Day 11 – Trinidad de Cuba: Today most of us have opted to go on an unscheduled outing to Salto Javira, a small, local waterfall. As always, Valeri has generously come with us as unofficial tour leader. Unlike the previous day today’s hike is relatively a breeze – only 1.5 hours along pretty easy paths. Along the way we attempt to catch sight of some elusive creatures – lizards, butterflies, woodpeckers, vultures and the very shy Tocororo, Cuba’s national bird. For brief moments we do indeed catch long distance glimpses of the small, read, black and white bird. Beautiful.
When we reach the waterfall there is limit space and we have to share the area with two other groups of Canadians and french visitors. Having set up base camp we go for a swim under the waterfall. After about a couple of hours we leave the space to other groups and return.
Upon arrival back in town a few of us rush to investigate the possibility of a spot of snorkelling off the coast. We book a trip and told we need to be there by 3:30pm and we rush to Trinidad’s sprawling beach, Playa Ancon. It is a gorgeous beach, unusually for Cuba, covered in soft(ish) white sand. With some help we locate the man with the boat, who stared at our receipt for a good 2 minutes. Clearly he’s never seen anything like it before. Eventually he agrees to take us out for an hour. The Carribbean waters are at a superb temperature but are choppy. When we arrive at the snorkelling spot, I succumb to a rare panic attack and struggle back to the boat to sit it out. Even so, it’s beautiful to be out in the open waters. Returning to the beach we take the time for a drink at a bar with Cuba’s surliest barman.
Dinner tonight is at a place called Vista Gourmet, which has no sign and clientele find it through word of mouth. I order the lobster again and although it is monstrous in size, it is also unfortunately overcooked and oversalted. Such a waste. Their Pica Coladas, however, are the best I’ve had on the island. The rest of the food, though, is fab, as is the price. Oddly they have set up a large screen alternatively playing a silent Buena Vista Social Club and scenes from the kitchen.
After dinner some of us head back to catch the goings on back at the Casa de la Musica before calling it a night.
Day 12 – Trinidad de Cuba: It’s another free day here in the beautiful Trinidad and I have arranged a sightseeing walk with one of the girls. As per the previous days, I am expecting another hot day. This is verified by the temperature even at this early hour. The main square in town, the Plaza Mayor, is literally surrounded on all sides by museums and historical buildings. It’s a beautifully preserved space. Our first stop is the bell tower of the Iglesia de San Francisco, which is a bit of a disappointment, as we are only allowed up to the first level. The attached museum isn’t much better. We cross the road to the Templ Yemalla, a ‘church’ dedicated to Santeria Yemalla, the godess of the sea. As far as I know it is an Afro-Cuban religion loosely based on Christianity mixed with some African religion. In the empty front room sits a chair, on top of which sits an African baby doll dressed in a long with gown. I don’t mean to sound insensitive to other religions but it just looks creepy.
We move on to the Museo Historico Municipal where we potter around for a while, exploring the old photos and war artifacts and read up on the history of the place. Next up is the adjoining tower of the Palacio Cantero, which offers some nice views of the township. Yet another museum beckons but I have had my fill of looking at photos of men in green fatigues.
We decide then to walk up a forlorn hill towards the Ermita de la Popa, beautifully rustic ruins of a church. I had seen its image online before arriving and had been looking forward to photographing it. Alas, when we arrive the place is supported and surrounded by scaffolding and the sun is in the wrong spot. If I had done my research properly which I normally do I would have know that. As it is, it look like the sort of place that would look amazing at sunset. Unfortunately this is our last day in Trinidad and we have a beach party this evening. C’est la vie.
Making our way back to Plaza Mayor, my walking companion goes off to explore yet another museum while I go to deal with my heat stress. Upon her return we go off to see the Church of the Holy Trinity, which sits proudly at the top of the square. Fortunately we have arrived 10 minutes before a large group of noisy tourists and I manage to take my photos people-free. Having had our fill of historical sights, we move on to El Palenque de los Congos Reales, a local watering hole with frequent shows featuring Afro-Cuban music and dancing. As we arrive the dancers are in mid rehearsal. I decide to have their special cocktail, the Trinidad Special, which is oddly cheaper than the fruit juice. It’s a testament to how cheap rum is over here. Suddenly a group of French tourists arrive and the show begins in earnest. It’s predictably aimed at tourists but there are far worse ways to spend half an hour.
After the show we wander off to check out the local handicrafts market, which is just a tad disappointing, given the similarity between the wares been sold, which can be categorised as tablecloths, wooden cars, wooden boxes and beer can sculptures.
Later in the afternoon we all meet at Jesus’ house to make ready for our sunset beach party at Playa Ancon. For some reason our bus driver Manuel has gone AWOL. Fortunately another busload of tourists have arrived at Jesus’s place and we pay their driver to take us to the beach. Upon arrival I waste no time in going for a swim in the beautiful Carribbean waters. As so often in Cuba whatever lies beneath makes life just that little bit difficult. In this case they come in the form of smooth rocks ranging from very large to quite small. The water temperature however, is absolutely perfect.
Jesus has sent his musical trio along and with drinks and nibblies, a very pleasant evening is had by all. Eventually Manuel shows up – apparently he had a flat returning from another job in Santa Clara. We are glad he could make it. Jesus rolls up eventually with our dinner, the hero of which are two backed snappers. The sunset across the turquoise waters is stunning.
Upon our return to Trinidad some of us venture out to the Casa de la Trova, having had our fill of the Casa de la Musica steps. Then, against my better judgement, I follow them to a nearby club, the Disco Ayala, built entirely inside a real cave system. It’s an interesting experience and the music is pumping. We are home by 2am.
