Cuba May 2013
Flights to Cuba
It was my first time flying with Air Europa, a Spanish based firm, but they were by far the cheapest option to get to Havana and it made perfect sense to use them, especially as the flight times worked quite well with our train arriving/departing Havana on the day of arrival.
I’d checked in online the previous day at work and managed to get the boarding cards printed too, so there was no messing about at check-in desks. The usual fiasco of getting through security took a matter of minutes and breakfast was sitting on the table at Wetherspoons within 30 minutes of arriving at Gatwick airport’s front door!
The flight to Madrid was harmless, it was only a short flight anyway. Our connecting flight and its gate was announced as we came in to land so we knew where we were heading the moment we got off. From that point on we’d entered the world of Spanish speaking people; not many of whom spoke a great deal of English and we were very much in the minority.
I’d picked seats at the front of our Madrid – Havana flight to help with a quick getaway when we arrived in Cuba. The in flight entertainment wasn’t up to much, despite the plane’s interior looking quite new, it was still fitted with TV screens that folded down from the roof and there was none of the in flight entertainment in the back of the seat stuff. I spent most of the 9h45m flight trying to sleep anyway. Whilst two meals were served en-route, the first hardly touched the sides and the second barely topped the first up. Sweets were what topped me up en-route!
Arriving into Cuba
Arrival into Havana was at 1930, just as the electronic display had been saying, since we’d departed Madrid. We were 30 late at that and thought it might make our getting for our 2300 departure from Havana to Pinar Del Rio a little dodgy. We needn’t have been concerned at all as we were standing outside Havana Central station by 2030!
Sitting near the front of the plane paid off, big time. We were almost first into the almost empty immigration area, where there were no queues at all. Immigration was simple, hand over passport, get photographed, don’t show comprehensive medical insurance certificate (wasn’t asked to), get visitor permit stamped then exit through the closed door once the immigration girl presses the buzzer. Then that’s it, you’re into Cuba…..
Money changing was quite straight forward too. Again there was no queue and we just rolled up, handed over our money, and were in possession of £150 worth of Convertible Peso’s; the exchange rate being 1.49 CUC to the £1. Unfortunately they wouldn’t allow us to change any money into normal Peso’s at the airport. However we did eventually manage to get some changed and we got 240 Pesos for 10 CUC which equates to 24 Peso’s per 1 CUC and then approx 36 Peso’s to £1.
There wasn’t even a queue for taxi’s outside the airport and we’d been expecting the worst in having to haggle our way to town; but no, that wasn’t to happen either. Some woman came up to us, asked us where we were going and then told us it would cost 25 CUC, which was the fare we were going to haggle for anyway. Moments later we were on our way to Havana Central station and being introduced to the most iconic thing Havana has to offer, in my opinion, the old American cars that are still going strong, throughout Cuba to this day. Apparently in 2011 there were approx 35,000 still in use throughout the country!
Havana to Pinar Del Rio by Train
Havana Central station has quite an imposing façade. Inside it on the station concourse there were quite a lot of people hanging about round the central column where the ticket office windows are. Most it turns out where checking their reservations for whatever train happened to be preparing to head out east somewhere. I say somewhere as no matter what day of the week it was all the booked departures should have gone by that time, other than the Sancti Spiritus and it wasn’t that as it should run the following day.
The timetable of departures is displayed about the ticket office windows, although it doesn’t show their days of departure. This info can be gained by asking at the ticket windows. The Havana – Pinar ran every other day but we knew the dates it would depart courtesy of a contact in Cuba who confirmed it back in January. The days were then recently confirmed again thanks to another trip report in March.
The ticket widow where tickets are purchased for the Pinar train is immediately below, and one to the left, of the departure display board. Although it should open at 2100 it opened at 2115. Tickets cost 6.50 Peso’s but of course being tourists we had to pay 6.50 CUC’s. So the locals pay about 18p for their 192km journey and tourists pay about £4.36p………
Once tickets were bought we got chatting to a German speaking couple who were taking their bikes to Pinar on the train and then riding forward to Vinales. Once back they’d be catching a train to Santa Clara and riding to Cienfuegos as well. And they call cranks mad? It was forecast to be above 30 degrees every day!
