Why visit Trinidad?

After Havana and beach resorts along Cuba’s north coast, most tourists will want to see the town of Trinidad. Why? Because, with loads of historic charm, its cobble-stoned center is small, walkable and traffic-free; it’s also extremely photogenic and feels totally authentic. Maybe you won’t be transported back to 1513, the year Trinidad was founded, but you will certainly feel as though you’ve stepped back into the early 1800s, when Trinidad reached its economic zenith due to the sugar-boom.

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Sugar brought Trinidad European immigrants and new wealth, but also the African slaves whose labour created that wealth. Today you can see a few of the mansions built by the sugar barons, containing rich furnishings imported from Europe; several are open to the public as museums. And if you are really observant, you can – sadly – also witness vestiges of slavery on the former sugar plantations, in the form of manacles, bells and watch-towers.

What makes Trinidad especially picturesque are the rows of more ordinary houses, one-storey buildings built right out to the sidewalk or street, with their window grilles made of iron or wood. Continue reading Why visit Trinidad?

At the crocodile farm with Ernesto

Ernesto next suggested a trip to the Zapata Peninsula – to the “Swamp of Cienaga”, to be exact. Presumably he thought I needed to see a tourist attraction with more excitement than lakes, bird-filled forests and waterfalls. So after driving for at least an hour in the fast lane of the pot-holed and badly patched six-lane highway known as the autopista, we turned off towards Australia… that is, the village of Australia, Cuba. Apart from slaloming around potholes, it had been a fairly peaceful drive, during which we’d only encountered a handful of other cars and the occasional highway worker, machete in hand, cutting back the flowering bushes on the centre strip.

In Australia, a roadside policeman flagged us down for a document check. We held our breath while it was established that Ernesto’s papers and permits were all in order,  freeing us to continue down this smaller road, past ox-carts, farmers on horseback or bicycles and uniformed school kids being transported in farm wagons.

Our first visit was to a large lake with an island, where a Taino village had been re-created. (“Taino” is the name of a group of native people living on the island of Cuba when it was settled by Europeans.) We spent some time walking around the displays on the  island, and finally found ourselves trapped in an embarrassing native-dance-and- face-painting ceremony. This meant that, despite discreet wipes, when we later entered the Criadera de Cocodrillos (the crocodile farm), our faces still sported the odd yellow or red stripe.

The croc farm’s first display consisted of baby crocs in a way-too-small basin, attempting to bite each other’s noses off. Next came the child crocs – about 3 feet long – which visitors could hold (bound and gagged) for a photo.crocs2

A high arched bridge took us to the lake, where dozens of huge, evil-looking adult crocs were “resting” on the shore.  A chain-link fence enclosed the lake, so I felt fairly secure about photographing the reptiles, who had an unnerving habit of holding their jaws open in order to snap them shut on passing flies. We were soon joined by a small group of Russian tourists wearing brand new outfits and all kinds of bling. The croc farm wardens then zoomed into action and started “feeding” the crocs by waving whole fish filets dangling from long poles over the crocs’ heads. A snapping frenzy followed, and once in a while a croc would even catch a flying filet.

Keen to take pictures, the Russians pushed forward and held their phones over the fence; we remained at the back. It was then that one of the Russian ladies dropped her pink-clad iPhone into the croc enclosure. She cried operson-woman-hand-appleut of course, and the others craned their necks to view it lying on the ground below, but no one knew what to do. Except the wardens. They quickly transformed their feeding poles into batons and started stomping the ground with them as they opened the gate into the enclosure. Baton-stomping continuously, they marched towards the massed crocs, who started backing off. Before the men could get near the phone, however, Ernesto deftly reached through the fence and picked it up, handing it back to the Russian damsel with a slight bow, his gallantry only slightly marred by a smidgen of  face-paint. The wardens didn’t look too pleased, but once again Ernesto had saved the day.

A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

Ernesto at el NichoThat’s Ernesto above – the Santa Clara taxi driver who made my visits to Cuba so much better. He took us to the most picturesque places in Central Cuba: to national parks with hiking trails, lakes and waterfalls, to the northern beaches, to colonial towns like Trinidad, Remedios and Sancti Spiritus, to cultural treasures like Cienfuegos and the Harvard Botanical Gardens.

