Cuba, januari 2012

Mango forest

It’s time to travel, dear people. My wife is pregnant, or not, or hopefully soon; it doesn’t really matter. She says, “While there’s still time”, which is a devious trick, because she says this every time, and every time it turns out travelling is still possible. Anyway, you won’t hear me complain, I’m allowed to come along.

We do still have to choose a destination. Sun is a must, we have already been to Southeast Asia quite extensively, so it will be Cuba. If only all of life were that simple. After two days the route is decided and after a week all the bookings for the casas particulares have been made. Not that this means everything is in the bag, because in the weeks that follow, requests for reconfirmation appear in our mailbox with some regularity. Making a reservation in Cuba seems to be more of a process than a one-time action; perhaps you could even speak of a permanent state. “We are reserving.” It’s like with the Revolution, it doesn’t seem to stop either. Anyway, my lovely travel agent knows how to deal with this; she keeps emailing them back that we still intend to come. I myself get a Lonely Planet from the library, even though I know I will only get around to it on the plane and the book will have been returned by then.

Our son has prepared himself better.
“Where are we going, Teun?”
“We’re going to Cuba!”
“How then?”
“By plane!!!”
“And what do they say in Cuba?”
“Hola, que tal?!!!”
Two-and-a-half years huh!

One thing about the plane trip, and then I switch back to holiday mood.
Someone – and may he or she burn eternally in hell – has fooled pilots into thinking that passengers need a weather report mid-flight. Do you recognise this? You’ve been folded up in your economy seat for a few hours and you’re incredibly tired. There is no room for tossing and turning so, out of sheer desperation, you try to go to sleep. In a postnatal foetal position, your eyes covered with a kinky eye mask, and with a U-shaped pillow around your neck to prevent permanent neck injury. You did put in earplugs, but they never stay in place, but all right, the background noise drowns out the chitchat of your fellow passengers anyway so that’s okay. At last, your sleep hormones have won the battle and, with any luck, you will now sleep for three hours. And right at that very moment, a pilot switches on the intercom to read out the weather forecast. Besides yourself, your child wakes up too, and that’s already a loose-loose situation. And apart from that disturbed sleep, what are you supposed to do with a weather report? You can’t change your destination, you can’t pack an umbrella anymore. And if the weather does turn out to be nice, that’s nice, but you’re abundantly late if you have to start your pre-planning now.

The annoying thing is: pilots keep doing this because nobody dares to say anything about it.
After all, passengers find themselves in a dependency relationship with the pilot. He is in charge of your destiny. And a screaming child is annoying but it bears no relation to a plane crash. That’s why we all accept it. Anyway, I am not telling you all this to appear tough (or cranky); I am just trying to outline the state of mind I am in when I see a little bottle on the toilet labelled “AIRCRAFT ODOR ELIMINATOR”. Instead of “ODOR”, I read “DOOR”. My brain has turned smelling nice into a terrorist weapon. Only one thing helps against that: a holiday. I’m looking forward to it.

As it happens, I’m not the only one who seems to be in need of a holiday. Due to a small mistake in the seat reservation system, hardly anyone on the plane sits in their prereserved seat. As a result, everyone feels at liberty to look for something better during the flight; a minor seat dance takes place. The back row is reserved for the cabin crew but they don’t need all of it, so we are allowed to sit there so Teun can stretch out. A flight attendant who took a break here has – very touchingly – left a yellow post-it note on the seatback with a smiley face drawn on it. Whatever happens, always keep smiling. And that’s not that simple. We have just landed; the purser routinely tells us that we have landed but that we must remain seated for a very short time until the “seat belts on” sign is switched off. She’s not even finished talking for three seconds or half the passengers are standing in the aisle. “Ladies and gentlemen I just asked you to remain seated I WANT YOU ALL TO SIT AGAIN!!!” She screams, we chuckle. Viva las vacaciones!

First of all, let’s make sure we have cash. In terms of money, Cuba is still very much old school. It is not wise to rely only on ATMs and credit cards; you’ll have to bring a bag of cash and exchange it at a bank. That’s a bit exciting. Will there be enough money in our pocket for the whole holiday? And what if we get conned and exchange our entire stash for toy money? Will we have to stay in Cuba forever then? Will we be allowed to work? And who will take care of our plants then? Anyway, we pragmatically choose to exchange half our money, and we get in the taxi. Ellen booked this transfer from Varadero to Havana from home, and it arrives right on time.


