We had just returned from a wonderful holiday in Mexico, it was the end of October and I remember saying to a friend that it would be “redundant” to got to Cuba afterwards. Maybe a week or two later, after facing the wonderfully freezing European autumn, I was suggesting to the same friend to got to Cuba at the beginning of December. She was of course astonied, she asked how come it’s not “redundant” anymore, but quickly decided to join me on yet another adventure. We boarded a charter flight from Dusseldorf, Germany to Varadero, Cuba, not before attending the local Christmas market, with gluhwein , many cookies and painted Christmas decorations. It was lovely and cold at the same time, I remember getting back to the hotel and having one of the longest hot baths ever. But people in the plane next morning were very happy to fly to a totally different weather, despite the fact that the long time Cuban ruler Fidel Castro had just passed away and the country was going through the three weeks of national mourning. That meant in fact a lot of restrictions, including no drinking or listening to loud music, but, what can I say, nothing can stop the Cubans from being joyful, it’s simply in their nature.
It was a lovely sunny day in Varadero when we arrived and after a short ride we were able to enjoy our seaview hotel room, the beach, and make plans for the days to come. Among the first things there, we decided to visit 3 small cities to the South of the island : Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. In Cienfuegos, listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO, we admired the architecture there, including the restored plaza Parque José Martí and the Moorish Palace of the del Valle family. The route from Cienfuegos to Trinidad is impressive and runs between the Caribbean Sea, and on the other side the Escambray Mountains. Trinidad is a colonial town, founded in 1514, and the settlers became very rich through the cultivation and trade of sugar cane. The city went through extensive renovation that brought back the colors of that age on the traditional houses built by the aristocracy.The journey continued to Santa Clara, where we visited the mausoleum of Che Guevara – the monument where the remains of this national hero are interred. Ernesto Che Guevara, of Argentinian descent, is in fact a very controversial figure, a symbol of rebellion, a Marxist revolutionary, physician, diplomat and guerilla leader. He apparently met Raul and Fidel Castro in Mexico City and joined them in their quest to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the succes of their movement, he was appointed several key roles in the new government, but he left Cuba in 1965 to continue revolution elsewhere, only to be captured and executed 2 years later in Bolivia, by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces.
The next day, we spent it resting by the beach, but we had to go for a ride with one of the amazing Cuban vintage convertibles. The cars that look like candy bars hide powerful engines, as the Cuban mechanics are known for one of the most talented, since succesfully adapting to harsh circumstances. The story goes that shortly after coming to power in 1959, Cuba’s communist government led by Fidel Castro banned imports on both foreign cars and car parts. One of the inevitable effects of this policy was the necessity to both keep in shape but also reinvent the existing cars. A drive in a convertible car along the Varadero coastline is not at all expensive and is something to remember. Mind the hair !
If you would like to spend the day at sea, then I advise you to take the catamaran day trip to Cayo Blanco Island. I remember I totally forgot to bring my beach towel, so, I just layed by the palmtrees on the white sandy beach, with the amazingly blue view of the Carribean Sea. The lunch on the island included plenty of seafood, although seafood is not something very common in Cuba, which is surprising for an island. On the boat we had time to sing, to dance and enjoy the ride, with the Cuban crew being true party people.
The area of Matanzas, close to Varadero, used to hold many sugar cane plantations during the past centuries, so we had an interesting experience visiting one, being explained the whole process and tasting the sweet raw juice of sugar cane. Bonus, you get to ride a steam train that was used to transport molasses and other sugary products. It it only a half day trip, so can get back to the beach for the afternoon.
Also from Varadero, we took a a trip to Havana, the charming capital of Cuba,which still holds on to the colonial vibe, while developing into a modern contemporary city. I said it then and I am keeping my promise that, whenever life will allow me, I will get back to Havana, if only to zip a coffee in one of the bohemian places there, marvelous interior gardens taking you back through ages. Start your walk in the Old Havana at Plaza de la Cathedral, take a look inside the San Cristobal Cathedral, then head to the Plaza de Armas, where merchants sell old books in the street. Before deciding whether or not you would like to visit The War Museum, take a look at Palacio del Segundo Capo, and afterwards walk towards Plaza Vieja. There are many interesting museums to visit in Havana, I particularly enjoyed the Museum of Pharmacy Habanera. Among the colorful streets in the old Havana, filled with painters and artisans, it was indeed a moment of grace to stop for a rum tasting and a local cigar. Although I have had rum before, mostly in tea and cookies, the cigar experience was for the first time and I totally enjoyed it, however I am still unlikely to turn into a cigar smoker. In the afternoon we even took the time to visit a local cigar factory, where people work hard to manually fold the cigars from tobacco leaves. And, apart from the salary, they also receive 10 cigars a day, also as payment for their work. Another must-see places in Havana are Plaza de la Revolution and Monument to Jose Marti, places that honor the heroes of the Cuban society. Also, a more modern place of reference in Havana is El Malecon, a broad esplanade and seawall which stretches for 8 km along the coast in Havana, where you can either walk by the sea or ride in one of those lovely Cuban convertibles.