We were allowed onto the platform at 2250. It had sounded as though the crew had being having difficulties in getting a brake with how many times it had been dropped. Although our tickets had coaches and seat reservations written on them we chose to sit at the front anyway, mainly because it was empty. We were moved into another coach by the ticket guy almost immediately; for reasons only known to him as we couldn’t understand his Spanish of course. The stock was in a bit of a state, but only a bit. I’d been on worse many times so hadn’t been expecting anything less than broken seats, windows not working, doors not closing and of course, no toilets. Lighting was provided by a bulb hanging down from the wires that it had been attached to on the ceiling so at least that was something.
As we were quite tired from our lengthy flight, our body clocks thinking it was almost 6am UK time, our threshold for noise and general rancidity went down a little and we cat napped for a while; not really processing the fact that the folk in the bay behind us seemed to be having a mini party, clapping, laughing and being generally jovial. That ended when we got moved on by people who were actually reserved in the seats we’d been deposited in by the guard. We were then moved on a second time when the next set of folk took a liking to our seats; of course they were reserved in them too so were entitled to them, and as were we to ours. Our reservation scenarios had given us an idea of the way the coaches are numbered, coach 5 (ours) being the rear one ex Havana, which would explain why most people got into it back at Havana of course.
Some bert was sat in our booked seats but he didn’t even resist when we asked him to move and that was us, in our booked seats, all content with the fact that we were having to endure a packed overnight train with no bogs and missing windows…… And with some idiot youth deciding the three other people in his bay were the judges for Cuba’s Got Talent; while he sang to them for 20 minutes non-stop! I have heard worse mind.
Whilst we might have nodded for a bit we didn’t get much sleep at all but it did take the edge off our tiredness, enough for us to pay attention to our surroundings and figure out that we should really be getting off at Los Palacios, for the 0510 Los Palacios – Guane; which we’d be doing forward from Pinar anyway.
The lack of bogs on the train had been an issue, for us anyway, and we ended up pissing up against the wall in some bushes while the train waited at some station or other in the middle of the night. We’d managed to keep a track of where we were and as we arrived into Los Palacios we found a set of stock in the sidings which which at least meant the 0510 Los Palacios – Guane was running.
Quite a few other folk had got off too, all of whom seemed to be doing the 0510 to Guane forward. The train was formed of: Baggage van, 1 x coach & 5 x converted wagon coaches. Tickets for the train were on sale just after 4am, costing 2.75 Peso’s each; there was none of that CUC stuff being used in Los Palacios. The loco was soon started and I have to say it was music to the ears just starting.
Most people had boarded the train before it was shunted out of the sidings so we followed suit after obtaining our tickets. Inside the stock was still shrouded in darkness and it was just as well Si had his torch out as some considerate person had taken a crap on the floor in the first bay we were going to sit in. Everyone that came along after that had to be shown said pile of crap to prevent them either covering themselves or their luggage in it, until the guy came round wiring bulbs in to light the place up a bit.
I’d been expecting a totter along with the train having old freight vehicles in it but no, that’s not what happened and the loco was given what for from the off and it sounded just the part. By the time we arrived into Pinar, only a few minutes late, the train was full and standing with even the bay full of crap having occupants, all turning their nose up at the smell I might add. While quite a lot got off, quite a lot also stayed on board for the journey towards Guane; the train having 37 minutes to wait until its booked 0730 departure from Pinar.
Pinar Del Rio
Pinar Del Rio is as colonial as they come but full of touts trying to entice you into Casa’s and onto various tours. Most people just pass thorugh Pinar en-route to Vianles.
As food places seem to close in Pinar from about 1500-1900 we only found one place open, which only had us in it, but it served a decent grilled pork steak with a selection of side dishes for CUC 10.
That evening we had a quick pizza in the pizzeria over the road from the hotel, it having re-opened by the time we’d returned from the station. It was a popular place, serving pizza & pasta but don’t expect the pizzas to be anything like what you’d expect back home. I’d liken them to something you’d probably get from a frozen food place, somewhere like Iceland back home.
Pinar Del Rio – Hotel Vueltabajo
The Hotel Vueltabajo is a very distinctive, pink colonial building, on a street that has many more buildings of a similar ilk. Those on the front desk were expecting us and all spoke good English. The hotel had been booked through Cuba Travel Network before leaving the UK; this being one of the only places you can book hotels in Cuba before arriving in the country. It had cost us about £18 per night, for single rooms, through the agency and the rate on the wall was CUC 35 for a single and CUC 55 for a twin, so not much different.
