A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba

Viñales

caves, giant rocks, and credit card hacking...

sunny 30 °C

The journey from Trinidad to Viñales took about 8 hours in total - it was hot, sticky, and really uncomfortable. Poor Billy was hungry most of the way too, so it wasn't the easiest of transfers! However, as we began to get closer to our destination we started to see the huge limestone rocks that make the valley of Vinales so iconic.

We got off the bus and walked around the town in search of a place to stay. The view from of the mogotes (lime cliffs) were beautiful so we didn't want to stay in the town, even though every single house was a casa particular offering a cosy bed and a bite to eat. Instead we walked... and walked... with our bags until we found a casa particular closer to the view we had come to see.

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On our second day in town we headed out on a tour around the town. We went to see the Prehistoric Mural which TOTALLY tricked us. We thought it was going to be awesome indigenous artwork on a cliff... instead it was a mural of prehistoric times done by what looked like a 4 year old - Don't tell Cuba I said that though, because apparently it was done by a famous artist of theirs - oops!SAM_5121.jpg

The tour took us to a wonderful viewpoint where it felt as if the valley spread out before us had no end.SAM_5129.jpgSAM_5131.jpgSAM_5134.jpgSAM_5138.jpgSAM_5146.jpgSAM_5125.jpg

We went to the Indian Cave / Cueva del Indio which was far better than we were advised it would be. Yes, it was as touristic as everyone mentioned - with a huge line of people cueing up for the tiny boat ride on the inside, but the actual cave itself was beautiful!
And the river ride on the boat was amazing too, scary at times because the river was so tight and the driver wasn't going at snail pace!

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We headed to a tobacco farm to learn how Cuba makes their famous cigars. Vinales is the area where the best cigars in the entire world are made - so even though neither of us smoke, we thought we should go and have a look.
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The tobacco curing houses are really cool. Their roof covered leaves hang all the way down to the ground, and inside are racks and racks and racks of drying tobacco leaves.
SAM_5211.jpgSAM_5216.jpgSAM_5217.jpgOur guide was absolutely terrible - it was as if he had learnt a script in English but had learned it with total mispronunciation. I didn't understand a single word he said, and for some reason he was not happy to explain it to us in Spanish! So after our tour we still know very little about cigars or tobacco. But we had fun playing in the leaves which did smell delicious as they were cured with rum, vanilla, honey, and cinammon!

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The tour of course concludes with a free cigar smoking session and a hard sell by a true Cuban con-artist which we didn't partake in either much to their dismay...
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We asked our tour guide to take us to a river instead of seeing the inside of a party cave in the daylight. I am always happy to visit a party cave - when there is a party. But without the party, it held very little interest for us. So our driver kindly took us on a lovely drive through the countryside to a waterhole where we plunged straight into the cold water. Strangely, the government in Cuba does not allow private houses or casa particulares to have swimming pools. The ones that had once existed in our casa particular and that of our friends had both been sadly covered in with concrete. To be in a country with such dry and intense heat, without access to water was something Billy and I found very hard. So the swim in the river was an absolute treat, and the perfect way to end our day touring Vinales.

The following day we headed to what is the 2nd largest caving system in Latin America; Santo Tomaso Caves. This was not at all touristic like the Cueva del Indio and there were no paved walkways leading us through.
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We had to climb up a sheer rock face just to get into the entrance area, and then work our way through the caves in the pitch black using only our headlamps for light. In parts, the caves opened up to beautiful views of stalactites and stalagmites with pretty birds flying home to their babies.
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We headed back to Havana for our final nights before our flight, and on our very last day we decided to venture out to one of the nearby beaches. Again, we were slightly disappointed with the quality of the beach - probably because we live in paradise here in the Dominican Republic. All of the other travelers were lapping up the sunshine and the waves, and of course we had a great day... but it's hard when Bahia de las Aguilas is our benchmark for a beautiful beach!
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We walked around Havana one last time
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And ate our favorite 50cent meal at the Cuban only restaurant - without being nearly arrested this time!
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We boarded our plane and waved good bye to Cuba, flying over the most beautiful Caribbean Islands as we made our way back to Cuba. I even recognized my beloved Providencia far below and waved down sentimentally to my friends and the place where I had temporarily found true peace nearly 2 years ago now.

We landed in Panama, and I decided to check my bank balance because we needed to get ready for our immediate departure for Haiti. Cuba had been so expensive that we had used my credit card a few times, so we were worried about what money was left... And then up popped the screen - I was $3000 in debt! I checked my balance over and over again, not understanding how that could have happened. The internet was painfully slow and kept disconnecting, but finally the transaction list loaded enough for me to see... I had been hacked!

