Cuba – Trinidad

Trinidad’s maze-like cobble stoned streets lined with pastel hued houses, barefoot boys playing soccer, trovadores belting out rhythmic tunes, and awed camera toting tourists soaking it all in will forever be etched in our memories. What a magical place! We were lucky enough to be in Trinidad during the Fiestas Sanjuaneras, with time to spare to explore the Valle de los Ingenios, Topes de Collantes, and Playa Ancon for a bit of scuba diving. Two huge thumbs up for Trinidad and its surroundings.

25 Jun: Our bus arrived to Trinidad at 2 pm, and the bus terminal was lined with people wanting tourists to rent a room in their casa. Our casa owner, Estela Castillo, was patiently waiting beneath an umbrella, and she walked us leisurely back to her casa, pointing out highlights along the way. Our home for the next few days was located at 360-B Colon street, and it was exactly in the middle between the old town and the new town, giving us a prime location. The room was awesome because it was completely separated from the main house. We had a garden complete with avocado tree, our own little patio, a small room with a fridge and our room with private bath, hot water and strong ac. And at the bargain rate of 15 CUC a night! During our welcome drink (fresh papaya juice), we asked Estela if she knew of Doug’s casa address and she pin pointed it on our map, and called up Kate’s casa so we could let her know we were in town. We all agreed to link up at 9 pm later that night, giving us several hours to explore on our own. We didn’t want to struggle with a map to locate their casas in the dark, so we decided to do a quick recon to check out where Kate and Doug were staying. Trinidad does live up to its magical reputation, with pastel hued houses lining the streets, and vintage cars parked on almost every corner. Horseback riders skidded on the slippery cobblestoned streets, and live music seemed to drift from every square. We had timed our visit for the annual Fiestas Sanjuaneras, held late June each year in Trinidad. Very cool! We first checked out the Plaza Mayor and were surprised by its diminutive size. Flanked on every side by old historical buildings, it is the heart of the old city. An old church and an old bell tower dominate the Plaza Mayor, and we took several scenic shots of this area before moving on. Estela told us that the horse riders would be racing near Parque Cespedes at around 5 pm, so we decided to head in that direction to see what was going on. Apparently a massive street party, with the locals surrounding beer stands where they could fill up any sized bottle with some cheap beer. 700ml was going for 3 pesos (national moneda), making it a wicked cheap buzz. The long queues at the beer stands were hilarious and we wondered if we could join in later on. We were in need of some water, so we eventually found a tienda that sold some (1 CUC for 1.5L water and 1.50 CUC for similarly sized coke/sprite). After stopping by the casa to stock up our fridge, we headed back out and wandered Trinidad’s back streets. A fisherman was walking cobblestoned street to street trying to sell the massive fish he had recently caught, and horse riders were galloping/racing each other through the streets. We ended up down by Santa Ana church and square, when it appeared that a massive thunderstorm was about to come rolling in. Lucky for us, the storm never materialized, and we made our way back to the Plaza Mayor with a bottle of rum/coke for a pre-dinner drink. Dinner of fried chicken (the chicken was a mutant chicken as its legs were HUGE, reminding us of a turkey leg instead), vegetables, rice and beans was great, and our winning streak of good food in the casas remained unbroken. We had to rush to shower and get dressed in time to meet Doug and Kate at 9, and together we all headed out towards the Parque Cespedes. After checking out the street food, we bought a few mojitos before deciding that some local brew would be in order. Robby was able to push himself to the front of the line, and then the truck ran out of beer! So we went to another beer truck and success, 1.5 Liters of beer for 30 cents (8 pesos national moneda). Kate met a Cuban who she had danced with the night before, and he told us that the place to be was the Revolution Plaza, as a famous band was set to perform at midnight. We made our way out there but by 2 am, figured the festivities weren’t meant to be. The band had yet to arrive or perform, and we were getting tired after having consumed 3 Liters of national beer. Doug was the first to bid us all adieu, and we soon followed suit, making sure Kate wasn’t locked out of her casa particular this night (she didn’t have a key to get in the night before). Surprisingly, we saw a massive tarantula crawling the cobblestoned streets and all got close for a view…what a huge and ugly spider! Sleep was no problem at all, and we tried our best to minimize making a lot of noise as we entered our casa.

