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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Have a cigar.

The fragrant aroma of a fine cigar is an unmistakable scent and within Cuba, its smoky drift can be traced back to Pinar del Río province, the world’s premier place to grow tobacco. The region is a rolling rustic canvas of fertile, rust-red oxen-furrowed fields, thatched tobacco-drying houses and sombrero-clad guajiros (country folk).

Serene Viñales is a hassle-free village ringed by craggy hills and Van Gogh–like rural beauty, which beckons you to forge into some of the Caribbean’s best caves, discover the beautiful countryside, and explore the numerous tobacco plantations.

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Spectacular Viñales.

Embellished by soaring pine trees and bulbous limestone cliffs that teeter like top-heavy haystacks above placid tobacco plantations, Parque Nacional Viñales is one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. Wedged spectacularly into the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, this 11km-by-5km valley was recognised as a national monument in 1979, with Unesco World Heritage status following in 1999 for its dramatic steep-sided limestone outcrops (known as mogotes), coupled with the vernacular architecture of its traditional farms and villages. Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba.

Armed with six pages of dot matrix printed paper (my bus tickets for the next 3 weeks), a list of contacts for ‘Casa Particulares’ (courtesy of Mary), and a more compact back-pack than when I arrived (left unneeded items with Loly), I jumped into the shared taxi that was to deliver me to my next destination 2-hours west of Havana.

The Viazul bus from Havana to Viñales was fully booked for the next week so I had no option but to use a shared taxi.

The car was relatively new but still dilapidated and it’s owner, Eric, drove like a maniac. He was using his mobile phone during the entire journey – making calls and sending text messages. How we didn’t run into the back of another vehicle I shall never know. My fellow companions said very little, but then neither did I.

Valle de Viñales – western Cuba.

Next stage: hiking through tobacco plantations.

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The reality of life in Havana.

Public transport – buses:

I’ve had to deal with some fairly arduous bus journeys over the years but few compare with todays adventure. Bus travel in Havana is not for the faint hearted. I have never experienced such crowded public transport in my life. Squashed into a dilapidated bus with three times as many people as would normally be deemed acceptable, I found it an experience that went way beyond my comfort zone.

To make matters worse – I boarded the wrong bus. Initially I’d hoped it would do a loop and deliver me back to where we started, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to happen as quickly as I needed it to. After a number of failed attempts I finally managed to force my way to the double doors and get off. I did eventually find another bus, equally packed, that was heading back to where I had originally started. Suffice to say, I will never use the local bus in Havana ever again.

The challenges of finding food:

Trying to find a decent restaurant for an evening meal is hard enough, finding somewhere for breakfast is proving impossible. I have thankfully found a decent bakery so, when possible, I buy some pastries to help bolster my energy levels, at least until lunchtime.

A crumbling city:

For the most part, Havana is a city crumbling in front of your very eyes. I went to the railway museum today but (like so many other small museums in Havana) it was ‘closed for repairs’. The gentleman who was guarding the entrance explained that the building wasn’t safe to enter as they were waiting for funds to carry out much-needed repairs before they could open again. He apologised profusely and went on to tell me about life in Cuba. He accepted that Cuba has its challenges but was quick to point out four things that he was obviously very proud of:

  1. Fidel Castro.
  2. The fact that everybody in Cuba has access to free medical care.
  3. That there is free schooling, including university, for everybody.
  4. Finally, that children are sacred – it’s safe for them to play in the street anytime day or night.

Despite his positiveness, I shall be glad to leave Havana – 5 days is enough.

Next stage: Spectacular Viñales.

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The Cuban Currency & Public Transport.

 There are two types of currency in Cuba – CUC and CUP.

1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) = 1 US Dollar = £0.78 GBP.

25 National Pesos (CUP) = 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The National Peso (CUP).

This currency is what most of the local people are paid their salary in. Using the National Peso, you can purchase smaller items, and the “basics” that one needs. It’s important to realize that this isn’t the “Cuban people’s currency”, foreigners can use this money as well, and buy the following items with CUP:

  • Rides in the local inter-city buses (jam-packed full, no room to breathe)
  • Fruit and vegetables from the markets and side-of-the-road stands
  • Street snacks such as popcorn and fried plantains
  • Rides in a collectivo (shared) taxi

The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

This currency is used for “luxury” items and is the money you’ll mostly find yourself spending during your travels in Cuba. Locals who earn this currency rather than the National Peso are typically those in tourism (casa owners, tour guides, taxi drivers, hotel staff, etc.).

With CUC, you can pay for:

  • Meals at a sit-down restaurant
  • Cocktails and beer
  • Bottled water
  • Tourist bus (Viazul) tickets
  • Internet
  • Hotels and casa particulares

The two currencies actually look quite similar – meaning you need to check your change when you get it. Both for the right currency, CUC when you might get CUP, and the correct amount of change. I lost count the number of times when people tried to short change me.

Public Transport.

City Bus: (£0.03) $0.04 (yes, 3 pence).

This transportation is very cheap, but the buses are packed to the brim with people. If you can imagine ‘rush hour’ tube travel in London and double it, you will get some idea of how crowded the buses are.

Shared Taxis (Collectivos): (£0.39) $0.50 / ride in the city (paid with 10 CUP.

In Havana, very old classic cars run up and down various streets, on a set route. They will pull over and pick up people who are going in their direction, but you must flag them down. This ended up being my prefered option for travel in Havana.

Taxi Collectivo

Next stage: My final day in Havana.

 

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