We are dropped at a large hotel in the middle of Havana; we have to cover the last bit to our Casa on foot. It feels a bit like walking around in a Tintin film here. The streets are busy, there is a sultry fifties atmosphere. We see beautiful buildings but most are in a slight state of disrepair. You have to watch where you walk; there are loose kerbstones everywhere. It is as clichéd as it is true: it is decayed glory. Despite all my travel experience, I am overcome by a slight culture shock – probably because we now have our son with us. Travelling with Teun in the US and South Africa was relatively comfortable but will it work here too? Meanwhile, he sits comfortably in his buggy and takes it all in his stride. After a little searching we find the reserved Casa where we are warmly welcomed by an elderly couple, “abuela Mercedes and abuelo Juan”, an instant grandpa and grandma for Teun. They inhabit the first floor of the building. From the balcony we can watch the street life. There is a large living room with a remarkably high ceiling, and a couple of smaller rooms, two of which are rented out. Unexpectedly, Teun was not on the booking, so our room is on the small side, but Mercedes arranges for the larger room of the two for the next two nights. In the corridor, right next to our door, there is a turtle in a sink.

Whatever our motive was for going to Cuba – it had nothing to do with food. Expectations in this area are particularly low. A friend told of his culinary highlight during his holiday in Cuba: a slice of ham with melted cheese. To nuance his story, he slept and ate mostly in state-run hotels; in the private sector, the quality of food should be slightly better. Nonetheless, that slice of ham-with-dripe cheese has stuck in our minds as a kind of benchmark for the culinary content of this holiday. We are prepared for 20 days of rice and beans. And behold the advantage of low expectations: it can only be better than expected. We go to the restaurant recommended by both Mercedes and our guidebook. On the chef’s advice, we order a solomillo with red wine sauce and olives. Admittedly, on delivery it turns out that the red wine and olives have been replaced by mushrooms, but darn, it actually tastes pretty good. If this is the standard, the ham-cheese doomsday scenario disappears pretty quickly. Live music is playing, there are nice waiters, teun is placed in a high chair, nice cocktails are being brought out, what more could you want. Breakfast the next morning at the Casa is simple but also fine. Some bread, egg, jam, coffee, banana, pineapple and, Teun’s new favourite: papaya. The only thing we don’t immediately fall in love with is guava, but that could be just us.

We stroll around Havana with Teun in the back carrier. The culture shock of the previous evening has shrunk to a slight jet lag. We are already starting to feel quite at home, remarkable how quickly that happens sometimes. In the distance, the bus to Hardinxveld-Giesendam – a small city in the Netherlands – drives by, could that be it? Other than that, there are predominantly American cars on the road. Beforehand you think, there will prpbably be just a few of them. But they really make up 90 per cent of the traffic, or more. It is a small wonder how most of them are still driving and that they are so shiny after five decades. In the Plaza de Armas, we strike up a conversation with a little old lady. We talk about this and that, about Cuba and about the Netherlands, which we manage just fine with our little Spanish. She is a mother of six children and has has many grandchildren. She then takes a respirator out of her pocket, we can see from her eyes that the conversation is about to take a different turn, she starts talking about her asthma, her money problems… whether we want to sponsor her….

Across the river there is a fortress we would like to visit. It looks like a long diversions to get there, but in a old-timer taxi, it’s more of a treat than a punishment. The taxi is nice and spacious; Teun can comfortably stand in it. Unfortunately, we had overlooked the fact that there is a tunnel that runs under the water, so we arrive at our destination before we know it.

To quickly see some of the city as a whole, we board a double-decker bus – we won’t collect our rental car until we leave Havana. The bus takes us past the Plaza de Revolucion with the unmissable portrait of Che Guevara. We also notice that there is a lot of construction and reconstruction going on. We sit comfortably on the upper deck in the open air, with a brisk sea breeze as natural air conditioning. The route of the trip seems to have been mapped out by Fidel (or his speechwriter); there’s no end to it. Fellow travellers chuckle as we relieve Teun of a thick nappy after an hour and a half.