We were initially given rooms on the front of the hotel, above the busy road below, but were soon changed to rooms away from the road upon asking. We’d actually asked for quiet rooms beforehand anyway and the hotel didn’t seem that busy; if indeed there were any other guests staying there at all.
The rooms are big with high ceilings, air con, fridge, bathroom and hot water. Mine had a rather distinctive big canvas on the wall with a massive eye staring out from it, which I guess could be quite unnerving for some?
Don’t expect anything grandeur but the food was ok, our spaghetti with chorizo, omelette, rice and 4 soft drinks coming to less than CUC10 for the lot. Breakfast is included in the room rate.
A couple of beers were welcome in the hotel bar at night, outside on the balcony admiring the old passing cars.
Pinar Del Rio to Guane By Train (Day 1 – continuing after arrival from Havana/Los Palacios)
While at Pinar we managed to find some guy selling ham sandwiches and cold pop, which sufficed for breakfast and some cleaner came and dealt with the crap in the next bay, which at least meant we could eat them without the smell of crap filling our nostrils as we did.
We departed about 20 late as none of the passengers from Pinar Del Rio were allowed onto the platform to board the train until the van had been shunted onto the front. They were all hoarded into the booking hall to wait boarding; why is anyone’s guess as the train left late as a result when it actually didn’t need to.
The run to Guane doesn’t have a great deal of scenery going for it, its generally green and flat-ish. The bit that stands out from the rest is the final few kilometres into Guane where there are some hills, streams and a small lake to complement each other. The clear skies with white fluffy clouds adding to the scene even more.
We were later into Guane than we had been departing Pinar Del Rio due to the shunting that took place at Isabel Rubio, just outside Guane. Whereby the van at the front used to be shunted round the train at Guane it was now done at Isabel Rubio to save the shunting at Guane, apparently.
Guane doesn’t have a deal to offer. Outside the station is the bus station for local buses to various places, the timetable for which is in the hut where you presumably by tickets from. There aren’t any back to Pinar I might add. There are a couple of vending shacks selling pop, beer, pizzas, freshly cooked crisps and other bits and bobs. We loaded up on some nice cold pop to take the edge of the afternoon heat; which we were now starting to feel.
My first experience of travelling in a make-shift wagon that had been converted to a passenger carrying one wasn’t as bad as I’d expected it to be. Some doors had been put into the sides of the wagons, along with windows and even some electrical connections for lighting. Down the sides of each one were seats, from end to end, though some, if not most, had clearly seen better days. Still the journey was pleasant enough and air circulated quite well when the train was on the move but it got stifling when it wasn’t; it could have been worse…..
Pinar Del Rio to Guane By Train (Day 2)
En-route a security check was done, where random people’s ID was checked. Some guy was given a ticket for sitting on the footsteps near the door and had all his details logged, which did seem a bit unfair. Quite what the ticket represented I don’t know. Shortly after that followed a full ticket inspection by what could only have been senior ticket inspectors as the ticket guys were following humbly behind as it went on. They were quite thorough too, checking that the holes on the tickets were punched in the right place and they didn’t miss a trick; quite a few people were chung up for onward journeys, their tickets having been valid to stations we’d passed already. Even the locals know all the tricks to make their very cheap journey even cheaper! All the while the same vendors were up and down the train selling the same stuff they had been the previous day.
At Guane we had a bit of time to wander out onto the street after photographing. There’s a good painting of Che Guevara on a building just beyond the bus station worth a phot and there were plenty of old cars knocking about, picking up and dropping off at the station, assumed to be taxi’s.
Unfortunately the pizza man had sold out by the time I got to him so freshly made crisps and a can of pop had to suffice. The woman serving us the pop tried to scam us though as she only gave us 2 Peso’s change from 40 when our bill was 28! The cheeky cow had it in her hand all along and produced it in second when challenged.
To avoid the ticket fiasco on the way back we bought one from the booking office, which was in Peso’s anyway so not an issue. The return journey to Pinar was rammed and even the locals were feeling the heat as they tried to doss out, looking as knackered as we felt.
Pinar Del Rio to Guane By Train (Day 3)
Rather than risk a telling off on the train for not having a ticket, a second day in a row, we opted to get them from the ticket office. You’d have thought we’d asked for it to be gold plated with the complete lack of response and attitude we got. Tickets were eventually written out though, once the woman serving us had found the CUC ticket book and some Convertibles for our change. It was our third trip to Guane and for the third day running we’d paid a different price; 1.85 Peso’s, 2.70 Peso’s and 1.85 CUC’s!
