Blog po polsku/in Polish: http://ontario-nature-polish.blogspot.ca/2014/09/camaguey-cuba-w-hotelu-club-amigo.html
More photos from this trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jack_1962/sets/72157647698353620/
|A satellite map of our resort Club Amigo Caracol.|
Since we had never visited any of the resorts in Santa Lucia — and had heard so much about them — the only question was which resort we should go to. After several hours of browsing TripAdvisor’s reviews & forums and exchanging a few emails with TA’s members, we decided to go to the Club Amigo Caracol, which appeared to be very cosy, reasonably-priced and rated as the no. 1 resort in Santa Lucia.
Just a few weeks before our departure I had a client in my office and we started talking about Cuba. I told her I was going to Cuba shortly.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“To Santa Lucia,” I said.
“Which hotel are you staying at?”
“The Amigo Caracol.”
She seemed quite stunned.
“Do you know this hotel?” I asked her, thinking that perhaps she had had some bad experience while staying there.
“My Cuban boyfriend works there and I will be going there in January of next year,” she said.
Wow, the world is a small place!
On the day of departure she met us at the airport and gave us a gift for her boyfriend, which we of course delivered to him at the resort.
And thus on November 22, 2013 (incidentally, exactly on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination) we departed from Toronto to spend the next two weeks in Cuba. The Cubana Airline flight no. 181 proceeded without problems (in spite of numerous warnings that it was a very unsafe airline) and exactly after 3 hours and 15 minutes we landed in Varadero, where some passengers disembarked, others got on the plane (which, after landing at Camagüey, was flying back to Toronto) as well as a new Cuban crew took over. At 6:00 pm the plane began to slowly move towards the take-off position… only to stop and roll back to its prior position. Soon, I saw that all luggage was removed from the plane (I even spotted my blue suitcase!). We had no idea what was going on; some passengers thought that there was a mechanical problem with the plane and soon we would be asked to leave the plane, but it turned out the Cuban crew that left the plane could not find their luggage. So, after this one-hour delay the plane took off and 40 minutes later landed at Camagüey.
After quickly and painlessly going through the immigration/customs, we left the building and immediately a Hola Sun representative approached us, holding a pad with a list of names — ours were luckily on the list, so he told us which bus we should get on. In the meantime, I went to the money exchange booth at the airport (just near the exit door-there was no line-up) and exchanged $500, receiving about 460 pesos. There were Cubans selling beer (only Cristal) for 2 pesos (or $2.00), which was a little expensive (you can get one at stores for half the price).
The bus ride took 1.5 hour and once we arrived at the resort, the hotel staff was waiting for us. Catherine ran to the reception in order to get the best room and I was standing near the buss, collecting our pieces of luggage. We quickly were assigned a room (no. 510), got the wrist bands and one of the hotel employees brought our 5 pieces of luggage to our room, carrying them up the stairs (yes, we tipped him I CUC per each piece of luggage). Although it was quite late, we were still able to have dinner, which was great, as most of us were quite hungry. While inside the restaurant, we saw plenty of embraces and hugs among tourists and hotel staff/servers — indeed, some people had been coming to the Caracol regularly for many years. We met a very interesting, 88-year old gentleman (a machine gunner in the Second World War, he took part in the June 6, 1944 Normandy landing), who also had had a triple bypass surgery, an artificial knee and lung problems due to his work with asbestos. In spite of his problems, he seemed to be in a great shape and most returning tourists knew him quite well.
“How often do you come to Cuba?” I asked him.
“I only sometimes go back to CANADA for vacation — otherwise I stay in Cuba,” he replied.
We later encountered him zipping around on a rental scooter in the nearby village. ‘Nuff said!
There were 5 semi-circular sections (blocks) and we stayed in the ‘500’ block (as per TripAdvisor’s advice), which offered an ocean-view and sheltered us from the noise coming from the entertainment area. Besides, certain sections/rooms (the better ones) were only available to those tourists who bought Hola Sun packages. The room, on the upper floor, was very nice. It consisted of a ‘living room’, with a balcony facing the ocean (with two beach chairs), a sofa, armchair, small fridge and a coffee table. It was possible to slide the balcony windows wide open as well as open the other window, which faced the ‘400’ block. The bedroom had two double beds, a TV set, telephone, safe, closet and a very big, sliding window. Remote-controlled air conditioner worked very well. Since it was quite windy most of the time, we used air conditioning very sparingly, preferring to sleep with windows open. Because of the wind, there were no mosquitoes, but once it became calmer, we did see several mosquitoes in our room. There were also tiny ants (?), but almost invisible — yet when I left my empty cup, with traces of coke & rum, in a little while I saw plenty of those miniature insects swarming all over the cup. Yet they did not bother me — I would rather deal with them than some toxic insecticide.
The bathroom was spacious, with a bathtub and a hair dryer. The shower head was not working very well, but enough to take a shower. There was always hot water. There seemed to be solar panels on each unit's roof .The fridge worked, but just barely kept beverages cool and did not have a freezer. There were about 30 TV channels, including CTV from Toronto; since we did not have/watch TV in Canada, we only watched it for a few minutes at a time, mainly to check what the weather was like and if there were any new weird developments or antics concerning the intriguing mayor of Toronto, Robert Ford. Except for Nelson Mandela’s death (at whose funeral Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hand, yet this symbolic act did not result in any breakthrough in the American-Cuban relations), it was a very uneventful period of time in terms of world news.
