly chat we got out hands some of the local currency which we hasn't until this point so we could get some ice cream and cheap food from hole in the wall places which are generally all family run (in Havana these places took CUCs) We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the terrace and Paul lit up his first cigar, a Romeo y Julieta purito from the factory that cost about $1.60 each.Dinner was another great home cooked meal, this time shrimp! Over dinner we got chatting to an Italian couple also staying at the Casa who were up to day 17 of their trip, doing a similar one to ours but in reverse and concentrating a lot on the beaches of Cuba.

Post dinner we headed out to see the night life of Santa Clarato check out the nightlife and found a fiesta going on around the main square and hence most of the town. We found in one of the streets a stage where a great live 8 piece Cuban band were playing with a mojito bar at the side. Perfect. We decided it was a good place to hang and enjoy the goings on. Whilst enjoying the entertainment and out of compulsion to please the local folk Paul agreed to dance with, who in hindsight can only be described as a crazy alcoholic smoking possibly pregnant lady. Which was all fun and games for a while, she even got joss up to dance and tried to teach us a few moves... Then shit got weird. She kept yabbering at us in Spanish, even though we kept repeatedly telling her 'no entiendo', she wouldn't get out of our face. Seeing as the band had just stopped for a break  we decided to escape into the night. RANDOM, possibly not what we expected for our first live music gig. We will be on guard next time, we know her sort now.

Smart missile cartoon

Hanging in the park
Joss and Roberto

Some clever marketing by a local. We still couldn't figure out what they actually sold though. It seemed it wasn't burgers and fries.

The Fiesta, and Paul's head.

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