Despite the fact that we had a ticket for the train the security guard wouldn’t let us on at the gate where the bikes are let onto the platform so we had to make do with queuing in the booking hall with the rest of the rabble.
The driver of 52425 didn’t look too happy about something and was using his hands to show his dissatisfaction at something. It turned out that the 3 converted wagons off the inbound 0450 from Guane, which of course 52407 had worked, were being shunted onto the rear of the train to create extra capacity and thus causing some delay. It was a good move on the railway’s behalf though as it was Mothers Day and the train was already wedged with folk before they let us onto the platform; with the extra three though it wasn’t as much of a wedge out as I’d expected. We departed 33 late though, at 0803, with load 9 including the baggage van and front coach.
It was a bit of a stagger really due to the fact that there were loads of bikes to get on board and the driver was having to be careful where he positioned the van. This of course cost us time. Further to that we had to leave the rear three converted wagon coaches behind at Isabel Rubio as the train was too long to fit in clear at Guane; the result being we didn’t arrive Guane until 1100, well over an hour late.
As we walked down to the front of the train for a photo one of the crew beckoned us into the cab and we ended up having a ride during the run round; of course they wanted some money before we got out and 1 CUC was handed over…..
We had enough time to get a couple of cold pops and get back on to make sure we got a seat. The booking office was closed though so we had to get tickets on the train; this time costing us 2 Peso’s, even though the stamps in the tickets only showed 1.70; work that one out!
Isabel Rubio was nothing short of a farce on the way back. 52425 and baggage van we detached immediately, we assumed to attach to the three coaches we’d left behind and shunt them over to the front of the train, so we made a quick dash onto the other coaches to make sure we’d be at the front for the journey back to Pinar. What a wrong move that turned out to be as 52425 & van sat for 10 minutes at the other side of the points while the crew stood scratching their heads. It turned out the points were clipped and nobody knew where the key was so the three coaches were simply left behind and everyone shoe-horned back into the already wedged other 4!
We stood for one station and then moved into the baggage van to stand right behind 52425. It seemed we’d been treated to some extraordinary driving the previous day; this run didn’t even qualify as ordinary…..
Every stop en-route back to Pinar had its little platform wedged with people and the van ultimately became wedged with bikes; thankfully the 4 rocking chairs that were originally in there had got off early in the journey. We had to be careful to mind the pile of crap in the corner of the van while standing at the front and were treated to a bizarre case of some guy giving one of his chickens the kiss of life in the vain hope of keeping it alive until it met its maker in Pinar. He had 4 in a bag, it was 35 degrees plus and even I was tiring a bit, so god only knows what the poor chickens were feeling like. Their necks were just limp and their heads resting on the floor. One local offered his water at first, which was forced down the chicken’s necks and the kiss of life followed, even though the worst of the bunch wasn’t quite dead. They all seemed to make it to Pinar alive, whether the price on their head would be affected by the fact that they were all nearly dead would remain to be seen.
Pinar Del Rio to Havana by Viazul Bus
Before we’d even entered the Viazul bus station at Pinar Del Rio we’d been offered about half a dozen taxi’s to Havana, which while it isn’t worth it if there’s only a couple of you and you’re only going to Havana, it is worth considering if going direct to the airport and there’s more than a couple of you. The standard 25 CUC from Havana to the airport is swallowed up in the overall price. Their persistence even followed us upstairs to the ticket counters until a very firm “go away” ended it once and for all.
The Viazul ticket window is clearly marked, it being the furthest window to the left as you look at the counters. There was nobody there when we turned up and still nobody there 10 minutes before the bus was due. Our efforts to try and get someone to find a member of Viazul staff sometimes going on deaf ears but eventually one guy marched us downstairs and took us past the security guard, into the waiting area. We were told to buy tickets on the bus when it arrived and no sooner had it done so did some guy come up to us with two tickets and our 11 CUC each was handed over. It was all very strange, highly annoying and a little bit Indian-like for my liking! Luckily there were a few seats left on the bus and at least we got a couple together.
The journey was fine and there was even a toilet break en-route, the bus having come from Vinales and it continued to Trinidad, 6 hours further from Havana. It was only 5 late into Havana Viazul bus station and we were straight out into taxi to Muelle Luz ferry jetty, which cost a flat 10 CUC.
