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Published: February 13th 2014
Trinidad de Cuba - UNESCO City of colour, culture & music
The bus trip to Trinidad takes an hour and a half after a chaotic start at Cienfuegos. We wait and wait along with many other travellers for the ticket office to open. Getting any info from the staff is impossible. In the end, the bus arrives and they let us on with just our ticket confirmation - but only after extracting a CUC for the bags - a definite scam.
The landscape en route changes to one with mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Playa de Ancon is the main resort on the southern coast, not that we plan to go there.
Despite the warning about overzealous touts (jineteros) we find the crowd waiting at the bus stop pretty mild mannered. We are met by a Bici - taxi guy sent from the CP for C3 (he tried to charge us 4 and the owner refunded us the extra).
The Casa, Jorge Mendez Perez is just on the fringe of the city centre, walking distance to the historic central area. It's a very colourful place, has a pool which we do
use a few times as it is pretty hot during the day! And gives us a welcome cocktail - mojito & (our first) daiquiri. The staff are good too. Fun young women who make lovely strong cocktails and do a great breakfast (served with a yoghurt drink for a change), and a guy, Adonis who has very good English thankfully.
Also staying there are a group of English travellers Peter & Carol who now live in Mijas Spain (where we almost bought a place some years ago) & their friend from Walton on the Hill, Surrey. They are interested in our travels and blog and suggest we should write a book for "mature" travellers. Who knows? A potential money earner for C at last!!!
Trinidad is full of colourful houses and reminds us of San Cristobal de la Casas in Mexico. It's very photogenic especially with lots of horses & carts and old American cars - many strategically placed for photos. It's almost guaranteed though that the moment we stop to take a pic either an old truck or bici taxi or less than photogenic grocks will get in the way!
It's another UNESCO site
and has just celebrated its 500 year anniversary having been founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514. The centre of the historic area is Plaza Mayor, a very scenic square with the usual benches set amongst trees for shade. Nearby is the main Church, the Convento de San Francisco de Asis with bell tower that appears on most advertising posters, restaurants, a museum of culture, and next to the Church are steps where they host free music shows every night; Casa de la Musica.
All the streets around the historic area are cobbled and it's a great place to explore. Winding streets lead to the arts & crafts markets, the main products being canvas oil paintings of Havana street scenes (with old cars of course), wooden painted caricature statues of Cuban men and women, crocheted dresses and tops, and model cars made from recycled beer cans. Oh, and Che T-shirts and caps of course.
Other sites we visit include the Historico Museo Municipal which mixes displays of the lifestyle and the home of a Sugar Baron with stories of the fight for independence - we go to the top of the tower for great views over the Plaza
Mayor and around, and then onto the museum of a Temple of the Yemaya Santeria religion which is an African based belief system with a Catholic overlay.
We pass Palenque de Los Congos Reales - a place that showcases rumba music with dancers in traditional African costume from the time of the slaves and stop to enjoy the show a little but it's packed with tour groups, as is Casa de la Trova, another music joint but you have to pay for entry so we give it a miss. Las Ruinas del Teatro Brunet is a bar and alfresco music joint in a derelict old house. We only see it busy when the tour buses come in during the day. It's very quiet at night despite the write ups.
When the sun gets too hot we take a break in the pool at the Casa. C is delighted to discover a game she can beat M at - Water basketball shots - until he discovers the knack! Hey ho. As we haven't built in any beach time in Cuba this is a nice treat.
We take a morning trip to Valle de Los Ingenios (another
UNESCO site) - the heart of the historic sugar cane production in Cuba until the war of Independence. You can do the trip by steam train (though without the flexibility of stops) but as the steam train is broken & the diesel train trip isn't recommended by the travel companies we take a taxi.
The tour includes Mirador de la Loma del Puerto - a viewpoint over the valley (not as scenic in our view as Vinales and the mogotes), Manaca Iznaga - an Ex hacienda that has a 7 storey tower that was used to keep an eye on the slaves. It's a tough climb up steep ladders but worth it for the good views. This is a major tourist spot and there are lots of folks selling embroidered tablecloths - a bit like the ones in Greece, shirts and dresses and beads. Then we go to Casa Guachinango even though the taxi driver isn't sure why. LP says it's good for views. We agree with taxi driver. It's another ex-hacienda now a restaurant. Then San Isidoro - ruins of an old sugar cane plantation which is now being restored. The house is mainly ruins but the grounds
have the old sugar fabrication workings, the remains of slave quarters and a huge water tank that supplied the house by underground aqueduct.
