Cuba – A trip to the presence of the revolution
It is not often that the history of a country fascinates me like Cuba’s history does. The revolution, the tense situation regarding the USA and the special relation to the former Soviet Union. You hear about it a lot without really knowing any details. So it was time to visit this country to see with our own eyes what history did to this country on an island. That Cuba is located in the Caribbean and that you can catch some sun there did play a considerable role as well. So here we went, towards the Revolution, the rum, the cigars, the cars and the sun!
In order to avoid the Hurricane Season but still being able to catch some sun we decided to visit Cuba in late November. To be specific we stayed for two weeks, from November 11th to December 4th. In this time – so much we can spoil already – we had great weather conditions except for maybe one or two days where we had a little rain. Our planning phase for that trip started half a year prior to the trip. We went to a travel agency for some assistance concerning shuttle services, booking hotels, renting a car and getting from one point to another. One more reason for the travel agency was that we felt more comfortable knowing that there will be a representative on site just in case we need some advice or help. The travel agency also organizes the tourist card that is necessary when entering Cuba. In hindsight we can only recommend the help of a travel agency for a trip to Cuba because they definitely have a different mentality concerning various things. It is recommended by the Federal Foreign Office that you also have a document from your travel-health-insurance in English and Spanish language stating that you are insured through them in Cuba but in the end no one wanted to see it. But better safe than sorry – we brought it.
We booked our flights on our own through Condor – they already brought us safely to South Africa and back. What expected us in Cuba made South Africa look like a stronghold of culture and civilization. A journey was awaiting us that should keep our minds busy long after we came back home. A journey from hell to paradise, with potholes in between – a lot of potholes. But we start at the beginning…
Day 01 – Sunrise in the putative paradise
It was early in the morning and the sun was not up yet when I woke up on Cuba for the first time. I grabbed my girlfriend and my camera and we went to the beach to take up on this chance of starting our first day in the Caribbean with a sunrise on the beach. We were not the only ones though that had that thought. Nevertheless there was a peaceful silence with the sound of the ocean in the background. The warmth of the first beams of sunlight on our skin felt awesome as we watched the sunrise and learned, that you can speak German on Cuba.
The evening before we landed in Varadero, Cuba, after an eventless 11-hour non-stop flight. A shuttle-bus took us from the airport to the touristy peninsula where you find one All-Incluse-hotel after the next. Our hotel for the first three nights was the IBEROSTAR Playa Alameda – a nice hotel complex with a beautiful beach. The hotel itself is arranged like a little village with multiple houses that each host around 6 rooms.
If you looked a little closer during the day it was obvious that the hotel complex has seen better days and needed some renovation. Our spacious room smelled a little moldy and the refrigerator was very dirty. Further, our bathroom was missing a door as well as water pressure in the shower. Since we did not spend much time in the room anyway and went to get our drinks at the bar, these circumstances could not dampen our enthusiasm. If you just plan to stay for a few nights we would recommend the IBEROSTAR Playa Alameda – but not for an entire vacation.
After the sunrise and the first 200 pictures on the camera we went for breakfast and right back to the beach. Around 10 a.m. it gets a little crowded on the beach so it might be difficult to find some free beach chairs. We were early enough though to catch some chairs and enjoy the first day on the beach recovering from the flight. There was entertainment, food and drinks right there on the beach and we felt the sun burning on our skin (protected by sunscreen of course).
Day 02 – From the ocean into the water
The second day we planned on spending in the pool area instead of on the beach. It was a lot less crowded and we were closer to the snack bar. The water offered a nice cool down when it got to warm while reading, drinking and snoozing in the sun. That day we really arrived, left the everyday life from back home behind us and enjoyed the various buffets in the hotel complex. The following day we started the middle-part of our vacation – a self-planed tour through Cuba with Havana as our first destination. But first we had to pick up our rental car…
Day 03 – Havana Vedado
Immediately after breakfast we checked out and ordered a taxi to the rental car station that was located just across the street from the hotel Sol Sirenas Coral. When we arrived a representative of Caribbean tours was already awaiting us in order to help us with the Cuban bureaucracy. We rented the car through VIA Rent a Car. The whole process of renting a car in Cuba was kind of devious so the representative was extremely helpful especially because he also translated for us. Before the representative left he gave us some information material for the trip, like maps, contact numbers and some other tips for the road trip.
