(Second of two articles)
The Cuban city of Trinidad was founded in 1514. It derives its claim to fame from cobblestoned streets, red tile roofs and fine homes built during the many years of the sugar boom. The city is close to the center of the island, and it took our tour bus five hours to get there.
Strangely, there are no hotels in Trinidad so travelers stay in the many “casas particulares.” These are private homes where owners rent out self-contained quarters consisting of a bedroom with a window air conditioner, a bathroom and a parlor. The cost is usually $20, but may go as high as $40 in Havana. For an extra $10, it is possible to have breakfast and dinner, too.
The casa I stayed in was sparsely furnished, but very clean and comfortable. My hostess fixed a couple of tasty and plentiful meals. In other words, it was a very pleasant experience, despite the fact that my Spanish was even worse than her English. We got along fine.
We would call it a B&B, but for ordinary Cubans it is a wonderful opportunity to make some good money on the side, since the supposed licensing requirements do not seem to be strictly enforced.
The center of Trinidad is the Plaza Major, as it is in many Spanish-speaking countries. Surrounding the plaza are a half dozen museums, which is amazing considering the size of this small city.
There is an art museum, one about archeology, the Museo Romantico, a music museum and the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra los Bandidos, which portrays the history of the five-year battle between local rebel forces and those of the Batista regime that was toppled in the Cuban revolution.
From this building, which used to be a convent, visitors can get a fabulous view of Trinidad by climbing up the rather rickety stairs of the old bell tower. In the evening, a five-piece band provided free entertainment at a little outdoor bar near the plaza. But lots of folks just sat on the adjacent terraced stone steps enjoying the cool evening and the music, watching swaying couples dancing to the mamba, son, bolero and other Latin dances.
I finally tore myself from this relaxing and very pleasant scene to walk back to my casa along the barely lit streets. Even at this late hour, there were quite a few locals sitting on their doorsteps taking in the evening breeze or watching TV inside. That medium must be the principal means of entertainment throughout the country.
To see the surrounding country, I hired a local tour guide who gave me a 2 1/2 hour tour in his taxi for $20. His English was somewhat limited, but I didn’t need a lot of explanation to appreciate the beauty of the verdant valleys and mountains. He took me to the Valle de los Ingenios (“Valley of the Sugar Mills”), which was the most important sugar-producing area in colonial Cuba.
My driver, Miguel, pointed out former slave quarters and the remnants of an old sugar mill. Here slaves would go ’round and ’round in a small circle. At shoulder height was a long, heavy wooden beam, the center of which was connected to a piece of machinery. This extracted liquid from the sugar cane. It looked like dreadfully monotonous and heavy work to be doing day in and day out.
Then it was time to return to Havana. But there was one more area I was eager to visit – Pinar del Rio.
Both a city and a province of the same name, it is at the very western tip of Cuba and known for its natural beauty, tranquility and rural quality of life. The comfortable Rumbos tour bus took two hours to get to Pinar del Rio city.
We stopped for a brief visit to a tobacco factory, where rows and rows of women sat at long benches and hand-rolled cigars. I was told that they get a certain number of cigars as a bonus when they exceed a quota.
The bus drove on to the nearby Venales Valley. In the distance, we saw some ancient and strange-looking mountains. We stopped at the base of one to enter an “Indian cave.”
Obviously, this was a major tourist spot. At the entrance were four young Cubans, scantily dressed and made up to look like Indians. I don’t remember ever seeing such a bunch of hokey-looking characters!
After walking in the cave for some 15 minutes with its wet steps, minimum lighting and water dripping on my head, we came to an underground stream. There, a small boat with an outdoor motor awaited our group to take us for a 10-minute ride.
This cave was really big, with very high ceilings and darkness surrounding us. When we finally reached the exit, there was a restaurant where we ate a typical Cuban meal of pork, black beans and brown rice, a salad and fruit, followed by an espresso coffee.
I broke out the one hand-rolled cigar that I had bought earlier. At that moment, life felt good and the world seemed at peace!
I had almost come to the end of our trip. The rest of it was anti-climactic, except that I got ripped off at the Havana airport when I made the big mistake of checking my backpack, since I felt it was securely locked by combination locks.
Apparently it wasn’t enough. The handlers had a lot of extra time to twiddle with the locks before the aircraft’s departure. I lost my microcassette recorder and tapes I had filled with Cuban music, along with a few medical and toiletry items. Unfortunately, I only discovered this after returning home and unpacking my bag.
But I won’t let this unfortunate incident spoil the many good memories I have of Cuba. All the locals I met were friendly, with no bad feelings toward Americans. They seemed quite content, with a lot of love for dancing and their music – and the country itself is beautiful.
What else could a traveler want?
Walt Fraser lives in Grass Valley.
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