A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba

Cuban Cohibas

A taste of tobacco

sunny 30 °C

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Not far from the hustle and bustle of Havana, in a verdant valley midst mountains of karst, lies a tranquil corner of heaven where the sun shines daily on the fields of sugar, tobacco and pineapples; where the farmers' oxen plough straight furrows; and the gentle folk have a smile for everyone and a room in their house for all. If god had wanted the world to be a happy place he might have made it all like Viñales in western Cuba, and had he wanted people of all colours and creeds to live in harmony he would have made them Cuban. If ever there was a place where we could give in to the rocking chair it would be here with our hosts, Osvedi and Leyani, on the terrace of their delightful casa particular under the mango and orange trees of the Viñales Valley…
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Life is as sweet as the sugar canes that grow here alongside the coffee, bananas and coconuts. Can there be a more heavenly place? Just take a look at the stunning vistas of mountains…
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And here’s Sheila after a stiff climb squeezing a rejuvenating and refreshing glass of sugar cane juice to give us the energy to climb back down to the tobacco fields…
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The beautiful Viñales Valley is a popular tourist destination; with tobacco factories, caves, beaches and sugar plantations to visit. This is one of the many limestone caves which was once inhabited by runaway slaves…
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And here is a tobacco farmer rolling his own Cohiba cigar…
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But nowhere on earth is perfect, and so, every few years nature whips up a hurricane in the warm waters of the Caribbean and scours this bucolic landscape. In preparation, the farmers build thatched shelters that can withstand the ferocious winds where they and their families can ride out the storm…
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But townsfolk can only pray as their roofs and belongings take to the air. This famous colonial restaurant, the Don Tomás, (circa 1887) was totally dismembered by a hurricane in 2008, but the owners faithfully rebuilt it…
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The food is fabulous; the prices are so low that we thought they had made a mistake with the bill, and the traditional Cuban entertainment was delightful...
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Viñales is a small town with a big heart and the lovely people who live here gave us a
very warm welcome – we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 06:17 Archived in Cuba Comments (3)

Trinidad de Cuba

A very old city in the New World

sunny 29 °C

Trinidad de Cuba is a quaint city on Cuba’s south coast that has become a museum of colonial architecture without even trying…
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The ancient cobblestone streets lined with gaily painted stone houses are simply home to the many Cubans who live here…
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And the historic edifices in the central square still bear the hallmarks of their builders who first came from Spain 500 years ago…
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The bell tower of the Franciscan monastery overlooks the square and gives lovely views of the town and surrounding sugar plantations with the ocean as a backdrop…
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But the monks who built the monastery in 1730 would be horrified to discover that today their ecclesiastical creation is a museum dedicated to the counterrevolutionary bandits who fought against Fidel and his guerrillas in 1959.

The city of Trinidad was built on the backs of slaves who toiled in the surrounding sugar plantations and these stocks in the museum of architecture were once used to shackle the slaves during the arduous voyage from West Africa…
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Slavery had long been outlawed by the 1950s but many Cubans were still economic slaves at that time; forced to work in poor conditions for little pay to satiate the greed of foreign plantation owners. Fidel Castro and his Argentinean amigo, Che Guevara, are sill worshipped everywhere in Cuba as the revolutionary leaders who freed the workers. However, the sugar plantations that made Cuba famous, and the owners rich, are still here in the surrounding valleys, but the American embargo and declining prices caused by a world glut, has left the industry a shadow of its former self.

This was once the owner’s hacienda of a thriving sugar plantation…
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And here is the tower from where the owner or slave master would watch over his plantation workers…
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While this is the house where Castro and his compatriots planned their revolution in Trinidad…
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The provincial capital of Cienfuegos is another well preserved historic city on the south coast of Cuba. While less picturesque than Trinidad it has many large colonial buildings including a magnificent theatre built by an unscrupulous Spanish plantation owner with the unlikely name of Tomás Terry. It also has the only triumphal arch in the whole of Cuba…
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Now we leave the south coast and head to the western province of Pinar del Rio – a six hour journey along virtually deserted 6 and 8 lane divided highways in a modern air-conditioned bus with just two other passengers.