In the evening, we have dinner on a terrace near the Plaza Vieja. At the entrance to the restaurant lies a skull of a predatory fish – for decoration. A tipsy Czech from the table next to us picks it up to scare his friends with it, but on the way he sees Teun and makes a slight diversions. “Gwrah!” Teun looks at him silently for three seconds and then starts screaming. The Czech tries to make amends but only makes things worse. Teun can’t be comforted, and the Czech feels guilty. “Oh well”, Ellen says, “if you don’t have children yourself then you don’t realise how they can react”, but that doesn’t help either because the Czech and his girlfriend have to reluctantly admit that – at home – they have children of their own. As an ultimate gesture of reconciliation, he holds out his bottle of rum. (“Thanks,” I say, “but our son doesn’t drink yet.” You never know with those Eastern Europeans).


After two days in Havana, we pick up our rental car in the morning. Ellen is whisked away to a little office where she has to fill in a huge pile of paperwork. With Teun and a suitcase in the back seat, the car is full; there is no room to ask a local to guide us out of town. There’s no navigation system here, so I try to read a map. Today we drive to Soroa, a mountain resort about a hundred kilometres from the capital. Along the road there are quite a few military training grounds; so this is where they breed the fighters for the Revolution.

Just like in Havana, a warm welcome awaits us at the “Casa” of our choice. The house is surrounded by a beautiful garden with an orchard. It includes orange trees. Teun plays with the grandson of the house, and together they watch some movies we put on our tablet. Before dinner, we go for a swim at a holiday park nearby. This can be arranged for a fee of a few cuc. In this way, you combine a nice stay with Cubans at home with the convenience of state facilities. Our hostess makes great cocktails and serves dinner in the garden.

The next day we take a trip to Las Terrazas, a nearby “eco-village” that looks surprisingly non-hippy.
Everything here revolves around coffee. At Patio de Maria we a great cup of coffee. According to our guidebook, this is where they perhaps brew the best coffee in Cuba. And that for 1 cuc. After Teun and I have had our picture taken at possibly the tallest tree in Cuba, we go for a swim at Banos del San Juan, a natural and rather idyllic swimming hole. Depending on where you swim, the water is either ice-cold or comfortably warm. After lunch, at an ecological restaurant, we walk around Cafetal Buenavista, a ruin of the very first coffee plantation in Cuba. In the early 19th century, this plantation was founded by French people fleeing unrest in Haiti. Today, by the way, Cuba produces almost no coffee. In the afternoon, we take another dip in the resort pool. Today is Sunday and the atmosphere is lively; whole Cuban families gather by the water with coolers and crates of beer.

Cayo Levisa

And then it’s time for a tropical island; holiday-holiday, that is, because as it happens, we are already on a tropical island. Cayo Levisa is a few kilometres off the coast, but first we have to drive quite a bit. We take the ferry in Palma Rubia. On the ferry, we meet a Canadian couple who, like us, are travelling with a toddler. The majority of tourists in Cuba come from Canada, of course partly because big neighbour America still restricts its citizens from going here. It’s a few hours’ flight, so like the Dutch go to southern Europe for a sun & beach holiday, Canadians do a week in Cuba. Our ferry friends have booked two weeks of full board on Cayo Levisa, a comical contrast to their adventurous daily life in the Canadian wilderness, which is completely autarkic, including homeschooling.

On Cayo Levisa, as an exception, we stay in a state-run accommodation. There is no choice here; virtually no private individuals live on this island and so there are no casas particulares. Those – like me – who associate communist state hotels with Eastern Bloc concrete and cadaver-coloured cabbage mashed potatoes may be pleasantly surprised here, by the way. This is a tropical resort, with a cocktail bar, beach chairs, a volleyball net and an optional entertainment programme. Except for a few minor details, the holiday homes look spick and span. However, we do occasionally see something scurrying around that looks like a big fat rat. That causes a bit of a scare the first time. Enquiries reveal that they are tree rats – jutias. According to Wikipedia, in Cuba they cook them in a big pan with nuts and honey. That does take the sting out of their presence here.

If there is anything communist about this holiday complex it is the vagueness about what you should order, or may order, and where you order it. Pay close attention: there is a little bar and a restaurant; one is for drinks and the other for food, unless you are not a day guest, because then it is the other way round, at least in the morning, because in the afternoon, although you can order sandwiches if paid for afterwards and in cash across the street, not on the odd-numbered days. As long as no innocent civilians are being put in gulags, communism has quite a bit of entertainment value. We had booked half-board, so we wouldn’t be subjected to a buffet twice a day. The consequence is that we have to go through this ordering procedure once a day. Everytime we try to order some lunch, the staff will put on a “I didn’t make this up either but if I make you a sandwich now will you stop asking questions?” look. The dinner-buffet is a lot more straightforward; it simply is being prepared, even if it takes a bit longer than announced. No problem for us, a serious challenge for Teun.

