Central Havana and the Best of the west – Cuba

Expecting public transport to be rather difficult in Cuba, I chose to do a ‘walking’ tour with the company ‘Explore’. I love traveling on my own, but without a good public transport system in a country it is difficult to travel around, plus it’s nice to have company and someone else to do all the organizing for a change.

We left Havana on our 7 day tour and headed westerly towards Vinales.

Our first walk was in ‘Las Terrazas’ a small community and nature reserve which is the result of an extensive regeneration project and forms part of the UNESCO Biosphere of Sierra del Rosario. The variety of plant and tree life here was so diverse. There were even a few coffee crops growing in the middle of the lush forest. At the end of our walk we had lunch and the opportunity to swim in the natural pools of the river ‘San Juan’. Next on our journey was Vinales.

The Valle de Viñales is a stunning national park with fertile rust-red soil and green expanses of tobacco plantations, with precipitous limestone buttresses of rock. This tranquil farming town is on the edge of the park and it has been said that this is Cuba at its most alluring and is the country’s second most visited tourist destination after Havana. I loved the ‘lay-back’ slow pace of life, the pretty houses all with a rocking chair or 2 on their verandahs and the rustic, lush, tropical feel. Unfortunately, with this kind of climate and growth, there are mosquitoes, which made sleeping difficult. If only I’d brought a mosquito net. Other than this small annoyance, Vinales was a beautiful 2 day stop.

One morning we walked through the Valle de Vinales, to see the tobacco fields and other locally grown crops.  Meeting a local farmer plowing the fields, Cuban cigar hanging from his mouth, was an extra bonus and an excellent photo opportunity. We were shown how the tobacco is grown and harvested, and how the famous Cuban cigars are made with the chance to try one. I passed but think I still ‘passive’ smoked sitting alongside others puffing on these huge cigars.

Driving through Sugar plantations we stopped at the aqua-blue water of the ‘Bay of Pigs’.  In 1961 this was the location of the failed military invasion of Cuba, undertaken by the CIA-sponsored paramilitary counter-revolutionary military (made up of Cuban exiles who traveled to the United States after Castro’s takeover) failed to overthrow the Communist regime of Fidel Castro. We had lunch overlooking the natural pool where many were swimming while others chose to dip the inviting Caribbean.

Next stop was short visit to Cienfuegos named after Camilo Cienfuegos, who was appointed head of Cuba’s armed forces shortly after the victory of Castro’s rebel army in 1959. I found his and the rest of Cuban history, most fascinating and our tour guide filled us in on some extra interesting information. Seeing these places of Cuba, brings the history more to life and reality.

We stayed in  the pretty town of Trinidad for 3 nights. In the 18th Century the sugar industry became well established in the nearby Valle de Los Ingenios and Trinidad prospered, with the building of beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings, which now unfortunately are in varying states of repair. During this time the town was regularly attacked by pirates and it is said that the street layout is deliberately complicated so as to confuse attackers. With my phone-map in hand, I didn’t have a problem navigating my way around and loved the vibrancy and uniqueness found in the maze of winding, cobbled-stoned streets.

In the morning we went inland of Trinidad where we had a pleasant walk through El Cubano Reserve, hiking up to a waterfall and one of Cuba’s best natural swimming holes. Although it wasn’t the hot Summer weather, we were still relieved to stop for a cool swim before heading back to Trinidad for lunch and an afternoon exploring and enjoying Trinidad.

Our next hike was just inland to Topes de Collantes Natural Park in the beautiful, wooded Escambray Mountains, famous for its many endemic species of flora and fauna. What a stunning area! Strolling through this jungle, I loved listening out for the different bird calls and trying to spot them in the tall trees. The national bird, The Tocororo, so named as this is the sound it makes, was particularly difficult to see, but well worth the effort as it has very distinct colouring with a red underbelly. Also, it was the first time I’d seen a Woodpecker and a Humming bird.  These tiny small black birds that hover over a flower with wings that beat so fast. Amazing!

On our last evening we learned how to make Mojito’s, Pina Collada’s and the national drink The Canchanchara and afterwards enjoyed the night life of this buzzing town.

Next day we headed to Santa Clara to visit the Museum dedicated to the famous Che Guevara. Guevara’s life continues to be a subject of great public interest and has been explored and portrayed in numerous books and films, including The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).

Then it was back to Havana where for my last 2 nights , I stayed in ‘Central Havana’. Unlike Old Havana, Central Havana is much less touristy and gives one a chance to experience the ‘real’ life of the city.

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