Day 6 – Santiago de Cuba: Today we bid a sad farewell to Baracoa. We are introduced to Manuel, our bus driver for the rest of the trip. Thankfully we exchange the trick for a small bus. We hit the road and for our first stop we visit a rickety platform in the middle of nowhere. There are steps missing, making the climb just that little bit more perilous. There is no way a structure like this would be allowed to stay in the first world – a lawsuit waiting to happen. Anyway, once on top of this platform, one gets a first class view of La Farola (the winding road between Baracoa and Santiago), as well as both the Atlantic and the Carribbean. Down below we are inundated by locals either wanting to sell us fruit and/or chocolate or asking for soap.
We pass through the infamous Guantanamo, and we are told not to take photos. I don’t think we pass even close to the US prison but everyone is so sensitive these days. Stopping by Hotel Guantanamo for our lunch stop we find the food offerings ‘modest’ to say the least. I instead settle on an ice-cream and a Mojito. I am attempting to have at least one a day and at Cuban prices this is not that difficult a task, unless everyone starts making it the way this bartender makes it. This Mojito is at least 60% rum, which is sooooooo cheap in Cuba.
As we arrive into Santiago we are greeted by a bustling city, in the process of sprucing up in preparation for a papal visit. We are assigned our homestays, all around the corner from each other. After freshening up we reconvene to go for an orientation walk through Santiago, ending up on the rooftop of the iconic Hotel Grande for drinks. It’s a beautiful view up here as we watch the sun set behind distant rain clouds.
Later we meet on the rooftop terrace of one of the homestays for dinner. We have all pre-ordered our meals but the service is shambolic at best. A soup first which we weren’t expecting arrives, which causes some confusion. The the rice arrives which causes even more confusion. Eventually our mains arrive but some of us have already eaten the rice. The theme continues when the authorities arrive. As it turns out, they are homestay inspectors and the owners of this particular home have rented out one too many rooms. It must be said that these inspectors went out of their way to make us feel welcome. But I guess the owner was the one in hot water. Anyway as it happens, one of us has to be housed elsewhere, which isn’t a big drama.
Afterwards we go visit Santiago’s famed Casa de la Trova. The music, as always, is great but the place is crowded, mostly with German and French tourists, and local gigolos looking for dances with lonely foreign spinsters. They’ve never seen so much action.
Day 7 – Santiago de Cuba: The day begins with an included tour of Santiago and its sights. Our first stop is Cuartel Moncada, once an army barracks which Fidel Castro tried to storm but failed. These days it is a school and museum, and oddly riddled with fake bulletholes. Our on-site guide is dull and charmless, reciting her spiel by rote. From here we move on to Santiago’s cemetery, an expansive place, home to a few famous corpses. Our guide Idania is a lot more charismatic than the last. She takes us first to see the changing of the guards at José Marti’s mausoleum, then onto several famous graves.
As lunchtime approaches we go in search of food. Today it’s street pizza. We have come to discover that Cuban pizzas come in 3 basic forms – with cheese, with ham or with cheese and ham. We appeared to have hit the jackpot today as we come across a man who also has onions. We all order pizzas with the lot which sends the guy into a spin. Though it’s probably a huge sale for him, we only pay 20¢ apiece. Ridiculous really. From here we make a short pit stop at a rum factory outlet. No need really as rum in this country is probably cheaper than water. It is the cigars on offer that are more interest to us. We then visit Plaza de la Revolución again, this time on foot, to check out the huge Antonio Maceo monument and the preparations for the papal visit. All the locals seem to be abuzz with excitement.
