Having explored New Zealand, Australia and Far Eastern countries…I thought it was about time I took a look at some Latin American countries. My first choice was Ecuador so that I could visit the Galapagos Islands…but violent unrest in the capital city Quito in October 2019 put me off. Cuba came a close second…so I put mind to deal with the necessary requirements of visas, medical insurance, financial arrangements and initial accommodation.
Armed with my tarjeta touristica for 30 days, a stash of £20 notes and a visa debit card authorised for use in Cuba I arrived in Havana and was delighted to find my name clearly printed on a card held by the taxi driver who would take me to the Hostal Peregrino in the old part of the city. I had booked and paid for 3 nights…the rest of the adventure would be arranged as I went along. Of course, I wanted to travel the length and breadth of the island…but that proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. Although Cuba has an extensive rail network covering the entire country…the ancient trains and rolling stock cannot be relied upon. Sometimes a train will run, more often, it won’t. Internal air travel needs to be booked well in advance because of demand.
From the above map you can see that Havana is at the opposite end of the country to Santiago de Cuba where I would liked to have reached. However, there were many other places I wanted to see…and having visited only a few gives me good reason for a return visit or two.
Havana is a buzz of human activity with a pace of life goverend by the speed of horse powered transport…not to mention the heat and humidity. People saunter liesurely along the magnifcent central Paseo Marti…brisk walking would be uncomfortable and jogging is for fitness fanatics only. I was surprised that in most places I visited, there were more horse drawn vehicles than cars.
I was fortunate to obtain a ticket for the Ballet National de Cuba’s production of The Nutcracker. This was a lavish full length version of the ballet co-produced with the Fenice Theatre, Venice and the Carlo Felice Theatre in Genoa. Absolutely fabulous…worth coming just to see this.
The owners of the hostal (think guest house) arranged a guided tour of Havana with someone who had lived through the period of the Revolution and the Cuban Missile crises. He had an excellent understanding of Cuban culture, history and politics…consequently, was able to answer my mulitude of questions with authority and understanding. We drove in a 1959 Opel Saloon that had belonged to his father. After the American blockade, it was impossible to obtain spare parts for the car…but it dealt easily with the steep narrow tracks up to the Castle of the Moors now equipped with a Russian Lada engine. From there the views across the habour to old Havana were spectacular.
The 18th Century barroque Catedral de La Habana was once the resting place of Christopher Columbus until his remains were sent back to Seville at the end of Spanish colonial rule. It is situated on easternside of the Plaza Vieja which is a hub of urban life in Havana.
Late Monday afternoon, I joined up with other tourists in a taxi collectivo to Cienfuegos. I was the only person to be dropped off here, the rest were continuing to Trinidad. One of the advantages of taxis compared to buses is you get taken from door to door. You also get to meet some fascinating people…like the couple from north Germany who I met up with again in Trinidad.
It was the striking images of French Colonial architecture that drew me to Cienfuegos. These two photos alone give a hint of the treasures to be found less than a couple of hours from Havana. The old town around Jose Marti Parque is a UNESCO World Heritage site…you can easily understand why. It is also know as the Pearl of the South, and is also a port and surprisingly, one of Cuba’s main industrial towns.
My hosts invited me to treat their home as my own…naturally, I was much more respectful than that. But their open, warm friendliness was typical of the welcome I received wherever I stayed. Perhaps the most famous building in Cienfuegos is the Tomas Terry Theatre, Inaugurated in 1890 and since then, its stage has received internationally known figures like Enrico Caruso, Ana Pavlova, and Alicia Alonso. The theatre now e the status of National Monument.
I am sure I will never forget watching pelicans dive for fish in the bay and enjoying excellent criollo cuisine in restaurants above the town centre busy with local people and tourists. The taxi driver who took me out to the botanical gardens…renowned for its orchard collection and vast arboretum…also drove me to my next destination Trinidad.
Not to be confused with the Caribbean island of the same name, is a tourist hot spot. Trinidad in central Cuba, is renowned for its colonial old town and cobblestone streets. Its neo-baroque Plaza Mayor, is surrounded by grand colonial buildings. Museo Romántico, in the restored Palacio Brunet mansion, and Museo de Arquitectura Colonial display relics from the town’s sugar-producing era. The Iglesia de la Santísima is a fine 19th-century church with a vaulted ceiling and carved altars.
The lady of the house treated me like a long lost son. Like many Cubans she kept song birds as pets…not only do they let the birds hang out in their cages outside on the street, but they also take them out for walks in the park.