But let’s talk about the sea! What a delight. We left our diving diplomas at home but the snorkel does come out of the suitcase. Last year I took a meditation course and only now the penny drops: snorkelling is the new mindfulness. Why? Let’s look a little closer.

  1. Posture. You lie on your stomach, fully stretched, including your head, and yet you are able to breathe freely. This is normally only possible on a massage table with a hole in it, and of course this is much nicer. Your arms dangle beside your body. You can’t easily switch off the force of gravity, but in terms of symptom relief, this comes pretty close.
  2. Breathing. You hear your own breath flowing through a tube. In…out…in…out…consciously, relaxed, without any annoying meditation music or sweaty foot odour.
  3. Limited stimuli. No phones, no screaming people or kids, no music, hardly any noise at all. Just rippling water, a few barracudas and lots of seaweed. Your thoughts slowly come to a halt.
  4. Browsing. You let your gaze slide over the seabed, you are not looking for anything specific, but you are open to everything you see, and so you find. What do you find? Silence. Warmth.
  5. Warmth, then. The sun shines comfortably on your back. Because of the cooling effect of the water, you don’t notice that you have third-degree burns. Your wife has been shouting on the beach for fifteen minutes that you should reapply factor six hundred and eighty-five. But you don’t hear that, see point 3. (Better work this point out before I do this again.)

Those who don’t snorkel build sandcastles with Teun. And together we stroll along the beach, towards the mangrove forest (“mango forest”). Crabs are everywhere, lugging shells around; as soon as they sense our presence, they retreat to their squatted casas particulares. Around sunset, at the jetty, we see barracudas jumping above the water. And in the evening, I take some time to go stargazing with Teun (“looking at the milk away”). What a life!

During the night, Teun gets a fever. That’s always scary with a small child. It seems like he caught a bit too much sun. We have put enough sunscreen on him, but the heat was probably too much anyway. We have heard the stories about the high level of Cuban healthcare, so we try not to worry more than we would in the Netherlands, but still – that’s not easy in the middle of the night on a semi-inhabited island. In the morning, Teun is feeling fine again. One of the staff members is genuinely surprised that we hadn’t alerted them; there is, after all, a doctor on the island…

On our last evening on Cayo Levisa, we book a “sunset trip” by boat. There is some confusion about the reservation, the departure time, the meeting place at the jetty and the other passengers. In the end, the three of us end up with a captain on a small fishing barge. We cruise through the mangrove forest, sit next to the captain on the lookout and watch the huge copper sun sink magnificently into the sea.


We drive to Vinales, a small town situated in a valley of the same name. The limestone “mojotes” of the karst mountains dominate the landscape here. The area has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999. The inhabitants of the town anticipate large numbers of visitors, as some streets form one long chain of casas particulares. Renting out rooms is one of the few ways Cubans are allowed to earn their own money, so they seize the opportunity in droves. The houses here are almost all made of wood, with a veranda and two identical wooden beach chairs that are apparently provided by the state. They are quite comfortable, by the way, those “state chairs”. Most are empty now; it’s not the tourist season.

Chi-Chi is our hostess. Her accommodation is quite basic, with an electric shower and metal beds, but all that is more than compensated by her cooking skills. In the afternoon, we accidentally had lunch at, according to our guidebook, “the best restaurant in town”. We are glad that Chi-Chi quickly manages to erase the memory of that meal. Chi-Chi’s dinner is served on our balcony, next to a little garden where chickens roam. As always, it comes with white rice and black beans; when you throw them together you have “moros y cristianos”. In addition, there is salad and fresh fruit on the table. Depending on what is in the house, as a main course you usually get a choice between chicken, pork, and sometimes beef or lobster. We often opt for the chicken; Chi-Chi is a chicken master. She turns it into something exquisite with garlic and lime. And then there’s her mojitos! “A cocktail is a cocktail,” I believed for four decades, and from a purely logical standpoint, there is little to argue with that. Secretly, however, I thought that drinking cocktails was something for adolescent girls, binge drinkers and other primary types to whom the subtle flavour nuances of wine, beer or whisky are wasted. That whole belief now has to be challenged. Shocking. By the way, Ellen is only allowed to smell: she has just taken a pregnancy test with positive results. Just so you know.

