More of Matanzas.

Cuevas de Bellamar.

Cuba’s oldest tourist attraction, according to local propaganda, lies 5km southeast of Matanzas and is 300,000 years old. There are 2500m of caves here, discovered in 1861 by a Chinese workman in the employ of Don Manuel Santos Parga. A 45-minute Cuevas de Bellamar visit leaves almost hourly starting at 9:30am. The caves on show include a vast 12m stalagmite and an underground stream; cave walls glitter eerily with crystals.

Here is a you tube video about The Caves of Bellamar.

Museo Farmaceútico.

Museo Farmaceútico, on the park’s south side, is one of the city’s showcase sights. Founded in 1882 by the Triolett family, the antique pharmacy was the first of its type in Latin America. The fine displays include all the odd bottles, instruments and suchlike used in the trade.

Next stage: Havana.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged | Leave a comment

Matanzas for backpackers & Varadero for your all-inclusive’s.

With a name translating as ‘massacres,’ Matanzas province conceals an appropriately tumultuous past beneath its modern-day reputation for glam all-inclusive holidays. In the 17th century pillaging pirates ravaged the region’s prized north coast, while three centuries later, more invaders grappled ashore in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) under the dreamy notion that they were about to liberate the nation.

The Bahía de Cochinos attracts more divers than mercenaries these days, while sunbathers rather than pirates invade the northern beaches of Varadero, the vast Caribbean resort and lucrative economic ‘cash cow’ that stretches 20km along the sandy Península de Hicacos.

Matanzas.

Providing a weird juxtaposition is the scruffy city of Matanzas, the music-rich provincial capital that has gifted the world with rumba, danzón, countless grand neoclassical buildings and Santería (the province is the veritable cradle of Afro-Cuban religion). Tourists may be scant here outside of Varadero, but soulful, only-in-Cuba experiences are surprisingly abundant.

Much like a beloved but long-forgotten antique being polished back to its former glory, Matanzas is showing breathtaking signs of reclaiming its erstwhile place at the helm of Cuban culture. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it developed a gigantic literary and musical heritage, and was regularly touted as the ‘Athens of Cuba.’ Undeniably, its battle-scarred buildings and cars belching out asphyxiating diesel fumes now leave it a shadow of its former self and a long way from the vacation glitter of Varadero.

Varadero.

Varadero, located on the sinuous 20km-long Hicacos peninsula, stands at the vanguard of Cuba’s most important industry – tourism. As the largest resort in the Caribbean, it guards a huge, unsubtle and constantly evolving stash of hotels (over 50), shops, water activities and poolside entertainment; though its trump card is its beach, an uninterrupted 20km stretch of blond sand that is undoubtedly one of the Caribbean’s best. But, while this large, tourist-friendly mega-resort may be essential to the Cuban economy, it offers little in the way of unique Cuban experiences. For these you’ll need to escape the wristband wearing crowds from Canada and Europe and dip into the readily accessible hinterland for nearby ‘reality checks’ in Matanzas, Cárdenas or Bahía de Cochinos.

Most Varadero tourists buy their vacation packages overseas (you need to book in advance to get the best rates) and are content to idle for a week or two enjoying the all-inclusiveness of their resort (and why not?). However, if you’re touring Cuba independently, and want to alternate your esoteric rambles with some less stressful beach life, Varadero can provide a few nights of well-earned sloth after a dusty spell on the road. For spur-of-the-moment stop-offs there are plenty of economical hotels and casas particulares in Varadero town at the western end of the peninsula that are baggable on the spot.

 The Varadero Beach Tour is a handy open-top double-decker tourist bus with 45 hop-on/hop-off stops linking all the resorts and shopping malls along the entire length of the peninsula. An interesting opportunity to see the length and breadth of this amazing tourism project/cash cow.

Matanzas City

Varadero Beach Tour bus.

Hotel Blau Varadero.

Hotel Blau Varadero.

The beautiful beaches of Varadero.

Next stage: In and around Matanzas city.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Santa Clara & Ernesto Che Guevara.

While Varadero courts beach-lovers and Trinidad pulls in history geeks, gritty Santa Clara doesn’t stand on ceremony for anyone. Smack bang in the geographic center of Cuba, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity.