Besides the common fee for rental cars that we already paid in advance in the travel agency in Germany we had to buy another, additional insurance (or that is what we think it was) that cost us 80,- CUC (approx.. 65,- €). We also added a second driver for 30,- CUC (approx.. 25,- €). The staff wanted us to pay the total amount of 110,- CUC in cash. On Cuba, you will mainly pay with CUC (Peso convertible) and in cash. The exchange rate is connected to the US-Dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the second currency in Cuba. We did not have any contact with that currency though. The deposit for the car was charged to our credit card.
When you take over the car make sure that you inspect it very well, also things like the fuel gauge, and have everything written down that seems conspicuous to you. Once that was taken care of they handed us the rental contract with all notes that were documented. That yellow paper has to be in the car at all times and is really important when you get pulled over by the police. If you have to pay a fine make sure that they write it down on that yellow contract and never pay the police officer on-site directly. The fine will be charged to your rental car contract and you pay it when you return the car. We made that experience ourselves. But until that happened we have had some exciting days coming up. So, we took over our Peugeot 208 and were headed towards Havana.
After a two-hour drive we arrived at Hotel Sercotel Paseo Habana, our hotel for next four nights in Havana. We parked the car directly in front of the hotel on the street, which was for free, and left it there for the following days. We took our luggage inside the hotel and had it locked there until our room was ready because the check-in was not possible that early in the day. We planned to explore Havana in the upcoming three days by checking out quarter by quarter or rather borough by borough. We started in Vedado on that first day in Havana, followed by Centro Habana on day two and the heart of Havana, the old city center La Habana Vieja, that we saved as a highlight for our last day in Havana.
Our walk to the first destination for the day, the Colon Cemetery (Cementerio Cristóbal Colón), took us by houses that were not much more than just the façade and had a front yard full of jittery chicken. In an area of approximately 60 hectare there are more than one million people buried. This cemetery is so gigantic that it has its own road network. The entrance costs 5 CUC (approx. 4 €) and upon the entrance you can buy a map. We were allowed to take a photo of the demo-map that was hanging on the side of the building for free, just for a rough orientation. Some of the graves had imposing tombs. This “City of Bones” is definitely worth visiting.
We marched on to the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución). The José-Marti Monument towers over the square. He was the first important revolutionary person in Cuba that fought against the Spanish occupation. Across from the monument you can see the Interior Ministry. It is the building with Ché Guevaras portrait on the wall. Right next to it is another building with a portrait, the Ministry of Information. The man on the façade is Camilo Cienfuegos, another important revolutionary. All of the official buildings are very well guarded by Cuban soldiers. Already on that first day we really felt the immense importance of Cuba’s history for the present age. It was not the first time that we had the impression that the past is more important than the present.
Time flies by so we decided to head back toward the hotel and check in. Concerning the style Hotel Sercotel Paseo Habana was exactly what you expect as a tourist. A colonial building with rocking chairs on a front porch, wooden shutters and an interior decoration that is not really up to date. Sadly, all romance vanished quickly when we realized that there was not any warm water. In fact, we had to hope for any water at times. Considering the price of 90 € per night we thought that was bad. Breakfast was okay for Cuban circumstances and one employee of the hotel was very enthusiastic and did an excellent job. He had to do that because most employees just chilled instead of worked.
For dinner we picked a restaurant from our travel guide that we could reach by foot. Once we turned on the street where the restaurant was supposed to be we spotted another one. The El Balcón del Habano was right across the street from the one we originally picked. The look of the restaurant as well as the delicious smell from the kitchen made us reconsider our decision, so we went to the El Balcón del Habano instead. The tables were set up on a front porch, of a colonial building, that was a little elevated and the kitchen was right under that front porch. We did not regret our choice of restaurant at all! We highly recommend this restaurant. From the authentic ambience to the friendly service and the outstanding food, there is nothing we can complain about. We would go as far and say it is a must to eat there when visiting Havana.
Day 04 – Centro Habana
The next morning we took a taxi to the center of Havana. It cost us 10 CUC (approx. 8 €) for the 15-minute drive to Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. That was where we started our day trip because our real first destination was the Paseo de Marti that is located in walking distance from the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. The Paseo de Marti is a beautiful, wide alley that stretches from the ocean to the Capitolio and separates the Old Town from the city center. The road is lined with impressive facades. It is impressive because of its design but also because of its almost destroyed state. With every meter you walk the capitol raises higher beyond the buildings on Paseo de Marti.
On our walk we passed by palm trees, sales people and other tourists. We passed the Parque Central and Havana’s imposing grand theatre (Gran Teatro de La Habana). Since the Capitolio was under construction at that time we were not able to look at it from the inside. The Cuban parliament is supposed to moved in again in 2018 though. We kept on walking towards the fountain Fuente de La India (The Noble Fountain) with the portrayal of an Indian woman, who carried the same name as the city: Habana.
