By Nancy Truman
Just weeks after Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro was laid to rest on December 3, 2016, I found myself on the largest island in the Greater Antilles walking the streets of former colonial sugar towns and plantations, the same places the seeds of revolution were germinated, and joining pilgrims in Santa Clara, the city where the revolution was won and where Fidel’s ashes were brought to spend a night with those of his old friend Che Guevara. This is my first trip to the nation, whose story I’ve only read in media and history books.
In most urban areas, scaffolding and fencing wrap long-neglected colonial buildings that will soon be home to restaurants and hotels, signs of the “entrepreneurial” growth slowly budding under Raul Castro’s government, and reported in U.S. media in the past few years. Another sign of coming change is the flocking of young Cubans to parks and squares of every town we pass through. Eager to keep up with a world constantly changing, they are now free to connect to the global community if they can afford an hour of WiFi access for $2.50 CUC (C$3.30).
Our post-Fidel itinerary took us to three of Cuba’s 14 provinces — Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara — situated between the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean in central Cuba.
Founded by the French in 1819, the southern port city of Cienfuegos is dubbed the “pearl of the south” for its location on Jagua Bay. The urban historic centre of the provincial capital, a marvel of early 19th century urban planning, had the good fortune to survive bombings unleashed by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1957, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
In the harsh morning light from La Union hotel’s rooftop bar, through the lens of my camera, the impact of years of conflict and neglect come into sharp focus. Yet beauty is often in the details, which becomes clear later, as we stroll the boulevard. Our guide points out such details as the outline of the royal palm, Cuba’s national tree, fashioned into wrought iron railings and emblazoned in bejeweled stained glass windows, and a life-sized bronze statue of local musician Benny Moré, by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, which stands witness to the last century. Big band singer Moré and his Banda Gigante gained fame across South America, the Caribbean and in the U.S. in the 1950s.
At the heart of Cienfuegos, a statue of writer, poet and independence hero Jose Martí, so admired by Fidel Castro that he arranged to be buried next to the 24-metre-high mausoleum containing his ashes, stands tall in the centre of the park named in his honour. At the centre of the circular park, a granite compass marks the city’s beginning.
Nearby, the Tomas Terry Theatre, built in 1889, carries visitors back to an age when anyone who was anyone had a box at the theatre. Carrara marble, hand-carved Cuban hardwoods whimsical ceiling frescoes, and posters of world-renowned artists who graced the stage, have stood the test of time in this monument to Venezuelan sugar baron Tomas Terry.
Bathed in moonlight, the Placio de Valle, built by a sugar baron between 1913 and 1917, oozes charm. Reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish art with influences of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts, the palace was set to become a casino in the 1950s, in the hands of a U.S. developer rumoured to have ties to mafia, a plan quashed by the revolution. Next door, the Jagua Hotel, part of earlier plans, was completed under Castro’s regime and it has hosted political leaders such as former East German leader Erich Honecker, Raul Castro and former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
The palace is now a museum and an aspiring upscale restaurant specializing in seafood. My dinner entree of grilled shrimp and lobster served with rice and a salad of tomato, cucumber, canned green beans and slices of white onion — vinegar and oil on the side — was outshone by the stained glass transoms, vaulted ceilings, mahogany woodwork and sweeping Carrara marble staircase. During the day, take in the breathtaking view of the harbour from its rooftop bar, reached by an ornate, wrought-iron spiral staircase.
In the harsh morning light from La Union hotel’s rooftop bar, through the lens of my camera, the impact of years of conflict and neglect come into sharp focus. Yet beauty is often in the details
We stop in at The Hacienda Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), a short trip by bus or rail from the provincial capital of Trinidad. At its height, there were 50 working sugar mills in the region, none more beautiful than Hacienda Iznaga. Trinidad and the valley both received World Heritage status in 1988.
For lunch or dinner, the plantation house dishes up local cuisine to the sound of “son”, a unique blend of Spanish and African music, and American jazz. Whet your appetite with guarapo (freshly pressed sugar-cane juice ) and a dash of rum, followed by savory slow roasted organic pork served with a cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad and mashed Yuca root.
Today, a hike up 136 steps to the top of the Torre Iznaga for 1$CUC is rewarded with a panoramic view of Trinidad and the valley. But at the end of the 18th century Pedro Iznaga, who made his wealth in the slave trade, climbed it daily to keep an eye on his slaves, dashing their hopes of escape.
Founded by emigrants from the Canary Islands more than 500 years ago, Trinidad became home to the mansions of the landowners who made their fortunes in sugar and slave trade in the 1700s and early 1800s. A visit to the Brunet Palace, built in 1812 by José Mariano Borrell y Padrón, and inherited by his daughter and her husband Count Nicolás de la Cruz Brunet y Muñoz, offers a window on their way of life.
