Fast Track of Cuba

By Habeeb Salloum

Cuba - When I told a waitress at the Iberostar, one of Varadero’s top 5-star hotels that the delicious food in their restaurant was getting me fat, the waitress grinned as she poured more wine into our glasses, and in perfect English said: “Don’t worry! Tourists come to Cuba to enjoy themselves. No one gets fat in the short time they stay in our country. As you Canadians say, ‘Eat, drink and be merry!” She has a point, I thought to myself as I enjoyed another morsel of chicken, cooked Cuban style.

That night, with the taste of our fine dinner and the smiling waitress still vivid, I dreamt of romping on the beach, part of Varadero’s 20 kilometres of sugary white sand. I had once walked it’s entire length over 40 years ago.

After spending two days enjoying Varadero’s aura and fine food, our group of 18 leave for Havana, the nation’s capital. Passing through the city of Matanzas we drive through the green-covered landscape dominated by the Royal Palm, Cuba’s national tree whose trunk is used in building peasant homes and its fruit as pig feed. After stopping to view a stunning deep valley we continued on a fine coastal highway to Havana, known to the Conquistadors as 'Queen of the New World'.

Old Havana is a remnant from Cuba's colonial era - a jewel of Spanish colonial architecture. UNESCO has declared this 4 square kilometre area with its narrow streets, secluded squares, impressive fortresses and centuries-old churches, edged by ancient palaces, a World Heritage Site. On an ongoing basis, its 1,000 colonial palaces and over 100 other monuments are being gradually restored. Travellers can witness this ancient city being restored to its renowned architectural splendour.

Today, Havana, a city that Ernest Hemingway loved and made his home, has greatly expanded beyond its historic section. A city of 2.7 million, it is the largest urban centre in the Caribbean, containing some one-quarter of Cuba's more than 11.5 million inhabitants. Yet, what comes to mind when one thinks of Havana is its ancient heart throbbing with tourists and life. For three days, we took part in the ‘Fria International de Tourismo’ and explored this venerable part of the city by foot, before continuing our journey.

The early morning breeze blew gently as we were on our way to Santa Clara, the final home of Ché Guevara – the Cuban hero par excellence. The 4-lane Cuban super highway cut its way through a green-carpeted countryside dotted with cultivated fields. As we neared Santa Clara, a city of some 200,000, the fertile fields increased into a panorama of rich farmland.

About 260 km (162 mi) after leaving Havana we stopped at the Mausoleum of Ché Guevara who was killed in 1957 in Bolivia, fighting to overthrow that country’s corrupt government. His remains were returned to Cuba and interred along with 16 of his fellow fighters killed in 1958 during the battle of Santa Clara – a decisive battle that brought Fidel Castro to power.

The most important attraction in town is the large plaza and a huge sculpture of Ché. Underneath is a museum which exhibits the life of this revolutionary hero who when asked about life replied that ‘Man is not important. What is important are the landmarks one leaves on the way’. In his last letter to his five-children Ché wrote, "a big hug and kiss from Daddy."

After exploring Ché Guevara’s Mausoleum we drove for an hour to Remedios, one of the country’s smallest and best-preserved old colonial-era cities – the 8th oldest town in the country. Here we stopped in the city’s main square surrounded by colonial buildings. In the middle of the square is a charming cupola surrounded by trees, palms and flowers and edging the square is the colonial Grand Church Iglesia Mayor, containing 13 beautifully decorated gold altars. The town's other church, Iglesia Buen Viaje, sits on the other side. Remedios is the only town in Cuba with two churches located on its main square. I stopped at the Café El Louvre, claimed as the oldest café in Cuba, for a drink before leaving for Cienfuegos.

In Cienfuegos, the buildings gleamed sparkling white in the sunlight. An industrial urban centre of some 138,000, the city is a relatively modern town, founded in 1819. Known as the ‘Southern Pearl of Cuba’, it hugs the bright-blue Cienfuegos Bay and is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The Prado is the longest promenade in Cuba and terminates at the bay. After spending an hour at José Martí Square in the neat heart of Cienfuegos we explored the enchanting Palacio del Valle, a smaller version of Spain’s Alhambra.

We were now on course for Trinidad, the third oldest city in the country, labeled ‘Cuba’s treasure’. The fairly good, but narrow road wound its way through the foothills of the tree-covered Escambray Mountains whose peaks rise to over 1,000 meters. From 1959 to 1965 these mountains provided a hiding place for contra-revolutionary bands until Castro’s forces finely wiped them out. It was near midnight when we reached Trinidad - a historic town of 60,000, established in 1514.

