Cuba: Trinidad

Trinidad, the last stop on our trip, feels like a colonial snapshot back in time with cobbled streets and tiled rooftops. Like I have described many times, it is another completely different city to the places we had visited on our journey here. Exhausted from our jeep excursion through the mountains (and of course our engagement!) we had a rest in our new casa before heading out for dinner at La Cubita, with a celebratory rum cocktail or two. Over our time in Trindad was had delicious home dinners at our casa and enjoyed another ropa vieja in Restaurante El Dorado.

We had four nights in Trinidad and spent the first of our full days exploring the streets. Perhaps for the first time on our trip, we noticed the number of tourists that were arriving into the city on tour buses from Havana, but no wonder when you have a well-preserved historic town. There are souvenir shops a-plenty but if you sought them out there are beautiful artisans selling their hand-thrown pottery as well as contemporary painters. For architecture or urbanism geeks, there is a scale model of the city, Maqueta de Trinidad, where the guide gave us a great description of the development of Trinidad, and I translated from Spanish into English for Dan! For some beach time, Playa Ancon is a short drive or 40 minute cycle from the centre of Trinidad, so we spent a relaxed day down there too.

A highlight of our time in Trinidad was taking salsa dance classes, that our host organised with a colleague of her husband (as is the case in Cuba, everyone know someone). He came to the casa over two nights and up on the balcony taught us the basics of the dance. I've danced salsa before, but Dan was a complete newbie and realised soon in how the man is really in control of the dance, and has to work pretty hard! In the evening we headed up to the central square, where up the sweeping steps in the open air, the Casa de la Musica has live music and everyone is either sitting enjoying a drink, watching the performances or joining in the dancing… and with our new dancing skills, we had a go too! Music and dancing are integral to life in Cuba, and after some Dutch courage, I'm glad we joined in too.


Cuba: Cienfuegos & El Nicho

Cienfuegos was a more fleeting stop-off on route between Playa Gíron and Trinidad. Following almost a week in the countryside and on the coast, the French colonial architecture of this south coast city was another distinctive side to Cuba. The drive was only an hour and a half and once we arrived, we dropped our bags in the casa and headed out into the city. First we wandered around the city centre, a highlight of which was the Palacio Ferrer, a grand building currently under renovation - great for architecture geeks! Then we walked out to Punta Gorda, the city's peninsula with large and elaborate houses and park at the end, where locals were swimming and we enjoyed a good ol' piña colada.

Food-wise, we had two very good dinners in Cienfuegos: at Restaurant Bouyón 1825 we enjoyed a BBQ or parrillada in the back dining room of the restaurant for a very reasonable price, and at Finca del Mar I enjoyed a delicious and beautifully presented octopus carpaccio starter with great views out over the bay. It was certainly a more touristy and pricey affair, but a nice treat that should be booked in advance.

Most reviews recommended Cienfuegos as a day trip or for a single night stay, as it really doesn't take long to explore in itself, however it's a useful base for excursions in the surrounding area. We decided on two nights and spent our full day on the beach at Playa Rancho Luna (though quality wise it's probably not worth the trip if you're heading on to Varadero).

Cienfuegos is the start of an excursion to the El Nicho waterfalls organised by Cubanacán, the state run tourist agency. It had been high on my list of to-dos shortly after starting research our trip, and even better since after the trip we would be dropped off in the next city, Trinidad. Early in the morning we were picked up by our private jeep and drove the two hours through the citrus fields in convoy with two other jeeps up into the mountains. Our tour guide Ray was a real character ("I have 3 sons by 3 different women!!") with a clear passion for his job and country and told us so much about everything we saw throughout the day, about the nature, agriculture, society and culture in the region.

The waterfalls themselves were a sight to behold, and we donned our swimming gear and took a dip! Of course, little did I know, around the corner as we about to head off for lunch (and still drying off from our swim!) Ray the guide took us off to a quiet viewpoint, and Dan proposed!!! So our pictures are pre-engagement, but hey, who cares! Needless to say, with the last stop Trinidad in our sights, this was the best bit of the trip!