By design, high ceilings and tall shuttered windows allow cross breezes to flow between the street and the courtyard, a welcome respite from the sun. The original marble floors and frescoes, and neo-classical furnishings, stand as testament to their wealth. Two mahogany chairs, fitted with coffee cup trays and a wide headrest for dozing off, in the landowner’s office, elicit a chuckle. A tight climb up a spiral staircase from the second floor to the rooftop patio, affords a magnificent view of Trinidad with its trademark bell tower of the Church and Monastery of St. Francis.
In a nod to the revolution, Bar La Canchanchara, housed in a charmingly restored 18th century home and courtyard just off the square, serves a delicious concoction of rum, mountain wildflower honey and lemon juice served in terracotta cups. The drink by the same name as the bar, is said to originated at the time of the Independence Wars against Spain the early 19th century as a way for the Island Liberation Army soldiers to staved off their cold and hunger.
Just 12 hours after the capture of Santa Clara — nicknamed the City of Che — Batista fled Cuba and Castro’s forces claimed victory. Passing under a banner declaring “Yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel) on the main boulevard, I see a young backpacker sporting a Che beret and T-shirt heading in the same direction we are to the museum of the derailed armoured military train, north east of the city. A few boxcars and the tractor used to derail them remains at the railway crossing here.
To the west of downtown on Campo de Tiro, sits the imposing monument dedicated to Che Guevara and 29 of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during the Bolivia campaign. By comparison, the small mausoleum housing their ashes is quiet and unremarkable. A museum across from the mausoleum displays interesting and revealing artifacts and photos of Guevara and Castro.
From Parque Vidal, in the old town, the bright mint-green façade of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel, bearing the scars of bullets stands out; kitty corner stands the imposing provincial library, once the palace of Marta Abreu de Estévez, “Benefactress of the City,” and a temporary resting place for Guevara’s remains.
Having had my fill of stories of Spanish rule and the revolution, I retire to the adults-only Grand Villa at Iberostar Ensenachos, on Cayo Ensenachos. After bobbing about in the Atlantic, I lounge in the sun, watching the bartender plod barefoot across the sand with my lime daiquiri, while reflecting on the dichotomy of Cuba — beautiful beaches like this gem, linked to the mainland by 48 kilometres of road and bridge, and aging colonial cities.
The writer was a guest of the Cuba Tourist Board (gocuba.ca)
If you go
Sunwing’s vacation packages to Cayo Santa Maria include Cayo Ensenachos. For more information go to: sunwing.ca/Cuba-Travel/Cayo-Santa-Maria-Vacation-Packages.asp
Getting around: For information about city and Unesco World Heritage site tours go to: http://www.cubatravelnetwork.com
Where to stay:
Hotel La Union (Cienfuegos)
Built in 1869, this four-star 49-room boutique hotel lies in the heart of Cienfuegos. Closed between 1959 and 2000, it underwent an extensive renovation to restore some of its grandeur. It features high-ceilinged guestrooms, charming, sun-splashed courtyards and a rooftop bar overlooking the city.
Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad
This five-star, adults-only, colonial style hotel is a short walk from the Plaza Mayor and the major shopping streets. It’s renowned for its personalized service starting with private check, a refreshing towel and fruit cocktail, right to turning down your bed linens at night.
The five-star resort on Cayo Ensenachos takes privacy seriously. The resort, which stands alone on the key, offers adult-only luxury suites and villas, in addition to family accommodation. Relaxing comes easy at The Grand Village, which features butler service, and a private pool, gourmet restaurant and beach.
BYOTP: Public washrooms are clean but toilet paper is scarce. It’s a good idea to carry some from your hotel or keep a pack of tissues handy. As in Paris, you might also be expected to tip the cleaner.
Spending money: Bring Canadian cash, U.S. dollars are hit with a 10 per cent penalty. The best exchange rate for Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is at a bank or official Cadeca Casa de Cambio (exchange bureau). You’ll lose on the rate at hotels and shop keepers are notorious for short-changing transactions, or switching the local Cuban pesos for CUC, which can be harder to spend. Cash is the best currency — Amex is not accepted and Visa and Mastercard transactions add an 11 per cent commission.
Staying in touch: WiFi access cards are available for 2.50$CUC (C$3.30) at hotels and hawked by vendors in hotspots such as parks and squares.
Point and shoot: Go ahead and take pictures of monuments, but don’t photograph military, police or airport personnel, or you might find yourself in hot water. If in doubt, ask.
Politics: Badmouthing the Castros, the revolution or Communism, will make your hosts uncomfortable. Raul Castro is still president, and Cubans are not free to publicly criticize their government.
This article appeared in National Post January 2017.