Cuba: Part 2 – Trinidad, Santa Clara, Varadero and Havana

Trinidad

Day 6 – Trinidad

Happy St Patrick’s Day! Almost a week in Cuba and it was time to move on to our third destination, Trinidad. We took an early morning Transtur bus there which took about 7 and a half hours. The drive can be done in 5 but the bus stops a couple of times. Along the way you get to see some of the communist and socialist media displayed across the country such as massive billboards with pictures of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro and his fellow socialist pal Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Others show heroes of the revolution like Frank Pais or Camilo Cienfuegos (who died in a mysterious plane accident after the revolution) to remind the people what happened almost 60 years ago. Overall it’s a nice drive through the fields of sugar cane. We passed through Cienfuegos which is about an hour from Trinidad. It looked like a nice town on the sea.

We arrived in Trinidad at around 2:45pm and the sun was belting down. Cuba is far hotter than we expected. We caught a bicitaxi to our Casa, which was 2 mins from the bus stop, and checked into our room. We’re staying in Casa El Holandes which is run by a Dutch man and his wife. He happens to be back in Holland while we’re here but the large extended family were all here to greet us.

Trinidad is one of the oldest colonial towns in the country and is what you except from Cuba. Cobbled streets, beautiful old buildings and a really nice vibe to the place. There’s plenty of souvenir shops, which seem cheaper than Havana, and loads of places to see live music. For dinner, as its St. Patrick’s Day, we headed to La Redaccion which also has an Irish bar. The food was a bit pricier than most places but really good and massive portions. When we left we met an Irish girl, Edel, who goes out with the owners son and they are in Trinidad to help set up and get the restaurant started. It was a pretty tame Paddys day by Irish standards but nice to have a drink to celebrate all the same!

Day 7 – Trinidad

Sleep was a bit restless last night due the noise of the old cars and horses outside on the street! Nevertheless we were up and out early before it got too hot to do a walking tour of Trinidad. Our tour took us through the old cobbled streets and newer part of town, the plazas and markets and in to a couple of restored buildings. Trinidad is quite small so can be seen in a couple of hours. After the tour we climbed to the top of an old tower to get some great views of the city. From here you can see the mountains on one side and the coast on the other.

We needed one more souvenir shopping spree to fully fill our bags and collect more Cuban memorabilia. A couple of musical statues, a Cuba tshirt and a Cuban cocktail menu and we were on our way. Almost. James proceeded to buy several of Cuba’s finest cigars and a bottle of Havana Club Rum to take home. The day was getting hot and tonight we plan to go to Casa de la Musica so a siesta was in order.

We ate at the Casa tonight and headed to the famous open air Casa de la Musica for drinks and music. Sitting ourselves down on the steps with cocktails in hand, we watched the band for hours as couples salsa danced to their heart’s content in front of us. Their feet move so quickly! We chickened out of actually trying it ourselves but gave it a go when we entered The Cave, a nightclub literally located underground in a cave. Inside it was decked out with large TVs and again salsa was the theme of the day with women in six inch heels twirling round the floor like it was nothing.

Day 8 – Trinidad

After breakfast this morning we went on a tour of Valley del Ingenios, which is an area full of former sugarcane plantations and the reason Trinidad was so rich in colonial times. The nephew of our Casa owner brought us and two other guests around in a clunky sky blue Chevy which seemed like it was going to collapse at any moment. San Isdro is an archeological site currently being restored, and has ruins of a plantation, factory, colonial home and the slave dwellings. Perhaps the most memorable part of this excursion was learning about the lives of the slaves here. The plantations we visited had tall towers so the owners could watch over the slaves at work and bark orders at them. The dwellings were tiny and hundreds of slaves would have lived there, while a family of 5 stayed comfortably in the colonial mansion a hundred yards away. Our guide told us how his great, great grandfather was a slave from the Congo, and discrimination lasted long after slavery ended in 1887 until the revolution brought people more together.

The sugarcane industry stopped in the late 1980s when it was no longer financially viable to export sugar. These days, the area is a UNESCO site and preserved for tourists. That afternoon, we headed back out in the Chevy to Playa Ancon a few kilometers outside the town. We were only there for a couple of hours but it was lovely to have a dip in the Caribbean sea, nap on the sand and watch a huge Cuban family get drunk on rum while having a party in the water!

We finished our last night in Trinidad with a visit to Casa de Trova for more traditional music and a stopoff at Casa de la Musica to watch more dancing. Catherine finally convinced James to get up and give salsa a go….let’s just say we won’t be winning Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!!

