After forming some first impressions of Cuba whilst in Havana, we decided our next stop would be Cienfuegos. It was a logical place to start although on reflection we would have planned it differently. On reflection, we would have planned it!
We discovered that we could take a tourist bus service from Havana for the same price as a regular bus. An added advantage was that it departed from a hotel in Old Havana that we could walk to and therefore avoid the battle across the city to the main bus terminal. We left on time and set off in a very comfortable Chinese-made bus. We later noticed that almost every single bus in Cuba – at least the ones tourists are allowed to travel on – is Chinese.
As we headed out of Havana the roads emptied and very soon we were one of only a handful of vehicles on the wide, smooth roads. It felt a bit strange. We’d left a vibrant, bustling metropolis and all of a sudden, there was nothing. The countryside was flat and unremarkable. Four hours later we reached Cienfuegos and were dropped off at the gorgeous colonial-style Hotel la Union. We weren’t staying here and a pedal rickshaw taxi was there to meet us and transfer us the short distance to our casa, Las Terrazzas. If our casa in Havana had impressed us then Las Terrazzas upped the game. For 25 dollars a night (5 less than Havana) we had the entire top floor of the house and, as well as the bedroom and bathroom, there was a kitchenette with dining room and two large terraces.
Cienfuegos itself is a medium-sized town with a lot of historical buildings. Founded in 1519, the city is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The suburbs line an attractive seafront and felt much more affluent than anywhere else we had been in Cuba so far.
The singer Benny More was born in Cienfuegos and as well as having restaurants and bars named after him, the town has a statue in his honour. Having a photo taken with Benny seemed to be one of the towns “must do” attractions.
With Benny More in Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos is attractive; but unlike Havana where you could spend days exploring, the main sights of this small town can be seen in a day. We also began to realise that finding a good meal in Cuba was going to be a challenge. Although we didn’t have any great meals in Havana at least there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. We had assumed the meals we’d eaten in Havana were poor because they were catering mainly to tourists. Although Cienfuegos receives a fair number of tourists, many of them were on coaches that passed by during the day. In the evening restaurant options were limited. Outside of the capital we were hoping to find local places; but without the tourists there’s not the demand. Things are changing in Cuba but for now, eating out at a restaurant is not within financial reach of the average Cuban. Whilst we could convince ourselves that fast food for lunch was acceptable, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it for dinner. So Cienfuegos was where we discovered that eating a home-cooked meal at our casa particular was often the most satisfying option. In terms of taste, quality and nutritional value.
From Cienfuegos we travelled to nearby Trinidad. Trinidad really is the postcard picture-perfect colonial town. Cobbled streets, colourful churches on palm tree fringed plazas and rows of neat houses painted in palettes of complimentary colours. Call me lazy but it’s one of those places that a few pictures will speak better than a couple hundred of my words …
We arrived in Camaguey the day before the 500 year anniversary of the city and a big celebration was promised.
The scene we arrived to was a bit bizarre. It was as if the entire town was in a frenzy of activity. Everywhere was getting a fresh lick of paint and many significant buildings were only half-finished. There were huge trucks everywhere either lifting people with pots of paint up the side of churches or sloshing water over the streets so others with brooms could scrub them clean. They appeared to be pedestrianising one road – fitting bollards and painting lines. It was chaos and we felt like grabbing a tannoy and shouting “Give up! You’ll never be finished in time!”
Never-the-less, Camaguey is an attractive town:
By lunchtime the next day the streets were clear of heavy machinery and the rest of the painting was destined to wait. Everyone was talking about celebrations but no-one seemed to know what was happening. Not even the tourist board. Everyone was in party spirits though and the bars were busy from lunchtime onwards. For the first time since arriving in Cuba we managed to find places serving decent and cheap meals. Pretty as Trinidad is, it caters mainly to tourists, but Camaguey is a medium-sized town which feels reasonably prosperous with bars and cafés patronised mostly by Cubans. Prosperous though the city felt, there were still the ubiquitous queues and we were reminded that not everything is easily accessible in Cuba as we went into about 10 shops looking for toothpaste. We eventually bought some (from a shop with a good stock of it) but I felt a pang a guilt that we should have brought enough with us in case we had deprived someone not so fortunate.
