A Month in CUBA!
We have a little confession that we really didn’t make much of a plan before arriving in Cuba! The road trip across the USA have been a bit all consuming and any research time we did have was spent figuring out where we were and where we were going next! This did result in us making a few destination choices in Cuba that in hind sight we wouldn’t have made…but you know what they say about hind sight! It also added to the highs being really high!
So the only plan we had was that we were flying into Camaguey and leaving from Havana with a month in between. We aren't fans of rushing or cramming as we like to sit back and really absorb a place so this is may be a "slower" month than some might like but this was our month....
(Our route Camagüey, La Boca, Camaguey, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Vinales, Havana)
Camagüey is, in our opinion an underrated city! We met a lot of people who had skipped through it for one night and didn't think much of it. We think they missed the point of Camagüey. Camagüey is inland, it isn’t on the typical “tourist route” and is a slower pace of life. We spent three nights in Camagüey and we were so glad we did.
We are a little bias as we got to stay with a delightfully warm and kind couple called David & Maria in their Casa Particulares. In Cuba there are two types of accommodation, ones run by the government and Casa Particulares. Casa Particulares are people’s homes that are run as B&B’s and more recently they have been allowed to run Airbnbs. They still have to be registered with the government though.
Camagüey is the third largest city and it is famous for it’s Tinajones (clay pots historically used to collect rain water due to acute water shortages) and its “labyrinth” streets which were designed to stop attackers getting through the city easily! Wandering the maze of streets is a delight and it is easy to get lost, but this is the point to Camagüey. To slow down, take time to wander, get lost, drink coffee, sit in the plazas, listen to music and just well, take life in. If we would have rushed we would have missed the best part of Camaguey, the people! The plazas or parks are where people gravitate. This may be more because these are the main internet “hot spots” but also there is a long history of being a meeting places for people. Using the internet is only one of the many “quirks” of Cuba but it was during these strange moments sat in a Plaza waiting for connection that we made other types of connections! It was during these times that we met some incredible people who just wanted to chat to us, surprisingly mostly about the political situation (we were told people avoided talking about this for numerous reasons) but we also met peoples dogs, heard about their children, their hopes and dreams, we got invited for coffee and even ended up taking an old pensioner out for dinner.
(Camagüey: Parque ignacio Agramonte)
From Camagüey we traveled two hours north east to La Boca near Santa Lucia where we stayed for four nights. Cuba has many “package holiday hot spots” where droves of tourists come to government run all-inclusive hotels and stay on the beach. Santa Lucia is one of these spots however 20 mins drive away is the tiny wisp of a village, La Boca. It literally sits on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the Caribbean Sea. We wanted some R&R and space especially after hitting loads of big cities through the USA before arriving in Cuba. With near non existent WiFi, no shops, no bars and just a dirt road leading from the lighthouse to the beach La Boca was a perfect piece of escapism. We managed to find another Casa Particulares with the most fun loving couple, Roberto and Yolanda.
(La Boca: hut on the beach, our hosts Roberto and Yolanda, Sea View and old fishing house, coconut, horse and carriage transport)
Their house had an understated ocean view with only an old fishing house to obstruct, or enhance, this view. It was not showy or trying it was just beautiful. During the day the beach does have organized groups decent from Santa Lucia, presumably signing up for that “authentic remote beach Cuban experience”, but the days when there are no groups we had the beach to ourselves. And the night time? Well it was just us, some home cooked meals by Yolanda, music in the kitchen and the stars to gaze at! There is one government run restaurant on the beach which seemed to purely be open to providing lunch for the package tourists from the government hotels in Santa Lucia as it would shut abruptly on their departure…much to our naivety when we wandered down there one night looking for dinner! As we hadn’t pre-ordered from our hosts we ended up eating dried crackers for dinner, lesson learnt. There did seem to be some other restaurants but they weren’t open in the evenings and the handful of other backpackers staying in the village seemed to be eating with their host families.