Our next stop is El Morro (officially the Castillo de San Pedro de la Rocca), a large fortress overlooking the bay and UNESCO heritage site. The views of the bay are magnificent and it is an impressive and enjoyable fort to explore. Unless, of course, you take into account the extreme heat and humidity, which has taken its toll on me. I wander around the ramparts in a daze of heatstroke. Desperately I seek out shade and a Coke at the souvenir stands. Shopping has never come as more of a relief. By the time we are dropped off back in central Santiago I am exhausted. But more sightseeing awaits. It is now our free time but dutifully I venture into the Casa de Diego Valezquez for a poke around. It is Cuba’s oldest standing house and the official residence of the island’s first governor. The colonial house is superb and well worth the visit. From here I pop into the Bacardi museum with a friend whilst others go elsewhere to explore. It is a testament to my ignorance that I thought it was going to be a museum dedicated to rum. It is in fact a museum housing all manner of artifacts, curiosities and art brought back by Emilio Bacardi from his travels, the highlight of which (for me) is my first view of a shrunken head. It is a fascinating collection but my energy levels have reached rock bottom and I am struggling to stand up. With the last vestige of strength I have left I make it to the Hotel Casa Grande for a Pina Colada and watch the world go by. After a while I am joined by several of my tour mates and we venture to the cathedral to spend some time there.
Later that night I am invited to dine with two of the girls at their homestay. I knock on the front door and at that precise second the entire street goes black. Santiago is in blackout. A floating, glowing mobile phone greets me in the darkness. I manage to explain my way in and dine with my friends by candlelight. The lights return just in time for our outing tonight, this time to pay a visit to the Casa de las Traducciones, which is apparently less touristy than the Casa de la Trova. We arrive at a small venue, but alas no less touristy. The spinsters and gigolos have found this place too. Nevertheless the live music is great and the rum is plentiful.
Day 8 – Camagüey: We leave Santiago this morning and head for hopefully cooler temps in Camagüey, hometown of our guide Valeri. It is a long drive and by the time we arrive it is late afternoon. The city is a colourful maze of streets with amazing, ornate doors. As always, the first business upon arrival is to show us to our homestays. After a bit of a rest and a shower we reassemble to venture out for a meal on the town. The venue is a Spanish place called Mesón del Príncipe. The pretty surroundings promises a night of great food and a pleasurable dining experience. Alas, like a lot of Cuban restaurants, this is not backed up by either the food or the service.
We are informed of a ‘cultural show’ on tonight and we have all pre-bought our tickets, expecting some kind of highfalutin event. What we actually served up is some kind of children’s glee show, attended primarily by friends and families. I struggle to stay awake during the concert and am thankful it lasts less than an hour. Outside the hall we are greeted by Valeri and our pretty local guide for tomorrow, Imara. We are then invited to go to a small plaza to watch another crap show with the promise of a salsa show to follow. Sadly this doesn’t eventuate and most of us have had enough. Valeri, ever the party man, asks if we want to go elsewhere but the bulk of us call it a night. I stop off for a nightcap at Café Cuidad at Parque Ignacio Agramonte with one of the girls before too calling it a night.
Day 9 – Camagüey: Today we start with an included bicitaxi tour of Camagüey, led by the lovely Imara. I ask her if she’s riding along with us and she says, “you can ride with me.” I don’t need a second invitation. The bicitaxis turn out to be a fun way to travel and am glad that we got the chance to try them. Our first stop is a ludicrous 2 minutes away, the wonderfully preserved Plaza de San Juan de Dios. We walk around the plaza a bit and then pop into the Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, the chucrh dedicated to Cuba’s only saint and the only place you can see the Holy Trinity in anamorphic form. Outside a boy is playing stickball in the empty plaza and one of the ubiquitous Cuban vultures soars overhead. Next we step into a local art gallery which features a surprising amount of art created from beer cans.
We jump back on the bicitaxis and head to the local growers’ market, the Mercado Agropecuario. It is a sprawling marketplace filled with beautiful produce. Imara stops to buy some fruits for herself, which I am led to believe are difficult to find in the city itself. Next we head to Plaza de Carmen, where some locals have been immortalised in bronze. There’s a statue there of a guy reading a newspaper and next to it sits the model, still posing for tourists in the hot sun. That would have got old for me after an hour.
Then it’s on to Plaza de los Trabajadores, where a giant neon Ché looks down on us. We hear singing in the air, coming from the performing arts academy. We ask to go in and watch, but are refused. Instead we go inside the Iglesia de la Merced. The church itself is closed but the courtyard offers a respite to the bustling city. A few of us take turns posing inside Tinajons, giant terracotta pots and symbols of the city. The tour ends in Parque Ignació Agramonte, where we say goodbye to the bicitaxis.