Muelle Luz (Havana) to Casablanca by Ferry
Ferries are every 15 minutes or so but be prepared for a lengthy security check on your bag; like I had. The ferries only cost 0.25 CUC or 1 Peso and the Casablanca ones depart from the left hand side of the jetty, this being clearly signposted as you queue to await the next ferry arriving.
There are some nice views of the City as you cross to Casablanca and the old docks area, which seems to be having a bit of money spent on it to prevent the old buildings from crumbling away. As you approach Casablanca the Statue of Christ is clearly visible up on the hilltop, which was exactly where I went, with plenty of time to spare before the 1221 Hershey train.
Just to the right of the ferry dock at Casablanca is a restaurant, right on the waters edge, which served up a decent grilled pork to fill the hole inside after our afternoon on the go in Havana.
Hershey Railway Casablanca to Matanzas
We were aiming for the 1221 Casablanca – Matanzas Hershey train and made it with ease, unfortunately it was cancelled due to the train apparently being broken!
Thankfully the Hershey EMU for the afternoon 1635 departure rolled in from Matanzas about 20 late. Once it passed by the restaurant it was our cue to pay the bill and walk the 30 yards to the station.
It was single power car #703 as opposed to it being a power car dragging a non-powered coach, which we’d been expecting. The thing just looked old and it was about as primitive as it comes seating wise with black plastic bays of 4. When we set off I was surprised to find that the doors were actually closed by the conductor; in fact I was surprised the thing could actually move at all!
The train wasn’t full and we handed over 2.80 CUC, the conductor was having none of our Peso’s. The tickets actually have CUC’s on them for him to stamp his price into and he also wrote CUC on his copy of the ticket, which he keeps.
While the run out of Casablanca was quite fast, courtesy of some newly laid rails and TLC applied to the ballast, the run beyond Hershey was quite the opposite. The tracks were in a right state, far from straight and far from flat to the ground. The overhead wires are held up by wooden masts, which themselves are held in their upright position by metal support wires to prevent them toppling over. Some have rotted completely through at their bottom and just look like they could topple over at any moment. Still the little train kept going, amazingly, and we reached Matanzas 6 minutes early and that was despite various random stops for the crew to have a rum and provide a pick-up/drop-off service to various locals.
En-route we had 15 minutes at Hershey, waiting time! Plinthed at the station is an old GE 7230B electric #21203. The break also allowed for a toilet stop as there aren’t any on board. The ones at the station aren’t great but when you have to go, you have to go.
As we departed Hershey all we could see on the shed was a couple of stripped out EMU cars dumped on the floor. Strangely we did actually pass another train en-route, at Canasi. It was formed of two power cars #’s 401/501. We could only assume it was train 808 1720 Matanzas – Casablanca running about 100 late. This would be the return working of the cancelled 1221 from Casablanca so maybe the train had failed coming across at Hershey and had to be battered there before being sent on its way to Matanzas again?
Matanzas Hershey station just appears out of nowhere and is only one platform. The crew were off the train before most of the passengers, the EMU being screwed down for the night it seemed. Outside the station just leads into a housing estate and the crew had spotted us trying to get our bearings, map in hand. Whilst they spoke no English they managed to give us directions to the Hotel Velasco in town.
Matanzas has plenty of old buildings to look at and quite a few day trips are offered from the Varadero area; some of which use the Hotel Velasco for the afternoon meal.
The old Matanzas railway station is now a bus/taxi station. There were old cars lined up everywhere, of all colours, shapes and sizes; again! I didn’t know where to point the camera first……..
Just over the road from the old station is an ice-cream parlour which serves just that, nothing else. We had a 30 minute wait for ours to be served but it was worth it. The wait simply being due to everyone in the place ordering about 20 plates between a table of four, the majority of which then ended up in tubs and taken away with them.
Matanzas – Hotel Velasco
The Hotel Velasco is very grand indeed, with its colonial appearance both inside and out. It had undergone some restoration recently so maybe it had been given quite a facelift? Either way it was very well presented indeed. The hotel staff spoke fluent English and were very helpful and cheerful. A twin room cost 58 CUC and a single costs 41 CUC.
Once processed in we were give room 7, away from the road at the front of the hotel. All the hotel’s rooms are situated around the edge of the place with them overlooking the dining area below. There appeared to only be one other room occupied in the place that night, which was bizarrely the one next door to ours!