  

Day 9 – Santa Clara

Our ‘collectivo’ green Cadillac taxi rumbled down the street to collect us this morning to go to Santa Clara. It was late, our bags barely fit in the boot and the two of us had to squash into the front seat as three Argentinian tourists were in the back! Colletivos are much cheaper than a private taxi so worth the discomfort, even when they had crazy drivers who hit you in the arm while they speak and have no concept of personal space!! We made it to Santa Clara just about in one piece and checked into Casa Limonero, with the lovely Yolanda as our hostess. She pointed us in the direction of the famous Che monument, mausoleum and museum. It is huge and contains a display about his life, a huge statue and a garden of remembrance for the guerilla soldiers who were killed in Bolivia. Their bodies were returned years later and lie to rest here.

Santa Clara was also home to one of the most important battles of the revolution. We walked to a park beside a train crossroads, where Che and his men derailed an enemy train off the tracks and a big gunfight ensued. The carriages are preserved today as a museum. By this stage our tummies were rumbling and on our search for food we came across a hotel lobby showing a major historical event live on TV – President Barrack Obama had touched down in Havana. We stayed and watched while he disembarked the plane and met the Cuban dignitaries there to greet him. It was pretty cool to watch such a momentous occasion with average Cubans in an old retro hotel lobby in such a politically important location as Santa Clara! It was an interesting but brief visit, and we agreed that you definitely don’t need longer than a day here.

Che Memorial Train Carriages Trinidad Fidel

Day 10 – Varadero

Time for some luxury!!! We woke excited to head off early to Varadero where we planned to lie in the sunshine, swim in the pool and stroll on the beach for the next few days. First problem – it was raining. Second problem – our collectivo taxi didn’t show up. You’d think we would have learned from yesterday’s dodgy cab but no! Yolanda saved the day by arranging us a tiny ancient Peugot to bring us for a more expensive price. With no other option, we hopped into the taxi to get out of the rain and off we set.

Our resort, Sol Palmeras, is huge. It couldn’t be more different to everywhere else we’ve stayed on the trip. It’s all-inclusive food and drinks and we dug into the lunch buffet as soon as we arrived. Luckily, there were lots of areas to relax in and places to stroll around, as the weather hadn’t got much better and there was a fierce wind, making the beach out of the question! Our solution was to avail of the free cocktails and the rest of the evening passed in a blur of a Latin dancing show, a mojito bar and a nightclub before cigars on the balcony and deep deep sleep!!

Day 11 – Varadero

The weather still wasn’t great today but we were determined not to let it spoil our fun. We had to laugh – after 2 weeks of scorching hot temperatures, the one place we needed the sun didn’t have it! We had a really relaxing morning by the pool and got massages which were laughably awful and a total waste of money. Luckily there was always a drink and a massive buffet nearby to make up for any disappointment! The resort is mostly full of middle aged or elderly Canadians and Europeans, with some families and young kids. It makes for an interesting evening sitting watching them salsa dance or enjoying the aqua ballet shows!

Day 12 – Varadero

Happy 30th Birthday James! His present was the sun finally emerging from the clouds, making it perfect for a day of sunbathing, swimming and reading his new book about the Mafia in Havana. We were both a bit burnt by the time we went to get ready for dinner. We had reservations tonight in the poolside Mexican restaurant which was a nice change from the buffet. They knew it was James birthday and brought him a family sized actual full birthday cake for dessert!! Not a bad way to turn 30 it has to be said.

Day 13 – Matanzas and Havana

James’ present was waiting outside at 8am this morning. A red 1955 Bel-Air convertible and a driver Michele were ready to bring us back to Havana via a town called Matanzas. The weather was gorgeous and Catherine wrapped her scarf around her head like Grace Kelly, pretending she was a 1950s movie star as we cruised down the coastal road passing palm trees and crashing waves. There actually wasn’t much to see in Matanzas at all and after a while we got on the road to Havana. It was a really lovely drive. Michele brought us to a few spots we hadn’t been to last time, like the giant Jesus statue and a local art workshop. We revisited some other places and spotted roadies for the Rolling Stones in Hotel Capri – they’re playing a free concert tomorrow and every casa and hotel in Havana is either fully booked or charging outrageous prices. For dinner we headed to the same restaurant that the Obama’s just visited during their trip here, Paladar San Cristobal. It was great to have some really good Cuban food before we said goodbye to this incredible country.

After dinner, we brought a bottle of rum down to the Malecon with some plastic cups and mixer. Sipping our drinks, we sat on the Malecon wall watching the world go by and chatting about how amazing the last 10 weeks have been….until James surprised Catherine, hopped off the wall and got down on one knee!! After a few moments of staring at him in shock, she put him out of his misery and said yes, to the delight on some nearby Cubans who broke into cheering and applause! So…we’re engaged! What an end to our time in Cuba!

     

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