Journey to the provincial heart
Cuba: Journey to the provincial heart
Lydia Bell sets out on a road trip, accompanied by her husband, assorted
hitchhikers and a pig.
By Lydia Bell
Published: 8:00AM GMT 07 Feb 2010
We are in the heart of Cuba, the middle of this long streak of island,
and in search of the country's provincial face and a gentler pace than
urban Havana. In a country where a vehicle is a precious commodity,
hitchhiking is popular. In the mind-numbing heat, those waiting for a
ride are found killing time in patches of shade. If I drive past someone
hitching, my Cuban husband tuts in reproach.
Searching for the provincial heart of Cuba, we start in the northern
peninsula of Varadero, two hours east of Havana. It has an endless and
exquisite white-sand beach spotted with palms, and turquoise seas. But
it's the land of the all-inclusive hotel and has precious little local
flavour. It is easy to leave behind the poolside bingo, stale buffets
and cabaret dancers in cerise Spandex.
The road out of Varadero is plastered with revolutionary slogans.
Patriotismo o muerte (Patriotism or death). Revolución para siempre
(Revolution forever). It reads strangely this close to the
self-indulgences of Varadero. Quickly, the bitumen peters out into
potholed pathway as we amble through modest villages. After two hours we
are in Cienfuegos, a port city on the south coast.
Our hotel is Palacio Azul on Punta Gorda, a well-to-do neighbourhood
that's a horse-drawn clip-clop from the centre, which looks like
suburban Florida. This tiny hotel, built in 1921 as the home of a
tobacco baron, becomes one of my favourite in Cuba, with a tight-knit
staff, elegant colonial décor and dreamy balcony views over the
Next door, at Club Cienfuegos, which stands alone like a white wedding
cake, we can hear the afternoon són bands plucking away. An adolescent
hustler on a pushbike screeches to a halt beside us. We arrange for him
to pick us up later so we can check out some paladares (private
restaurants). This will set the tone for most of our evenings in the
Central Provinces: being whisked around by jineteros (hustlers). They
get a bad rap, but their commissions are small and they are helpful.
This one secures me a £4 seafood grill in a cosy paladar decorated with
wall-mounted crustaceans. I can't reveal the location, as it's illegal –
but you'll find it if you want to.
Cienfuegos was settled late for Cuba in 1819. The streets are spacious
compared with the claustrophobic small-scale chaos of other Cuban
provincial capitals, and Cubans from Havana often cite this city as the
most beautiful and clean in Cuba. It retains an unsullied local air and
is old-fashioned, with horse-drawn carriages the favoured transport. On
the Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba, people-watching seems
to be the only activity.
That evening we discover pretty Parque José Martí, the main square,
dominated by the beautiful Catedral de la Purísma Concepción and the
lively social scene at Teatro Tomas Terry's patio (the theatre itself,
an 1890 frescoed museum piece, is unaltered down to the dinky wooden
seats). We take in romantic bay views from the rooftop of Hotel La
Union, a pistachio-green colonial renovation with neo-classical pool
sculptures. We pass Estrella, a star-shaped corrugated roof under which
the youth of Cienfuegos have erected a sound system and are blasting
reggaetón, urban music that has ousted salsa for the Cuban under-25s. It
comes with perreo, an explicit back-to-front dancing similar to Jamaican
whining, and not for the faint hearted.
After a couple of pleasantly non-descript days we leave for Trinidad. We
go via Cienfuegos' Botanical Gardens, a little way out of town, a
tropical park of palms, orchids and bamboos. They have 2,000 species of
plants, we learn from the under-used guide, who devotes himself to
interpreting everything from the creaking bamboo cathedral to the Latin
cacti and Australian eucalyptus. Why such an Eden-like garden so far
from the beaten track? It was founded in 1899 by an American sugar baron
who procured Harvard support to experiment with growing sugarcane from
seed, then branched out into collecting specimen plants.
To reach Trinidad we edge through the foothills of the palm-smothered
Escambray mountains, then dip down to the coast, passing quiet villages
backed by mountains and roads criss-crossed by giant crabs. Without
twentysomething Abelito in the car (going to visit his mother in
Trinidad), we would have got lost. There is a dearth of road signs.
Trinidad is simply the most handsome town in Cuba, in one of the most
idyllic provinces, Sancti Spiritus. Founded by Diego Velázquez in 1514,
the giant village – for that's all it really is – is wedged between the
towering Escambray range and shimmering coast. From here, Hermán Cortés
recruited soldiers for the conquest of Mexico and it became an important
colonial town, which grew fat on sugar between 1750 and 1850, when its
lavishly beautiful valleys were dotted with scores of sugar mills. When
the slaves were freed, fortunes dipped and Trinidad stopped growing.
Today, it's an exquisitely preserved museum piece of cobblestone streets
and sumptuous squares. Walk a few streets and the village peters out
into red earth, drooping palms and mountains. Drive five miles and you
reach a perfect stretch of beach, Peninsula Ancon. We visit Museo
Romántico – an old merchant home now a colonial museum, with Italian
marble floors and fireplaces, Viennese bureaux, Limoges and
Wedgwood-packed French dressers. We go in search of views: the precious
one of red-tiled roofs, sea and mountain from the bell tower of the
Museo de la Lucha and of the soaring countryside from the ruined church
of Ermita de Nuestra Señora.