Posted by chasingsummer 05:22 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Trinidad, Cuba

The cutest town in Cuba

sunny 35 °C

While we were still in Havana, we heard there was a huge celebration for 2 things in Cuba on the 2nd of May. First up was the celebration for the international day of the worker, and second was the arrival of the first cruise ship from the United States since the revolution. We couldn't decide whether to stay and be apart of all the celebrations or to run far far away... It turned out that the best thing to do was run far away, even though Billy was gutted to have lost out on the opportunity to see Raul Castro from a distance at the workers celebrations!

We travelled in a shared taxi with a French couple all the way to the UNESCO protected, picturesque town of Trinidad.
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The ride took about 5 hours and again we were constantly amazed by how few people were driving on the roads. We stayed our first night at a casa particular that had been recommended to us, but we were really unhappy with the location and the constant hard sell being pushed on us by the owners in regards to buying only THEIR food, THEIR water, and organizing tours with THEIR people from the second we walked in the door. Billy was determined we wouldn't stay longer than the first night we agreed on, and he marched us off down the road in search of a better home for us.

We made our way to the beautiful cobbled streets and parks that lay in the center of the town, and Billy was immediately attracted to a beautiful casa particular right next to the central park, cathedral, and the casa de musica where we planned to begin our salsa classes the following day. He said he could feel the most positive energy coming from the home - and was quickly greeted warmly by the father of the household who shared the name Guido with Billy's own father in the Dominican Republic. We entered the home and quickly fell in love with Gisela who became our Cuban mother, Yalena our new sister, and Teetoo the cutest Pekingese puppy we have ever met. They allowed us to use their kitchen to cook so we could save money, and they gave us a very special rate to stay for a week. We moved the very next morning from our first casa to what would be our wonderful home in Trinidad.
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On one of our days in Trinidad, we walked around the town desperately trying to find fresh fruit, vegetables, and cooking items so we could cook for ourselves and save money on food. This was our first realization with just how little exists in Cuba and how expensive everything is that does exist. It took us about 5 hours walking around all of the streets to find:
8 eggs, 2 packets of pasta, tomato paste, onions (8 euros for 20 onions too by the way!), bread rolls, tomatos, plantains, bananas, cookies, and tuna.
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The supermarkets had nothing more than empty shelves with two or three items on them, and the easiest way to find ingredients was to ask around and find the houses with a door open, with people selling a few items on tiny tables. Each house would sell something different - eggs and beans in one, tomatoes and onions in another. Finding lettuce was impossible - until the next day when Billy went out for a run and returned carrying lettuce for me as if it was a bouquet of flowers - the most delicious bouquet I ever received!

We quickly realized with the price of ingredients versus the price of food in the shops, that we weren't about to save our money by cooking, and we were quite sad about it. We made a few sandwhiches and on one night we cooked for the whole family and ate together at their beautifully laid out table. Their plates were all antique and of the finest china, and their silverware was beautiful. It had been a long time since I had eaten off such beautiful finery and I was convinced that the food tasted better because of it. We were so touched and felt incredibly lucky when we were then woke up everyday to find breakfast was made for us and we were eating lobster in the evenings as well as enjoying family dinners together.

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It seemed that Guido and Gisela were the only people in Cuba who understood we were not rich tourists, rather 2 young people traveling from a neighboring Caribbean island that was even more impoverished than Cuba. We watched movies with them in their rooms, sat up at night drinking mojitos at night, watched football matches together, and talked for hours about the differing politics between Cuba and the Dominican Republic. We learned that to kill a cow in Cuba will serve you 25 years in prison, but to kill a human only serves 15. This is because the milk of the cow belongs to you, but the cow belongs to the government.
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On one of the days we took a shared taxi down to the local beach in Trinidad (randomly with the same people we arrived to Trinidad with!). We were not overly impressed with the beach itself as the water wasn't very blue, and it was very commercial - with a huge resort and lots of people selling overpriced snorkeling trips out to the reef. We had our own snorkels with us so we were able to snorkel around the shore line - and we were so pleased we did because saw hundreds of tiny fish swimming as a giant school, and we even saw a baby stingray!
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On another day (with a huge hangover) we went on a 6 hour horse riding trek through the valle de los ingenios and to visit a waterfall in the mountains. We got to stop off for a much needed coffee at what is now my all time favourite cafe in the world. The cafe itself has no walls and is just a wood fired stove top underneath a rickety roof surrounded by log seats and coffee cups. The coffee is made fresh to the strength you desire, and each cup is served with a piece of sugar cane and a free cigar. The owner/ barista also sings as he grinds the coffee beans before he brews them for you. It was fantastic!

