cuba

A Communist Christmas in the caribbean

in Search of Revolution

journey profile

Where: Havana, Cienfeugos, El Nicho, Trinidad. Cuba, Americas.
When: December 2014 into January 2015
What: Castro and Che Guevara Murals, Capital Building, Classic Cars, Ration Shops, Tropical Beaches, Flamingos & Termites, El Nicho Waterfall, New Year’s Eve Street Celebration, Staying with Cuban Families, Slave Plantation.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Meeting a giant cockroach during the night

 

Having travelled to so many former communist countries, mainly those of the old Soviet bloc, I thought it was high time I visited a real, 'live' one - whilst there was still time. Cuba is on the cusp of significant change; a realisation that communism does not fully meet the needs of all citizens is slowly dawning on the communist party. A programme of liberalisation which, for the first time since communist rule, encourages small, private business and entrepreneurialism, is slowly changing the face of the country from within. Acutely aware that, as with the USSR's era of glasnost and perestroika, tentative changes have a tendency to lead to sweeping revolutions, I felt a pressing need to see Cuba whilst it was still communist - a chance to see and feel a social system before it, like the paintwork on so many of its pastel-coloured buildings, finally fades away. It is Cuba's disintegrating charm, crumbling character but vibrant culture which makes it a enchanting place to visit. Cuba is a land packed full of iconic symbols and faces: Che Guevara, classic fifties American motors, mildewed buildings and the Castro family.

For such a small island in the Caribbean, Cuba has played a major role in world politics - a communist country on America's capitalist doorstep, a communist thorn in the side of the West. Havana is only ninety miles away from Florida. The Cuban revolution, lead by Fidel Castro from 1953-59, reclaimed Cuba for the Cubans. It had become a sort of playground for America's rich and famous: casinos, penthouse apartments, high-class prostitutes and mafia gangs. Expensive American motor cars rolled through the streets - a sign of the wealth and bling the American glitterati had brought with them. Cuba wasn't Cuba, it was an extension of America. The very same American motor cars still roll along Cuba's roads - but now they're classic; the USA embargo since its failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs has frozen the country in time.

Being ostracised from the West means that travelling to Cuba is a little more problematic than most places you may go. It has a closed currency, meaning that you have to take all of the money you're likely to need with you - a terrifying prospect for any cautious traveller. Then there's the dual currency operating on the island: one for locals (the Peso) and one for tourists (the convertible Peso - abbreviated to CUC). Paying for hotels online is problematic, as transactions have to circumvent the American-dominated banking system often meaning that your bookings for accommodation remain unpaid and, therefore, become 'bookings' in inverted commas being, as they are, a little on the unreliable side. Providing you travel outside of the country's hurricane season, you'll still need to keep an eye out for mosquitoes which, at my time of travel, were busy spreading a deadly disease called Chikungunya. Then there's the fact that very few airlines fly to the island. Virgin Atlantic is the only operator to fly direct from the UK meaning that the cost of my flight was the highest I have ever paid to get from one country to another. Despite all of this, Cuba's culture and fascinating revolutionary history meant that any trepidation I felt or irritation at the complexity of arrangements required were quickly swept aside. Some countries demand that you work hard in order that you may experience them. Cuba is one such country. Work hard at it, and you'll be justly rewarded.
Cuba was my 62nd country - but my first real communist one. A week before flying out to Cuba, the USA-Cuba relationship hit the headlines with Obama and Castro simultaneously announcing a tentative normalising of the relationship between the two countries. Amazing news in one sense, but once the US embargo of Cuba is lifted, the country which has been frozen in time since the 1950s missile crisis, will change forever. Our trip to Cuba was timely to say the least. It was also my first visit to the Caribbean and to central America. This was my Cuba - land of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro; of the world-famous cigar and the even more infamous missile crisis. What traveller could resist?

 

 

havana

the cuban capital

Havana is a pastel-coloured place; colonial-era buildings crumble gracefully in pinks, blues and greens in a kind of fairytale poverty. The overgrown ivy, creeping mildew and rampant vegetation make Havana look almost post-apocalyptic, like something out of 'Day of the Triffids'. Castro's halt to any development in the capital in the early days of the Revolution has served to freeze it in time - an unbeknown act of architectural preservation which, I have no doubt, Cuba will reap the rewards of in its years of tourism to come. Havana is a fairytale city collapsing beautifully into itself, dressed in a revolutionary coat but frayed around the edges. The iconic Cuban flag with its blue and white stripes and red triangle with star dangles from balconies and windows with an uncompromising zeal; the even more iconic image of Che Guevara is just as ubiquitous, his portrait rendered in graffiti, on t-shirts, posters. Even some Cubans themselves seem to strike an uncanny resemblance to him which, I am sure, is no coincidence. Bookstalls sell virtually nothing else but ones about his life. After my first day I began to develop Che Guevara fatigue. Make no mistake - you are in Castro's communist country now. Revolution is everywhere.