The next day we drive around the valley, past limestone formations and tobacco plantations. When you look up, there is always a bird of prey hovering in the sky. We must confess that we are somewhat spoilt travellers; the karst mountains remind us of China, where the scenery is a bit more impressive. Nevertheless, it’s still a beautiful landscape. On one of the mountain sides a huge mural, the Mural de la Prehistoria, was commissioned by Fidel Castro. It’s a depiction of the evolution of the socialist man.

In the afternoon, we seek refuge in a resort hotel with a swimming pool again. Around the pool, an elaborate photo shoot is in progress; a woman poses as if she is just a little bit prettier than she really is. What makes the scene so Cinderella-like is that the make-up artist is much more photogenic; we would do a much beter job in front of the camera.

Bay of Pigs

As rain is predicted, we decide to shorten our stay in Vinales and head east a day earlier. Instead of driving straight on to Cienfuegos, we decide to make a stopover in Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs. A big part of the drive is along the Autopista Este-Oeste. It is the island’s central traffic artery, more or less a straight line to Havana. It doesn’t really feel like a highway though. Your correspondent in Cuba notes: a horse and cart, level crossings with intersecting cars, a non-level left lane (ten centimetres of abrupt height difference between the lanes), cycling Cubans side by side with a wide cage on the back of the luggage rack, a reversing car, a horse-drawn wagon full of children, cows running loose along the road, and a group of Western holiday cyclists. At all exits and overpasses, there are hordes of Cubans waiting for a lift, and just as many bicycle taxis for connecting transport. To complete the experience, we are subjected to a traffic control. We have to stop, the officer says “hola” immediately followed by “bye”. He was looking for someone else apparently.

After Havana, the highway continues eastwards, at least on the map.
We struggle to get out of the city; we get caught up in the network of boulevards. Twice we ask for directions but it doesn’t help. And when we finally find the outbound motorway, it stops! “Desvio” is written on a sign. That’s Spanish for “diversions” and apparently Cuban for “figure it out yourself”, because the diversions is not indicated from that moment on. Only after a lot of fussing and searching and cursing we start to have faith again that we are on the right road.

The Bay of Pigs is famous for the failed US invasion in 1961 that drove Cuba permanently towards the Russians. And they want us to know it. “Here was Fidel’s headquarters” reads a large sign a few kilometres offshore. “Till here the assassins came” reads another sign – a reference to the Cuban exiles who were recruited by the Americans to carry out the invasion. At the end of the road is Playa Giron, an insignificant village. Things are a lot more peaceful half a century later. On the beach, a few boys are barbecuing a self-caught fish. Next to them a Cuban family is enjoying the beach. Using a machete and a high truck, the men manage to chop coconuts from the tree – which we are welcome to share. Que bueno!

As Playa Giron was not on our itinerary, we didn’t book a casa particular here, so we have to find one on the spot. After some asking around, we end up with an elderly couple. They are very hospitable but a bit uncomfortable; we get the feeling we are their first guests. They have arranged things in a way that they give up their house to us and move in next door with their neighbours themselves. The neighbour provides the food. How do you want the chicken, she asks. Cuban style, we say, or in other words: we are confident that they will make us something very tasty. And tasty it is! Our host wins some points by evacuating a lizard from our bedroom with his bare hands. When I tip him a few cuc the next morning, he spontaneously makes a leap of joy. We get in the car and continue our journey east.


Cienfuegos is also on a bay but otherwise it is quite different. It was founded by the French and the centre is still full of monumental buildings. We stay on Punta Gorda, a peninsula with a small park at the very end. Across the bay is a controversial, never-finished nuclear power plant. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it ran out of money.

Our casa particular at Punta Gorda is on the more professional end of the spectrum – it’s a little more like staying in a real B&B and a little less like a sleepover with your grandparents. While some cleaning is still going on, we enjoy a welcome drink in the beautiful garden, lying in a hammock, overlooking the water. Need I say more, or is the picture clear? On the jetty, a man is busy catching a big fish while Teun and a dozen or so birds watch with interest.

