Varadero & Havana
This year our holiday brought us to the beautiful island of Cuba. To relax from a busy time we first spent some days in the luxury all-inclusive resort Barlovento in Varadero where we had a lovely time. Cuba is famous for its old-timers and just in front of the hotel we saw our first one. In the village park we saw another beautiful one. Barlovento has a couple of pools and the one on the picture is the main one.
Viñales to Santa Clara
In the southwest of the country is a limestone karst area with mogotes (low mountains) and huge caves. In the Cueva del Indio you can even go by boat. The area is named the Viñales valley over which you have a great view from either hotel Los Jazmines or hotel La Ermita where we stayed. In the valley there also is a prehistoric rock painting made in 1961 and a lot of people make long hikes or horseback rides. Transportation is very diverse in Cuba.
It was a long drive from Viñales via Havana to Playa Larga at the Bay of Pigs. About 4.5 hours and we were glad to reach Casa Kiki. It is a lovely casa particular, very close to the beach. It has two nice rooms with all you may need and very tasty and amazingly much food. Playa Larga and Playa Giron are small villages with little infrastructure amidst a swampy wilderness and we really wondered why there was an invasion right here in 1961. Perhaps because of the beautiful diving and snorkeling options? :-) In Playa Giron a little museum commemorates this invasion. After the huge dinner the day before and breakfast that morning at Kiki's we were glad with a small lunch at the local snack bar in Playa Larga, overlooking the fishing harbour.
In spite of all the stories we had heard the autopistas in western and central Cuba are nowadays very reasonable to drive on. Of course you need to be careful, because they are used by everyone. Bicitaxis, horse carts, cyclists, pedestrians, trucks, buses and even cars, you can find them all on the highways. And a hole now and then is normal. But most of the autopistas have 2x3 lanes and the number of cars is minimal.
Santa Clara is well known because of the huge monument of Che Guevara. In front of it is a big square and at the backside a garden and the entrance to the mausoleum for the fallen guerrillas in the failed Bolivian revolution. In 1997 the remains of Che and 16 other guerrillas were recovered in Bolivia and they were reburied in this memorial. Another monument in Santa Clara is the "Monument a la Toma del Tren Blindado". On 29 December 1958 Che Guevara derailed an armored train using a borrowed bulldozer and some home-made Molotov cocktails. Parts of the train and the bulldozer are still on the site. This event sealed the fate of dictator Batista.
Just as a note: we stayed in hotel Granjita about 5 km out of town. It is more like a bungalow park than a hotel. When we were there they had disco on Tuesday night till 03.00 hours. Not a real pleasure when your room is close to the pool where the disco was held.
Cienfuegos & Topes de Collantes
Cienfuegos is an nice and tranquil town on the south coast of Cuba. We stayed in Hotel La Union that is located very close to the Parque José Martí right in the historic center. It has two lovely patios and a pool with Roman statues. Both in the restaurant and on the roof terrace we had a great dinner.
From the roof terrace you have a great view towards the Parque José Martí and the government building. At the Parque is a statue of José Martí, the Casa Cultura with a funny staircase, the Teatro Tomás Terry and the cathedral. Everything is very close to each other and even Punta Gorda at one end of the Cienfuegos Bay can be reached by horse cart. It's only 1 km away from the city center. We were told that from Punta Gorda we could see the old Spanish fortress of Castillo de Jagua, but we didn't find it.
Though not many there are a couple of roads from Cienfuegos to Topes de Collantes. However, it is wise to take the road along the south coast since the road through the mountains from El Nicho onwards is for about 14 km definitely only for 4WD. We made it with our 2WD Renault Scala, but it wasn't great fun. Besides, all roads are very steep. Even in first gear it is sometimes hard to go on. The nature, however, is beautiful.
For those among us who like to hike, this is a wonderful area; steep but challenging. The Hotel Los Helechos is one of the few hotels available in Topes de Collantes. It has been renovated a couple of years ago and is a pleasant place to stay, though if you can't walk there isn't much to do apart from the indoor pool.
Trinidad definitely was one of our highlights in Cuba. We stayed in a beautiful room with a large corner terrace at the Iberostar Hotel. Our room was overlooking the quiet and nice Parque Céspedes. In this area it was possible for us to roll the wheelchair. And again we saw some beautiful old cars. In other parts of the city rolling was very hard to impossible due to the cobble stone streets. Since the Spanish colonial time and the founding of the city in 1514 not much has changed here. To be able to see the city center someone arranged a beautiful horse cart for us to ride us around.
The horse cart driver got special permission from a policeman to go onto the Plaza Mayor because of Jaap's incapability to walk and he dropped us after a very nice tour through the colourful streets of the old city at the top of the Plaza Mayor, in the vicinity of the old bell tower. From there we rolled down the plaza and the cobble stone streets back to the easier to roll pavement near and on Parque Céspedes.
A lot of the cities in Cuba are founded by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuellar in 1511 to 1514. Under the name Santa María del Puerto Principe also present Camagüey was established in that time. Compared to other cities in Cuba where streets are in a geometric pattern Camagüey has a labyrinthine street pattern with narrow winding alleys. The Gran Hotel is at a pedestrian street and a bit difficult to find. If you are by car Edgar, the hotel's car parker and porter will bring your luggage to the hotel and park your car in a garage, since parking in the street nearby is forbidden. From the restaurant on the roof there is a nice view over the city and the shopping street.
