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?

Ernesto and the big snake

The first time he took us to Lake Hanabanilla, our taxi driver Ernesto negotiated us a great deal with a motorboat driver ($25 for the day) and we started off on the two-hour ride to the waterfall at the other end of the lake. After we’d explored the waterfalls and were on our way back down the lake, our boatman steered close to the limestone cliffs on the far side. Then, he cut the motor, stood up, and seemed to be searching the narrow, sun-baked ledges.

Boat trip on Hanabanilla
Cuban friends Ernesto, Julian and the boatman on Lake Hanabanilla

Finally, after a bit more ledge study, he said something about a “maja de Santa Maria”. At those words, Ernesto became electrified and started fumbling in his backpack. With an old camcorder in his stubby fingers, he stumbled up onto the prow of the motorboat, which was still bobbing around in its own wake.

While Ernesto was balancing on the prow, trying to video something, I asked my friend Julian what a “maja de Santa Maria” was. I couldn’t see anything. “A snake – a really big snake” was his answer. It turned out to be a Cuban boa (see note below).

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Then I saw it. The snake was at least 6 – if not 8 – feet long. It had been lying, looped over itself, on a ledge a little above our heads, but with all the commotion of the motor and human voices, it had started to slowly  unwind itself and slither along the ledge. Continue reading Ernesto and the big snake

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. Continue reading A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

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. Continue reading What is it about vintage cars? 

The Bay of Pigs and tropical fish

Ernesto, our private taxi driver, let the car glide along the southern coastal road towards Cienfuegos. Behind us was the Great Zapata swamp, where we’d just spent the whole morning visiting the crocodile farm and boating to islands in Treasure Lagoon. I didn’t realize we were driving around the infamous Bay of Pigs until I noticed humongous billboards blaring slogans (in Spanish) like:

A decisive battle in the victory of socialism was fought here
or:
This is as far as the mercenaries got
and best of all:
Giron: First defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America

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Deep in conversation, Ernesto and Julian let the billboards slip by without comment, but I could scarcely believe my eyes. I’d certainly heard of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, but never thought I’d be driving past its patriotic commemoration.

Shortly afterwards, Ernesto pulled into the driveway of a free-standing house and got out to chat with a friend who was busy mixing cement for the walls of the new tourist bedroom. The friend directed Ernesto to “the best and cheapest restaurant”, where we found a table in the shade and enjoyed another great, late lunch of very fresh fish, rice and beans, vegetables and salad, accompanied by beer and coffee. Price for the three of us: $18.

Speaking of fish, the Caribbean is famous for its colourful tropical fish, and Cuba has some of the most unspoiled  reefs. I’m a bit nervous about scuba-diving but enjoy snorkelling,  so I was really delighted when Ernesto stopped off at the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) a little way beyond Playa Giron. A short path inland from the road leads to what looks like a small lake.Cueva Peces

Except it isn’t a lake, it’s a limestone sinkhole that goes down 72 meters and is full of salt water. Yes, due to a geological anomaly, sea water enters the cave underground, bringing with it schools of tropical fish from the nearby Caribbean. This means that lily-livered divers like me can rent equipment lakeside and happily snorkel on the deep blue surface of this salt-water lake, gazing down at dozens of yellow, purple, turquoise and blue tropical fish. It was paradise and there was almost nobody there.

 

 

The Cuban national bird and how to find it

Cuba is home to many exotic-looking birds, so it’s not really surprising that the Cuban national bird is colourful. It’s called the tocororo (to co RO ro).

The tocororo’s plumage may be exotic, but the bird can be found in forests all over Cuba. I came upon my first tocororo in a dry jungle in the Escambray mountains, near Topes de Collantes. Ernesto, our taxi driver, guide and friend, had taken us there for a refreshing walk before swooping down to sub-tropical Trinidad on the Caribbean coast.

You hear a tocororo before you see one; its call is a low, bubbling warble. Ernesto knew right away and stopped me in my tracks, whispering “Tocororo!” He then silently led me to within ten feet of the bird, which was sitting on a branch over the path. Fumbling with my daypack in excitement, I somehow whipped out my camera and took as many between-leaf shots as I could before the bird flew away. One of them is posted above. As you can see, tocororos are dark blue, white and cherry-red, with navy and white polka-dot wings and a very attractive forked tail. What you can’t see is that they also have an iridescent blue-green back.

For a better idea of the back, check out this much more professional photo.

A trip to Cuba’s Northern Keys

I expected Santa Clara to be a boring place to stay for a week, but I had to because it’s where my Cuban friend lives. Sure, it has Che Guevara’s mausoleum, but that’s something you can see in half a day. Then what?