The rooms are spacious and toiletries are provided free of charge. Again they were well presented but a bit dusty around the edges; probably due to them not seeing much use as it was out of season. The mini-bar is well stocked and a price list is provided. This for me was the only letdown the hotel had; it was way to pricey! For example a 1.5L bottle of water cost 4 CUC, whereas it only cost 0.75 CUC in the shop up the road. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the shop up the road before it closed that night…….
Food that evening ended up being a cold ham & cheese sandwich as apparently there was a problem with the gas in the kitchen; more likely the chef had done one early. They did make up for it though when we were presented with an excellent milkshake……..
The inclusive breakfast was a decent one. Fresh fruit, fruit juice, coffee & scrambled eggs with toasted bread.
The hotel also agreed to look after our bags for us while we headed out to Colon, to be picked up the following morning. Both staff on the front desk were intrigued by our visit to Colon but still managed to give us a bit of information on the place, like where buses went from, where the taxi’s back to Matanzas went from and where the Santiago Hotel was situated on the main road through the place.
Matanzas to Colon by Train
It’s quite a climb away from Matanzas and the views over the bay are excellent. The train wasn’t very well loaded at all so there weren’t any issues with seating and the compartment, which we’d rode into Matanzas from the loco shed in, only had one further addition from Matanzas so there was plenty of room.
It became immediately apparent that 52436 was not in its prime, it was constantly spewing black clag out, not thick black clag, but thick enough to create a trail behind the train and to fill the front coach with it also. It stank, didn’t sound at all well, in fact we could hardly hear it in the front coach, and it could barely pull the train, making a right meal of it going up the hill away from Matanzas. Not only was it covering the coach in clag and making our clothes stink, it was also chucking out oil, quite a lot of which ended up on my shirt and it was the first time I’d worn it!
The poor thing was like it throughout the whole journey, it must have been on its last legs. The train never got any fuller to Colon, a few more folk got on en-route and a few got off but the loadings were nothing like the Pinar – Guane line at all.
Arrival at Colon was about 20 late, all due to 52436’s inability to pull the load 5 train; it was debatable if it could actually be called a loco! Upon arrival some bird in a short skirt went running up to the cab but the crew wouldn’t let her in; by the time we left the station she was sat on the driver’s lap bouncing up and down…….
The staff at the Hotel Velasco had told us we’d probably be as well getting a horse & cart to take us to the Hotel Santiago; that wasn’t going to happen as there weren’t any, so the old legs had to do the work instead.
There was still plenty of daylight left and it was a pleasant evening, just what we needed for our stroll into central Colon; map in hand.
We found the Hotel Santiago, by mistake, on the main road through town. We’d turned the opposite way to what the hotel staff had told us to go in search of something to drink and came across the Santiago as we investigated its hulk. The place was open and of course didn’t look up to much but at least it had a restaurant, evident by the price list at its entrance; what it didn’t have though was rooms! Unfortunately neither of the women behind the desk spoke English but we could fully understand the fact when they told us there were no rooms available and suggested we try for a Casa Particulares somewhere down the next road.
Whether they wouldn’t take foreigners (as the hotel Velasco staff had hinted they might not), were full or actually didn’t act as a hotel anymore is anyone’s guess. Either way we were back out on the street, literally, now looking for somewhere to stay for the night.
The Hotel Nuevo Continental was just up the road; that was well and truly closed down though. A little further up the road again was another hotel which wasn’t just closed down it had a whole floor missing, evident by the massive hole in the side of the building, so a Casa Particulares it had to be then?
By the time we’d got to the main square in Colon, having walked up and down two other streets, we’d not actually seen any building advertising it was a Casa. What we did find though was a steam engine plinthed, #110 – 2-6-2T which had Ferrocarriles De Cuba, Colon 1851 on its side, at one end of the square. Once we’d walked round the square, still not coming up with anything we were left scratching our heads as to what to do. It didn’t take us any time at all to hail the taxi down that was just passing by us. We’d only managed to stop one of the only taxi drivers in Colon that spoke English! The result being him agreeing to take us back to Matanzas, in his 1948 Blue Ford, for 40 CUC. We’d well and truly spoilt his evening meal though and he had to stop off on the way out of town to tell his wife, who’d been expecting him home any moment, he was going back to Matanzas; of course it would be well worth it for them.
