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Published: February 3rd 2013
Yep, in the living room
And you thought we were kidding. Here they are, looking out the front window.
Exploring Trinidad, a stop over in Cammaguay and on to Santiago de Cuba
Leaving behind a vibrant city like Havana was sad and inevitable, but nonetheless we picked up our little Kia rental car and made our way south and east. Driving in this island nation isn’t challenging from automobile traffic standpoint, but rather from keeping an eye on everything else, like horse carts, hitchhikers, pot holes and trying to find any kind of directional signs.
We were off to see some more of this beautiful nation and chose to drive east in search of more sights and adventure. The road out of Havana had three lanes in each direction for a good portion of the voyage. One thing was missing however…..traffic. Seems that the Russians built this highway for the Cubans, but of course few can afford to own a car, let alone pay gas, which is about $5 USD per gallon, so the road is mostly empty. Kind of strange for Americans who are used to grid lock during rush hour in the larger cities in the U.S.
Old taxis spewing black smoke, a few trucks and a smattering of fast moving
government-owned cars are about all you see, along with locals holding up money by the side of the road in the hopes of getting a lift to their destination.
We discovered that Cuba was much larger than originally thought. The driving distance from Havana in the northwest to Santiago in the southeast is over 600 miles. When we think of island nations in the Caribbean, we think of small islands that you can drive around in just a few hours. Not the case here.
Our first stop on this part of our journey led us towards the timeless town of Trinidad, on the southern coast. We thought that a few days at a beach resort might be nice, so we headed there first. A few miles out of town, we envisioned some time in the lap of comparative luxury and relaxation in Old Havana. We were mistaken. All-inclusive resorts just aren’t our cup of tea. Although the accommodations were okay, there was mediocre food, noisy restaurants and far too many people for our tastes. The beach however, was quite nice and we parked ourselves on some beach chairs most of the time. We wiled away our time staring
at the beautiful water and reading books. Tough work, but we were up to the task.
We then headed into town, where we found our “casa particular,” which is a great sounding term for a bed and breakfast. In Cuba, you can now rent out rooms in your home to guests. This is a fairly recent relaxation of the laws in Cuba. Another is where people are allowed to open small private restaurants in their homes. A small move towards capitalism, but nonetheless a great one for tourists.
Our home for two nights belonged to Julio and Rosa. The home has been in Julio’s family for well over two hundred years. He told how his grandfather delivered babies in one of the home’s rooms for many years. But that wasn’t what made this home so unique.
Shortly after arriving and getting settled in reading a book in the living room, Julio brought out his two horses. Yes, you read that correctly. Seems these are his “pets” along with two dogs. He brought them into the living room and put them in view of the open front window of the home, where passersby stopped for a look, some
in a state of disbelief. We merely sat there and took it all in, as it appeared that this was a normal occurrence at the house. It’s not every day you are sitting there reading a book, when you suddenly hear equine hoofs upon the tile floor. Just another remarkable experience in the life of travelers…
The time spent in their home and the surrounding town was quite enjoyable, as we wandered the cobblestone streets. We are told the cobblestones were formerly ballast for ships sailing the Caribbean in the 1700’s, which only added to the wonderful quaintness of the town. The town has embraced its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sure, there are the many shops, which hawk souvenirs, but there is still a feeling that you are in a special place where time has sort of stood still and the music slowly wafts in the breezes that are part of this early winter wandering. We dined at two very nice restaurants offering the local cuisine and were not disappointed. Trinidad quickly became our favorite town in Cuba. We highly recommend staying at Casa Munoz!
Julio is a professional photographer. He possesses
a great eye for capturing the life of the people here. He also provides horse back riding day trips into the countryside of Cuba. He is fascinating to talk with as he provides a better glimpse into the lives of Cubans.
After only two days, we departed, as it was time to continue the journey and head further east. We drove into Cammaguey, which is a fairly good-sized city in the eastern center of Cuba. It served as a waypoint to Santiago. Upon entering town, we were flagged by a bicyclist who led us to the center of the city, where we could park near our hotel. A rather ingenious young man, who apparently was making money directing the tourists and delivering them to their hotels with the assistance of a partner with a pedi-cab. Camaguey is not the easiest town to navigate, so we did not mind utilizing his services. Sometimes you just roll with it.
Our night there was fairly unremarkable, save for a quick drink on the hotel roof and the view of the city and the fact that the hotel’s only elevator was out of service. Breakfast is served on the fifth floor and
we were staying on the second floor. Not too bad for us, but for others, including the bellhops, this could not have been good news. For the food delivery service folks, this is most likely a continuing logistical nightmare, as we knew the elevator had been not working for more than a few weeks.