To see all the hustle and bustle was absolutely fascinating. We had the impression as if we travelled back in time (and we were going to have this feeling a few more times throughout the trip). We were basically contemporary witnesses when we saw all the antique cars and Soviet vehicles that still exist there and are testimonies of Cuba’s history. The numerous classic cars – Cadillac’s, Buicks, Plymouths, Chevys, Pointiacs – are the evidence for Cuba’s flowering period in American’s stranglehold. As well as the countless Soviet-cars – Wolgas, Ladas, Moskwitschs – that were imported during Cuba’s alliance with the former Soviet Union. It is pure history that you can experience first-hand on Cuba’s streets.
We chose to recover a little bit at Parque de La Fraternidad. Afterwards we went on to China Town (Barrio Chino). You cannot oversee the entrance to this part of town because of the gigantic dragon-gate. Back in the day, many Chinese used to live in Havana. Today you do not really notice any Chinese people anymore. This main gate to the former Chinese quarter makes you get an impression of how many people must have been there from the far east (or close West for that matter) to coined this area though.
It was time for our highlight of the day. We planned to take a ride in one of the antique cars. Therefore we went back to the theatre because that was were all the colorful old cars, made in the USA, and their ambitious drivers were parked. We chose a nice convertible and negotiated the price for a 60-minute ride. In the beginning they wanted 60 CUC per car (approx. 55 €) but we only paid 30 CUC in the end. At first we were driven through Havana’s streets to the Revolution Square where we had a few moments to get out and walk around. We used that short break to walk up to the José-Marti-monument that was closed the day before. From up there you have a nice view over the square. Afterwards we preceded our tour on the Malecón – a very imposing and famous waterside avenue – and again through the streets back to our starting point. A worthwhile tour that we absolutely recommend.
We sat down at the cafe El Louvre for some refreshments and watched the buoyant activities on the streets and around the square on the other side of the road. A Cuban band played some Caribbean tunes in the background which really fit the relaxing atmosphere. While sitting there we also spotted out our dinner-location for the night. The hotel restaurant Inglaterra. Unfortunately, that was a bad choice. “Grubby” describes the condition of the restaurant the best. The good customer service is not very common on Cuba anyway, except for some individuals of course.
On our way back to the hotel we walked along a “shopping” street. The Boulevard de San Rafael was full of life. There were not many tourist but a lot of locals who were lined up in front of stores, banks or ice cream shops; who sold fish on the street or just used a Hot Spot to surf on the internet. It seemed like we were not even perceived by anyone. Everybody was busy with his or her every-day life. It was an unreal experience. We kept walking on Malecón towards the sunset. Two stray dogs joined us on our walk until they realized that we did not have any food for them. We reached our hotel early in the evening and our first complete day in Havana was coming to an end.
Day 05 – From the jungle into the jungle
Every time we rent a car on vacation we like to use Google Maps offline maps. We download the maps beforehand to our tablet and they have been handy on foreign street on all of our trips. On Cuba, but we knew that in advance, Google Maps was stretched to its limits though. On day 5 we planned to drive west to a tobacco plantation that we would not have found without old-school thorough preparation and research. The tobacco plantation Alejandro Robaina was located near Pinar de Rio.
Before we reached nature we had to hold our breath and leave Havana’s smog behind us. The drive on highway 4 (Autopista 4) to Pinar del Rio, the vibrant capital of the eponymous province, took us about two hours. Under the beautiful blue sky we did not only have to dodge around huge potholes, buggies, trucks, pedestrians but also street vendors, dogs and horses. Driving in Cuba is an adventure that should definitely not be underestimated.
Once we passed Pinar del Rio we followed the Carretera Central de Cuba towards the southwest. After approximately 15 km we turned left at a crossroads towards San Luis. We stayed on that street for about 3 km before we turned left again. Here you see a little sign on the side of the road that says “Finca El Pinar Robaina – 1.5 km”. The paved road ended here and we continued our drive on a very bumpy dirt road. Undeterred we followed this road and turned left at the first corner and right again at the next one onto a segment that is only as wide as a car before we turned right again. Finally you take the next possibility to turn left and drive straight towards the plantation Robaina.
