Cuba – Cienfuegos
It took eight hours to get from Viñales to Cienfuegos and the air con stopped working about five hours into the journey. We climbed off the bus sweaty and restless and hot and bothered and were immediately met by an exuberant but very confusing Cuban man holding a sign with our names on it – evidently our ride to the Casa. He was picking up a couple of groups and once all of his people and their bags were suitably corralled, he led us out of the bus station to where a number of bicitaxis (pedalos) were lined up. ‘There is already a lady in your taxi’ he explained to us in rapid Spanish ‘and I don’t know why’. After a few cries of ‘Signora!’ and frantic hand movements urging her to climb out of the pedalo, he simply left us to it and Kati and I had to evict a middle aged British woman from our taxi and then drive off in it leaving her on the side of the road. It was very awkward. Especially as pedalos are not exactly the fastest of vehicles and the process of cycling away from the poor woman we had just forced out of the taxi was rather longer than I would have liked.
Of course we really were very nice to her and luckily the bus station is in the middle of town so she would have had no trouble finding another taxi!
Our pedalo took us, very slowly, through the centre of town and into an almost suburban residential area, which could have been a small American suburb, with picket fences and wide streets and porches on the front of low wooden houses, if it weren’t for the many huge potholes and the Che Guevara murals. Our taxi might have been considerably speedier if our driver hadn’t insisted upon taking such an elaborate detour around each pot hole, but we were eventually delivered to our host, and made to feel at home by a man whose name we instantly forgot (it’s now too late for us to ask as we’ve been living in his house for two days) and so, for simplicity’s sake, we have named him ‘Jorge the 3rd’ (Jorge the 1st was our Casa host in Havana and Jorge the 2nd was another host whose name we forgot).
Cienfuegos is a small town which revolves around a central plaza, with a Malecon just like in Havana – a wide road which runs all the way along the sea wall. We had arrived on a Sunday so almost everything was closed, and we were able to take a quiet wander around the plaza, and then head down the Malecon for a view of the sunset. Half the population of Cienfuegos appears to congregate here in the evenings, walking up and down the Malecon or perched on the sea wall, dressed to impress in tight outfits and high heels. We joined them, doing what probably used to be called ‘promenading’ past all the palm trees that line the road, and eventually arriving at a grand, elaborate hotel where we were able to get a drink and a gorgeous view of the sea.
Cienfuegos is probably what I would call an ‘ordinary’ Cuban town. Not that I really have any idea what ordinary means here or if there even is such a thing as ordinary in this crazy country! We seemed to spend a lot of time running around trying to get things organised as we’ve decided to fly back to Havana at the end of our trip, rather than get the bus, so we can have an extra day in Baracoa. In Cuba, it seems, nothing is ever simple and we went back and forth to the bureau de change, the bank, the travel agent, the flight booking desk, the bus terminal, the supermarket and our Casa, buying supplies, arranging tickets and a million other things. We have managed to figure out the wifi situation (you can buy access cards for 2cuc – about £1.40- which give you a password for one hour of access to the wifi hotspots which can usually be found in the central plaza of any city), so at least we know that we can check in every couple of days (we’re both in the middle of moving house and job hunting so that’s very useful!)
On our second day in Cienfuegos we emerged from our room just after 8:30 in the morning to find Jorge the 3rd hovering outside. ‘Buenos Dias!’ we chorused sweetly, to which he replied ‘You’re too late to take the excursion to El Nicho. Much too late.’ Jorge is helpful and steadfast but he is not a particularly cheery soul in the mornings.
As it turned out, he was able to arrange us a private taxi to El Nicho (a nearby national park we were keen to visit), plus a stop for lunch, for a little less than we would have paid for a guided tour, which turned out way better for us as we try to avoid groups of other tourists as much as possible. (They have an embarrassing habit of wearing towels over their heads to hide from the sun, and we actually passed one lady that day, obviously part of a large group, who was complaining ‘I liked it much better on the bus’)
Our taxi driver Eduardo duly collected us in a car which, he was proud to say, was 37 years old! It seemed to be in pretty good shape and the ‘natural air conditioning’ (Eduardo rolling all the windows down and driving really fast) worked a treat. Eduardo pointed out all the landmarks that we passed and we chatted to him about the free healthcare in Cuba, the fact that every town, however small, has a hospital and a school, and the system here by which University is free, but is only available to the top percentile of students. We drove through lush green fields (Eduardo would often wave his arms expansively and cry ‘verde, verde, verde’) and towards a range of distant mountains for about an hour before arriving at El Nicho. Eduardo let us scurry off and pick up the trail while he went to have a siesta and a cigar with his other taxi driver buddies waiting in the same car park.
After a short hike we came across the first of the natural pools. It was so beautiful- fresh cold turquoise water in a deep pool fed by a little waterfall. There were a few other people there and we decided to head on to the main waterfall. Cascading off fern-covered rocks into more perfect blue pools, the waterfall was absolutely incredible and absolutely massive. I was so excited I almost slipped over on the rocks in my haste to jump in. The water was freezing cold and the sound of the waterfall behind was deafening, but you guys – it was so cool. There were a few other groups passing through but for a long time we had the place all to ourselves. We were able to clamber over the rocks and get right up to the base of the falls, and then bask in the sun and dry off before continuing the little circuit and cooling off in more beautiful pools.
Eduardo drove us home via a small local restaurant (he had been kind enough to call ahead and arrange vegetarian food so we had quite a feast), and we got back to Cienfuegos absolutely exhausted. I really love waterfalls and El Nicho was just incredible, I would go back in a heartbeat.
Next stop – Trinidad!