Cuba is a surprisingly big island. Unfortunately Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott hadn’t allowed enough time to explore either Havana or the island’s central section properly.
Cuba is a fascinating destination. For a start with its glorious beaches, lush valleys and rugged mountains it is beautiful. Christopher Columbus is said to have described this fertile island as the most beautiful place he had ever seen. For somebody who spent so much of his time being tossed around on small ships in the middle of oceans it must indeed have seemed like paradise.
Apart from the beautiful scenery the island offers today’s visitor a fascinating range of architectural styles - a result of its cultural heritage; a lively music scene; vibrant colours and friendly people. Of course it has had its problems, it still has in places, but Cuba is chiefly an island of smiles.
Our guide Carlos and driver Francisco picked us up from our Havana hotel on our first morning. As Francisco drove along the Malećon, Havana’s long sea promenade waves were crashing over the sea wall drenching any careless pedestrian brave enough to venture along the dangerous wave-damaged pavement. We passed the old city walls, now part of the harbour, and a fortress which had been built as a defence against pirates before stopping at the Museo del Ron.
Learning about Rum
Cuba is famous for rum. The island’s rum’s history dates back to the beginning of the 16th century when it was realised that the sugar cane crop could be turned into a form of alcohol. Luckily a better distillation process was invented and Cuban rum has never looked back.
The visit starts with a brief film about sugar cane before guides (there are tours in English) take visitors through various rooms explaining how rum is produced from fermentation to distillation and finally to bottling.
At the end of the tour, before the tasting room and the shop, is a room containing a magnificent replica of a sugar plantation complete with a model steam train and wagons chugging around the track.
Setting off to explore a vibrant city
Leaving Francisco to look after the car we took to our feet to explore part of this vibrant city. A few streets from the museum Carlos showed us a full size renovated old steam train. Cuba’s railway system, somewhat neglected today, played a huge role in the sugar cane industry, and is one of the oldest in the world dating back to 1837.
We admired the cathedral with its stunning façade yet somewhat austere interior; we wandered along the Calle Obispo popping in to see an old pharmacy (Farmacia Tanquechel) and other interesting shop interiors; and we lingered long enough to admire leafy courtyards like that of the Santa Clara convent, before turning our attention to some of the small artisan and gift shops.
The Parque Central district
Our other hotel was in the Parque Central district of Havana not far from the Capitolio – whose massive dome is one of the city’s famous landmarks. Several blocks away in the Vedado district with its neat and tidy grid system of streets are some rather grand, slightly more modern buildings some of them serving as ministries and offices.
On the wall of one of them, the Ministry of the Interior, is an enormous sculptural-type portrait of Che Guevara overlooking the vast Revolution Square and the towering José Marti memorial. People would gather in the square in their thousands to hear Fidel Castro’s May Day speeches.
Parked round the square were a number of Cuba’s iconic gleaming classic cars of the 1950s, some of them privately owned, others taxis waiting to take visitors on city tours.
In the evening we called into El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar, he reckoned their daiquiris were the best in Havana.
Cienfuegos – the Pearl of the South
Leaving Havana we drove to Cienfuegos, known as the Pearl of the South, justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some rather elegant French Colonial buildings face onto its pretty main square Parque José Martí. Under the noon-day sun the shady square was full of youngsters relaxing and making use of wi-fi hotspots. We did too; before turning our attention to some of its side streets where a colourful market was well under way.
Opposite the main square is a neo-classical building– the Teatro Tomás Terry. For the price of 2CUC visitors can wander in and look round. The theatre opened in 1890 and its interior is gloriously ornate with mosaic murals, gilding and a variety of beautiful Cuban hardwoods. The likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, and Anna Pavlova have all graced its stage and it is still very much in use today.
A town of two parts
Cienfuegos is really made of two parts, the old town and, at its southern tip, Punta Gorda, part smart-residential and also a deep water port used by fishing vessels and smaller craft. For a refreshing sea breeze board one of the pleasure boats and sail round part of the magnificent bay.
Before leaving the area pause to admire the extravagant Moorish, Gothic and Venetian architectural style and decorations of the Palacio de Valle, the terrace is open to the public. Built in the early 20th century for one of the wealthiest sugar barons in Cuba, it is now a restaurant.
Trinidad grew wealthy from the sugar industry
From Cienfuegos Francisco drove us the 80km to Trinidad. How he managed to find parking space in one of the narrow, uneven, outer cobbled streets we never knew.
With its tiled roofs, coloured buildings and little squares it is treasure of a town; not surprisingly it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to 1514. Once a thriving centre for smugglers and the slave trade it grew wealthy on the back of the sugar industry. Testament to its wealth can be seen from the fine houses round the main square.
