Change of scenery - Cienfuegos, Cuba
It didnÂ´t take long for the scenery to change dramatically. On the bus leaving Havana, youÂ´re no more than 5 miles from the city boundaries when the vista changes from the derelict built environment of Havana to the rolling countryside of rural Cuba. ItÂ´s a stunning and beautiful change, not to mention a very welcome one. Instantly you are presented with a different culture - farming and agriculture, usually sugar or plantain, are very much the focus. ItÂ´s a simple existence, more akin to some of the places I saw in Africa. People live in basic houses, with mud or clay walls and a straw roof. The roads are dirt tracks and people get around by either horse or bicycle. The country was extremely green, although this might be a positive side effect of the rain that would have been brought by Hurricane Noel. The coach system in Cuba is very good, but to the uninitiated can be a little confusing. There are two operators - Astro and Viazul - with Astro, like most other things in Cuba, being the one that only locals can use. Viazul is the tourist equivalent, and they operate a fleet of big air conditioned buses. They stick to the time schedule well, but in most of the bus stations itÂ´s not obvious from where they depart, since (if they exist) the screens will only tell you about the departures of the Astro buses. Tickets are cheap, though, with most places accesible for between 5CUC and 15CUC. The bus to Cienfuegos takes you through the Zapatos Peninsula, and enormous area of swamp and trees, where youÂ´ll see an assortment of fauna, and even the odd crocodile.
Cienfuegos is a far cry from Havana. My hosts were waiting for me at the bus station and lead me through the quaint streets to their casa. I instantly new I had done OK - the house was well maintained and the room equipped with two double beds and a private bathroom. It was to get better though as Violeta prepared my cena - a feast of soup, fruit, bread, chicken, vegetables, salad, dessert and coffee - all for a mere 8CUC. And she really knew how to cook.
The town itself was the prettiest I saw in Cuba, there is a glorious avenue that runs all through the center, all the way to the end of the malecon (seafront). The central parque is incredible well maintained, with a selection of monuments, churches, museums and other buildings, not to mention a liberal helping of benches and fountains.
DonÂ´t trust a Jewish Chilean Mexican in Cuba
On the opposite side of the harbour is an old castle (Castillo Juan) which is said to be one of the resting places of Che Guevara, not to mention a sight not to be missed. Access to it is via boat. Hanging around the marina, it quickly became evident that things were not going swimmingly, and the boat was caputski. Also hanging around was a local looking guy in the same predicament, and we got talking. He seemed like a stand up guy - originally Chile, but moved to Mexico when he was young and is now studying in Cuba. Boat is broken, any plans? None. Pub? Pub. Seems like a reasonable thing to do.
And for the mostpart, it absolutely was. We spent the day in a locals bar, where youÂ´re supposed to be a national and can only spend the local peso, understandable, considering a beer was the equivalent of about 20 pence. He was a very opionated Jewish guy, but I humoured him and his beliefs. We had a few and as it approached 7pm I had to return to my casa for dinner. We arranged to meet up later, and because he wasnÂ´t going home, he wanted to borrow a shirt. We duly met up later, I lent him a shirt, one of my favourite polo shirts (based solely on it being the least stinky of the few clothes I had taken with me.) We got to another locals bar and got some beers in. At one point, he left for the toilet but came back promptly. Then again, at around 10pm, he left for the toilet again. And that was the last I saw of him… and my shirt. I waited, and waited, and waited, but no sign. With a little perspective, itÂ´s a bit of a non event, despite losing my shirt (which over the last 12 years, I had taken to Australia, Africa and most of Europe for me), but moreso it was a bitter end to what was otherwise an excellent couple of days in a very pretty Cuban town.
Cienfuegos should definitely be on the itinerary for any tour of Cuba, although it seems people tend to miss it out in favour of going to Trinidad, which is exactly where I was headed next.