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The waterfall and the view through the valley was beautiful too and it was quickly deemed as the best day of our time in Cuba.
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Most of the days we had salsa classes, and the price was adding up very quickly. We met a couple of guys while out dancing one night who seemed very interested in my cellphone. They were willing to pay exactly what our salsa classes were worth - and far more than what I would get if I tried to sell the phone back in the Dominican Republic. So I did it, I did a factory reset and sold my phone to pay for our dance classes!
Our salsa classes were held in the different courtyards of the casa de la musica and were an hour long each class. We paid for group classes but were lucky to have no one else in our group so we essentially had private classes for the cheaper price - stoked! Billy and I took a long time to pick up the basic steps and to be able to hear the music, which was so strange considering that we are both always dancing bachata and merengue at home.

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By night we would go out and practice dancing at the casa de la musica, and one night we met up with some new found friends of ours Jo and Christoph who we had first encountered at the beach. They had been on a crazy journey to retrieve their missing cellphone and we were out to celebrate the phones return - and did we celebrate or what!?! We instantly began throwing back the most disgustingly strong mojitos and daiquiris that we were stumbling as we tried our best to follow the steps to the salsa.
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The casa de la musica closed around 1am and we were left with no idea of what to do or where to go next - until we overheard people mentioning a party cave somewhere in the mountains above the town. We asked which direction to go, and began to stumble towards what we hoped would be an underground party. Just when we felt as if we were giving up hope and would never find it - we saw fairy lights and heard the cries of "$1 mojitos!" ... Party cave or no party cave, no one ever says no to a $1 mojito! Loaded up at the tiny little stall on the side of the cobbled street, we found ourselves on the path lit with more $1 mojito stalls heading right the way up in the direction of the party cave. We decided it would only be fair if we stopped and drank one mojito in each stall so as to not let any stall miss out on a little business...
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The cobbled street soon gave way to a jungle path, where again we felt as if we were going the wrong way... until at last we saw it... the entrance to the underground party cave where we would dance until our feet could dance no more!

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I have been in a lot of bars, clubs, and party places around the world - that is no secret. But, none have ever been as awesome as the party cave in trinidad. There were so many chambers, real dance floors underneath the stalactites, and multiple levels with fully functioning bars on each. There were VIP areas, a full chamber with male and female bathrooms, and large screens with music videos playing on them as laser lighting and disco balls glittered around the cave.

We were instantly greeted with the dance floor clearing as a group of sexy young Cuban men took over the dance floor with a dance presentation that turned out to be one of the strangest things I have ever seen. The men were playing drums with an almost voodoo-african beat, as they circled a table in the centre of the dance floor. They placed a young tourist on the table and gave her two glasses of water to hold high above her head. They continued to dance and chant as they edged their way closer and closer to the table... where 4 of the men on each corner then bent down and picked the table and the girl up - WITH ONLY THEIR TEETH! They spun her around the room for about 30 seconds and lifted the table higher without ever touching the table back to the ground or placing their hands on the table - it was SO strange! They also placed knives onto each other and walked over the knives, reminding Billy of the voodoo ceremonies performed by Haitian devotees in the community he grew up in.
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The days in Trinidad passed lazily as the afternoons were hot and the nights of dancing were long. We absolutely loved our family and left them with promises to help with their visa to visit us one day here in the Dominican Republic. Leaving was hard, but we knew our next destination of Vinales would be worth it :)

Posted by chasingsummer 07:31 Archived in Cuba Tagged beach cuba dance cave waterfall party unesco trinidad salsa mojito classes pueblo daiquiri casa_particular Comments (0)

Finally made it to Cuba

Billy's first plane ride and our magical time in Havana

sunny 30 °C

Despite my parents giving Billy and I money towards tickets for Christmas to go to Cuba, we had never found the ideal time to actually go. Billy and I were at a local pool bar in Cabarete when we decided to start placing some high stakes bets on the outcomes of our amateur games. We often settle an argument with a game of pool, so it isn't an uncommon thing. More often than not though, it is about who gets to give a massage or who will cook dinner. This day however, I decided to throw down the idea that if Billy lost we would go to Cuba for our anniversary. I don't know if he lost on purpose - because he certainly doesn't usually lose, but he lost...