Our room’s door was opened/closed with a magnetic card and we got a second one from the reception. Exactly one week later the cards ceased to work, even though we came for 2 weeks — we were told cards were programmed for 1 week, so we had to go to the reception to have them re-programmed.
It rained a few times (usually very briefly), once we left the window and balcony door open and some water got on our floor which became VERY SLIPPERY! Also the tiles in the bathroom, when wet, became SLIPPERY; we often spread towels on the floor to prevent tripping. The maid (Marta) did a very good job cleaning our room and every day we left her 1 peso; in addition, Catherine gave her some chic clothes that her fashion conscious daughter no longer wore and Marta passed them on to her daughter who was about celebrate her 15th birthday….a big deal in Latin American countries.
The resort was pleasant and everything was nearby. The beach was sandy, its width kept changing by a few meters due to tides — on the last night of our stay it was very windy and when we went to the beach in the morning, we could see that overnight the waves had flooded at least 2/3 of the beach, leaving plenty of seaweeds all over. A tractor raked seaweeds off the beach on a daily basis. Usually we would come to the beach at 2:00 pm and stayed till 5:00 pm. It was quite windy most of the time, yet the long reef, located several km from the shore, made a very effective protective barrier, blocking the waves and thus it was possible to swim almost every day, as the waves were not a problem at all. There were about 50 kite surfers (mainly from Quebec) and they had a blast! Some were surfing (too) close to the shore, others were barely visible, choosing to surf near the reef. The water was quite shallow, even many meters from the shore. Unfortunately, it was impossible to see anything noteworthy under the water while snorkelling off the beach and that was why we decided to take the snorkelling tour.
When the weather was really nice (sunny & calm), on a few occasions we had difficulties finding empty chairs on the beach and I ended up lying on the sand, which was not a big deal. On the first day after arrival we got two big towels from the hotel and used them on the beach all the time. We also brought two towels from Canada and had several requests for them from locals when we were leaving.
There were a number of Cubans regularly walking along the beach and striking up conversations with tourists, trying to sell carvings, necklaces, hats, shells, starfish or offer lobster dinners, buggy rides or even find good taxi drivers. One of them, George (his name had been mentioned in many reviews on TA) was quite a nice, nonintrusive fellow and we spent some time talking to him.
“Hi George, Gina sends you greetings from Canada,” I shouted to him when I saw him the first time.
He was a little surprised to hear that, but then I told him that I had contacted Gina through TripAdvisor and she had mentioned his name, asking me to say ‘hi’ from her.
Yet we did not use any of his services as we were not really interested in a lobster dinner. Catherine bought a very original necklace, a stylish crab claw, from an older beach seller called Enrique, sporting an impressive tattoo of Che Guevara, which I immediately photographed. To be generous, Catherine also bought an inexpensive black volcanic rock bracelet which she thought perhaps his daughter had sent from a Miami dollar store where she resided. Lo and behold, one of the waiters complimented Catherine extensively on the bracelet and actually went and bought one for himself. In the meantime Catherine bought another one and presented it to the waiter who happily accepted it. I wanted to buy a very creative carving that another vendor was offering, but I never saw him again. There were catamarans and pedal boats on the beach, but we never used them.
Gardeners made excellent job keeping the grounds clean; every day they raked the surroundings — and every day we could see plenty of holes, especially along the sidewalks. In Canada, I would assume that chipmunks were making those holes; in Cuba, it was purplish and orange crabs, known as Halloween Crabs, yet they were very timid and it took some time before I actually saw them — apparently they must have not only seen us approaching (they did have big eyes!), but also detected our footsteps’ vibrations and quickly retreated to their burrows.
Several times we asked the gardener to bring us coconuts for 1 peso — he peeled them with a machete and made an opening so that we could drink the coconut water and then eat the delicious pulp. Catherine and a neighbour (Larisa, living in Toronto, originally from Russia) soon had a daily 8:00 am o’clock date with this man outside our block. At one point he also supplied them with local honey, poured into a water bottle.
Next to the dining room there was a shop (tienda) where rum, coke, beer, postcards, cigarettes/cigars and various items could be purchased. Unfortunately, the store did not have my favourite Bucanero beer and only ‘generic’ cola, yet the gas station, some 1.3 km north of the resort, carried both (one peso per a can of beer and 2.70 peso for a 2 liter Coca Cola, ‘hecho en Mexico’, which had a somehow different flavour from that sold in Canada). The postcard selection at the store was OK, but they were expensive (one peso each, whereas the same postcards in Camagüey or at the airport cost from 0.35 to 0.45 peso). Near the gas station (adjacent a tall communication tower) was a post office. Twice we mailed a bunch of postcards to Canada, Europe and the USA. When five months later none arrived at its destination, I assumed they had just disappeared, but in May, 2014, they finally started reaching their recipients; Catherine’s daughter, who lives in the USA, was the final recipient some time in July, 2014. Just before the gas station there was a striking, Italian-style building. It was the “Clinica Internacional de Santa Lucia”. There was a guard sitting in front who let us wander around this building. From what we could understand, it had been built by Italians and it was supposed to be a wellness retreat/clinic — there were plenty of signs everywhere (restaurant, consultation room, spa, elevator), but the clinic had never actually opened and the building was being remodelled into a hotel.
During the whole stay, we had no more than 5 ‘free’ drinks at hotel bars — well, we did not spend any time at the bars anyway — in general, I did not like such drinks, they had too much sugar, additives and God knows what else and I did not feel good after having them. Besides, at that point, we were on a bit of a health kick, eating and drinking coconut water. We just purchased a few bottles of rum/liqueurs/juices/coke in the store and made our own drinks, but since I was not too crazy about such ‘hard’ liquors, I much preferred having a few glasses of red wine at the restaurant. Yet for those who do want to get drinks at the bars — do bring large mugs or big, sturdy glasses. The bar plastic cups were small and flimsy.
