Slow Road Through Cuba
The cop is dressed in a tight navy-blue uniform let down badly by a sagging paunch. He peppers me with rapid-fire questions.
My Spanish – far from fluent – simply can’t keep pace. If I’d been drinking rum, things might be different. Irrespective of the language being spoken, hard liquor transforms me into a gifted conversationalist. Sadly, however, I’m completely sober.
“Sobornar,” grunts the cop from beneath an immaculately trimmed moustache.
“Havana?” I venture hopefully. We back-and-forth like this for some time, until finally, exasperated, he waves me away in disgust, squeaking back to his bike in knee-high leather boots.
Back on the road I fumble for my dog-eared phrase book. ‘Sobornar’ means bribe.
We’re still laughing as we motor down the highway, swerving past cows, lunar-sized potholes and 1950s station wagons belching plumes of black smoke. Our stay in Cuba is only a few days old, but so far it’s all been a bit like this. Thanks to the legacy of revolutionary socialist politics spearheaded by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara some 60 years ago, this is a country caught in a bizarre time warp. There is precious little internet, limited infrastructure and a currency system that rivals Einstein’s theory of general relativity in its complexity. As a result, many travellers opt to be bussed around on mindless package tours, but, along with a close friend, my wife and I have decided to rent a shitbox car and embark on a road trip from Havana to Trinidad. First stop: Cienfuegos.
It’s dusk when we arrive. We’ve booked into a casa particular – the Cuban equivalent of a B&B – but our email confirmation never arrived. This is not an uncommon occurrence in Cuba. Thankfully, owner Lorayne Sánchez, a beaming lady with an impressive afro, has enough connections to ensure sleeping on the street won’t be necessary.
A few blocks away, an elderly lady and her husband run Casa Anita. The front room is deliciously chintzy. Plates decorated with painted horses’ heads adorn a mantelpiece cluttered with ceramic pigs, doilies and creepy-looking clowns. There are rocking chairs, stuffed toys and, propped against the wall, a lime-green bike. It’s like a Stephen King nightmare meets the set of The Golden Girls.
On Sánchez’s recommendation, we dine at Pita Gorla, a family-run restaurant on the outskirts of town. Two men out front chop a shoulder of roasted pork, making ordering refreshingly straightforward. Massive portions are served with beans and rice, shredded cabbage, deep-fried plantain and red wine that is, in fact, port. The restaurant staff – at first clearly anxious we might be foreign prima donnas – seem to relax as we chow down, and frequently hover around our table to chat.
Literally translating to ‘one hundred fires’, Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 by pioneering French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana. Its glory days, however, came in the 1850s with the arrival of a railway and the subsequent boom in the sugarcane trade. Suddenly flush with cash, local merchants pumped money into construction and the resulting neoclassical architecture, which helped gain the city a World Heritage listing in 2005, remains to this day.
We’re here during wet season and the sky has once again turned the colour of ash. Horses pulling carts clop down streets slick with rain. Vintage cars that are slowly being devoured by rust flank footpaths. On a Saturday afternoon, strolling the well-ordered city centre, we notice bars filled with men drinking beer and watching baseball on television.
In Parque José Martí, the town’s main square, two old men sit beneath a glorieta (bandstand), taking shelter from the weather. One wears a flat cap and plays guitar, the other clutches a walking cane. Unexpectedly, they serenade us with a song about the revolutionary days of Che Guevara. It’s a moving moment that conjures memories of Buena Vista Social Club.
As a farewell to Cienfuegos, Sánchez invites us to dinner at Hostal Casa Azul. Her brother, known simply as ‘The Pope’, is preparing fresh lobster. Most casa particulares will ask for your dinner request in the morning, but the majority also gladly cook anything you buy from local street vendors or the market.
“I love Cuba,” says Sánchez while we sit at the kitchen table and plough steadily through a bottle of rum. “I would always come back here, but I wish we could travel.”