One of the rail lines that is actually still functioning, allows tourists to travel from the town to the centre of an old sugar plantation which is now a museum. I went on a tour by private taxi which allowed me to visit the Mirador de Valle de los Ingenios with spectaculor views towards the mountains in one direction and towards the sea in the opposite view. I decided against climbing to the top of the watch tower that allowed owners to keep a careful watch on the slaves in the sugar plantation, but eagerly took up the chance to visit the sugar factory museum. Fortunately, not everyone speaks with a thick Cuban accent that I find difficult to follow. The museum guide spoke so clearly that I could not only understood his explanation of the entire refining process…but also fell into fits of laughter at his jokes.
Santiago de Cuba (my ultimate destination) lies at the far end of the island and a long bus journey from Trinidad. With help from my hosts I decided my next destination should be Camaguay…a much more manageable distance. Juan and Belky’s house was quite close to the bus station, so it was easy to walk to make a reservation at the Viazul office. Thus began my initiation into the workings of the ‘tourist’ bus system. I placed tourist in quotes because I am now convinced that more Cubans use the service than tourists! However, I couldn’t leave Trinidad without first visiting Playa Ancon …reputed to be one of the finest beaches in the world. What do you think?
Dona Elsa’s house was the grandest of the private homes I stayed in. My room was palatial in size with a natural timber framed roof and huge shuttered windows. Some of the furniture looked like genuine antiques in contrast to the modern cubicle constructed in a corner which contained a sink and shower with running water – only cold though. The magnicent doors couldn’t be locked from the inside…instead there was a padlock to fasten when you went out. Senora Elsa was the strictest of all my hosts; she wanted to know where I was going and what time I would be back. She was the only host who didn’t let guests have a front door key.
Despite all of that, I seemed to get on with her alright …she recommended restaraunts which served great food and gave discounts when her name was mentioned. She gave me a map of the town indicating which route I should take to get to her recommendations. One of the focal points was the Plaza de los Trabajadores, a triangular park with the best Interent reception, banks, restaurants and meeting place for tourists and locals. I discovered that there is more than one Cuban accent, and some people in Camaguey speak disparagingly about the way folk talk in Havana – too much influence from their proximity to Florida and the US.
Camaguey is one of Cuba’s Provinces that decided all restaraunt meals should be priced in the National Currency to keep the costs within the reach of local residents. Before I was aware of this…I got a shock when my bill for lunch seemed astronomically high. When the waitress pointed out the bill was in both CUP (national pesos) as well as CUC (tourist convertible pesos). Of course, I had just looked at the first amount. My stupidity had a wonderfully comic effect …everyone burst out laughing. I should point out this was a tiny, popular eating place that probably didn’t get many tourists. Why would it seemed funny? Easy. It was clear that I thought I was being charged 25 times the actual cost. That is the difference in value between the two currencies 1 CUC = 25 CUP
A similar incident ocurred when I bought a book. The price pencilled inside the fron cover seemed rather expensive…but I just handed over a 20 CUC bill (about £16). The shop keeper looked at me astonished.
‘Don’t you have anything less?’ He asked, in perfectly understandable Spanish.
I gave him a 5 CUC note instead and received a fistful of notes and coins change. Of course, the price was in CUPs …the national currency. From this I learned that books in Cuba are very inexpensive.
On the way home, armed with a pocketful of CUPs, I braved a purchase at the Coppelia Ice Shop. It had a notice in the window to the effect that only national currency was accepted. Well now I had some…and was surprised at how much ice cream I could buy with the change from my book purchase. I contented myself with a single item. Handed over a CUP note and was given change in coins and a voucher to take to the counter. I watched the person in front and picked up a similar container for my ice cream. Which flavours did I want? I picked two of the three on offer and looked around for something with which to eat it. Again…by just observing others…I found that round the corner from the serving counter there was a box of proper metal spoons. People either brought their own containers to take ice cream home or used the ice cream parlour’s washable spoons and containers. I’d read that Cubans were concerned about the environment and climate change…but here was living proof that ordinary people took these issues seriously.
Ignoring Dona Elsa’s instructions, I took the opposite route to the one she recommended and found myself by the river. I was overwhelmed by the kind curiosity of strangers. People walking their dogs or with children in tow. Some just greeted me with a smile and ‘Buenos tardes’…others wanted to know where I was from, where had I been, what did I think of Cuba….would I come back? So much warmth and kindness…you can see why I want to return.
Back at Elsa’s house, I mulled over my plans with her and decided that Santiago would have to wait for another trip. My best option was to head back towards Havana, calling at Santa Clara so that I could easliy visit one of my chosen destinations…the small village of Los Remedios. With Elsa’s assistance, accommodation was sorted and travel plans made. The early start of 3.00 am was not something that filled me with joy…but neither was it a misery. Just part of the adventure.