We also went to the scuba diving center and I spoke to a Canadian (most likely of Polish origin) scuba diver. He said that if you did not have a certificate (Padi), it was possible to take a crash course there for about 75 pesos and then go scuba diving, making dives, I believe, up to 10 meters. Since I was not that interested in scuba diving and would not like to invest time & money on diving courses & equipment, perhaps it would be a good way to try scuba diving. Well, I had completed an extensive scuba diving course in 1978/1979 in a club called “Wanda” and later participated in a three-week long scuba diving camp on Szeroki Ostrów Island on Lake Śniardwy, but had not been really enthralled by this activity at that time: the equipment was rudimentary, the water was cold and muddy and it was difficult to see anything of interest anyway.
Although it was possible to exchange money at the resort (and pay a small surcharge), there was a Cadeca office at the Centro Commercial Santa Lucia, just north of the Caracol. They wanted to see my passport — I showed a colour photocopy and had no problems. We went there twice and I never had to line up. There were a few other stores as well, offering beer, cola, cookies, candies, etc.
On the second night I went to the beach party as well as spent no more than 15 minutes watching a show (it was a rather pleasant rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but otherwise we were not interested in any performances, animation or bingo. Some shows were quite noisy since we could hear them in our room. On the first Saturday night after arrival we checked out the White Party on the beach in front of the Commercial Centre next door. There were lights, loud music, lots of young nationals dressed in white, occasionally dancing, and some craft vendors.
Everybody was raving about David the masseur and some people had a massage every day. We went to the gym, where he had his room. We briefly talked to him and Catherine eventually had one massage. She liked it, yet said that her outstanding Chinese masseur in Toronto was better for deep tissue which she requested. On the other hand, Dave told her that he did not want to exert too much pressure on her as not to make her too sore.
All the meals were served in one building, as well as there was one à la carte restaurant. It was possible to get, in addition to drinks, French fries and burgers in the beach bar from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm which was a small, open air wooden edifice behind block 400. We tried it once, requesting the acclaimed fish ‘n’ chips. Unfortunately, a new cook had taken over and this item was no longer available... or so the Hola Sun guide Jose told us when we ran into him there.
Breakfast was served from 7:30 to 9:30 am. I always had an omelette or three eggs, made to order by the cook, coffee, juice, yogurt, bread/buns with butter & cheese and I loved it! In the morning we also brought empty plastic bottles and asked servers to fill them with water.
Most of the time we skipped lunch, but when we did have it, it was very tasty. When you eat a large breakfast, it seems you can easily skip the buffet, knowing the beach bar is an option.
Dinner was served from 6:30 to 9:30 pm. There was always something scrumptious to pick: beef, tasty pork, tender ribs, chicken, delicious shrimps, cooked-to-order pasta/spaghetti, salads, fish… the waiter brought us red wine (average+) and cold beer. I found the vegetable salads rather disappointing and bland, there was no salad dressing (except for olive, vinegar and garlic) and I hardly ever had any (not that I really wanted to have salad anyway!). Desserts were very good, especially excellent ice cream. The servers were very pleasant, promptly bringing beer, wine and other beverages, never tried to sell us anything (as some had attempted to do in other resorts). Now and then we were able to chat a little about their private life & families and always left tips of 1 or 2 pesos.
We counted up to 13 cats in front of the dining room, patiently waiting for tourists to give them food. Some were tame and liked being petted, others did were too timid to be touched. Once they realized we had food for them, all of them followed us religiously. Apparently the felines also kept the vermin out of the hotel property — we did not see any pests. We were asked by the head waiter to feed the cats away from the main steps leading into the dining room, so like the Pied Piper of Caracol, we led them away from their perches to the less busy end of the sidewalk.
As I mentioned before, we were entitled to one à la carte dinner (but if you want more, it was probably easily doable) at a separate open air restaurant close to the beach and it had to be reserved in advance. We needed to book it with Jennifer, whose usually empty desk was beside the lobby; tracking her down was challenging, but with little persistency achievable. There were two sittings, at 7:00 pm and 8:15 pm. We had two such feasts and both consisted of Cuban cuisine (pork, salad, flan, beef, Spanish red wine). During the first one there were very few people in the restaurant and it was a very windy evening. We befriended a very nice couple from Elora, Ontario, who were sitting at the adjacent table; soon we found out that they were quite familiar with some of the places we had recently canoed & camped at Killarney Park’s Carlyle Lake. Our second meal was a little bit too salty. During the two meals the server was very attentive and courteous. In general, we enjoyed both dinners very much as it was open air.
There were about 20 bikes for rent; the first hour was free, then 1 peso per hour (although we were never asked to pay anything extra). Some bikes were not in top shape (flat tires, loose mud guards, impossible to adjust seats) and needed basic repairs & routine maintenance, but we always managed to get good ones and overall I found them quite comfortable to ride. Almost every day we spent from 1 to 3 hours bike riding, either to the north, to the village of Tararaco, or to the south, towards Camagüey. There was a gas station (plus a store) just over 1 km south of the hotel, adjacent to a very high communication tower, where it was possible to pump air. Francesca was responsible for pedal bike (and scooter) rentals and she could be usually found at her desk just outside the resort store. I never rented a scooter, but stroke up a conversation with a Canadian tourist; looking at the themes on his t-shirt, I correctly inferred that he was a seasoned motorcycle rider. Indeed, he said he had a huge Harley Davidson motorbike back in Canada and tens of years of riding experience — for him, the scooter was almost a child’s toy. Nevertheless in the previous year, while riding a scooter to La Boca, he had an accident caused by the sandy and potholed road and had to pay for the damages the scooter sustained.
