Cuba – Camaguey & Bayamo

We visited Camaguey and Bayamo strictly on the advice of past visitors sharing their experiences on travel forums. We didn’t know much about either city, but felt that two days were warranted for Camaguey, while one day would be sufficient for Bayamo. Getting to both cities was easy as they are on the Viazul bus route, making it a simple affair to book our tickets. Upon arrival in Camaguey, we found the core historical center to indeed be a bit mazelike (to confuse pirates in its heyday while having the same effect on tourists today) with beautiful city squares, earning its nickname “City of Squares”. Bayamo on the other hand was extremely well laid out and easy to navigate, with its main sights in a compact area. Refreshingly jinitero-free, the real highlight of Bayamo was being in a touristy town without the feeling that anyone had any ulterior motives when they struck up a friendly conversation. We enjoyed both cities, and are happy we paid them a visit.

30 Jun, Trinidad – Camaguay: After checking in our bags (with the obligatory tip box “helpfully” pointed out), we boarded the bus soon after and were on our way to Camaguay. There was a mandatory 45 minute stop at around 1100, so we decided to eat our lunch early, and by 1320, we had pulled into Camaguay on time as Viazul had promised. Surprisingly, there was no one immediately near the bus holding up a sign with our name, but when we walked out the exit, we saw a gentleman standing with our sign and we quickly linked up to learn that we had to take a taxi to our casa which was located in the old town about 4 KM away from the bus terminal. After loading up our taxi, we paid an expensive 5 CUC for the short ride, but we had no other choice. Our casa (20 CUCs a night with AC at Casa Amelia at 201 San Ramon, Apt 205) was conveniently located at the intersection of Solitaro & San Ramon, right in front of the farmer’s market. Camaguey is known as the city of squares of “Corinth of the Caribbean” (or the maze), and is known for its tinajons. Shortly after talking and getting to know Amelia (and coordinating our dinner of steak), we started a short walk towards the Plaza de los Trabajadores and ended up taking a bici-taxi for a quick overview of the city for CUC$10. The tour consisted of several stops, the first of which was Plaza de los Trabajadores (Square of the workers, which used to be a 19th Century bull fighting forum and circus). The highlights include the Casa Natal Ignacio Agramonte (#1 patriot general of Camaguey who died in the battle against the Spanish in 1873 at the age of 32). On the 3rd floor there is a balcony overlooking the plaza and on the ground floor are several tinajons (large earthenware jars used to store rainwater for houses…a distinguishing feature of Camaguey). This is a good place to see a 19th Century house complete with furniture of the time. There is a massive 18th Century brick church dominating the Plaza de los Trabajadores called “Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced”. The church dates back to 1748. Next was Teatro Principal (dating from 1850 and restored in 1926) still used to host the ballet of Camaguey. We then headed to Plaza del Carmen, which is a narrow pedestrian street with pastel colored colonial row houses opening to an irregularly shaped square. This 18th Century square has sculptures of locals in various poses of daily work and pleasure. The plaza is dominated by the baroque style Iglesia de Nustestra Senoria del Carmen dating to 1825. This is the only church in Camaguey to be topped with 2 towers. Left of the church is a school and we stopped briefly to check the schoolkids out in their smart red and white uniforms. Alfredo (our bici-taxi driver) proudly pointed out his family in a big billboard photo that was taken of the plaza and mounted on a nearby sign post. There is a restaurant named “El Ovejito” (serving “little sheep” at its name implies) on Plaza del Carmen with some nice tinajons…we stopped by to take some photos. Next stop was the pretty Parque Ignacio Agramonte, where we hopped in to check out the Casa de la Trova (open for music at 9 pm onward), and walk around the picturesque park complete with General Agramonte on horseback. The adjacent church, Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria was closed, but looked like it had a tall watch tower that could be climbed for a marvelous view. We decided to come back tomorrow to check it out. Onward towards the colorfully scenic Plaza San Juan de