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Cuba Day 8 - 10: Hanging with locals at the Bay of Pigs

· Cuba,Travel journal,Joey

Taxi colectivo!

After an uneasy night's sleep, we woke up early and had breakfast at Tatiana's casa whilst nervously waiting for the taxi. We breathed a big sigh of relief when a man from the agency finally came to collect us from the casa after keeping us on our toes for half an hour past the agreed departure time.

He led us to a huge green car already full of people with bags tied down on top of the roof (I quickly put the rain covers on my bag). There were two rows of three passengers, with another two passengers next to the driver up front. The car boot had two benches going sideways facing each other, and we were to share that with a couple of younger travellers. The guy who collected us asked for the remainder of our payment (40 CUC) and explained that we would first head to Havana, where we'd change to a car that would take us the rest of the way.

Inside of a taxi colectivo

Inside of a taxi colectivo - don't expect much legroom!

Our ride to Havana was actually really pleasant. The car didn't have air-conditioning (wishful thinking) but the open windows meant we had a nice cool breeze throughout the ride. The layout of our seats at the back made it conducive to chat to the girls travelling in the back with us - our first opportunity the whole trip to meet fellow travellers! The car also had an open window at the back, which provided an interesting view and photo opportunities.

View from the back of the taxi colectivo in Cuba

A room with a view

A couple of hours later, we arrived at the taxi stop on the outskirts of Havana and said goodbye to our new friends. We waited about half an hour here for the drivers to find enough people going the same way to fill up a car. It was a fascinating experience. Back in the UK, you'd imagine that there would be logistics software dealing with all of this in advance, matching cars and passengers together at the time of booking. Here in Cuba, there is no pre-planning. They just wing it on the day and it manages to sort itself out. Granted, it might not be as quick, but things happen...when they happen. This is Cuba.

At a colectivo hub, waiting for the drivers to round up enough people heading the same direction

Eventually, as there were not many others going to Bay of Pigs, we joined a minivan heading towards Cienfuegos instead. We ended up in the first row behind the driver and the three hour ride wasn't really very comfortable, with very little leg room. There were times the discomfort due to the tight squeeze and the humidity became rather unbearable, and I had to try very hard to zen out to hang in there - and hang in there I did ("grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"). Outside Cienfuegos, we changed cars again, this time waiting just fifteen minutes or so, and headed to Playa Giron, this time in much greater comfort. On the way we passed Playa Larga, the more popular destination for foreigners, a crocodile farm (where you can eat crocodile meat while being devoured yourself by mosquitoes) and a few quiet diving spots.

The taxi driver dropped us off at our casa, which was next door to the ones our friends had booked. We'd arrived at around 3pm, six hours after leaving Vinales. A large, cheerful-looking gentleman greeted us, introducing himself as Wilfredo in his booming voice, and showed us around the place. We agreed a price of 20 CUC per night (our friends were being charged 30 CUC - another example of why you shouldn't book casas in advance) and headed out in search of a cold drink, our friends and the beach, in that order.

A well-deserved beer and Tukola lite

Snorkelling in the Bay of Pigs

My first impression of the village of Playa Giron was that it was quiet and very spacious. There are two wide roads running perpendicular to each other, with large single-storey houses lining the road heading North-bound out of the village. It was a stark contrast to the equally small but densely populated Vinales that was full of tourists. There were hardly any foreigners in sight and we noticed people giving us funny looks, probably wondering what on earth we were doing here!

The local beach in the village of Bay of Pigs is actually Playa Coco, as the actual beach named Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs) is reserved solely for the guests of the Playa Giron hotel, which has annexed the beach for its own use. Playa Coco is right next to it though (East side), which is actually much nicer, being open to the sea and has better corals. We met a British couple who left the private beach to come join us! The only downside to Playa Coco is that there are no toilets nearby at all (watch out when you're snorkelling next to people!)

(Travel tip: If you want, you can actually access the private beach pretty easily by walking in from the East entrance of the beach. You'll see a lot of locals heading down that way in the afternoon.)

