Tuesday, 28 November 2017


10th - 11th Nov 2017

 Hotel Deluxe El Grande at Guanabo
I read that the Playas del Este, 70 miles west of Varadero, was a 9 mile stretch of attractive palm-fringed beaches, Havana's Riviera. Guanabo at the eastern end was advertised as the 'rustic Cuban end of the strip'. Well, I'm all for a bit of 'rustic'.

First, myself and a German couple had to convince the bus driver at Varadero to stop there. He agreed, eventually, if reluctantly. The bus was full and unfortunately there was a group of about 6  young  Canadians and Americans on board. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but they were very loud and had that irritating way of talking, at great volume, with the word 'like' thrown several times into every sentence. They also talked non-stop with, like, every utterance being greeted with, like, hysterical giggles. What on earth can be so funny for so long? I was seriously tempted to stand up and shout "please shut the f..k up!!". If any of you read my account of the bus trip in Laos from Vientiane to Vang Vieng in January this year you will get the gist. Where do they learn to speak like this,.. like? Maybe I'm just becoming a grumpy old git.

Anyway, the bus did stop, on the main road, and the German couple and I got off and collected our wheely cases. It was drizzling with rain (and there had been heavy rain the previous night). What we soon realised was that we were a good couple of miles from Guanabo town centre. The bus driver must have dropped us there out of spite for some unknown reason. A passing bandido taxi or two tried to tempt us with outrageous prices for a lift. We resisted and walked and got wet. Dodging main road traffic and eventually reaching Guanabo's main Avenue, known optimistically as 5th Avenue, I separated from the Germans and battled my way to the far end of town over broken pavements and around floods. The place had the feel of the Wild West about it. Not an auspicious introduction to, another guide book quote, "Havana's unspoilt Riviera". 'Unkempt' would be more apt

The Casa I had chosen, Elena Morina, was off the main Avenue up some muddy side-streets, some of which were flooded and impassable on foot and involved diversions. I eventually found the place and it had taken well over an hour to get there. It felt longer. But at least the rain had stopped.

The Casa was, however, excellent and I was shown into my own four room apartment by a charming man who told me he was 'minding' the place for the lady owner, Elena, who was away on holiday in Mexico. So, she must be doing OK, and able to leave Cuba. Influential connections perhaps. I was given the keys and told to help myself. An old guy and a couple of fat dogs were on guard at the front gate.
Left: The apartment had a smart bathroom, kitchen, sitting room (with telly) and comfortable bedroom. I show you this photo because, as you will come to realise, there wasn't much else of interest to take photos of.

The main, and really only street of note (right), was lined with uninteresting and dingy bars and cafés. Some of the restaurants looked OK. 

Other than the normal car wrecks and 'pedicabs' most of the traffic consisted of horse-drawn wagons. It sort of reinforced the 'Wild West' feel.

I started by taking a walk along the length of the street. The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be very few tourists (OK, this is Cuban rustic) and that there was none of the jolly music so prevalent elsewhere. The only music appeared to be recorded electronic and often loud Afro-rock  stuff which, I was told later, was probably 'Reggaetón' and western 'disco'. I suppose it made a change. The only two smartish offices on the street were the Tourist Office and the bank. They were both closed (at 3.00pm each day). In the course of this wander I bumped into the German couple who, like me, had been searching for something of interest to see or do. They had at least been able to find a shop where they had bought a supply of Heineken beer. They had booked into their Casa for four nights! I think this was being a bit optimitic in terms of amusing themselves.

The beach, reached by walking down debris strewn tracks, was not exactly the sublime 'soft white sands and clear aquamarine waters' that I had been expecting. OK, they had received the tail end of hurricane Irma which would explain the filthy debris strewn beach and toppled 'fringe' of palm trees, but not much effort seemd to have been made to clear up. Perhaps because it was not the tourist season. I also noted that the pavements were torn up in places (you had to rock-climb up some) mainly around the palm trees on the streets. Again, hurricane Irma perhaps? No, I was told by a resident Canadian I met later, the hurricane hadn't helped but most of the damage was due to the over-growth of the trees and the expanding roots.

