Travels with V
Wild animals and golden sands
And so the day comes when we have to say thanks and goodbye to Eva and Ulises. We have been offered a lift with a nice German couple that are leaving on the same day as us, and they take us to Bayamo. From there we take a bus to Hologuín.
Hologuín is a university town in oriente, but we don’t see much of the city, we’re staying in a casa particular in the outskirts of town, and there we kill the only cockroach we ever see in Cuba. We ask our hosts where we can get a late dinner, and they say: -Across the street! It looks like a standard villa and there’s no sign outside, but we walk in through an open garage door and up some stairs in the back. And we’re suddenly inside a great little paladar, cozy and welcoming. We are almost the only guests.
The waitress is in her twenties and very talkative. She tells us she’s a single mom, that most of all she wants to study, but that’s impossible when she has the baby. Then she turns bitter about the lack of possibilities for young people in Cuba, and once again we’re surprised how open these people can be with their criticism. They’re not afraid.
From Hologuín we must take a taxi, because now we’re going down small and dusty gravel roads up to a very special place on the northeast coast, called Cayo Saetía. It’s an island with one connection to the mainland – a bridge with a gate and a control station. Our papers, booking confirmation, passport and tickets are thoroughly checked. And he car wheels are washed, Cayo Saetía is a natural reserve and they don’t want diseases that can harm the animals spread there.
We have been in the car bumping and swaying for a couple of hours on the potholed roads, but when we arrive at the lodge we immediately forget all that. We get our own cabin, on a high spot with fantastic views and a large mango tree just outside. As usual, as we often say, we are among the very few guests here. The main hall is guarded by a really big Iguana.
In this main building there’s the lobby and a restaurant and a small bar open in the evenings. The staff is a tired bunch of people, not extremely service minded, unfortunately quite typical in state owned restaurants and hotels. Which is exactly why casas particulares and paladars are so popular.
Cayo Saetía has a peculiar history. The Castro brothers made it a national park and made it a home for living animals that they were given by leaders of other countries. Zebras, ostriches, deer and antelopes roam here, plus a poor lonely giraffe, called José. When we visit the place José’s female partner has recently died very tragically, but our driver assures us that they are looking for a new wife for him. We hope they find one.
The original idea the Castros had was that this would be a gaming park where foreign hotshots visitors could try their luck with rifles. Fidel didn’t care, he was more into fishing. But Raoul was here a lot, and twenty years ago he changed his mind and decided that the hunting was unethical. So that was stopped.
Raoul still comes to the island regularly, staying in the biggest cabana with the best views. But in those periods no other guests may stay here.
There are many gorgeous beaches on Cayo Saetía, but they are some distance away from the lodge, so you have to go by jeep to visit. Every morning before breakfast we order a ride to the beach in the morning and back again in the afternoon. The beaches are also a goal for excursion boats from the mainland. They call it trips to “Paradise Island” and the boats anchor by a large bridge and the passengers quickly run for the best stretches of sand. There’s a big building in the middle where they serve lunch to the tourists, and large Iguanas crawl around on the grass. We see later that they are fed with leftovers by a kitchen back door.
The sea is turquoise and crystal clear and it’s great snorkeling waters. It’s safe but we have to be cautious when swimming past a particular rock where a scorpion fish is hiding, although we never see them attack. At times there’s a dark circle in the water a few meters out from the shore. It’s a school of fish swimming round and around. We can snorkel among them and they’re not afraid of us. But at times barracudas race in from the depths further out, and the fish leave a “hole” around the attacker. The barracudas try again and again, but the circle stays intact.
We enjoy lazy days in Cayo Saetía, but the day of departure is drawing near. Thinking of the terrible road to Hologuín I get an idea and talk to the excursion boat captain about it. -Sure, he says, and agrees (for a fee) to take us and our backpacks to Guardalavaca. We enjoy a great sailing trip and free bar on board!
Guardalavaca is a beach resort where we have booked a room in an all-inclusive place just for one night. It’s a huge and very noisy establishment, not at all what we would normally stay in. There’s a swimming pool with a sunken bar, where drunken Canadian girls pour rum over themselves, the boys around them and the bartenders. But we manage to keep a romantic vibe, and on our balcony in the warm night I feel inspired to ask V to be my wife. She says yes, and next summer we’re getting married.
When the day of departure arrives we have to face the fact that we had somehow miscalculated the days, and the flight from Hologuín to Havana that we had tickets for, left yesterday. So our only option now is to once again grab a bus to Havana, a 13 hours ride. But it’s ok, it’s a comfortable bus.
A big secret was revealed during the long bus ride. In the suburbian parts of a town the bus suddenly lleaves the A1, zig-zagg through community housing streets and stops in front of one. Everybody rushes out, we don’t understand why, but we follow the crowd. They go into the house and out on the other side. Where there is a restaurant (but it must have far too many seats to be a paladar*).
We order, like most of our fellow passengers, chicken and rice. And when we ask to pay the waiter says: -Three fifty, please. We pick up four tourist pesos, but the waiter vigorously shakes his head. It turns out the meal cost 3,50 Cuban pesos, ca 0,3 US$ for us both. It’s like between 0,03 and 0,01 % of what we have usually paid for the meals here. That’s the reason why it’s very hard for tourists to get Cuban pesos.
*) A paladar may not exceed a maximum capacity of 24 seats.
Finally we arrive in Havana in the middle of the night, and it’s futile to try and find a hotel so we decide to spend the rest of the night at the airport. In a corner we find some Styrofoam sheets, ok to lie down on, so we mix in with some migrant workers heading for work somewhere in the south and sleep off a few hours.
And early the next morning we’re on our way back to our colder areas of the globe. And we already dream of coming back to friendly and beautiful Cuba.