exploring central and west cuba

We`re back in Havana for our last few days in Cuba; we`ve been exploring central and west Cuba by bus and staying at casa particulars (private homes). Internet service in Cuba is scarce, slow, and expensive, so this is a longer post than usual. Today we’re taking turns reporting highlights.

Trinidad (Don)

From Camaguey, the place of our last blog posting, we caught the bus to this popular, UNESCO world heritage colonial town on the south central coast. It is a dusty, noisy city – only the highway around the city is paved – the rest is ancient cobblestone or dirt and gravel. Transportation is a real mix –one moment you flash back to the 1950s as old Chevys and Pontiacs rumble by, then suddenly it feels like you’ve dropped into a wild west movie set – horses and carts, cowboys, chickens running by and roosters crowing day and night, and then a big, brand new Chinese-built air-conditioned tourist bus roars by to bring you back to the present.

The main attraction here is the number of 18th-century mansions, churches, and civic buildings that survived because the city was not connected to the national railway or highway until well into the 20th century, so it was left alone for more than 100 years. But at the time it was a major centre for slave-trading due to the number of sugar cane plantations and factories in the nearby valle do los ingenios (valley of sugar mills). Many plantation owners lived in the large mansions that now serve as museums and art galleries around the main plaza.

A popular excursion is to catch a train from the city into the valley to visit the hacienda, ruins, and 45m viewing tower that were once at the centre of a vast plantation that required 350 slaves to plant and process the sugar cane. The train used to be pulled by an old steam locomotive from the time, however now a dirty diesel engine does the job. But that doesn’t take away the fun of riding in an old wooden, open air passenger car, 22 km up the valley. Deborah loves trains; her dad worked for the CNR and growing up she got to travel across the prairies by train every summer so we always look for an opportunity to jump on board.

It was only 10 cucs for a return trip, and we lucked out with a warm sunny day for train travel. There isn’t much to see or do at the hacienda itself, we climbed the tower for a great view of the valley, and back on the ground watched raw sugar cane go through a trapiche (sugar mill) that squeezed out the juice – but not much else, the hacienda is a big restaurant now with gift shops in the side rooms, no other information or displays to describe the rest of the sugar factory processes or acknowledge the brutality of the plantation owners or the fate of the slaves – something you think Cuban authorities would be more than happy to point out! We did get back on the train early for a ride further up the valley to where the track diverges and reconnects for turning the train around. Oh, and did we mention the on-board bar service?

Topes de Collantes (Deborah)

There are two major trails one can walk in the hills near Trinidad. We chose a guided hike that was about 20 kilometres into the mountainous Topes de Callantes area of parks and coffee plantations. We arrived at our meeting spot and got into the back of a circa 1970’s Russian army truck that had seats welded to the box. There were six of us and our guide, Yaimaris. Thankfully we had our jackets and my scarf as it got really cold going up the mountain in the back of the open-air truck. We stopped to have a tasty espresso at a demonstration coffee plantation and learned about mountain, shade-grown coffee. We hopped back on the truck and headed to our starting point of our hike

Now those of you, who know me, know my knees aren’t the greatest and hiking has not been in my lifestyle. I love to walk, but hiking is something different. So… off we go on a 3.5 kilometre hike… 7 kms round trip. Our descent was around 400 metres, not all in one direction…. up and down and up and down… arriving at our destination, a very narrow, but high waterfall about 1.5 hours later. It was extremely peaceful and a great time for my legs to relax. The other four folks jumped into the water and frolicked to the edge of the waterfall. After a brief rest we returned to the trail to get a head start as I figured they would catch up to us sooner than later and I didn’t want them to have to wait for me too long at the top if we all left together. Well… I made it and am very pleased with myself that I had the adventurer spirit happening.

We hopped back on the truck and went to lunch, which turned out to be the best restaurant meal we had in Cuba. I don’t know why, but they tend to overcook the meat and poultry here. We left our guide at the restaurant as she lived in the mountain area and the rest of us went back to town. A great day all around!

Cienfuegos (Don)

Tucked up near the end of a long inlet on the south shore of Cuba, Cienfuegos used to be an important city – a major port for sugar export, and therefore the home of more than a few sugar barons from the mid-1800s through to the revolution. It’s hard to say what is important about it now, other than, by Cuban standards, it is a mid-sized city with a small container port, and just up the inlet, an oil storage and power generation plant. Like every other city in the country, it has a colonial plaza, in this case with a provincial legislative building on one side, a huge opera/theatre house and school on the other, and the usual large church. The theatre, quite extravagant for its time, was built to fulfil the last will and testament of a local sugar baron in 1886 – owning slaves and sugar factories was obviously very profitable.