At the tobacco plantation they do not really have official opening-hours but we were warmly welcomed and a tour in English was promptly offered to us. At first they told us a little bit about the history of the plantation, the cultivation of the plants and the production process of cigars. Depending on the season either the fields or the warehouses are full of tobacco plants. In our case the warehouses were empty and the plants were growing on the fields. At the end of the tour, the longest-serving employee of the plant, lets call him 81-year old José, who worked on the Robaina plantation for 51 years, hand-rolled a cigar for the tourists and one lucky person of the group could take it home.
This entertaining tour took about 20 minutes and it only cost 2 CUC per person (approx. 1,60 €). In total, it was a recommendable tour that you can handle without stress if you are well prepared. You can also buy cigars directly on-site. One cigar was about 7 CUC (approx. 6 €) and five cost 25 CUC (approx. 20 €). Important to know is that those cigars are not sealed so you have to consume them in Cuba. You cannot take unsealed cigars with you through customs.
Since we already drove west we decided to check out the Valle de Viñales. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so why not?! In order to get there, we drove back towards Pinar del Rio and took street 241 north towards Viñales. This 30 km drive is rather curvy and you need some patience once you get stuck behind a stinky truck. Without really knowing when we would arrive we drove by a sign that proved that we were on the correct way and not far from Viñales.
We stopped left the road and found ourselves infront of the restaurant Balcón del Valle. I can hardly find any words to describe what was presented to us there. The restaurant is located on a hill and offers a breathtaking view over the valley. A spectacular view, that the eye cannot handle at first. We decided to stay for lunch and each ate for 8 CUC (approx. 6,50 €) per person. The only dish you can order is the dish of the day that consists of a soup, chicken or fish, rice and a dessert – Cuban standard.
Because time runs fast when you are having fun we did not have time to drive down to the valley neither did we have time to look at the Mural of Prehistory that is painted on a rock. It is not recommended to drive in the dark on Cuba because of the bad road conditions that are difficult to see in the dark. The next pothole might be your last one there. I am serious. Therefore, we enjoyed the beautifully picturesque panorama and headed back towards Havana. The drive from the Viñales Valley back to the hotel took about 2.5 hours. In total we were on the road for over 400 km and 6 hours but because of the bad road conditions it felt more like 800 km – very intense 800 km.
Back in the hotel we did not have any running water but at least our favorite employee awaited us with some little presents. He really grew dear to us during our stay in Havana. We were very touched by this gesture and asked ourselves why we deserved that. We only communicated with hands and feet but obviously it worked to have sympathy for each other. We would like to say hello to you at this point even though we know that you will probably never get to read this article…
After a long drive like that we had to get some fuel. Gas stations are not so frequent but in Havana you will find a few. As a tourist you should only get the fuel “Especial”. At some gas stations they fill the tank for you. Make sure they put the right fuel in your tank. At some gas stations you have to pay before getting gas or if someone puts gas in for you, you usually pay afterwards. You should also pay a little tip to the guy who filled up your tank.
Day 06 – La Habana Vieja
On our last day in Havana we wanted to explore the historic center of the town. A taxi brought us to the building Edificio Bacardi, which is located on the outer rim of the historic center. Those who are interested in Art Deco will have a great time here. Originally, the building should have been an office tower for the Barcardi Company. Today it is just a building full of various offices. Concerning the rum history of Cuba we will say more later.
We walked down Obispo, which is sort of a shopping street that runs through Old Town Havana. The street is full of people, a lot of tourists but just as many locals spend their time in these beautiful tight little streets of the old city center. No wonder, it is one of the most popular quarters in Havana. The area of the Old Town is not very big so you can easily walk to every sight since they are all close by. Try to orientate yourself by going from square to square in order to see all the sights and museums.
First we went to Plaza de Armas. This is the oldest square in town and it was used for a rally while we were there. West of Plaza de Armas you will find the former seat of government, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Today the Palacio hosts the Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City). Not far from the museum is the Plaza de la Catedral with the Catedral de San Cristóbal. It is an impressive square that should definitely be visited.
From there we walked along the promenade, passing the Castillo de La Real Fuerza until we reached the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis that is located on the opposite site of the street from the ferry terminal (the only ferry terminal in Cuba). The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis is definitely worth looking at. It was built in the 16th century for the Franciscan community until the Spanish remodeled it and used it as a concert hall. Once we reached the Plaza Vieja we sat down at the La Taberna de La Muralla for a little lunch, relaxed at little and just enjoyed the Cuban flair.
After we strengthened up we went to the Museo del Ron Havana Club – the rum museum. We were extremely lucky because the upcoming tour was in English language and not completely sold out by that time so we went ahead and got tickets for it. They offer the tours in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian language, and you can only book guided tours. The entrance is 7 CUC (about 6 €) and it takes about half an hour.