Parts of Havana have been given a very respectable spruce-up. Some of the main squares in the Vieja district (old town)‎ would give any Spanish or Italian city a run for its money with stone churches, cobbled streets and terracotta roofs. In fact, at many points, I couldn't help feeling that I'd travelled thousands of miles across the Atlantic to get to...Madrid. These manicured parts of Havana were, for me, the most uninspiring. Luckily, most of the capital remains unaffected by such ameliorations. Architecture in Havana is eclectic to say the least - there is a genre for everyone: baroque, neo-classical, art-nouveau, communist brutalism, Spanish and French colonial and everything in between. Away from the sanitised parts of the city the streets sweat character from every pore and, in 30+ degree heat, sweat is also literal. It's an intoxicating meander along broken pavements and mildewed pastel facades supporting tilting balconies bursting with cacti and other post-apocalyptic-looking vegetation. You can walk along these backstreets for hours and hardly notice the time pass. Characteristically luminous clothes flap wildly on balcony washing lines and, if you're lucky, a Cuban's hand will wave at you as you pass on by underneath. Or you may get a simple "Hola!"

‎Like any capital city, Havana has a seedier side. Expect to be approached scores of times by men who shoulder up to you and mumble a range of drugs in broken English ("You want coke? Good coke - from Colombia"). If you're male you may also be approached by women wanting to sell you other women ("I have beautiful women in my house" went her patter). Evenings in Havana take on a spicier, lively character once all of the Japanese daytrippers from the five star resorts have been bussed away. Yellowy street lanterns struggle to illuminate Havana's dark streets and people come at you from all directions to...wish you a merry Christmas! And this underscores a key point of understanding about Havana and Cuba generally: everything around you looks threatening: tattooed men, dark streets, groups of young males lingering - but it is all harmless. People will ask where you're from - but mostly because they're interested. They are not after you or your wallet. Cue conversations about how pale you look ("hey white boys, you need sun!") or about the premier league and what team you support. Other Cubans will see you looking at a map and tell you which street you're on - and then be on their way. You don't really get hassled by hawkers - as soon as you show you're not interested, they leave you alone. My point is, everything looks the opposite of what it actually is in Cuba. I found people to be instantly friendly as if they know you. No aloofness here.

Havana is vibrant and alive. The pastel shades of buildings are only out-coloured by the neon worn by both men and women. Cubans dress to impress, too, and chances are you'll look dowdy and drab in comparison. Your travel slacks just won't cut it here. With this in mind make sure you include your most colourful and very best clothes amongst your travel khaki‎. ‎Furthermore, and because Cubans are now allowed to supplement their nationally capped wages (everyone is paid the same), scores of families have opened up their front rooms and turned them into small art galleries where they try to sell their artwork. This gives Havana a hippy, bohemian vibe. There are also a plethora of museums covering everything from chocolate to the 'Revolucion' itself. Add to this the classic American cars from the fifties zooming up and down the streets‎ in their pinks, reds and turquoises and it's safe to say that Havana is a rainbow, technicolour city stuffed full of art and culture - sometimes garish, sometimes subtle, always ‎enchanting. We spent an hour with Paco and his 1950 Chevrolet convertible driving around Havana and along the Malecon - a bargain at 30CUC (£20). So often when I think of communism my mind skips to scenes of repression, creative sterility, social control. This doesn't seem to be the case in Cuba where creativity seems to be flourishing (although I'm sure the situation is very complex). I am, for instance, unsure how Paco squares Cuba's revolutionary socialist ideals with earning, privately, the equivalent of two months' state wages ‎in under an hour from two 'rich' boys from the capitalist West? The government is at it too: the dual currency means that tourists are charged twenty five times more than locals. I bought an ice-cream at the cost of one and a half Convertibles - the equivalent to half a week's work in the locals' currency the Peso.

