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Journal - 30-Mar-2001, Friday, La Habana - Las Terrazas, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Hotel Nacional. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,atos,camping,park,biosphere,reserve
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Click for larger image! Chica Cubana. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,atos,camping,park,biosphere,reserve
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Hotel Nacional
Chica Cubana
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We've decided to leave Havana and explore Cuba's natural beauty. Unfortunately it seems the only way to do this efficiently is to rent a car - an expensive option for budget travelers. Tours outside of Havana tend to be one day, cram-it-all-in, affairs - not really what we're looking for. Besides, a one day tour costs $45 per person - not exactly cheap either.

After breakfast we pack up our bags in readiness to leave. I start making a back-up CD of our recent photos but am thwarted by a power cut.

Let's try and find a car. Walking along, we realize that it's Friday and availability may be limited. Our fears seem to be confirmed with our first inquiry - the cheapest available is $70 a day. We're looking for something closer to $40 (or less!).

I also want to get online, so we walk in the direction of the Hotel Nacional, which offers 'Internet'. We pass about six car rental offices on the way, all of which are out of the cheapest cars.

At the hotel, the 'Business Center' seems to have been put in a spare lounge. The first sight entering the room is a large wooden bar - brightly polished and in service. To the right there are about ten PC cubicles filled with pairs of mostly young customers.

The only staff member is the barman and we ask about internet access.
"$8 for 30 minutes".
My desire to go online fades rapidly. Maybe we can find something cheaper elsewhere.

Monica remembers seeing internet access advertised near 'La Rampa' - a Havana landmark. Luckily it's close by. After some walking back and forth we find the place in a building called the 'Press Center'. It works by buying a 5 hour prepaid card for $7.50. Some difference - $1.50 an hour instead of $16! Better yet, we can hook up our laptop. Cool.

To buy the card we have to present a passport. Asking why, we're told "the service is only available to tourists - you are tourists aren't you?". Are Cubans restricted from accessing the internet? Maybe.

There is a rent-a-car desk in the Press Center building. The salesman has an 'economy' car available. It's $50 a day for a Hyundai Atos - about the smallest four-wheeled car in production. In fact it's like a toy car. The wheels look they were taken from a wheelbarrow or ride-on mower.

The salesman, hearing we're from Mexico, starts talking about the crime there and the Zapatista rebels. He asks when President Fox is going to sign a treaty with Subcommandante Marcos, leader of the rebels. We explain that Fox has done all he can to negotiate with Marcos (who refuses to meet with Fox). The salesman rejects this strongly and launches into a tirade about the rebels' cause. Interesting how left-wing para-military groups are portrayed in Cuba! I suppose having a leader self-styled on Che Guevara helps the Zapatista's image too.

It doesn't seem like we're going to get a better deal today so we take the Atos for 7 days, with the option to extend. The salesman lights a cigarette and starts filling out the contract form. There seems to be absolutely no taboos about smoking in Cuba and almost everyone that can afford to does.

A friend of the salesman has come over and offers his services as a driver. Already stretching our budget to rent the car, we decline.

Contract signed, we go for some refreshments. The car rental clerk recommends the cafeteria downstairs. Turns out to be a good recommendation - a bottle of water is only $0.50 - half the price we paid yesterday!

Leaving the building we bump into the guy who offered to be our chauffeur. He makes another very persistent stab at persuading us to contract him. We feel sorry that a nice and intelligent person should be reduced to practically begging tourists for work, but what can we do? In the first place, we don't really want a driver. Second, we don't want to spend the $200 he's asking.

The car is in Monica's name so she can drive while I navigate. She's very nervous about driving in a foreign, authoritarian, country. We pull out timidly and move along. It's at this point that I discover that none of the streets have signs identifying them! To find our way, we have to resort to counting streets as they pass, and using landmarks like hotels!

One-way streets aren't marked on the map, so we end up having to do a few loops to get to our lodgings. At least we get there in the end, with no manslaughter enroute. I load up the car with our bags while Monica goes for snacks and water in the supermarket. It's a serious juggling act to try and get all our bags in the tiny luggage compartment of the Atos.

Now for our real challenge. Escape from Havana. The map doesn't give any indication how to get to the highway. I have to compare a small map of all of Cuba, with our map of Havana, to try and figure out which general direction we should head in. Hopefully we'll pick up some clues on the way.

It must be our lucky day as after a few kilometers we see a sign to Pinar del Rio, our destination. There are crowds of people at the junction offering dollar bills for a ride. We're still getting the hang of driving in Cuba and so don't stop for fear of being rear-ended (or robbed!).

Under every bridge we pass huge crowds of people looking for rides. Now we're afraid to stop for fear of being mobbed! It's surprising that a socialist country seems to have no reliable public transport - maybe travel is considered unproductive?

We pass all kinds of signs with revolutionary messages. Not a single billboard advertising a product. Advertising might be illegal in Cuba. We pass a sign saying "To say 'Cuba' is to say 'Revolution'". To say 'a good bus system' might be more practical.

