Since arriving on our overnight bus from Holguín we spent our first 5 days acclimatising to Cuban ways in the quaint colonial towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
Trinidad seemed to be the perfect ‘Cuba for beginners’ with its neat tourist centre which was buzzing with Europeans and South Americans. It is difficult to follow a map because the streets have all changed names since the revolution, but before long you begin to recognise where you are as its only a small town.
Lovely as the UNESCO protected centre of town is, my favourite parts were those just beyond where the cobbled streets fade to earth. Here you can experience real Trinidad and you see the locals sat in their doorways in the late afternoon watching you and the world go by. Everyone seemed friendly and were happy to say ‘Hola’ as we ambled by. The mountains provided a picturesque backdrop to this charming part of town.
Our Casa in Trinidad
We had booked into Casa Colonial Felix in Trinidad and on arrival we were welcomed into the grand old house and offered coffee, however, we were then introduced to a woman who walked us a few doors down the street to our room. Our room was accessed directly from the street and had its own bathroom and kitchen – we had expected to have a room in the main house but I think they had overbooked and set us up with a neighbour instead. The woman was nice enough but apart from bringing us breakfast in the morning, we didn’t see her. It was difficult to get a good nights sleep as our bed was right beside the street with only wooden shutters in between and it seemed that the street sellers, horse carts and cyclos blasting music continued all night long. On the final morning the water ran out (as it often does in Cuba) so we abandoned our morning routine, packed our rucksacks and headed to Cienfuegos in hope of a shower and a flushing toilet! It was all part of the experience, and it’s comforting to know that a Cuban will never leave you without accommodation, it seems there’s always a friend, or a friend of a friend, who can help.
Restaurants in Trinidad
There are a number of restaurants to choose from in Trinidad, I can certainly recommend the two where we ate dinner. Firstly, Taberna La Botija, which is recommended in many guidebooks and certainly lives up to expectations by serving great cocktails and mountains of food large enough to challenge any appetite. It’s a busy place so be sure to get there early, on the first day we arrived at 19:00 to find it full, so on the second day we tried at 18:30 and bundled on to the last of the big tables sharing with two Germans, a French couple and a solo traveller from Sweden!
For our first evening we ate just around the corner at Paladar El Criollo where there is a great terrace overlooking San Francisco church so we were treated to a stunning scene at sunset. The food and cocktails were great here too, the portions were plenty big enough and well priced and there was music on the terrace too.
Day Trip to Topes de Collantes
In Trinidad we booked a tour from the Infotur office (opposite the Viazul bus station) to take us to one of the National Parks in the nearby Escambray mountains. At a cost of 45 CUC per person we piled into the back of a bright yellow jeep at 9am, along with a Danish couple, and headed out of town and into the hills (at no great speed). From the car we watched above as the vultures circled the valleys and then looked down at the unique way they repair roads here – by setting new concrete blocks right on top of the old road, making the road higher and higher each time. When we reached our destination of Topes de Collantes we met with our local guide, who has lived in this town for all of his 26 years. After a brief visit to a cafe to explain the history of the coffee production in the area, he then led us on a trek to the Vegas Grande waterfall. We had been warned that it could get cold up in the mountains and that we should bring warm clothes but we were certainly hot enough during the walk! At the waterfall you’re given time to swim if you wish, if not (like me) you instead take a break and watch those who have braved it. Then prepare yourself for the sweaty walk back up!
Our lunch (included in the price) felt well-earned following our walk; we sat on the terrace of a restaurant perched on the hillside and enjoyed pork, accompanied by the standard rice and beans. You soon learn in Cuba that every meal involves rice and beans!
On the morning that we were leaving Trinidad for Cienfuegos we walked out with our rucksacks on in the hope that one of the many people trying to offer us a taxi could quote us a reasonable rate. Unfortunately, even a day beforehand we’d found that the Viazul bus was fully booked. However, one of the guys arranging taxis in the street paired us up with a couple of English women that we could share the fare with and after a long wait he finally found us a car that was prepared to go the distance. It was a bit of a squeeze for four passengers in the little old Lada but we got there, for 15 CUC each, and enjoyed the chat on the way.