For a swim, we retreat to the chic Hotel Jagua around the corner, once established by dictator Batista’s brother. Swimming is allowed by the receptionist, provided we have lunch there – a good deal as far as we are concerned. The waiter, an extremely friendly guy, proudly introduces his daughter to us, a blonde-haired girl of around ten years old. He tells us that he once travelled all over the world as a water polo player. Surely he hooked up with a Swedish one, one would think, but that’s all interpretation as it turns out his child came from two Cuban dark-haired parents. At least, that’s what the best man himself seems convinced of. He serves us chicken and pizza, and throws in an extra plate of pasta for Teun.

Right next to Hotel Jagua is the Palacio de Valle, a building with oriental features. We drink a cocktail slash apple juice here after siesta, on top of the roof, surrounded by French tourists. In Cienfuegos, there are French tourist evrywhere. In the evening the French neighbours at our casa have invited two couples over for dinner in the casa’s garden. Every 10 minutes, the music is turned up a notch, and people start to sing along. “Ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas!”. When it is time to put Teun to bed, the owner intervenes. The next morning, our French neighbour sits down at our breakfast table without batting an eyelid and starts eating our bread. C’est pas normal monsieur!

When we walk outside, we find our rental car with the wipers up, still wet from being washed. The perpettrator is quick to demand a cuc. He uses a somewhat unusual form of acquisition, but he himself does not seem to think his bargaining position is bad. He probably has a spray can with bird droppings behind his back to undo his work, if I don’t want to pay. But if he thinks I think that, then…and so on. To be honest, there is no time for a thorough analysis, and I decide to play a game of bluff poker by paying him half the asking price. He is offended, I am guilt-ridden. But we do have a clean car.

We spend the rest of the day strolling around the city centre, buying some souvenirs. In the evening, at Parque José Marti, we chat with a young Cuban couple. He will be performing in the theatre that night, with a friend. He is a dancer, his friend a rapper. Its not going to be easy to make a living from those kinds of professions, but Cubans don’t let that stop them. Cuba has a thriving cultural life. The couple has a child Teun’s age; in no time the two toddlers are dashing across the square one after the other.


From Cienfuegos we drive to Trinidad. On the way, it seems as if all relevant road signs have been removed, erased or taped. And yet Trinidad is a popular destination. A cynic would think this is a way of creating jobs. In Cuba, it is quite normal for a foreigner to pick up someone in your car to guide you in or out of town for a fee. Of course, this business model depends on the deplorable state of the road signs. Fortunately, we have a good road map, because in our small rental car there is absolutely no room for guides. Or for hitchhikers, which sometimes leads to frustrated gestures. They probably do not see that there is a small man in the back seat, with a large suitcase next to him. Or maybe they do see it, but wonder what exactly the problem is. After all, every world traveller knows that around the equator, a lot more people fit in a car than in our regions. After a brief swimming stop at Playa Ancon, we drive into Trinidad where we manage to find our casa particular fairly quickly.

Our sleeping place for the next few days is called Casa Milagrosa. We are warmly welcomed by Mila and Bury. As in Cienfuegos, we meet owners who seem to have outgrown communism. They have a spacious house with a cocktail bar and a roof terrace, an electric scooter, a laptop and an I-phone and… even three soaps in the guest bathroom. The latter may sound like a silly joke, but it seems to be a fairly scarce resource with which you can still make the average Cuban happy; in any case, none of our other accommodation had hotel soaps. The contrast with our neighbours is stark; from the rooftop terrace we look right through their house, which looks like a bomb has fallen on it.

The trip has left us hungry and tired. We ask if we can order something to eat before indulging in an afternoon nap with Teun.
“Tell me, what do you guys want?”
“Um, what do you have… sandwiches maybe?”
“But of course!”
It then takes a while, and another while, altogether almost an hour – have they forgotten us? It turns out they haven’t, but they had to go out and buy bread. This is how it often works here; if you order a mojito, there’s a chance they’ll go and arrange some more mint. They will do anything for their guests. And how about this one: as we retreat for the siesta, there is a note on the front door of the house. “No tocar, los turistas descansen.” Don’t knock please, our visitors are snoozing! While at home, I had tried to imagine what it would be like to stay in Cubans’ homes, wondering if it would be uncomfortable. Those fears proved to be unfounded. This is a great way to travel; the welcome in casas particulares is often heartwarming and you have just as much privacy as in a family hotel or B&B elsewhere in the world. One thing that stands out is that Teun comes as a surprise at most casas, despite the fact that Ellen had specified in all reservations that we were travelling with a toddler. Apparently, it’s not normal to travel around with a small kid. We have Teun’s own Deryan cot with us, so it doesn’t matter any way. When we lift Teun out of the car on arrival, there usually is a cry of endearment – he’s unexpected but certainly not unwelcome! On the contrary, Cubans love children, at least ours, let’s not generalise. This applies to both men and women, although we suspect that parenting here is mainly women’s work. Indeed, witness Mila’s reaction when I change Teun’s nappy: she makes a cry and immediately grabs her camera to capture the moment. “Cuban men NEVER do that!!!” She looks like she expects this photo to give a mega boost to Cuban feminism.