Well, as it turned out, I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my tourist HQ. By hiring Ernesto, the taxi driver recommended by my BnB hosts, my friend and I went on daily excursions to the nearby Escambray mountains, to the Northern Keys, to the great Zapata Swamp (crocodiles), and to all kinds of picturesque places in between, like Trinidad, Remedios and Cienfuegos. At prices lower than what tickets for a Cuban bus tour would have cost, we had our own private chauffeur who always found authentic places to stop for lunch, showed us the wonders of Cuban nature, told us lots about farming in Cuba – and even took us back to his house for a coffee at the end of the day.

On our first excursion to the Northern coast, I was blown away by the calm turquoise of the water and the whiteness of the sand. The place was totally unspoiled! As we drove along the narrow causeway over the tiny islands called keys – an empty road that seemed to be afloat – all I wanted to do was get into that warm water. Ernesto took us to Las Brujas, where we had lunch at the one and only restaurant. After that he withdrew to his taxi for a siesta, while we each dealt with the long white beach in our own way. I wasted no time going in for a dip and then walking along the empty beach for a mile in each direction. My Cuban friend, Julian, dragged a sunbed into palm-shade and settled down to read a book with his eyes closed and listen to the wavelets lapping the white sands.

On the way back to Santa Clara, we stopped at a private home where Ernesto knew we could buy great tropical fruit: papayas, guavas, pineapple. The prices were low and the quality was fantastic. We filled two bags and started the one-hour drive back to the BnB, where supper was waiting.

Hanabanilla: Lake trip with lunch

I knew that Cuba has masses of coastline, but I hadn’t heard anything about its lakes, of which there are a surprising number. My next excursion with taxi driver Ernesto took us to Lake Hanabanilla (pronounced Ha na bah nee ya), a long, winding artificial lake to the south of Santa Clara in the Sierra de Escambray mountains. We were going on a boat trip.

Ernesto picked us up early and we headed south along a road that started rising into thick forest. The temperature immediately dropped ten degrees, springs gushed out of rocks and we could hear birds singing in the trees overhead. Ernesto said this was the place he always drove to for family picnics in the summer. Then we caught our first glimpse of the lake: actually a very wide dammed up river surrounded by dark green mountains. No buildings – just landscape.

Twenty minutes later we were in a motor-boat chugging towards the far end of the lake, where there was supposed to be a spectacular waterfall. Ernesto had hired a boatman  for $25, and had arranged for us to eat lunch for $3 each in a peasant cabin high above the lake on the way back from visiting the waterfall.

So here we were, sedately making our way uplake, photographing the tall palms, the wild limestone formations, the water birds, and soaking up the silence. It took nearly two hours to get to the other end, but it was worth it. The deep pools at the bottom of the waterfall were a clear, dark emerald – ideal for a dip. We were the only people there, except for a peasant woman and her son, who had ventured down the mountain to catch a glimpse of exotic tourists.

On the way back, our boatman cut the motor and pointed out Marta’s cabin far above the lake’s sapphire surface, so we jumped ashore and stumbled up a winding path to find our table under palm branches. Cold beers for all and a gorgeous view of lake and sky while Marta and her helper prepared the trout. Then came fishing stories from the boatman, animal stories from Ernesto and school stories from Julian – all in Spanish. I was pleased just to laugh in the right places. Lunch was of course delicious and left us feeling content to be ferried back to the little dock and thence to Santa Clara by our faithful and endlessly resourceful taxista, Ernesto.

 

 

Independent travel in Cuba is easier than you think

Cuba is an attractive vacation option for North Americans and Europeans alike. It’s safe, flights are regular and available, the weather’s fantastic, the people are charming and the countryside is unspoiled.

One of the first decisions you have to make as a prospective visitor is whether you want to sample the country or just lie on another gorgeous beach. If the white-sand-and-turquoise-water aspect is the only thing about Cuba that attracts you, book a hassle-free resort package and you’ll have a great time, surrounded by dozens of (other?) friendly, polite Canadians. If, on the other hand, you want to meet real Cubans, explore the natural wonders of the interior as well as the coast, experience the colonial charm and pulsing local nightspots of Cuban towns, or sample delicious Cuban home-cooked meals… you could book a simple return flight to Havana or Santa Clara or Holguin, and tour the country from there.

Cuban B&Bs, called casas particulares or hostales, are now listed on websites like Trip Advisor and AirBnB, so you can and should book your room before you leave home. These places are where you’ll meet your first Cubans – your host family. They’ll arrange for a pick up at the airport, serve you better food than in a restaurant and help you arrange long distance taxi rides that are more flexible, faster and usually cheaper than traveling in a crowded tourist bus. Talk to them, trust them, and they’ll make your visit memorable. Other possible modes of transport are car rental and organized bus tours, but they’re much more expensive.

Many Cubans now have email and cell phones, so it’s much easier to arrange accommodation and transport today than it was even 3 years ago.