Part 1: Travel Diary
How to get there?
We wake up before the city roosters to check in at the Viazul bus office in Vinales at 6am. The bus starts at 6:45 am, if we don’t check-in on time, our tickets might be sold to someone else. It’s a 7h ride, at 60km/h, in a refrigerated bus
We have 2 pee breaks, a restaurant stop and a quick stop at Jagüey Grande where some tourists get off to take a colectivo to Playa Larga
At this moment, some take the opportunity to go down for a toilet break, and the driver leaves…without them. Their friends had to yell at the driver to make him agree to wait another 30 seconds
Note: before getting off the bus, always ask if you are allowed to get off and for how long. Viazul drivers don’t count the number of passengers before starting and losing a few tourists along the way doesn’t seem to worry them.
And they don’t take care of the luggage either. On arrival in Cienfuegos, it looks like a battle. Between the travelers who have to pick up their luggage at the bottom of the hold, the packers who try to give us their accommodation, and the owners who come to pick up their customers… It’s a mess. Ours comes to pick us up with a sign “jinn y benoy” (for Jean-Benoît ahahah). We asked him where he got this name, he answered that the agency we went through to book the casa, gave him the name by phone, hence the very approximate spelling
Day 1 : Vinales -> Cienfuegos
We walk together to the casa, where he explains that he is a martial arts teacher and athlete. When we arrive at the casa, two women are waiting for us in front, all smiling. We like their warm welcome very much
We have the whole second floor to ourselves, a double bed, two single beds, bathroom and private access to a huge terrace with lots of chairs, tables and rocking chairs. But since these two ladies seem to be open to discussion, I sit down to talk to them and ask them all the questions about Cuba, how it’s going, how much it costs for a kg of mangoes etc…. for 2h30. Poor JB who finds no excuse to withdraw. He will tell me afterwards that he has heard more Spanish there than during all his Spanish classes cumulated in high school
But I was too happy to find a casa where you aren’t too far from the owners, where you can almost share their daily life. The configuration of the place allows us to have our own space (we occupy the whole 1st floor), but as soon as we want, we can go down to the first floor and start an endless discussion. There are always people around, we don’t really know who is who, what they are doing there. It’s typically Cuban and that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a casa: authenticity. At one point, a neighbor comes to see us with her binoculars born 20 days ago, carried in her arms and protected from the sun by a baptismal veil. Apparently, it’s common to present your new baby like this, from house to house
As usual, we ask this casa to call the next casa to confirm our arrival the next day. We will stay in Cienfuegos for one night, then after Playa Giron and Playa Larga, we will come back there to spend three nights. This trip isn’t logical because I didn’t have all the information I needed to organize the transportation
The host of our casa went by bike to the Viazul terminal to get us a colectivo cab. He tells us the rate: 15CUC/person to Playa Giron. It isn’t a tariff that we would like to have, but since he took the trouble to go there, to look for a driver, we accept
Note: This isn’t because the casa takes a commission, but because it has no interest in negotiating prices for us. Thus, she will accept the price that the cab colectivo gives her. So never go through the casa for colectivos cabs, look for one yourself to be able to negotiate.
