A new day, a new destination: we were off to the cobbled streets of Trinidad! We had high hopes for this UNESCO World Heritage site. There are plenty of day trips to go on here, plus the beach, Playa Ancón. What we found, though, was that nothing is ever as it appears in Cuba. You can plan your trip to a tee and you will still find that things don’t quite go as planned. This turned out to be a theme throughout the course of our trip. Case in point: my friend had read about horse rides to the Escambray Mountains but we couldn’t find this trip at either of the two tour companies we visited. We later found out that you can book this through your casa, but we had made alternative plans by then. My friend had also heard about a steam train to the sugar cane fields, but it wasn’t running.
We ended up booking a tour to the sugar cane fields (in a car rather than a steam train), also known as Valle de los Ingenios, but it left me feeling rather disappointed. It included two stops: one at a beautiful viewpoint to see an almost 360⁰ vista of the sugar cane fields, where you could see a small hut in the distance that used to be the slave’s quarters.
The second was another viewpoint of sugar cane fields, where you had to walk through a huddle of Cubans trying to hawk their wares (grasshopper and flower figurines shaped out of a grass blade, friendship bracelets, whiter-than-white linens, etc.) to get to a tower, where you had to pay a further CUC 2* to get up it. At the end of that, our driver took us through the bar/restaurant to where a man had a pig on a spit roast. My friend and I both looked at each other wearily and shook our heads no, but I did sample the sugarcane juice from the stall at the entrance. It’s refreshing and tasty and well worth paying a couple of CUCs for it. According to the tour company this visit should have taken 3-4 hours, but we were done in 90 minutes, including travel time.
Our driver, in his on-its-last-legs Hilman, offered to take us to Playa Ancón beach. After collecting beach essentials from our casa, my friend and I exchanged furtive glances as we were overtaken by zippy cocotaxis en route. Once at the beach we settled down to relax, take a dip in the sea and sip from our coco loco coconuts. Top tip: take your empty coconut back to the bar and the coconut man will carefully slice it up for you ready to eat. The beach itself is lovely: white sand, clear blue sea, rented sun loungers: your typical Caribbean beach. This being one of the more mainstream beaches, be prepared for the sun loungers to be spaced closer together than some of the other less touristy places, and to overhear comical conversations from some of the other tourists. Our overheard titbits included one excitable German lady discovering a crab for the first time in her life and a grumpy old Brit taking umbrage at having to pay for the sun loungers.
We ventured back to our rendezvous point to meet our driver at the agreed time, only to find he wasn’t there. Tempted to jump into the faster cocotaxis after waiting for 15 minutes, the Hilman finally clattered its way up to us. Our driver reckoned he was late because he was repairing the car, even though nothing had seemingly changed. Even the bit of rope used to slam the back door shut was still there.
The next day was probably my favourite part of the Cuba holiday: the trip around the mountains with a swimming break at the waterfall. You start by climbing to a stunning viewpoint where you can see Trinidad, the mountains, the sea… everywhere you look your jaw hits the floor because it’s just so unbelievably beautiful. Here you meet Lache (I hope I’ve spelt his name right!), the plucky, witty Cuban tour guide who will make this incredible tour even more amazing for you. After gawping at the stunning views, you’re driven to a “spa” resort, which is nothing like the spa resorts the tourists know and love (historically it was a sanitorium, today it’s more like a bootcamp for overweight people) to take lunch orders, and then whisked off to the start of the tour. I suggest taking water and a few nibbles with you, otherwise you can buy a bunch of bananas or some sticky peanut bars from the farmers on the side of the road.
The first part of the trek takes you through wildlife and past workers picking coffee beans. At several points Lache will gather you around and impart interesting information about your surroundings. He’s a playful, perky man who makes this trip worthwhile. After about half an hour of walking, you reach the focal point of the tour: the waterfall.
After having your picture taken in front of it, the tour continues for a short while until you reach a natural pool for swimming. In December, when we visited, the water was cold, but in the height of summer it will be the refreshing stop you need, complete with a mini hut where you can buy refreshments, including a potent rum-based cocktail, and it’s here that Lache announces: “this is Cuba, all roads lead to rum”.
Continuing on the trip, Lache points out other fascinating wildlife features, including a tree with a spiky bark and a turtle sleeping on a log (“shhh, it’s a fake I planted there two days ago” he jokes in pantomime whispers). We reach a small farm with two excitable dogs and are offered cocoa beans straight from the cocoa pod and mandarin oranges. The local farmer also demonstrates how small batches of coffee are processed by hand (e.g. bashed with a heavy stick) before being roasted. We continue on our journey, which turns out to be a short walk back to the vehicles, which take us to lunch. The food was good, but nothing to write home about. After lunch we’re taken to a small coffee place, where Lache animatedly explains how large batches of coffee beans go from being picked to roasted. We’re offered the chance to buy a coffee, or buy a bag of ground coffee as a souvenir, and then taken back to our casas in the taxi. The trip was expensive (CUC 55 if I remember rightly), but worth every cent.
*At the time of writing, 1 CUC was roughly equal to 65p
That was Trinidad, now on to Varadero
Travelled between: late November and early December 2014