In some ways capitalism is alive and kicking in Cuba, but it dances, I think, to a socialist tune most of the time. Completely fascinating were the socialist provision shops where Cubans go, with ration books in hand, to collect the basics of life: lard, bread, eggs which are heavily discounted or even free. It really is another world. Often, near-empty wooden shelves are graced by portraits of the Castros as if to remind people collecting their provisions who is to be thanked (and possibly to fill a bit of space?) Produce is creatively stacked in tranglar formation to make the shelves appear more full. These look less like stores and more like hovels - not exactly a glamorous advert for communism, but no Cuban minded me photographing what I did (and I always sought permission first). A 'Distribucion' board in one such store listed the products, their weights and the date they would be available from.‎ It was jaw-dropping to see communism alive like this, even if it was as quotidian and mundane as the release date of lard. Such shops are being phased out. Before you consider lapsing into your patronising 'help the poor Cubans by giving them money or gifts they can't buy in their own country' routine it is worth remembering that no-one in Cuba goes hungry because of the socialist infrastructure put in place since the Revolution. Resourceful Cubans manage perfectly well with their 'make do and mend' approach to life, albeit borne out of necessity. So unlike, then, the hungry and homeless back home seen on my way to work in the twilight hours of the morning. Save your Western benevolence for the homeless of the West who in my opinion need it more. Food for thought - or should that be ‎thought for food?

We stayed in a casa particulares in Havana's Vieja district which felt like it was only one step removed from staying in a Mexican favela (Vieja is one of the most densely populated areas in Latin America). For 35CUC per night including breakfast we rented the spare room from a couple called Jessica and Felipe‎. Unbeknown to me the room came with a hidden, scuttling extra: a giant cockroach which made me scream the house down on my first night when I nipped to the loo. I am glad to report that my unholy cry seemed to scare the black beast off for the rest of our stay as we never saw him again. I'm not too sure who was most scared, me or the cockroach. The room was basic but perfectly acceptable, coming with a 1980s tv set and a very effective air-conditioning unit. Christmas Eve in said room was not exactly relaxing after a hard day's sightseeing. The noise of music, drums and shouting outside our room, which looked out onto a typical Havanan street, combined with exactly the same noises from inside the house as the family celebrated the fact that they had a national holiday the following day. Point to note: Cubans are very loud. Very. And they love their music loud too. Very. Oh and they sing loud. Very. You get the picture. It goes without saying that staying in a casa is definitely the way to go but if you happen to be visiting Cuba during a national holiday, you may want to consider booking yourself a brief treat in one of the island's luxury hotels to side-step the madness. Luckily we had the foresight to do this for New Year's Eve in Havana on our return leg guessing that things were likely to get a little too raucous for our delicate British dispositions (our luxury 'four star' experience at this hotel actually consisted of an empty minibar, wifi which only works after 9pm, a prostitute blowing us kisses outside reception and the rooftop restaurant with no working lights). However, I do struggle to comprehend those tourists who stay in such hotels, often in fenced off resorts on the edge of the island, for the duration of their stay, getting bussed about on day trips by people with clipboards and baseball caps. How depressing: insulated and controlled like pigs in a pen with no chance of experiencing authenticity. Whilst I would have killed for a bowl of European cereal on a morning (there are no supermarkets to speak of) or a luxurious hot bath with suds, I would never trade in the authenticity of staying with Cuban families in their own homes, on a local street and drinking their home-made smoothies - with or without the giant cockroach. To do so belies the whole point of travel in the first place: I was happy with my noisy street filled with Cuban characters wishing us merry Christmas, my insecty friend in the bathroom and the smell of Jessica's breakfast cooking downstairs. Indeed, as I write this, a man is walking under my window shaking his maracas for no other reason than he can and he wants to! Point proven. Welcome to Havana: keep it local and keep it real - or don't bother coming at all.