During the trip, this will become a common conversational theme. Education and health care are free here, but most Cubans only earn an average of between US$15 and $25 a month, essentially making them prisoners on their own island, as beautiful as it may be. The night ends in a haze and laughter as The Pope and I pose for photos with giant cigars. He gives me one to keep as a parting gift.
Back on the road, we trundle sheepishly past ubiquitous hitchhikers, a salsa CD picked up from a bar in Havana providing the soundtrack. Our car, not unlike the one driven by Bob Sala in the film adaptation of The Rum Diary, is barely large enough to accommodate the three of us and our backpacks, never mind any additional passengers.
Lush plantations flank either side of the crater-ridden ‘freeway’. We pass through villages where pensioners sit on porches and pigs are tied to trees in front yards. Farmers in cowboy hats drive tractors with thatched roofs. Men in ragged singlets hold pineapples aloft for sale on the roadside. Vintage Buicks are crammed with entire families sitting on one another’s laps.
Although Trinidad is just 80 kilometres from Cienfuegos, it takes several hours to get there. Built on sugar fortunes and slavery, the Spanish colonial jewel is characterised by undulating cobbled streets bordered by peeling pink, pistachio and other pastel-hued houses.
From the central Museo Histórico Municipal we learn of the town’s history – pirates and unscrupulous sugar kingpins make for an intriguingly dark narrative during the guided tour – before climbing the rickety wooden staircase of the adjoining bell tower for panoramic views. The streets are cluttered with art galleries and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. At night, live bands perform in the cobbled courtyards of back-lane bars.
Trinidad’s dreamy time-warp feel has undoubtedly contributed to its appeal with tourists – far more so than Cienfuegos’s – but so has its location on the southern coastline. Just a 20-minute drive from the city, white sand beaches are punctuated only by the occasional beach shack or leather-faced old-timer renting snorkelling gear to use in the pristine waters.
Rather than retrace our steps, we head back to Havana via Santa Clara, a town known mainly for its bombastic Che Guevara monuments and revolutionary significance. At Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, a smattering of train freight carriages marks the spot where, in 1958, Guevara and a ramshackle band of rifle-toting revolutionaries, using little more than a few homemade Molotov cocktails and a bulldozer, derailed an armoured train. The 90-minute battle was pivotal in Cuba’s history, effectively ending the rule of the Batista dictatorship and installing Fidel Castro, who was the prime minister, then president, for the next five decades. A short drive east, the Che Guevara Mausoleum houses the remains of the executed revolutionary and provides the detailed backstory of Cuba’s often-confusing socialist history.
Back in Havana, wave after wave of seawater smashes against the Malecón, the iconic waterfront esplanade spanning the coastline. As we venture further afield, the crumbling elegance of the city takes on a new perspective. Many of the buildings here are coming apart at the seams, but that really is an inherent part of the charm.
Cuba appears to have remained untouched by the passage of time. Sure there are cheesy Hemingway bars (the writer lived outside Havana for 20 years) and tacky package-deal resorts, but if you venture beyond the tourist traps, the rewards come in the most unexpected forms.
Our final night and another downpour sees us seeking refuge in a packed corner bar somewhere in the Old Town. In the pelting rain, the shutters have been rolled down, forcing what feels like an impromptu lock-in. In the corner, a band strikes up a tune, and with people hopping from bar stools to salsa to the rhythmic beat, the room soon becomes a blur of gyrating limbs. Ordering a generous pour of rum, I raise my glass to the scene. It seems a fitting end to a trip where unforgettable encounters lurked around every corner.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana is one of the more up-market stays in town. Rooms cost from US$380
For a more colonial setting, Hotel Raquel is a charming option with an open-air rooftop in the Old Town. Rooms from US$150.
Casa Anita, rooms from US$65.
Be sure to change money before entering Cuba; there is a surcharge of at least 10 per cent for changing currency once in the country. Come prepared with toiletries and loo roll. Basic provisions are not widely available in some parts of the country.