Posted by Hawkson 14:51 Archived in Cuba Comments (2)

Driving Miss Sheila

sunny 29 °C

Not everyone knows that James once drove a 1923 taxicab around the historic streets of Bath in England, and even chauffeured actress Joan Collins for a while, so here in Havana he couldn’t resist taking the wheel of this 1961 American beauty with another lovely lady passenger…
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But pre-revolution American cars are ten a penny on the streets of this historic city…
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And there are even a few old English bangers like this nifty little Morris Minor from the 1950’s…
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Today there is no shortage of modern vehicles from Mexico, Japan and Europe, but no Yankee wheels have taken to Cuban streets since the 1962 American embargo following the Missile Crises. Although many of the old American gas guzzlers have been kept in showroom condition for more than fifty years, (not an easy task considering the tropical airs of the Caribbean), many of them are rust buckets needing some TLC…
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It is estimated that there are some two million vintage American cars on the roads of Cuba. However, before you rush down here to snap up a bargain you should be advised that the locals know exactly what their rough diamonds are worth.

While everyone loves riding in the Yankee monsters the most favoured transport along the pedestrianised streets of old Havana are the tricycle rickshaws …
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Gaggles of energetic young men gather at each corner and good-naturedly offer inexpensive trips around the town. For longer distances there are numerous bus companies offering a good service on air-conditioned modern coaches, although many of the locals still drive ox-carts and bikes.
Travel for tourists in Cuba is easy and comfortable but travel for locals is a different story. Their ‘buses’ are mainly cattle trucks or semi-trailers, (artics to our English readers), pulling old forty-foot shipping containers filled with wooden benches, or horse-drawn carriages like this ‘Omnibus Nacional’ in Cienfuegos…
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The sugar farmers' ox-carts and plows are picturesque, while many people ride horses or in carts. For them it is a hard way of life but for us privileged northerners it is yet another opportunity for James to take the reins in the tobacco fields of the Viñales Valley to drive Miss Sheila…
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See you soon - if the horse doesn't bolt.

Posted by Hawkson 15:35 Archived in Cuba Comments (8)

Our Woman in Havana

sunny 29 °C

Unlike the protagonist in Graham Greene’s Cuban novel, ‘Our man in Havana’ our secret weapon turned out to be a woman: Lourdes, the charming owner of Villa Lou, a casa particular, (a privately owned B & B), who not only served an excellent breakfast everyday but also chauffeured us around the city each morning and acted as tour guide without charge. Here is Lourdes with Sheila under a loaded banana palm in the villa’s lush garden…
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Cuba is truly a tropical haven with exotic vegetation sprouting from every crevice, and the sights, sounds and scents constantly remind us that we are in the Caribbean…

Life is lived on the streets in Havana where the word ‘chilled’ only applies to Mohitos and beer. It’s midwinter, so the days are pleasantly hot, the nights are warm, the sea is balmy, and a million northerners are here to escape the polar vortex. Today, tourism is Cuba’s largest industry and the narrow streets of Havana’s old city swarm with visitors. However, while other Caribbean islands have been ravaged by the influence of Uncle Sam and the almighty buck, the ongoing American embargo has largely saved Cuba from the sport of gouging the tourist – where else in the world can you get a beer for a dollar or a four course lobster dinner for $15?
This is one of the many beautifully restored squares in Havana…
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However, following the revolution in 1959 many historic buildings were abandoned as hated symbols of colonialism and they now lie in ruins…
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The days of Soviet subsidised sugar, tobacco and rum production are long gone and Cubans are learning the ways of capitalism. Since the Marxists slipped the leash on small businesses a few years ago, restaurants, taxis and bed & breakfast guesthouses (casa particulars) have flourished, and the prices are very reasonable. A large room with ensuite and excellent breakfast in Havana costs less than $50 Cdn a night, while in the historic city of Trinidad we had a beautiful four room suite with two private terraces for just $35 including an excellent breakfast. Here’s our view of sunset from the west terrace…
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And this is Norelvis and his charming wife, Luibetsy, who gave us five star service, and fabulous meals, throughout our stay…
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Other forms of private enterprise have also blossomed since the relaxation of Communism and this is very evident on the streets of the capital where bevies of beautiful young women and handsome young men offer dubious pleasurable services to foreigners. However, these costumed beauties are unlikely to go further than posing for a photo for a fee…
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Prices in general are low and for fifteen dollars each we have eaten three course haute cuisine dinners in fine dining restaurants. The food has been superb: high quality; perfectly cooked and beautifully presented, and the service has been impeccable.
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This is the tower of El Cocinero restaurant – a converted peanut oil factory near our casa in Havana – where haute cuisine is taken to new heights. We paid peanuts for excellent dinners under the stars while being serenaded by soft Cuban jazz.

There are no satellite dishes here and the internet is restricted solely to the military and to emails. The web is illegal in private houses but, we are told, that is simply because the cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela has a limited capacity. The result is that Cubans are shielded from worldly distractions like Facebook and Google and have time for singing and dancing in the streets…
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Much more to see and do in Havana - Hasta luego.

Posted by Hawkson 16:29 Archived in Cuba Comments (5)

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