San Jose, Costa Rica. I was up at 1.45am.
I had asked the hotel to book a taxi for 2am. Turns out they didn’t bother. Typical. But there happened to be a guy hanging around and he took me.
I’m flying business class. As that was the only ticket I could buy yesterday. How exciting!
Being 2.30am, there was no queue through scanning. But also no shops open. So 2 hours to sit and wait by the gate. At least it was nice and quiet, we are the first flight of the day, at 4.30am, and there isn’t another until 5.30am.
So an unplanned trip to Panama.
For 40 minutes.
I was here a couple of years ago, so I’m fine with not staying longer! We had amazing views over the city. Could see one of the locks of the canal. And all the crazy tall buildings of the city – completely unlike any other Central American country. Memories.
The next gate was about 30 seconds away. And as we had landed early, I had an hour until the next plane departed. This one was much bigger. I had a huge seat, which almost turned into a bed. I’m such a business class newbie, it was all so exciting. But the food was disappointing. I was given a bread roll. Seriously?! This is meant to be business class.
We landed on time, at 11am. Immediately stepping off the plane, was the smell of tobacco in the air. The airport was old. I was first in line at immigration. And it was so easy. He didn’t want to see any of the papers I had filled out on the plane. He just wanted the visa piece of paper (which I had bought in London after much palavering about with postal orders and a 2 hour queue). And that’s it. He even said ‘welcome to cuba’. How nice. That took a grand total of 5 minutes from plane to luggage area.
Then a 1 hour wait for my bag. I even had a priority sticker on it. Made no difference. Not impressed. And I have no phone data.
Next up. A 30 minute queue for money exchange. I don’t have that much cash on me. Only £180. In hindsight, a bit stupid. Although at the time, I hadn’t anticipated an expensive taxi ride to meet up with my group.
So that’s the next task. I was supposed to join a group tour in Havana on Sunday evening. It’s now Tuesday morning and the group are in Vinales. A 2.5 hour drive from the airport. I had tried to book a taxi online. But it clearly didn’t work, as no one was waiting for me. So I had to try and find a guy here.
But they are all working together. None would barter. There was just a fixed (ridiculously expensive) price quoted by everyone. And they all conferred to make sure no one was giving way. $140. Obscene. The average monthly wage for the country is $20 a month.
After another half an hour of faffing about, I had no choice. I had to pay it.
And so we began.
The drive actually only took 2 hours. We were speeding along at 140 km per hour for most of it. The signs said the limit was 100.
The first thing I spotted as we turned out of the airport. The old cars. Exactly as you see in photos! I didn’t think they actually used them, I thought they were more for photos. But they were everywhere. And horses. Actual horse and carts. Trotting down the dual carriageway. The buses were jam packed. You probably couldn’t fit another person in. A lot of hitch hikers. (Locals). And the nothing-ness.
For the first hour and a half, it was just farmland and some hills in the distance. No towns. No houses. No buildings, apart from one service station that we stopped at.
When we turned off the main road, we started winding down pretty lanes with houses and forested gardens. The famous hills of Vinales soon appeared.
The tour company had given me an address of a home stay. After asking around, we found it. There was a guy hanging around and he had no idea what I was talking about. So he went off to find someone else. This woman was friendly. She was old, with a very wrinkly sun-stained dark face. I tried to explain my predicament in (poor) Spanish and she finally understood – I was the extra late person.
She took me across the road to her house and told me to sit down and wait while she phoned around. A few minutes later, she had sorted me out and someone was coming in 5 minutes. She sat down to smoke. Obviously.
I had a wander down the street. This street was made up of small 1 storey brightly coloured houses. All had front porches, with many people hanging off them. Some had dogs running outside. Old cars, horse carts and men on bikes were plying the streets.
Sure enough, after 5 minutes, a grinning old man came to meet me. He lead me through a few different streets to his home. Where I would be staying. Finally. I made it.
Cuba is the original Air B&B. All the locals rent out rooms in their houses.
His home was small but cute and well maintained. He lives with his wife. There were two bedrooms – one of which I am in (sharing with another girl), a small kitchen and a front room with some chairs. Everything is kept open and people just wander in.
He gave me a glass of guava juice and told me to sit down. He tried to speak with me – I managed for a while, until I reached the limit of my Spanish. By now, it was 3.30pm and all I wanted to do is eat. I had a bit of mango and went out for a walk.
Vinales town is cute. And very touristy.
The main strip is full of colourful cafes, bars, and tourist shops. There was a church with a small square in front of it. And a huge flag flying. I went into a rum and cigar shop. Rum was cheap at $7 a bottle (edit – this is actually expensive. Most shops are around ($3-4). And there was a man rolling cigars which was cool to watch.
I also had a look at the ration shop. Cuban families still have ration books. They were given them back in the 1960s when food and necessities were scarce. These days the products which are available and the quantities provided by the ration shops are much reduced. Families can obtain rice, beans, sugar, oil, salt and baby powdered milk. Plus the shop sells other products such as soap very cheaply.
This is partly where Cuba’s two currencies comes into play. There is the CUC, which is pegged to the US dollar 1:1. This is the currency which more expensive items are priced at. And the currency which generally tourists will use. Then there is the CUP, which is used to buy very cheap items – such as in the ration shop, at street stalls and in certain very cheap shops. This CUP currency is generally used by locals.
I had failed rather spectacularly to get enough money at the airport. I tried again here at the Cadeca (money exchange place) and both cards failed. Tried the ATMs, both cards failed. I have about $20 to live on for the rest of the week.
After I had finished wandering around it was about 5pm and time for a shower and a sit down. My room mate arrived back at 6pm and I met the guide. He seemed nice and in control of everything! We headed out at 6.45pm for dinner. The guide didn’t sell it well. He said we were going to a buffet and as a vegan I would struggle. Great.
We went on the bus to the dinner place, which i wasn’t expecting. And we ended up at an organic farm. This farm is owned by a lady who is famous for her farm. She has travelled to America and met Michelle Obama and is praised for her work. We had a wander around the farm which had amazing views all across to the surrounding mountains. The sunset was great too. We had our own mini hut where we were served dinner. Starting with crisps and popadoms. Then so many vegetables – tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, sweet potato, taro, pumpkin, beans and rice. There was so much I could eat and it was all so good. Then dessert was papaya and pineapple – but glacé style. In sugar syrup! Apparently that is quite common here. We were also given a drink, which was called de stress. Made from coconut milk, crimson, nutmeg, basil, turmeric, plus some other herbs. And it was so tasty. The whole meal cost $12, which is expensive for Cuba. But we had so much food and it was delicious.