Trinidad, Santa Clara and Varadero, Cuba
Still slightly bitter from the shirt-stealing-Jewish-Chilean-Mexican experience, I arrived in Trinidad, where even the arrival is an experience. In most towns that you visit in Cuba, thereÂ´s a mass panic as you get off the bus, as the locals try to entice you in to their casa. Trinidad is no exception but is made worse by the fact that youÂ´re first paraded through the streets in the coach as the next wave of presumably money-laden tourists. Fortunately, I was booked in advance so I was able to avoid the main throng of the action, but itÂ´s nevertheless a slightly unpleasant experience. Trinidad is described as one of the best kept / restored towns in Cuba, resplendent with its cobbled streets and architecture. However, it is significantly more touristy than Cienfuegos and seems to be a popular haunt for the coach-package visitors. ThereÂ´s plenty to do and see, but by this point I had begun to get a feeling of “seen one plaza de la revolucion, seen Â´em all”. With that in mind, I checked out some of the excursions with the local tour operators.
Ordinarily, you could expect to walk in to a tourist agency and have them try to sell you every trip under the sun. I walked in to Cubatur with an open mind, looking for a recommendation, and was met with a grunt and a “take the steam train, tomorrow, 10CUC” and ushered out the door.
A note on camera envy
The stream train in Trinidad is a peculiar experience. For some reason, itÂ´s natural to find some pleasure in being on an old school train with big flumes of pollution gushing from its locomotive. Well, maybe not the pollution, but being on the train is pleasurable. Not really knowing what to expect (thanks to the grumpy Cubatur man), it was a “sit down wait and see” job. I was at the front of the train, next to a couple. The male counterpart appeared to be an eager photographer, and was certainly sporting the equipment. In fact, as the day wore on, eager wouldnÂ´t describe his fascination with his lenses, so to speak. Photo whore, would be more apt. For the in-the-know photogs out there, he was using a Canon 40D, 16-35 2.8L and 70-200 2.8L. For the non-photogs out there, that equates to at least 3.5kÂ´s worth of equipment. He proceeded to spend the entire day looking through his lenses, and took a photo of everything. Ooh a steam train. *click*. Ooh the same steam train again. *click*. Ooh a tree. *click*. Ooh a steam train. *click*…. *click* *click* *click*, ad infinitum. I genuinely felt sorry for his poor girlfriend, who had clearly reprised said role in favour of “lens caddy”, which, considering the weight of the lenses, is no mean feat. There are two points to this mundane rant. Uno - the guy spent the whole day on his camera, taking a snapshot (and I do mean snapshots) of everything. He did not once sit back and take in exactly what it was he was seeing. When he checks his memory card, he will have (at least) 500 shots of the day, and not a single memory. (I saw him later on during my trip and he was doing the exact same thing. I dread to think how many thousands of photos he will have to wade through when he gets home.) Dos - I used to be a similar photo geek. Heck, I am still a photo geek, but I used to carry all the expensive equipment and think I looked great with it. Before my trip, I offloaded all the professional equipment in favour of the bare essentials and cheap lenses, insistent on learning how to take proper photos with more than sufficient equipment, rather than reckoning that expensive equipment bought good photos. I know plenty of people who can get the most out of the professional equipment, but the vast majority of people buy the equipment, and hope for the best. You might wonder how I know that this guy was not a professional photographer, and that every one of his 500 photos wasnÂ´t going to make him some money. It was quite simple. I surreptitiously had a look at his camera. It was set to “green box” mode, which for non Canon users equates to “full automatic mode.” I have no problem with people using a camera in full automatic mode, even on a digital SLR, but in my opinion “L series lens” and “full automatic mode” arenÂ´t words that should be used in the same sentence.
As for the trip on the train itself, it was a small disappointment. The valley was quite beautiful, and the view from the tower in Iznaga was equally stunning. But otherwise, it was a bit of a non-starter. The train left Iznaga, bound for somewhere, when it stopped barely 500m up the tracks where we were told to disembark for lunch at the Guanchinanga Ranch. It was here that I met up with a bunch of other equally bemused English tourists. Maybe itÂ´s natural for Brits to group together when they find themselves in such a situation. But as is the nature of travelling, it worked out very well, since I met Alice, and her Mum, who eventually became travel buddies.
After Trinidad, I spent one night in Santa Clara, one of the larger towns in Cuba, despite what the guidebooks might have you believe. The plan was for two nights, but for some reason, as is the wont of the solo traveller, on my first morning, I woke up with a sense of wanting to get out of there. Alice and Mum had described the option of some serious beach time in Varadero, and that was significantly more appealing than exploring another plaza. So after a quick tour of the tren blindado (armoured train that Che Guevara had been instrumental in stopping during the Spanish occupation) and the Che Memorial and Mausoleum, I opted to make a beeline for the beach at Varadero.
Varadero itself is a small town on the edge of what is now an enormous resort and mass of hotels. It wasnÂ´t quite as hideous as I was expecting (compared with say CancÃºn or Honolulu) but the inclusivo hotel packages mean that the area tends to be overrun with fat North American tourists who do nothing but drink and sleep and think they have visited Cuba. Nevertheless, the beaches are beautiful, and the warm Caribbean sea is an effective coolant against the otherwise clima calor and sometimes stressful backpacking lifestyle. As planned, I met Alice and Mum, duly sunning themselves in the glorious weather and doing their best to enjoy the inclusivo bar.
(In fact, inclusivo is something of a joke. The point is that you pay one price, and you get everything. Hotel room, food, open bar, beach and various other amenities. But the problem is that when you have paid your one price, there is no guarantee of any quality. Certainly, the hotel complex was impressive and a far cry from the cheapo no inclusivo hotel I had managed to find, but the food was uninspiring and the selection of drinks in the bar was more akin to a cheap student bar rather than an upmarket hotel. Put it this way, donÂ´t expect any Havana Club in your mojito.) They will try to tell you the complex is full to make you feel like youÂ´re fortunate to be there, but in the evenings it was empty, prompting Alice on more than one occasion to question “where the fuck is everyone?”
Some good times ensued, including a 5am escapade in evading the “youÂ´re not wearing a IÂ´ve paid the inclusivo price green shackle” security guard as Alice and I tried to make the most of the free bar, and a particularly cheesy but nonetheless humourous “Varrrrrrrrradero Fiesta” cabaret show, which mysteriously morphed into a nightclub, including an inexplicable spacecraft-cum-lightshow ceiling adornment.
Beach life definitely has its place and you canÂ´t fault the quality of the beach and water at Varadero (even if a lot of the sand in the expensive parts is clearly imported from elsewhere.) It was a relaxing couple of days (despite the hangovers) but it was time to move on. Alice and Mum were heading to VeÃ±ales in the Pinar del Rio valley and the prospect of returning to Havana made it simple for me to accept their kind offer to accompany them.