The highway is in pretty good condition. We have it almost to ourselves. The countryside stretches out on both sides. Birds of prey glide effortlessly over the fields and road. Maybe they're waiting for a foolish chicken to cross.

Reading the guide, there is a biosphere reserve, Las Terrazas, coming up. A pamphlet we have indicates that camping facilities are available. We decide to explore the reserve a bit and stay there overnight. It's now about 3:30 in the afternoon.

A big sign indicates the exit for Las Terrazas and after a few minutes we arrive at the entrance to the reserve. The entrance fee is $2 each. We ask what there is to do. The guard shows us a simplified tourist map that shows a place to swim and French colonial coffee plantation ruins. We enter, a little dubious.

We find the camping center no problem. The place seems to cater for domestic tourism. They're filming a video in reception so have to wait a few minutes before making inquiries. Monica goes in and returns with a small problem. Turns out that camping is not permitted in the camping center. Cabins are the only accommodation available. $10 a night.

We spend the next few hours driving around, following leads, looking for a place to camp. The guard at the main entrance says he can let us camp next to a restaurant but we have to wait until the place closes and leave before it opens again. He wants $8 to let us do this.

The information office says we can camp next to the river and recommend a guided tour in the morning. When we get to the river, however, the guard says that camping is not permitted. We decide to take a $10 cabin as this seems to be the only convenient option.

To lodge in a cabin, we have to show our passports. This surprises us a little but we oblige then watch as all our details are noted down in a book. We're given two clean sheets and two towels. A girl leads us to our cabin. We ask why we had to show our passports. "They always ask for them". Oh.

The 'cabin' is revolting. A smell of dampness hits us as we enter. The walls have mildew growing up the sides. Everything looks filthy and dark. There are no glass windows, just two tiny plywood flaps in the wall. The small room is like a dirty 19th century prison cell.

The 'bathroom' is literally the size of a wardrobe, measuring 1 meter across and half-a-meter deep. Against one side is the W.C. Next is just enough floor area to place ones feet. A shower head is fitted above this. Against the other edge is a sink. The whole thing can be shut off with a plywood door. Unfortunately, shutting the door blocks off the cabin's only light source - a bare bulb above the sink.

We immediately question the wisdom of staying here. Unfortunately we've already paid. Looking around, aghast, we begin to notice finer details, like the ant highway running along the walls.

Out of consideration, we drive back to guard at the main entrance to say we won't be taking his 'secret camping next to the restaurant' offer. He seems disappointed; I guess he was already figuring out what to spend the money on.

On the way back to the cabin we give a lift to a girl who lives inside the reserve. We ask her what's nice to do in the reserve. She tells us about a discotheque and another restaurant. Hmm. Not what we had in mind in a biosphere reserve but we are hungry. We head to the restaurant.

Dinner is only served after 7 pm, so we have to wait a few minutes in the bar. A young man asks us to change some pesos into dollars for him so he can buy cigarettes. This seems highly dubious to me - if his pesos were really worth anything, surely they'd be accepted by the bar? He continues to pester us and eventually Monica gives him 50 cents for 10 pesos. We're actually quite pleased with the deal because the 10 peso bill has a picture of Fidel Castro giving a speech. It's probably not worth anything but it's an interesting souvenir.

The meal is $3 each and pretty good. We wonder about eating the lettuce salad but it looks so fresh and good, we can't resist. The leaves still have a few dots of soil on them.

After stuffing ourselves, we drive to the towards the other side of the park to see what there is to see. We drive with views of tropical jungle for a few kilometers before reaching a gate. A recently crashed lorry lies on its side, just a hundred meters from the gate. It seems to have skidding some way down the hill, probably brake failure. Glass covers the road. No one is around.

Darkness is falling and there is nothing left to do but return to our cell. Pulling into the 'eco-park' camping center, we're greeted by loud music booming from a PA system. Maybe this is the discotheque? There doesn't seem to be anyone enjoying the music. Based on our experiences so far, we're beginning to conclude that 'eco-tourism' really means 'party in the woods'. In any case, we're beyond caring at this point - we just want to sleep and get out in the morning.

Inside the cabin, we're greeted by a party of uninvited cockroaches. There are three monsters of insects running around the bathroom walls. Herding cockroaches is like herding cats but somehow I manage to persuade them, one at a time, to leave by the back door. Yuck, yuck, yuck. At least the bedsheets are clean - small islands of hygiene in a sea of grime.

There's a knock on the door. A young man tells me he's in charge of looking after the cars during the night. He asks for a tip of $2. He's only person we've seen around, so presumably it's him he's protecting the car against. I give him a dollar with a sigh. Will the money drain ever stop?

After brushing my teeth (with bottled water) I climb into the top bunk. The bunk bed feels horribly unstable. I try to avoid unnecessary movements, terrified that the whole thing will collapse on top of Monica.

Toes still feel strangely numb from the walking yesterday. Hopefully it's nothing serious. Soon we're fast asleep - the firm mattress is at least a lot more comfortable than the sinking bed in Havana.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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