How long does it take to cross Cuba?
Well, according to the bus, 15 hours and 51$. To the cab driver with questionable motives who drove us, it took $50 and 11 hours. 11 hours of freezing cold air. 11 hours of non-stop, loud music. 11 hours of terror. 11 hours to Santiago de Cuba.
From Vinales, we took a cab to Havana and tried to take the train to Santiago. Apparently, tourists cannot take trains. Tourists cannot take any type of transportation that local people can take. As they told me countless times, “Passporto? No billetes.” In my rudimentary Spanish, I was not able to argue my way out of that. So we headed to the bus station to try to take a Viazul bus. Our first experience with this awful company.
Look, I’m sure they are great. But they were clearly not adept to handling this many tourists. The bus was full. The lady said we could wait and there may be cancellations. While I stood guard over our stuff, Gary, Holly and Jack went and got dinner. So, pizza. I ate so much pizza in Cuba.
After waiting two or three hours, Gary decided to venture back out to see if we can negotiate a better fare for taxis. Guys. This is how you do it. You try different times, different people until you get the price you want.
One fellow agreed and we piled into his new car and headed East. We changed cars at one point and continued the drive. I am going to spare you the horror story details of this ride, mostly because it was traumatic and my mother reads this. But just know, that tourists are excellent covers for doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing, especially when three of them are sleeping in the back and one of them is pretending to sleep, but desperately trying to figure out a way four people can all roll out of the car should they need to make a hasty escape, all the while remembering everything she learned from watching Covert Affairs.
By the time we reached Santiago, it was 6:00 in the morning. The sun had just started to appear beyond the Plaza del Marte. We stumbled around looking for a casa and found two right next to each other. And I had to sleep. Having been up for the past few days, I was exhausted and dangerously close to turning into a monster.
Following a brief nap, it was time to explore.
Santiago is a bit like Havana’s cheap, less-touristy city. It was wonderful. I barely had to wait at the bank to exchange money and we used moneda nacionales for eating, which was such a relief on our wallets. We found 1 peso coffee (4 cents), 5 or 10 peso pizzas (20 to 40 cents), refresco for 2 peso (8 cents), egg sandwiches for everyone (except me) for 2 pesos (though at one point, they raised it 2.10 and the boys were furious!) and churros for 1 peso.
Most of our day was spent wandering around the city, exploring new neighbourhoods, meeting questionable people in bars who had questionable motives and hustling some people out of a box of cigars. No joke. They told me I could pay in Canadian money which is worth less than CUC. Also, discovered a new favourite artist (with just a wonderful voice) and drinking and playing cards in our casa.
The next day, we had plans to take a boat. The lovely German couple we had met in Vinales had drawn us a map and told us the boat times. But, as this is Cuba, they had changed. Jack had discovered the attraction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby: Chateau de San Pedro de la Roca. We first took a detour and went up the cathedral in the main square. This is the way to see a city. It was just stunning. You peered right into the harbour and the different coloured roofs and houses made it seem like a European city. This was also the best place to get a taxi. So with some good negotiating, a local Cuban taxi driver drove us to the fortress and waited for us, for 15 CUC, while we wandered around the castle and tried to determine whether we could jump into the ocean. The answer was probably, but you wouldn’t be able to get back up so we didn’t try. Once we were done, we headed back to the city.
FOR ICE CREAM.
Holly had stumbled upon an ice cream place the day before and she heroically took us there. We had to wait in line for a table. About 30 minutes. The locals around us asked us where we from. I swear. Every time we rattled off our countries (USA, Canada, UK, Germany), they would laugh and say United Nations! Far too many people called us that. We thought it was great and I took it upon ourself to name our group chat after it.
But the ice cream. A woman came and took our order. It was so cheap. Like, we could have ordered anything off the menu, five times over, and still not break a $5 dollar bill. In fact, once the bill came, we all threw down 50 pesos and offered to pay. The bill was 46 pesos. Which is roughly $2. Gary and Holly ordered ice cream with 5 or 6 scoops. Jack and mine had cake!
It was delicious. And the very good ending to our time in Santiago. We were about to separate. Jack and I to the mountains; Holly and Gary to Guantanamo. Earlier in the trip, we had made jokes about Jack and I being the ‘parents’ and Gary and Holly being our kids. Might have to do with age (I was the oldest) or maybe height (Jack was the tallest) but we kept the joke going. In our separation, Gary and Holly were leaving by taxi and we called out to them to be good, behave and we would see them at the beach.
Bye bye Santiago. Hel——-
JUST KIDDING. WE WERE STUCK IN THE SANTIAGO BUS STATION FOR 6 HOURS.
And then hello Bayamo!