26 Jun: We had our alarm set for 0830 but were tired and kept hitting the snooze button. We finally managed to rouse ourselves awake just before our 0900 breakfast (omelet w/ cheese & onions, fruit platter, steaming hot milk/coffee, mango juice, muffin, bread & butter). Robby wasn’t feeling 100% so we went back to bed for another 90 minutes. By noon, we could hear loud music coming from the streets so we joined the street party in progress. It was already HOT by noon, so we didn’t linger long. Just long enough to see the locals partying in the streets having fun. We returned briefly to our casa to pick up some stuff before heading out to the travel agent to book two day tours (for tomorrow and the day after). Our plan was to do an excursion to the “Valle de los Ingenios”, which included a visit to the Manaca Iznaga plantation, tower (to watch the slaves working the fields), and to the Casa del Alfarero for 9 CUCs each. The next day was a full day hike to the 62 meter Salto del Caburni waterfall in Topes De Collantes, costing 29 CUC each. The helpful travel agent told us she thought the 8 hour hike was the best tour they offered here in Trinidad and we decided to check it out first hand. Surprisingly, no deposit was necessary. We were told to return at 0900 tomorrow morning for our tour and 0845 the next day for the hike. Easy enough. We than headed back to the Plaza Mayor, since there were some sights we saw yesterday but didn’t actually have time to visit. Musicians were creating a lively ambiance, and we stopped to listen to a few songs. The square had horseback riders prancing back and forth, as if bored or gearing up for tonight’s festivities. We were quite impressed with the Museo Historico Municipal (also known as the Museo Palacio Cantero) (2 CUCs each) for its gorgeous antiques and bird’s eye vistas over quaint Trinidad. We visited just in the nick of time, as a very large German tour group approached, and the museum staff quickly “closed” the entrance as perhaps they didn’t want to deal with such a large group? It was weird…we wondered why the big group was dissuaded from visiting. It was almost 3 pm when we headed back to the casa for lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and some cold refreshing drinks. We than decided to check out the “most recognizable building” in all of Trinidad, the yellow bell tower of the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos, which cost 1 CUC. For some reason, the bell tower was actually off limits, so we were disappointed that we were unable to get the high city views we had been keen on seeing. Horseback riders were gallivanting against the slippery cobble stoned streets and we picked up some souvenirs (jewelry for Becky, 3 peso Che notes and a doll for Laverne), before heading back to the casa for some rest before dinner. Dinner was pork chops (yummy), black beans/rice and veggies along with a cake pastry. We opted to give our cakes to the casa’s young boys as we saw them eyeballing it with longing. By 2030, we were on our way down to the new section of town (Parque Cespedes) where we were told a colorful street parade would take place. Of course we should have realized it was on Cuba time, since the kick off was late (around 2200), at which point most tourists had already given up hope that it would occur. We hung out just enjoying people watching and our patient efforts were rewarded when some floats filled with dancers started passing by. Very cool! We enjoyed it, and the locals obviously did too as the streets were crowded with happy people. We stopped by to briefly check out the Casa de la Musica and saw several couples enjoying salsa dancing out in the open air venue. By midnight, we were back in the casa to get some sleep.