Just like the tour on the tobacco plantation the tour of the museum was entertaining and vivid. From the history and the boom of the sugar cane industry to the import of slaves, the bottle production and the export of the rum they shared profound information in nicely decorated and freshly renovatedshowrooms. One of the highlights was a model of the rum factory from the past. At the end of the tour each participant got to try their Havana Club 7 (just a little sip) before we were led into the sales room of the museum. We did not disappoint the employees and bought rum to take back home. But be aware, you cannot pay with a credit card there – just cash.
We were well equipped with rum so, of course, we needed cigars. Therefore, we walked towards the capitol and went to the tobacco factory Real Fabrica de TabacosPartagas that is located on the backside of the capitol and has a shop on the ground floor of the building. You can also get a tour of the factory but we passed on that this time because we already visited the plantation. Now we were on the hunt for the final product. A few people hung around the entrance of the shop and tried to sell us “cheaper” cigars. Just ignore those people and go straight into the shop. Inside you have a great selection and on top it is also safe when you have to pass customs.
Loaded with cigars and rum we looked for a Coconut-Taxi near the antique car place close to Parque Central and had them take us back to the hotel. The Coconut-Taxi is a little more expansive than a normal one but it is all the more fun! It was definitely worth the 15 CUC (approx. 12 €) for this great amusement. It was even a little thrilling. These little things do not make the best impression in a turn around a corner but the look of the sunset while we were driving along Malecón was just too picturesque to even think about safety at that time.
On our last evening in Havana we wanted to do something special and luxurious, so we booked tickets for the famous show Tropicana, already in advance in Germany. We ordered our tickets through their homepage. You can choose between different options. We chose “Dinner + Plus Show” including the seats with a better view. The offer included dinner in the restaurant (not the show-area), half a bottle of rum, soda pop and some snacks. In addition they served ice to cool the drinks as well as a cigar for the men and a gillyflower for the women.
A taxi took us from the hotel to the Tropicana. Our taxi driver offered to pick us up after the show again. We accepted the offer, for a little surcharge of course. Retrospectively we would recommend doing it that way because after the show everyone leaves at the same time more or less, so looking for a taxi can be frustrating. Our cab was a junk-Lada in proper style that looked so bad that he was not even allowed to drop us off at the main entrance. It is more illusion than reality we thought and had to smile a little bit at the bouncer’s attempt of keeping up appearances.
We arrived at 8 p.m. and were guided to our table in the restaurant. One problem we had was that we never received a confirmation of the reservation neither did we receive a voucher so we brought the receipt from our credit card in order to prove that we had already paid. In the beginning we had to be a bit insisting because they did not really wanted to accept that receipt but in the end it worked out and after a few minutes we were allowed to stay. As a hint on the side: It is better to book the tickets for Tropicana through a travel agency or on-site in the hotel. Better safe than sorry.
The food was good, the waiter was a little distant but friendly. Concerning the ambience they laid it on thick in my opinion. A pianist and a violin player that went from table to table, like in a tearjerker Hollywood movie, and the guests could ask for a special piece of music. From 8.30 p.m. on the show area was opened but the show does not start until 10 p.m. After dinner we walked over to the show area and were guided to our seats. It was getting more and more crowded by every minute that passed. The show was absolutely fantastic. Time just flew by and in the end people from the audience were taken up on stage to celebrate a little bit. At midnight the party was over though and our very reliant taxi driver brought us back to the hotel. This was a very appropriate and amazing last evening in the pulsating Havana.
Day 07 – Cienfuegos
Shortly after 10 a.m. we left Cuba’s capital to take a little road-trip that should take us around half of Cuba to the cities Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Every one of these towns has a history concerning sugar canes, slavery and the revolution. Along our way we saw beautiful nature, the country living as well as the circumstances of life that showed a declining trend, similar to the history of Roland from Mejis from Stehen King’s “The Dark Tower”. It was fascinating and oppressive at the same time.
The drive from Havana to Cienfuegos took about 3 hours. Our first stop was at the Parque José Marti where parking was no problem because you can park your car anywhere around the square. We did not even get out of the car all the way when a beggar offered to watch our car. We accepted the “service” and paid him 2 CUC when we came back to the car. On the western side of the square is the unique Arco de Triunfo that is the only one of its type in Cuba. If you look through this gate onto the square you will see the Monumento Martí in the middle of the square. On the northern side of the square you will find the Teatro Tomás Terry that was named after a successful businessman who made his profit in the sugar industry. On the southern side you can spot a little tower that you could climb and surely have a nice view over the town and the park. Unfortunately the tower was closed the day we visited Cienfuegos.