Besides supporting public works, the wealthy also attempted to outdo each other with their city homes – constructing huge mansions along the waterfront in the Punta Gorda area in an obvious show of wealth. Several are now state-owned hotels, restaurants, and government offices. The exhibition of wealth didn`t end with public buildings and homes, however, the rich went out with a bang and filled the local cemetery with massive Italian white marble statues – the most famous depicts Sleeping Beauty, dozing in a sitting position with her head leaning on a huge white cross.

To get to the Cemeterio General La Reina we walked through a part of town that looked like it had always been poor, predictably across the railway tracks from the commercial centre of town and the historic plaza. The gate to the cemetery was locked and there was a scaffold in the entrance way suggesting that work was underway but no workers were in sight. A woman emerged from a side hallway with keys and told us the cemetery was closed because it was too dangerous to pass under the arched entrance, pointing to the scaffold blocking the way. She then lowered her voice and asked if we wanted to have a quick look inside, but made it clear to us this was a serious transgression, motioning that if she was caught letting us in, it would be off with her head. Such intrigue, and we were now accomplices!

Once within the high walls of the small cemetery, she took us straight to Sleeping Beauty. We took a quick look around at the sea of white marble statues, whispered we were ready to go, and slipped out as quietly as we had entered. Perhaps it is poetic justice that an impoverished Cuban is earning tips showing tourists the final resting places for the pre-revolution rich and powerful.

Vinales (Deborah)

Who would have thought we would take up an offer to go horseback riding through tobacco fields, fields of beans and potatoes, up steep hills, through areas of running water and mud, and along very narrow paths? Well, we did… from 8:30am to 3:00pm… that is a lot of riding! It was a fabulous way to experience the wonderland of farming and the tranquility of red fertile land surrounded by large, roundish rock masses… it was amazing. It was also disconcerting at times… meeting oxen roped together pulling carts on a very narrow trail… barely two metres across. We had to maneuver our horses into the shrubbery on the right, so the horned monsters could pass without running into us… unusual indeed!

We were taken to a tobacco farm that is within the National Park. All the tobacco and other crops grown in the park are grown organically. We saw the tobacco plants and the barns covered in palm fronds all over the countryside in this region. After the tobacco leaves are picked they are put on strings, about 450 leaves per string, and are hung in rows inside the barns where they stay until a certain amount of moisture is left. They then tear out the stem of each of the four tobacco leaves they use for each cigar. The stem holds 98% of the nicotine… this would seem good, except we don’t know how much nicotine is in each leaf. The rolled cigar is then wrapped in paper and set aside for 4 hours, and then out in the sun to dry for 45 minutes. They make the No. 4 Montecristo, allegedly the type Che used to smoke and of course, they tried to sell us some.

We then rode to the entrance of an underground cave, or cueva… and crept 250 metres in the dark… of course we had a guide with a  light… it really helped as it was very, very dark! As our horses rested, we walked in a line… tourists riding with other guides were there as well… the ground was very uneven and we had to watch our heads as sharp rock formations hung from the ceiling of the cave. We walked until we came to a swimming area that some would swim in.

Our final stop after another hour of riding was to see the famous mural de la prehistoria – we were not impressed by the mountainside mural, or the fact it would have cost 3 cucs each to get closer, so we let our guide know we were ready to return to Vinales, which he said would take another hour…. so after six and a half hours on horseback, it was a joy to dismount and walk the final kilometre through town to our casa particular….

After dinner we were sitting on the front porch of our casa particular, Villa Aracelis y Papo, looking out across the street. We were watching a very cool pig; we have named Arnold, after the pig that starred in the old sitcom Green Acres. I loved Green Acres, Eva Gabor was fabulous and of course Arnold was the mainstay. Anyway, life here on this avenida, more like a pathway between neighbours, is quite unique. About 4,000 people live in the valley, maybe half in town who seem to all know each other well, are relatives, or at least know each other by sight. Locals are passing by on foot, bike, and horseback, and then, just to mix it up, a gorgeous candy-red and white late-50s Chevy Belair in excellent shape slowly rolls by, careful not to kick up the dust. Meanwhile across the road, Arnold is letting his family know he is not happy they have closed the door on him. They are watching TV, sounds like a cartoon. The Arnold in Green Acres liked to watch TV… we were imagining our Arnold was feeling the same urge, perhaps grunting something like “let me in or at least open the door so I can see”.

We are off to Cancun, Mexico on Saturday.

Lots of happiness sent your way!

Arnold!

Arnold!

Making a cigar

Making a cigar

Drying barn

Drying barn

Oxen coming!

Oxen coming!