...You know that feeling. You've been everywhere, seen some great things and have a few extra special memories ensconced away in your bac‎kpack to keep you going. You're now back in your arrival city on the return leg of your journey, tired and a little down. It's all very nearly over. Home time. Finito. Dead time? The thought of wandering through Havana's Vieja yet again was not inspiring. Seen it, done it. But this was Havana! This was also New Year's Eve. A quick trip up the Bacardi tower, a crumbling Art-Deco masterpiece, gave us cracking 360 degree views of the city. Okay, not a bad start for a day I had effectively written off. Then we spotted men roasting whole pigs on spits above burning coals on Havana's streets getting ready for the big fiesta feast. Let me say that again: whole pigs, roasting, spit, burning coals, capital city streets, daytime. Crazy! Then it got better. Within minutes of arriving in the heart of the Vieja, we happened upon an amazing street performance made up of Cubans of every colour wearing every colour - and balanced on stilts. The performance of 'Black Santa' had drummers, acting and dancing as it snaked its way through the streets - with locals and tourists alike following on: a moving theatre with a mobile audience. Some followers spontaneously broke into Cuban-style dances, cameras competed for space and performers posed with kids and kids at heart. It was ace - the perfect medicament for the most terrible of travel afflictions: the back-home-soon-blues for which often the only prescription is more travel.‎ Later, we walked into a hitherto unseen part of the city: the centro which contained a real mix of original, but crumbling, architecture. It was also home to two transsexuals who propositioned us as we made our way along the boulevard. They were harmless enough. One local Cuban passing by laughed at our little predicament. Just when you thought you'd done and seen it all, Havana surprises. That's Havana for you!

 

Havana Skyline (1). Seen from the top of the Bacardi building towards some of the city's more notable buildings including the Havana Tower in Revolution Square.

 

Havana Skyline (2). Seen from the top of the Bacardi building. Much of the capital is residential which, I think, adds to its character.

 

A classic American car so characteristic of Cuba stops at the lights in front of the capital's most notable landmark - The Capital Building which, frustratingly, was closed for renovation. I must draw your attention to the dragonfly on the far right of the photo - there was a swarm of hundreds all around us. It was a little unnerving.

 

A classic American car in front of characteristically Cuban pastel buildings.

 

Stood in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Revolution Square which is made notable by the giant rendering of Che Guevara in ironwork. The writing says "For Victory, Always!"

 

Two more classic cars pass by opportunely. Left, a turquoise car passes arches of the same colour and, right, a green one makes its way passed revolutionary graffiti. 

 

Revolutionary graffiti (1): Once again I manage to capture the front cover of Lonely Planet in-situ and, right, a hoarding declares the invincibility of the socialist revolution in Cuba.

 

Revolutionary graffiti (2): In front of a Che mural along the Malecon and, right, three men walk past graffiti of three of Cuba's revolution figures in the Centro area of the capital.

 

Book stalls in Havana sell little else than ones about Che Guevara and Ernest Hemmingway and, right, two women in exaggerated cultural dress pose for tourists.

 

Characterful balconies: A Cuban flag dangles in the Vieja and, right, a typical 'Viva Fidel' sign in Centro. The other one alongside reads "strengthen and irrevocably preserve our socialism."

 

Vieja street scene (1): The Museum of the Revolution peeks between balconies, plants, flags and criss-crossing wires.

 

Vieja street scene (2): Pastel-coloured buildings with balconies so characteristic of Havana's fairytale poverty.

 

Our ride in Paco's 1950 Chevrolet and, right, Paco poses with pride in front of his car.

 

A classic car drives past the iconic Colonial 'CUBA' building which is featured in many travel guides and, right, a brilliant example of Havana's Art-Deco architecture.

 

It's New Year's Eve and in Cuba that means roasting a whole pig in public. Pork is the meat of choice for Cubans.

 

Inside one of Cuba's ration shops (1). Wooden shelves, an assistant and one type of everything. This is communism in the 21st Century.

 

Inside one of Cuba's ration shops (2). This time a fruit and vegetables ration shop complete with plasterless ceiling and Che Guevara mural.

 

Inside one of Cuba's ration shops (3). First, shelves display creatively stacked toothpaste, floor cloths and soap and, right, a photograph of Fidel Castro welcomes Cubans to their socialist vegetable shop.

 

Havana gears up for New Year. First a street is decorated with garlands and, right, people buy fresh produce from a mobile street stall.

 

The wonderful street performers of 'Black Santa' take the Vieja by storm. Middle: with one of the wonderful street performers of 'Black Santa' and, farright, a performer close-up. 

 

Two of Havana's more striking buildings. First, the Art-Deco magnificence of the Bacardi Building and, right, the stone grandeur of the Cuban government telecommunications building.

 

A CDR sign (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) wishes city dwellers a happy new year and dispenses advice on a break-out of sickness and diarrhoea in the Zone '6' area and, right, the counter of a time-warped shop with a till from the thirties, a fan from the sixties and posters of Raul and Fidel Castro.