Cuba: Playa Gíron

A prerequisite from Dan for our trip to Cuba was a scuba diving trip so after Viñales we made our way to the Bay of Pigs. This area on the south coast is of course famous for the failed American invasion in April 1961, and unbeknownst to us the day we arrived was the 55th anniversary of the event. As we drove on the north-south road from Jaguey Grande to Playa Larga, school children were stood by monuments saluting as we drove past. When we arrived at our hosts' in Playa Gíron, we found out that evening there was to be a big town party, with food, drink and music in what is an otherwise sleepy town. What luck! That evening we wondered over to the town square and enjoyed the best piña coladas we tasted in all of Cuba (the secret is condensed milk), from the sweetest older gentleman at his drinks stand, and danced with all the locals late into the night.

The next day, we were collected by the free scuba bus which collects divers from all over town and drops off at the many scuba site along the Bay of Pigs coastline. The diving was very reasonably priced and started off with a refresher for those who haven't been for a while. As the photos show the waters were beautiful and crystal clear and whilst Dan was out at sea discovering shipwrecks and seeing the wildlife underwater, I did a little snorkelling and just taking in the scenery.

A place of invasions, we also arrived over the days that the crabs were invading the town. They were everywhere!! It happens once a year and the coastal roads were a crab massacre, and caused many a flat tyre for the cars making that journey.

The two afternoons we had in Playa Gíron were spent at Playa los Cocos, a small beach with a little refreshments hut where we sat under the palm trees enjoying a rum and coconut. More pictures on my Instagram! Following a relaxing couple of days on the coast, next stop: Cienfuegos...


Cuba: Viñales

Ahead of our trip we made no casa reservations other than in Havana, so our host Aymeé kindly rang up her friends who lived in our next destinations and booked for us. What a gem! We left Havana on a Saturday morning, in a maroon coloured Chevrolet arranged by Aymeé, and made the two and half hour drive to the Valley of Viñales. As soon as we left the city, another side of Cuba, the rural, agricultural landscape, emerged. When the signs for Viñales arrived, so did the first glimpses of the incredible mogotes, the flat topped mountains that define this part of the country.

The town of Viñales is comparable to a village at home and the main street can be walked in 5 minutes. Our new host arranged for a local guide to come to the house and asked us what we want to do whilst we're in the area and so the next morning bright and early we were picked up to go on a horse back excursion. This was only my second time ever on horseback and our guide for the morning seemed to relish in making my horse gallop up hills whilst I clung on for dear life! We saw tobacco farming and cigar production, coffee and fruit growing (did you know pineapples grow on the ground?!), visited a local cave and swam in a natural lake. It gave us a good first impression of life and industry in this part of Cuba, but I still wasn't getting that 'WOW' feeling I had expected from Viñales...

Late that evening back at our casa, we bumped into a couple of Swiss girls who we had met in Havana. They too had found the typical excursion rather conveyor belt-like and touristy, however they had just returned from a sunset walking tour by a local guide recommended to them, and so passed on his details.

Luis Miguel came and collected us the following afternoon and we embarked on an adventure with two ladies, Eng and Marylis, through in the National Park of Viñales. On this trip we saw the true, untouched side of this beautiful region, that was literally Luis Miguel's playground growing up. We climbed up the sides of mogotes to wonderful window view points, walked through his parents farm learning about the crops that they grew, we were invited into their home to enjoy the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted (I usually claim to not like coffee!), learnt about the cigar, or puro, making process in a hand-built drying house, and then climbed up to los Aquaticos to look down over this breathtaking landscape (and admire the cutest little piglets!). Quite honestly at times on this excursion I felt rather emotional, having wanted to visit this country for so long, I felt this was the real Cuba that we were experiencing. When in Viñales, this trip is a must must must!

You make the journey to Viñales to explore the landscape, so for me a day trip from Havana would not be enough. One afternoon we stumbled upon the farm belonging to Raul Reyes, which he welcomes hikers to pass through, or even stop by to enjoy a drink. The next day we returned to by some coffee from him (sold in recycled water bottles!) and he greeted us like friends. The people we met were always so open, and in my rusty Spanish we were able to converse and get a deeper understanding Cuban life.

Viñales' slow pace of life is such a contrast to Havana. During our stay we tended to eat at the casa, and one night enjoyed a delicious roast pork, or cerdo asado. Delicious! After a three night stay, we were off on the road again, next stop: Playa Gíron!