After lunch a friend and I go off to explore more of the city. Our first destination is Parque Casino Campeste, Cuba’s largest city park. Walking past the zoo, we cannot resist the 50¢ entry fee and go in. This is one of the saddest zoos I have seen. All the cages are woefully small and the animals all look miserable. Impressively they actually do have a leopard, several lions, hyenas and flamingos. We move on. After another hour or so of exploring we decide to take a break and go souvenir shopping.
Tonight dinner is at an Italian restaurant called La Isabella’s. They take no reservations and let patrons in one by one. They have even locked the door. Once inside we discover once again that the food sadly does not match the decor. We proceed after dinner to a cabaret show. Outside the young and hip of Camagüey have assembled. All the tour guides are here as well and we discover it’s the eve of Imara’s birthday. Inside the show starts with possibly the worst comedian I have ever seen. Admittedly we don’t really speak Spanish but the locals have not warmed to him either. I have never seen any act die as badly with virtually no laughter from the audience. Then the dancers come on and put on a lively, Tropicana style show where the ‘women’ aren’t all that they seem. Much rum is consumed and at midnight the stage is transformed into a dancefloor. Valeri introduces me to an acquaintance, and we get to know each other through the common tongue of dirty dancing. At midnight we are all evicted and some of us move on to a club actually called the Copacabana. The music is pumping, my head is spinning and there’s a large woman assaulting men with her hips. Feeling decidedly light-headed I stagger outside for some fresh air. I seem to have lost all control over my limbs. Heading across the road to a small park I proceed to dry-retch. Thankfully after a while the others appear and we head home at 4am for more dry retching.
Day 10 – Trinidad de Cuba: Understandably I wake today feeling decidedly queasy. I pack my bags, say goodbye to my homestay owner then walk up the street to our waiting bus. Even the act of walking is giving me motion sickness. I decide to err on the side of caution and pop a seasick tablet. We drive off for Trinidad. Our lunch stop today is a roadside restaurant which Valeri claims to have the best Pina Coladas. They don’t, but the hair-of-the-dog works wonders for my head, as does the pork sandwich I’ve ordered.
On the way we stop to potter around the old Manca Iznaga sugar cane plantation. It’s no longer in operation but the property is maintained very well. There is a 7 storey tower which we climb, and gives us wonderful views of the surrounding landscape. Just outside of Trinidad we pay a visit to the home of a local artisan, who specialises in making ceramics. He is famed around Cuba, and we will see his stuff all around town. There’s even a photo of him with Fidel and Raul.
Upon our arrival into Trinidad, we are taken directly to the main homestay casa, owned by a dude called Jesus, a man of many talents. Whilst our respective casa owners are summoned, we are invited to the terrace and served Canchancharras, a strong alcoholic beverage made from rum (what else) and honey. After we settle in at our own casas, we regroup once again for the customary orientation walk around town. Valeri takes us around the charming streets of Trinidad, and stops at a private house where he tells us we can buy cheap cigars. Turns out the guy works at the cigar factory and every so often the employees are given free merchandise. He has a great array to choose from. I myself am actually more interested in a wooden cigar box, rather than the actual cigars themselves. But he won’t sell me one without the cigars. By sunset we have arrived at the Canchancharra place itself, where we indulge in more of the drinks.
I return to my casa to pass out before heading out for dinner. Tonight I am once again a guest at someone else’s casa, Jesus’ place. We are on the terrace and a dinner of lobster is served. With such amazing produce at ridiculous prices it is a shame that so few know how to cook it properly. Tonight it is served a peculiarly local way – butterflied then grilled to within an inch of its life. The result is a very tough, overly salted mess. Such a waste. Impressively, Jesus has organised a waiter for us, as well as a 3 piece band, of which he himself is a member. After dinner I meet the singles of the group and Valeri to visit the local Casa de la Musica, in the middle of the large public stairway, next to the Church of the Holy Trinity. The music is great, the people are dancing and the drinks are flowing. Like most places in Cuba, every night is party night. Although I have regained most of my energy, I am glad to hit the sack.