Cuba – Beyond Havana

January 2, 2015 Updated: January 2, 2015

Once in Cuba it’s quite a shame not to visit other areas as wel,l besides Havana. And it’s not even that hard. The easiest is to rent a car, buy a map and renew your orientation sense, that is a bit atrophied in some by the GPS (road signs are pretty much rare in Cuba) and hit the road. The roads are reasonable, there’s even a highway, to tell the truth not in the best conditions, but with a relaxingly low traffic – you can go for kilometers without running into another car.

I found out that there are numerous car renting agencies in Cuba, all of them state-owned. I don’t quite understand why so many, bearing in mind that there is only one sole owner, but it doesn’t matter… They have numerous agencies all throughout Havana, but if you want to obtain offers from all of them, there’s no better place than the Habana Libre Hotel – the former Hilton from the period up to 1959. I went into the reception and I found all the rent-a-car agencies from Cuba beautifully aligned one after another. The offers are pretty uniform, although there may be one surprise in some agencies – either antique cars, or SUVs. The prices being a bit high though, I opted for a Peugeot 207, paying some 60 CUC daily…. well, that’s it.

Cathedral in Trinidad (Imperator Travel)
Cathedral in Trinidad (Imperator Travel)

The exit from Havana is however a challenge. The private landlord from Havana explained to me the way to get out of Havana, but the Minoic labyrinth was simpler to solve…so eventually, I reached the highway with the help of an old guy, who, after leading us to the highway asked us for no more and no less than 20 CUC …that is monthly average wage in Cuba. Hmmm…negotiation, we got away with less…and let’s hit the road.

The highway, like any other highways in the world is boring. Furthermore, it is also empty, from now and then passing by you can be a truck produced in USSR, a vintage American car or a tourist with a Peugeot…. By the way…in Cuba the plates have about 9 colors – it’s how you know if the car is private, owned by the state, by a state owned manufacturer or military. For foreign tourists – practically the only ones that rent cars in Cuba, the plates are burgundy so everybody knows there’s a gringo just passing by.

One of the advices I received was to take a hitch hiker out of the countless ones that stay at the crossroads to guide you. Here, you can get screwed. If the hitchhiker really goes in the direction that you want to go, then you are a made man, if not, he can guide you to the place he actually wants to go and claim that this was the way to Cienfuegos or Trinidad. That’s why you need a great orientation sense and a good map with you.

Producing sugar cane juice (Imperator Travel)
Producing sugar cane juice (Imperator Travel)

Finally, we arrive to Cienfuegos. The final destination was Trinidad, but it is not that bad to go to Cienfuegos as well, a pretty cute and lively small town. The commercial center is extremely animated and we had dinner at “El Rapido”, the Cuban version of the McDonald’s , only it doesn’t serve hamburgers…only pizza. Pizza is not really bad, so after a tour around the center we head to the Palacio de Valle, a palace build in the 1917s in a … moorish… style. Truth be told, among the palm trees the style fits, but it does seem transported from another world… Anyway, the view of the sea from the roof top is gorgeous and the sugar cane juice with lemon is magnificent, so it’s time to hit the road. Rush hour in Cienfuegos means that on the major boulevard, there are four cars, not two like until now and the correct direction was indicated to us at the exit of the town by a policeman that didn’t seem to have hidden interests.

We would have wanted to reach Trinidad across the mountains, but I understood that the road is pretty bumpy so we decided to spare our Peugeot and take the road down the valleys. Trinidad is a superb colonial town, it is on the UNESCO heritage world list, a small town which must not be missed by anyone who visits Cuba.  Obviously, this makes it more commercial, almost every house downtown is a “private house” and there are “paladares” everywhere – small restaurants, owned by private entrepreneurs, but restricted to 12 seats. If in Havana, these “paladares” are pretty commercial, in Trinidad they are actually in the houses of the owners…you feel like you are visiting somebody. Although usually the atmosphere is pretty relaxed, some shy marketing methods to gain clients did start to appear… around the main square in Trinidad in one evening, we were recruited by a black woman that was walking by with huge books full of testimonials of the customers in their own mother languages, the huge majority being appraisals…It’s true, that woman’s house was in a more worn down area of Trinidad, but if was worth taking the road there….the food was absolutely incredible and from there on, the Romanian language lies in the big book together with other dozens of languages, recommending the landlady…

(Imperator Travel)
(Imperator Travel)

What can you do in Trinidad? …well, first of all breath in the air of the colonial past and let yourself get lost on the small streets that are unchanged for hundreds of years. You can listen to music in any form or way at the numerous community centers. You can visit “the Museum of the Fight Against Banditry” in a former church. You can visit the houses of the old noblemen. You can go to the beach – playa Ancon with fine, white sand is only a few kilometers away and it’s one of the few places in the country where the locals can bathe next to foreigners. Truth be told, the transportation modality differs…the foreigners travel by car and the Cubans in a trailer pulled by a tractor, but does it even matter when the water is so pleasant ?

Trinidad developed due to the vast sugar cane plantations. I bought a tour out of Trinidad to Valle de los Ingenios. And it was an excellent day – I visited a tower that dominates all over the valley from where the lazy slaves were observed, I witnessed the ancient manual process of extracting the juice out of the sugar canes, I tasted sugar cane juice with lemon, I rode through out banana trees plantations, we took a bath in a pond, and finally, over dinner we listened to the voices of some minstrels from the next village, to the famous “Guantanamera” or “Comandante Che Guevara”…

From Trinidad, going further, we cut the island in two to reach the northern shore. We stopped a bit in Sancti Spiritus, the capital of the province where we relived the pre- 1989 frenzy of “they brought meat at the grocery store”, judging by the queues downtown and finally we reached the small town of Remedios. Here, we stayed also at a “private house”, at a guy that built a pretty modernist house, in comparison to what you find elsewhere in Cuba. As the town is small, the other alternative was to stay at the town’s witch, specialized in voodoo….

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*Image of horse and a cart on a street in Trinidad, Cuba via Shutterstock