Dios, a national monument and one of the most remarkable colonial relics in Cuba, the elegant and serene 18th Century square has been completely restored, as have all the colonial era buildings that surround it. All the buildings have been painted in different colors making it extremely photogenic. The square is dominated by the Antiguo Hospital de San Juan de Dios, a former military hospital dating from 1728, with arcaded cloisters added in 1840 and a Moorish façade and courtyard. It now serves as the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial (or Museo de San Juan de Dios) and there is a watch tower that can be climbed for views over the city. Adjacent to the hospital is the Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, featuring a nice mahogany ceiling and bell tower. The square holds huge significance for Cubans as the body of the national independence war, hero Ignacio Argamento, was brought here after being burned by the Spaniards in 1873 for identification. Two beautifully restored restaurants on the square, Campana de Toledo and Restaurante de los Tres Reyes have a romantic, tinajon filled shared courtyard. Both restaurants ooze ambiance and tranquility. Lastly, there was a green hued double story artist gallery, housing the Estudio Galeria Jover, a working studio of artist Joel Jover along with his wife Ileana Sanchez. The gallery was closed but we figured we’d give it a visit tomorrow. After the plaza, we crossed out of the old, mazed city towards Casino Campestre, one of Cuba’s largest urban parks complete with a zoo, shaded benches, a massive 15,000 seat baseball stadium, gymnasium/pool complex, and huge Plaza de la Revolucion. The Revolution Plaza has a massive statue of who else but revolutionary hero Ignacio Agramonte, and it has bas reliefs of Fidel, Che Guevara, and other figures of the revolutionary period. Alfredo told us there is a flag lowering ceremony held daily at 6 pm, complete with guards in colonial uniforms. One of our last stops was at the petite Parque Marti, dominated by the soaring Iglesia de Nuestra Corazon de Sagrado Jesus. It was closed but looked like it also had a watch tower for views over the city. The tour covered all the highlighted sites and Alfredo ended it at the Bar El Cambio on Parque Ignacio Agramonte for a couple of mojitos. The driver did such a great job that we tipped him an extra CUC$3 and arranged a ride to the Viazul terminal on Friday at 0500. The Cambio bar was a nice little spot to have a drink. Everyone that visits leaves writing on the walls, and the strong mojitos can be had for 2.50 CUC each. The downside to the bar is that you constantly get hassled by jiniteros…the crazy guy, the deaf guy, the guy that draws a really bad picture of you, taxi drivers, and handy-craft sellers. It felt relentless, and within a span of 15 minutes, we must have been approached by about half a dozen different touts with their own unique angle. Wanting to get away from it all, we paid our bill and headed out towards the Gran Hotel to check out their pool and a view of the city from their upstairs restaurant. Their elevator required an operator who never showed up, so we took the stairs instead. On the fifth floor, we discovered to our dismay that we had to enter via the restaurant, but a steel barred door was firmly locked, so we could continue no further. Unable to see the pool or the city view, we moved on, passing the Iglesia Neustra Senora de la Soledad, a beautiful historic Camaguey church famous for having baptized and married local revolutionary hero Ignacio Agramonte. The site has had a church on it since 1697 but the church built on it now dates from 1758. It was still way early but we were satisfied with our afternoon excursion so we decided to head back to Amelia’s. We found a grocery store selling water and soda, so stocked with cold drinks in hand, found our way back to our awaiting casa. Since the casa is on the second floor of a secured building, anytime someone rings the downstairs buzzer, Amelia glimpses over the balcony and buzzes them up…very intricate set up preventing the family from having to run downstairs each time they get a visitor. We had arranged for dinner at 8 pm but were starving. To our grateful surprise, Amelia offered us an earlier meal at 7:30 and we readily accepted, devouring the entire dinner in less than 20 minutes. Since we were tired from partying like rock stars at the cave bar the night before, we called it an early night and fell asleep watching a movie.

