Lydia Bell | Telegraph.co.uk
An old man, with a warm smile decorated by a single tooth, is our hitchhiker of choice for the morning. His wiry grandson helps him haul a bulky package into our rented car. The package emits a loud grunt. “El Puerco,” the old man announces, “es para mis cumpleaños 80 el jueves.” The pig is for my 80th birthday on Thursday.
We are in the heart of Cuba, the middle of this long streak of island, and in search of the country’s provincial face and a gentler pace than urban Havana. In a country where a vehicle is a precious commodity, hitchhiking is popular. In the mind-numbing heat, those waiting for a ride are found killing time in patches of shade. If I drive past someone hitching, my Cuban husband tuts in reproach.
Searching for the provincial heart of Cuba, we start in the northern peninsula of Varadero, two hours east of Havana. It has an endless and exquisite white-sand beach spotted with palms, and turquoise seas. But it’s the land of the all-inclusive hotel and has precious little local flavour. It is easy to leave behind the poolside bingo, stale buffets and cabaret dancers in cerise Spandex.
The road out of Varadero is plastered with revolutionary slogans. Patriotismo o muerte (Patriotism or death). Revolución para siempre (Revolution forever). It reads strangely this close to the self-indulgences of Varadero. Quickly, the bitumen peters out into potholed pathway as we amble through modest villages. After two hours we are in Cienfuegos, a port city on the south coast.
Our hotel is Palacio Azul on Punta Gorda, a well-to-do neighbourhood that’s a horse-drawn clip-clop from the centre, which looks like suburban Florida. This tiny hotel, built in 1921 as the home of a tobacco baron, becomes one of my favourite in Cuba, with a tight-knit staff, elegant colonial décor and dreamy balcony views over the dolphin-filled bay.
Next door, at Club Cienfuegos, which stands alone like a white wedding cake, we can hear the afternoon són bands plucking away. An adolescent hustler on a pushbike screeches to a halt beside us. We arrange for him to pick us up later so we can check out some paladares (private restaurants). This will set the tone for most of our evenings in the Central Provinces: being whisked around by jineteros (hustlers). They get a bad rap, but their commissions are small and they are helpful. This one secures me a £4 seafood grill in a cosy paladar decorated with wall-mounted crustaceans. I can’t reveal the location, as it’s illegal – but you’ll find it if you want to.
Cienfuegos was settled late for Cuba in 1819. The streets are spacious compared with the claustrophobic small-scale chaos of other Cuban provincial capitals, and Cubans from Havana often cite this city as the most beautiful and clean in Cuba. It retains an unsullied local air and is old-fashioned, with horse-drawn carriages the favoured transport. On the Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba, people-watching seems to be the only activity.
That evening we discover pretty Parque José Martí, the main square, dominated by the beautiful Catedral de la Purísma Concepción and the lively social scene at Teatro Tomas Terry’s patio (the theatre itself, an 1890 frescoed museum piece, is unaltered down to the dinky wooden seats). We take in romantic bay views from the rooftop of Hotel La Union, a pistachio-green colonial renovation with neo-classical pool sculptures. We pass Estrella, a star-shaped corrugated roof under which the youth of Cienfuegos have erected a sound system and are blasting reggaetón, urban music that has ousted salsa for the Cuban under-25s. It comes with perreo, an explicit back-to-front dancing similar to Jamaican whining, and not for the faint hearted.
After a couple of pleasantly non-descript days we leave for Trinidad. We go via Cienfuegos’ Botanical Gardens, a little way out of town, a tropical park of palms, orchids and bamboos. They have 2,000 species of plants, we learn from the under-used guide, who devotes himself to interpreting everything from the creaking bamboo cathedral to the Latin cacti and Australian eucalyptus. Why such an Eden-like garden so far from the beaten track? It was founded in 1899 by an American sugar baron who procured Harvard support to experiment with growing sugarcane from seed, then branched out into collecting specimen plants.
To reach Trinidad we edge through the foothills of the palm-smothered Escambray mountains, then dip down to the coast, passing quiet villages backed by mountains and roads criss-crossed by giant crabs. Without twentysomething Abelito in the car (going to visit his mother in Trinidad), we would have got lost. There is a dearth of road signs.
Trinidad is simply the most handsome town in Cuba, in one of the most idyllic provinces, Sancti Spiritus. Founded by Diego Velázquez in 1514, the giant village – for that’s all it really is – is wedged between the towering Escambray range and shimmering coast. From here, Hermán Cortés recruited soldiers for the conquest of Mexico and it became an important colonial town, which grew fat on sugar between 1750 and 1850, when its lavishly beautiful valleys were dotted with scores of sugar mills. When the slaves were freed, fortunes dipped and Trinidad stopped growing.
Today, it’s an exquisitely preserved museum piece of cobblestone streets and sumptuous squares. Walk a few streets and the village peters out into red earth, drooping palms and mountains. Drive five miles and you reach a perfect stretch of beach, Peninsula Ancon. We visit Museo Romántico – an old merchant home now a colonial museum, with Italian marble floors and fireplaces, Viennese bureaux, Limoges and Wedgwood-packed French dressers. We go in search of views: the precious one of red-tiled roofs, sea and mountain from the bell tower of the Museo de la Lucha and of the soaring countryside from the ruined church of Ermita de Nuestra Señora.
