Route: Holguin – Camaguey – Trinidad – Playa Larga – Las Terrazas – Vinales – Havana - Remedios – Camaguey – Santiago de Cuba – Holguin.
14.02.2017 - 14.03.2017
FEBRUARY & MARCH 2017
After a hectic two weeks in the UK, replacing things that were stolen in Chile – Passport, Phone, Reading Glasses, etc., we left for a four-week tour of Cuba.
Our flight departed from London Gatwick and ten hours later delivered us to Holguin, the third largest city and on the eastern side of Cuba. Although an international airport, Holguin was small and quiet. It was here that we picked up our hire car, our mode of transport for the next four weeks. We spent the first two nights in the heart of Holguin town at a Casa Particular (family run B&B), run by Nestor and his wife. They were very friendly and helpful, which stretched Anne’s Spanish to her limits.
Holguin was a fascinating place and was a good introduction to Cuba. The first thing we noticed was the mode of transport, and that our car was an exception. Most people get around in either old (1950/60) American cars, some in better condition than others, or buses converted from cattle trucks, or horse drawn taxi carts and at the bottom of the scale “Bicitaxi’s” – a bicycle with one or two passenger seats. The “Bicitaxi’s” can also have added comforts, such as an umbrella shade and music accompaniment. The buildings also stood out, some beautifully maintained old colonial buildings amongst buildings that were on the verge of collapse. And these were all interspersed with a variety of residential properties in a varying degree of completion.
On the morning of day three, we said goodbye to our hosts, extracted the car from its secure parking just down the road and headed for Camaguey (214 km west of Holguin). However, we soon realised that not all was well with the car, it was hard to start, the ignition warning light stayed on and it kept stalling. So instead of going direct to Camaguey, we went via the car hire office to get it sorted. The main office was very unhelpful but a car cleaner at the depot managed to get someone to help us. The problem was the battery in the ignition key.
Our journey to Camaguey was on paved roads, which varied in quality but were generally fairly good. The traffic was light, mostly a few trucks, buses and tractors, except for around the towns when hundreds of horse drawn carts and bicycles would appear. Camaguey was smaller than Holguin but just as busy and congested with the usual people, bicycles, taxis, buses, etc. We stayed in a Casa Particular right in the centre of the old town and our secure parking was in what appeared to be part of someone’s living room. Arriving late (after the car troubles) we didn’t have time to explore much but what we saw was interesting and we had a great meal.
The next day we were on our way again, this time around 250km southwest to the UNESCO World Heritage old town of Trinidad. The route there took us along similar roads to the previous day, with the same sort of traffic but as we passed Sancti Spiritus the scenery changed. It wasn’t all flat; there we forested mountains and fields of Sugar Cane. Our accommodation in Trinidad was another Casa Particular and our secure parking was in a compound within the gated part of the town. After having a quick look around and dinner out on that first night, we spent the next day having a good look around. The reason for Trinidad’s UNESCO status is that it hasn’t changed since its partial abandonment in the late 19th Century. The streets are all cobblestones and the buildings colonial. Most trade seems to be undertaken in people’s front rooms or from sellers going from door to door. Shops were very varied, the plaza’s was attractive, and the usual old American cars are everywhere (together with a lot of Lada’s). It’s a busy place with people going about there daily business (which is interesting in it self, particularly their ingenuity to make do with what they have. Trade with other countries being restricted by the USA embargo) interspersed with tourist soaking up the atmosphere. It is certainly an intriguing place that provided us with hours of entertainment, during our three-day stay. We did however manage to drag ourselves out of town for a few hours and visit Parque Topes de Collantes. A beautiful area in the mountains, about 20km out of town. The start was a steep drive to the starting point, then an equally steep decent through the forest to an attractive waterfall. Coming back was a tough climb in the heat and humidity and we were pleased to reach the car and its air conditioning. On the drive back to Trinidad we gave a lift to two forest workers, which as it turned out was a wise move, as we had puncture just outside of town. They were able to organise its repair for us, knowing where to go and who to see. The cause of the flat was horseshoe nails, four of them, and probably the result of a kids game. So ended an eventful day out of town.
The drive to our next location was the most attractive so far, crossing rural flat lands full of crops before hugging the coast to Playa Larga. Our first day here was spent on an organised walk in the forest of Parque Natural Cienaga de Zapata. It wasn’t quite what we had signed up for but was fun all the same. It did include some interesting sightings, a two meter long Boa, some North American Crocodiles, some tiny Fruit Bats, etc. In the afternoon it rained heavily which suspended activities for the day. Day two was sunny so we went snorkelling in a nearby bay. You could snorkel from the beach and the marine life was pretty good.
From Playa Larga our journey took us further east, beyond Havana and into the Sierra de Roario. Here we stayed in the countryside just outside Las Terrazas. The first day was spent exploring the village of Soroa, about 20km down the road from our accommodation. Soroa had an interesting orchidirium and a climb out of the village rewarded us with a fine view across the plains to the Caribbean Sea beyond one way and the Sierra de Roario the other. Plus there was a restaurant serving cocktails at the very same viewpoint. Day two, we took a guide and ventured into the valley of Sierra de Roario and amongst the ruins of old coffee plantations.