In the afternoon, we walk around the city. Trinidad has a reputation for being very touristy, but it doesn’t seem too bad to us. Maybe it’s a matter of timing. The town feels like Havana-light. Lots of historic buildings, a few nuns here, a group of schoolchildren in uniform there. And there are lots of open-air butchers, flies included. There’s a shop where you can buy a pig sandwich. The tender meat is transplanted from the pig to the bread before your eyes. But what particularly catches our attention in Trinidad is that just like in Havana, there is live music on every street corner, at every terrace, from every building. This is what we love! If the Buena Vista Social Club was a spark in the late 1990s then this is an all-consuming forest fire. It’s hugely rhythmic and there are lots of horns, in which case it really can’t go wrong. There are bound to be non-musical Cubans too, just as there are Russians who don’t like vodka and Dutch people who can’t play football – a better example is needed here soon, by the way. All in all, in Trinidad we experience an authentic this-is-why-we-love-to-travel moment. We settle down on a terrace opposite a seven-piece band. And we order cocktails, as far as applicable because, apart from myself, everyone in our company is now pregnant or underage. To top it all off, a man at the table next to us, a friendly American with a biologist’s beard and ditto sandals, asks if he may make a horse out of a napkin for our son. Well, he may.

From town, a small road leads uphill, to a transmission tower at the top of a mountain.
The walk doesn’t seem too tough, so we put on our hiking boots and put Teun in his back carrier. From his comfortable position just behind my ears, he sings christmas songs. He also fires off his favourite questions:
“May get cake dad?”
“May go to Cuba dad? Yes!?”
“May get bracelet dad?”
The latter is a reference to the indoor playground in our hometown, where you get a paper bracelet as proof of payment. (You have to remember that because it will come back later.) On top of the mountain, we have a wonderful view of Trinidad and its surroundings. From a cubicle, an officer watches over the integrity of the transmission tower. This doesn’t seem like an exciting job to us, but it seems like the ideal one if you are a writer or reader. Back in town, we take an alternative route, and promptly get lost. Street names are only sporadically indicated. And dusk doesn’t make it any easier. In many Latin American cities, you would consider panic (or a taxi) but that is not an issue here. After some wandering, we regain grip on our coordinates, just in time for dinner.

And that dinner is absolutely right. Bury is the chef. His cocktails rival those of Chi-Chi in Vinales. Teun eats practically everything we serve him. When we finish, he even wants to start on the plates set out for the other guests. Beans are the only thing Teun curiously does not want to eat. Before the trip, we had wondered if that would be a problem. It’s not too bad; after all, there is plenty of other food in Cuba. In Trinidad, we find the magic trick: if we say they are olives Teun will greedily eat them.

On the first day in Trinidad, Ellen gave a “Lammie” – a sheep-like cuddly toy – to the housekeeper, who turned out to have a child Teun’s age. We brought no less than three spare Lammies from home, and were therefore somewhat over-insured against the risk of losing a cuddly toy. The next morning, she gives Ellen a little wooden turtle as a thank-you, and the day after, a necklace as well. That same day, our hostess asks what Teun’s size is, so she can gift him a “Guayabera”, a traditional Cuban shirt. And as we get ready to say goodbye, our hostess tells me to just pick out a bottle of rum from the liquor cabinet in our room. I politely refuse. When she insists, I grab a modest bottle, after which she laughs at me kindly but firmly and orders me to swap it for a serious size. Because that’s how they are, those Cubans.


In two days we will fly from Varadero back to the Netherlands. It has been said that Varadero is not like Cuba at all, as everything there is geared towards foreign beachgoers. For years, it was even government policy to keep Cubans and international tourists physically separated. Raul Castro formally ended this “tourist apartheid” in 2008, but we do not expect to encounter many holidaying Cubans on the peninsula.