Tobacco field

Tobacco field

Drying racks inside barn

Drying racks inside barn

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

Sugar baron's house

Sugar baron’s house, Cienfuegos

Trail ride, Vinales

Trail ride, Vinales

View from trail, Topes de Collante

View from trail, Topes de Collante

Us in Trinidad

Us in Trinidad

Planatation tower

Planatation tower, Valles de la Ingenios

Sugar mill demonstration

Sugar mill demonstration

View from plantation tower

View from plantation tower

Trinidad train

Trinidad train

from coast to countryside

A grande thank you to all of you for loving our blog so much that we reached the 10,000 view mark this past week….yeah for you!!!

We have come to realize that we are slightly off the norm… usually people go to resorts in Cuba and then do side trips to other communities… not us… we are doing communities and took a side trip to a resort, the Memories Caribe on Cayo Coco on the mid-eastern side of Cuba. If you have been to Varadero, you will be able to imagine what they are trying to do with their eastern islands, building numerous resorts all along the beach front. The stay was okay, an all-inclusive, with much to eat and drink. We really enjoyed hanging around the pool and went down to the beach a few times. Unfortunately, the beach is quite narrow, with much short-cropped seaweed and of course, the ubiquitous sand flea.

The Atlantic is much colder than the Caribbean and so not too many folks were swimming. A cold front had moved over Cuba and our first few days at the resort had quite a bit of wind. It was nice around the pool, protected somewhat from the breeze… it was only about 23 degrees, much cooler than our time in Costa Rica.

It was interesting to note that one of the only real excursions out of the resorts was to the small city of Ciego del Avila, where we stayed on our way to Cayo Coco. It was late Saturday afternoon when we arrived and walked around for a few hours, looking for somewhere to eat. From the town square there was a wide boulevard with stores and some restaurants (that were closing for the day), clearly developed specifically for tourists. We appeared to be the only tourists around and it didn’t make a lot of sense to us at that time. Once we read the brochures at the resort, we realized the downtown area of Ciego del Avila was set up for busloads of tourists from the resorts on Cayo Coco who would arrive in town just after noon and leave around 3pm. Tourists in Varadero often go into Havana, but that would be too far to go for a day trip from Cayo Coco… around 5 hours each way.

On Cayo Coco there is a Hop On Hop Off bus that costs $5 round trip. On the only really cloudy day we hopped on to experience the island. All it did was stop at every resort on the way to Playa Pilar at the western tip of the island. We did see numerous flamingos in a few of the lagoons… we love flamingos, so that was a joy!

The Pilar beach area was even narrower than our beach, so we thought it odd that it was so heavily promoted. We spent a very enjoyable hour walking carefully over a massive old coral reef that was more than 30 feet above sea level, covered with wind-swept shrubbery. The surface was extremely sharp, and there was no path, but the explorer part of our natures came out and we had a marvelous time searching for the way to the other side of this part of the island. Some of openings in the ancient coral were 8 feet deep, it was quite amazing. Great time!

The next day we decided to walk to the Ecological Reserve, much to our chagrin, there wasn’t much to see but lots of bugs that did love to bite. We spotted some tiny crabs that had one large pincer each… almost as big as the crab itself. These beings made their home on the path we were walking on… holes in the ground that they scurried into as we passed. My feet were really sore after the 3 hour walk.

We stayed at the resort for seven nights and set off to Camaguey, where we are currently. Getting around Cuba is not all that easy. We thought maybe we could fly from Cayo Coco to Camaguey as they both have airports, but we found there are no direct flights between them. There is no direct bus either, so we organized a taxi to drive us.

It took about 3 hours, crossing terrain that reminded us of the farms of the Fraser Valley and Canadian prairies. In one area of the roadway we saw men sweeping something on the pavement, perhaps grain, into a narrow pile around 150 metres long. They were shoveling this into white bags that were left on the side of the highway to be picked up later. We saw this repeated about 10 times. It turned out that it was rice they were drying and putting into bags. We hope they clean the pavement before they put down the rice… horse and buggy are a major type of transportation here… so you see our concern.

The taxi dropped us off at the Plaza Hotel at the edge of the historic district in Camaguey, right across from the train station. The first night was dreadful with all the noise from the tavern downstairs, the buses and the trains. We were woken to the sounds of many people singing… I think that was around 3am… we were moved the next day to a much better room. Camaguey is an interior city with about 300,000 people.

The city used to be on the coast, but in the late 1500s, in order to escape attack by Indians and marauding pirates, it was moved to the interior surrounded by land suitable for farming. Most Cuban cities are on a grid… not here. They made intricate, irregular, curved streets to avoid being taken by the raids.