Having bumped into our friends on the way, we chose a quiet spot under a palm tree on the beach and ran into the water. I was stunned by the warmth and clarity of the Caribbean water. We borrowed some snorkelling gear from our friends to check out the corals and other sea life. There were quite a few local families in the water with us, with hardly any foreigners in sight. It seems that the large majority of the tourists go to Playa Larga, with just a handful coming to Playa Giron. We got some more stares. "Es Chino?" "No, soy Coreano". This line of conversation usually gets old quite quickly, but the Cuban old man seemed so happy I minded a little less. He even shook my hand - apparently this was his first time meeting a Korean.

Engagement toast

Our friend Alex had proposed to Magda back in Vinales and I thought it would be nice to have a proper toast in the evening with some Havana Club 7 year. We searched all over the town for some of the good stuff, eventually ending up at a little rum hut where a group of men who looked like they'd just finished work were hanging out. They were sharing bottles very cheap rum - the ones that cost (much) less than water! I ordered a bottle of the 7 year, explaining that this was to celebrate an engagement, feeling somewhat extravagant as what I was paying for the one bottle could buy 50 bottles of the rum they were drinking. They seemed approving, however, with one man remarking "special occasion, special rum".

In our continuing battle to stay hydrated, we also stopped by a cafe (in the loosest sense of the word) to buy some water. It wasn't cheap despite our protests, at 1.5 CUC each, but I got the guy to throw in a few cigars (the local Relobas). Now we'd have the perfect companion to our aged rum!

In Playa Giron, eat at the casa

As darkness fell on our first night in Playa Giron, we were served delicious food cooked by our friends' casa, a Cuban feast of lobster, chicken, pork...and rice and beans (for around 10 CUC a head).

We had looked around for places to eat around the village earlier in the day but were struck by the distinct lack of restaurants. We chose to have our breakfasts and dinners at our casas during our time here, alternating between the two homes. (On our second day, I cycled out and grabbed some chorizo sandwiches from a small shack made from corrugated iron, which obviously catered to locals - it was super CHEAP! They didn't have takeaway bags, so I had to wrap the sandwiches in tissue, carefully place it in my backpack and cycle back. Crossing my fingers that it wouldn't give us upset stomachs, I shared it with my friends. Iris just had the bread. Thankfully none of us got sick and it tasted pretty decent too!)

Over dinner we got to chatting to the casa owner and found out that our casa owner, Wilfredo, was his uncle! Having served us he was just heading over to our casa (his uncle's place) to have dinner there with the family. We would swap around the next day. We also cracked open our Havana Club 7, which was absolutely delicious, and enjoyed it over a cigar and some nice conversation, all whilst getting devoured by mosquitoes (most of my 30+ bites came in Bay of Pigs, despite my slathering of DEET everywhere).

My man Wilfredo

Our second day more or less mimicked our first, with more time spent by the beach, cycling around the village and a bit more "chill" time than we've had up till now. During that down time, I had the pleasure of getting to know Wilfredo better, our casa owner.

Wilfredo was the type of man who you instantly got a warm feeling towards. He was a large man, with a personality to match. He gave off this "boss man" kind of feeling. Like he owned the town. On our second day there, we saw him being carried around in a bici-taxi by a much smaller guy, stopping here and there to have a quick chat to his village neighbours - it seemed like he knew everybody and everybody knew him.

Wilfredo told me that he had been living in Germany for 30 years and that he'd only recently come back to live in the country of his birth. Despite the discomforts of Cuba (power cuts, mosquitoes, bad infrastructure), for him there was no place like home. His only regret is being far from his daughter, who still lives in Germany and has just had a baby girl. He was, however, able to keep in touch with her via WhatsApp. (I'd read somewhere that expats can have internet, as long as they don't transmit the signal to locals.)

He was also a generous man. On our second and final night during dinner, he gave us a bottle of ice cold Legendario Elixir for dinner. We shared the remaining Havana 7 with him too, toasting each other and our travels in Cuba.

I do feel like Wilfredo and I bonded, and got the feeling that he really looked out for us. This more than made up for the casa itself, which wasn't the best we'd stayed in during our trip. I had my first ever encounter with a cockroach there, which I eventually managed to kill with an empty water bottle once I'd composed myself - who knew such a tiny creature could cause horror!

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