In the morning, our bicyclist navigator was there to greet us again along with the pedi-cab. Back to our car, which was parked in the main town square more that a few blocks away. This day’s journey proved to be a long one. An ill-fated turn added a couple of hours to the drive to Santiago. Detailed maps and road signs are not available, so we ended up stopping a few times for directions. Our Spanish is quite limited and contributed to the difficulties. We eventually found ourselves headed towards Santiago, and the local police, who wanted to see our passports and visas, confirmed the route after a stop. Just a routine motorist stop, but when you’re traveling in a country where you really don’t speak the language, you’re left wondering if this could all go horribly wrong. Kind of like in the movies, where
the German official says, “your papers are not in order.”
Our approach to Santiago revealed the devastation left by hurricane Sandy. It was obvious this storm packed a punch, as many large trees were down. It was more than few months later, but it appeared as though a rather large chain saw had mowed down trees over a vast expanse as we weaved through the valleys towards Santiago. More on this a bit later.
As we came into the city, the lack of a proper map and road signs once again produced issues. We circled the outskirts of the “old city” in hopes of seeing a landmark on our map, but without luck. A couple of men offered assistance, but were rebuffed by Dave, as they wanted to ride with us to guide us to our hotel. After circling the area another time, we capitulated and let one of them guide us to our hotel. He secured another man’s motorbike and we followed him. Good thing as we would never have found our hotel otherwise.
During the planning stages of this trip, MJ had suggested that we stay in a more upscale hotel as opposed to the
smaller venues we prefer. Her thought was that we should end all of our months of travel in a little bit of luxury. Pure genius. The Hotel Santiago was perhaps the newest building we had seen during our entire 16 days in Cuba. We took advantage of the lovely pool twice, spending almost one entire day lounging and acting like slugs.
We hired a guide for a day’s exploration. He took us to Old Santiago, where we visited the Grand Hotel and had our last monitor in Cuba. The town square contained a lovely Old Catholic church, which we took a good look at along with the oldest house in Cuba. The church, which is in the process of being restored, sustained damage from the hurricane, but the work continues. There were musicians playing in the square even though it was only approaching noon. We never seem to tire of listening to the sounds of Cuban music.
Our guide took us to a rather large cemetery, which holds the remains of the “Father” of Cuba’s independence, Jose Marti. Every thirty minutes there is a changing of the guard in front of his mausoleum, and the guards do a
Julio cares for his horses
great goose-stepping march to recorded drums and what we surmised as the Cuban national anthem. We also accidentally discovered the grave of Emil Bacardi, of Cuban rum fame.
We also toured a rum museum, which was fairly interesting and also saw the original Bacardi rum distillery, which first opened in the middle of the 19th
century. Anyone wanting to read a fascinating tale of Cuba, it’s rich history and the revolutions of the 19th
century should read “Bacardi and the fight for Cuba.” It is a well-written book about how the Bacardi family is intertwined with Cuban history and prepares travelers for a journey here. You can’t go in the distillery these days however. It would have been great, though.
Other stops this day included a fort located on the coast outside of town and also a stop at Bunker Hill, which is famously recognized in American history. Teddy Roosevelt and his band of “Rough Riders” assisted in defeating the Spanish in the short 1898 war and a small park with some statues and placards is there as a memorial. We were the only visitors at the time, which didn’t strike us as unusual as there
Julio and his horses
These two really have it going.
simply are not that many American tourists in Cuba.
We can’t provide much information on the local cuisine in Santiago because we chose not to eat in the local restaurants. The reasons are two-fold; one is that in the aftermath of the hurricane, there is an outbreak of cholera in this area and the government was not publicizing this fact. As this is an easily transmitted disease, caution was the best strategy. The second is that as we were approaching the end of a long voyage (we essentially had been on the road since the end of July) we really didn’t want to get sick right at the end. As a result, we dined exclusively at the hotel, which proved to be wise in our minds. We also found the local cuisine in Cuba not that thrilling to the taste buds. Most lacked flavor as a result of the unavailability of spices.
In Cuba music fills the air no matter where you go. It is embedded in their culture and the tourists eat it up as well. Most musicians are self-taught and most groups sell the music to you courtesy of a $10 CUC donation. We're not sure
Unusual for most of Cuba.
how people who make so little money can actually afford their musical instruments.
And then of course, it was time to go. But not before having to drive over two hours north to Holguin to catch our flight back to the U.S. Even though Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba, the surrounding topography apparently prevents a major airport from being built, so we retraced our step back north to the fourth-largest city in Cuba and departed to Miami. Having an international airport this far away from Santiago is not going to help tourism much, but it was another one of those things in Cuba that you simply kind of scratch your head about and carry on.
Our time in this unique nation was incredibly fascinating in so many ways, from the absurd U.S. embargo, to the antique automobiles, to the unending vibrancy of the people and their culture, to the natural beauty of Cuba. This is most definitely a must-see venue and we highly recommend a visit.
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