The delightful streets of Trinidad are an architects dream, principally around the old Plaza Mayor with its palm trees, manicured garden, and the magnificent Church of Trinidad. Of particular interest to us, as architects, was the fascinating Museum of Colonial Architecture, a restored Cuban Mansion outlining through models and drawings, the typical construction of the vernacular architecture found all over the country. There is always someone on hand in Cuban museums that will take you through the exhibition, whether you like it or not, for a small tip. The poor lady trying to show us around the Architecture Museum seemed to get frustrated that we were taking so long assessing the smallest details of every display. “you are architects, no?”, “yes we are, this museum is wonderful”, she grunted and moved away. Seems we aren’t the best patrons in this sort of museum, perhaps too involved and slow for their liking, so she backed off, but gladly reappeared to receive a tip at the end.
There is so much more to towns than architecture and what was most interesting for us in both of these places was watching the way the locals live and use the city. Shopping in Cuba is about 60 years behind the rest of the world. Over the counter service is the only way you can shop in this backward country. Walking down the main pedestrian mall of Camagüey we were taken aback by the experience, every singe shop, whether you are buying groceries, clothes, electronics, tools, toys or fabrics is purchased over the counter – and don’t be thinking you can buy that ginormous LCD television, every product here is at least 20 years old.
Many towns in Cuba feel like really big country towns, especially in Cienfuegos where the wide boulevards and balconied colonial buildings give that sense of a time gone by when horse and carriage trotted down the road. And then you arrive back in 1950 on the Malecon, the long stretch of straight road running adjacent to the sea wall, lined with palm trees, enormous Spanish mansions and plenty of vintage cars, and then you remember what year it really is. Or maybe that “best mojito in Cuba” at La Punta Park at the end of the Malecon reminded us – rum will do that to you.
Getting to Cayo Coco was by far the trickiest destination to reach, a pristine island 20km off the mainland where crisp white sand and glistening Caribbean water awaited us at Playa Pilar – what we would vote as Cuba’s best beach. Most visitors to Cuba, predominantly Canadians, come as packaged tourist, as we proclaimed “wrapped in plastic”, staying at one of the infamous all inclusive resorts with ridiculously cheap holiday packages including accommodation, food and unlimited alcohol. Virtually all of the best islands in Cuba are reserved for the packaged tourist, meaning that the infrastructure to get there for those who are unpackaged is almost non-existent.
We had a pretty good run on the local buses from Camagüey via Ciego de Avila to Moron on-route to Cayo Coco. After that we became stuck with no public transport options, the only choice being an expensive taxi ride. After plenty of negotiation and deliberation, (we just wanted to get there), we finally gave in and decided to take the taxi, a very cool 1970’s Russian taxi. One and a half hours and AUS$45 later we finally made it to Cayo Coco. We were under the presumption, because everywhere else seemed so quiet, that we would be able to find accommodation on arrival, we were so wrong! We led the taxi on a wild goose chase trying to find cheap accommodation, the problem with Cayo Coco there are only three of these spread out along the main road and very isolated from the beach and life itself. Thankfully our third and final option Hotel Villa Azul paid out. Despite the lackluster accommodation it was the most “central” option of the cheaper choices. If you don’t have a car and are looking for a budget option don’t stay anywhere other than Hotel Villa Azul. The other two options Sitio La Guira and Motel Villa Jardins Los Cocos are so far away you will spend all of your time and money trying to get around.
Eager to hit the sand, and beat the temporary workers to breakfast, we woke up early to try and get to the beach, not an easy task here without a car. Hotel Villa Azul may be in an inconvenient location but it is actually very convenient in the scheme of things. Reception at the hotel told us the best, and cheapest, way to get to the beach was by getting to one of the big hotels along the north coast and jumping on the big red double decker sightseeing bus, which basically runs between the main hotels picking up the packaged tourist to go to Playa Pilar. As we began the hot and tiresome walk to the nearest hotel some 6km away trying to flag down anyone to stop and give us a lift this big red shiny bus appeared on the horizon, not expecting it to stop as it wasn’t on duty as yet, we were surprised when it did and learned it was the bus we needed anyway. We were lucky enough to flag down the first bus at 8:45am on its way to the first hotel to begin its route. The driver and conductor were so friendly and helpful they offered to drop us back at the roundabout on their way back to the depot at the end of the day. To make life easier for any future backpacker doing the same route to get to Playa Pilar, just stand on the roundabout across from the Servi-Cupet gas station in the direction of the hotels around 8:30am to get that first bus.
The trip back to Moron on the mainland proved far easier and cheaper than expected after the very helpful gentleman at reception suggested we take the local bus with him from directly outside of the hotel early in the morning. Not wanting to part with another AUS$45 for a taxi we jumped on the opportunity. As the rickety old bus rolled passed a security checkpoint on the causeway we ducked our heads knowing that we weren’t legally supposed to be on that bus. One hour later we arrived safely back on the mainland in Moron and the ride only cost us AUS$1, a saving of AUS$44 including a generous tip to the driver who risked a hefty fine and possible punishment to have us on the bus.
After such success on local transport we were determined to try and keep it up, but we quickly learned that not all Cubans are willingly to take the risk and have you onboard, particularly if you are trying to find transport at a busy bus station, they will make you wait for Viazul no matter how long it takes, and rightly so, rules are rules, and if it is their livelihood at stake we have no right to persist, but it can’t help to try in the first place.
Playa Giron is a quiet beachside town made famous after the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion led by the American CIA using Cuban exiles trained in the States to overthrow Fidel Castro after the revolution of 1959. Playa Giron was one of two sites, the other being Playa Larga 40km further north, where the Cuban militant exiles landed and were quickly pushed away in a brutal battle with Fidel and his steadfast Cuban Army. A visit to the Playa Giron Museum will teach you all that you need to know about this botched intervention by the USA and Fidel’s tactics used against the unsuspecting invading force, in addition to interesting propaganda outlining the history of the revolution.
Staying at a Casa Particular is half of the excitement found in Vinales, especially if you are lucky enough to stay at Casa Española with the fantastic Papo and his wife, the best, most accommodating hosts of our time in Cuba. Not only did they cook us some of the finest food we ate in this country, Papo also offered us guidance, shared stories with us, took us on a fantastic hike to Los Aquaticos for remarkable views over the valley and to visit his friends on their farm to drink coffee in rocking chairs while gazing at the panoramic vistas engulfing us.
Next stop we hit the western world to catch up with family in Ontario, Canada…
Click here to view our photo gallery of the Caribbean Beaches and Towns of Cuba.