Picture a large desk. Something just big enough to fit a second computer monitor, one of those giant calendars, a few stacks of “organized” files and an office phone or something.
Now, think about sitting in front of that desk and enjoying all the desktop room as you shuffle items around as necessary and complete tasks throughout the day.
Ok, now imagine the desk is a small Soviet-era taxi with no AC and worn-out shocks and cram 5 people (3 being well over 6’ tall) into it.
Not so roomy anymore.
Welcome to day 2 of our time in Cuba.
We started with a quick ride
to Old Town to pick up our rental car. I was excited for the adventure and flexibility offered to us through our own car and some fun road trips as we discovered the island.
None of us wanted to spend the trip crammed into a car and driving for hours each day. (If you listen closely, you can hear everyone in Cuba laughing at the mere notion we could avoid this scenario.)
We arrive at the car rental place and I take my father-in-law inside to assist (he was my bulldog on this trip…nobody was safe).
Within a few minutes we were told they had no cars at the moment and might have one within1-5 hours…or possibly by the next day.
Yep, THIS IS CUBA.
Annoyed, I decided to just cancel the reservations I had made and prepaid for while in the States and just try to find a ride with a local driver.
Our cab driver, who had become really excited when I told him we were from Texas because he is a huge fan of Gas Monkey, had offered to drive us to Varadero and ultimately Santa Clara for 150 CUC (basically $150) not including gas and meals. We weren’t really excited about stuffing ourselves into his car for any amount of time again so we started exploring other options.
Here is where my frustration starts to grow and I have to work to suppress my tiny, white version of mini-hulk raging inside of me. While Cuba is technically a Communist country, if you own a business, you are a capitalist by nature. And each and every cab driver in Cuba was basically the equivalent of a used car salesman.
We got a lot of “come talk to my boss” and “let me ask my brother if he can take you” with ZERO idea of actual price. So, after about an hour of searching, we decided we had wasted enough time and would just tough out the couple of hours it would take to visit each city that day.
So, we climbed inside the “desk-mobile” and began to pray that no one had forgotten to shower or brush their teeth that morning.
And like that, we were off. Our first stop was going to be to the beaches of Varadero. On the way, we stopped a this little road-side bar for what our driver described as Cuba’s famous Piña Colada served from a pineapple.
There were a few other tourist-type buses (we didn’t see many while on the island) and individuals like ourselves enjoying a break from their air conditioned palaces on wheels. After conversing with a few, we found out that we were really entertaining them as they watched each of us – especially my Dad – awkwardly climb out of this tiny car. It was so funny, in fact, they asked if they could take a picture of us once we had sat back inside. No joke.
When we finally arrived in Varadero (a good hour longer than it should have taken) we found the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. No exaggeration either. The sand was white and fine and the water was a perfect temperature and crystal clear for as far out as you could swim. It was amazing. The beaches were lined with mangrove and palm trees, which made for incredible natural shade spots when you didn’t want to be in the sun. If I were to venture back to Cuba, this beach and some of the others on the north side are the reasons I would return.
Our brief interlude at the beach was just what we needed as the rest of the day was about to get much, much rougher.
What we were unaware of when we accepted our willing taxi driver as chauffer for the day was the law that prohibited non-government taxis from driving tourists around…anywhere.
Of course they still do it and make a good amount in the process, but when you are going on long treks across the island and have 4 illegal passengers, you tend to steer clear of the authorities. So, instead of taking the 2-3 hour drive to Santa Clara, we were taken on the longest scenic route in the history of mankind to a time closer to SIX HOURS.
It was miserable for all of us…including the driver, who, at one point, took us to a town completely out of the way just to say “hola” to his relatives. Yes, he drove right up to their house, honked the horn, said hello and drove off.
Now, here is another side note to keep in mind…we ate breakfast around 9am that morning. We could not get this guy to find a place to grab a bite for anything. Probably didn’t help that he ate lunch while we were swimming.
So, at one point, he gets frustrated and finally finds an open restaurant where we decide to eat. Unfortunately, this place had about 4 tables and another group ahead of us waiting. After about 30 minutes and no sign of any movement, we decide we are just exhausted and ready to get to our hostel in Santa Clara.
Apparently, this aggravated him even further and he started driving like a bat out of hades through these little country back roads. He was inches away from horse carriages, bike riders and even a chicken and her baby chicks. I think we caught air a few times on some of those bumps, but we finally arrived in the city. Well, we arrived at the city. He managed to reverse on a major road and go the wrong way on a roundabout – which may or may not have made someone in our group pee themselves a little bit.
Finally, we got into town and I pulled out my paper (ever the organized one) and looked for the address only to realize it lists a street but no actual street number.
So, our driver stopped to ask about 10 different people if they new of an Ernesto that operated a hostel. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Even the name of the hostel – Hyggelig – was unknown to the locals and we were wondering if the place was in another dimension or possibly just a elvin word for “suckers who visit Cuba”. You know it looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Finally, we get our host on the phone – something else our driver was reluctant to do – and he sends his son on his bike to meet us at our location so we can follow him to their place.
At this point, it is about 8:30pm and we are beat. Of course, we are also still hungry so we head to a restaurant to find some food before going to bed to forget our day of torture in Fidel’s paradise.
That night, I showered to wash off the collective dust of a thousand country roads and went to bed hoping our next day would be better.
I had no idea our next driver would be part of the Cuban mafia.