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Three City Bus Trip - Day One

Tuesday morning was the first day of our bus trip to the south coast.  We had to catch the bus at 8:50am which left from a resort in Varadero.  Debbie had arranged for a larger taxi to bring us down to the resort but, for some reason, they didn’t show up.  We walked out to the road and were able to flag down two passing taxis.  We arrived at the resort 5 minutes before the bus. 

The bus was comfortable and air-conditioned.  Every seat was full.  There were 28 tourists, the tour guide and bus driver.  Something we hadn’t thought about was what language the tour guide would use.  Fortunately for us, the entire tour was in English.  Most of the tourists were northern European (Scandinavia, Poland, etc) or Canadian.  We were the only Americans.   

Our tour guide was Xavier (pronounced very differently in Cuba.  He told us, “Sounds like have-a-beer”).  He was about 35 and spoke excellent English with just a slight accent.

Like the majority of things in Cuba, the tour busses are owned by the government and the workers are government employees.  So, you have to listen to the history (especially post 1959 revolution) with some skepticism. 

First city was Cienfuegos on the south coast about 3 hours from Varadero.  We did stop at least once along the way for snacks and “make pee-pee” as Xavier called it.  We had views of rolling hills and flat farm-land along with way. 

There were many huge sugarcane fields along the country roads.  At one time, Cuba was the second largest sugar producing country in the world.  This was mostly because of Russian support – they purchased the sugar at fixed prices to help support the Cuban economy.  In 1998, when Russia came apart, they stopped buying sugar from Cuba.  The number of sugar factories in Cuba fell from 170 to 50 in one year.  The Cuban economy was in very bad shape with very high unemployment.  They eventually redirected many of the workers to other areas including tourism.  The remaining sugarcane fields are for local consumption.

Here is a sugarcane field after it has been harvested

Cienfuegos is an old city with a great harbor.  It is (was?) the center of Cuba’s trade and finance.  The bus dropped us off at the old square downtown.  There was an old church nearby with a high (60’?) tower you could walk up.  The church was being refurbished but the floors and walls were beautiful marble.  I had never seen marble on walls.  It was probably several 100 years old but looked new and shiny. Click HERE for a video Laura took from the top of the tower shown below.  I didn't go up that high....

Here is the church that was being renovated.  Notice the tower in the left corner?  That is where we walked up for pictures of the city.

I was a little shaky walking up the old circular stairway to the top of the tower (fear of heights) but the view was worth it.  The harbor is huge and offers 360 degree protection for all size vessels.  We took some great pictures than walked around the square before leaving on the bus about an hour later.

The bus then drove us to Trinidad which is the oldest city in Cuba.  Trinidad was founded in 1515. For comparison, the oldest city in the United States is St. Augustine, Florida which was founded in 1565.

This is what the streets look like in Old Trinidad.  We walked up the church tower on the right for pictures.  On the left, near the brown door, is a school house.  Click HERE to watch the scenic video I took from the top of the church in Trinidad.

The bus dropped us off and we toured the old part of the city in Trinidad by foot.  Our tour guide took us to several historic places including the square where the city charter was signed in 1515.  We had problems walking down the cobblestone streets and I wondered how the horses would keep their footing.  We eventually ended up at the main square in town.  A huge stairway left from the square to a large house where the “richest man” used to live.  He built the stairs with slave labor.  The stairs were eventually used as the largest slave market in Trinidad. 

Here I sit on the steps that used to be where slaves were auctioned for mostly sugarcane workers.

Laura walked a short distance to an open-air bar and bought us two Cuba-Libres for $2.50 (total).  We sat on the stairs for a while, sipping our rum and coke while thinking about all the men, women and children who had their fates decided there.

This was a little square in Trinidad just down from the school.  I like this picture a lot with the horse-buggy in the background and lots of people around.

Trinidad seemed like the real, historic Cuba with narrow cobblestone street, lots of live music playing, many street vendors selling touristy things and many small shops.  But, I couldn’t help thinking that there were 100s (1,000s?) of tourists here by bus and maybe this was a show for all of us.

Trinidad was billed as the warmest city in Cuba (it was high-70s there in January) and now we were going to the coldest place in Cuba - Topes de Callantes – a nature reserve park in the Escambray mountains.  This is one of the highest mountains in Cuba at almost 2,600 feet.  It also is known for the coldest temperature ever recorded in Cuba – 33 degrees F. 

Almost immediately after leaving Trinidad, the bus started climbing.  A short while later, the driver stopped and told us he had to turn off the air-conditioning for a little while because it would overload the engine.  The roads from that point were very steep.

After an hour or more of steep roads we arrived at our overnight lodging.  Every couple on the bus had their own bungalow which we were assigned after our passports were recorded at the front desk.  We walked down a very steep hill to our bungalow, unlocked the door and walked in.  It is funny how your expectations change when traveling a 3rd world country.  The décor was Spartan to say the least and you would not have accepted a place like this anywhere in the U.S.  But, it had a toilet seat, toilet paper and the toilet flushed.  3 for 3!  The bed was very hard with the matress and box spring sitting on the floor.  There were two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and small pallor with a TV.  It was pretty good by Cuban standards.

This was our bungalow bedroom.  Spartan but clean.  A nice touch was our towels folded as swans...

We looked around a little then headed back up the steep hill to the restaurant behind the reception area.  There was a buffet of salads and different meats, veggies and pasta.  All the food was excellent and we tasted many of the dishes.  One drink was included but the bar was a short walk away.  D, Don and Bruce sat with us for dinner and we talked about everything we’d seen in just one day.

After dinner Don and I sat at the bar for a couple drinks.  We were the only ones here until a fairly drunk tourist came over and sat next to us.  Eventually, we figured out he was born in Poland but lived in Switzerland.  He asked us if we spoke several languages but it turned out we had no language in common.  We sputtered along with the little French I know and a few words of Spanish.  He didn’t seem to mind as he had several conversations (which we couldn’t understand) in Polish (I think).  At one point I remembered that a couple different languages are spoken in Switzerland.  I asked him, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?”  His whole face lit up and he answered, “Qui!”.  We laughed like crazy because he had answered me in French.  That was the highlight of my evening (It was funnier after three Cuba-Libres….)

I did not sleep well that night as something I ate did not agree with me so I spent most of the night on the toilet. 

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