Ernesto Che Guevara.

On the southwestern outskirts of the city, about 1km from Parque Vidal, the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara marks the final resting place of Che Guevara’s body and pays tribute to Santa Clara’s adopted son and hero, who led the Cuban rebels to victory against General Batista’s dictatorship here in 1958, in one of the decisive battles of the Revolution.

The large thundering monument is in classic Cuban revolutionary style: big, bold and made of concrete. Atop the grey-tiled steps of a hulking grandstand are four bulky monoliths; towering down from the tallest one is a burly-looking statue of Guevara, on the move and dressed in his usual military garb, rifle in hand. Next to the statue in a huge, somewhat jumbled mural, with Guevara’s march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara and the decisive victory over Batista’s troops depicted in cement.

Underneath the monument, the surprisingly small Museo and Memorial al Che occupies a single U-shaped room, and provides a succinct overview of Che’s life. Photographs line the walls, and it’s these that tend to hold the most interest, with depictions of Che from his early childhood all the way through to his life as a rebel soldier in the Sierra Maestra and a Cuban statesman in the early years of the Revolution.

Opposite the museum entrance is the mausoleum, a softly lit chamber where the mood of reverence and respect is quite affecting. Resembling a kind of tomb with an eternally flickering flame, this is the resting place of Che’s remains, as well as those of a number of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans who died with him in Bolivia, each of whom is commemorated by a simple stone portrait set into the wall.

Boxcar Museuem.

History was made at the site of this small boxcar museum on December 29, 1958, when Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a band of 18 rifle-wielding revolutionaries barely out of their teens derailed an armored train using a borrowed bulldozer and homemade Molotov cocktails.

The battle lasted 90 minutes and improbably pulled the rug out from under the Batista dictatorship, ushering in 50 years of Fidel Castro. The museum – east on Independencia, just over the river – marks the spot where the train derailed and ejected its 350 heavily armed government troops. The celebrated bulldozer is mounted on its own plinth at the entrance.

Boxcar Museuem.

Boxcar Museuem.

Horse drawn taxi – en route to the Che mausoleum.

Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.

Mural – Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.

Shared taxi – Santa Clara to Matanzas.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

More of Camagüey

The Train Station.

Service to Havana, Santiago and points in between. Be prepared to travel slowly and uncomfortably. Foreigners buy tickets in convertibles from an unmarked office across the street from the Hotel Plaza entrance.

Confusing time tables at Camagüey railway station.

The scale model of Camagüey – 3 years in the making.

Latino Americanos (de Cuba) Motociclistas Asoc. visit Camagüey.

Next stage: Santa Clara.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Camagüey – a must see colonial city.

Welcome to the maze. Camagüey’s odd, labyrinthine layout is the byproduct of two centuries spent fighting off musket-toting pirates like Henry Morgan: tumultuous times led the fledgling settlement to develop a peculiar street pattern designed to confuse pillaging invaders and provide cover for its long-suffering residents (or so legend has it). As a result, Camagüey’s sinuous streets and narrow winding alleys are more reminiscent of a Moroccan medina than the geometric grids of Lima or Mexico City.

Sandwiched on Carretera Central halfway between Ciego de Ávila and Las Tunas is Cuba’s third-largest city, easily the suavest and most sophisticated after Havana. In 2008 its well-preserved historical center was made Cuba’s ninth Unesco World Heritage site.

Camagüey is known as Cuba’s Catholic soul, which is immediately evident when you arrive in the city. There are many gorgeous churches and cathedrals, most of which you’ll see just by wandering around

Most of the Spanish colonial cities are designed in a grid-like pattern. Camagüey’s streets however, are wonderfully abstract, with tangled alleyways leading to small plazas all over the city. Exploring any of the back streets outside of the popular squares will reveal some interesting gems. You’ll find friends and families having block parties, kids playing baseball, people sitting on steps watching the world go by, and vendors walking around selling various goods.

Plazas are where people get together to mingle with friends, where kids run around playing, and where you often find live music and great eateries. Every city in Cuba has plazas, and the ones I found in Camagüey were lovely.

Cuba isn’t renouned for great food! However, I had some great meals in Camagüey, and as an added bonus, the food was very affordable.