A local guy explains how the sugar making process worked. There are 5 brick built circular chambers. Fires were lit in each onto which big cauldrons of sugar cane juice were placed. As the juice thickened it was moved along the 5 chambers until molasses are left in the final one. These are then out into large ceramic pots and then after 40 days pots are broken open and the contents broken into chunks and dried in sun. End result - sugar. (At least that's what C thinks he said with her somewhat limited Spanish capability). The tour finishes at a ceramic factory & shop - Trinidad is famous for its pottery, though despite our driver’s best efforts we resist the temptation to buy. The most interesting thing there for us is an original 1914 model T Ford, on jacks but in quite good nick.
After checking out a few places we have dinner at Cubita restaurant (in LP) which is excellent - the best food we have had in Cuba so far -
a trendy looking starter of fresh tuna in cucumber, salad with fab avocado, Ropa Veija Cordero the best we've had and fish with a piece of lobster and prawns cooked perfectly. Good music too (a group of trovadores) & no hassle for a tip. We go back there for our final night, as do the English folk we recommend it to - the Paella had huge chunks of Lobster - wow! We also give Guitarra Mio a go (also in LP). They have octopus in red wine on the menu which sounds good but the food is a bit hit and miss and we're the only punters so get lots of attention from the duo providing the music; they're pretty good fortunately.
We've been pretty surprised by the food in Cuba. Fish, shrimp & lobster are more common place than we'd expected and pretty cheap - come & enjoy it before it all becomes too expensive.
At Casa de la Musica we have mixed experiences. The first night it's a salsa group with a great sound accompanied by some excellent dancers! Next night for some reason a charge is levied for entrance - not sure why
as it's advertised as a free venue. It's the same band as last night so as we're tired we give it a miss. On our final night they have a band doing rock a la Black Sabbath. Not our thing so off the Casa, which probably makes sense as we have a very early start the next day.
We try breakfast out for a change at La Dulcinea where the coffee is good; they do cakes & croissants and are also has the Internet Cafe in town (the only one outside fancy hotels in Havana in all our Cuba travels). They also do a mean croissant with Chorizo & one with cheese and ham we would recommend. However always check the bill and the change as they have a tendency to overcharge & deliberately not give the right change to foreigners - we noticed that this happened a lot & they tried it on with us too more than once!
It's pretty hot during the day and we make a great find - La Vega, a small shop by Parque Cespedes (a typical Spanish square) in the newer part of town that sells bottles of ice
cold Coronas for C1.15. We join the locals sitting in the square with a cold one watching the world go by.
We notice that lots of houses are for sale here (and around many parts of Cuba we find out as we travel). Until recently only the Govt could buy & sell houses so if you wanted to move you needed to do a house swap. The freedom to buy and sell houses, cars and also open businesses are all fairly recent changes by the Govt to try to stimulate the economy.
We get talking to a young local guy who gives us an interesting slant on Cuba, one he says he can't express locally as the CDR system on the ground acts as eyes and ears of the state. He describes the people of Cuba as the white ball on a pool table! His grandfather was jailed for 30 yrs for assisting the opposition at the time of the revolution even though he didn't kill anyone, whereas he regards Che as a murderer. He feels his opportunities are limited by the state - incomes are low and you can't improve yourself - unless you are in
a position of power. He does think it will change eventually but not quick enough. There seem to be quite a few well qualified folk who work in the tourist industry. An ex English teacher, a guy who studied nuclear physics and another who did computing. Partly a result of limited job opportunities but also maybe a reflection of the attraction of the tourist buck.
However, the things he admires most is the free education system (literacy is at circa 95%), the free health system and the community spirit and people sharing helping each other may be the price the Cubans will have to pay in rushing into a free market economy would be the death of all that they treasure now – the grass is always greener perhaps for us fickle humans??? Time will tell.
Another less attractive facet of Cuban life (though a necessity) is the Mosquito sprayers! As we walk through town we can see large plumes of what looks like smoke and it seems to be coming our way. Then we see the truck that is causing the smoke and lots of folk running ahead of it trying to get out of its
way. The truck has a huge exhaust loaded on it which belches out a combo of diesel smoke and some other toxic stuff which apparently suppresses mossies. Whilst we're happy not to be bitten we're not sure what other health impacts it has so join the rest of the runners down a side street. They also have men armed with portable machines that go into the homes and shops. Nice!!
