Guantanamo, Santiago and Bayamo

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Sun 15 May 2011 19:58
Driving out of Baracoa, as throughout our travels so far, meant running the gauntlet of local hitchhikers and road-side sellers. Lines of people holding up fruit of all descriptions - pineapples, mangoes, plantains, bananas, naming just a few, as well as Cuban chocolate (an acquired taste -very unrefined) and small slabs of peanut brittle, in fact anything else that may induce tourists to slam the brakes on and buy something.  Once out of town the opportunistic sellers thinned out but re-appeared in the small villages, as did the hitchhikers although at any time anywhere somebody would hurl themselves out of the shade of a tree and almost into the path of oncoming vehicles. Their frantic waving at whatever was coming was their only chance of getting them a few miles further along the road.
The drive southwards was through beautiful mountain roads akin to tropical rain forest, with glimpses of the coast when we were not forced inland by the terrain. The roads were sheer luxury after the battering we had given the car on the way to Baracoa with just the odd easily seen pothole to negotiate. There was little other traffic to worry us. It's easy to see how Castro and his revolutionaries managed to evade capture during their campaign as you could hide huge armies in the mountains of Cuba.
Travelling south the landscape became gradually more arid, with rainfall obviously in short supply. The palms were replaced by scrub as we finally viewed the turquoise Caribbean Sea on the coastal road to Guantanamo Bay, where the USA retains an infamous presence with its foreign detainees from lands to the east. It wasn't always this way, in fact the USA used their 'leased' land at Guantanamo Bay to hold thousands of Cubans that had illegally entered the USA some years ago when relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom. The Cubans see this area as an illegally occupied part of their country. But, there appears to be a status quo and perhaps the future will produce better relations between the two nations as Cuban history is so inextricably linked to the USA over hundreds of years. There used to be a place to view the American part of the bay but this is no longer open.  No sign of their activities was apparent apart from an increased military presence of Cuban forces and some large signs with revolutionary slogans which would never be seen by the Americans in any case as they never have access outside of their sector.  And of the famous song 'Guantanamera' sung by many popular recording artists and heard just about every night everywhere in towns and cities across Cuba and beyond - well it's about a girl from the Guantanamo area of course.
We stopped briefly to look round before moving on to Santiago da Cuba where we planned to stay for one night. Santiago is Cuba's second largest city and situated on the south coast at the south-eastern end of Cuba. Driving round Santiago proved challenging and again tension between navigator and driver was heightened. We decided against staying at a Casa Particular when we came upon an interesting Bijou hostel which was also recommended in the guide book. Before we could even get out of the car to enquire at reception a face appeared at the drivers window and a man named Rudolph introduced himself. Firstly he knew of a Casa Particular we could stay at (and which he was acting as an agent for) stating the hotel was full, however as Phil exited the car to find out for himself Rudolph explained that perhaps there might be a hostel room available after all!
There was indeed one room left complete with minibar and satellite TV at 45 CUCs per night but with no window - thus the price, but it did have a mini-bar.  We took the room and agreed for Rudolph to guard the Geeley for 2 CUCs per night which is the going rate for car guardianage in Cuba. In the big cities cars can disappear never to be seen again so it pays to have overnight supervision. Rudolph also asked Phil for a spare 't' shirt as we unloaded the bags from the car. Phil pointed out that Rudolph's shirt was in better condition than Phil's so 'No'! The next morning he asked for Phil's Casio watch which allegedly have luxury status in Cuba. (We don't actually have that many shirts and only two watches onboard with complete straps!)
There being no restaurant in the hostel they kindly directed us to a Paladar a few blocks away which had one elderly diner in evidence but the tables were laid for a party of 26 due in one hour the restaurant staff explained. We said if they could serve us quickly then we could clear through easily in that time scale. So a fish dish for the 'Admiral' and a rare treat of stewed lamb for Phil with a bottle of wine to wash it all down was ordered. As the 26 guests arrived very early they were kept at bay on the doorstep and given menus to read.  At 8.20 the staff could not stall them any longer and our plates were almost snatched off the table (with a pleading smile from the waitress) and we duly finished our wine standing outside the restaurant in the bustling side street!
Being Easter there was plenty going on in Santiago and we wondered into the park to watch a jazz band perform watched by hundreds of people. Many children were being pulled round between the crowds in hired ancient toy cars and trucks. Elsewhere donkeys were pulling little carts with children seated inside and the whole event was enveloped in a happy holiday atmosphere except for the one little boy who remonstrated with Phil having realised he had been photographed watching the band! (We erased that picture out of respect). Later we retired to the Hostel (no sign of Rudolph guarding the cars) and watched some baseball on TV whilst raiding the contents of the mini-bar before falling asleep.
The next day after yet another trip to the bank (plastic is just not used here) we paid the bill. The numerous empty miniatures from the nights refreshments for addition being tossed onto the reception table in an off hand way by the maid! We again refused Rudolph's invitation to re-home Phil's Casio and we headed off to Bayamo via a garage to refuel the car. We had another long drive ahead and running out of fuel didn't seem sensible. The first garage wouldn't serve us for some reason we couldn't understand so on to another close-by. That one was receiving a fuel delivery and indicated a wait of 45 minutes so on to another where we were 'scammed' as we had to state how much fuel we needed and pay upfront before being served. That part was understandable probably due to the number of people that would 'do a runner' after taking on their fuel. However in our case Phil overestimated the amount we required and despite fuel sloshing out of the filler we were still 10 litres light on estimate at which time the attendant said he couldn't refund the difference. After protests some money was returned but definitely not all.
We had decided to head back to the boat that day rather than stay in Bayamo.  We did stop and walked round the central area in the midday sun where Phil bought a strange pizza-like bread from a street seller which was deep fried. It was advertised as being with 'carne' (meat) but after eating almost the whole piece there nestling in the corner of the pastry was a tiny scrap of meat which would have easily escaped detection by the taste-bud department if it had not been spotted beforehand. Sitting in the main square we were accosted yet again by somebody persistently asking for money. To escape his attentions we wondered off and bought some interesting looking cake to take back with us. We also searched high and low for locally made ice-cream which we eventually found by the roadside some way out of town. Despite jamming on the brakes as we passed the small stall we pulled up 50 metres further along the road. By the time Phil had sprinted back to the car in the searing heat of the afternoon the small cones had a river of strawberry and vanilla cream running southwards - but they were very tasty if eaten rather quickly.
We arrived back at Marina da Vita tired from our travels but pleased we had made the effort to drive over 1000 kms over the 6 days. We returned a day early so that we could tour the local vegetable stalls to buy provisions for our next voyage to Varadero.