1 Jul, Camaguay: Woke up at 0730, with plenty of time to shower before breakfast at 0800. The family consisted of Amelia (our hostess), Carlito (her 9 year old grand son) and Amelia’s daughter (a lawyer). Breakfast was fresh with bread, mango and pineapple, scrambled eggs, and freshly squeezed fruit juices and piping hot coffee. We took our time eating, and then decided at 0920 to head out and re-explore the previous day’s sites in detail. The Farmer’s Market (immediately outside our casa) was selling fresh meat and fruit, and we made our way directly towards the Plaza de Los Trabajadores, to visit the Casa Natal Ignacio Agramonte. Entrance was 2 CUC each, and well worth it to see the antique furniture located on the third floor. The house served as the birthplace of the country’s revolutionary hero, and has been kept in remarkably good shape. There were several tinajons on the ground floor in the patio designed for catching rain water, and several grand pianos graced the house. Next stop was the Plaza del Carmen, which was blissfully quiet and tranquil today. We spent some time watching the school children playing baseball in their school courtyard, with their smart red and white school uniforms on. After Becky posed with some of the school girls, we headed back towards Parque Ignacio Agramonte, to visit the Cathedral de Santa Iglesia. For 1 CUC each, we climbed the 27 meter watch tower for the best views over the mazed city of Camaguey. Definitely worth it! Afterwards, we headed over to the Plaza San Juan De Dios, where we visited the impressive art gallery of Jover. The artist’s entire family is a bunch of artists, and many of the art pieces use recycled material (Buchaneer beer caps, Cristal beer labels, knives, TuKola labels) into very unique and impressive pieces. We saw the artist at work in his studio and told him his work was very interesting and different. Afterwards, we paid 1 CUC entry each and 1 CUC for camera to visit the Museo de San Juan de Dios and climbed the watch tower (on the third floor) for a view over the scenic square. Afterwards, our intention was to visit the Lonely Planet recommended Mercado Agropecuario El Rio but there was absolutely nothing happening, so we headed over towards Casino Campestre towards the zoo (entrance was 1 peso national moneda for the two of us). Fresh cheese pizza was being sold for 5 pesos national moneda, so we bought two of them and devoured it as lunch, freeing up our sandwiches for food for the hungry animals. The monkeys were hilarious, with some grabbing bread and then baring their exposed teeth as thanks, while others would gently reach over and gingerly take the bread from our outstretched hands. Robby made friends with the resident ostrich (they must have bad eyesight as it had a hell of a time trying to reach the food from our hands). It was sad to see the larger animals (puma, jaguar and lions) in their small enclosures, as they looked absolutely miserable in their tiny confines. A chimpanzee expertly peeled a local fruit that one of the Cuban girls threw at it, and his facial expressions were quite hilarious. The two critters that had us rolling in laughter were the raccoons. Their comical antics had us in stitches, especially after they were trying to get peanut butter unstuck from their back teeth. Even though the zoo is quite miniscule and we felt bad for many of the animals, we did enjoy our time here, making it one of our highlights of our visit to Camaguey. The Plaza de la Revolution was our last official stop of the day, with Becky wanting to get some more close ups of the friezes surrounding the monument. A security guard closely eyed us, ensuring that we didn’t approach the monument too closely. Than it was a short walk back to the city center where happily downed some cold glasses of orange soda back at Casa Amelia’s, before taking a brief afternoon siesta. Dinner of lamb was excellent, and we complimented Amelia on a great meal once we ate practically everything laid out before us. Yummy! We went to the room with the intention of going out for the night to enjoy music at the Casa de la Trova, but after reflecting that we had seen no other tourists in the past two days here, thought that we might be in for a similar experience that we had at El Cambio. Not wanting to deal with the constant hassle, we opted to stay in and watch a movie…saving our energy for the fiesta at Santiago in a couple of days.