The drive from Trinidad to Varadero is our last long one. While reading the map, I have enough time to take a look at how much revolutionary propaganda is being fired at us on the side of the road. It’s quite a lot. In terms of quantity, it is not inferior to the commercial advertisements you see in the rest of the world. If you replace washing powder, soft drinks, cars and panty liners with Revolution, Revolution, Revolution and Revolution, you get an impression of the Cuban street scene. Briefly, the message is that only socialism can save humanity, no university degree is needed to understand that. Here and there, freedom is demanded for “Los 5”, five Cuban secret service operatives who have been detained by the Americans and are still being held (minus one of them). But most of the personal attention goes to “Fidel y Raul”, to Che Guevara, and to independence fighter José Marti.

Ellen has booked a casa particular in Varadero. There is nobody around when we arrive; there’s just a Rottweiler growling in front of the door. After a while a woman walks out with half a sandwich in her mouth; we don’t understand her but her body language is crystal clear: “What the hell do you want?” Behind her, the rest of the family walks out. Without little confidence, we tell them that we have a reservation. A young man now speaks up; he says there is a problem with the electricity, and they don’t know when it will be fixed, so it is better that they refer us to another appartment. He tells us how to get there, and says the owner is expecting us. At the other casa, someone is indeed standing in the doorway, but again the welcome is nothing like we are used to in Cuba – we feel as if we are about to close a shady drug deal and they first want to make sure we are not undercover agents. Inside, the little flat looks like I imagine Bin Laden’s last residence: the flat is relatively luxurious but completely sealed off from the outside world. Not really a place where we want to end our holiday. We tell him we rather look for a hotel after all, he looks more relieved than disappointed. Moments later, the penny drops; although Cubans are allowed to run casas particulares, they are just not allowed to do so in Varadero – it is illegal here. It would be too much competition for the state-run hotels. It was already pretty extraordinary that Ellen had managed to find one in varadero on the internet. These people were probably taking quite a risk by offering us a room.

And so we end up looking for an all-inclusive hotel. Something we were desperately trying to avoid. Our first choice is heavily over budget, the second one only slightly so. Since we don’t feel like checking out more hotels, we settle for this one. The receptionist gives us a discount by rounding down Teun’s age, so he stays for free. Unlimited food and drink for him for zero euros, which is infinity squared. They must think that with such a small man there´s nothing to worry about, but then they don’t know our son. If there are olives on the buffet, the other guests are out of luck. An ironic result is that Teun, who has been asking every day for weeks if he can get a bracelet (from that playground in our hometown, I told you it was coming back) doesn’t get a bracelet, while Ellen, who has been saying for years that she doesn’t want to be found dead with such an all-inclusive bracelet on her wrist, now has to wear one. Personally, I have nothing with or against bracelets, although I do realise that I am a thief of my own wallet by agreeing to a fixed rate, since I am an below-average drinker. On the terrace, people are sipping on huge self-purchased mugs that they get refilled every couple of minutes at the cocktail bar – at my expense, that is. Purely to get back at them, you start ordering cocktails yourself. What you also see a lot of in Varadero are Russians. The strange thing about Russians is that they always operate in the combination of a blonde, tall, slim, top-model accompanied by two (always two) tacky, pockmarked, bullies wearing fluorescent T-shirts.

What else should I tell you about Varadero? The buffet has the same qualities as the one on Cayo Levisa. The beach here is fine, and the people, well, they’re not too bad, although we don’t understand why anyone would let themselves be locked up here for three weeks. The day before we leave, we return our rental car, a last-minute bureaucratic exercise. Filling the tank is initially impossible because the petrol station is closed for no apparent reason. It then takes us almost an hour to find the correct return location; the spot on our form is correct but also not correct. And then we have to negotiate with the otherwise friendly official about a stolen hubcap. We should have reported it, he says. We are hardly sorry that we failed to do so, and we are happy to buy off this omission with a few tens of euros. We are driven back to the hotel, buy cigars to take home and a dolphin for Teun, and get in a taxi to the airport early the next morning. We have a stopover in Cancun, which lasts a few hours longer than scheduled, the nose wheel has to be replaced. Why it didn’t have to be replaced on the flight from Varadero to Cancun remains unclear. I have to do everything in my power to keep things fun for Teun. We plane-spot until we weigh an ounce. And Ellen feels the first side effects of her pregnancy coming on; she is slowly becoming nauseous. Still, it was lovely that we went to Cuba. While there was still time.