Our next stop was the town of Vinales, set in a valley with mountains all around. This is cigar country, with tobacco plantations and factories everywhere. So a cigar production demonstration was one of our first activities, followed by a purchase of some Monticristo’s. Our two days in Vinales were spent exploring the beautiful scenery. We had a guided tour of the farms and plantations within the Vinales National Park, which included a local rum distillery. It seemed rude not to buy a bottle after a demonstration and a tasting. We visited two of the many caves in the area and saw what must be the world’s largest mural; it covered a complete hillside.
Next stop was the capital city of Havana. We stayed on the outskirts of town in Miramar, treating ourselves to a lovely room in an old colonial house. Then spent three enjoyable days exploring the city. Havana is renowned for it architecture and culture, but offers so much more. People watching is at its best here, observing daily life and being amazed by the Cuban ingenuity which kept us intrigued for hours. It was also here that we took the opportunity to ride in the famous old American cars, both convertible and saloon.
From Havana our journey took us east, back towards our final destination of Holguin, and to the town of Remedios. Remedios is a very attractive town, close to Cuba’s north coast and with easy access to the Cays. In fact it was the Cays (small coral fringed islands) that we were here for, and to do some snorkelling. Unfortunately the wind put pay to our snorkelling, but we did enjoy the empty white sandy beaches and the turquois Caribbean Sea. It was also an interesting experience to drive on the man made causeway that links the mainland to the islands. It wasn’t all sun, sea and sand at Remedios though; we did enjoy a visit to an old sugar mill, which is now a museum, as well as exploring the back streets of the town itself.
It was now time for two of the longest drives of the trip, first to overnight in Camaguey, then all the way over to the south coast and to Cuba’s second biggest town of Santiago de Cuba. In fact it didn’t turn out to be so bad as expected, with the road only getting really bad as we got closer to Santiago. Camaguey was a nice as we remembered it from our brief stay earlier in the trip, and we visited our favourite Cuban restaurant again. The only down side, was, that our accommodation was double booked and we ended up in an inferior place.
Santiago de Cuba is the poorest part of Cuba, which is what was immediately evident as we arrived. The town is the home of the revolution and has seen many battles over the last 300 odd years. We visited a fort on the coast, strolled around town and had an amazing Sunday drive into the mountains. For the Sunday drive our host, Daylis and a fellow traveller, Jamie, accompanied us. The route took us up into the Sierra Maestra (famous as the birth place of the revolution). We first called at the church in El Cobre (which the Pope visited on a recent tour of Cuba) and then continued in to the mountains to visit Daylis’s grandmother and cousins. This was a rare and privileged opportunity to witness first hand rural life in Cuba. Modern conveniences were in short supply, water was delivered by a tractor drawn tanker, most floors were bare dirt, wood fire cooking was the norm and livestock roamed in and out of the house. However, there was an electricity supply, TV, DVD and mobile phone service. It was a very memorable day.
Our final leg was back to Holguin from Santiago, via a visit to Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. Cementerio Santa Ifigenia is where Fidel Castro along with other famous Cubans are buried. A very military style cemetery, very neat, clean and tidy with a change of guard every 30 minutes.
In Holguin we were supposed to stay at the same place as our previous visit, however our host, Nestor, had a client overrun, so he had arranged a room in a neighbouring Casa Particular. This was no problem as the new place was equally as nice.
An evening and morning in Holguin, plus morning coffee with Nestor and his family, and that was Cuba done.
The front room of the house is multifunctional. In addition to the usual uses, we have seen it used as an office, shop, garage, stable exit, etc.
Wi-Fi is new to Cuba. Access is via hotspots, usually the central plaza near to the telephone company office. Here people congregate, to talk online, read emails, surf the net, etc.
However, to have access, you first need an Internet card, which is purchased from the telephone company office. Not as easy as it sounds, first the office hours seem to be random, then there is a long queue (over an hour is not unusual). Once you reach the counter it doesn’t get any easier, a long form needs to be completed asking a lot of personal information. Finally, you make the purchase and leave with your card. Next stop is the central plaza, you enter the number on your card and if you are lucky you will have Wi-Fi connection. I say lucky, sometimes it worked sometimes it didn’t, we could be sitting next to each other and only one of us would get connected. Also one card only allows one hour of access, so for four weeks we needed more than one. Knowing the purchase process on the second occasion, we bought six cards so as to avoid having to do it again.
Motorbike & Sidecar
The Motorbike and Sidecar still provides a common mode of transport in Cuba, something I haven’t seen in many other places in the world. In fact transport in general is fascinating. At the top end are the tourist cars and coaches, and then there are the taxis. A taxi can be an old American car from the 50’s or 60’s, a Russian Lada (with various modifications), a horse drawn carriage, a bicycle with one or two passenger seats, a converted cattle truck, etc. etc. And in rural locations an Oxon pulled cart can have many uses.
One thing that did disturb us, was the care given to horses. The horse still performs a vital role for many families and it seems amazing that they are not better cared for. They appear underfed, under groomed and ridden in an unsympathetic manner.