Tuesday morning was the first day of our bus trip to the
south coast. We had to catch the bus at
8:50am which left from a resort in Varadero.
Debbie had arranged for a larger taxi to bring us down to the resort
but, for some reason, they didn’t show up.
We walked out to the road and were able to flag down two passing
taxis. We arrived at the resort 5
minutes before the bus.
The bus was comfortable and air-conditioned. Every seat was full. There were 28 tourists, the tour guide and
bus driver. Something we hadn’t thought
about was what language the tour guide would use. Fortunately for us, the entire tour was in
English. Most of the tourists were
northern European (Scandinavia, Poland, etc) or Canadian. We were the only Americans.
Our tour guide was Xavier (pronounced very differently in
Cuba. He told us, “Sounds like
have-a-beer”). He was about 35 and spoke
excellent English with just a slight accent.
Like the majority of things in Cuba, the tour busses are
owned by the government and the workers are government employees. So, you have to listen to the history
(especially post 1959 revolution) with some skepticism.
First city was Cienfuegos on the south coast about 3
hours from Varadero. We did stop at
least once along the way for snacks and “make pee-pee” as Xavier called
it. We had views of rolling hills and
flat farm-land along with way.
There were many huge sugarcane fields along the country
roads. At one time, Cuba was the second
largest sugar producing country in the world.
This was mostly because of Russian support – they purchased the sugar at
fixed prices to help support the Cuban economy.
In 1998, when Russia came apart, they stopped buying sugar from
Cuba. The number of sugar factories in
Cuba fell from 170 to 50 in one year.
The Cuban economy was in very bad shape with very high
unemployment. They eventually redirected
many of the workers to other areas including tourism. The remaining sugarcane fields are for local
Here is a sugarcane field after it has been harvested
Cienfuegos is an old city with a great harbor. It is (was?) the center of Cuba’s trade and
finance. The bus dropped us off at the
old square downtown. There was an old
church nearby with a high (60’?) tower you could walk up. The church was being refurbished but the
floors and walls were beautiful marble.
I had never seen marble on walls.
It was probably several 100 years old but looked new and shiny. Click HERE for a video Laura took from the top of the tower shown below. I didn't go up that high....
Here is the church that was being renovated. Notice the tower in the left corner? That is where we walked up for pictures of the city.
I was a little shaky walking up the old circular stairway
to the top of the tower (fear of heights) but the view was worth it. The harbor is huge and offers 360 degree
protection for all size vessels. We took
some great pictures than walked around the square before leaving on the bus
about an hour later.
The bus then drove us to Trinidad which is the oldest
city in Cuba. Trinidad was founded in
1515. For comparison, the oldest city in the United States is St. Augustine,
Florida which was founded in 1565.
This is what the streets look like in Old Trinidad. We walked up the church tower on the right for pictures. On the left, near the brown door, is a school house. Click HERE to watch the scenic video I took from the top of the church in Trinidad.
The bus dropped us off and we toured the old part of the
city in Trinidad by foot. Our tour guide
took us to several historic places including the square where the city charter
was signed in 1515. We had problems
walking down the cobblestone streets and I wondered how the horses would keep
their footing. We eventually ended up at
the main square in town. A huge stairway
left from the square to a large house where the “richest man” used to
live. He built the stairs with slave
labor. The stairs were eventually used
as the largest slave market in Trinidad.
Here I sit on the steps that used to be where slaves were auctioned for mostly sugarcane workers.
Laura walked a short distance to an open-air bar and
bought us two Cuba-Libres for $2.50 (total).
We sat on the stairs for a while, sipping our rum and coke while
thinking about all the men, women and children who had their fates decided
This was a little square in Trinidad just down from the school. I like this picture a lot with the horse-buggy in the background and lots of people around.
Trinidad seemed like the real, historic Cuba with narrow
cobblestone street, lots of live music playing, many street vendors selling
touristy things and many small shops. But,
I couldn’t help thinking that there were 100s (1,000s?) of tourists here by bus
and maybe this was a show for all of us.
Trinidad was billed as the warmest city in Cuba (it was
high-70s there in January) and now we were going to the coldest place in Cuba -
Topes de Callantes – a nature reserve park in the Escambray mountains. This is one of the highest mountains in Cuba
at almost 2,600 feet. It also is known
for the coldest temperature ever recorded in Cuba – 33 degrees F.
Almost immediately after leaving Trinidad, the bus started
climbing. A short while later, the
driver stopped and told us he had to turn off the air-conditioning for a little
while because it would overload the engine.
The roads from that point were very steep.
After an hour or more of steep roads we arrived at our
overnight lodging. Every couple on the
bus had their own bungalow which we were assigned after our passports were
recorded at the front desk. We walked
down a very steep hill to our bungalow, unlocked the door and walked in. It is funny how your expectations change when
traveling a 3rd world country.
The décor was Spartan to say the least and you would not have accepted a
place like this anywhere in the U.S.
But, it had a toilet seat, toilet paper and the toilet flushed. 3 for 3!
The bed was very hard with the matress and box spring sitting on the
floor. There were two bedrooms, a
kitchen, bathroom and small pallor with a TV.
It was pretty good by Cuban standards.
This was our bungalow bedroom. Spartan but clean. A nice touch was our towels folded as swans...
We looked around a little then headed back up the steep
hill to the restaurant behind the reception area. There was a buffet of salads and different
meats, veggies and pasta. All the food
was excellent and we tasted many of the dishes.
One drink was included but the bar was a short walk away. D, Don and Bruce sat with us for dinner and
we talked about everything we’d seen in just one day.
After dinner Don and I sat at the bar for a couple
drinks. We were the only ones here until
a fairly drunk tourist came over and sat next to us. Eventually, we figured out he was born in
Poland but lived in Switzerland. He
asked us if we spoke several languages but it turned out we had no language in
common. We sputtered along with the
little French I know and a few words of Spanish. He didn’t seem to mind as he had several
conversations (which we couldn’t understand) in Polish (I think). At one point I remembered that a couple
different languages are spoken in Switzerland.
I asked him, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?”
His whole face lit up and he answered, “Qui!”. We laughed like crazy because he had answered
me in French. That was the highlight of
my evening (It was funnier after three Cuba-Libres….)
I did not sleep well that night as something I ate did
not agree with me so I spent most of the night on the toilet.
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