The winter in the maritimes has been a bit of a long one, with storm after storm and only four feet of snow piled up in our yard (!). During the last week of February, Sheena and I decided to go somewhere we've always dreamed of going with all its history, culture…maybe something about being able to relax on a beach in February: Cuba.
So, we booked our trip (through tripcentral.ca; which was surprisingly easy and well organized mostly all through email) and left for Halifax after leaving the kids with Gramma and Grampy MacDonald. Our flight on Cubana Airlines was a complete and pleasant surprise, totally different than the online reviews of the airline experience. We were treated with a nice airplane meal and free drinks, something unheard of in the Canadian airlines experience. As we approached Cuba, I couldn't help but notice the amount of forest fires visible from the air. They would be something we'd see throughout the trip, although no one seems to be concerned about them.
After a four hour flight, we landed in Santa Clara, which appeared to be an old military airport. It was interesting to see the small concrete dome fighter plane hangers covered in overgrown grass and vines a sign of the old cold war, now being used as storage for the present commercial airport. More importantly, we got off the plane and were greeted with a blast of warm air.
One of the more interesting yet nerve racking events was the bus trip from the airport to the resort. As we were in the Playa Ancon area, it was a three hour drive (but only 140 kms) through Sancti Spirtus province's city and villages. There is a shorter route, but it is impassable as it passes through the mountains a fact which we we would fully understand later on our mountain excursion. The 140km drive we took on the bus was long due to the variety of traffic: a blend of new and old world transportation. I've never seen a place where brand new Chinese made air conditioned buses drive on the same highway as pedestrians, bicycles, bicycles with more than one rider, horses, horse drawn cart taxis, mopeds, multirider motorcycles (we passed one with 3 riders), 1950s era cars, Russian trucks, modified transport trucks converted to buses, coco-taxis (coconut), and brand new European rental cars — all on the same roadways.
After our first night, we woke up to the first of our daily morning beach walks, exploring the Ancon peninsula. Our resort area was situated on a peninsula with a several kilometre long beach on the south Caribbean ocean. We found various types of shells and sea life on our walks. We were amazed at the warmth of the air and the ocean, as well as the beautiful sunrises. Along our walks, we also saw a few remnants of beach defences from some era (1950s?) and a couple of old and closed resorts, now used as hangouts for locals.
The meals were interesting and different at the same time. Most food was similar to ours, although with an emphasis on fresh tropical fruits and juices and delicious seafood. The meats were unfortunately mostly lower grade meats, but still tasty. With the exception of nationally produced items such as coffee, the challenges brought by the US embargo were especially exemplified in the food and beverages. The lack of every day things such as spices or other items familiar to westerners. If one were to use soft drinks as an example: finding a bottle of 'Diet Coke' is actually a difficult endeavour. We we did see some of it, but it was actually called 'Light Coke'…and we saw no Pepsi. We tried the local 'refrescos' called 'Dietika'. It tasted similar, but had very little carbonation. In another example, chocolate was virtually non-existent in our area of Cuba. As a result, you begin to really appreciate what was offered to you by the local restaurants. The coffee was absolutely exceptional (and we brought back as much as we could!).
While on our first days at the resort, we met a couple from from PEI, Alex and Leslie. Both have travelled a fair bit and Alex, originally hailing from Chile, speaks Spanish. Meeting Alex and Leslie made our trip much more interesting as we had new friends to explore the area with and just share conversation and stories while enjoying the beach. Alex was also able to converse and share some of the locals conversation and experiences with us, which helped us to understand that much more about Cuba.
On our third day, the four of us rented a taxi cab (use government taxis when possible) and travelled the 15 kilometres to Trinidad. (Sheena and I had originally planned to rent bicycles for this trip, but after bus ride into the resort, we decided to avoid taking our life in our hands in an unprotected bicycle!) Arriving in Trinidad, we began to understand why it is designated as a UNESCO heritage site. The city is a colonial gem, built during the sugar production boom of the early 1900s. We walked on cobblestone streets and stopped to take in the market, local musicians and artists. One gentleman named Lorenzo sat with his rooster Bancho watching the passers by. We later found Lorenzo's son working as a painter in a nearby shop, painting a picture of his father. Around midday, we got out of the hot sun for a while and stopped for lunch at a popular spot for salsa music, Casa de la Musica. During our lunch, we were treated to a band playing music amplified by the natural acoustics of the restaurant and surrounding buildings in Plaza Mayor. Afterward a delightful lunch a nd refreshing cerveza (beer), we strolled through town — eventually leading us to an old convent turned revolutionary museum, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. From the tower, we took photos of the surrounding town and mountains.
The following day, we spent most of our time on the beach and tried an excursion on the catarmaran with a friendly sailor named Alberto. Alberto suggested we try the snorkelling offered at the resort and if we were willing to, he would take us out to the reef off shore. We were relatively untested at the snorkelling, so we opted for some snorkelling nearby the shore. It was fun to be able to see the white sandy bottom, mixed with eel grass — but other than a few errant fish, we mostly only saw starfish. It was a good refresher though, except one critical mistake — wearing my wedding ring while swimming. Lets just say that it is now a permanent resident of Cuba.