Cuba – Trinidad y Santiago de Cuba
Wandering the cobbled streets of Trinidad, past colourful houses, noisy bars, terraced restaurants and little shops selling straw hats and key rings, you might be forgiven for thinking that you had somehow ended up in Spain or the south of France. Trinidad, full of restaurants and tour groups and postcard-perfect scenes definitely has a feel of the Mediterranean, and it’s been the most relaxing place so far.
We arrived by bus at around midday, so took the afternoon to find the main square (Plaza Mejor) and wander the surrounding streets, stopping in a little bar for some food and finally picking up a few souvenirs and gifts in a market selling (very tourist oriented) goods, from salad spoons shaped like parrots to cigar boxes, t-shirts and jewellery. Our Casa is really central and Jorge IV is a rather laissez-faire host, with a regrettable habit of wandering around in only a pair of ill fitting swim shorts. He seems to have a large family of his own to manage so he leaves us to do as we please. In the evening we drank Piña Coladas on a roof terrace and then wandered through the busy streets, enjoying the live music floating out of restaurants and bars, the casual, easy atmosphere, and the prospect of a lie in the next day.
Despite crying babies, shouting, slamming doors and the constant sound of pots and pans banging around in Jorge’s kitchen, we slept until well after nine, and emerged into the already scorching sunshine in time to get some brunch at a bakery and recommence our slow wander around the picturesque town. Further from the centre, the residential streets are just as pretty, though less polished, and the sound of hooves on cobbles means a mad dash for the pavement as the horses, often pulling carts, are driven around with surprising speed. We got thoroughly lost in the outskirts of Trinidad, climbed the bell tower overlooking the square, and finally found a friendly ‘taberna’ where the vegetarian options actually looked appetising! When our food did come we were so excited to get our hands on ‘real’ veggie tapas for the first time since arriving in Cuba that we ate the corn fritters, bruschetta and other small dishes along with the the decorative fruit and even the lettuce leaves they were arranged on in about two minutes flat. More wandering (it sounds dull but Trinidad is a delightful place for slow meandering, wandering and all other kinds of dallying) brought us to another small plaza where we were able to briefly access the Internet (you can spot the wifi hotspots from a mile off as they are always lined with tourists – and some locals – bending over their phones and staring intently at their iPads).
Quite taken with our midday meal, we returned to the same restaurant for dinner and ordered huge plates of spaghetti with fresh tomato salsa, vegetables and herbs, and were scooping it into our faces so enthusiastically that one of the senior waiters came over halfway through our meal and presented us with two spoons, before patting us on the shoulders and withdrawing, obviously suggesting that we practise the more elegant art of twiddling the spaghetti around a fork and daintily placing it in our mouths, rather than simply lobbing in huge forkfuls of the stuff and hoping for the best. As the restaurant is one of the most popular in Trinidad, we had been found a perch on the end of a large table and towards the end of our meal, a group of four English/ German guys joined us. They were all eighteen and about to finalise their University choices ready for September. It made Kati and I feel very old! We got chatting about Uni and life in London (where most of them live) and it turned out that they were also planning to undertake the 12 hour bus journey to Santiago de Cuba the next day.
We duly arrived at the bus station at 7.15am for our 8am bus, a rule that the bus company (Viazul) imposes in what I can only assume is an attempt to counteract the utter uselessness of their staff. We’ve travelled Viazul all the way down the country and they are consistently, dependably, bad. On this particular morning we were made to wait in a single line, despite the fact that there are clearly two available check in desks and two available staff members, while one lady slowly and rudely checked in passengers, and her colleague, obviously too busy staring into space and trying out all the ring tones on his phone to be of any real help, sat with his feet up on the desk, idly watching us. When Kati and I finally reached the front of the queue the lady at the desk decided that it was an opportune moment to catch up on some filing and began slowly collating and stapling together piles of papers, while the queue built up until it was out of the door and Kati and I looked on in disbelief. Attempting to galvanise her into action, I very politely reminded her ‘two tickets to Santiago please’, at which she finally looked up, sighed a heavy sigh (us customers, eh, we must be such an interruption to her days of idly filing papers and chatting to her colleagues), before finally barking ‘when I’ve finish this’ and waving a sheaf of what looked like old ticket stubs in my face. When we finally got our tickets (with much sighing and eye rolling and tutting from the lady), we were able to board the bus and look forward to more than twelve hours of driving all the way across the middle of Cuba and down to its most Eastern end.