One house is now the Museo Romántico. In the mid-18th century it was the family home of a wealthy dealer who made his fortune from sugar and cattle. The furniture is not from the house but is of the period.
Sipping midday cocktails
Carlos having promised us a ‘special treat’ led us to La Canchánchara and introduced us to the drink of the same name. It is said to be Cuba’s oldest cocktail - an innocent tasting, but potentially intoxicating, concoction of honey, rum, lime juice, water and ice served in terracotta pots.
A hot hour or so later he led us astray again, this time to a Casa de la Trova, a bar where we sat under a shady vine, listening to local musicians and sipping a Trinidad Especial – a three-coloured cocktail - in this instance made from a fruit juice of choice - Grenadine - plus White Rum and Blue Curacao garnished with mint.
…and lobster for dinner
That afternoon having returned from sightseeing we were sitting by the hotel pool and noticed a bar serving pizzas. Rather than face the hotel’s rather poor restaurant again and being too tired to walk into town we asked if it was possible to book a table for dinner. The waiter was delighted and came back with the chef to talk to us.
Would we rather have lobster in their restaurant? Yes, please. We were the only diners yet the polished tables were beautifully set with red napkins, gleaming glassware and full silver cutlery. OK the lobster was maybe not the best, but their obvious pleasure in our being there made our rather strange dining experience a delight.
One day we will return to Trinidad, and try to see all the places we really had no time to visit and perhaps to experience its fabled nightlife. However, we would probably choose to stay in what is rapidly becoming popular guest accommodation in Cuba, a casa particular– a private house which offers B&B, and where the host will usually cook evening meals if requested. We were enchanted by one we spotted, El Arcangel, clean, neat rooms and a very welcoming host.
Sancti Spiritus and the delightful Hostal del Rijo
Carlos was determined we saw the bridge at Sancti Spiritus. This lovely old arched bridge, reminiscent of medieval times, was built by the Spanish in 1815. It straddles the Yayabo river and is now registered as a national monument - the only colonial arched bridge in Cuba.
The original town was built in 1514 but after problems with pirates, who repeatedly torched it, some eight years later it was rebuilt at its present location. Having admired the bridge we walked up the steep narrow cobbled streets to the town centre stopping briefly to chat through an open window to a class of school children and their teacher.
There’s not an awful lot to see in Sancti Spiritus and because it’s a little out the way it’s been spared hoards of tourists. Yet a visit to this attractive, colourful and friendly town is well worth while. The church is one of the oldest in Cuba and there are some lovely old monuments and buildings to admire.
Our hotel, the delightful colonial style Hostal del Rijo with its attractive terrace, overlooks the charming main square the Plaza Honorato del Castillo. The hostel was arguably our favourite in Cuba, elegant, clean and friendly. Soon after arrival we were asked what we would like for dinner that evening - meat or eggs! Entering into the spirit of the unknown, one of us requested eggs and still maintains it was the best omelette she has ever had.
In one of the modern pedestrianised streets we found an internet café. To be more precise - an internet pool room.
In the back of the room, and perched on rather uncomfortable stools and aided by two delightful young women, we made connection with life back in the UK.
Santa Clara and Che Guevara
Next day we headed for Santa Clara another old city, but one more associated today with Ernesto (Che) Guevara.
It’s also a university town, and its young inhabitants have given it a lively, trendy, go-ahead vibe.
In the town centre is a large imposing main square (Parque Vidal) containing a rather elegant gazebo/bandstand along with a memorial to Leoncio Vidal (an independence army battle hero); a statue to one of the town’s wealthy benefactors, Martha Abreu de Estévez; and a rather cute fountain of a young boy holding up a leaking boot.
The Tren Blindado monument
Not far from Parque Vidal is the Tren Blindado monument and museum on the spot where Guevara and his men succeeded in de-railing an armoured troop train thereby winning the battle for Santa Clara against Batista and his soldiers. On the site are some of the train’s wagons serving as exhibition rooms, plus the bulldozer used for digging up the rails which caused the derailment.
On the outskirts of the city is the Plaza de la Revolución Ernesto Guevara dominated by a towering statue of Che dressed in military combat gear. Beneath the monument is a museum recording Che’s wartime experiences and alongside it the mausoleum where burns an eternal flame marking the burial spot of Che and 38 of his comrades. Be prepared to queue, entrance is free, but no bags or cameras are allowed in; however, lockers are by the main entrance.
A final mojito at Sloppy Joe’s
And so it was back to Havana and the airport, but before we left there was just time to call into our favourite bar for a quick lunch - Sloppy Joe’s - the service and mojitos were excellent, and so were the club sandwiches and French fries.
Everybody had been right. We hadn’t allowed enough time to see even the central section of Cuba properly. We have to go back. www.travel2cuba.co.uk