Even though we love to walk everywhere, we decided to hire a bike taxi to do the historic buildings and other interesting sites. We were driven around for two hours and with the tip it cost us $10. Raul, our driver, was very enthusiastic about his city and we felt fairly safe with him, even when we went on the four lane highway and crossed over to the market. I didn’t even close my eyes when we crossed in front of one of those big, old green gravel trucks. After we stopped at Revolution Square for our photo with the bici-taxi, we saw one of those Camel people-movers we mentioned in the Havana blog. They obviously still use these cattle-trailer trucks outside Havana – photo below.

We visited a few museums and historic buildings around town… large colonial structures containing small collections and no signage. The admission was usually $1 per person. Yesterday we visited the Museo Provincial and had to pay $2 per person and a $1 charge so we could take pictures. In every museum we have visited in Cuba staff follow us around. Often just one person “accompanies” us, but at the Museo Provincial, we had three people following us. They didn’t just stand at the back of the room as we looked at the art; they were all within about four feet of us. It was difficult to step back to appreciate a piece. Very odd set up, indeed!

Whenever we are in a city for more than a few days, we can usually see how they live. This is not a poor place, the roads are pretty clean (very little garbage in the gutters), the young people are dressed in jeans, t-shirts and running shoes… very much like any other country. Lots of women have fake nails on and in very cool colours and designs. We wonder how they make their living as we see a lot of people just hanging… young people on the sides of commercial streets, older people at their doorways which are adjacent to the sidewalk… no lawns or gardens street side. The people here don’t smile much unless they want something from you. I like to smile at people when we walk by. They usually respond… not here.

We learned people pay taxes now; that started about 3 years ago. People can own property and sell it if they want… lots of cars and homes for sale. They can also be entrepreneurs. We are hoping when we get back to Havana to our casa particular, we can gain further insight from our hosts. Till then, we will keep observing life around us.

We both send you much happiness and tranquilidad!

Deborah

good morning habana

We have arrived safely in Havana… lovely weather… between 19 at night to around 28 or 30 in the day. As we are here in the city for 8 nights, we are taking it slow. Our accommodation is in a wonderful casa particular, Casa de Ana Morales. The room is huge, with a bedroom suite from the 50’s in perfect shape. Ana makes us breakfast every day… healthy fruit, freshly made juices and any type of egg we desire (I need to take her home with me). Her husband, Alberto, is a godsend… he speaks perfect English and is a superb source of information about Havana and Cuba as a whole.

Kitty corner from our building is the old Ritz hotel. It is now an apartment building for hundreds of people.

This is our third visit to Cuba and though we had stayed at resorts before, we always took a trip into Havana. It has changed in many ways. Yes, there is the historic district that still has its charm, including La Floridita, apparently the birthplace of the daiquiri… Hemmingway’s drink of choice. They have a bronze statue of him sitting sideways to the bar, just like he was talking to someone. Touristas love to have their picture taken with him. The drinks at La Floridita are the most expensive in Havana… tourists willingly pay for the privilege of drinking a daiquiri with the spirit of Hemmingway.

The roadways around Havana are in very good shape, better I would suggest, than in San Jose, Costa Rica. As we walk around the city, we were watching for huge people movers, they were called Camels… we saw them back in 2000. They were huge cattle-trailers pulled by semi-truck cabs; it looked like they could hold upwards of 300 to 400 people. We couldn’t find any… fortunately, they have been replaced by modern buses… rumour has it… supplied by China.

We took a hop-on hop-off bus for $5 each the other day, to see what other parts of Havana looked like. The bus headed west along the Malecon, an eight kilometre sea wall, and turned into an area of homes and apartments as well as large hotels. Everywhere the streets were lined with trees, some very old… and unlike most cities we have visited, they have street markings on each corner. These are rather unique as they little concrete pyramids, about 18 inches square and about as high, with the calles and avenidas marked accordingly.

We visited the old presidential palace, which is now the Museum of the Revolution. It is quite the space, with much text and a lot of pictures and maps showing the progress of the revolution. There are also lots of bullet holes in the walls from a failed attempt to assassinate the Batista… so you can get the drama of the days gone by. I wasn’t feeling great that day, so wandered a bit, sat down when I could, but I did learn a few things. In my mind there were only two people leading the revolution, Che and Fidel. I learned that Raul Castro as well as Camilo Cienfuegos and others were key members of the leadership at the time; Camilo, unfortunately, reportedly died in a plane only a few months later (in photos, he is the one with the cowboy hat).

We have seen lots of things since we have been here and of course, can’t mention them all. One of the challenges in Cuba, at least for the time being, is that internet is not widely available. We are posting this blog via the internet café in the Parque Central Hotel.

Here’s to a great sense of community for everyone.
Much happiness to you all!
Deborah