As night fell we joined a party on the steps of a small plaza. There was a band playing and rum and coke was flowing freely. We started with mojitos but switched when we discovered we could buy an entire bottle of rum for the same price!
We got chatting to some locals in our best Spanglish. One guy, a professional dancer, tried to teach me a few steps. I tried to teach him the expression “two left feet”.
Making friends, learning news steps and taking some very out of focus photos …
Because we had lingered in Trinidad longer than our timeframe ideally allowed us to we had to make the decision not to travel any further east, and so from Camaguey, we headed to Ciego de Avila. From there we wanted to try and head off on a path less travelled but the biggest problem was that the main bus company ‘Viazul’ doesn’t run on that route and as foreigners we aren’t supposed to travel with any other operator.
From Ciego de Avila to Moron the simple and obvious route was by taxi. Of course this was also the most expensive way to go. After being turned away from the bus terminal we headed to the railway station with only the faintest hope that a train would be an option. The last time we enquired about taking a train in Cuba we would have to wait two days for a 3am departure. But our luck was in and there was a train due in 2 hours time. ‘Due’ being the operative word. However we were curious about the many trucks outside the railway station that were clearly ferrying people about. Many of them looked more suited to carrying cattle than people, consisting of not much more than a metal slatted container with a wooden bench down the length of each side. We called them cages on wheels. Another type, known locally as ‘camellos’ (camels) are enormous articulated people carriers. The name is derived from the two-humped shape it forms.
We made some enquiries and found that a “cage” would be leaving imminently for our destination, Moron. And they would take us. We joined the scrum to climb aboard. I managed to get a seat, only because a local guy gave his up for me, but Mark had to stand for the 2 hour journey. Packed like sardines, each time we stopped to let two people off (or out!) it seemed like four more were squeezed in. Possibly not the most uncomfortable journey we’ve ever done but it must have come close.
At least it only cost us 20 cents (about 12 pence). Moron was interesting in that there weren’t many travellers there and is a typical Cuban town but there wasn’t much to hold our interest and the following day we continued to Remedios.
Again, there were no buses that were allowed to take us. Our casa owner thought maybe we could take a series of trucks, maybe 3, but we didn’t spot anything that looked likely so we loitered around the train station and got a taxi for 40 US dollars. Expensive compared to other journeys (and on reflection we probably could have got it cheaper) but ultimately if we’d returned to Ciego de Avila and taken a bus to Santa Clara from where we more than likely would ended up taking a taxi, it wouldn’t have cost much less. And it would have taken us all day.
In the “cage”, before too many people got on!
Remedios is a colonial town that isn’t quite postcard-pretty enough for marketing campaigns or UNESCO listing. And I guess that’s part of what makes it so appealing. It’s a small town but the large plaza is home to two churches and some interesting buildings. Remedios was founded in 1513 so it’s definitely got the history. It also won bonus points for having a bar on the square selling one dollar beers and two dollars mojitos. Our home here was the gorgeous ‘Casa Colonial’ which more than lived up to its name. Remedios is definitely one of Cuba’s hidden gems and we had a great couple of days there.
Mark getting a haircut, hoping he wasn’t going to end up with patterns shaved into the side of his head!
Unsure of how we would get to our next stop, Santa Clara (no bus again) we headed to the edge of town. It wasn’t looking very positive when all of a sudden a taxi offered us a ride for 10 dollars! Bargain – it must have been the return leg of his journey. And even better it was in a beaten up old American classic car!
On the road to Santa Clara
Santa Clara is historically significant when it comes to all things Che. It was here that his liberation of the city in 1958 resulted in the downfall of the Batista regime. Aside from the Che Guevara sights, Santa Clara is a very pleasant city with a history that well pre-dates that of the infamous bearded beret-wearing Marxist revolutionary.
Monument to Che Guevara
Santa Clara is also home to some interesting anti-America street art:
We were definitely on the ‘home stretch’ of our time in Cuba and it was decision time again. We had a couple of spare days and a curiosity to see the much-hyped tourist Mecca of Varadero Beach. It was a relatively short journey away, so that’s where we headed next …