So a few days later, we booked and paid for our tickets and began to prepare for what would be our first international travels together - and Billy's first time off the island and in an airplane EVER! I think everyone else was more excited for him than he was, either that or he was trying to be too nonchalant and cool about the whole thing. He did swiftly kick the guy out from the window seat that Billy had sweetly smiled for at checkin, and then proceed to stare out of the window as we headed to Cuba by way of Panama.

It was ridiculous to fly such a short distance, what would usually be a 2 hour flight, via Panama. It meant that we took nearly 11 hours to arrive! But by now I have well and truly learned cheap flights is a great way to keep costs low in order to spend longer on the road. We landed in Cuba with only a slight hiccup - they nearly didn't let Billy in! They called secondary immigration to interrogate him.... Oh, how I love you secondary immigration. You never cease to remind me of that day in LAX where I was kept away from my parents in an armed room with 40 illegal immigrants and Temuera Morrison who looked at me compassionately as he sighed "They always do this to us Maori's." Anyway, this wasn't quite as strict as the USA and he merely had his passport examined with a magnifying glass and was asked some strange questions in regards to his position in the Dominican Republic. We had to laugh when we asked why he was held up - apparently a threat for Zika. Strange they didn't stop me, considering we came from the same country and how I'm Miss low immunity and covered in a million mosquito scars - when Billy never gets bit (the bastard!). We had no accommodation booked (breaking my usual rule of always having the first night planned) but thankfully our friend had given us a local card with an apartment address scrawled across it which was what finally bought his way through customs and we came away smiling as the hot pink Cuban stamp was issued into both of our passports, the first of many to come for Billy I am sure.

The smelly and old fashioned airport gave insight into what we were to expect over the next 2.5 weeks - stale smoke mixed with government enforced weekly fumigation were the overwhelming scents in every shop, home, hotel, bar, restaurant, and business we entered. We were bustled out into the waiting area where a thousand taxis, shuttles, and vendors wanted our attention. We decided to stupidly put our trust into the first person we saw - who told us he would take us to a money exchange that had a line shorter than the one tailing around the arrivals lounge. He also said he would take us to a casa particular in the centre of the city. Pfft, first Cuban trap - he did neither of those. And then promptly took our 40 euro as well as collecting his commission for dropping us at an overpriced apartment that resembled a stark hospital room.

We woke up early the next morning, packed our bags, and found our own way to a cadeca (money exchange) that gave us a better price for our euros as well as had us meeting our first Cuban friend who spent the morning showing us a little bit around town - and collecting free food and drinks from us - as we made our way towards what was our new home in the city of Havana.
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We loved walking around and seeing the beautiful buildings and the crazy old cars. We kept turning around each and every corner and there were so many! It was interesting to be in Cuba during the time of change and growth that it is experiencing now. There were many new and modern cars amongst the old american gas guzzlers.
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On one of the days, we finally worked out how to take the local transport through havana without having to pay like a tourist. It took asking about 20 people before one kind man gave us a truthful answer. We got in the beautiful old car (albeit slightly beaten up, but still running far better than my beetle ever did!) and asked him to take us in the direction of the number 13... which we believed to be around Miramar area. We drove along the melanin (boardwalk in english I think? The road that goes along the sea...) and finally got out to a wealthy looking area of the suburbs. The driver pulled over, looked at us and shrugged "this is the end of my route." We looked at each other and back to him as he queried, "Where are you two going?" and I replied "Well, maybe this was a bad idea because we have no idea where we are going!" He roared with laughter and told us that it was surely not a bad idea as we were only 2 streets away from the National Fair of artesian products - what luck! So off we went, paid a fortune to get in - only to have our first encounter with how Cuba really survives on the bare minimums. There was hardly anything at the fair, huge parts of the convention centre were empty, and what was there was at an absolutely ridiculous price - as was the $16 euro entry price that we had to pay as non-nationals. We left quickly, and found the worlds largest ice creams and ate them in the super hot sunshine before hightailing it back to the city.

Another of our days in Cuba, we visited the Museum of the Revolution which we had promised my father we would definitely check out. Wow, what a bizarre place! Their version of the revolution, the way everything was written and the story being told was absolutely fascinating. We were super impressed also by the building itself and the artifacts - which even included Che Guevara's hat !
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We drank overpriced Daiquiri's at Floriditas - one of the top 7 most famous bars in the world due to being the birth place of the Daiquiri and the frequent hangout spot of writer Ernest Hemingway.
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I loved how the local people would dress up either themselves or their pets and pose for pictures - and ask ridiculous amounts of money for them! Billy and I got super sneaky at taking sly photos and then just dropping a few local pesos into their collection baskets instead.