Day 13 – Cienfuegos: We leave for Cienfuegos this morning. On the way we pass through a coast road alongside the amazing waters of the Carribbean. What we see along the road is a neverending trail of smashed crabs. Our first stop is the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens. What we have in store today is quite different to what we’ve been doing up till now. There is nothing specifically cultural but it is quite relaxingly pleasant walking through the gardens with a local guide, pointing out various trees. From here we go see the Che Guevara memorial and then on to Santa Clara and for a brief stop at Tren Blindado, a memorial to one of Che’s greatest triumphs over Batista’s troops.
Arriving at Cienfuegos, we discover all our homestay casas are all over the place. My particular casa is nice, in a not particularly great area. But we’re only here for one night. We are all picked up later for a quick orientation of Cienfuegos. Alas we are a bit behind schedule and as we reach Parque Martí the sun begins to go down. We go on to Palacio del Vale, a gorgeous Alhambra-esque mansion which today houses a restaurant. I take a look at the prices and it is very affordable but in Cuban terms it is too expensive for us.
We instead dine at Restaurante Bahia, a privately owned restaurant. Once again I order a lobster dish, hoping for the best. Thankfully we have found one chef has treated the lobster with complete respect and it is delicious.
Day 14 – Havana: I am glad that Valeri has acquiesced to my request for another 30 minutes in Parque Martí this morning so we can take our photos in the sunshine. After this and a brief stop at Cienfuegos’ malecón, we head off for Havana. Our next stop is Museo Giron, a war museum dedicated to the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Back on the road we come across more dead crabs. Manuel stops the bus and we get out. The air stinks of crab. On the coast side of the road we find the little red land crabs hiding in holes in the rocks. On the other side the crabs which have made it across without getting run over are climbing up several trees. Bizarre behaviour. Next we are at La Cueva de los Peces, or as Valeri calls it, the Hole of Fish. The water in the ‘hole’ looks a tad on the manky side and none of us are game enough to go swimming in there. The waters of the actual bay itself, however, are another matter. The waters are a brilliant, almost luminescent aqua, and could not be more inviting. However, I resist the temptation, deeming the 30 minute swim not worth the effort of getting undressed and dressed again.
Moving on, we stop at a crocodile farm next. It appears most of us have gotten a little used to the cheap as chips lifestyle as we deem the 5 peso entree fee a way too high price to pay. So we move on to try getting lunch here which appears to be a difficult thing to negotiate. None of us feel like a full meal and the only other thing they are prepared to serve us beyond this are hot dogs and ham and cheese sandwiches.
Back on the bus Valeri tells us that we still have 2 full bottles of rum left. So happy hour begins as we make some makeshift glasses from used water bottles. The rum is plentiful but the cola not so. As usual in Cuba, the rum quantity out numbers the cola quantity by about 3 to 1. Not long we come across a little place called Australia! We visit a shed holding a few locomotives with Australia written on them. The guys working there are more than happy to see us and greet us warmly and take photos for us.
By the time we reach Havana I am half tanked on very strong rum and cokes. We are deposited at the substandard Hotel Victoria once more and say our farewells to a few travel mates who are going to the Tropicana tonight and will be gone by morning. After a substandard dinner the rest of us head off to a high rise for night caps at the roof bar.
Day 15 – Havana: The day begins with an included tour of Old Havana, with local guide Juan Carlos, who’s very knowledgeable and was once a Paralympian to boot. We begin at Plaza de Armas, walk around Habana Vieja and end up at Plaza de Cathedral, seeing pretty much everything I had seen on my first day in Havana, except this time with commentary. Some of us decide to have an early lunch at a beer hall at Plaza Vieja, where the service is lousy but the burgers are good.
I head of with a friend to do a little more exploring, trying to find the handicrafts market with no success. But we do stumble across a photographer’s studio with some outstanding work on display. I decide to pop into Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway had a room. I survey the rooftop view first before making my way down to Hemingway’s room. The door is closed so I knock, and am drafted into a mini tour of the tiny room. It’s the room with the best view but it is miniscule. Ah to be in the presence of greatness.
With the day’s sightseeing done, I decide to go in search of local pesos.I have decided belatedly to collect each denomination of the local peso. Oddly enough, I hear the convertible peso is the currency more in danger of extinction. But the local stuff is cooler. So armed with a map with locations of banks and cambios, I go on the great currency hunt. After a long, hot expedition, during which I didn’t find a taxi, I thankfully make it back to the hotel for a shower and rest.
Later that afternoon we walk over to the Hotel Nacional for pre dinner sunset drinks in the back courtyard, where Valeri’s girlfriend has joined us. Life does not get much better than this, and neither do Pina Coladas. Dinner tonight is at a restaurant nearby, where the fixed price menu is astoundingly cheap – the cost of a main, a dessert (one scoop of ice-cream) and a non-alcoholic drink is a mere $3.50. And the mains are huge. My schnitzel is massive, and is surrounded by a mound of congri and fried plantains. I can’t even finish my meal, which is a rare moment. After dinner we say some sad farewells and the rest of us head to the Malecón for more illicit drinking. Apparently there is STILL more rum left. As we call it a night we say one more farewell, this time to our amazing guide Valeri and his girlfriend.
Day 16 – Havana: This is officially the end of the tour. There are still some of us left, and we spend the day at the the enormous fort across the bay and riding in a big American car. It has been an exhausting but thoroughly amazing trip and I have had a ball. I would love to come back one day.