I was able to walk around uninterrupted and without feeling like a walking dollar sign. Whenever I walked from my casa to the city centre, people spoke with me and appeared to be very genuine.

Camagüey was one of my favourite places in Cuba; so much so I ended up staying an extra night. This created problems later on (with my pre-booked Viazul bus tickets) – more on this later.

I also stayed in another wonderful casa particular – Casa de Humberto y Inés:

Excellent food at Restaurant Melange in Camagüey.

Principle Theatre.

Pedestrianised comercial centre.

Che – commandant, friend.

Tower of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.

View of Parque Ignacio Agramonte from the tower of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.

Plaza de los Trabajadores.

Maceo – pedestrianised street.

Next stage: More of Camagüey.

 

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Trinidad (Cuba) – the sights & sounds of an amazing town.

In Trinidad, all roads lead to Plaza Mayor, the town’s remarkably peaceful main square, located at the heart of the old town and ringed by a quartet of impressive buildings.

Museo Histórico Municipal. For Trinidad’s showpiece museum look no further than this grandiose structure just off Plaza Mayor. The view of Trinidad from the top of the tower alone is worth the price of admission. Visit before 11am, when the tour Transtur buses start rolling in.

Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad. Despite its rather unremarkable outer facade, this church on the northeastern side of Plaza Mayor graces countless Trinidad postcard views. Rebuilt in 1892 on the site of an earlier church destroyed in a storm, the church mixes 20th-century touch-ups with artifacts from as far back as the 18th century.

Museo Romántico. Across Calle Simón Bolívar is the glittering Palacio Brunet. The ground floor was built in 1740, and the upstairs was added in 1808. In 1974 the mansion was converted into a museum with 19th-century furnishings, a fine collection of china and various other period pieces. Pushy museum staff may materialize out of the shadows for a tip.

Iglesia de Santa Ana. Grass grows around the domed bell tower, and the arched doorways were bricked up long ago, but the shell of this ruined church defiantly remains. Looming like a time-worn ecclesiastical stencil, it looks ghostly after dark.

Taller Alfarero. Trinidad is known for its pottery. In this large factory, teams of workers make trademark Trinidad ceramics from local clay using a traditional potter’s wheel. You can watch them at work and buy the finished product.

Old Steam Train. You can explore Valle de los Ingenios, near Trinidad, by a fantastic old steam train dating from 1906. Picturesque striking green Valle de los Ingenios was once centre of the sugar and slave trades, home to the plantations that brought prosperity to the Trinidad region in 18th centuries.

Despite the throngs of tourists (hauled in by Transtur) I loved Trinidad.

Everywhere you go – there is always live music in Cuba.

Children playing marbles in the street.

Embroidery club.

Size is everything. I wonder how long it would take to smoke?

The only working ‘train’ I clapped eyes on in Cuba.

Next stage: Camagüey – a must see colonial city.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Trinidad – treasure trove or tourist trap?

The first sound in the morning is the clip-clap of horses’ hooves on the cobbled streets followed by the cries of old men selling bread from bicycles (El pan! El pan!). Open your eyes, gaze up at the high wooden louvers of your 200-year-old colonial room, and try to convince yourself you’re in the 21st century.

Every man and his dog wants to visit Trinidad!

Before arriving, other travellers had spoken of cobblestone streets, brightly coloured buildings and blindingly white beaches nearby. And although I did find some of those features during my stay, I also found a few more things that both surprised, and disappointed me.

Declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988, Trinidad’s secrets quickly became public property, and it wasn’t long before busloads of visitors started arriving to sample the beauty of Cuba’s oldest and most enchanting ‘outdoor museum.’ Yet tourism hasn’t managed to deaden Trinidad’s gentle southern sheen. The town retains a quiet, almost soporific air in its rambling cobbled streets replete with leather-faced guajiros (country folk), snorting donkeys and melodic, guitar-wielding troubadours.

As my bus pulled into town, mobs of touts swarmed yelling and waving signs in the air. Luckily, I already had pre-booked accommodation, thanks to Mary, at Casa Berto, who was there to meet me (waving the ubiquitous hand written piece of paper with my name on). It was a hard 15-minute slog to Berto’s casa. Temperatures were hitting 38 deg C, with my backpack, walking on uneven cobblestones, uphill, it was a tough challenge.