It was here that we had an experience of a lifetime. Roberto had introduced us to a local diver. With no boat or car and equipment he had acquired in exchange for free dives he invited us to dive to watch him hand feed bull sharks. The drama of it all was amped as we weren’t even sure if the dive was going to go ahead and last minute at 8am he arrived on our door step, the morning we were leaving, saying it could happen now! We jumped into the water from the pier and after submerging we knelt on the ocean bed 20 metres down and our dive master made a tapping noise on his tank. Then from the murky distance two silvery figures started snaking towards us. Two 10 foot bull sharks, one pregnant with only one eye, gracefully came closer. They circled in front of us out of curiosity and he pushed them effortlessly away with a metal rod. Then he held the fish out and gently let them go as one by one the sharks swam in and circled back to take the fish. As they turned they were in touching distance and we all breathed in a little deeper!
(La Boca: diving with bull shark no zoom!)
After La Boca we headed North to Trinidad. Trinidad was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1988 and is a picturesque colonial town stuck in time, with cobbled streets, amazing architecture, nearby beaches and a vibrant nightlife.
(Trinidad: cobbled streets and stunning architecture)
We were prepared for higher levels of tourism but it was a bit of a shock as the numbers of tourists hugely outweighed local people. If you can look past all the people snapping pictures and buying souvenirs all looking for the “Cuban experience” then Trinidad is wonderful, but for us after a day wandering the streets the touting all got a little intense and after being offered to go to the waterfalls for the hundredth time we decided to hire bikes the next day to cycle to the nearest beaches. About a 90 minute cycle through farmlands and the sweet tiny village of La Boca (it’s a popular name!) we discovered some hidden little coves where we had a small beach to ourselves. Bliss!
Trinidad does arguably have an amazing live music scene. Stomping the cobbles you can hear drums, trumpets and singing coming from every bar and restaurant. A lot of this is aimed at tourism but there is a nice mix of locals at the venues too. We saw some amazing samba music, watched dancing in an outdoor venue, even tried a little salsa and of course drank the infamous Cuba Libre (rum and coke) Mojitos, Piña colada and Daiquiri that are offered in every single venue in Cuba (rum is easy to come by much to Jez’s delight) We topped off our visit with a night out in La Cueva, a Trinidad classic! A 100 metre underground nightclub. We joined in dancing in the cave till the early hours of the morning.
Next stop Cienfuegos, another Unesco World Heritage Site only named in 2005, the so called “Pearl of the South”. This elegant nautical city with it’s strong French air, gorgeous natural bay and laid back feel was well worth a visit. The French influence came in 1819 when french people from Louisiana were encouraged to settle on the island and you can still see it everywhere.
(Cienfuegos: view over José Martí Park)
The architecture is staggering with dotted romantic French restaurants and the fantastically bizarre Palacia de Valle (think Brighton Palace for “out of place”!) found at the end of the long Malecón (waterfront walkway). A great spot for a roof top cocktail at sunset.
(Cienfuegos:Palacia de Valle)
We decided to bite the bullet and pay for one of Cuba’s notorious “attractions” which we had come to realise were very expensive and difficult to access without a car. El Nicho waterfalls were by far the most beautiful waterfalls we saw in Cuba (every town there is a tour a penny to a waterfall!). The waterfalls are just under an hour away from Cienfuegos, with no local busses our only option was a taxi. The Taxi’s in Cuba are either old USA 1950s classics or Soviet Lada’s (a strange combination to see on the road!). With the American car’s usually being more expensive to ride it was no surprise our taxi turned up to be another beaten up old Soviet Lada, with a taped window, one door not opening and a notorious photo of his daughter hanging from the rear view mirror. Parts are hard to come by and buying a "new" cars is extremely expensive and still not easily available in Cuba.
Crossing the beautiful landscape we came to a rather steep hill, which unfortunately the little box shaped car was no match for. After two or three attempts and our poor driver pouring litres of water over the engine he finally admitted defeat. After about an hour and a half and reversing about 20mins back to the nearest village, anxious and stressed he called a friend who was able to drive us the rest of the way. Much to our amusement and relief when this car arrived, we finally got to ride in a typical Cuban vintage car!
