Cuba 2007: Day 3

Here is a link to tomorrow's diary.
Here is a link to yesterday's diary.
Here is a link to the index of the days.

I didn't take any photos today.

Well, today's the day: the big disaster day. I've been worrying about today for weeks! There are three main things that can go wrong today:

As a result I don't get much sleep. I have set the alarm for 0410 but I'm far too awake to need it. As I know it's going to be a hot day I manage to slip in a quick shower.

I get down to reception at about 0440. Strangely at this time of the morning, there are two receptionists and one of them is on the phone. It seems that my bus is here. One of them goes up to my room to check the minibar. The one here speaks some English and is more poshly dressed. I think he rings my room and speaks to the non-English speaking receptionist. After the phone call, he turns to me and tells me the bus is in Plaza San Francisco. He points to the left and I think I know where he means.

I take my suitcase and rucksack there but there is no bus. Did he say the bus was here or did he say that it was on its way? Such niceties got lost in the pigeon English conversation we had.

I walk back to the hotel. The non-English speaking receptionist is back on duty on his own. My "no bus" gets him to go outside and stare at the Plaza which is a long way in the distance. After doing this for a bit, he goes and get the English-speaking one who tells the other one to go with me and find the bus.

We go back to the Plaza and to the road alongside. This is exactly where I'd been previously. There is no bus. But after a few minutes it turns up.

There are two young woman on board. They are going to Mexico and their flight leaves at 0735. It is 0450 and I think that's a bit close to their last check-in as their flight is an international flight. I check with the driver that he knows that I want Terminal 1. But he already has it sussed: he tells me that the two women want Terminal 3 and the senor wants Terminal 1. Later I find out he knows I'm going to Santiago de Cuba.

We go to the Pacque Central to pick up a couple. Whilst they get on board, the two women say that they have already been here and waited 10 minutes. I guess that the first time the driver found they were not ready and rang my hotel to find out whether I was ready. Hence the reason the receptionist was on the phone when I got to the recption.

When we eventually get to the airport at 0530, I find out that the couple are also going to Santiago. I think they are Spanish or Cuban.

I think they may be locals and so I follow them in to Terminal 1 but once inside they dither. I just go the same way that I did last time I was here. There is a small queue for the Cubanan Airlines flight to Santiago and after a short while I'm checked in.

So today's first big problem didn't materialised. Excellent.

Knowing there were lots of queues the last time I was here, I decide that even though it's early I'll try and go as far as I can. So I go through as far as the departure gate.

There is still ages to go. It is about 0600. I discover a cafeteria and have two coffees and an orange.

This is so different from last time. First it was so hot here last time but today the air conditioning is working in Terminal 1 and last time it was pandemonium because there were so many people trying to get on the various flights.

The airplane is the usual ancient Russian aircraft with signage in Russian and English. I board up a steep set of stairs through the tail of the plan.

Everybody is on board quickly so we leave 10 minutes early. Whenever there is an instruction it is first given in Spanish, and interestingly the locals obey immediately.

It is an event-free flight and I finish off the John Grisham book. I'm reading the last page as we land.

I attempt to find a money exchange place but there's seems not to be one in Arrivals nor in Departures. Still it is not really a problem.

I go to Rex Car Hire, but there is no-one there. A hustler who doesn't speak much English (none of them do) tries to get me to go to a different car hire firm. But after 5 minutes my car hire person turns up.

It takes some time as my car is not available. Seems silly to me. Meanwhile we do the paperwork. We discuss when I want to return the car.

The office won't be open at 0730 when I want to check in, but he knows I'm on the 0935 to Havana, and so he says I can check-in and then come back to return the car. The office opens at 0800. Let's hope someone will be there then!

Super CDW is 23 CUC per day (about 12 UKP per day). There's also a deposit of 300 CUC for something. I sign an empty credit card form (which is always scary). I just hope someone is there at 0800 when I get back.

I also get my map out and try to get info about the route from him but I don't get anywhere. He confirms that Guantanamo Autopista has not been extended since my last trip. The satellite images of the Guantanamo Autopista (available from Google Maps) show a distinct outline for much of the route where I have to use the old road. So the basic foundation of it is there. He says that "nothing ever changes in Cuba".

