So we got off the boat and took the bus to Santa Clara, the birthplace of the Castro revolution. Here we booked for a car rental pick up at the airport and drove for about three hours to Trinidad. I hope you like to pics. This place is a living museum and it is a caricature of itself. Narrow gobble stone streets which will test every car to its limits for durability. All the streets look like ‘no go’ zones with the car as the roads are that bad. However this is the town centre. It is picturesque nestled on a mountain side overlooking the ocean on one side and looking in to valleys and hills on the others.
There are barely any cars and the modus of transport are horse or horse and carriage. No surprise that many streets are, lets say, frequently fertilised. Closest to the market square and church, it is super pretty and quaint with little restaurants, often in court yards and/or roof terraces offering views of the rolling hills. It is similarly priced to Havana if maybe every so slightly higher.
For those travelling further, this is a taxi.......
We stayed in a beautiful boutique place called La Casona. This place is clearly kept well by well to do owners. It has its own herb garden and ALL is organically grown and picked as you order. It also has a deck with a swimming pool without water. On local orders, there is no water allowed for the pools. The deck and cocktail bar however function well without water in the pool! And then there are the stables with about 6 horses.
Relative to all ALL other horses we have seen, these horses are extremely well catered for. Groomed and well fed, it is clear this place is well ran. So we decided to go for a 4 hours ride across the fields and mountains. We received proper gear, shaffs for our calves and a proper riding hat. The saddle leather wear was beautiful and the craftsman-shaft enviable. The saddles has added pockets for water bottles and camera. Sharon’s horse riding experience is probably less than the number of fingers on your hands and our guide more or less had her horse in tow. It has been a while for me as well but my horse responded well and before long we were happily trotting along through the sugar cane valleys and other mountain passes. Very nice experience but I must admit my butt hurts after the ride. We also stopped at a place to enjoy sugar cane juice with a dash of lemon. Our host Jose spontaneously took out his ‘guitar’ which clearly was never tuned since it was made. I hope you like the photo! We did!
This was a laugh and I quickly dubbed him Carlos Santana. Clearly lost upon Jose, our guide, Juan Carlos, explained that Santana was this famous ‘Mexican’ guitar player. LOL…. If Santana found out, he would have killed all of us! Anyway, this was another experience that will not be quickly forgotten and one has to ask, are these people poor or the opposite, truly rich working their land, enjoying their friends and seemingly enjoying showing the visitors how they live. Another thing, we were never asked for money or tips….. The only beggars were during our bfast, lunch and dinner as there are stray cats everywhere. Sharon and I were both suckers for the polite cats sitting prim and proper next to you, staring you straight in the eye until you give them something to eat. And picky too!! They know what they like and what not to the point it is embarrassing that one of the cats wanted lobster and pork but not shrimp bits. LOL.
After our ride, a refreshing shower, a stroll through town, a late lunch on a rooftop and we are done for the day. The town centre has a terrace with internet as you can see from all the people sitting on the stairs. Internet is hard to come by and it the same scratch cards and crappy bandwidth as we had in Havana. This square has signal and hence attracts a lot of people.......
Tomorrow we drive 400km to the north, passing Havana and will visit the land of the cigars manufacturing.
We drove north to Hotel El Castillo de las Nubes in Soroa. The 5 hour drive was fun especially on the national highway which has potholes which could swallow a small sized car. Added excitement come from bicycles on the highway and intersections without markings other than a speed limit change. So be aware of trucks pulling up or tractors coming across the highway from time to time. As such, it is recommended to seriously concentrate when driving and to ensure you this in daytime as at night, this could be more dangerous. We stayed overnight in El Castillo which translates as the castle. This is a quaint castle like villa on the top of the mountain overlooking the valleys and mountains win one side and the flat lands on the other. Cute and if you are looking to make a stop over, this is a good place to enjoy the view. We also went for a short hike and enjoy the nearby waterfall.
Our last stop is Vinales, This is b y far the most touristy place visited. The village Main Street is lined by bars and little shops and is buzzing, The area is known for tobacco growing and cigars making. This is not like Bordeaux where you expect to see a winery of a famous brand. All cigar manufacturing is owned by the government and the factories are near Havana. The leaves and the tobacco are sourced from all sorts of farms and many of these are in the north. You can visit the farms and the owners normally have some cigars 'on the side', brand-less, but many of great quality. One of the main quality drivers of the cigar are the leaves and the Cohiba leave is the the top of the range. Cigars are relatively cheap here compared to buying Cuban cigars at home so shop around and compare prices. In the valleys surrounding Vinales, you will also found a large prehistoric wall mural. Spoiler alert, it is painted in with modern paint which was a bit of a let down when we saw it......
Also here there are many things to do including horse riding. I wish I was better at it as it must be amazing to seriously ride in the valleys here. The next pic is from our hotel at sunrise...... The area is the prettiest of our trip yet. The pic is unedited and taken with my iPhone 10.
Our four day road trip flew by but tired of the mediocre food we were somewhat happy to leave Cuba. So off to the airport...... Or almost...... As one tiny little thing we knew about (and ignored) almost became a real problem...... Petrol...... Yup,..... We had a modern Mercedes which requires unleaded 95. Road travellers be forewarned. In little villages and 'b' roads, many gas stations do not carry this...... As such, my advise is to tank at any occasion once you reach 'half tank'. The first three days I did so. But as you can deliver the car back at the airport with minimum fuel (you get charged a full tank when you pick up the car), I thought we did not need any more fuel. With 50km. to go however the 'reserve' light came on and by my calculation we may just not make it....... So why not exit and have our App guide us to a gas station? And this is where excitement and stress quickly piled on as by now we are down to the very last 'bar' on the meter and the first two gas stations we were able to find did not carry 'our' gas...... Sharon's logic prevailed and she directed us to another nearby major highway assuming that nearer the highways, the gas stations have more tourists exposure and thus modern cars needing unleaded 95. And on what must have been the very last drops, we made it and filled ups the car fair bit only to note that the airport was less then a 10 min ride away.....
So back at the airport and on time, we queued up once again to claim our drone back. It took close to an hour getting all formalities completed but after payment was made, my drove was out of jail and we happily reunited for our 9 hours flight back too Amsterdam!
So in conclusion, the place has its challenges for sure to what we are ‘used to’ in our western mindsets. It is a poor country and it shows in many ways from bumpy roads, run down streets scenery and old/poorly maintained buildings. But if you look for the colour, the vibrance, the people, the music and buz, Cubans show that this is a happening society that despite its poor economy seems to live in harmony, happily and joyfully and with what seems too be a great sense of pride and community. People sit in their front doors chatting with their neighbours and passers by. It seems everybody knows everybody and I ask myself if this is actually better than my western fast paced lifestyle where we are not likely to know anyone two doors down, let alone know who lives across the street. I am only here a few days and surely no expert on Cuba but the people seem bound and grounded together by life music, singing and a strong sense of solidarity and community. And that is in my opinion a rich life, probably richer than many in our luxury filled, fast paced lifestyles. A must do but also honestly not something I quickly add to the repeat list.