There was little traffic on the roads nearby, although large, raucous and polluting trucks and tractors, quaint horse buggies or bici cabs all vied for space on the road. While bike riding, we loved exploring nearby villages and talking to Cubans. Most of the villages were quite poor, yet some houses were stylish and neatly finished. We were invited into a few of them and they had more amenities than one would have guessed. We met several very nice people and some of them spoke very good English, although we did try to practice our rusty Spanish. Catherine carried a small pocket dictionary and diligently looked up words as needed.
One of them, Braulio, a former English teacher, was just working on his new organic place/restaurant in the village of Tararaco which he was planning to open in the second half of December, 2013 (21°34'22.05"N and 77° 3'12.47"W), less than 2 km from the hotel. He also had a kiosk/booth in the same village (temporary closed since he was busy with the new restaurant), selling health products and juices. The stand was still there, with plenty of health-related information artistically written all over in both English and Spanish. We visited him several times and spent a few hours talking with him. He was a very remarkable and friendly individual, pretty knowledgeable about plants, herbs, nutrition and weight loss — he said he had cured himself of cancer when he was in his late twenties. He was even successfully helping a Canadian gentleman to lose weight with his freshly made green, alkalizing shakes that he wanted to serve in his restaurant (called “Organic Restaurant and Gardens”, www.organicocuba.com & www.facebook.com/organicocuba).
|At Braulio's booth with natural juices|
We tried his drink and it was delicious! Even though his venture had a full support of the Cuban government, he was still struggling with many bureaucratic problems, de-motivated workers, training wait staff in English and Epicurean manners as well as the endemic lack of building (and basically any other) supplies in Cuba. Like many American naturopaths, he seemed genuinely concerned about the food habits of the population... only in this case, the Cuba population who often ate the Standard American Diet (read unhealthy) and eschewed relatively plentiful and inexpensive fruits, vegetables or coconuts (which Braulio always plucked and prepared for us). One of his waiters-to-be made his first 2 peso tip by getting us two coconuts and cutting a hole in them so that we could drink the water with a straw and later eat the delicious meat. I explained to Braulio the significance of the Internet, especially such websites as TripAdvisor, where his patrons would be able to post comments about his restaurant and rate it, thus making it allowing potential customers to read those reviews and base their decision regarding visiting his restaurant on the content of such reviews. Later I found out that indeed, he managed to open the restaurant on time and according to TripAdvisor reviews, as of August, 2014, it scored impressive ratings (16 reviews, 5 out of 5 stars).
A lot of Cubans, including some hotel workers, asked us specifically for children’s clothes and towels. Another item that caught their attention was our re-usable, colourful bags, sold in Canada by almost all major stores. Although it was possible for Cubans to buy a lot of things in Cuba if they had CUCs, prices of many items were quite high in comparison to those of the same items in Canada. That was why I thought that perhaps it would not be a bad idea to give them, in lieu of pecuniary tips, quality gifts which would have been worth twice or thrice as much in Cuba. When we asked one Cuban about what people in this neighbourhood needed the most (and he happened to be relatively well-off by Cuban standards), noticeably surprised at our question, he said,
“Whatever you can give them, they will be happy to accept, most of them have nothing and they will be grateful for anything they get. You have no idea how poor many of them are, living in squalid, primitive conditions.”
Unfortunately, there is a huge (and possibly escalating) disparity between those Cubans having access to the hard currency (be it through work in the tourist sector or relatives abroad) and those subsisting on the almost worthless Moneda Nacional and earning over $10 per month. We were also told that gifts given by tourist directly to schools sometimes never reached the schoolchildren, ending up being sold by the school staff and even school principals had been fired because of such practices.
Once we stopped at a stall where, under a big tree, Cubans were selling various arts and crafts (north of the hotel, vis-à-vis El Rapido, close to the entrance to the marina from which the snorkelling catamaran departs). One of them, Oscar, a philosophically oriented man, spoke English well and we spent well over one hour chatting with him. Such personal encounters greatly enhanced my Cuban vacation and were always very memorable and enlightening.
Some Cubans who spoke English asked us if we had any magazines, newspapers, books or dictionaries in English and I happily gave them “The New York Times”, “The Globe and Mail” as well as a few recent issues of “The Economist”. When we fly Cubana, we can bring almost 50 kg of luggage per person, yet other airlines are not nearly so generous when it comes to baggage allowances.
We talked to one Cuban about the Internet and about reviews tourists post online. He said that there had been one Cuban fellow who used to cook sumptuous (lobster?) dinners for tourists, yet he did not have a proper permit for such activity. Apparently a lot of contented vacationers mentioned his name & location online; as a result, the authorities found out about his ‘restaurant’ and quickly shut it down.
None of the Cubans we met had access to the Internet and most had only very vague idea on how the Internet worked and how critical and essential it had become in our everyday life. Many Cubans we spoke to, especially those having business dealings with tourists, did not fully realize that the Internet might also have a huge impact on their businesses because of reviews posted online.