We walked on to Muelle Real, a dock where you can spend some time and just watch the ocean. That day, as well as the following days, was muggy, a little cloudy and absolutely windless. There were not very many people on the road but maybe that was because we visited Cienfuegos on a Sunday. We were surrounded by a dreamy silence that we needed after these busy days in Havana. There were some street stalls selling little touristy things though, so Cienfuegos is ready for tourists.
For lunch we went to the restaurant Polinesio on the eastern side of Parque José Martí. The restaurant was a little dark on the inside and the menu they gave us was obsolete. In Cuba, we found out, they always make it look like you have a great choice. In reality, you always get chicken, black beans and rice. But it was delicious again. These few ingredients that the people have on hand are always put together in a creative way. The chicken tasted like my mom made it.
Well strengthened, we got our car and drove the Paseo El Prado south to the Palacio de Valle. This marvelous mansion is not just the town’s landmark it is also a symbol for the past prosperity. It is free of charge to look at the building and we can absolutely recommend going upstairs to the roof-patio where you can have a drink and watch the bay from high above. A little further south is La Punta, the most southern point of the town. You can easily walk there. From the pavilion you can look over the water. In this park-like area you will also find a bar and a restaurant. Some locals used this Sunday afternoon for fishing, BBQ-ing and relaxing in this area.
We went on and drove to our hotel that was half an hour drive away from the town center, located on the other side of the bay. Our accommodation for one night was the Islazul Hotel Pasacaballo. We had running hot water there! Amazing! We almost forgot about this luxury. Other than that the hotel looks like a huge, old bunker that has clearly seen better days. And so did the rooms as well. Grubby and run down. It was bearable for one night. Just the imagination of having to stay there longer makes me feel depressed though. A somber atmosphere that was comparable to a terminal ill person who desperately tries not to abandon all hope surrounded this huge concrete complex. The two power blackouts just completed the picture. We left swiftly and early the next morning. Next stop: Trinidad.
Day 08 – Trinidad
After an approximately one-hou drive we arrived in one of Cuba’s oldest towns, Trinidad. Our way to the town center lead us over rough cobblestone roads that was originally imported from Boston, MA, USA. Once we reached the town center we found public parking (crossroads Calle Guaurabo/ Calle Encarnación) for 3 CUC (approx. 2,50 €). Time seems to have stopped in the 19th century in Trinidad we thought and so we preceded our walk through the city.
On our walk we were accompanied by many, mostly, day-tourists that were taken to Trinidad by bus. Our first destination was the town square Plaza Mayor that more or less forms the city center of this colonial town. You will find museums, churches, cafes, restaurants or just vintage buildings on every corner. The locals seem to be prepared for tourists and try to keep up the existing and present it in its best way. They basically live off of the history and the essence of the town. And that works. Tourists come and leave amazed.
We left the town square towards the east and passed by stairs or steps, called Las Terasas, that were full of people who rested there and inhaled the scent of long passed days. We kept walking and went along Calle Santa Ana until we reached Plaza de Santa Ana. There we looked at the remains of a church and walked back to the center, better said to the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. It was not really the museum that caught our interest but the tower of the museum that you could climb. The way up is tight and steep but once we reached the top we realized it was all worth it. The view from up there over Trinidad is amazing. The entrance to the museum was 2 CUC per person plus 5 CUC for pictures.
The panorama looks like a watercolor painting. Colorful facades, red tile roofs and palm trees in between form an amazing view. The sound of hooves on the cobblestone and the few cars enrich the dreamy atmosphere. Even the tourists do not really stick out or make it crowded because the backdrop outshines everything. One thing you have to do before leaving this picturesque town is grabbing a Canchánchara at Taberna La Canchánchara. It is a sweet, alcoholic drink made out of honey, lemons, alcohol (Aguardiente), crushed ice and water. This specialty might glue your butt but it is delicious!
We spent roughly two hours in Trinidad before leaving for our next destination: Santa Clara. The drive to Santa Clara takes two hours. We took route 12 until we turned left at Manaca Iznaga and followed that road until it ended. At the end we turned left again onto 474 toward Manicaragua. After passing Mataguá we stayed on 474 until we finally reached Santa Clara. The first obstacle in Santa Clara was finding a place to park the car. All the tight one-way streets and bustling pedestrians on the street gave us a hard time. In the end, a local guided us to a place where we were able to leave the car. From there we had to walk a few meters to the hotel but it seemed like a safe place for the car (and we actually found it there again in one piece when we left again).
