A trip to Trinidad Cuba, casa particular and Cayo Santa Maria
Posted: 12 June 2009 07:23 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  992
Joined  2005-11-19


A family road trip can be stressful. But a driving holiday in Cuba? That could be a recipe for family breakup. It starts as a compromise between the three ladies of the family who want a sunny break from an Edmonton winter, and my wish to see one of the most intriguing countries in the Western Hemisphere before it changes forever.

Booking flights with Aeroplan meant planning months in advance and having a long time to research our trip. A good idea, since countless e-mails to Cuba went unanswered, and many other exchanges lasted weeks and read more like formal letters of the 1950s.

We decide to split our two weeks: half all-inclusive and half private B&Bs;(called casas particulares in Cuba).

Evora Rodriguez’s casa occupies the top floor of a nine-story building on the border of historic Old Havana. Before the revolution this was a prestigious address with its panoramic view of the harbor entrance and Morro, the old fort that guards it. Today, the building fares better than its neighbors that are crumbling under assault from the sea and a half-century of neglect. Still, hundreds of buildings are being rebuilt as tourist money pours into this World Heritage Site.

Before leaving home we’ve contacted private tour guides. It’s a great way to help us understand this weird and wonderful city of two million people. Those old, smoke-belching American cars aren’t tourist props; they’re an essential part of Cuba’s stumbling transportation system. The women on street corners? Like everyone else, they’re waiting for a ride. A hundred shouting men in front of the Capitolio building? Just arguing baseball. One guide is a university language teacher, the other an electrical engineer. Their monthly salaries are less than some Cuban waiters can make on a Saturday night.

We’ve been warned about Soviet-style service, but this is changing in Cuba. Never have I seen a slightly stained tablecloth laid out with such formality and ceremony, and never has a wobbly table been leveled as carefully as at Cafeteria Prado 12. Never mind the fact we’ve already begun describing the food as “diesel-fried pork”: the music is stirring and the mojitos potent.

Our car rental begins badly when a stone-faced clerk tells me we can’t drop the car at our resort as we’d been told. Their nearest office is in a town 50 kilometers from the resort. Then, 15 minutes after leaving Havana, we’re lost, having foolishly assumed a national highway would have a sign marking its on-ramp. A helpful police officer (one on every corner) leads us 10 kilometers back and onto the Autopista.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant this ambitious freeway was never finished. Its six lanes of blacktop are unblemished by lines and I drive well below the 100 km/h speed limit dodging holes, livestock, bicycles and vendors waving five-foot strings of onions. I’m not even flabbergasted when, without warning, oncoming traffic appears on our side of the divided highway because the other side is being tarred.

Cuba’s other main highway, the Carretera Central, is a two-lane road built in the 1930s. In Edmonton, using your horn is reserved for expressing rage. In Cuba, honking is expected whenever you’re passing cars, slow-moving motorbikes or horse carts.

After 300 kilometers, my grip on the wheel loosens and I relax, until it dawns on me that we’re once again lost.

We ask a man by the roadside for directions. Not only does he know the way to the town of Trinidad, he lives there. And since we can legally carry one more passenger, we feel obliged to take him. A nice man, he occasionally reaches over to give the horn a friendly toot when I’m not honking enough.

As we come down out of the Sierra del Escambray toward the ocean, we steel ourselves for his inevitable offers. Of course his family must indeed run a fine, (but illegal) restaurant, but we already have a reservation. We thank him for recommending a wonderful Casa but again we have a reservation (at the fictitious “Casa Jorge”). And alas, I don’t smoke or I would certainly buy cigars from his father.

We part somewhat coolly, and plunge into the extremely narrow, ancient cobblestone streets of Trinidad and conclude that, for the third time today, we’re lost. But this time, luck has shone on us. We are in fact only one street from our destination, the 200-year old home of Julio and Rosa Munoz. The heavy doors open into a large, colonial, walled house. It’s large, airy and furnished with original furniture. Friendly dogs have the run of the place, though thankfully Luna the horse remains in her stall near the garage. Julio is a photographer and is fluent in English. His is one of the best private homes in the town. But with more than 300 casas particulares in Trinidad and only a handful of hotels, it’s virtually impossible not to mix with Cubans.

