After exploring the rural farmland of Vinales, we jumped on a bus and headed toward the UNESCO Heritage city of Trinidad. We read a lot about this city online and (gasp) in our Lonely Planet guidebooks. I’ve ironically found that in the day and age of the Internet, where there’s so much noise to syphen through, that the good ol’ guidebook can sometimes come in handy. Some backpackers detest the very idea of them since they apparently give away all the best kept secrets about a destination, but on occasion I’ve found out about towns and villages in them that I haven’t seen on the Net.
I’m guessing that’s because these texts have been largely ignored, ironically transforming globally-published “secrets” into some cases, more off the beaten path, or subtle tourist destinations.
So off we went by bus, stopping off at a few small villages along the way which were home to convenience stores and Che Guevara merchandise, and into the ancient city of Trinidad. Trinidad is best described as a mix between Havana and Prague: It is its mix of ancient architecture, quaint shops and cobblestoned streets which pronounce its former wealth thanks to the Caribbean sugarcane trade. Like Cuba in general, pre-Castro, it was a very wealthy city that was at the forefront of Latin American economics – an example to smaller, struggling countries on how to montetize their resources in the then-booming Americas.
Upon arrival, a man in a bicycle-taxi shouted out our names. We looked at the size of him (he was small), then at the “bicycle-taxi” and its seeming lack of luggage space, and then at our backpacks, before giving each other a “How the hell is this going to work?” look. But it did work. Somehow. Although as we started peddling toward our host family’s place, the little man really began struggling and our bike almost halted to a stop. We hopped off and carried our backpacks up the hill, where we reconvened onward to El Tulipan: the beautiful home of Marga and Bernado. When we arrived, we were greeted with a beer and their last Cohiba (famous Cuban cigar). “Cuban hospitality,” I thought to myself, “is something I can get used to.”
We were staying on the top floor of Marga and Bernado’s home, where we had a large outdoor balcony, a view over the bustling street, and a two bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. It had a red and pink bohemian decor, a bookshelf with some great Cuban reads, and a stocked minibar. Each morning, we would wake up to a huge breakfast spread over our table. We had eggs, a tomato salad, Cuban ham, a coconut spread, coffee, juice… So much food. We struggled to finish it each morning, but were so grateful for the hospitality and warmth we were shown. After a full day’s breakfast, we went off to explore the town.
Trinidad is home to amazing sunsets which drape themselves over the hilly mountains and urban skyline. We watched the sunset while a bunch of Cuban kids played Cuban music for us, and later went out for Sam’s all-time favorite meal – Nutella crepes! The crepe store has to be the number one greatest thing to NOT have a big presence in Australia. From Malta to Paris, Phillippines to Cuba, the takeaway crepe seems to rule the planet and many of our hard-earned dollars have exchanged hands with the global crepe-man! As we waited for our crepes to be made, a cross-dresser walked in and began ordering his own. He came up to me, having spotted my childish, yellow Brazil World Cup watch, and asked if he could buy it from me.
“This is the missing piece of my costume, look at how well it will match my green pants and tanned skin? And these fingernails? Please, how much did you pay for it? I’ll pay you double.”
I politely declined, since the watch is probably the only sentimental thing I’ve collected this entire trip, but if it had been anything else I would have just given it to him. Cubans are fairly poor, and I’d never actually sell something to someone in that position. Like this trip and others, I’ve given a few things away, or left clothes and books behind for people to have. After talking to the cross dresser for a little while out front, we walked in the dark streets past casas, home restaurants and the occasional bar until we reached our place.
One evening, we went for lobster next door at a family restaurant that was literally deserted. The long walk down the driveway led to a nice courtyard with a few plants and trees, a screen showing the Cuban baseball, and a few tables and chairs for us to sit in. When we arrived, there were a group of guys who looked a little bit shady but were nice. We think that one of them was related to the owner, who came out with a couple of menus which detailed some really delicious meals. Lobster, of course, was what we were going to eat since it costs a fortune back home. Lobster is basically Cuba’s version of chicken: cheap and plentiful. Sam’s plate came out with three lobsters on it – all for only $9! My lobster came out half off the plate, since it was so large. After we finished up and paid the cheque, the owner came out and presented me with a cigar and Sam with some nice beads that his wife had made.
“These are for you. Thank you so very much for coming and eating with us. My wife made this (presents it to Sam) and I rolled this (a cigar). Please come again soon, we will have more presents waiting for you!”
We were taken aback by again, the warmth of the Cuban people. Cuba reminded us a lot of Greece, in that the hospitality of the people was of huge importance to the locals. Kindness, smiles, warmth, helpfulness – simple virtues that are becoming more complicated to come by in certain faster, and more developed, societies, were heavily presented not just in Trinidad, but all over Cuba.
Over the next few days in Trinidad, we visited the beach by bus and really took it easy. Like the beaches near Vinales, there were plenty of people about who were drinking rum from the bottle while sunbaking, and men on the beach selling pizza and prawns (shrimp). One man, who worked for a hotel, told us that if we need anything to just let him know, and he would get it. We suspect that to buy drinks, you had to be a guest of one of the hotels but we weren’t sure. Regardless, we just enjoyed relaxing on the beach and observing the Caribbean waters.
Cuba isn’t exactly touristy, but there are some tourists. Mostly, you’ll see French and Canadians, and for the first time in perhaps ever, we didn’t hear a single Australian accent while abroad. My dream of visiting Cuba was about to come to an end, as our next and final stop would be Varadero – hands down the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Better than Thailand, Philippines, Greece, Australia and Fiji. How is that even possible? I guess Cuba has a lot of untapped potential that one day, more of the world will get to experience!