The journey took a little over an hour, the driver being very friendly and a pleasant chap to talk to en-route. He told us it was quite dangerous to drive down the Colon – Matanzas road at night due to the amount of animals that roamed around freely in the dark being a potential accident in the making. Once their cars were totalled, that was their income out of the window. So nobody did the route after dark.
We got our 1948 Ford driver to drop us at the bottom of Calle 79 so he could make a quick getaway back to Colon and we only had a short walk up the road back to the Hotel Velasco. We’d actually tentatively made sure there was room before we left, just in case we ended up back there that night. The staff didn’t seem surprised to see us either and actually told us they’d been discussing our little adventure after we’d left. They’d not wanted to spoil our trip out by telling us that it could end in disaster as they could see we were looking forward to it.
Matanzas to Havana by Viazul Bus
As we headed down to the bus station (old railway station), we’d been expecting the Viazul bus to be 1240, as their website had listed, but there was a sign in the ticket office saying it was 1220. How old that was we had no idea but it turned up moments later. The woman in the ticket office telling us that we must buy our tickets off the driver, once the bus arrived.
We were let on without tickets and 7 CUC taken from each of us when the bus pulled over for a refreshment stop. Although the bus terminated at Havana Viazul bus station it does stop just outside the road tunnel as it reaches the outskirts of the city, by the statue of General Maximo Gomez on Tacon (road name). This allowed us to get off and walk to our hotel of choice rather than have to get a taxi back across the City to it.
The cracking views of Havana make it well worth the walk up the steep windy road at Casablanca to get there and there are plenty of vendors to buy refreshments from once there too. The walk back down to the bottom is slightly easier on the old legs.
Plaza Vieja was very pleasant in the afternoon sun as was a quick look round a nearby indoor market (Almacenes San Jose Artisans Market, Havana), clearly aimed at tourists with plenty of locally made gubbins on offer, outside which are a load of steam locos on display.
Lined up outside Almacenes San Jose Artisans Market, Havana:
1204 – 2-4-2T Rogers #5009, 1894
1181 – 0-6-0 Baldwin #6456, 1882
1501 – 2-6-0 Rogers #5000, 1894
1403 – 2-6-0 Rogers #4647, 1892
E1334 – 2-8-0 Baldwin #53655, 1927
A link to more information on these locos can be found on the International Steam Cuba page.
Our second stint of sightseeing in Havana, all on foot from the Hotel, where there are cracking views down the coast towards both Morro Castle and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Its worth a look round the very upmarket Hotel Sevilla, which has a lot of historical pictures on its walls in the lobby, including one of Al Capone during his stay way back when. Then we walked by the Capitolio Nacional, which was closed for renovation work and had scaffolding all round its dome, before heading off to the Havana Central Station to get some photos of its impressive façade.
The following Steam Loco’s are inside a compound just outside the side entrance to Havana Central Station:
1122 – 0-4-0T H K Porter #4437, 1909
1138 – 2-6-0 Baldwin #33067, 1908
1205 – 0-4-4T H K Porter #3356, 1905
1308 – 2-8-0 Baldwin #18371, 1900
1311 – 2-6-2T Baldwin #24839, 1904
???? – 0-4-0T No number visible
A link to more information on these locos can be found on the International Steam Cuba page.
Finally we walked the short distance round the corner to the tourist shopping arcade to get ourselves some souvenirs to take back home. A lot of the stuff is same, same but if you walk round long enough one of the stall owners will give you a better deal than all the rest, even though everything is priced up. Bizarrely we both walked out with a wooden model of a 1948 Ford, which even had 1948 on its bumper and we managed to get a smaller car thrown in for free.
Havana – Hotel Deauville
The Hotel Deauville was only a 10 minute walk round the coast (from where the Viazul bus dropped us off), its tall blue hulk rising above anything else around it on the seafront. It had been built by the mafia way back in the day and was used as their haunt until they had to make a quick exit once the revolution took hold. A taxi driver actually told us that eye witness accounts tell of the guys walking across the road with bags of money, loading them onto speedboats and disappearing off to the US, never to be seen again. There is no sign of the hotels seedy past in the lobby though.
We were soon checked in to room 1208 which had a cracking view up the coast and a balcony to admire it from. The room cost 96 CUC. Other rooms without balconies cost 86 CUC. Checkout time is 1200 but they offer late checkouts until 1800 for 10 CUC more.