In a reflective moment (after a beer!) we decide that the old American cars somehow exemplify the character of the Cubans in many ways; a bit battered and very smoky and noisy but they are very enigmatic, full of character and keep going despite it all. Sancti Spiritus - pretty non-descript town you can give a miss
We're up early to catch the 8am Bus for Sancti Spiritus, 65kms away. Had to pay 1C for our luggage again - obviously a new scam by the Viazul personnel - we are sure it's not company policy as we have not paid before Cienfuegos and don't in other places when we challenge the charge. The Bus leaves 10mins late after taking on locals to fill the seats
(plus a few standing).
We take the road out towards the Sugar Cane plantations through the Valle de Los Ingenios. The landscape changes with higher hills - the Escambray range, and the land seems more fertile. There are also many cattle ranches. Houses tend to be single storey and either rendered concrete block or clapboard finish. There are quite a few tractors but also a lot of oxen ploughs. Horse transport is very common even on the major roads.
Arriving at SS we are met by Sara the lady from the Casa - Hostal Santa Elena, and we have our first adventure in a clapped out old American car/taxi & pay C5 which seemed a bit steep for 2kms but hey we might be the very few tourists that stop here & they have to make a living.
Sancti is also celebrating its 500 years anniversary so we head off into town to see the highlights. According to LP, Sancti Spiritus would be a UNESCO site if it wasn't trumped by Trinidad. That's a bit like saying a Skoda could be the best car in the world if It wasn't for the Aston Martin
DB7 or something similiar.
As for sights - the big draw is the Puente de Yayabo, supposed to be like a bridge in Yorkshire according to LP! It's the oldest and only one of its kind in Cuba. Though now we think about it, we should have been wise to the fact that a place that has a bridge as its main attraction is possibly not somewhere you want to spend much time!
The river is pretty filthy (despite the towns claim to be very clean) and the bridge looks out of place & really not much to crow about. Nearby there's Quinta Santa Elena - a bar restaurant by the river which is a good spot for a beer or food and they have a shop making the famous for the Guayaberas - a pleated button shirt.
Parque Serafin Sanchez is the first square you come across when walking into town. It's pretty traditional with lots of Spanish colonial buildings now stores, a fancy hotel, the Museum etc
The Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo church stands out from most points and is close to the centre - we pop
in during the evening service and it's a lovely building inside though the size of the congregation was pretty small. The Plaza Honorato is not far away and the streets around resound to the clip clopping of horses feet as they taxi locals around town. The square is famous for being where they used to have public hangings. Next to it is Hostal del Rijo, one of the fancy hotels in town. This is where the day-tripper tourists get taken to; it seems not many folk actually stay overnight here.
Calle Independencia Sur is the Main Street and becomes the Boulevard with the Colonia Espanol building - once a whites only gentlemen's club but now a department store at the top end. It's the nicest street in town and interesting to watch Cubans go about their daily business. Here we find Mercado Agropecuario - the first proper market we've seen with meat stalls, fruit and veg etc. all in the centre of the town and really clean and all the produce set out neatly. What is noticeable is the number of stores around town and they all seem well stocked including the many travelling fruit & veg sellers
with a hand pushed cart or a horse drawn cart. In many places we've been, especially Havana, the shops had very little stock and not much choice.
We pop into the Meson de la Plaza - an LP recommendation for food but not location - we found it basic and they only did a fixed menu which didn't sound brilliant for C12 - not much value either for a Govt run place. As it's hot we decide to stay for a beer which was ok, however on the main drag we find The Plaza on the Parque for an even cheaper beer & sandwich with more atmosphere and full of locals.
We have to change some more money so find a bank and join the (very) long queue. LP had warned that you could lose a life waiting in the bank lines here. Instead we find ourselves ushered to the front. How to be popular! Not that we decline.
Surprisingly the town is really quiet post sunset - so unCuban! So we head home as night falls to have some own made cocktails, a shower and dinner we have ordered (thankfully) at the Casa
- Shrimps the house special and lamb - that the cook nearly had a fit about earlier in the day as Sara had said yes but perhaps they had none in store? It was pretty good for the price including fruit & flan.
Elito, Sara's husband is quite a chatty guy which is nice so we spend some time talking about his family and sport - boxing and baseball being his main interests. It's nice to have a local chat even if our contribution is a bit pigeon Spanish.
Next morning, still full after last night’s dinner we have just coffee for breakfast then head off for the bus to Bayamo. It's the same bus we left behind yesterday as it goes all the way to Santiago de Cuba. As an aside, we believe that the C5 the taxi charged was too much for the distance and we could have got it cheaper had we arranged it on our own rather than through the CP - our mistake.