 

The 'Day of the Triffids' vegetation sprouting from balconies in the Vieja.

 

At our casa in the Vieja. First, having breakfast in Jessica and Felipe's dining room and, right, a farewell photo with Jessica as we head off to Cienfuegos.

 

The journey to Cienfuegos: First setting off on the Viazul coach and, right, a road-side board featuring Che Guevara reads "Onwards to Victory, Always."

 

 

cienfuegos

the pearl of coastal cuba

Nearly 300km south of Havana lies Cienfuegos - and the second port of call on our journey around the top half of Cuba. For transport we booked seats on the state-owned Viazul bus. Remarkably for Cuba we bought and paid for these seats online months ago without any problems. The journey was five hours of travelling through what looked at times to be prehistoric jungle: huge palms, vultures circling overhead and banana plantations. If you're lucky you'll see brightly coloured parrots along the way too but these glimpses were too fleeting to capture on my camera. Particularly impressive were the field borders which farmers had fashioned entirely out of giant cacti. The coach travels through miniature townships and guiltily we sped on by as local Cubans waved their Peso notes in the hope of flagging down a seat. Viazul is a tourist coach and not for locals. It is just one of the many ways the communist state harnesses the tourist dollar to prop itself up. The journey is punctuated by revolution; large billboards line the roadsides and advertise socialism not soap (you will see no adverts in Cuba - no great loss in my opinion). Heroic-looking Guevaras and Castros interrupt the jungle panorama at your coach window at regular intervals as if revolution has to constantly reassert itself after every twenty kilometres or so.

Arriving in darkness it has to be said that Cienfuegos does not make a very good first impression. The city's grid formation (the first in Latin America) makes it somehow worthy of UNESCO heritage status. Streets do not have names here but use a numerical system which is functional but completely devoid of character. Traipsing around the dark streets for an acceptable-looking restaurant I did find myself asking where the 'UNESCO' was in 'Cienfuegos'. Luckily our host at our casa, Maria, was as mad as a box of frogs and made us feel right at home, constantly bursting into fits of infectious laughter and keen to point out the $300 she had paid for our bed. Maria was a tourist attraction in herself. She did struggle to understand my English because of my accent with my partner jumping in to translate it, not into Spanish, but into English. It comes to something when your own English has to be translated into English... We enjoyed staying at Maria's casa, a French colonial era building with great views across the town and a front row rooftop seat at sunset. On our final morning I asked for a photograph with Maria. She was genuinely happy to be asked and called us her "babies". Bless her. Horrified by the amount we were being charged for our onward trip to Trinidad and tour around El Nicho national park ("No! No! That is crazy!" she cried over breakfast) she hastily re-arranged it with her local contacts - saving us nearly £200. A wonderful Caribbean meal cooked at the casa on our last night rounded off a memorable stay. So much better than a hotel, don't you think?

It was in Cienfuegos that a few more communist realities came into sharp focus. It was there that I first noticed the CDR offices - Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. CDRS are the tentacles of the communist state reaching into every neighbourhood and province. They organise street parties, keep crime levels down but also spy on their people: a sort of village council mixed with local church mixed with...GCHQ. Many Cubans belong to a CDR as it makes like easier - by not being a member you may arouse suspicion. These committees often have Cuban flags and portraits of the Castros hanging in the lobby, with a lowly (and very bored-looking) official in khaki.‎ Another reality of Cuban life you may notice are the queues of people waiting patiently. For everything. Queues to buy telephone cards, queues to use the street payphone (remember those?), queues for their subsidised tray of eggs at the socialism shop, queues to have their hair cut at the communist barbers (everyone goes to the same place - young and old). The fact is that communism has turned queueing and 'waiting your turn' into an art form. Old-fashioned wooden counters in shops mean Cubans have to queue for their eggs at the egg counter, for their oil at the oil counter and their bread at a third - all in the same shop. This may be something you bear in mind when the spread is laid out before you at breakfast in your casa particulares - it is probably the result of a couple of hours of queueing patiently in the heat.‎ Also bear this in mind if you are tempted to do an Oliver Twist and ask for more as there probably isn't any more. A final reality is that shopping in Cuba is a strange experience. Whole shelves are full of just one product, others are empty. In Cuba, get used to the fact that there is pretty much one version of everything: one brand of ketchup, one brand of cola, one brand of nappy. Whilst it looks odd to a traveller hailing from a country with rampant capitalism, I couldn't help wondering whether this was really such a bad thing. Is it really a good thing to have so much choice that we spend half our lives choosing between fifteen different brands of this or that in different sizes, flavours and colours? Having been to Cuba I was left with the sensation that less of my time was wasted making pointless, and ultimately unimportant, decisions. Sometimes choice can be an illusion, giving people a sense of control or destiny over their own lives. As it was, we drank Cuba's Tukola cola, made by the country's only soft drink manufacturer, and that was that. No choice to make - and my time and energy retained for better use elsewhere.

