We arrived in Camaguey at the Viazul bus station. Here we were accosted by a bunch of Cubans trying to get us to book with them to our next destination. Alice pushed through to go check for tickets for the bus while I tried to figure out with the locals how much their collectivo would be.
Alice returned with no tickets (shocker they were sold out) and only a “you can wait here for 11 hours and if someone doesn’t come for the 9pm bus, you might be able to take the seat”.
We spoke with the Cubans who said they had a car going in 5 minutes to Santiago De Cuba and the price wasn’t too bad. Two hours later we were still mucking about and arguing with the bus station hustler middle men. Alice had been used as a translator/sales rep going between French/Spanish/English because the hustlers weren’t allowed into the actual bus station. Two other travellers who were meant to be sharing this collectivo, Lou (French) and Peter (Swiss German), had been waiting just as long as us. It turned out that they actually didn’t have a car themselves, and kept promising one was “just 10 minutes away, he had to get fuel/ go to the bank/kiss his mother”. The price kept going up, the tempers were rising and this resulted in pretty much a three hour shouting match, we had a 12 hour journey ahead and we hadn’t even left he bus station. Even I joined in yelling in Spanglish, it was liberating! Finally we were put into a car, the price negotiated to somewhat higher than the original but we were off!
Of course we stopped within five minutes to get fuel, we all cracked up laughing as this is typical cuba, he obviously hadn’t taken so long to come to the bus station because of fuelling after all.
About a kilometre after the fuel station we pulled over again and within a minute one of the bus station hustlers appeared in a car behind us, not cool. We all charged out of the car and started asking questions. Turned out he just wanted us to change cars (the current driver didn’t seem too keen on driving all the way to Santiago De Cuba) so we asumes they just took us for a little ride to stop all the yelling! By this point we all burst out laughing again (almost in tears) and finally got on our way. Delirious and tired is an understatement.
After a long, uneventful car ride later we arrived in Santiago De Cuba at Casa Yoyi. During the trip we have started to notice bits and pieces of propoganda popping up, mostly billboard and signs promoting the Castro’s and sayings lovely things such as “Socialism or die”. The propaganda got more frequent the further east we went.
We were greeted by one of the most wonderfully sweet ladies we had met. Yoyi gave us some drinks and got us all sorted out into our room. Half way through greeting us she pardoned herself as she apparently had to call Carrie back (our last casa host/Mum from Trinidad) and let her know we had arrived safely. Apparently Carrie had been calling after us to make sure we were ok which was so sweet! This melted our hearts, we had fallen into a Cuban family circle and felt so cared for.
We went out and got some pizza for dinner before catching up on some snoozes.
We woke up the next day and as soon as we walked into the casa, Yoyi greeted us with “ Good morning my babies! How did you sleep! Here is some coffee!” and some of the biggest hugs and double cheek kisses we had ever had. Yoyi offered to go to the bus station for us, as sometimes it is easier for locals to buy the tickets rather than tourists. Yoyi also organised our next casa and collectivo to Baracoa. We felt spoilt, but Yoyi found a lot of joy in being able to help us, so we let her.
We spent the day walking around the magnificent cobblestone streets of Santiago De Cuba. We also visited the cemetery where José Marti (one of Cubas first famous revolutionary) was buried. He wa made famous through his writing as a poet and his political activity, José became a symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence from spain. He planned an uprising in Cuba and died (apparently as he would have wanted) as he rode into a battlefield completely unprotected and untrained in combat. We also saw the graves of Don Bacardi and his family, Tomas Maceo (Cuba’s first president) and also of course, Fidel Castro, among many others that were laid to rest. I found it very odd visiting people’s graves and we were asked when we paid our entrance fee (to a cemetery!) who we wanted to see, like it was a show. It was all a bit odd but like most of Cuba it was very restricted and monitored. People were having their photo taken in front of Fidel’s grave (which was an extremely modest bolder) and one woman got told off for posing inappropriately. Why bother taking a photo of yourself in front of a grave in the first place?!