Bayamo - the heart of the First War of Independence
Our plan is to stop off at Bayamo on our way to Santiago
de Cuba as its Saturday and apparently they have a party in the main street here every weekend from 8 pm with street food, music and chess players. Apparently this is chess territory and Cespedes, who was one of the earliest independence heroes and the first Sugar Baron to free his slaves, who came from Bayamo, was the Kasparov of his day. We are due to get to Bayamo just in time after an 8 hour journey through the centre of Cuba going East via Camaguey where we will stop on the trip back to Havana.
The bus stops for lunch at 11.15am and the service is really slow. We order quickly, get served next to last and the planned 30 minute stop takes almost an hour. You'd think they'd be used to dealing with scheduled bus stops by now.
The landscape becomes more fertile as we go further east and we even see rice fields. The Cubans eat a lot of rice and grow about 70% of what they need. The rest comes from China or Vietnam. (Apparently the return trade with China is plastics for making cameras and similar products).
get to Bayamo at 6pm and are pleasantly surprised to see a bici taxi guy waiting for us. We had expected to walk as it didn't look far on the map. In fact it's about 2 kms to our Casa - Villa Pupi & Villa America, so we're very happy as it's getting dark, most of the roads are not on our map and it would undoubtedly have ended in tears! It costs 3C and we do a deal with the lad to pick us up next morning as this is just a flying visit. He seems pretty happy.
The Casa is another family home type place - actually two houses that share a yard and terrace so work together as a CP. It's probably the least fancy place we stay in - it smells a bit musty and is pretty basic even though it has its own patio area, but it's a nice family. We are not sure the Casa or the breakfast offered presented value – the first for us in Cuba. On a positive note, the only such occurrence on our travels.
Yuri speaks quite good English, which is a great bonus as
he tells us that the Fiesta de Cubania that we have come here for is not in the centre of town anymore; it moved 5 years ago to Plaza de la Patria 3kms away (near the bus station). There is also live music and food stalls in town so we decide to go to both as they apparently don't finish until late.
We head into town for a look around. Food stalls are being set up and music equipment but it won't all start until 8pm. Walking around town via the Parque Cespedes is quite interesting. Lots of folk are out and about - many women dressed up in their glitzy gear ready to party. The main pedestrian drag, Paseo Bayames, has quirky "art" around its lampposts - made to resemble tubes or tins of foodstuff. Unfortunately none of the supermarkets that are open have any water! Really. We don't find a single shop or cafe that has bottles of water for sale. Lots of coke so no problem for our Cuba Libres later, but no water!
A guy tries to do a deal to take us to the Plaza de la Patria, wait for us
and bring us back for 10C. Seems a bit pricey so we decline. As it turns out we get a guy to take us there for 2C and another brings us back for 40 MN's (less than 2C).
As Bayamo isn't a very touristy place one of the main upsides is that most things are priced in Moneda Nacionales and are therefore quite cheap. So be prepared with the stuff. There’s circa 25MN to 1CUC.
When we get to the Fiesta de Cubania things are already in full flow. Lots of suckling pigs have been roasted and more are under way, there are stalls selling full chicken dinners, lots of stalls selling beer and drinks, an area where a band plays and dancers strutt their stuff. Across the Plaza (which is huge and the only place in Cuba where there is a monument of Fidel Castro) music blares out from other sound systems. What we don't see though is a single chess player!
After a beer and a wander we get some hot pork rolls - only 4MN each (about 15 pence) and a chicken dinner to share which again was great value at
only 20MN. So a night out with beers and transport actually cost us less than £5.
Returning to the town at 10-30pm all the food stalls have finished but a visiting Mariachi group is just setting up and the streets are packed with locals waiting for the event to start. We watch for a while then head back. And we still don't find any chess players.
Our bus to Santiago de Cuba next morning is due to leave at 10-15 so we have breakfast at 8-00 then take a walk into town to get some photos and see it in daylight before we go. The "interesting" features of the Paseo Bayames look really tacky in the day! And still none of the shops has any water. We take a few shots of the square then head back where our bici taxi is waiting for us.
At the station everything is well organised and the folk are helpful in sorting out our tickets etc. The earlier bus arrives and suddenly we find ourselves being ushered in to it - they make sure our bags are on board too. Great service - though we will now
be in Santiago 30 minutes earlier than expected and doubtless could be bombarded by jineteros as we won't have a "greeter".
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