Day x : Playa Larga -> Cienfuegos
After 2 nights in Playa Giron and 3 nights in Playa Larga, enjoying the beach, we are ready to return to Cienfuegos. The bus Viazul Playa Larga -> Cienfuegos goes to Playa Larga at 9:45 am. We don’t have tickets, so we wait like all the other tourists at the Viazul stop hoping to pay a seat directly to the driver
We didn’t even have time to wait for the arrival of the Viazul that a colectivo cab approaches us with two other tourists and proposes us the route for 10CUC/person, direct deposit at our casa in Cienfuegos, immediate departure. The bus Viazul costs 7CUC/person and we aren’t sure to have places available. So we don’t need to be asked, we say yes right away
Note: if we had passed by our casa, the price would have been 15CUC/person -> never pass by the casa for the colectivos cabs, look for one yourself to be able to negotiate. But if you don’t speak Spanish, OK, ask your casa 😀
The driver puts the music on full blast, on his radio there is even a screen to watch the clips ahahah We can adjust the windows so that the wind is pointing at us. It’s too modern for an old American car! I feel too much like I’m in “Mad Men” 😀
1h30 later, we are deposited in front of our casa. Elsa is sitting in front of the door, waiting for us
It’s fun to come back to a casa we already know, it’s like going home 😀 Same smiles, same atmosphere, same room. We quickly put down our bags to go to Cubatur (a travel agency) to reserve our excursions
Whether by tourist bus or private cab, the prices are the same: 35CUC/person for El Nicho, 20CUC/person for Laguna de los Aves, entrance included. The advisor at Cubatur is super smiling, explains well, frankly I am impressed by such a welcome! It’s a change from Viazul lol (which belongs to the government)
I spend an hour with Elsa and her niece to show them the videos we took in snorkelling a few days ago. I’m a little ashamed of my Spanish, I don’t understand anything she says, the 7 year old girl. Elsa has to repeat what the little one tells me, in muy despacio version but her speech is about animals, learning to swim, dolphin show and it’s not the kind of vocabulary I learn with Mosalingua. I notice that she has a tattoo-sticker on her arm and offers her a small lion-shaped sticker-tattoo, which she likes very much
After a well-deserved nap, we go out for an ice cream in Coppelia
It is a very famous glacier. There is one in Havana but I think we will never be able to stand the queue there (the queue is 3 streets long). Besides, several love stories have been born thanks to this long wait. There are 2 entrances: one where you pay in moneda nacional, and the other one for impatient tourists, where you pay in CUC (there is no one of course)
The queue in front of Coppelia in Cienfuegos has nothing to do with Havana, there are only 5 people in front of us. It’s a place where we eat obligatorily on the spot, with waiters who come to take the order, hence the obligatory wait
At the moment we are passing by, the stock is being delivered, so the offer goes from 1 unique taste (Almond), to 4 tastes (Almond, Chocolate, Guava and Vanilla). Luxury! (in Cuba, it isn’t uncommon that the menu does not correspond at all to the stock and that the waiter spends his time telling us “no hay ” (there is none))
We look around us to know “the rules of the game”. The Cubans wait patiently for the waitress to come up to them to take an order. And to make their waiting time profitable, they each take 2 cups of ice cream, and the families buy in addition a huge jar of ice cream to take home. The Cubans are also watching us, looking amused and especially curious to know how we are going to get by when we don’t know the menu or what each item on the menu corresponds to
But we are backpackers, not tourists. Since the waitress doesn’t give us a menu, JB comes out of the ice cream parlor and takes a picture of the menu displayed in front of it. We randomly show 4 names on the menu, between 2.5 and 4CUP, looking really confident/knowledgeable. The waitress brings them to us 5 minutes later, we don’t know what we eat exactly, but it’s super good!
For FOUR huge cuts, we paid 12CUP (moneda nacional) or 0,5€ !!!!! A bit ashamed to pay so little, we leave a big tip to the waitress, I think she’s worth it. It’s crazy this price difference that we pay as tourists. A SINGLE cup of ice cream like that in a restaurant for tourists would have cost 2€. Having Cuban pesos (moneda nacional) in our pockets opens a lot of doors for us. We also spotted a pizzeria next door, 15CUP (moneda nacional) each – 0,6€
Note: when you see the Cubans lining up, take a good look where you are. If it’s not a bank/ETECSA, it’s probably a good place to eat and pay in moneda nacional. Be careful, if the prices aren’t clearly indicated, the waiter will look you straight in the eyes and say “for you, it’s 2.5CUC – 2.5€” (tourist rate/pigeon/gringo). Run away!