Every morning, at whatever hour we’d set the evening before – 8.00, 8.30 – Ernesto would honk the horn of his precious white Peugeot in front of the door of our casa particular and sit there patiently till we’d gathered up our stuff and piled into the car.

And all the while he was driving, Ernesto was thinking of ways to make our trip better. It could be anything, from stopping at a little mountain café where they grow, roast and serve their own delicious coffee, to taking us on an impromptu bird-watching walk in the forest, to finding out where peasants serve a multi-course lunch in their own home for $3 per person. To locate such places, he’d stop a farmer on horseback or maybe one cycling home from his fields and just ask: “Is there a good place to eat around here?” Most of the time people would know about where to get home-cooked meals or meals of grilled fresh trout from a nearby lake. Here he is, waiting for our order to be served and showing a  local child how to work his phone.

Ernesto shows a local girl

 

Havana Landmarks – some tips

This post features tips about places you will probably consider visiting in Havana, whether you are travelling alone or with a guided group. Your guide book (or my book Travels in Cuba) will have more background information, but my insider tips will hopefully help you get more pleasure out of your visit.

Tip #1 Take photos in the Cemetery of Colon (Necropolis de Colon)

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If you like taking dramatic black and white photographs, you should visit the Cemetery of Colon in Vedado, which is overflowing with extravagant white marble statues and mausoleums from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery is vast and park-like and contains the elaborate tombstones of famous as well as not-so-famous Cubans.

 

One tomb you shouldn’t miss is that of Amelia Goyri, a well-to-do lady who died in childbirth and was buried with her child. Her fame is based on two miracles connected with her burial.  The grave is marked by a life-size statue of Amelia holding a baby in one arm and a large cross in the other. Local people – mostly women – visit the grave to pray for the health of mothers and babies, leaving flowers at the feet of “La Milagrosa”, the miraculous one.

 

Tip #2 Visit restaurant El Patio in Cathedral Square

El patioFor me, this is the most beautiful restaurant and outdoor café in central Havana. It’s located in the Plaza de la Catedral, right in front of Havana cathedral.  You can sit at  metal tables under its hallmark white umbrellas and sip your freshly squeezed juice or coffee for hours.

El Patio is my favorite place for people-watching. What can you see? Well, scenes like: a photographer posing fashion models on cars, tables and steps, Creole ladies dressed in colonial costumes planting big kisses on male tourists’ cheeks, a man pushing a bike loaded down with an entire ice-cream store, several 80-year-old locals dancing to the rhythm of musicians who have installed themselves on the opposite side of the plaza.

My extra tip: the restaurant toilets are located on the other side of the  gorgeous inner courtyard or ‘patio’ for which the restaurant is named. Take your camera. As you walk through the courtyard, admire the elegant fountain of cut stone decorated with flowers, admire the windows of the floor above (featured in the photo at the top of this post) and, finally, bask in the balm of silence and splashing water.

Tip #3 The Hotel Nacional for vintage 40s and 50s atmosphere

Hotel NacionalThe Hotel Nacional oozes with pre-revolution tradition. From a distance it reminds me of a giant Spanish mission as seen in cowboy movies. Closer up, as you walk down the palm-lined driveway,  you’ll enjoy the vintage cars, and as you enter, you’ll feel like you’re in a 1940s film with uniformed bell hops, cigar-girls, grand ballrooms and many other hotel features of yesteryear.

But don’t let the layers of tradition scare you away. If you go through the lobby to the back veranda, you can sink into one of the comfortable couches and enjoy a (very reasonable) drink or snack. Even the indoor bars and cafés are reasonable. (In my book I describe my first drink in Cuba, consumed in the Churchilmojitol room with signed photographs of the formerly glorious and gorgeous looking down.) Last but not least, the hotel’s back garden, which overlooks the bay bordered by the Malecon, offers vast and inviting scope for visitors who just want to sit in the breeze and talk, or read, or discreetly sip a very fresh mojito. 