At night, Trinidad is subdued. Jineteros emerge from the shadows, directing you to paladares. Things come alive late at the Casa de la Musica, which has unremarkable salsa but an unmatchably romantic setting at the hiatus of a grand stone stairwell. Wrought-iron chairs and tables are set out; people sit on the stairs and watch those dancing below. Because we have a car, we choose to stay in Peninsula Ancon, at the jolly Costasur hotel, where you step out of your cabana onto white sand.
Next stop, Santa Clara, capital of Villa Clara province and home to the Che Guevara memorial, the Battle of Santa Clara being a key point in the revolutionary war of 1958. Instead of crossing the Topes de Collantes range, we will have to go around it. But it’s no penance – we drive through the stunning Valle de los Ingenios that made Trinidad super rich with sugar fields. We buy pastilla de guayabo (guava pies) from a farmer at the side of the road, whose soporific horse is tethered to a palm. We pass through villages, glimpsing a rural life lost in the rest of the Caribbean: oxen ploughing fields; farmers sowing crops by hand or on horses in spurs, cigar in mouth. People on foot, in horse-drawn carriages, or standing up in a Thirties American truck belching black smoke.
Santa Clara feels workaday, its buildings in shades of peeling pastel, but the town has life and history. The university is dominant, especially its medical school. Students throng the humming streets, many sporting white coats and stethescopes. The town’s centre is Parque Vidal, full of courting lovers, seated old men and giggling schoolchildren. A library, housed in a sleepy building of faded grandeur, backs onto the square. In a delicately tiled room for Braille readers at the front, a blind boy is playing the piano like a virtuoso. There is the Museo de Artes Decorativas. Its chinoiserie screens, ornate mahogany furniture, enamel-encrusted escritoires and English china speak of a richer, pre-Revolutionary past.
At the Plaza de la Revolución, schoolchildren swarm the vast parade ground. Its monuments – including a giant bronze of Guevara – are inscribed with his rousing words. The space sings with melancholy. Below the square, a museum is dedicated to Guevara’s life, his photos and belongings. Next door, an eternal flame marks the place where he and 16 of the men from his failed 1967 Bolivia campaign are buried. We visit El Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, where the rebels derailed a train full of government troops. We are staying out of town in Villa La Granjita, which has thatched cabanas, an open-air restaurant and a pool in landscaped surrounds – a bucolic respite from the featureless town.
Next morning we leave for our final destination: Camagüey, four hours down the carretera through flat plains, criss-crossing over railway lines choked with weeds and down empty potholed motorways with horses in the slow lane and dogs sleeping undisturbed on the central reservation.
Cuba’s third-largest city – which still feels like a village – is enchanting, especially the Colón hotel, where we are staying. Built in 1927 and apparently unaltered since, it has a mysterious air and an elaborate mahogany bar. We arrive on a Saturday, the night of the weekly street party. There are trestle tables, pigs on spits, numerous children and the ubiquitous reggaetón.
Camagüey is full of blind alleys and forked streets – a deliberate ploy to foil the pirates who plagued this part of Cuba in the 16th century. Away from the main drag, the town is deserted, its streets of genteel terraced houses slinking away down the next curve, where you might find in a quiet square a ruined church with a once-grandiose façade, and two lovers kissing.
There are handfuls of pretty churches. We look into Iglesia de la Soledad, which throngs with people – Catholicism and other Christian denominations have been on the up since the Pope visited in 1996. My favourite is in Plaza San Juan de Dios, where a white-faced, lachrymose virgin is trapped in a vast mahogany case, along with other holy characters. Opposite the church, the town’s best state restaurant, La Campana del Toledo, is the place for a long, lazy lunch: with polished wooden tables, tangled tropical gardens and old men serenading local songs. At Bodegón Don Cayetano on Calle República, which has a pretty tiled patio with plenty of local trade, we eat a delicious gambas enchillada for £2.50. Spanish flags fall from the ceiling and locals cluster around the bar.
On Sunday afternoon we find the casino campestre, the urban park, where we chance upon a little zoo, which costs 70 Cuban cents (about 1p) for both of us. Here, we find a decent pizza stall, a pond full of flamingoes, a range of primates and, unexpectedly, a glossy puma, a lion, three lionesses and cubs. Across the road is the Plaza de la Revolución, reverberatingly empty but for a group of adolescents, kitted out in full all-American regalia and engaged in a baseball game of some skill. Unbelievably, we come across Pedro, our ancient hitcher, sans pig. “Mañana!” he reminds us delightedly.
“Mis cumpleaños 80!”
So the pig’s time is over then. And so is ours. Tomorrow we hit the road again, this time back to Havana and then on to the modern world. We have grown attached to the simple charms of the provinces. On our way home we stop in Plaza Ignacio Agramonte and join the locals on the marble benches. We stay there until the sun fades then walk back through silent streets.