We rolled to the pretty and beautifully renovated Plaza del Carmen with the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen. At the square there are several life-sized sculptures of people in their daily business. Some people might be the living equivalent of a sculpture.
From here we decided to take a bicitaxi again. The friendly driver brought us first to the nice Plaza de Juan de Dios where we saw an old man smoking a huge cigar. This can't be healthy, but obviously he's doing it for many years and even made it to the local newspaper.
We were cycled all over Camagüey, to the Mercado, the Casino Campestre, i.e. a large city park, the Plaza de la Revolución with its huge statue of the hero Ignacio Agramonte and then back to the center to the Plaza Martí with the Iglesia de Nuestra Corazón de Sagrado Jesús and the Plaza Ignacio Agramonte with the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.
Holguín & Bayamo
Holguín, another old city, is not so well-known among tourists, but it has some nice squares, shopping areas and small streets. We saw these all from the car and spent the rest of the day at the large swimming pool of Hotel Pernik, a bit outside the center of town. It can easily be reached by car.
From Holguín to Bayamo it is only 70 km over a sometimes bumpy two lanes road. But it is worth the trip. Bayamo was founded in 1513 as the second villa of Diego Velázquez. Later it became the birthplace of revolutionary Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and of Perucho Figueredo, composer of the Cuban national anthem. The text is written next to his bust. From the balcony of our room in hotel Royalton we had a good view on the Plaza de Himno Nacional and the Parque Céspedes with statues of both heroes.
The best restaurant in Bayamo is La Bodega, so we decided to have lunch here with a view on the small Rio Bayamo. After having lunch it was nice to listen to some swinging Cuban music in the local Casa de Trova.
Santiago de Cuba
About 30 km west of Santiago de Cuba is the very nice cathedral of El Cobre. Jacqueline, as we call our Garmin navigation "lady", had some problems in finding the direct way, but later she had a bit better information and over some sandy roads instead of the more comfortable asphalt road we arrived at the Catedral.
When we afterwards arrived at our hotel Casa Granda in Santiago de Cuba, after some drifting around the city, we felt rather attacked by the touts. From our car the car parker "robbed" CUC 2 (USD 2) in just one minute of time, and we had to take good care of all our belongings. It wasn't a very good start of our stay in this old city. But the hotel offered a nice room, two wonderful terraces, one at the first floor and one at the top fifth floor and the views were stupendous. Santiago is, like San Francisco, built on several hills and the Parque Céspedes with the Casa Granda are built on a hilly site with great views over the Parque Céspedes, the oldest house in Cuba, the Casa de Diego Velázquez and the city.
At and around the Parque Céspedes we saw some funny men, one playing a very monotonous sound on his own made drums, the other one dressed very neatly, every day in another suit, looking like Hemingway or someone from the Buena Vista Social Club?
Public transport in Cuba often is very crowded and a lot of the buses are in fact trucks or camiones as they are called. And taxis can be very old and nice old-timers.
On our second day in Santiago de Cuba we decided to see the city by taxi, so we both could see the sights well. We hired an old Chevrolet, built in 1955, and the driver took us to a lot of places. We started at the house where Fidel Castro once lived with his family, saw the Moncada Barracks where Castro in 1953 almost lost his life, the Bacardi house and many other places.
Finally the driver took us out of town, about 10 km southwest of the city, to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, shortly El Morro. The castle was built in the 17th century and was meant to protect Santiago de Cuba from pirates. When piracy declined it became a prison till late 1960's.
Baracoa to Playa Pesquero
Baracoa at the north coast of Cuba is the oldest city of the country and was founded in 1511 by Diego Velázques and for centuries the city could only be reached by boat. Before 1964 there was no road into Baracoa; in that year La Farola was opened, the road that traverses the steep mountains to the south towards Guantánamo.
From our hotel El Castillo we had a great view over the bay and over the hotel itself. As the name says, this hotel used to be one of the Spanish fortresses and is built on a hill with a steep and winding entry lane and many stairs inside. It is a beautiful hotel, but not very convenient for people in wheelchairs.
But once more the views are great.
Unfortunately the next morning it was raining, so we drove through town and saw the highlights from our car. After three times through the same roads we were recognized by the locals and waved at. Luckily around 11.30 hours the rain stopped and we could have a nice glass of cacao and icecream in the local Casa de Cacao in the pedestrian street.
The most direct route from Baracoa to Mayarí is over the road to Moa along the north coast. This road is a collection of holes and bumps held together with asphalt. There are very few settlements. On the worst parts it was impossible to film or make pictures. We were very glad that after Moa the road improved and that we saw more people again.
At the time of booking we figured out that the way to Pinares de Mayarí is a gravel road with holes and we didn't want to do that with a 2WD, not knowing what kind of roads we would drive on :-) So we booked a casa particular in Mayarí itself and stayed one night in Villa Elin. At the moment it has two rooms, a nice garden and even a very small pool. Elin is a very kind host and his wife a very good cook.
Our last few days of this very nice holiday in Cuba we spent in an all-inclusive resort again. This time in Playa Pesquero in hotel Playa Costa Verde. It is a very nice hotel with nice swimming pools. In the main pool even is an Acua bar where you can have a beer or a cocktail. But also the beach is very nice, though impossible for Jaap in his "car".
We had a great time and can recommend Cuba to everyone. Enjoy it!