Eventually a car does show up and it's a Skoda Fabia 4 door that's done 95000K. We walk around the car a few times and the man marks scratches/dents on the form. There are a lot of marks. Quite how anyone will be able to detect any new ones when I get back who knows. I spot the aerial is missing (I must find out the Spanish for "aerial" as "aerial" is an English word rather than an American one), and he pulls it out of the car. He leaves it back in the car. He also points out the "emblems"; these are the logos like "Skoda" and "Fabia". I wonder how many of these will go missing this time. (The last time I was here they did go missing and I had to pay for them.) I inspect the tyres; the front driver's looks a little flat but maybe it's just paranoia. He shows me the spare in the boot. A cursory glance at the tread and the air pressure seems to indicate it will work OK. There's also a jack and a spanner.

So it's now time to sort out problem number two: the trip from the Santiago Airport to Baracoa (250K).

There are three things to help me.

En route to the first roundabout I remember to reset the trip meter to zero. According to Gmaps-Pedometer, the first roundabout should be at 1.48K but I'm there at about 1.1K and so my numbers will be 0.4K short. However, the numbers I have won't be that accurate and so this is unimportant.

At the roundabout, I turn right onto a road called the "Circunvalacion". (I don't think there's any sign saying "Guantanamo"). Last time I was here I missed this crucial turn and went straight on into the suburbs of Santiago. I got deeper and deeper into a mess and disobeyed a golden rule of computing of not being able to backtrack out of a mess you get into. Last time, I spent about 2 hours doing the first 6K of the route, and this made me terribly miserable.

The "Circunvalacion" has a few cars and trucks and horse and carts on it. Although not terribly busy, there seems to be more traffic than last time. I look out for potholes but there are not many about. Just some patches of uneven road surface. I'm still getting used to the car and drive at about 60Kph maximum.

Having worked out some numbers for the key turns beforehand is extremely useful. It means that I can forecast where they should be. It means that I need not look out for the infrequent road signs all the way but only at appropriate points.

So according to the prepared figures the next turn should be at about 12.6K. At about 12K I reach the roundabout where to the left there is the road to Hotel Las Americas and to the right there is the Santiago Autopista that goes northwards. It's the way I have to go.

At every junction there are people wanting lifts. At some junctions they have a person (dressed in yellow) called an amarillo that sorts out who's next for a lift. I think locals are obliged to fill their cars.

The next turn is the crucial one. The last time I was in Cuba I stopped on the Autopista for the police. There were a lot of them and I thought it was a check and that they would wanted to see my passport. But it turns out that they were wanting lifts as well. One of them says he wants to go towards Guantanamo and gets into my car and led me off the Autopista at some point and we drove roughly in the right direction. Worryingly he consulted my map from time to time. After a while, he got out and pointed out which way to go to Guantanamo. Although it worked out well, there are tales on the web of people being robbed by hitchhikers and so I wanted to avoid it. And anyway how do you pick up a hitchhiker that knows the way? It would be silly to pick up one that wanted to go to Guantanamo but then got us lost!

According to my homework, the crucial junction off the Autopista should occur at 25.3K but at 22.7K there is a sign indicating that the next turn is for La Maya (15K) and Guantanamo (70K). That's what I want, and at 23.3K an unsigned turn appears. There are lots of people on the right wanting lifts. I try to ignore them.

I'm a bit worried that this junction is too early. I was expecting one at 25.3K and not 23.3K. At the junction there is one person on the left. I shout "Guantanamo?" and he replies positively. So off I go (before getting any attention from the people on the right wanting lifts!).

About 1.3K down the road, a sign indicates we are entering El Cristo. I thought that the route in "Bicycling Cuba" avoided El Cristo joining the Autopista further north. However, I think they indicate that there is a route through El Cristo, and so I'm not too worried. Luckily, there's not much to El Cristo and so it is a non-issue.

The route I've pre-prepared says there should a turn to the right at 30.6K and sure enough at 31.0K there's a junction (with no road signs) and so (having faith in my homework) I turn right.