I am glad to say that Cienfuegos during the day looked a lot less like a frontier town and more like the kind of place worthy of the trek we had made to see it. The place is renowned for its French Colonial architecture, most prominently in Jose Marti Square which contains the French clichéd export of an Arc du Triomph. It was in Cienfuegos that I finally felt like I was in the Caribbean: beautiful blue skies, an even bluer ocean and coconut palms swaying in the breeze (I have always loved palm trees - they speak so much of the foreign and exotic to a British-born traveller). Our trip out deeper into the province to the Guanaroca Laguna lake with its pink flamingos was a real highlight of my time in Cienfuegos, a place which was now rapidly turning into a rather special place. We arrived on a little jetty made from bamboo where we met Alexander, a twenty-something Cuban who, on his little fibreglass rowing boat endeavoured to get us as close to the elegant pink birds as possible. As it is I managed some pretty wonderful photographs of the creatures as well as some of ant hills and termites as we made our way back to base through the forest. I tried my hand at rowing to give Alexander's blistering hands a break and, I'm glad to report, I was useless at it. ‎As we jiggered around the lake we talked about why he didn't wear gloves - surely a necessity for his line of work? Clothes are expensive in Cuba and this was the choice Alexander explained he was faced with: electricity or gloves to protect his hands rowing around the lake. Poor soul. We pretty much gave him a tip commensurate with the cost of a new pair of gloves. A sob story? I don't think so - not when I saw the blisters on his hands and the careful patching of his much-worn trousers. Hopefully Alexander will get some new gloves soon.

The rest of the day was spent on the province's Rancho Laguna beach, idyllic palm trees, blue sky and ocean, crabs scuttling into sand holes and some of the hottest-looking bodies I have seen in a long time. Prepare yourself to be constantly out-styled by Cubans - or keep your t-shirt on altogether. For one Peso (about 60p) I tried my very first drink from a coconut. Men sell them up and down the beach carrying a machete to chop off the top and insert a straw. It wasn't very nice, and I didn't go too heavy on it for fear of upsetting my stomach, but it was one of those things you should try and an experience nonetheless. I know I rail against beach holidays on this site, but I was in the Caribbean and coconuts, beaches, parasols fashioned from leaves and the sound of the surf are quintessentially Caribbean. It would have been rude to have refused!

The road to El Nicho national park was not exactly plain sailing. Our Cubataxi displayed a red warning light on the dashboard almost from the moment we set off from Casa Ines Maria in central Cienfuegos. Within minutes of climbing up the hillsides to reach El Nicho the driver pulled over in the hope the engine would cool. It didn't. The driver hot-footed it to a nearby garden to fill his large plastic bottle with water, which he poured all over the engine. Ten minutes later another stop. Memories of my journey in the Morocco death taxi resurged in my mind. This time water from a stream. Bonnet up. Pouring of water. Steam. Would we get there? We did. But only just. The principal draw of El Nicho is its waterfall - and rightly so. It was wonderful. Bit of advice here: to enter the national park you need your passport - something you may not be carrying if you were not transiting between provinces like we were. The route you walk in the park isn't that long but it's stuffed full of weird and wonderful-looking plants, a few of which bear a remarkable resemblance to some of my house plants back in the UK. ‎Getting changed into swim shorts in the middle of the forest to stand under the waterfall and have a splash around in its pool will go down as one of my great traveller moments.

 

The  view of Cienfuegos as seen from the rooftop of our casa. Notice the horse and cart at the foot of the photograph - a common sight in the backstreets of the town and a popular form of transport for locals.

 

Overlooking Cienfuegos at sunset from the rooftop of Case Ines Maria.

 

A selection of some of the French colonial-era buildings in the town.

 

A classic car makes its way along the Malecon (promenade) with satisfyingly size-decreasing coconut palms.

 

The very Arabian-looking Pallacio de Valle.