27 Jun: Breakfast was coordinated at 0800, and we had a 0900 excursion to the “Valle de los Ingenios” with Paradiso. There were several other couples who had booked this tour, and we all crowded into a small van for our ride. Our tour guide was the helpful lady we had talked to a few days ago (she speaks perfect English), and she explained we had one more stop to pick up more passengers. To our dismay, the lone passenger we picked up decided to cram in the back seat with us, rather than sit up in front….very weird behavior! We quickly decided we would sit up in the front the first chance we got. First stop was to a panoramic lookout over the Valle de los Ingenios, where a baby horse was nudging its way with all of us, begging to be fed food. Poor thing was too skinny, and we wished we had brought some fruit to feed it. Our next stop was the impressive Manaca Iznaga sugar plantation, which had a lithograph depicting its original state (complete with slave huts, watch tower, plantation manor house, warehouses, milling machinery, and an old factory). The only remnants today are some slave huts (now inhabited by Cubans), the 44 meter tall watch tower (with phenomenal views all around the country side), and the plantation house (now a bar/restaurant). We checked out the old sugarcane press to the rear of the house, which is still used to this day to make freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. We had some free time to take photos, and afterwards headed to the Casa del Alfarero, a ceramic workshop with some nice wares for sale. The owner did a quick demonstration on how he makes some of his pieces, and there was absolutely no pressure to buy anything afterwards. We were dropped back off in town by noon, and decided to stock up on some more water before heading back to the casa for lunch and a bit of midday relaxation. Afterwards, we wandered the back streets of Trinidad towards The Three Crosses Plaza and discovered to our surprise that a massive gathering of cowboys atop their horses had decided to congregate here. Big thanks to Doug for his sagely advise on heading this way in his note to us the day before. The cowboys were fun to watch, and we saw how many of the young single men would saunter up to a pretty senorita and try to sweep her of her feet (literally) with their best one-liners and whisk her away on horseback. It was a really neat experience to be able to witness firsthand, and we enjoyed talking to some of the locals who explained that this annual festivity is a time-honored tradition, with much drinking and horse-back racing the norm. After a while, we decided it was time to move on, and came across old men in Trinidad’s streets playing dominoes. They are quite aggressive in playing the game, throwing down their domino with great gusto. Since we had opted for a late dinner tonight, we had enough time to hike up for a panorama view of the sunset over Trinidad. Making our way past an abandoned old church and the Cave dance club (Disco Ayala), we hiked the hills overlooking Trinidad until we were drenched with sweat, stopping to admire the pretty views before us.

28 Jun: We enjoyed breakfast at 0830, and Estela told us she had to leave Trinidad for work, but her sister would be around to take care of any issues we had for the rest of our stay. We headed over to Paradiso for our 0900 tour to Topes de Collantes (CUC$29 each) including lunch. The Paradiso guide walked us over to Parque Cespedes where we linked up with our guide Luis, driver Lester, and met two fellow travelers who hailed from the UK, Lucy and Lela. We immediately liked our guide Luis, whose impeccable English, good manners, easy going personality and inexhaustible flow of information impressed us within the first few minutes. Luis was very open about living in Cuba, freely sharing information with us on the Cuban education system (his specific studies and how some of his unqualified colleagues had been able to work the system and land a job in mere months while he had sacrificed years to get to the same position), transportation, and the ever sky rocketing costs of everyday items. It was eye opening to see how the average Cuban really does struggle to get by, and we better understood why we (tourists) stood out as such lucrative targets to incessant touts. Luis also remarked on how for the first time in his six years as a tour guide, he had received more US clients than ever before, perhaps a sign of things to come under the Obama administration if our policy with Cuba changes as the rumblings indicate. Prior to our hike to the waterfall, we stopped to get our caffeine fix at a nearby coffee shop, with Luis giving us a demonstration on how coffee is harvested, processed, and prepared for consumption. Our hike was unexpectedly awesome, with Luis pointing out countless natural wonders such as the national bird of Cuba, a red leg thrush bird, snakes, Cuban parrots, lizards, cyanide trees, coffee plants, trees that have medicinal properties with Vitamin K to help prevent bleeding, giant sized caterpillars, and on and on. We enjoyed it very much, especially with such a knowledgeable and friendly guide. The highlight of our trip was when we finally approached the 62.5 meter waterfall, stopping to check it out first before backtracking to a small natural pool where the local daredevils were performing back flips and leaping into the refreshingly cold water. We both joined in, partly to escape the mosquitoes, but mainly to cool down after working up a sweat on our short hike. Luis smilingly reminded us that the hard part was yet to come…we now had to hike back up in reverse, with the trail being completely uphill on the return leg of the trip. The average time to hike the trail is approximately 50 minutes, but our group chugged along and reached the top in just over 30 minutes, resting at the parking lot to feed the increasingly hungry and demanding chickens who ran over when they saw that we had morsels of bread. Lunch was included with the tour at an old coffee plantation home of one of Batista’s friends (now converted into a restaurant), and consisted of pork, rice and vegetables (omelets for the two vegetarians). Over lunch we discussed the ration system in Cuba, finding out what items are extremely difficult for Cubans to gets, how Cubans are able to obtain goods and services, and general life in Cuba. It was nice to have met someone who so patiently and thoroughly discussed every aspect (pros and cons) of the system in Cuba and we definitely thought this was one of the most insightful days we had experienced in Cuba thus far. After returning to Trinidad, we went back to the Paradiso office to book SCUBA diving at Playa Ancon (CUC$35), and we made our way over to the Viazul office where we bought our onward tickets to Camaguay for CUC$30. The rest of the day was spent stretching our sore muscles…the hike and swim had been quite a workout and we were both more than ready to take it easy. After wandering through every art gallery in search of some original paintings, we stocked up on some drinks at a nearby grocery store and headed back to the casa, where we enjoyed lobster for dinner. It was our best meal yet in Cuba and we were quite happy by the time we hit the sack.

