Casas Particulares ~ the ONLY way to go in Cuba ~ Holguin, Gibara and Camaguey

When we get off the bus in Holguin from La Habana, a young man with a sign “Benjamin”, awaits us, and takes us to his cousin’s “casa particular”.
We usually try to organize accommodation for just the first night of a trip, and then figure it out as we go along. Spontaneity seems to suit us best and we enjoy the fun of finding places real time.
The room is small, clean, is in a private house, where the family is watching “telenovelas” in the sala when we arrive.  
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While we have been traveling all day, we want to get a sense of Holguin and go exploring for the evening. We can rest later! Holguin is known for the lively plazas.  And indeed it lives up to the expectations ~ lively it is!

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We walk a few blocks comprised of dilapidated, but architecturally charming streets.  The main square is thriving with young people.  A DJ with electronic music is like a bee’s hornest with throngs of 15-25 year old locals enjoying the cool night air.  Short skirts, tight pants, high heels are the norm.
 We walk around the plaza which is dotted with “bocadillos” of tasty treats: Ah, now we talking!
 

First bocadillo:  juicy skewers of pork and onions.  

Next we walk by a grand old corner building where a  youth orchestra is giving a classical music concert.  Doors and windows all open wide to the street.  There are as many people outside as there are sitting inside,  all enjoying the music.  We can’t remember  the last time we ran into classical music in Nicaragua ~ never in fact! 

This reinforces an observation from last year ~  Cubanos have a high appreciation for culture…. be it dance, music, sculpture and painting. 

Outside the concert is bocadillo number 2 – pork-pulled sandwich for 50 cents. 

The musical highlight of the night however, is about to begin….
 

At one of the corners of the square is a make-shift stage.  Around 11:30pm, a band starts to gather ~ there are trumpets, trombones, drums, piano, 3 singers… The music is solid, high quality, afro-beat.  Not quite Cuban Jazz, but getting close.  Now this is really fun!!

The crowd amasses, mixed in all respects. Boys and girls, old and young, black and white.   

EVERYONE is dancing ~ and this is ground zero for not only salsa but all sorts of Latin dancing. 

 
Most noticeable feature in the crowd are the creative, artistic haircuts sported by young men ~ from exaggerated mohawks to amazing geometric designs of buzz haircuts, using heads as canvas.  The girls are hot.  The guys are stylish.  It’s quite the scene.  By 2am we return “home”, thoroughly satisfied with our first re-experiencing of sultry Cuba.

We are eager to experience the city in day-time. 

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The plazas don’t disappoint.  Majestic churches are surrounded by Spanish Colonial structures, most of them in pretty good shape. The colors are soft pastels all around.  

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Very few cars – most traffic is taxi-bicycles with umbrellas to shade passengers, horse and carts, and the occasional 1950’s vintage American classic.

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Street food is very popular at lunch time and most cities offer up Cuban style pizza (which is like a deep dish pizza folded over and toasted) and pulled pork sandwiches. The best local food is, as usual, the street food.

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Shops are plentiful and people are “holiday” shopping for shoes, clothes and jewelry.
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Our first architectural “treat” comes soon after our arrival in the larger city of Holguin.  From this high energy urban center, we go to a sleepy, actually more like “comatose” fishing village of Gibara.  (Unfortunately, our camera broke in Gibara, and so… no pics to share the architectural center of Gibara… PANIC: how to remedy this? Ben scouts and makes a deal with a local photographer for him to sell us his spare, first generation digital camera!)

The coast line of Gibara graced by a Latin beauty.

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Once an economically vibrant village which was the logistical hub for ships delivering goods to Gibara that were distributed to the rest of the country, inland.  But in the 1959 revolution, the bridge that linked Holguin and Gibara was destroyed.  The railroad system never was rebuilt and the town of Gibara, feels nearly abandoned.   There are many architectural gems in the town, but clearly no economic locomotive to insert the level of investment required to have Gibara return to its former splendor.  Still, it seems that, one day, tourism will justify and facilitate an architectural rebirth.    This town, jutting out into the ocean as it does provides us with a data point for what happens in our current era of a “rising sea”.  When Hurricane Ike hit Cuba, the waves cave over most of the one-story homes that dot the Malecon.
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Compared to other Latin American destinations where we found locals somewhat reserved and apprehensive about chatting with travelers, we once again find local villagers very easy to start chatting with – a man with his horse, an English teacher, a young girl in a boat taxi we took to a nearby beach.   Peta’s drastically improved Spanish allows her to strike up conversations, as she does/would in English.

After returning to Holguin, we take a 3 hour bus ride to the city of Camaguey, which is known for its’ architectural treasures.

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When we arrive at the bus station we hear someone calling “Benjamin” — a Casa Particular has apparently been arranged for us by our Casa Particular in Holguin, even though we didn’t request the help. A bicitaxi is awaiting our arrival and pedals us to our house for the night.

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The house is a large spacious house with patio area outside the room.  The house feels grand and the ceilings high.  The casa particular owner reminds us both of our grandmothers in that she is very much overly concerned about what we want to eat for breakfast (the next morning!) and where we are going and what we are going to do. She has a hard time understanding that we have not decided much of anything ahead of time. At any rate, she is very friendly and hospitable, as are most of the people that host Casa Particulares.

 

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We head out for a walk of the city of Camaguey, one of several Cuban repositories of architectural gems dating back centuries. Camaguey has several Colonial plazas and has a labyrinth-like city design, intended originally to confuse pirates.
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At all the stores and banks there are two buckets of water at the entrance for people to wash their hands. We hear that there has been a cholera outbreak in Santiago a few hours away, after Hurricane Sandy hit that region rather hard. The economy is bustling and the streets are full of people on foot, bikes, bicitaxis, horse driven carriages and a few cars.

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For our second night in Camaguey we experience our nicest house yet – super high ceilings, a patio, a huge room, a large bathroom and especially friendly host.
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Walking the streets of Camaguey, we are invited for a shot of rum (MUCH stronger than Nicaraguan rum) and Peta does a sketch of a classy, elderly gentleman, on his son’s cast.  As always, any excuse to start a chat and connect with outsiders is welcome. More rum, more drawing, Cuban music fills the air. Peta makes his day, when we leave, telling her model he is “muy guapo!” (handsome).

 

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We explore the historic and architecturally rich city of Camaguey again — this time heading towards the market area. Last year we found  a few outdoor markets, but none of them remarkable – Cuba being extremely limited in variety and quantity of produce, usually. This market has tons of produce, from pumpkins to long strings of garlic, little sachets of herbs, cilantro, radish, beans, tomatoes, parsley. We pay in “moneda nacional” — national money (meant to be for locals only) and buy fresh produce with which to make a huge salad back at our casa.

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Camaguey has several museums and galleries.

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The system of having each Casa book your next casa in your next stop, works very well. Each casa takes on responsibility for your stay going well and for helping you to navigate your way to another casa in the next city. The casas are state approved and receive state money in order to have the necessities for foreigners… AC or fans, clean bathrooms with running water etc…

 

Casas Particulares – THE way to go in Cuba, not hotels.

 

And for transport… well, gotta go with either the “buses de trabajadores” to travel on the cheap, or if a taxi is inevitable, might as well go with a classic…

 

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