 

A classic car foregrounds a prominent Che hoarding and, right, a particularly striking blue building complete with palms.

 

Two of Cienfuegos' Che Guevara hoardings above buildings in the town.

 

Shopping in Cienfuegos: First, I hope you like this brand of biscuit - it's all we have and, right, the bizarre sight of a store with wooden shelving, ladder and carefully stacked items; very 'Are You Being Served?'

 

Jose Marti Square: First the cathedral, the Casa de la Cultura, the red dome of the Musee Nacionale.

 

A shot of the Laguna Guanaroca in Cienfuegos province - famous for its flamingos.

 

Termite mound and a close-up of some termites in the forest near Laguna Guanaroca.

 

The bamboo jetty from which we embarked onto the lagoon and, right, Alexander rows our little boat out to the flamingos.

 

Flamingos take flight as our little rowing boat approaches.

 

At the Rancho Luna beach having the quintessentially Caribbean experience of drinking from a coconut and, right, an example of a wonderfully freaky-looking tree.

 

Our parasol made from dried palm leaves at the Rancho Luna beach.

 

Saying goodbye to Maria and her wonderful casa as we set off to El Nicho and then onto Trinidad.

 

En-route to El Nicho waterfalls in Cienfuegos province: our Cubataxi overheats and our driver pours water over the engine and, right, at least it gives me time to get out and admire the view.

 

En-route to El Nicho waterfalls in Cienfuegos province: two communist hoardings the first of which is a cartoon showing Cuba punching the American blockade and, right, a heroic rendering of the Castro brothers. 

 

The stunning view of the national park.

 

Stood in the roots of a gigantic tree and, right, two examples of some of the tropical-looking plants you can see in the national park.

 

Standing under the El Nicho waterfalls, part of the national park.

 

 

trinidad

Central Cuba's Technicolour Timewarp Town

Trinidad (not to be confused with the other Trinidad of 'Trinidad and Tobago' fame) is a Spanish colonial town frozen in time: cobbled streets, donkeys, leather-faced locals and pastel-coloured dwellings. It's a beautiful place dripping with history and character which evokes a simpler, bygone era. Tourists parachute in for the day on coach tours and disappear again just as quickly. This means that Trinidad goes from being peaceful to tourist trap hell and back again within the space of a day. It also means that staying here overnight in a casa gives you a distinct advantage - you can view the sights without the hordes of, mostly, German and Austrian tourists. You can pretty much 'do' Trinidad in a day. ‎We followed the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba's photographic tour of the town, which led us down dung-covered cobbles, past apertures in walls selling pigs' heads and fruit, past Trinidadians shouting "Hola amigo!" from their doorsteps and a whole host of weird and wonderful curios. Trinidad has the potential to become a manicured, Disneyfied attraction - especially with UNESCO heritage money now pouring in. Still, it retains an edginess to it which prevents it from falling completely into this trap. Just when you think you are safe, a wrong turning takes you to a street where the tourist shops and restaurants have faded away and have been replaced by piles of rubbish, stray dogs and leering Trinidadians smoking on street corners.

The Trinidadian economy is principally limited to tourism and, unfortunately, it is the place in Cuba where we were most irritated by hawkers and scouts. They are all harmless enough and are probably as bored with asking "where you from?" and "you want restaurant?" as you are at being asked. One women approached us with the obligatory restaurant offer; we patted our stomachs and said we'd just eaten. "Thank god you've eaten! I am so bored of saying the same things about the restaurant..." was her jokey but exhausted reply. We all laughed. I felt her exasperation. Finding our casa on arrival fell just short of being a nightmare. Unscrupulous hustlers tried to divert our driver to other dwellings in order to earn themselves commission. These hustlers have been known to seal off roads in order to stop travellers getting to their booked stay. The small, steep streets made locating the one we'd actually booked even trickier. Make sure you take all the details of your casa - including phone number and codes. We only found our booked casa by hooking up with the owner in the main square having telephoned them. Having met us she then joined us in the car and directed our driver through (and up) Trinidad's labyrinthine streets. As it was, this was our third and final stay in a Cuban casa, staying with Hunny and Toni in their blue house at the end of a steep cobbled hill. Our room was more of a chalet which opened out onto a narrow courtyard dressed with terracotta pots with sumptuous plants and a little decking area at the end where we ate our breakfast. Our casa, however, had a neighbour from hell in the form of a crazy cockerel which started crowing (well, screeching) at around three in the morning and didn't shut up again until darkness fell again. I love animals, but I was more than ready to wring its bloody neck by the following morning. Toni didn't speak a word of English and us hardly any Spanish but somehow it wasn't a problem. ‎There are literally hundreds of casas in the town, and of dramatically varying standards so there is probably no need to book ahead but doing so does ensure you aren't left traipsing around in 30+ degree heat with your backpacks on fighting off swarms of hustlers. You'd be wise to book ahead if you're arriving in darkness and to make arrangements to be met by the owner.