The hotel Santa Clara Libre, located directly on the beautiful Parque Leoncio Vidal, was our fourth and second-to-last accommodation for the trip. If I described it as a shithole I would insult all the shitholes in the world. From the incredibly ugly look of the hotel that is an insult to the town, the unfriendly and dismissive staff through to the appalling room. This hotel should be taken out of every single travel catalogue. Our room had a window, yes, but the wall and the external air-conditioning of the next building covered it completely. Especially at night the level of noise was hardly bearable. The mattresses had plastic covers. But that obviously was not enough because they still had a strong urine-smell. Another highlight was the shower (of course without warm water). It was way too small. It was only possible to wash one side of the body at a time. But the cherry on top was the Check-Out procedure. They made us wait until an employee of the hotel inspected our room. When he came back we were allowed to leave. If it had not been this impertinent we would have laughed about it.
After this shock we were in need of some fresh air. Luckily the Hotel Central was located only two houses down the road. It had a restaurant and a front porch in a beautiful colonial style. We enjoyed the evening on their front porch that offered a great view on the park on the opposite site of the street. The service was not professional but very friendly and dedicated. The hotel restaurant had some of the best food that we have had on our trip and the cocktails were yummy and had a nice mixture. We found out later that the rooms in that hotel were being restored at the time. Room-reservations can be made through Hotel América. A little mournful we left towards our cubbyhole and took advantage of the single advantage our hotel offered: The view from the 11th level over the town.
Day 09 – Santa Clara
After a sparse breakfast with quite good coffee and an omelet we started discovering Santa Clara, the city of revolution. Our first stop on that sunny hot day was the church Iglesia del Carmen next to the monument Monumento Fundacional de la Ciudad de Santa Clara in memory of the fighters of the revolution. If you look closely you can still see the bullet holes from the fights in the façade of the church and the monument.
We moved on to one of the most historic sights on Cuba I would say. We went to Tren Blindado. Original but restored train wagons that were derailed by Ché Guevara and his revolutionary fighters in order to strike a blow against the Batista regimen on December 29th in 1958, can be visited in a nice park-like area. The rebels attained countless weapons, ammunition and food supplies. That way they were able to conquer Santa Clara and keep marching towards Havana. The revolution succeeded. The entrance cost 1 CUC and if you want to take pictures you have to pay another CUC. Predicate “valuable”.
Not far from this scene to the east you will find a remarkable Ché Guevara statue. It is not remarkable because it is another proof of the glorification of Ché Guevara but because of the countless little details that you only see when you look closely. After that we wanted to cool down a little and take a break from walking, so we went back to Hotel Central and watched the hustle and bustle on the street and in the park.
While we sat there we took a gander at the Teatro La Caridad. For 1 CUC entrance fee we got a short, guided tour and some information about this imposing theatre. It was built with the financial help of Marta Abreu, who was an influential woman in Santa Clara. A monument in her honor is located in the middle of Parque Leoncio Vidal. Except for the theatre she also built schools for orphans. The revenue of the theatre is used for charitable purposes. The theatre seats around 500 people and there are shows every weekend. The original capacity was 1.000 people but because of the ailing of the upper circles the capacity was halved.
Afterwards we walked west to the Monumento Memorial Che Guevara. On our way to the memorial we passed Iglesia Santa Clara de Asis, an impressive church. Those who did not perceive the veneration of Ché Guevara yet can get an idea of the importance of Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna, called Ché Guevara, born in Argentina, died in Bolivia, worshiped and buried in Cuba, for the Cuban people in this area.
The area is characterized by brasses and a gigantic statue. The base of the statue forms the museum and the memorial hall that contains the remains of the former rebel. It is not allowed to bring cameras or bags inside but the entrance is for free. The exhibition about Ché Guevara’s life shows personal belongings and pictures. Across from the museum is the entrance to the memorial hall. To describe this hall is kind of difficult because of the extreme contrast to Cuba’s condition. The memorial hall is neatly decorated and perfectly arranged unlike the rest of the country. Nevertheless, it felt like a quiet and peaceful little cave. As a visitor do not be surprised when the staff follows you everywhere around the memorial. The surveillance is absurdly strange, almost comical.