Left: Another view of the palm-fringed beach. Not really a place I would choose for a picnic. In some places there were sharp shards of tree trunk sticking out of sand at the water's edge. Reminded me a bit of the anti-personnel stakes on the Normandy D-Day beaches. Could be a painful landing for any intrepid surfer (not that I saw any). I half expected to stand on a mine.
The derelict abandoned building at the top was at one end of this beach. That isn't hurricane damage. Perhaps it is just undergoing refurbishment.

Right: This, the Hotel Gran Via, was the only hotel I saw. Very tasteful, hmmm, but I suspect my Casa was a better bet.

Left: The Parque Centrale. The only WiFi hotspot in town. I didn't bother.

Consulting my book, I found a recommended restaurant to visit, if only for a beer; El Cubano, the Top Rated restaurant in town. I was the only customer. I think I rather surprised the 'staff' who had been enjoying an undisturbed break and game of cards in the kitchen. It was not an inspiring place. I drank my beer and left.

Right: I passed another restaurant and forgot to note it's name. I expect they are making every effort to gain that Michelin star that has so far eluded them.

Left: Perhaps the most impressive and smartest building in town is the filling station.

Afer dark the place takes on a different atmosphere. The grotty bars along the main street fill up with more customers, but mainly with prostitutes. I called in at one for another beer (no glass provided) and was, within the space of 10 minutes, accosted by two fat and one skinny black tarts. It wasn't even as if they were half-way attractive. And the music; loud and electronic heavy metal with ear-bashing drums.

It was noticeable that by now there was a strong police presence on the street. Not the sign of a safe and welcoming environment. Also, the little streetside booths and shops which sold groceries and beer were all fronted by strong metal grilles. You could only do your business through a small opening in the cage. There was a sort of supermarket which I went into to buy some soda water (for my rum), but they didn't have any, or much of anything else for that matter.

There is one little oasis of excellence; El Piccolo Pizza restaurant. I had read about it. It seemed a long walk out of the eastern part of the town. I set off to find it and had to negotiate some badly or entirely unlit streets. Despite having a map, I had to ask for directions on four occasions (helpful locals) and after 45 minutes eventually found it, hidden away in an otherwise nondescript backstreet. It was a revelation. It is, apparently, owned and run by a real Italian. A smallish, tastefully decorated place it boasts a very friendly and helpful staff and the most delicious, and enormous, pizzas. There is a vast choice and they are cooked in front of you in a proper stone pizza oven. I am not a pizza expert, but these tasted very good to me. I couldn't finish mine (too big), so they wrapped the remainder up and I had it for breakfast the next morning. A notable improvement on most of the food I've experienced to date.Very reasonable price and good wine too. This is where I met the Canadian guy who told me a bit about the place. So, if you ever want a reason to visit Guanabo, this is it!

The next morning (after finishing my delicious re-heated pizza) I visited the Tourist Office. They were not exactly overworked. I was looking for an escape route to Havana (20 miles west). I was told a bus left the end of the street every half hour and ended up in the centre of Havana. It would cost .25 of a CUC (about 20p). This was too good to be true. I went to book out of the Casa....that was another (the other) excellent establishment I found, and dragged my mud encrusted wheely suitcase to the bus stop. Sure enough, within 5 minutes a bus, with plenty of space and empty seats, arrived. I handed over my CUC .25 and off we went. It was a relatively comfortable hour's ride stopping off at lots of places before depositing me outside Sloppy Joe's famous emporium near the Old Town in Havana. Just where I wanted to be.

OK, maybe it is not the hight of the tourist season, and Hurricane Irma didn't help any, but I thought Guanabo was a 'hick town', a dump frankly; a bit of a bomb site. Rustic Cuba, maybe, but apart from  El Piccolo and a pleasant Casa I couldn't find anything to recommend it. Perhaps the other Playa del Estes beaches to the west are more akin to the advertised 'Palm fringed Riviera'. I really couldn't be bothered to find out. I wonder how the German couple got on during their four day stay. By the way, doesn't the name 'Guanabo' suggest 'bird-shit'?

Sorry, another car which took my interest. A polyfilla special with a splendid DPM colour scheme.

 ....and another horse and cart.

Two more days to explore Havana further. There is lots that I want to see.

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