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We walked and walked and walked around Havana for what felt like years - but really was only 4 or 5 days. We refused to take taxis anywhere because they were so expensive, so we walked everywhere instead. It was great though because it meant we could stop where we wanted to take photos, to dance to live music in the parks, to browse through bookshops, and to partake in the local attractions.
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We even found an airgun shooting range where we could aim and fire at a range of different targets. I shot every single one of mine, and Billy even shot one of his so well that the target flipped off and fell to the ground! SAM_4792.jpgSAM_4791.jpg

We saw the camera obscura which is a weird contraption that uses mirrors and light refraction to show a live picture of the city on a huge disk inside an entirely dark room. I found it fascinating, especially because one of my favorite books as a child was called the Camera Obscura and I had always wanted to see one. There are only 5 in the entire world, so I jumped at the chance!
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We were super surprised by a few things in regards to our initial time in Cuba.

1. You are either Cuban or you are not. Speaking Spanish doesn't mean you get a discount on anything, which was a huge shock for me as my bilingualism has always served me ridiculously well as I have traveled my way through Latin America. Billy being a native speaker and from the neighboring Caribbean island made no difference either. We had to pay the full tourist prices pretty much everywhere we went.

2. The racism and the attitudes of the local people towards us was practically nonexistent. In the Dominican Republic - which I often refer to as the most racist country I have ever traveled to - it is almost impossible to walk down the street without people abusing us or racially profiling either of us. Billy of course is too black because of his Haitian/ African heritage, and I am the color of the tourist - which means I have (supposed) money and am to be worshipped, ridiculed, and extorted all at once. However, in Cuba this attitude didn't seem to exist. We could walk down the streets hand in hand and people barely even noticed us - let alone stare and then yell abuse! Billy of course knows nothing except the attitudes of the country he has grown up in, so for him it was a blissful insight to what life might be like in New Zealand if we ever do make the move home.

3. The difference between the local prices and the tourist prices were EXORBITANT! Trying to understand the two different currencies was something that took me a few days to wrap my head around, let alone poor Billy who had never worked in a new currency at all ! We had fistfuls of both local and tourist pesos and were forever confusing the two.

4. Most of the nice old cars are there for tourism. The really preserved and maintained ones work as private taxi and touring cars available for private hire (for nearly 60 euros an hour!!!). The older and less maintained ones are used as local transport which we took out to the artesian fair. Private cars seemed to be all newer models. Yet there were hardly ANY cars on the road when traveling between towns. It was very strange to see such wide and empty roads with no one traveling upon themSAM_4637.jpg
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5. The food really wasn't as bad as we were advised. Perhaps we had expected worse? Perhaps we are too used to Dominican food which can often be lacking in spices and taste - think never ending rice, beans, and chicken! The cheapest street food was mostly pizza and spaghetti which came with the saltiest, stringiest, oiliest cheese we know - and which we got very addicted to after initially hating it! And we got addicted to fresh churros with cinnamon and brown sugar !
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6. Everything is Cuban made. And if it isn't, it is is practically unaffordable. Most things have the same label or come from the same place - and you realize they are the communist version. Eg, you can only buy one brand of bottled water or soda etc.

7. The best drink in the entire world is Malta Bucanero - malted drink that is not too sweet and not too malta-ry. The best drink to cool you down during a super hot day in the Cuban sunshine. We must have drunk one each and every single day for our entire vacation!
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8. For a country that is so "un visited" they are certainly VERY set up for tourism. Official bus stations just for tourists to travel upon, official tours and treks in each town, hop on and hop off bus systems, home stays (casa particulares) where your details are registered everyday with the government to keep an eye on you, everything having two prices, and of course laws about keeping tourists and locals separate. Billy even nearly got arrested one day for walking with me as we entered our favorite locals only (shh, don't tell anyone we weren't local) breakfast spot. We had worked out how we could get 4 egg buns, 2 coffees and 2 juices for just 1 euro. He was suddenly surrounded by questions from 3 policemen while a further few waited at the door and on the street. All Billy had to do was say "Buenos dias" for the lead officer to speak into his walky-talky and tell his backup that "it doesn't matter, stand down - he is a foreigner too like her..." We did of course think that was super exciting to have nearly been arrested for being together!

9. The propaganda and patriotism is EVERYWHERE! Reminders of the revolution and encouragement for socialistic practices are painted beautifully on most public spaces.
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10. It was in Havana that we took our most favourite photo of our trip :

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Posted by chasingsummer 12:01 Archived in Cuba Tagged walking city fun havana hot adventures touring exploring old_cars Comments (0)

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