We spent the late afternoon in the park in front of the hotel. When you travel to Cuba you will notice that, especially in smaller towns, people keep asking you for soap and pens. So, if you are planning a trip to Cuba right now make sure you pack some extra pens and soap to give away. People will be deeply grateful and very happy, at almost no cost for you. I mean trial packages, hotel shampoo or promo-ballpens tend to pile up at home over the year anyway. Please take it to Cuba before trashing it.
Day 10 – Between Hell and Heaven
We left our hotel in Santa Clara swiftly when they finally permitted us to leave. Before hitting the road towards Varadero, the last section of the road trip, we enjoyed another cappuccino on the front porch of Hotel Central. We drove on road 1 until Aguada de Pasajeros where we turned right on CS and followed that road until we reached Colón. Due to the dreadful road conditions we were only able to drive 30 km/h or even slower at times. In Colón we turned left on the street Central de Cuba and stayed on it until we reached Perico. Shortly after Perico we turned right onto a country road towards Máximo Gómez. In Máximo Gomes we took the streets José Marti and Via Blanca until we finally reached Varadero. The drive took us about 3.5 hours.
We surely would have been a little faster if the police had not pulled us over shortly before reaching Varadero. Until today I do not really know what was really happening but in short: the police officer, that could only speak Spanish, wanted to fine us for speeding. That would have been ok. It might be that I wanted to get to the hotel fast. The fine should have been 60 CUC (approx. 50 Euro). But instead of writing the fine down in the yellow rental contract, as we were told in the beginning, the officer wanted the money cash. That was a no go. As an honest citizen at home and abroad that I am I told him to write down the fine. He was not very excited and offered us a reduced fine-rate of 30 CUC – in cash of course. We did not agree. In disbelief and obviously being at his wits’ end he just let us drive away without writing down the fine in the contract because “the police is our friend”. We should just pay more attention next time. Honestly, we did not care which excuses this corrupt cop was trying to find to keep face and just left.
The long drive and the concern with the police already sucked but then there was also a problem when we returned the car. Long story short: They wanted to make us believe that the gas tank, that we filled up all the way just minutes ago, was empty. Since the fuel gauge conked out completely after 1.200 kilometers by now they wanted to prove to us with a tube that the gas tank was empty. Our receipt from the gas station proved the opposite. After about an hour we successfully returned the car, ordered a taxi and were on our way to the last hotel, completely exhausted and unnerved.
The Blau Varadero was pure paradise. The outside of the hotel might not look all that appealing but this hotel offers everything you wish for. It was an adults-only hotel and we planned on splurging on our last hotel anyway. We booked a “Select Room” – which was a higher category and, in the end, we got a freaking suite that had more square meters than our apartment back home! After the exertions and the stress (despite of all the amazing and positive impressions) of the past days it was a dream to come to this hotel. We had three days to savor this hotel – and so we did.
Day 11 to 13 – Arriving in Paradise
We spent the days 11, 12 and 13 on the gorgeous beach that could not stand up to the beach of the first hotel. We enjoyed the sun in the pool area. Pitched in every buffet. Played beach volleyball. Had massages. Had dinner in two restaurants apart from the buffet-craziness, what was included in our “Select Room” fare. One rainy afternoon we put the hotels stock of rum to the test while playing Bingo and try out our sparse Spanish.
It is difficult to write these lines without melancholia while I look out the window and see winter at its best. On the other hand, I can also feel some complacency and inner balance when I think about Cuba and all the impressions that we could make there. I still sap energy from these experiences in my everyday life and I am sure I will continue sapping for some time.
Day 14 – Time to go home
“Departure” – a tough word when you have to change the Caribbean against the German frost and snow, have a 10-hour flight coming up and get the info that your flight is delayed several hours. After a relaxed morning on the pool we went to the beach bar for our last meal. All tables were filled with guests so another couple asked if they could sit with us. We started a short conversation and they told us that they had just arrived and started their vacation. We had to chuckle a little bit because it seemed like a funny coincidence to us. We passed the vacation-baton on.
After we returned to Germany people often asked us if we thought that they should travel to Cuba better sooner than later, before all the borders open up and it would not be possible anymore to see the “original” Cuba. To check it out before investors flood the country, the locals drive Škoda’s or Peugeot’s and the antique cars disappear because they are sold to rich collectors from abroad, the American’s open a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant on every corner and the beaches are too crowded with tourists. In short, before the special atmosphere vanishes.
Cuba is sheer madness – positively and negatively spoken. And this will be the case in years to come. Maybe the circumstances get better concerning hotels and infrastructure. Maybe supply and demand even out a little bit and prices drop a little, what would be great. But we don’t know. As the saying goes: “The truth lies on the field” – and not in a travel blog.