Travelling the dichotomy of Cuba, from the beautiful beaches to the mainland
Travelling the dichotomy of Cuba, from the beautiful beaches to the mainland
Nancy Truman, Special to National Post | January 24, 2017 3:16 PM ET
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Just weeks after Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro was laid to rest
on December 3, 2016, I found myself on the largest island in the Greater
Antilles walking the streets of former colonial sugar towns and
plantations, the same places the seeds of revolution were germinated,
and joining pilgrims in Santa Clara, the city where the revolution was
won and where Fidel’s ashes were brought to spend a night with those of
his old friend Che Guevara. This is my first trip to the nation, whose
story I’ve only read in media and history books.
In most urban areas, scaffolding and fencing wrap long-neglected
colonial buildings that will soon be home to restaurants and hotels,
signs of the “entrepreneurial” growth slowly budding under Raul Castro’s
government, and reported in U.S. media in the past few years. Another
sign of coming change is the flocking of young Cubans to parks and
squares of every town we pass through. Eager to keep up with a world
constantly changing, they are now free to connect to the global
community if they can afford an hour of WiFi access for $2.50 CUC (C$3.30).
Our post-Fidel itinerary took us to three of Cuba’s 14 provinces —
Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara — situated between the
Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean in central Cuba.
Founded by the French in 1819, the southern port city of Cienfuegos is
dubbed the “pearl of the south” for its location on Jagua Bay. The urban
historic centre of the provincial capital, a marvel of early 19th
century urban planning, had the good fortune to survive bombings
unleashed by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1957, and was listed as
a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
In the harsh morning light from La Union hotel’s rooftop bar, through
the lens of my camera, the impact of years of conflict and neglect come
into sharp focus. Yet beauty is often in the details, which becomes
clear later, as we stroll the boulevard. Our guide points out such
details as the outline of the royal palm, Cuba’s national tree,
fashioned into wrought iron railings and emblazoned in bejeweled stained
glass windows, and a life-sized bronze statue of local musician Benny
Moré, by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, which stands witness to the
last century. Big band singer Moré and his Banda Gigante gained fame
across South America, the Caribbean and in the U.S. in the 1950s.
At the heart of Cienfuegos, a statue of writer, poet and independence
hero Jose Martí, so admired by Fidel Castro that he arranged to be
buried next to the 24-metre-high mausoleum containing his ashes, stands
tall in the centre of the park named in his honour. At the centre of the
circular park, a granite compass marks the city’s beginning.
Nearby, the Tomas Terry Theatre, built in 1889, carries visitors back to
an age when anyone who was anyone had a box at the theatre. Carrara
marble, hand-carved Cuban hardwoods whimsical ceiling frescoes, and
posters of world-renowned artists who graced the stage, have stood the
test of time in this monument to Venezuelan sugar baron Tomas Terry.
Bathed in moonlight, the Placio de Valle, built by a sugar baron between
1913 and 1917, oozes charm. Reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish art with
influences of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts, the palace
was set to become a casino in the 1950s, in the hands of a U.S.
developer rumoured to have ties to mafia, a plan quashed by the
revolution. Next door, the Jagua Hotel, part of earlier plans, was
completed under Castro’s regime and it has hosted political leaders such
as former East German leader Erich Honecker, Raul Castro and former
Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
The palace is now a museum and an aspiring upscale restaurant
specializing in seafood. My dinner entree of grilled shrimp and lobster
served with rice and a salad of tomato, cucumber, canned green beans and
slices of white onion — vinegar and oil on the side — was outshone by
the stained glass transoms, vaulted ceilings, mahogany woodwork and
sweeping Carrara marble staircase. During the day, take in the
breathtaking view of the harbour from its rooftop bar, reached by an
ornate, wrought-iron spiral staircase.
We stop in at The Hacienda Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley
of the Sugar Mills), a short trip by bus or rail from the provincial
capital of Trinidad. At its height, there were 50 working sugar mills in
the region, none more beautiful than Hacienda Iznaga. Trinidad and the
valley both received World Heritage status in 1988.
For lunch or dinner, the plantation house dishes up local cuisine to the
sound of “son”, a unique blend of Spanish and African music, and
American jazz. Whet your appetite with guarapo (freshly pressed
sugar-cane juice ) and a dash of rum, followed by savory slow roasted
organic pork served with a cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad and mashed
Today, a hike up 136 steps to the top of the Torre Iznaga for 1$CUC is
rewarded with a panoramic view of Trinidad and the valley. But at the
end of the 18th century Pedro Iznaga, who made his wealth in the slave
trade, climbed it daily to keep an eye on his slaves, dashing their
hopes of escape.
Founded by emigrants from the Canary Islands more than 500 years ago,
Trinidad became home to the mansions of the landowners who made their
fortunes in sugar and slave trade in the 1700s and early 1800s. A visit
to the Brunet Palace, built in 1812 by José Mariano Borrell y Padrón,
and inherited by his daughter and her husband Count Nicolás de la Cruz
Brunet y Muñoz, offers a window on their way of life.
By design, high ceilings and tall shuttered windows allow cross breezes
to flow between the street and the courtyard, a welcome respite from the
sun. The original marble floors and frescoes, and neo-classical
furnishings, stand as testament to their wealth. Two mahogany chairs,
fitted with coffee cup trays and a wide headrest for dozing off, in the
landowner’s office, elicit a chuckle. A tight climb up a spiral
staircase from the second floor to the rooftop patio, affords a
magnificent view of Trinidad with its trademark bell tower of the Church
and Monastery of St. Francis.
In a nod to the revolution, Bar La Canchanchara, housed in a charmingly
restored 18th century home and courtyard just off the square, serves a
delicious concoction of rum, mountain wildflower honey and lemon juice
served in terracotta cups. The drink by the same name as the bar, is
said to originated at the time of the Independence Wars against Spain
the early 19th century as a way for the Island Liberation Army soldiers
to staved off their cold and hunger.
Just 12 hours after the capture of Santa Clara — nicknamed the City of
Che — Batista fled Cuba and Castro’s forces claimed victory. Passing
under a banner declaring “Yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel) on the main
boulevard, I see a young backpacker sporting a Che beret and T-shirt
heading in the same direction we are to the museum of the derailed
armoured military train, north east of the city. A few boxcars and the
tractor used to derail them remains at the railway crossing here.
To the west of downtown on Campo de Tiro, sits the imposing monument
dedicated to Che Guevara and 29 of his fellow combatants killed in 1967
during the Bolivia campaign. By comparison, the small mausoleum housing
their ashes is quiet and unremarkable. A museum across from the
mausoleum displays interesting and revealing artifacts and photos of
Guevara and Castro.
From Parque Vidal, in the old town, the bright mint-green façade of the
Santa Clara Libre Hotel, bearing the scars of bullets stands out; kitty
corner stands the imposing provincial library, once the palace of Marta
Abreu de Estévez, “Benefactress of the City,” and a temporary resting
place for Guevara’s remains.
Having had my fill of stories of Spanish rule and the revolution, I
retire to the adults-only Grand Villa at Iberostar Ensenachos, on Cayo
Ensenachos. After bobbing about in the Atlantic, I lounge in the sun,
watching the bartender plod barefoot across the sand with my lime
daiquiri, while reflecting on the dichotomy of Cuba — beautiful beaches
like this gem, linked to the mainland by 48 kilometres of road and
bridge, and aging colonial cities.
The writer was a guest of the Cuba Tourist Board (gocuba.ca)
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