Living like Kings

Trip Start May 11, 2011
Trip End May 23, 2011

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Monday, May 16, 2011

Back in Santiago (this time with Dave) we headed to the historic centre where I ran into a taxi driver who I had previously used and had a 1930 ford. Yes that's the right year. The age and condition of the cars on the road throughout Cuba are incredible and even more like a vintage car fair than I was expecting.

The public transport system involves either massive old farm trucks where the locals line the back tray like cattle or semi-trailers converted into mammoth buses. The cars on the road are mostly american cars from 1930-1950 or Russian cars from 1950-1970. You see the occasional newer car (usually a government car or official tourist taxi).

We organised for the taxi driver to take us to Bacanao the next door and that afternoon he took us out to a colonial castle and pirate museum at the mouth of Santiago Harbour. It was great and a very decent castle fort. On the way out we bought some of the world's best rum and cigars for super cheap and headed back to the hotel in our 1930 taxi and swan in the pool, smoked a cigar, drank the rum, had some locals beers and devoured some utterly delicious 25c mangoes, over a fantastic Cuban sunset and bantered drunkenly for the rest of the night.

I have never been a massive fan of mangoes but here they are everywhere and utterly delicious. I’m told the abundant pineapples (I hate pineapples) are just as good. Plus the pork (by far the most popular meat) is delicious and the seafood is amazing. However, the most common meals are pork or chicken with rice, beans and a salad of tomato, cucumber and cabbage.

The ration shops you hear about are entirely mythical and the only form of rationing that exists in Cuba are the government bulk food stores that sell rice, beans, oil, salt and sugar for virtually nothing to the locals. It’s because of some of these super cheap essential commodities that the locals get by on what sound like tiny monthly salaries (somewhere between $15 and $200). Any privately owned business (restaurants, casa particulares, taxis or shops) are subjected to high taxes (not sure how it is enforced) so they aren’t particularly abundant, except in some strong tourist areas.

The next day our newly employed driver picked us up after breakfast and we headed to Bacanao. The drive had various roadside sculptures and the scenery couldn’t seem to make up its mind as it varied from open grassy plains to tropical green forests to dry barren fields. We followed the coast where the immensely blue sea looked incredibly inviting and the plain, dusty, poorly maintained and deserted hotels and theme parks looked depressingly dull. Our driver took us to the main attraction, a massive lagoon, where we paid a peso each to look at the saddest looking cages of crocodiles you can possibly imagine. Such poor conditions!

Afterwards we agreed to a lagoon tour, but had to wait twenty minutes while they repaired the fifty year old boat engine, which spewed enough fumes during that twenty minutes to counteract the good intentions of a dozen Toyota Prius drivers over the course of a year. It was a large lagoon, more like a lake, and we were surprised when we were shown the connection to the ocean which was a tiny little inlet that even our small boat couldn’t have made it down. The boat driver proudly pointed out the small brown pelicans, which were about half the size of their Australian cousins. In the lagoon there was surprisingly a small colony of a half dozen dolphins and we were lucky to see a couple of them. The lagoon was surrounded by some small, relatively dry mountains and an old floating bar had been left to wreck on the shore and become a rusting, partially submerged hulk.

After we hit the shore again I asked our driver to take us to the best beach along the coast. We pulled up at a small beach where salsa music pumped across the sand from a nearby bar. We swam in the warm crystal water, ate $1 pizzas from a guy roaming the beach and drank coconut milk from chilled coconuts. It was a great little refresher.
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