There were plenty of taxis, horse-drawn buggies and bici taxis on the hotel property or just near the road leading to the hotel. I did not know how busy they were, but each time we were leaving and coming to the resort while bike riding, we saw dozens of such vehicles idly waiting for customers. Taxi drivers wanted from 50 to 70 pesos to go to Camagüey (7 pesos less just to the airport); if hired for the whole day, it would cost about 100 pesos. Buggies charged about 20 pesos to take you to and from the village of La Boca (yet prices depended upon the number of people and whether or not they were going to have a lobster dinner there, as well as one’s negotiating skills).
OUR EXCURSIONS FROM THE RESORT
Since we had booked our vacation through Hola Sun, one of the perks we got (in addition to staying in the Hola Sun section, getting a free bottle of rum and not having to pay for the room safe) was a free trip to Rancho King (I believe it normally costs about 35 pesos per person). After a bus ride we arrived at the ranch, where we were welcomed by 5 horse-riding cowboys and then were taken to a small herb garden and given a very informative presentation on various herbs and its healing properties.
|Welcome at Ranch King|
During the ‘special period’ (‘periodo especial’) after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba faced severe shortages of everything, including medicines and thus herbal and natural remedies became quite important and widely used. “Hallelujah for that!” said Catherine. As we wondered around near the dining hall, we saw an old man hand-turning the stick on which a whole pig was mounted and it was being roasted over the open fire; some Canadian guests kindly bought him a can of cold beer for which he was grateful. Then we watched a rodeo which was my first. A few people, including Catherine, did not like it as they thought the animals were terrified for our entertainment.
Next we proceeded on foot to the nearby village, followed by a bunch of locals, reaping gifts from tourists who supplied treats and school supplies. We stopped at a Cuban house (Fidel Castro had spent a night in one of its rooms once) where we were given another illuminating presentation on the history of the ranch and demonstration on extracting water from sugar cane as well as offered coffee and fruits.
|One of the cowboys|
There was a group of American tourists, taking part in a legal ‘educational’ trips to Cuba; we briefly spoke to them and they were quite astounded at how little we paid for our vacation — theirs cost almost $5,000 for one week (per person)! A small school was located just across from the house and people were able to distribute directly to schoolchildren whatever gifts they brought. We headed back to the dining room for lunch; of course, the main dish was the roasted pig! Overall, it was an enjoyable and informative trip… and free!
The Catamaran Snorkeling Tour
It could be booked thorough a rep outside the hotel shop (in our case, it was Jose) and cost 25 pesos per person. We inquired beforehand as those tours were not always a go, depending on the number of participants and the weather. Incidentally, a several days earlier, Catherine offered to pay a hotel sports-worker to take us out on the Hobie Cat for a reef snorkel, as it was a calm afternoon, but he declined. She had the feeling that the staff had been instructed to encourage people to sign up for the tour. The bus picked us up at 10:00 am (Cuban time) in front of the hotel and after a very short drive we boarded the catamaran which was docked in the marina north of the Mayabano Hotel.
Buggy Trip to the Village of La Boca
The village of La Boca, located some 8 km north of the hotel, could be reached by a potholed, unpaved road. We thought about bike riding there, but considering potential mechanical problems with the bikes and possibility of walking back in the dark, we decided against it.
It was very sunny, so we took a shelter on the sand (read, no loungers) under a lone palm tree on the beach, sipping a still cold can of Bucanero we had brought with us and chatting with an eager guitarist, playing (fairly well, in my opinion) “The Hotel California”. We gave him a few sandwiches and bananas we had packed from the hotel for our snack as well as some soap and he truly felt happy. Another Cuban couple approached us; they looked like proselytizers and I thought they would be sharing some religious enlightenment with us and attempting to convert us to their faith, whatever it was, but they only asked us if we wanted to have a delicious lobster dinner.
|Girl in La Boca with a puppy|
There were a few de rigueur propaganda posters/graffiti in town which I eagerly photographed. La Boca also had a few casas particulares. While we were standing on the shore and observing the setting sun, our coach driver materialized and explained that we would depart ½ hour later (i.e., at 6:00 pm) with another group which was having lobster dinner at the village. Catherine was a little upset, as she suspected the buggy driver must have planned that from the outset and was afraid a Cuban half hour will turn into much longer, making US dinner for mosquitoes, plus we would be squeezed into the buggy with 2 other couples. In fact, she was ready to renegotiate the 20 CUC price. So, we waited on the rock outside the “Dinner House” — not that I minded that much, as I was still trying to take photos — and eventually the coach driver showed up and got us. We rode back with a couple from Toronto and talked with them on the way back; another buggy, full of tourists, followed us.
Three Day Trip to the City of Camagüey
It was our private trip, as it was possible to take an ‘organized’ (and pricy) trip from the hotel. There were always several taxis in front of the hotel and I had been asking them how much they wanted to get us to Camagüey — prices varied from 50 to 70 pesos. By the way, it was possible to get to Camagüey on one of the tourist buses going from the resort to the airport, but we would have to negotiate the price with the bus driver and sometimes buses could be full; besides, we would still have to get a taxi from the airport to the city center (7 pesos).
|View from the Cathedral on the main plaza|
Before leaving for Cuba, I had printed plenty of reviews & addresses of various casas particulares in Camagüey. We could not call the casas as there was no telephone number provided. We told him to drive first to Casa Particular Los Helechos. He had a difficult time finding it — Camagüey is famous for its maze-like streets — and the map was not helpful at all. When we finally found it, its owner said the casa was occupied and he did not offer any suggestions or recommendations.
“A friend of mine has a nice casa,” our driver said.
“OK, get us there,” we said, trusting in his judgement and envisioning a similar casa to the ones we had read about on TripAdvisor.