Our Casa in Cienfuegos
We arrived in Cienfuegos at Casa Lili y Fel, a beautiful house, set back from the road with a pristinely painted white gate and landscaped garden. (We booked via Cubaccommodation).The room was clean and cool from the air conditioning and though the pink silk was not to our taste, it was well presented. We soon met Lily herself, such a warm and inviting person who responded to every request with a smile and the words ‘por nada’. Our breakfasts and dinners there were relatively expensive (5 CUC and 10 CUC respectively) though we were very well fed and I loved the papaya jam at breakfast! The courtyard at the back of the house was wonderful, there were two covered tables beside the outside kitchen. The dining area was bordered with a wall covered with tropical plants which were home to many geckos and a incredible bright blue and green lizard – they must have thought we were mad as they witnessed our fascination with these creatures that they see everyday. After meals we relaxed in the rocking chairs, which are a staple of every Cuban home whether rich or poor – I remember passing one house that looked to be an empty shell inside but still it had a solitary rocking chair.
Cienfuegos itself has little to offer in my opinion, we certainly didn’t need 3 nights there but it gave us the chance to relax into the Cuban way of doing very little. Cubans may not have much, but they have a wealth of time, they’re never in a hurry. We walked the Paseo El Prado down to La Punta and then returned in a cyclo with a great young chap who was keen to teach us more Spanish as well as take the opportunity to practice his English. Though we only paid 2 CUC for the ride, he earned a 1 CUC tip for being such pleasant company. On the walk down we met a guy near the grand hotels who was selling taxi rides in the old American cars so we took the opportunity to book our planned day trip to Santa Clara to tick off the main tourist spots associated with Che Guevara.
Day Trip to Santa Clara
The next morning a big black American car arrived at the Casa, much to the dislike of our hosts who warned that this taxi company were no good (in the sense of rightfully declaring their income to the state I assume). We sat on the big sofa-like seat in the back of the car and mentally travelled back in time as our journey took us to Santa Clara.
Without asking, the driver dropped us at the first of the key tourist sights, the mausoleum of Che and his compadres who died in battle in Bolivia in 1967. The giant statue of Che, built to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death, stands high on a concrete plinth above the mausoleum. You must go to the office by the coach park to leave your belongings as bags and cameras are forbidden inside; we were a little sceptical of this but actually it seemed safe enough. You then enter the museum housed under the statue which takes you through Che’s life with a series of photos and artefacts from his journey through South America to his famous battles, finishing with Fidel’s speech from his funeral.
Across from the museum is the mausoleum where the remains of Che, and 17 of the fighters who died with him in Bolivia, are now laid to rest after having only been recovered from a mass grave in Bolivia in 1997. At the end is an eternal flame which was lit by Fidel.
We found our driver just where we left him, smoking a cigar and chatting to the other waiting drivers. Next, he automatically took us to the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, the site where Che and his men derailed a military train sent by Bautista, fought the men on board and took victory over Santa Clara. The train carriages remain there alongside the functioning train line. At the entrance stands the bulldozer that helped in the derailment and inside some of the carriages are some photos and artefacts (only 1 CUC to enter).
From there we crossed the railway and walked four blocks up to the Officina de la Provincia where there is a smaller and more intricate statue of Che standing in front of the building which is branded with his signature. The statue is full of symbolic touches in incredible detail, my favourite being the 38 men of his army in Bolivia emerging from his belt buckle.
We returned to the taxi and asked to go to the centre of town for a couple of hours for lunch and a wander. The driver seemed bemused as to why we want to stop in Santa Clara now that he’d shown us to all of the sights, but we simply wanted the chance to see another town. Sure enough it was nothing special but I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just the obvious tourist sites, I was happy to pass a couple of hours there.
And thus concludes our time in central Cuba. We were fortunate to book a ticket for the Viazul from Cienfuegos to Havana online before coming to Cuba so we made our way to the station and piled aboard the bus for the 4 hour journey, where I am writing this…