In Puerto da Vita - Cuba
We are into our third week in Cuba. It's been a fascinating experience so far and very different from the Bahamas in every possible way. After the clearing-in process we took a taxi to a hotel a few miles away to change some money and book a car for 7 days.
There are two Cuban currencies - the Peso and the Cuban Convertible (CUC). This is so that the essentials of living such as vegetables, bread, eggs etc can be purchased inexpensively by the poorer Cubans whereas any luxuries would be purchased using CUCs. Tourists use the CUC although there is nothing to stop us exchanging CUCs into Pesos at a rate of 24 Pesos to 1 CUC. It sounds complicated but generally its easy to get to grips with and the system works OK. That said it would be futile for any tourists to change to much into Pesos as you cant buy alcohol, eat at restaurants or take tours using the old currency although locally made ice-cream is very tasty and cheap enough for a large tub. So we changed 10 CUCs into 124 Cuban Pesos and promptly left them all on the boat when we set off in the car!
We booked a Chinese made Geeley with 11,000 Kms on the clock and still looking in surprisingly good condition. The front end seems to be a Mercedes rip-off but there the similarity ends although after a 7 day hire period we were mildly impressed as we would have given a Saracen armoured car a good run for its money over the terrain in the northern roads. It did have air-con although come the middle of the day it clearly had trouble keeping the temperature inside the car cool. Park up for a while and the car could have doubled as a large mobile oven. We arranged for somebody from the car hire company to pick up Phil from the marina the following morning and take him to collect the car from the hotel. He even managed to find his way back with the car after the briefing from the car hire company, Gaviota, which is run by the Government (Military of course). Signing the Visa slip for the 311 CUCs in case of mishap focussed the mind considerably on returning the car in the same condition.
We spent day one in the general area of the Marina, visiting the town of Holguin some 50 Kms away before getting hopelessly lost taking a circular route out of the city towards a national park on the coast. Our first experience of driving in Cuba taught us that a) Every street has a name in every city but the name plates have long been either removed or are so faded as to be unreadable, b) There is hardly any traffic to worry about but plenty of animals which have sacred right of way, c) People will always be willing to show you the way but your Spanish had better be good and d) Hitch-hiking is a national right. You are expected to give lifts and certain types of vehicles (but not tourist cars) MUST stop to give lifts to those standing by the roadside.
We clocked 135 kms on day one and managed to find our way back to the Marina by some minor miracle and even more miraculous still with an engine sump with any oil in it. To say the roads were rough is to pronounce the Pope as being mildly Catholic. There were potholes in the potholes and with a road map that flattered to deceive we found the going extremely tough. On one stretch we took what we thought was the correct 'road' only to find some 15 kms later that the road ended in some sort of unused industrial site. Making our way back we stopped to ask a local farmer on horseback who told us the correct way in his fast Spanish whilst his horse studied Phil from a few inches away through the open car window. We eventually arrived at the park 20 minutes before closing time. The guards were reluctant to allow us access until we explained that we just wanted to see the view of the coast and would be gone again, they relented.
The following day we loaded the car with a couple of overnight bags, snorkel gear (for the deeper water-filled potholes), sat phone and plenty of drinking water in case we became lost (again). After much debate on our previous days experience over the rough terrain we decided to risk the northern route around the eastern end of Cuba to see Baracoa which friends had described as being very challenging. They had also hired a Geeley but they were four-up so we felt that with just two of us it wouldn't be so bad. It certainly wasn't so bad as the previous day - it was a lot worse and we knew we had about 250 kms over such roads with an overnight stop at Cayo Saetia, a small beautiful island in the Bay of Nipe.
Being another national park we were confident the road onto the island would be kept up as well as the circular road around the island. They weren't and we suffered another 20km ride over horrendous terrain before arriving at the park gates. The island is a nature reserve with some exotic African animals that could be observed using safari jeeps booked from the hotel come lodge which was perhaps modelled on Treetops that famous location in Kenya. Although here the only animal 'visiting' the lodge area was an Ostrich which had wondered in through a gate that had been left open. We weren't sure but it may have been us. We enjoyed the spectacle of one of the wardens chasing the large bird around the grounds before ejecting it through the gate once more.
We turned down the offer of the next mornings safari. We had already spent long enough bouncing around on rough tracks so enjoyed a pleasant evening in the restaurant watched over by various stuffed animal heads with presumably their original tails also stuffed and mounted alongside them on small wooden plaques together with various hoof parts. It was a pleasant stop but we were not relishing the prospect of the drive back to the 'main' road the next morning to continue the tour towards Baracoa via Moa, an infamous place known for its nickel production. But we were keen to get to Baracoa so were on the road early the following morning with aching backs rested ready for a new onslaught.
To be continued...