We were absolutely shocked at how decrepit everything was at that casa (which, predictably, was unoccupied-undoubtedly for a long time…). Catherine quickly used the bathroom and discovered there was not running water in the faucet. She asked the owner about the shower and learned that not only did it dribble, but we had to manipulate some wire to heat it first. The rooftop (where we anticipated to have meals and relax) was just that — a roof with no chairs, no plants. The room was dark, dingy and disgusting, its windows faced a noisy street and the shutters were on… in short, it was a terrible casa. We politely said ‘no, thank you’ and asked the taxi driver to drive to another casa that was on our list, Casa Caridad.
As of August, 2014, it was ranked number 1 of 22 casas in Camagüey in TripAdvisor [Oscar Primelles (San Esteban) 310-A Entre/ Bartolome Maso (San Fernando) Y Padre Olallo (Pobre), Camagüey70100]. As luck would have it, the proprietress of the casa (her name was Caridad) was just arriving home, so we spoke with her and she rented us a nice room. We were so happy. She told us to wait 5-10 minutes before registering us as she had to go out with her grandchildren. In the meantime, the taxi driver went out to park his cab in front of the building and unload our bags — it took some time because of the network of one-way streets. As we were waiting, a group of 4 French speaking people arrived and suddenly we were told by the proprietress’s husband that there was a misunderstanding and there was no room for us. We were, least to say, disappointed, and the taxi driver, who broke the news to us (as the casa owners did not speak English), looked frustrated, as he wanted to return home. Miraculously, before we left to look for yet another casa, the proprietress showed up, gave her husband an evil eye and said firmly that the French guests did not have a reservation, despite their claim of having such — we were here first and we would get to keep the room. By the way, the French (two couples) somehow managed to squeeze in the remaining room.
We were delighted and quickly moved into the room, knowing that possession is nine-tenths of the law (on the second thought, I did not think such law applied in Cuba — although this tenet had been successfully working for the Americans in Guantanamo for many years).
We quickly settled in the room, which had a private bathroom with a shower as well as a working air conditioning. Right away the owner offered us supper and we accepted, telling her that we would come back in the evening, as we wanted to explore this beautiful city and in no time we hit the streets and pavement.
And what streets they were! Extremely narrow, one-way, maze-like, with many dead-ends which would stump the smartest rat on the block, and with even narrower sidewalks dotted by open holes and sizable cavities, often with lamp post in the middle. Walking down those streets was an amazing experience in itself. Supposedly the streets were designed on purpose, to make the city easier to defend from raiders — or, in case the pirates did manage to enter the city, then they would have an
Oftentimes, people were sitting on the steps leading to their massive colonial-style doorways and we had to step into the street to get around them. Cars, truck, motorbikes and bikes were parked on the streets, making it very difficult for other vehicles to pass by. Most of the cars were driving very fast and emitting a lot of pollution. A couple of times I saw cars/trucks (especially when they were making turns) almost touching pedestrians or other vehicles. Nevertheless, we did not witness any accidents — only once a cop was ticketing two young girls on a motorcycle. We asked Cubans what they thought about tourists who rented cars and then drove in Camagüey. All of them said that it would be much better for visitors to just hire a taxi cab instead of driving cars themselves. While chatting with taxi drivers, I asked them how much it would cost to hire a taxi for, say, one week — would 100 pesos per day be enough? They said it would be absolutely sufficient and it would include gas as well as accommodation & meals for the driver (who could sleep at ‘Moneda Nacional’ casas particulares for Cubans).
Considering that car rental in Cuba is quite expensive (it can cost
$80 per day) — plus there are costs of gas, parking and most importantly, the
possibility of being detained for months in case of accident — I think it would
make much more sense to hire a taxi with a driver and let him worry about
getting us from point A to B!
We spent the next several hours just walking in Camagüey, exploring the torturous, narrow, zigzagging and suddenly ending streets, admiring its many impressive buildings and churches, exploring plenty of plazas & plazuelas and just sitting in a café, sipping beer or cappuccino, while observing passing people. We saw at least 4 impressive catholic churches, including the Cathedral (Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria). The map of Camagüey sold in stores was not good at all (as one Cuban said with disgust, upon seeing it, ‘muy malo’), it did not show the city center and a simple printed Google map was the best, we had one and it was very convenient (until we lost it the first day) — just keep in mind that many streets had new names (which the map shows), yet the old names were not only commonly used, but the original, pre-revolutionary street name signs, were still everywhere. Calle Maceo was turned into a pedestrian passage and we enjoyed strolling along this vibrant calle, visiting various stores.
Walking down those streets was just delightful! There were some signs showing us where we were and where to go and somehow we never got lost, even though supposedly most tourist do. We visited the Cathedral and Catherine went up the spiral stairs to its upper floors while I was exploring its interior. When we arrived at Plaza de San Camagüey. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI and the beatification ceremony took place in Camagüey, presided by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins and the President of Cuba, Raul Castro, attended the ceremony.
There were many stands selling Cuban souvenirs at the plaza and I purchased a few small gifts. We were approached by a comical and highly animated, diminutive fellow. He showed us a piece of paper with a list of various countries and signalled us to point out which country we were from. I pointed to Canada. Once it was established, he went to his other ‘file cabinet’ containing alphabetical index cards, opened the “English” file, pulled out a piece of paper and showed it to us. It contained the following information in English:
“Please excuse me one moment. I am deaf and mute. Please help me. I don’t have any thing and any work-your assistance would be very important for me. I truly hope you enjoy your stay in my country-many thanks for your time. Pedro Dita.”
