Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Varadero

After a quick overnight stay at Mariel’s Casa Particular in Havana, we headed back to the Havana Libre hotel for our 7:00am bus to Trinidad.  It was another Transtur bus, so of course it was 45 minutes late, but at least this time it was not full and I had both seats to myself to stretch out.

The trip to Trinidad took 6 hours, but the bus stopped at 2 tourist rest stops for passengers to use the restrooms, eat lunch, and stretch our legs, so the trip was enjoyable.

Most of the scenery from Havana to Cienfuegos was rural and undeveloped except for various sugar cane fields dotting the highway.  The scenery became more hilly and spectacular between Cienfuegos and Trinidad as we drove through the Parque Natural Topes de Collantes–

Finally, by mid-afternoon, we arrived to the town square in Trinidad.  Two bicycle taxi drivers were waiting to take us to our Casa Particular.  Hans and the suitcases occupied one taxi, while Ursula and I got the other.

As we got within a couple blocks of the casa, the streets became too steep for our drivers to peddle, so it was time to get out and walk the rest of the way.  The drivers insisted on carrying our bags so they still worked hard to get us to our casa.

Our casa accommodations in Trinidad were very nice, but arranged a bit oddly.  The guest rooms were added to the back courtyard of a narrow row house, so to get to them, we had to walk through the family’s living room and kitchen!  Fortunately, the rooms were very clean and comfortable, and we also had a nice small courtyard to enjoy our breakfasts.

We spent 3 nights in Trinidad and 3 nights in Cienfuegos.  In hindsight, we could have easily seen each town in just 2 nights each but each town was worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Here are the sights of Trinidad:

A mix of horses, bikes, and cars on the cobblestone streets–

Lots of kids love soccer in Cuba–

The sign at this hair salon cracked us up:  “Salon Gisselle– New York-London-Paris”

Dogs and cats sleeping the afternoon away–

Some interesting old men whiling away the day as well–

The older part of town featured houses in pretty pastel colors–

The pretty, restored, main cathedral in town–

Playing checkers day or night was a big thing in this town–

But our most exciting thing was to finally hear some live Cuban music!  On our last day in Trinidad, the official 10-day mourning period for Fidel Castro had finally ended.  Cubans were once again allowed to play music and drink liquor!

Mojitos flowing again!

On Day 4, we headed from Trinidad to Cienfuegos. We’d originally planned to take the official bus line, Via Azul, to make the 1 hour trip, but Ursula had read that if you mulled outside the bus station, taxi drivers would approach you asking if you’d like to buy a taxi trip instead.  Sure enough, an English-speaking Cuban man approached us and said his brother had a taxi that would pick us up at our Casa and take us to our casa in Cienfuegos.   His brother soon arrived to pick us up in an old beat up eastern European car– the window and door handles had fallen off the inside rear doors, which was rather disconcerting, but Hans had a working window and door handle up front, so we figured we’d have some slight potential of safety, and the air conditioning was running full blast, so how bad could it be?

As the rundown taxi left the city of Trinidad and got up to highway speeds, Ursula and I soon began to smell burning oil coming through the A/C vents.  Hans motioned to the driver to turn the AC down and he cracked open the window to give us some fresh air.  The winding, bumpy road to Cienfuegos was not as enjoyable in this jalopy as it’d been in the bus, but we made it to our next casa safe and sound, so chalked it up to another Cuban “experience.”

Our casa rooms in Cienfuegos were on top of the owners’ house and had a large balcony overlooking the bay.  While we were about 2 miles south of the center of town, we were close to the upscale area of Punta Gorda where there were more restaurants.  We found a great restaurant just 2 blocks from our casa that served food we finally found edible, and wound up eating there all 3 nights.

On our first day in Cienfuegos, we headed to the bus station to buy our tickets to Varadero, and then rode a horse taxi to the main town square:

The town square had gorgeous architecture, but surprisingly, not many restaurants or bars for tourists to hang out–

The next day we took a short boat tour of the harbor.  Hans and Ursula met some sailing couples from Germany at the docks who had sailed across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, as well as another man traveling solo from Germany.

The cruise was nothing too interesting, but at least it was good to be out on the water.

This is the Harbor Club at Cienfuegos– pretty impressive architecture!

 Afterwards, we headed to this impressive Moorish mansion that had been converted into a restaurant and rooftop bar–

On our final day in Cienfuegos, we headed back downtown to explore.  Lots of colorful colonnades–

We also happened to stumble into an open-air courtyard bar that had the best band we’d heard in Cuba to-date, Conjunto Laredo.  They were absolutely fantastic!

As we walked through downtown, Hans and Ursula decided to take a gamble on getting some Cuban haircuts for $10 each.  I decided to take a pass!

We rode this interesting contraption back home to the casa– a motorcycle taxi.

Our experience riding the state-run Via Azul bus from Cienfuegos to Varadero left much to be desired.  After waiting in the hot bus station for half an hour to get our seat assignments, we were told to walk our bags outside and around to the back of the building.

The bus appeared to look as modern as the Transtur buses, but the interior was not quite as nice.  Curiously, after all the waiting for seat assignments, the driver just told everyone to sit anywhere they liked.  Perhaps because they had oversold the seats, and there weren’t enough for everyone!  There was an older Cuban gentleman traveling with what looked to be his grandson and great-grandson who were asked to stand in the aisle since their destination would be the first stop in about 45 minutes.  They obliged, but as the bus got up to highway speed it was apparent that the shocks and suspension were completely shot, as the bus lurched from side to side around each curve.  Soon, the young child got motion sickness.  A foreign tourist sitting next to them kindly offered up his seat to the old man and the sick child.  Thankfully, good people can make up for a crappy state-run bus service!

After a few small-town stops, we pulled into a tourist rest stop for lunch and restroom breaks before finally arriving to the beach town of Varadero about 5 hours later.

We were to stay at another Casa Particular in Varadero, but either this was a really bad casa or Cuba had finally worn down our patience after 3 weeks. After discovering the casa’s dirty floors and a bathroom without a toilet seat, we made a bold decision to walk out and not stay there….on a Friday afternoon, no less, at a popular beach town!

After checking with a few more casa particulars and not finding any availability, we had no other choice but to start trying the big all-inclusive hotels.  The first one we found, didn’t seem too outrageously priced (about $100/night per person), so we scraped together enough cash for one night until we could re-supply our Cuban currency at the bank the next day.

Admittedly, the hotel was a step up from the casa particulares we’d stayed at.  But, it still was nothing overly grand or luxurious.  The hotel seemed filled with French-Canadians on vacation.  The buffet food had fairly good variety and didn’t seem too bad, but certainly was more bland and predictable than local restaurants might have been.

On the positive side, the beach was absolutely gorgeous.  This is certainly why foreign tourists come to Varadero.

Too bad my back was in such pain by this point that there was no way for me to go swimming and enjoy the water.  The best I could do was lay under a cabana and count down the hours until I could return to civilization in Mexico for medical care.

Finally, our departure date arrived.  The Varadero airport was small and easy to navigate, and our Interjet flight back to Mexico City was pleasant and uneventful.

Cuba had been a unique experience for all of us.  None of us regretted making the trip, but none were eager to return anytime soon either.  While the music was spectacular, the food and accommodations were more dreadful than pleasant.  After experiencing great value for our money in Mexico (due to the 20:1 exchange rate for US dollars), Cuba felt very over-priced and underwhelming.

Now that the U.S. government will be reinstituting more travel restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, I’d suggest avoiding it for a few more years until, hopefully, regime changes in either or both countries, and infrastructure improvements in Cuba, make the destination more desireable.

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