At night, Trinidad is subdued. Jineteros emerge from the shadows,
directing you to paladares. Things come alive late at the Casa de la
Musica, which has unremarkable salsa but an unmatchably romantic setting
at the hiatus of a grand stone stairwell. Wrought-iron chairs and tables
are set out; people sit on the stairs and watch those dancing below.
Because we have a car, we choose to stay in Peninsula Ancon, at the
jolly Costasur hotel, where you step out of your cabana onto white sand.
Next stop, Santa Clara, capital of Villa Clara province and home to the
Che Guevara memorial, the Battle of Santa Clara being a key point in the
revolutionary war of 1958. Instead of crossing the Topes de Collantes
range, we will have to go around it. But it's no penance – we drive
through the stunning Valle de los Ingenios that made Trinidad super rich
with sugar fields. We buy pastilla de guayabo (guava pies) from a farmer
at the side of the road, whose soporific horse is tethered to a palm. We
pass through villages, glimpsing a rural life lost in the rest of the
Caribbean: oxen ploughing fields; farmers sowing crops by hand or on
horses in spurs, cigar in mouth. People on foot, in horse-drawn
carriages, or standing up in a Thirties American truck belching black smoke.
Santa Clara feels workaday, its buildings in shades of peeling pastel,
but the town has life and history. The university is dominant,
especially its medical school. Students throng the humming streets, many
sporting white coats and stethescopes. The town's centre is Parque
Vidal, full of courting lovers, seated old men and giggling
schoolchildren. A library, housed in a sleepy building of faded
grandeur, backs onto the square. In a delicately tiled room for Braille
readers at the front, a blind boy is playing the piano like a virtuoso.
There is the Museo de Artes Decorativas. Its chinoiserie screens, ornate
mahogany furniture, enamel-encrusted escritoires and English china speak
of a richer, pre-Revolutionary past.
At the Plaza de la Revolución, schoolchildren swarm the vast parade
ground. Its monuments – including a giant bronze of Guevara – are
inscribed with his rousing words. The space sings with melancholy. Below
the square, a museum is dedicated to Guevara's life, his photos and
belongings. Next door, an eternal flame marks the place where he and 16
of the men from his failed 1967 Bolivia campaign are buried. We visit El
Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, where the rebels derailed a train
full of government troops. We are staying out of town in Villa La
Granjita, which has thatched cabanas, an open-air restaurant and a pool
in landscaped surrounds – a bucolic respite from the featureless town.
Next morning we leave for our final destination: Camagüey, four hours
down the carretera through flat plains, criss-crossing over railway
lines choked with weeds and down empty potholed motorways with horses in
the slow lane and dogs sleeping undisturbed on the central reservation.
Cuba's third-largest city – which still feels like a village – is
enchanting, especially the Colón hotel, where we are staying. Built in
1927 and apparently unaltered since, it has a mysterious air and an
elaborate mahogany bar. We arrive on a Saturday, the night of the weekly
street party. There are trestle tables, pigs on spits, numerous children
and the ubiquitous reggaetón.
Camagüey is full of blind alleys and forked streets – a deliberate ploy
to foil the pirates who plagued this part of Cuba in the 16th century.
Away from the main drag, the town is deserted, its streets of genteel
terraced houses slinking away down the next curve, where you might find
in a quiet square a ruined church with a once-grandiose façade, and two
There are handfuls of pretty churches. We look into Iglesia de la
Soledad, which throngs with people – Catholicism and other Christian
denominations have been on the up since the Pope visited in 1996. My
favourite is in Plaza San Juan de Dios, where a white-faced, lachrymose
virgin is trapped in a vast mahogany case, along with other holy
characters. Opposite the church, the town's best state restaurant, La
Campana del Toledo, is the place for a long, lazy lunch: with polished
wooden tables, tangled tropical gardens and old men serenading local
songs. At Bodegón Don Cayetano on Calle República, which has a pretty
tiled patio with plenty of local trade, we eat a delicious gambas
enchillada for £2.50. Spanish flags fall from the ceiling and locals
cluster around the bar.
On Sunday afternoon we find the casino campestre, the urban park, where
we chance upon a little zoo, which costs 70 Cuban cents (about 1p) for
both of us. Here, we find a decent pizza stall, a pond full of
flamingoes, a range of primates and, unexpectedly, a glossy puma, a
lion, three lionesses and cubs. Across the road is the Plaza de la
Revolución, reverberatingly empty but for a group of adolescents, kitted
out in full all-American regalia and engaged in a baseball game of some
skill. Unbelievably, we come across Pedro, our ancient hitcher, sans
pig. "Mañana!" he reminds us delightedly.
"Mis cumpleaños 80!"
So the pig's time is over then. And so is ours. Tomorrow we hit the road
again, this time back to Havana and then on to the modern world. We have
grown attached to the simple charms of the provinces. On our way home we
stop in Plaza Ignacio Agramonte and join the locals on the marble
benches. We stay there until the sun fades then walk back through silent
Cuba: Journey to the provincial heart – Telegraph (7 February 2010)