The Battle of Santa Clara in December 1958 was led by Che Guevara and was decisive victory in Revolution. Less than 12 hours later Batista had fled Cuba and Fidel Castro proclaimed overall victory. You cannot escape the influence of Che in the town…and naturally I visited the remains of the captured armoured train that marked the turning point in the war.
But apart from Che Guevara, Santa Clara is a great place to visit with some splendid colonial era buildings around the Parque Vidal…including a magnicent theatre gifted to the town by Marta Abreu de Estevez, a local and beloved philanthropist who contributed to the prosperity of the city.
Although Santa Clara was only supposed to be a stopping off point…I quickly fell in love with the place. Only here can you witness a phenomenal natural spectacle. Just before sunset, thousands of birds fly into Vidal Park to roost overnight. The first time it happened, I was reminded of Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’. Miraculously, no one ever seems to be harmed by this daily avian assault.
It is surprising how forgotten language is recalled when you are in an awkward situation. The cashier at the currency exchange was acting dumb about my requests for an exchange of a £10 note for national currency. I later discovered that this is not allowed. I should have tendered Pesos Convertibles (CUC) in excjange for national currency (CUP) which is legal. Rathered than be swindled by accepting the few coins offered, I called the supervisor and asked for her assistance. She quickly grasped the situation and told the cashier what to do.
I was happy…I had the correct amount of CUPs for my tenner…and I had boosted my confidence in making myself understood in Spanish
From the trourist map of the island, Los Remidios looked like it might be a seaside resort: it isn’t. However, it was just the quiet sort of place I needed after the bustle of urban life. It has two churches, the smaller one is closed for renovation, the larger one dedicated to St John the Baptist has 13 decorated gold altars.
I stayed in a typical smallish house with grandma, three of her grandchildren and a number of house geckos. Breakfast was served outside in the patio by her daughter-in-law, and evening meal was at her son’s fine colonial mansion which housed several guests as well as being as an excellent restaraunt. Each day, I was asked in advance what I would like for my main course…fish, seafood, chicken, pork, beef? Every meal was truly delcious. The first night I dined alone…but more guests arrived on subsequent evenings. By day three, there were several tables set up in the courtyard…rather like an exclusive bijou restaraunt.
After a couple more nights in Santa Clara, I joined a bunch of happy tourists heading for Varadero, which is unquestionably a seaside resort. The town stretches along a narrow peninsuala…so you are never more than a short walk to a beach. The journey was in a vintage Chevrolet saloon that comfortable seated nine people. Every seat was taken with most of the luggage strapped to the roof. Sharing travel stories with Michael and William from a small Irish town near Cork, made the journey pass in no time. Once again, here in Veradero, I found myself warmly welcomed into the bosom of a cosy home right in the middle of the town. Naturally, I also made friends with the family pets…a small Pekinese and a ginger moggy…who seemed most affectionate at breakfast and dinnertime.
The big tourist hotel complexes, casino and golf course are at the far end of the peninsula. At one time, Cubans were barred from staying at these hotels…but times have changed. Although the newer developments look more comfortable with carefully maintained gardens, more luxurious accommodation and sparkling clean swimming pools…none of them appeal to me. I would much rather be in the thick of it…talking about family joys and woes as well as sharing experiences and aspirations of life in Cuba. Most tourists would whiz past Josone Park …they had no idea what they were missing. I agreed with my hosts that this was a fabulous, magical oasis to be cherished by tourists and locals alike.
Whenever I went to Parque Central to access wi-fi, I never ceased to be delighted at the sight of mother hens, many with chicks in tow, wandering unhindered everywhere. It brought a fresh new meaning to the term ‘free range’. Another joy was to wander along the miles of pristine sandy beaches…often without a soul in sight…. or shelter from the sun under a palm tree and read.
All too soon, it was time to return to Havana in preparation for the long journey home. Once I had paid for my Viazul bus…I realized, I could afford to spend my last two nights in Cuba at a proper hotel. I should have made the arrangements online…but Internet access in the park wasn’t brilliant. So instead, I booked through Cubatur …one of the state-run travel agencies. This proved to be another educational experience of how Cuba works…not to mention being a challenge to my negotiating skills in Spanish. A comfortable room with a view of the harbour and the Malecon met my requirements…but came with a heafty price tag. However, a premium room in the five-star Paseo del Prado Hotel had everything I could wish for …plus a great many things I didn’t need…and… the views from my room and from the roof-top restaraunt were stunning.
On my final day, I paid a visit to the Museo de la Revolcion, which was formerly the Presidential Palace. What a great pleasure to meet my lovely Irish travelling companions in the sumptious surroundings of the hall of mirrors. They told me they had spotted me walking in Varadero from their vantage point on the top deck of the tourist bus.
All good things must come to an end …they say. Well I can’t wait to go back (coronavirus permitting)