The owner of my casa particular – Berto the baker.

Plaza Mayor.

View across part of Trinidad from Museo Histórico Municipal.

In the background – Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad.

Sunset from my table at restaurant La Ceiba.

Plaza Mayor.

Next stage: Trinidad – the sights & sounds of an amazing town.

 

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Exploring Cienfuegos.

I fell in love with Cienfuegos the moment I stepped off the Viazul bus, which had left Viñales at 06:45 and dropped me off in Cienfuegos at around 14:30. I was met by a middle aged gentlemen who was holding a piece of paper with my name on it. He greeted me and quickly negotiated a bici-taxi to take me to my Casa Particular.

The Cienfuegos urban historic centre is framed with bountiful amounts of gorgeous French architecture and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country. Cienfuegos can easily be explored on foot.

Arco de los Trabajadores. The Arch of Triumph on the western edge of Cienfuegos’ serene central park catapults the plaza into the unique category: there is no other building of its kind in Cuba. Dedicated to Cuban independence, the Francophile monument ushers you through its gilded gateway toward a marble statue of revolutionary and philosopher José Martí.


Teatro Tomás Terry. French and Italian influences, this theater on the northern side of Parque José Martí is grand from the outside (look for the gold-leafed mosaics on the front facade), but even grander within. Built between 1887 and 1889 to honor Venezuelan industrialist Tomás Terry, the 950-seat auditorium with Carrara marble, hand carved Cuban hardwoods and whimsical ceiling frescoes.



Stately Paseo del Prado (Calle 37), stretching from the Río el Inglés in the north to Punta Gorda in the south, is the longest street of its kind in Cuba and a great place to see Cienfuegueños going about their daily business.

Malecón. Keep heading south on Paseo del Prado and the street becomes the Malecón as it cuts alongside one of the world’s finest natural bays, offering incredible vistas.


Punta Gorda. When the Malecón sea wall runs out, you will know you have landed in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos’ old upper-class neighborhood, characterised by its bright clapboard momes and turreted palaces.

Next stage: Trinidad (Cuba) treasure trove or tourist trap?

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Charming Cienfuegos.

La ciudad que más me gusta a mí (the city I like the best) singer Benny Moré once said of his home city in the song ‘Cienfuegos.’ He wasn’t the settlement’s only cheerleader. Cuba’s so called Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South) has long seduced travelers from around the island with its elegance, enlightened French spirit and feisty Caribbean panache. If Cuba has a Paris, this is most definitely it.

Situated on the Caribbean coast of southern-central Cuba, Cienfuegos is a compelling place to visit. With its colourful facades, wide streets and charming French colonial architecture, it rightfully deserves the Pearl of the South title.

Arranged around the country’s most spectacular natural bay, Cienfuegos is a nautical city with an enviable waterside setting. Founded in 1819, it’s one of Cuba’s newest settlements, but also one of its most architecturally interesting, a factor that earned it a Unesco World Heritage Site listing in 2005. Geographically, the city is split into two distinct parts: the colonnaded central zone with its elegant Paseo del Prado (commonly shortened to Prado) and Parque Martí; and Punta Gorda, a thin knife of land slicing into the bay with a clutch of eclectic early 20th century palaces, including some of Cuba’s prettiest buildings.

Modern day Cienfuegos retains a plusher look than many of its urban counterparts. And now with some much-needed Unesco money on board, as well as the city’s growing industrial clout, the future for Cienfuegos and its fine array of 19th century architecture looks bright.

My Casa Particular was a really nice house with a lovely family who made me feel extremely welcome. Hostal La Fraternidad can be booked via Airbnb. Cienfuegos has some truly memorable dining options, particularly on Punta Gorda.


Next stage: Exploring Cienfuegos.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Moda 2017 – Viñales.

Fashion (show) 2017 – Viñales:

Week of culture – Viñales.

Fashion 2017.

Fashion 2017.

Fashion 2017.

A common site in Cuba – running repairs.

Next stage: Cienfuegos.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , | Leave a comment