Soldiers Parade Every Hour @ Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, de Santiago de Cuba
Santiago De Cuba has a very colourful history. Don Bacardí opened his first-ever rum factory here, Fidel Castro launched his revolution (which is still seen with bullet holes in the old barracks where Fidel and his men opened fire on Batista’s soldiers) and nearly every Cuban music genre was created on the rhythmic Caribbean streets of Santiago.
A wonderful piece of advice we wished we had known is if you only have one full day to explore a city, make sure it’s not a Sunday. We couldn’t get a map because the tourist information was closed, which was fine really because all of the museums and interesting things to go into were also closed. We settled for a good wander around a beautiful city admiring the buildings and colourful culture in the streets.
Music On Every Corner @ Santiago de Cuba
Old Man And A Car @ Santiago de Cuba
View Overlooking Céspedes Park @ Santiago de Cuba
After exploring the magic of Santiago, we headed back and caught up with Yoyi who spoke to us a little about the history of Cuba. It was really interesting because it felt like politics and people’s opinions on the government was a little taboo but of course Alice asked and Yoyi was happy to talk about it.
In 1990 the Soviet Union dissolved all ties with Cuba, for reasons Cubans to this day struggle to comprehend. The Soviet Union was Cuba’s main/only source of income and import. When this happened, Fidel Castro declared that Cuba had entered a “Special Period”. Cubans of all social and economic heights all became equal. The country went through 3-4 years of absolute poverty where Cuba as a country lost a third of its body weight.
Fidel eventually opened up Cuba slightly to allow exiled family members living in the States to send money to their families. This became a third of the countries revenue/income.
As Cubans were not permitted freedom of travel, they would try to flee the country or break through other countries embassy gates to seek refuge. Fidel opened “the gates” so to speak and let Cubans board American boats to immigrate to America. Fidel also put all the prisoners and mentally unwell people on these boats and sent them to America. It is believed that he hoped America would close the immigration options to Cuban refugees, and he would also be free of some of the criminals from his prisons.
Eventually Cuba started opening up for tourism. This was around 2000-2003. Yoyi told us that in order to have a room for rent, you must pay the government $200CUC per month per room, plus a monthly 10% of the room’s “potential” income. This was regardless of whether or not they had anyone stay in the room. Then, they had to pay another 10% annually on each room. Now it has decreased to $50CUC/room/month plus 10% overall per month plus another 10% annually. The average wage in Money National still wouldn’t come close to comparing with an income from tourism. So when guests eat meals in the casas, it really helps the overall income for the hosts.
Yoyi was in Russia when Cuba and Soviet Union’s relationships dissolved. She said that no one really knows why. The following few years were awful, that aside from the food shortages there was also no electricity. She lost her job as as a University Russian lecturer as Cuba had stopped teaching Russian. Instead, the Cuban government decided that if you taught Russian and where over 35, you must learn another language. If you were under 35 you could retrain as anything. Yoyi learnt English which she said was very difficult for her, she ended up teaching Spanish to foreigners which she enjoyed but eventually stopped work for health reasons to run a casa (which has turned out to be more work than anticipated).
Colourful Santiago Streets @ Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is definitely the city of over friendly bold men and we couldn’t go 5m without someone shouting something at us. “Piropos” as they are known to the locals were particularly frustrating as two females. The whistling, kissing noises and even hissing was really annoying. We talked to other travelers and it literally does not happen if there is a male in the group. It was really tiring and by far the worst place in Cuba for it. Santiago is also well known for its overzealous “Jinteros” or touts. They try to sell you everything from cigars and tours to meals in private restaurants and girls, yes literally “chicas”. We saw a few old shady Russians with some local chicas that they had definitely “rented”. The touts are relentless and the men on the streets making hissing and kissing noises are worse. It doesn’t matter what you wear or how you behave, they will continue to offer their skills and services to be your new Cuban boyfriend. Gracias pero no gracias.
Drying Denim @ Santiago de Cuba