Wow, what an organized guy — he certainly surpassed Toronto’s homeless & beggars in his ingenuity!
Once we managed to divest ourselves of him, another young man about 25, E., approached us, talking to us mainly in Spanish (and often incoherently). He seemed to be a little unstable and agitated, but we could not get rid of him, so we just let him accompany us. We walked with him — or rather he followed us — later visiting a very plain coffee shop, frequented by Cubans, where it was possible to buy coffee, beer, cigarettes and other drinks with Cuban pesos. We did not have any Cuban pesos (i.e., ‘Moneda Nacional’), but we quickly exchanged one ‘peso convertible’ into over 25 Cuban pesos and bought a small cup of black coffee (it was just 1 Cuban peso, or about 4 Canadian cents), beer (18 pesos) and cigarettes (about 7 pesos). Then we proceeded to the Theatre near Plaza de los Trabajadores; there was a performance by young children and the audience was made up mostly of their parents. We went to a nearby coffee shop and bought several cans of Bucanero, including one for him, but he wanted a Cuba Libre (i.e., rum & coke) — I told him to drink the beer. He said that his parents were dead as a result of ‘an accident caused by heart problems’ (whatever it meant). He kept telling us about his daughter (he was not married) that also had heart problems and was in a Havana hospital; when I was taking photos outside, he constantly bugged Catherine to give him some money. He was kind of amusing, but bothersome and we just could not shake him off — he wanted us to take him to dinner in a restaurant (i.e., intended us to pay for his dinner). We finally gave him some gifts and made it clear we were going to our casa particular and that he was not invited. Since I took several photos of him, I promised him to mail them to him, so he gave me his address. A few month ago I did mail them to him — lo and behold, he wrote me a letter!
|My favorite beer--Bucanero!|
|Kids near Casa Caridad|
“It is not fair that you can travel and I can’t,” he said, “it’s not fair that I don’t have access to the Internet, can’t read western newspapers, and can’t enjoy the freedom you can.”
I could perceive that he was really disillusioned with the way of life in Cuba. I understood him quite well. Cautiously, he added:
“But the current president of Cuba [Raul Castro] is much bolder than the previous one, in terms of making changes.”
We later wished we had hired him as a guide the next day, probably we could have learned a lot from him about Camagüey and life in Cuba in general.
Another Cuban we met, quite an intelligent and interesting gentleman, who spoke quite English quite well, was not satisfied with the political reality either.
“I have built a cocoon in which I live,” he said, “and thus I can be isolated from the events that take place around me in this country. I try to focus on reading books, talking to tourists, meditating…”
The only good thing was that the Cuban government had also realized that the system could not survive in the present form and that was why more and more changes had been introduced, Cubans were encouraged to set up businesses and become self-employed instead of relying on getting government jobs. It will be interesting to see how those changes will transform Cuban society and economy, but no matter what, it will be a long, difficult, full of obstacles and very bumpy road!
We walked to the train station (Terminal de Ferrocaril); once I entered it, I immediately had a feeling of déjà vu: plain, filthy waiting room, with built-in, solid benches, full of sleeping and sweaty people, waiting for trains that were either notoriously behind schedule or never arrived at all — how many times I myself had spent waiting for hours at similar train stations in Poland! It was a pity I did not have a camera, those photos would have been priceless. As we were leaving the station, I saw a train and it was the first train I had seen in Cuba — I think this is the only Caribbean country that had trains.
Exhausted, we went back to our casa; I drank some water (there was a fridge in our room, full of various drinks for a price — but it was cheaper to buy our own in the city), had a shower and we turned in.
We were up early in the morning and on December 1, 2013, went to the Sunday morning (9:00 am) mass in the Cathedral. Probably we were the only tourists attending the mass. Although I could hardly understand anything, the mass followed the same order as that in Canada. The only difference was with the collection: instead of passing the collection basket, all attendees stood up and approached church ushers near the altar who held collections baskets. Of course, my donation consisted of ‘real’ money, i.e., convertible pesos and I noticed that the usher was quite startled when she noticed my collection of 10 pesos.
|Parque Agramonte and the statue of Ignacio Agramonte; the Cathedral on the right|
As I went outside to take photos, suddenly I saw our deaf mute ‘friend’ from yesterday! Upon seeing me, he acted as if we had been the bestest friends for ages and almost embraced me; then he began energetically waving his hands and pointing to his mouth and tummy, hinting that he was hungry and needed to eat something.
He was so lively and the way he acted was so hilarious
that he reminded me of the famous French comedian Louis de Funès! Once he
realized that I was not too keen on giving him any alms, he quickly located
Catherine, who happened to be sitting in the coffee shop near an open window.
Standing on the other side of the window, he tried to coax her into giving him handouts
so that he could satisfy his hunger. Exasperated, Catherine offered him 5 pesos
(yeah, she had always been very generous) and pointed towards my direction,
insinuating in a sign language that he should keep quiet about this since I
could get very angry at both of them. Apparently he understood her perfectly
and immediately vanished, probably to molest other tourists. In all probability
he was indeed deaf and mute… yet I would not be surprised if suddenly he had
said “ Gracias”…
We encountered many Cubans selling fruits and vegetables (Catherine bought bananas and oranges — the vendor was more than happy to accept chewing gum, pens and other small gifts in lieu of money). We also observed a group of Cubans playing domino — it was a popular pastime in Cuba. One guy was selling apples and oranges and peeling them, Catherine bought some as well.