29 Jun: Got up at 0700 and had breakfast at 0715. One of the girls from our casa asked about our onward arrangements for a casa in Camaguay tomorrow. We told her that Lucilo had already made a reservation for us, but she clarified when she explained that the next casa owner was a friend of hers, and she would ensure that she would call ahead to have someone at the bus terminal with a sign for us. We made dinner plans before heading down to the taxi area around 0800 (to be at the dive shop before 0900) and was informed that the local buses don’t start going to the Playa Ancon area until 11:00 so we had to take a taxi or coco-taxi. There were no coco-taxis around so we bargained with a driver from CUC$8 to CUC$7. We went to the Ancon Marina, where we met our dive guide (Leo). He informed us that his air compressor was broke (parts were supposed be brought to the marina but hadn’t shown up yet), and that his full tanks were reserved for a Canadian couple that had booked over 20 dives with the shop. He didn’t hold out much hope for us to dive this morning, but recommended that we head over to the Hotel dive shop to wait it out in case the replacement part showed up as promised. After about 30 minutes (and several other prospective clients later), Leo called for us and told us to grab our gear. Score! Looks like we are going to be able to dive after all. It was a popular morning dive with a full boat and 3 dive masters, plus the Canadian couple, a Japanese girl, and a couple of other guys that we later found out were Canadians who are originally from Poland. We enjoyed our dive which consisted of a coral wall with coral that was in excellent shape (lots of colorful purple and lime green soft coral). Visibility was surprisingly good considering it had rained heavily during the night and the sea looked tumultuous. Sadly, fishermen with their spear guns were out in full force hunting larger fish, and we didn’t see any. The Canadian divers told us that they had seen a huge fishing net yesterday during their dives, with the fisherman arbitrarily catching any marine life that happened to get trapped in it such as turtles, dolphins, etc. Very disturbing and a sad state of affairs for Cuba’s marine life. After our dive (we had almost an hour of bottom time), we found it to be raining heavily on our return trip back to the resort. Since we were already wet, it didn’t matter much to us. We helped clean off our gear, and Leo gave us a stamp for our dive logs with him on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with his scuba gear on! (Leo is a Harley freak and even named his newborn son “Harley”)…too funny. We gave him a tip for a nice dive, and went out to lounge on the beach chairs. The weather didn’t cooperate as it continued to rain heavily, and we actually got a bit cold for a brief interim. However, true to form, the sun came out and the heat was intense by midday. After going into the deserted waters to have a dip, Becky got stung by a jellyfish (ouch) and decided she had cracked the code on why no one else was in the water by the resort! By 5 pm, we were ready to head back to Trinidad and we met up with our original taxi driver who offered to take us back for only 4 CUC (the same price as the bus). We happily agreed and were walking the streets of Trinidad in no time. There were a few more murals we wanted to take pictures of, and with our bottle of rum/sprite, we sat on the stairs of Casa de la Musica, enjoyed the music, the view and our cheap drink. Our last dinner in Trinidad consisted of shrimp and we took a quick nap before heading out to the Cave Bar (Disco Ayala) at 11pm. To our surprise, we were the first two to show up, but by midnight the place was pumping. We left at around 0130 and got some shut eye before our 0700 breakfast in the morning.

30 Jun, Trinidad – Camaguay: We had to get up a bit early to pack our bags, and were ready to go by 0700 when we had our last breakfast. Our total bill (including all meals) for five days came out to 185 CUCs, and we settled it immediately after breakfast. By 0725, we were on our way out the door after bidding Estela’s family goodbye and were at the bus stop by 0740.

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