With a full belly, we take a walk in the historical center of Cienfuegos to admire its French architecture, especially the beautiful José Martin Park
Then we go to a watchtower that reminds me of a French bridge, then we dine at the restaurant Las xxx??, at the super soft price
This restaurant is right next to the Malecon, the Cuban version of the “Promenade des Anglais”. The Cubans have their eyes glued to their smartphone while the only Wifi available is protected by a password. It smells like a “Wifi deal” (I talked about the Wifi deal in my Havana article)
We sit on one of the benches to watch the fonts stop anyone. Including a cyclo that already looks like a Christmas tree with its garlands around its cyclo. Apparently, he got a fine for forgetting to put his blinker on. How hard life is! The cyclists are the least paid because they are non-motorized. They can only ride short distances. And here he is paying a fine by drawing on his meager income of the day
Day x+1 :
At 8:55 a.m., a cab comes to pick us up at the casa to go to El Nicho, with another American tourist. We arrive at 10:40 am because the driver took the opportunity to make some personal stops (to get milk, to give something to a friend). That amuses us and especially that gives us a glimpse of the life of a true Cuban so we let him do what he wants. It is also an excellent guide, who always finds interesting things to say during the long trip, showing us different plantations, the mountains, which mountain belongs to which region, the HLM type houses… all this with simple words to match my poor level of Spanish. He is a basic civil engineer, but not being able to survive with 35CUC of salary per month, he prefers to become a cab
I see myself too much, in a few months, to present myself like this: I’m a director of basic advertising campaigns, but since I can’t survive the Parisian stress, I prefer to knit dreamcatchers.
The road Cienfuegos – El Nicho isn’t easy, with a lot of uphill, potholes and curves. It is even more difficult for these old American cars. We will meet some of them that have to stop at the side of the road to cool down the engine
The entrance to El Nicho costs 10CUC/person. This rate includes a guided group walk for 2 hours. Explanations are rather brief
Unfortunately, having read too much positive feedback about El Nicho, our imagination far exceeds reality. We were expecting to see Iguazu style waterfalls, natural pools full of fish like lagoons in the Philippines… so we are disappointed and regret having paid 70€ (at 2) for it. Moreover, the water is only 18°C. Only JB is swimming. Me, I do like the Cubans: I watch people screaming as they enter the water
We go back to Cienfuegos and go to Viazul to buy the bus tickets for Trinidad 2 days later (6CUC/person). We get them without any problem
Day x+2 :
The same driver is picking us up today at 7:30 am to go to Laguna Guanaroca. It is necessary to leave Cienfuegos at 7:30 am to be sure to be able to visit this lake of pink flamingos because the number of places per day is limited to 30. Even if we leave early, we arrive 6th and 7th, but we are still part of the first group to visit the place (departure every 30mn approximately). A guide shows us the trees, the birds and then he lets us go up 2 by 2 on a boat with another guide. This guide brings us up to 10m approximately of pink flamingos which, disturbed by our presence (however discrete), move away more and more. It is that the advantage to be in the 1st group! The other groups will have to see them from afar because the boats cannot either, in 15 minutes, reach the other bank and return. We see the flamingos flying at the water level by 2, 3 or 5… With the morning sun at the bottom, it is a picture of postcard which is offered to us
Everything is happening too fast. At 9:30 am, we are already in the cab. I ask the driver to take us to Rancho Luna, 3km away, just to see what the most beautiful beach of the area looks like. Just to see, because we do not intend to swim there. We did well because this beach is frankly not beautiful compared to those which we saw in Playa Larga or Playa Giron. The sand isn’t fine, the water not very transparent. I do not like it too much
We return to Cienfuegos where we queue for 1 hour to buy Wifi cards at ETECSA. This office also has a “cybercafé” space full of premises. It is especially for those who do not have smartphones or who absolutely need a computer. The poor, as there are too many people for this cybercafé, they aren’t allowed to wait in the cool inside (not enough space), but under the heat on the opposite sidewalk. From time to time, the ETECSA employee opens the door and lets 3 people enter the “cybercafé” space
I go to a store to buy hair elastics. Already, there are only neon-colored elastics, but in addition, the products are classified by universe. One salesman per universe, one line per universe. Nothing is self-service, hence the waiting. If I also wanted a plate and a pile, I would have to queue 2 more times because it’s part of the different universes
One street away, a long line forms in front of a bank and it doesn’t move fast
To survive in Cuba, you have to know how to stand in line without complaining.