About 1.6K further there is a tunnel. A tunnel is mentioned in "Bicycling Cuba" and although I foolishly have failed to write down when this should occur I think to myself I must be on the right road. Yippee! That's two crucial "turn rights" that have succeeded.

At 33.5K there's another road sign indicating a turn to the right with Guantanamo being 63K away.

At 34.5K I'm on the left hand leg of a Y junction, and looking around it seems I think it indicates that Santiago is on the other leg. I make a note that maybe I'll ignore this road sign on the return.

La Maya is reached at 40.3K and here there is a sign to turn right for Guantanamo. A few kilometres along at the end of the town I suddenly recognise the place where last time the policeman got out of the car. So last time from this point on I made it to Baracoa without too much diffculty. During the last few Ks I've become more confident that problem number two is not to be a problem. This thought, that from here I've done this before, makes me happy.

Yerba de Guinea is forecast in my notes for 58.2K and is reached at 57.4K. Looking at the satellite images there seems to a left turn at 63.4K but this does materialise.

The Autopista to Guantanamo is forecasted to arrive at 72.5K and I get to it at 71.5K.

It's about 23K to where the Guantanamo Autopista ends in the northern surburbs of Guantanamo. The route then takes you through housing estates and industrial estates through the north east of Guantanamo and so by this means you avoid going into the town.

It signposted in parts and at other parts it's a bit obvious. Last time I shouted "Baracoa?" out of the window a few times but this time I do it without a hitch as a result of the printouts from Gmaps-Pedometer and my memory of last time.

It's about 100K from Santiago Airport to here (Guantanamo) and another 150K from here to Baracoa. It makes sense to take a break at Guantanamo but I fail to do this, Apart from water I don't have any food which is also silly. There's a petrol station on the eastern side of Guantanamo at 99.2K and this may have provisions. It would be sensible to stop there if I'm every back here again.

Soon after leaving Guantanamo, you pass a road turn where you could look over into USA base in Guantanamo Bay provided you go through a lot of formalties with the Cuban authorities. But I have decided not to bother. From here, you carry on down to the sea (which is reached at 140K).

And then the drive goes along the coast where there are empty beaches and coves. It's a nice part of the world. There are few towns and villages, the main ones being San Antonio del Sur and Imias.

I think of stopping in Imias for provisions but at each place where it looks like I might get something there are people wanting lifts. So I press on starving.

16K after Imias there is a left turn away from the beach road. I see the sign warning of its advance, but fail to turn off. After getting a bit worried that I miss the turn I realise that the road is going in land and is starting to get twisty.

The road from here there is a winding road climbing up and then down. It's called the "Farola" road. And on many of the turns there will be people selling fruit and an allegedly refreshing chocolately concoction in palm leaves called cucurucho.

And so I arrive in Baracoa. It's about 1440 and it's taken me 5 hours. So today's final problem is to sort out the accommodation. My voucher has "Porto Santo" written on it and I don't want to stay there as it's 4K out of Baracoa. I'm going to go to El Castillo and see whether I can get the accommodation changed to El Castillo. Plan B is stay at the hotel I stayed at previously. It's the "La Habanera" and it's situated right in the middle of town. It's the ideal place to stay but they weren't taking bookings when I tried on the web. And Plan C is to stay at a private guest house, a "Casa Particular". These are all identified by a sign and I wonder how difficult it is to find a good one that is not occupied. There are a lot of Casas in Baracoa.

There are a lot of one-way streets in Baracoa. I arrive from the south. But El Castillo is got to by turning of a southerly street. I decide to use the wide reasonably traffic-free Malecon (sea promenade) to get to the north side of the town and then use a southerly street to get to the "El Castillo". This is accomplished with ease.

The "El Castillo" is perched on a hill overlooking the town and so it's a hilly twisting road up to the hotel.

I park the car and take my voucher to reception. She looks me up on her computer and I suddenly realise that problem number 3 is not a problem as well: I've got a room at the "El Castillo". I'm so pleased.

Later I see that there are a lot of keys behind reception and so maybe the Hotel is not full at all and so they don't mind which Hotel you stay at. It can't be this because I think they would have given me a choice when I checked in.