We stopped many times at towns and cities along the way to pick up and drop off passengers and the scenery was generally interesting, lots of fields and trees and, as we got further east, mountainous landscapes. Sadly there’s only so many interesting trees you can look at before you get a bit sick of it all, and by 11am we were all fully awake, starving hungry and passing the time by playing a riotous ‘charades’ style guessing game with the boys and drinking generously mixed ‘Cuba Libres’ from our plastic water bottles. Luckily, before the rest of the passengers murdered us all and hid our bodies deep in the jungle, we came to a rest stop and were able to stretch our legs for as long as it took our bus driver to eat lunch and flirt with all the waitresses (almost 45 minutes) . After that it was nine more hours of driving, stopping to pick up passengers in every major town and passing right through the middle of the country, (an entire swathe of Cuba, in fact, that Jorge the 1st had dismissed with a wave of his hand as ‘not worth visiting’), watching the landscape and the weather change. We told stupid stories about our school days and swapped notes on London gig venues (thanks Ben for helping me look cool), and I read the entire first book of the Lord of the Rings until finally, finally, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in the dark and thirteen hours and a half hours after we had left Trinidad, we arrived in Santiago de Cuba. We were swarmed by quite aggressive touts trying to convince us to get in their taxi or stay in their Casa, but Kati and I had booked ahead and we piled the boys into our taxi, much to the surprise of our Casa host when we arrived and seven people clambered out of the tiny car. She had enough room for everyone and Kati and I practically ran to our room, desperate to finally eat our leftover pasta from the night before, which we had been carrying around with us all day because we couldn’t find any forks for love nor money and, although we considered using pens as chopsticks, had not become quite hungry enough to eat it with our hands.
The next day we woke early, had a genuinely lovely breakfast on the roof terrace of our Casa, and then set out into Santiago de Cuba. We really weren’t sure what to expect and we weren’t that enamoured with it at first. The narrow streets seem oppressively hot and close, the noise of the traffic and the car horns is deafening, and the air is filled with dust and petrol fumes. On the way to the main square, we got more whistles, stares and propositions than anyone could be reasonably expected to bear, and one guy – the first of many that day – actually grabbed my by the arm (which makes me so furious, and frustrated that the worst I could do was give him a stare of utter disdain and a suggestion as to exactly where he could stick his arm).
To make things worse, we found some wifi and read the news about the results of the EU referendum. After that we didn’t feel much like doing anything, and we spent a while messaging friends back home in frustration and disbelief.
We followed a tour of the city provided in our guide book, but neither of us were particularly charmed by the hectic, hot and shabby city, and our patience with the men and their grabbing hands soon wore thin. If Trinidad is a quaint, rustic and welcoming town, Santiago is its polar opposite. There was no sanctuary to be found in the bars or cafés, and we ended up in a small museum on the site of the July 26 coup, where Fidel Castro made his first (and ultimately wildly unsuccessful) bid for power in 1953. It is now celebrated as the first strike of the revolution, and celebrated annually.
We had a long siesta and stayed close to our Casa that evening, venturing out for a quick dinner (complete with Fawlty Towers style waiters) and then sitting on the roof terrace while the boys played poker.
Santiago is a city with so much potential, but sadly our true enjoyment of it was spoilt by the constant street harassment. Sort it out Cuba, it’s not big and it’s not clever and I’m starting to fantasise about snapping off men’s arms and shoving them down their throats. (And not in a being-dramatic-for-the-blog kind of way. I genuinely have reached the end of my patience)
Here’s hoping our next stop – Baracoa – is a place where we can chill and hopefully hit the beach!