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