A little word about Elsa’s casa de Elsa before finishing this article: it is really the casa particular as I always imagined it: possibility to see Cubans living, speaking with them in Spanish, sharing a piece of life with them. Unlike other casas where guests often stay in their private space, at Elsa’s house everything happens next to the kitchen, in the common area, where there is a TV and rocking chairs. A lot of people come to see Elsa and her sister, we talk to them too (without necessarily knowing exactly what they are doing there, or who they are). Lisa, Elsa’s niece, who is 7 years old, is particularly fascinated by the tourists who pass by the house, and she tells us about her life, without filter, without fear. So, in 3 days, we have seen glimpses here and there of their daily life: the food they eat, the movies they watch on TV, the domino games with the neighbors, the people who come to see them, how they take care of Lisa etc. It’s really a great experience that I recommend you … Elsa remembers each of the guests who passed by her casa, maybe one day she will tell you about this little Asian girl accompanied by a great Frenchman?
Part 2: Practical Tips
Considering the number of casas owners and casas owners in front of the Viazul bus in Cienfuegos, I don’t think it is difficult to find free accommodation for you. Personally, we went through the Cuba Casa agency to be sure of what awaits us. We booked at Elsa OJEDA and we are very happy with the welcome, the beautiful room and the private terrace that we have. The location is perfect, 2mn walk from the city center, and 5mn walk from the Viazul station. The meals are simpler than the other casas, but the cultural experience is 1000 times more enriching
Elsa does not have an email address so please go through the agency for any reservation!
CASA ELSA OJEDA (only speaks Spanish)
Address: Avenida 52 #3922 between 39 y 41. Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos (52nd Avenue Number 3922 between 39th Street and 41st Street. Cienfuegos)
Owner name: Elsa
Telephone: (+53) 43514473
Price: 25,00 cuc/night
Note: The price does not include breakfast or additional services
- Bus Viazul Viñales -> Cienfuegos : 32 CUC/person
- Cab colectivo Playa Larga -> Cienfuegos : 10CUC/person (it’s a very good price, normally it costs 15CUC/person)
- Accommodation: 25 CUC/night
- Breakfast: 5 CUC, huge
- Dinner at the casa: 12CUC/person
- Coppelia Glacier: between 2 and 4CUP/cup of super good ice cream
- Dinner at the restaurant: 13,5CUC for two, drinks included
- Visits :
- El Nicho: 35CUC/person by private cab. 10CUC/person entrance, guide included (reservation made at Cubatur)
- Laguna: 10CUC/person by private cab. 10CUC/person entrance. 5CUC supplement if you want to stop at Rancho Luna (reservation made at Cubatur)
- I recommend the Cubatur agency we went through for its seriousness and its smiling employee.
- El Nicho : bof bof. I hear that the falls are more beautiful during the rainy season (May -> July), but I’ve seen better for the same price (Iguazu for example). El Nicho is to be visited from Cienfuegos and not from Trinidad because the road is even harder from Trinidad (too much uphill). If you don’t want to pay 10CUC of entry, know that there is a natural swimming pool just in front of the entrance (free of charge) and a waterfall at 4mn walk from the entrance (ask the driver, only locals know this place) with natural swimming pool, free of charge too and more beautiful. If you are in a hurry, visit El Nicho by private cab on the way to Trinidad (go through an agency like Cubatur to be sure of the seriousness of the driver).
- The Cienfuegos – El Nicho road is dangerous because of curves, potholes and the dangerous driving of Cubans. Be careful if you go there with your rental car.
- For those who have never seen flamingos, I recommend a visit to Laguna Guanaroca. For those who have seen a hundred of them in Florida or Mexico, the place might disappoint you.
- If you are going to Laguna Guanaroca, leave early (7:30 a.m. like us) to be among the first to explore the place (30 people allowed per day). If you arrive at 8:00 am sharp (opening hours), it may already be too late.
- Roncho Luna: there are better beaches in Cuba. If you are going to Trinidad, prefer Playa Ancon de Trinidad to Roncho Luna.
- I was told about a dolphin center not far from Roncho Luna, there are 2 shows per day (including 1 at 1pm). One can even swim with the dolphins for 35CUC/person. To make perhaps with the children. In any case, Lisa (7 years old) attended the show and spoke to me about it with the eyes which shone.
- Don’t pay the 10CUC cab colectivo to Trinidad, there are 5 buses Viazul/day to go there, at only 6CUC/person, air conditioned.
- I will put here the Viazul bus schedule from Cienfuegos + the fares as soon as I return to France