2 Jul, Camaguay – Bayamo: We were planning on taking the early morning bus from Camaguay to Bayamo, and had prearranged a bici-taxi ride for 5 CUC with Alfredo the first day we arrived. Amelia had already called our casa owner in Bayamo to advise him of our arrival time. We woke up at 0420, and Amelia knocked on the door at 0430 just to be sure we were awake. She offered us coffee before our journey, and we settled the bill (CUC$80) while waiting for our taxi. Just as promised, we heard the small beep of the bici-taxi horn and headed out. Alfredo was there a few minutes early, but it was good because we are all set to depart. The bike ride to Viazul terminal was about 20 min and Alfredo worked his butt off, glistening with sweat from the physical effort despite the early morning hour. After thanking and bidding Alfredo goodbye, we went to the ticket booth and purchased our tickets thinking we still had more than 30 min to spare. The ticket seller led Robby to a nearby bus and instructed him to load the bags. We were then informed that we needed to board for an immediate departure. We were a little concerned because we thought the departure was at 0615, not 0530. Also one of the guys at the terminal said the arrival time was 1000, but we thought it would be a little after 0800. We got on the bus and it departed immediately. It looked like the bus only had locals and no foreigners, which is strange for a Viazul bus. It all felt a bit awkward so we kept a tight grip on our bags, and fell asleep for the ride. When the sun came up we checked our notes and found that we departed early, but for some reason, we were arriving a little later than we should. Our notes indicated 0615 departure and 0945 arrival. But, we were going to the correct destination (thankfully), and we arrived with no problems. Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by Tony Lozaro, our casa owner, He had a bici-taxi waiting for us, but the ride was only a couple of blocks away and cost us CUC 2. When asked if we needed return transport back to the bus station, we politely declined since the terminal was literally only a 5 minute walk away. Tony offered us coffee and Robby accepted. Then he filled out the necessary casa particulares documents and gave us a brief overview of the city’s highlights and where to find them. Our casa was located on Amado Esteves No. 67 Altos Entre 8 y 9 Jesus Menendez, and was in a great location. Only a few minutes from Viazul and a short (10 minute) walk to the city center, we couldn’t ask for anything more. We looked over our notes to plan our day, and headed down the scenic General Garcia road (known as “El Bulevar”), which is a colorful, artsy pedestrian road leading towards Parque Cespedes where a school group of kids were performing some traditional dances and singing some songs. They were surprisingly good and we enjoyed watching them perform in front of the Ayuntamiento (city hall). Afterwards, we decided to have lunch at La Bodega before sight-seeing. We asked for lunch and they seemed to have only a set menu of salad, rice with beans, and some beef with onions for CUC$3.55. We had lunch with a couple of drinks, then a few tourists and a couple of musicians arrived. Our bill came out to CUC$15. So the lunch itself is reasonable, but they got us on the drinks. It wasn’t really a big deal as the restaurant has a nice atmosphere with a decent view of the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor de San Salvador in the Plaza del Himno Nacional and the Rio Bayamo to the rear of the restaurant. After lunch, we found out Bayamo’s main sights can be seen rather quickly. Our walking tour of the few sites the city had to offer started at the Casa Natal de Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, which is one of the few buildings in Bayamo to escape its devastating 1869 fire. The two story colonial house/museum was interesting, with some nice antique furniture. We joined the long line for ice cream at Tropi Creama. The to-go line ran out of ice cream and we didn’t want to sit down so we walked away and sat in the park, which was refreshingly hassle free. Not a single jinitero…can you imagine? Just friendly locals and a nice shady park to while away the day. After about 30 minutes, we saw that the Tropi Creama had refilled on ice cream so we got back in line to get a couple of cones with chocolate ice cream for National Peso ($0.50) each. That’s less than US$0.05 for two ice cream cones. The way the system works it you have to ask “El Ultimo” when you arrive to find out who is last in line. Once someone responds, you know who is in front of you. When the next person asks who is last, you answer in kind and so on. It can be a little confusing and chaotic, but we got the hang of it. It appeared that we had exhausted our options in laid back Bayamo, so we headed over to the El Esquina Bar for a couple of drinks. Several locals had gathered to watch TV to cheer for their team with a soccer match between Ghana vs. Uruguay at the World Cup in South Africa. Robby had a few mojitos, while Becky had a mojito and a “margarita” which was made with almost 100% alcohol, making for a pleasant afternoon. After befriending several of the locals, we thought it was interesting that the room was split evenly between supporting Ghana and Uruguay. Since we were feeling the effects of our drinks, we decided to settle the bill and head back to our casa. Dinner consisted of pork, fried plantains, tomato and cucumber salad, and rice. Afterwards, we checked out the world map on Tony’s wall and planned out our itinerary for the upcoming 18 months. Neither of us had any problems falling asleep tonight!

3 Jul, Bayamo – Santiago de Cuba. Tony knew our Santiago casa owner and promised to call to have him/her waiting for us upon arrival. We enjoyed a nice discussion on life in Cuba with Tony after breakfast, and thanked him for his hospitality before settling the bill and heading out. Since we had plenty of time, we took a leisurely stroll to the Viazul bus station, where we had to wait for our bus, which was due to leave at around 0945 and arrive to Santiago around noon.

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