A short excursion 20km outside of Trinidad took us deeper into the wonderfully-named Sancti-Spritus province, of which Trinidad is a part, to see Manaka Iznaga, an old sugar plantation where African slaves were forced to work. The impressive tower on the plantation was used to keep an eye on them and the large bell in front of the hacienda mansion used to summon them to their toil. You can also see the sugar press used by the slaves. Sobering.

 

The view out to the mountains seen from the Trinidad Bell Tower.

 

The view out to the mountains seen from the Trinidad Bell Tower.

 

The wonderful pastel colours of the bell tower and the historical museum building and, right, the ever-present Cuban flag dangles in a window. 

 

Characteristic balconies with ornate ironwork and, right, a horse and cart often used by locals and small businesses to get goods from a to b.

 

A typical Trinidadian street: manure-covered cobbled roads, pastel shades, classic cars and dangling wires.

 

Trinidad's Holy Trinity Church and, in the same square, coconut palm trees silhouetted at sunset.

 

Window shopping Trinidad style: a fruit and vegetable stall which uses plastic water bottles to contain seeds and an old fan shield to display mangoes and, right, a butcher's shop complete with pig's head (and flies).

 

Creature feature: some of Trinidad's other inhabitants. First a curly tail rock lizard and, right, a goat carries a cart (with a disemboweled pig on it) through the streets.

 

Communism reminders: markings and numbers on neighbourhood walls carve up streets into CDR catchment areas and sub-areas. Is this real localism? In these cases CDR authority #5 Zone 26 and CDR #6 Zone 28.

 

A satisfying yellow wall of cacti.

 

Trinidad character: a man poses for tourists with the obligatory Cuban cigar and, right, a woman buys fruit from a fruit and vegetable business.

 

In front of another Che mural, this time in Manaka Iznaga in Trinidad province.

 

The Manaka Iznaga tower used to keep an eye on the sugar slaves and, right, the hacienda - the mansion of the slave owner.

 

Trinidad goodbyes: First, a goodbye photograph with Tony at his little blue casa and, right, at Trinidad station waiting for our return coach to Havana (spot the portrait of Fidel Castro above me).

 

 

videos

Performers of Black Santa in Havana's Vieja.

The national park of El Nicho in Cienfuegos Province.

 

 

travel tips

  • We used Casaparticularcuba.org to reserve our accommodation with Cuban families. Whilst replies from booking requests were slow, and the whole process a little faffy, it did work.
  • Staying in a casa particular (the Cuban equivalent of the home-stay B&B) is, without doubt, the best way to see and meet real Cuban people and experience their culture first hand. Not only is a night an absolute bargain at around £15 each, as well as allowing you to completely by-pass the sterility of chain hotels and resorts on the island, but you also get to eat with the family and experience life from the ground up. There's also the small but vital detail that your money goes directly to real people and not to large, faceless companies. We stayed at Casa Blue Colonial in Havana, Casa Ines Maria in Cienfuegos and Casa Blue Media Luna in Trinidad.
  • Avoid 'gifting' to Cubans - it's much over-rated and a little patronising. A respectable tip will do (carry lots of small notes and coins around with you - you'll need them!)
  • We booked our transport around Cuba using the Viazul buses website. You pay online and receive confirmation immediately. Just make sure you turn up for your bus journey in good time or your booked seat will be sold onto someone else wanting a journey. Get there thirty minutes before departure at the latest.
  • Wear long sleeves and plenty of mosquito repellent - prevention is better than cure.
  • December is peak season meaning that prices increase - particularly in the tacky resorts on the island. However, travelling at this time of year means that you miss the hurricane season which runs from July-November.
  • Remember that there is a departure tax of 25CUC which you must pay at the airport when you leave. Make sure you have cash in reserve as it is cash only - and your bank card may fail in ATMs at the airport (Cuba's cash machines are notorious for swallowing cards).

 

 

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