Trinidad reached the height of its cultural and economic development between 1750 and 1850. This flourishing era was based on the wealth amassed from sugarcane grown in the remarkably fertile soil of the nearby Sugar Mill Valley, which once had 82 sugar mills. All of Trinidad’s illustrious palaces and churches were built from the money made from sugarcane produced by miserably treated slaves. When they were eventually freed, Trinidad stopped growing and became literally a museum-town.

The next day on our way to Camaguey City we drove through the Sugar Mill Valley in the shadows of the Escambray Mountains. Only traces of the sugar mills remain however, the restored Iznaga or Manacalznaza Tower dominates the landscape. From the tower overseers watched over hundreds of slaves. The eight-floor structure, which took 18 years to build, is a reminder of the cruelty enacted on others in the pursuit of profit.

Passing through the sugarcane countryside, herds of cattle and small villages dot the 4 hour drive to Camaguey. The city of 330,000 is known as the town of tinajones (huge terracotta or earthenware urns), which seemed to be everywhere. Pointing to a tinajone, our guide remarked, “They are a symbol of our city. Wives, beware! Do not let your husband drink from them! There is a legend that if a man takes a drink offered by a woman from a tinajone, he will fall in love with her and remain in Camaguey for the rest of his life.”

This was my first introduction to Camaguey, the city’s Spanish colonial past is echoed in its architecture. Doors, ironwork, terracotta roofs, and magnificent baroque churches and squares lead to narrow winding streets and pebbled alleys. I’m brought to mind of medieval Spain and the Moorish-like villages of Andalusia.

The next city on our tour was Bayamo – founded in 1513, it was one of the original seven Spanish cities in Cuba. The capital of Granma Province with a population of 140,000, Bayamo has a rich tradition of Cuban national pride and is often referred to as the ‘Birthplace of Cuban Nationality’. The city is filled with monuments and hundreds of horse-drawn carriages which are on hand to take visitors to see the local sites.

On to Santiago de Cuba, a city of 1 million that was the first capital of Cuba. Santiago played an important role in the country's struggle for independence and has been designated Cuba's only `Hero City'.

The next morning our fist stop was Céspedes Park, the nerve centre of town, dominated by four splendid buildings: the Cathedral, the impressive Town Hall, the architecturally pleasant Gallery of Oriental Art, edged by Casa Grande, and the nearby Museum of Colonial Art, housed in the former home of Diego Velázquez, the oldest house in Cuba featuring Moorish style balconies and now housing the Colonial History Museum. These structures and Santiago’s history reflect the glorious story of the city giving credence to Fidel Castro's words: "Santiago de Cuba, rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic always.

After driving through the surrounding mountains dotted with coffee plantations on our way to Holguin, Cuba’s fastest growing tourist destination, we made our way to that city’s beaches. From our hotel’s beach I was surrounded by the green tree covered hills and edged by the emerald sea. It was a seductive aura in which to relax and rest after our long journey. At that moment I thought of the words of Columbus when he landed here, “This was the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen.”

-30-

Photo of Cienfuegos by Stephen Smith


If You Go

Facts to Know About Cuba:

1. Visitors to Cuba must use convertible pesos (CUC) – at present 1 CUC equals 1.26 CND.
2. For transportation in the Cuban cities, take taxis. They are the best way to get around. Also, there is a sightseeing tour bus that operates in Havana, Varadero and some of the other Cuban cities - cost CUC5.00. Passengers can get on and off all day with the same ticket.
3. In spite of all types of shortages, Cuba is still safe, thefts are rare and tap water is drinkable, even in the villages. The best buys in Cuba are rum and cigars. Beware of black market cigars - often they are not authentic. Seven year-old Havana Club is the top rum in Cuba.
4. For Americans wishing to travel to Cuba through Canada, only a passport is needed.
5. Food in most ordinary Cuban restaurants is quite dull. The meals in peoples' eating-places run from CUC6 to 10; good restaurants charge from CUC10 to 30 for a meal.
6. Take bug repellent with you to protect against 'no see-ums' insects - their bites are very itchy.
7. The best time to travel to Cuba is from December to the end of April during the dry cool season.
8. Be sure to save CUC25.00 in cash for your departure tax at the airport.

For Further Information, Contact Cuba Tourist Board:

Cuba Tourist Board, Toronto: 1200 Bay Street. Suite 305. Toronto. ON. M5R 2A5. Tel: (416) 362-0700. Toll Free: 1-866-404 CUBA (2822). Fax: (416) 362-6799 e-mail: info@gocuba.ca; GOCUBA

Montreal: 2075, rue University, Bureau 460 Montréal, Québec, H3A 2L1 Tel: (514) 875-8004 Fax: (514) 875-8006 e-mail: montreal@gocuba.ca Website: http://www.gocuba.ca/en/index.asp


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