|Paining by Roberto Brigido Suri|
We also decided to visit a cemetery (Cementerio General de Camagüey), located not far from the city center. On the way there we dropped in to a nice restaurant called “La Tinajita”. Its name was derived from the famous clay pot, or ‘tinajón’, used to capture rain water to be used later, keeping it fresh. The ‘tinajón’ is the symbol of the city and we encountered them everywhere, some very small, others big enough to hold a few adults. It is said that if you drink water from a girl’s personal tinajón, you will fall in love with the girl and never leave her. The restaurant server pointed to one old tinajón inside — according to an engraved inscription, it was made in 1838. In fact, later I purchased a few small tinajóns as souvenirs. We had a couple of cold beers and continued walking to the cemetery.
|Salvador Cisneros Betancourt|
The tombstones at the cemetery were mainly white, some quite old and distinct, apparently holding prominent individuals from the pre-revolutionary period. We saw a couple who were solemnly standing for some time in front of one of the tombstones and then slowly left the cemetery. Most likely it was their son’s grave; according to the inscription, he died at the age of 26. We spent almost one hour there, admiring amazing statutes, crypts and mausoleums. One of the graves drew my attention as it must have belonged to a very distinguished citizen of Camagüey. Its inscription (in Spanish) read: “El Ayuntamiento de Camagüey. Al Gran Ciudadano Salvador Cisneros Betancourt. Nacio 10 de Febrero de 1828. † 28 de Febrero 1914.” (The City of Camagüey. To Grand Citizen Salvador Cisneros Betancourt. Born on February 10, 1828. Died on February 28, 1914). Only after several months I found out that during the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), during which sugar mill owner Carlos Manuel de Cespedes and his followers proclaimed Cuba’s independence from Spain, Salvador Cisneros Betancourt was President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms from 1873 to 1875.
While exploring Camagüey, we spotted plenty of casas particulares (they were easily identifiable by a distinct sign attached to the building) — in fact, there were 4 casas just 200 meters from the casa we were staying in. We visited a couple of them and the owners graciously showed us around, in the event we wanted to stay at them in the future. All were appealing, some probably even nicer than ours. Yet
one was just outstanding: located in an old, colonial
building facing a busy plaza in the heart of the city, it offered an amazing
salon, two private rooms for guests, a shared bathroom and an exceptional
roof-top terrace, from which it was possible to observe the city traffic,
sunsets, and a great view of the city, as well as have meals there. We were so
enthralled with it that we seriously thought about coming back to Camagüey and
staying there for a few days. The co-owner of this casa was a German woman, fluent in English, married to a Cuban.
|View from a casa|
Our casa owner wanted to serve us breakfast, lunch and dinner/supper — we only opted for the dinner — after all, three meals per day were too much for us; besides, we wanted to eat out in town, which also gave us an opportunity to mingle with Cubans. We spent two nights in the casa and the total bill, including the two dinners, came to 102 pesos. The casa proprietress said that her son had a taxi and he could take us back to the hotel for 50 pesos — he had a relatively new car (at that time it
was impossible for average Cubans to legally buy a new
car — his was a second-hand, previously used as a rental vehicle), spoke
English and we had a very nice and pleasant drive. Along the way he gave a lift
to a uniformed Cuban cop; I hoped to strike up a conversation with him, but he
did not speak English and probably preferred not to speak to tourists.
|The 'famous' Polish Fiat 126p!|
While we were waiting for the bus to take us to the airport on the last day of our vacation, one guy brought (yes, he actually carried it himself!) a fridge from his room and ostentatiously placed it on the reception counter in the lobby. It turned
out he had had many problems with his room;
among other things, the fridge did not work and although he had reported this
fact a couple of times, nothing was done about it. So, finally he decided to
take (literally) matters into his hands and dragged the fridge to the reception
desk! Supposedly the hotel called security on him… Since we were leaving, I had
no idea what was the outcome, but I could certainly sympathize with him! Again…
|Better to die on your feet rather than live kneeling!|
Our plane was departing in the evening and we were supposed to check out at 12:00 pm, yet the maid let us stay longer (after all, the maids cleaned the rooms until about 3 pm). The hotel bus took us to the airport a few hours earlier. While I joined a line to the ticket counter, Catherine was getting the suitcases; Larisa’s husband Alex helped her out. Unfortunately, I picked the worst, slowest line: all the tourists who joined other lines long after us were processed and we were still waiting. Nevertheless, we got quite good seats at the very back of the plane.
The airport at Camagüey had a well-stocked duty-free store (not that there are any duties or taxes in Cuba anyway) where we made our final purchases of alcohol and tobacco. Other stores at the airport had a good selection of gifts and postcards at surprisingly low prices. I used my credit card just once to make a purchase and had no problem, but some people did — most likely they had failed to notify their credit card company about their trip to Cuba.
I was glad we decided to spend, for the first time, 2 weeks in Cuba — it gave us ample time to explore Santa Lucia & La Boca, visit Camagüey and relax on the beach.It was our sixth trip to Cuba in 5 years (since 2009) and undoubtedly one of the best — not that we had had a bad one, all of them were very good! We loved the hotel, food, staff, beach and the overall atmosphere. The excursions allowed us to experience, at least partly, the real Cuba and meet plenty of very remarkable and kind Cuban people. Although hitherto we have never gone to the same resort more than once, we are considering returning to the Caracol next year and re-visiting villages of Tararaco & La Boca and spending several days in the city of Camagüey.
Blog po polsku/in Polish: http://ontario-nature-polish.blogspot.ca/2014/09/camaguey-cuba-w-hotelu-club-amigo.html
More photos from this trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jack_1962/sets/72157647698353620/