Having regretted not getting the safe in the hotel in Havana, I sign up for a safe. The porter takes me to the room. It has a view over the town, a large shower, a fridge, a wall-safe and a TV which I later discover has good reception for both CNN and HBO. Excellent.

When later I'm looking through the channels, I discover from CNN that there have been two car bombs in London.

My bum bag has broke. But I know a shop in Baracoa where I got a not-very-good bum bag when I was last here. But although it still sells rucksacks (it's where I got the one I've got with me) it no longer sells bum bags. There's little food to be had (e.g., chocolate or biscuits) in the shops of Baracoa. I come away with just a 1.5 litre bottle of water.

On returning to the hotel I discover that the hotel shop is geared up for tourists. It has water, cans of coke, chocolate biscuits, crisps, suntan lotion, insect repellent and clothes. Most of these are difficult to find in the shops in Baracoa.

On returning to the car I discover it is dripping water. It's quite a while since I parked the car. I open up the bonnet. Although the leak is in the area of the radiator, it's not obvious where the water is coming. The water is not pouring out and I wonder how much has already evaporated. I also wonder whether there is a fracture somewhere in the radiator. I try to work out where you enter coolant. In the end I think I find something that indicates that the coolant is still between the min and max marks. In order to try and work out how much water is leaking, I reverse the car a bit in order to see how much new water has escaped. I then discover oil on the ground. What both water and oil leaks! Grhh!

After all of today's successes, this annoys me intensively as I'm lots of miles from the nearest car hire branch. On returning to the car later, there is no other oil and so I conclude that that is from some other car previously using this spot. And there is little water. I guess that the escaping water was from an overflow because the coolant was too hot after 250K continuous driving in the heat.

I cheer up. I go into Baracoa a few times mainly to see if there are any groups playing and to see if the restaurants I want to use exist and are serving food. There is only noisy recorded music and there are three potential restaurants but they are not open in my last foray at 1850. I also discover that the hotel that I stayed at last time ("La Habanera") is being gutted and refitted.

I enquire about my hotel's restaurant. It's going to be outside this evening and it starts at 1900. I return to my room and make another foray at 1950. Even though there is no-one in the "La Colonial" restaurant, I get one of the three tables. This restaurant is in three guidebooks but whilst I was there there were no other customers.

He reads me a menu of main courses in English from a scrap of paper he has in his hands. I choose "swordfish". I also choose a beer, and a can of Buchanero arrives (5.4%). When the food arrives it is accompanied by three other dishes, one containing rice, another containing some fresh bread, and the other containing 6 cold vegetables. It looks excellent. And I'm ravenous and am pleased with it. I have another beer.

It's about 2050 when I finish which is good timing as the music should begin at 2100. Seeing it is a nice evening, the Casa La Trova has put chairs outside forming a square where the band will play on one side, the dancers will dance in the middle, and the audience will sit on the chairs. Very organised.

The MC tries to get passing people to sit down. I'm hanging around on the pavement and he asks me to sit down but I decline.

He has a few people seated when the performance starts. When new people arrive he takes a small amount of money of them and gets them a drink (a mohito?). Between numbers, he talks in Spanish and part of this is to mention where the various newcomers are from. A few people are dancing. It's all very excruciating.

Later it pours with rain. And so the people, the chairs and the band move inside the Casa de la Trova. It all now continues in a similar fashion inside. However, the band appear a lot more accomplished. They've probably done all this before. I wonder whether they are local. And they are probably more comfortable together on the stage indoors. They work better in this setting.

When the rain stops I return to my room as with little sleep the night before and a long day with a lot of stressful moments I've feeling shattered. With all the windows open it is tremendously noisy from one of the events in town. (I hate air-conditioning partly because it is noisy and so I rarely use it.) I can just tolerate the noise levels where I am and I wonder how anyone can cope at the location. Without having undressed I fall asleep and wake at 0330 to silence. Time for bed.

I didn't take any photos today.

Here is a link to tomorrow's diary.
Here is a link to yesterday's diary.
Here is a link to the index of the days.