 

Tip #4 El Convento de Santa Clara de Asis

I’ve already devoted a full blogpost to this hidden oasis of tranquility in the old town of Havana, with its extensive  gardens and beautifully restored 350-year-old buildings.  My tip is that this restored convent is also a hostel, where you can book a room for your stay in Havana, e.g. with TripAdvisor. Lots of atmosphere, lots of space, centuries of tranquility.Convent Santa Clara

What is it about vintage cars? 

Is it the sumptuous inefficiency of those exaggerated fins and curvy bumpers? Is it the friendly smile of an old front grille? Or the dignity of really heavy metal? Is it the innocent joy in colors other than black, white and silver?Blue Plymouth

A short stroll around any Cuban town – especially Havana – reveals a  Buena Vista Social Club of aging Pontiacs and Chevvies, Plymouths and Fords (to say nothing of long-lost DeSotos and Packards, Studebakers and Nashes). You see them parked along the sidestreets, waiting patiently to be admired by an enchanted photographer. You see them rolling past in the form of taxis trawling for fares. It’s like finding the certainties of your childhood again. And these solid certainties of yesteryear have survived for so long in Cuba.

Chevvy backI don’t really like cars, but I love the well-tended museum of vintage cars that is Cuba. Besides overwhelming you with a serious case of nostalgia, they beguile you with possible back-stories. Did  that Cadillac maybe belong to the mob? Or to a movie star? What romantic evenings has that Buick witnessed?

They are relics from an innocent and unreflecting past: the “good old days” (which of course were not really that good) before complicated thinking and guilt about the environment started to cloud our enjoyment.

Vintage Cadillac

Cuba on a shoestring?

Let’s talk about money. How much do things cost in Cuba? Well, prices can vary considerably.

Luxury beach hotels are certainly not cheap. You can pay from $100 to $300 a day for a double room with meals. But, as this blog keeps telling you, touring Cuba doesn’t need to be wildly expensive. You can stay at a clean and welcoming casa particular (a room with bath in a private home) for about US$25 a night. Food is not expensive either. Main meals are anywhere from $8 to $20, depending on the type of restaurant. And you can even eat at your casa particular, enjoying some of the best meals available in Cuba.   Fruits like guavas, pineapples, papaya etc. are tasty and reasonable. Even fish and lobster aren’t expensive.  When you go out, a fruit juice in a café is $2; a beer is $1.50. A taxi ride through Havana starts at $5. By North American or European standards those are not high prices. Plus, they have the added advantage of giving Cubans jobs and a decent income.

On the other hand, some people – often Cubans – will tell you that those are high prices. They’ll argue that you don’t have to pay the “standard” tourist prices because Cubans themselves pay much less for rent, meals, transport, drinks, and so on. For instance, Cubans only pay 2 cents for a city bus ticket, 4 cents for a movie ticket, 25 cents for a concert ticket, 20 cents for a meal in a subsidized restaurant, 10 cents for a cola, 20 cents for a mojito in a Cuban bar. But here’s the thing:  Cubans only earn $20-$25 a month. Ten cents for a cola seems very low to us, but not to Cubans, who have less than a dollar to spend each day. And those “low” prices are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government. As a tourist you shouldn’t be claiming a Cuban government subsidy that you didn’t earn. You shouldn’t expect Cuba to subsidize your vacation!

Cubans themselves will often encourage you to take advantage of the subsidized Cuban prices. “Why should you pay $25 for a concert ticket when my ticket only costs 25 cents?” they’ll say. “It’s the same ticket.”

The answer is that paying the subsidized local price means cheating Cuba, and it’s just not honorable to cheat one’s host. If you love Cuba, you won’t want to live on a shoestring. Prices are reasonable enough without that.

 

The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana

While wandering down Obispo in Havana’s picturesque pedestrian zone, Julian and I came upon a hotel with considerable character called ‘Ambos Mundos’.
“What does that mean?” I asked my Cuban friend.
“Yes, it’s a strange name,” he answered, “It means ‘both worlds’, as in the best of both worlds.”

It turns out that Ernest Hemingway, the American author most closely connected with Cuba, lived at the Ambos Mundos from 1932 to 1939. It’s where he started writing his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls Continue reading The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana