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Traveling Cuba – Part 3.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Central Cuba – Off the beaten track in Cuba
We are continuing our adventurous trip through Cuba. After dropping off our friend Ljiljana at the Varadero airport, Vera and I drove to a small town Cardenas, which is only 38 km east of Varadero airport. There we could rent a room in casa particular since this would be illegal in Varadero. Cardenas
Ever since we set our foot in Cuba, we are under impression that time had stopped for the entire island somewhere in 1950. But, when we came to town of Cardenas, our impression was that we are entering town that still leaves in the early time of colonializam . Its citizens still use – at masse – the horse-drawn taxis to get around. Others ride bikes. Hasta la bicicleta siempre ! Horse-drawn carriages and bicycles far outnumber cars on its straight and narrow streets.
Catedral de la Concepcion Imaculada, with the statue of Christopher Columbus in front (in Park Colon).
After finding our casa particular for one night, Vera and I went for a stroll thru the town. What better way of doing it but to hire a horse-drown carriage (Cubans call it: la coche tradicional) for our tour. For 30 minutes tour, Peter, the carriage rider, charged only 3 CUC (1 hour for 5 CUC). The ride in the carriage was something special. Peter was a good tour guide. He was trying to explain what we were seeing, but his English was just as limited as Vera’s Spanish. I was impressed how “robotic” the horse was. I love horses, but these horses are really trained for the job; they can read the traffic, they know exactly how much space the wheels of the carriage need on the street, so they don’t scratch cars or hit pedestrians, they go around the potholes… and after half hour going around the town, there was no sweat. It was just one of many tours they do every day, working probably more than 12 hours a day. As our ride was over, they park and line-up for the next one, without even as much as turning head. Amazing… and I felt sorry for them!
Horse-drawn taxis in Cardenas
Cárdenas supplies part of Varadero in labor. It boasts nice examples of neo-classic architecture (superb patios, high windows, detailed motifs) some dating to the town’s founding in 1828 and it’s a short one-day excursion for the tourists who rent motorbikes in Varadero.
Horse-drawn taxis in Cardenas
Located 18km southeast of Varadero, Cárdenas is a small, quiet city with beautiful colonial-era architecture and a timeless quality. Cárdenas is known as Cuba’s “Ciudad Bandera” (Flag City), as it was here, on 19 May 1850, Narciso López and 600 Kentucky and Louisiana mercenaries invaded the island with a plan to seize it from Spain and annex it for the U.S. to add to the slave states. But their goal was thwarted and the national flag was first raised atop the building of the La Dominica Hotel.
Horse-drawn taxis in Cardenas
The city center is quite compact, and one can easily see most of the sights in a couple of hours strolling around. There are several small squares and parks in Cárdenas. The diminutive Parque Colón features the first statue of Christopher Columbus in the Americas dating from 1826. Across from it is the beautiful Catedral de la Concepción Imaculada, which is famous for its stained glass. In another main park, Parque Echeverría, sits the Museo Casa Natal José Antonio Echeverría. This beautiful old home features tributes to various independence fighters and revolutionary heroes, including the museum’s namesake, a murdered revolutionary student hero who was born here in 1932.
The town’s main market, Plaza Molokoff is housed in an interesting two-story L-shaped iron building, topped with a large and high ornate dome. Out by the water’s edge is the Arrechabala Rum Factory, where the brand Havana Club was born and where present-day Varadero and Buccanero rums are made. Tours of the factory are given daily.
The first electric tramways started here. Second only to Bacardi, one of Cuba’s largest rum distillery Ron Arrechabala (founded 1878) was established here.
Its owner created the Havana Club brand which infamous Bacardi claimed was theirs but after a years-long legal battle in Europe and the US, Pernod-Ricard in partnership with Cuba got rightful ownership of the brand. Other town firsts include the first electric power plant and the first gynecological clinic.
The sleepy town used to live off two sugar mills (José Smith Comas and Humberto Alvarez) in the area but now, there’s only nearby Varadero’s tourist industry and a few of the fishermen’s catches.
Cardenas – Santa Clara
Next morning we were searching for the place where we could have a breakfast, but we found only place to have a coffee. After that we hit the road hungry (thanks for the fruit bars we brought from Edmonton), going southeast on a small country road.
Sugar cane plantation in Central Cuba
Another Horse-drawn taxi in Cuba
Typical small town in central Cuba
We never got lost… the road was narrow but straight, with only few potholes, going thru many small villages. On the western edge of Maximo Gomez (not well marked) we turned right. At Perico, there is an old sugar refinery town called Republicana Espana. (There is a by-pass road around Republicana Espana on the west, or the road through is also fine). We continued thru Perico to Colon, Los Arabos, Mordazo, Manacas, Santo Domingo, Jicoteas and our first destination for the day: city of Santa Clara. This part of the trip was uneventful except for countless sugar cane and banana plantations by the road. We actually managed to arrive in Santa Clara much faster than planned.
We entered Santa Clara, from the west, and first thing we could see was a park with Che Guevarra monument on the side of the street.
Santa Clara is the Capital City of the Villa Clara province in Cuba. The Villa Clara province is located near the centre of Cuba and is the fifth largest province in Cuba. The main industries in Villa Clara in Cuba are the agricultural production of sugar and the breeding of livestock.
The town of Santa Clara in Cuba is not very large with a population of only around 200,000. This is a sociable town, famed as the fountainhead of the revolution, where toddlers take pleasure rides in goat-pulled wagons outside the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, still scarred with gunshot from the guerrilla attack that clinched the 1958 war.
Panels with Che’s picture are everywhere
Theater building on the main plaza in Santa Clara
That attack was led by the great Guevara, whose statue casts a 100ft shadow over Santa Clara from its plinth above the Plaza de la Revolucion, and embodies the complex contradictions around his cult.
Nevertheless, every year thousands of tourists in Cuba pass through Santa Clara in Cuba to visit a few of its noteworthy tourist attractions.
The freedom-bringing hero stands in trademark combat gear, body armoured with machetes and grenades, overlooking a Stalinesque square that was built to fête him but now serves as a vast, parched coach-park unloading Germans, Canadians and Brits in Che shirts and caps.
There is a bunker-like museum here, too – and it’s a gripping study in Socialist celebrity, lined with glossy, Magnum-style photographs of Che the medical student, Che the mountain climber, Che the golfer – even Che kissing a baby. And you think: boy, did that guy have an eye for a photo opportunity.
As we wandered around, dodging the gaze of a museum, I wonder what Guevara would make of his modern status as tourist icon and all-purpose fashion accessory. More importantly, what would he make of a nation that has been 50 years without democracy.
We had lunch close to the main plaza, at pizzeria “La Toscana” and I had unarguably the worst pizza in my life. My wife also had not so tasty pasta. So after couple of hours spent in and around centre of Santa Clara, we continued our journey with the car. Today’s final destination is Trinidad.
Pizzeria “La Toscana in Santa Clara not so good.
Santa Clara – Trinidad
From Santa Clara we originally planned to reach Trinidad via Sancti Spiritus and highway road xx. Another look at the map and I realized we’ve had more options. It was 175 km via Sancti Spiritus , but we decided to take the straightest route via Mataqua – Manicaragua and over the Topes de Collantes. It was a scintillating drive across the jungly serrations of the Escambray Mountains.
Country road heading towards the Escambray Mountains.
Typical farm in the Escambray Mountains.
On the map it was only 85 km between Santa Clara and Trinidad. First 40 – 45 km was good, but narrow, curvy road, going up and down thru the foothills of Escambray Mountains. As we drove deeper and deeper into the mountains, road condition rapidly deteriorated and soon we were unable to go faster than crawling speed. There are some HUGE holes, almost craters! We drove in a small rented Kia-Rio, and managed to avoid all potholes and didn’t have any problems with the car. But keep an eye out! However, the journey was fantastic, great scenery reaching the top of Topes de Collantes.
View of Escambray Mountains from the road
Road full of potholes
The Topes de Collantes is a tiny village located at the highest peak in the Sierra Del Escambray, the second largest mountain range in the country. Known for its ecotourism, the area is beginning to rival places like Costa Rica, with natural waterfalls and crystal clear lakes with supposed healing powers…
From the top of Sierra Mountains going downhill towards Trinidad was a unique experience. In the distance, it can be clearly seen the splendid scenery of Ancon Peninsula with its magnificent beaches that face the Caribbean. At one end, with its ancient streets and small places: Trinidad, and to meet the visitor, the mountain with its many greens that dress the slopes and depth.
View from The Topes de Collantes towards Trinidad
This only road into the mountains is by Canadian standards, suicidal!! There are no guardrails and very few posted signs, and the steep downhill grade is too difficult for most locals to negotiate in their beat-up cars…. on the positive side, this last part of the road before Trinidad was in good condition. We left the potholes and mountains behind and were facing town of Trinidad and its cobblestone streets.
Bienvenidos a Trinidad de Cuba
To be continued…