(Cienfuegos: vintage Car, El Nicho Waterfalls)
Viñales was our next destination, requiring a nights stop in Havana to change buses. A small town located on the far north of the Island in a valley surrounded by mogotes (isolated, steep sided hills composed of limestone and marble). This was a “top destination to spend time in nature” and also a top destination for tourists. We were told by locals that the town was “quiet” and that years before tourists were sleeping in the square as there were no rooms available?! The days we were there it was planned to rain everyday so we decided to take a horse riding tour around the valley as the mud was too thick to visit the tobacco and coffee plantation on foot.
We also took the opportunity to hire bikes and explore the mogotes ourselves in hope to avoid the many tourists in the town and on the tour after tour of same excursions. The scenery was amazing with burnt red soils and rolling mogotes. We also had a wonderful encounter with two young local boys who lived in the middle nowhere. We stopped to take a break and two young boys appeared from an old derelict school building (where they’d been throwing rocks at windows!) and insisted on pushing our bikes and showing us their river! We chatted and shared our lunch with them and then went and watched them throw rocks!
(Viñales: two boys from the village, mogotes, horse riding, large tree, view of tobacco fields, cigar making, cuban cows)
The Lonely Planet had described Viñales as “a night out on the tiles involves sitting in a rocking chair on a rustic porch watching the milky way” well perhaps a little outdated Vinales pumped with music every night which wasn’t really what we were expecting! However we were pleasantly surprised and excited we were there on a Saturday when the whole street is closed off for a party! This was a major highlight from our visit to Cuba. The town mainly seeming full of tourists suddenly became alive full of Cubans too! Music blared from the main square, there were cheap cocktail and food stalls everywhere and restaurants had moved their tables and chairs into the street. By midnight we looked around and realized we were the only tourists still dancing in a sea of Cuban celebration! Best place to be. At four am when we finally admitted defeat they were still going and didn’t look like they were stopping any time soon. Cubans love to party!
Our final destination was Havana and boy did we save the best until last. We had lowered our expectations after passing some other backpackers who didn’t think it was anything to write home about (crazy?!). The city was simply incredible and it felt lived and breathed in by Cubans. There are over 900 buildings of historical importance in Havana and you feel it! We were so impressed to learn amongst the hardships in Cuba in the 1970’s a Cuban historian set up a holding company that takes the money from tourism and re-invested it into the restoration of Havana’s incredible buildings. However more impressively 55% of the apparent $160million it now receives is ploughed into social projects in the city! Benefiting the much needed Cuban people. It made seeing the city even more special for us.
(Havana: National Capitol Building, Catedral Ortodoxa Nuestra Senora de Kazan, Street corner, vintage cars, Plaza de la Catedral)
Culture seemed to ooze out of the cities pores with music, art, theatre and history everywhere! We literally walked for four days around every area Havana had to offer, the old town, the centre, the Malecón and Vededo . One of our days we visited Fusterlandia (think Gaudí on acid!) in one of Havana’s suburbs. Artist José Fuster turned his home and community into a living art gallery and it is well.... bonkers. There is even a house in memory of Princess Diana! We were really lucky and even got the meet the artist!
Writing about Havana it is impossible to not write about the music! We went to so many venues to listen to music and the talent is extraordinaory. We loved an early evening drink at Café Taberna in the old town before going else where but one spot we would highly recommend was Fabrica de Arte Cubano. A whole live music, expo art, fashionably chic, shoulder rubbing venue with multiple rooms in a converted cooking oil factory in Vedado. It is a total current Cuban hang out and well worth the taxi there! It was an incredible end to our month in Cuba.
IN HIND SIGHT:
-On reflection though it is very expensive we would have hired a car as transport is difficult to more off the beaten track places and the buses are designated for tourists (locals have thier own cheaper bus)
-We would have also explored the South of the island as we heard it was alot less touristy.
-We would have only spent 2 nights in Trinidad and looked to go to Santi Spiritus or Santa Clara
-Not stayed in Vinales (apart from Saturday night!) and explored the rugged coast line
-Explored some of the other coastline.
-If we were to go again we would have tried to fit in 1 or 2 other places but we were wanting a slower pace!
MORE DELICIOUS PHOTOS: https://www.lettucefindpeas.com/cuba-1
HAPPY VIBES CUBA VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_wVtMUgY6M
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