Lonely Planet calls it “Varadero in reverse.” It’s easy to see why Trinidad is one of the country’s biggest tourist destinations with its “living museum” feel and its beautiful setting between the Sierra and the Caribbean. Sadly, after Old Havana, Trinidad probably has the country’s highest concentration of hustlers, although Cubans will take “no” for an answer.

The drive north takes us through small, dusty villages and past plantations and organic farms. Since we don’t get lost this time, we reflect on how after Communism, hurricanes and the U.S. embargo, the Cubans remain so friendly and courteous. I almost cease to be shocked when people wave at us.

The dreaded problem of how to get to our hotel after dropping off the car turns out to be no problem at all, when the cheery clerk happily agrees, for a generous tip, to lock up the shop and drives us the 50 km himself.

Cayo Santa Maria is a small island at the end of a 48-km causeway poking into the turquoise Atlantic Ocean. The causeway took almost 10 years to complete, and since it was finished in the late ‘90s, the building of resorts hasn’t stopped. The five-star Melia las Dunas is one of the newest, and is immensely popular with people from Central Canada who wander the grounds and spectacular beaches sipping from Timmy’s mugs and Bubba Kegs. You hear more French here than at a Habs game at the Bell Center.

The Cuban government is churning out thousands of eager-to-please service workers trained to serve vacationers from another world. Just don’t expect the food to be a world apart: I politely finish half an elegantly presented soup that tastes like warm barbecue sauce. Still, we find ourselves oddly satisfied when strange concoctions are served with such formality and courtesy.

Four days into our stay at las Dunas all the girls can talk about is getting back to Havana. Despite the crumbling buildings, the smells and the noise, they’ve fallen in love with the charming people of this living historical and political museum.

It’s unlikely to stay unchanged for long.

Half the passengers on the Air Canada flight to Havana were Americans, undoubtedly getting a jump on their new government’s pledge to loosen the embargo sooner rather than later.

Mark Harvey is producer and reporter for the program Edmonton AM on CBC Radio One.


What to take

Canadian cash. Cuba is a cash economy and you will need to exchange your dollars for convertible pesos (CUC) at the airport as soon as you arrive (you can’t buy them in Canada). Never accept bills that don’t say “convertible peso;” there is another peso, the national peso, and it’s worth 1/24th what a CUC is worth. ATMs don’t work and neither do credit cards from U.S. banks, including AMEX. Most hotels and car rental agencies take credit cards, but there’s often a price for cash, and a much higher one for credit.


Air Canada flies scheduled service to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport three to five times per week via Toronto. Sun Wing and Air Transat each fly seasonal service from several cities in Canada.

Car rentals

Cuba has at least four rental companies. Be prepared for a manual transmission and to pay more than $100 per day for a Kia, Hyundai, Peugeot or Skoda. Gasoline is currently $1 CUC per litre (about $1.44 Cdn). Agencies can run out of cars, so book ahead. Shop around and compare prices and drop-off fees. Learn about the scams that are occasionally pulled by rental clerks and NEVER lose your rental contract. Don’t turn right on a red light.

Be sure to have a good road map. The best is the Max guide, also known as the Guia de Garreteras.

It’s hard to find, but worth the investment in time and money to find.


Consult Lonely Planet, Moon Guide and others. Be sure to use the latest edition possible, as the situation in Cuba is constantly changing.

http://www.tripadvisor.com is a valuable place to go for reviews, discussion groups and advice from people who have just been or may still be in the parts of Cuba you want to visit.

http://www.cuba-junky.com is a somewhat flaky travel agency site, but packed with plain-language tips about travel, cars, hotels as well as crime and scams.

http://www.gocuba.ca is the official website of the Cuba Tourist Board in Canada

http://www.solwayscuba.com is another Cuba-based travel agency and can sometimes get the independent traveler a better price on hotels, flights or cars than Canadian travel agencies can. They also helped us cut through the “wall of silence” we sometimes faced when e-mailing Cuba.

Free advice

Take plenty of patience, humor and flexibility. And be careful what you bring back. Cuban Customs can be very enthusiastic when enforcing laws against the export of art. They can apply these laws to folk-art bought in a tourist market as well as to genuine antiquities. If you really must buy a painting, put it in your checked baggage or get an export permit.



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