Sunday 19 February 2020. Yesterday the plane from Cancun brought me to Havana, where I met my good old friend Marien. With him and 6 others, I explore Cuba in two weeks’ time, from Havana in the north to Baracoa in the southeast.
The first impression is, arriving by taxi at the world-famous Malecon, the boulevard at the ocean in the center of Havana, of century-old buildings falling apart in the dusk. The driver rings the doorbell, waiting for ten minutes, this should be the address, try again. Someone opens and it seems the right address. Inside it’s quite nice and the room is good. Exploring Havana, we learn most of the old city center consists of ruins. In most of the people live or have a shop or restaurant. The last maintenance was probably in the fifties of the last century. Or maybe partly in the eighties, when the Soviet Union still supported Cuba. On rainy and stormy days often parts of the buildings collapse. Only some monumental buildings, touristic casas and hotels are renovated and painted. The monumental Capitolio and Teatro Nacional Alicia Alonso are a must-see. Beautiful old buildings from a better time. Richly decorated with fine materials. Many monumental statues from the past and “Maffia” Hotel Nacional at the Malecon. Some old Spanish fortresses at the harbor and the propaganda Revolution Museum – Fidel and Che are the heroes and the blockade by the USA is to blame for all misery – telling the rich history of Havana. The many American cars of the fifties, beautifully restored to drive tourists around, or roughly hand-painted with a proud Cuban family in it, and even the shabby looks of the old buildings give Havana a special atmosphere.
Via the blue Bay of Pigs, a famous place for the invasion of the contra revolution, we arrive in Cienfuegos, named after one of the heroes of the past. More old cars, but horses and carriages and bicycles are taken over more and more going into the country. A short stop at Santa Clara, with the monument of the country’s hero Che. The mountain range of Escambray provides beautiful views on the way to Trinidad.
On Wednesday we’re in Trinidad, a nice town with cobbled roads, colorful houses, horses and carriages and some fifties cars. The atmosphere is a bit like lovely Antigua. Meet Emma and Robby from the Mexico trip again and have a dance in the Cave Disco. Besides the lovely city center the beaches and islands are amazing. The catamaran takes us to Cayo Iguana. Nice snorkeling spot and amazing white sand beach with palms and some iguanas and agoutis begging for food. In town everywhere local musicians are playing the Buena Vista Club music. After dinner Marien, Edel and I have a chat and a real coffee (which is not that common) in the Jazz café.
Camagüey is the city of bicycles and indeed it’s the main transport. The bicycle rickshaws bring us to the local farmers market. A huge place and some of the stalls are occupied. The main products are onions and bananas. In town a local ice cream. Nice white-tiled room with tables, only to pay with pesos (the local currency, the COC is for tourists) and we spent 2,4 pesos (10 cents) each on it. Quite an experience. In the evening, totally unexpected, a carnival parade is coming through the city.
Santiago is next. Here the cemetery is on the program. The statemen and -woman of the Cuban independence wars are buried here, like José Martí, Fidel Castro and Emilio Bacardi. The changing of the guards every half an hour is impressive. Next is the barracks of 26 July (1953). A poor attempt of Fidel and his party to attack the military barracks and overthrow the government of Batista. At least the guide is a believer. The Spanish Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca at the coast is an amazing spot telling about the attacks of the famous Dutch and English fleets, “pirates”, in the past.
On the way to Baracoa a stop at the viewpoint at Guantanamo Bay. In the very far distance you could maybe see the American base… with binoculars. Well, the mountainous surrounding and bay are beautiful. The road through the mountains is winding and provides amazing views. Descending in the tropical forest to Baracoa, a small city on the Atlantic coast. The hike at the nearby Humboldt National Park is hot, but beautiful. Several Tocororos, the colorful national bird, hummingbirds, a small snake and a big millipede make it one of the highlights. The next day a chocolate farm, a boat trip through the gorge and a visit at the beach are on the program. We get in the boat and the water is coming in through a big hole. Have to change the boat and see how our sailor can’t row. Like in the hole country, almost nobody feels like working and time is relative. Basically all jobs are state jobs and they told us that it is totally normal to stay at home if it could rain. Because the roads get dangerous and buildings could collapse… A small French plane brings us back to Havana to enjoy our last days back in the fifties.