After five wonderful days in Havana, it was time to head south to Trinidad. As much as I absolutely loved Havana, I was really looking forward to seeing the countryside. I chose a nice seat up front in our bus so I could get a bird’s eye view of the passing tobacco and sugar plantations and the nostalgic fields of southern Cuba.
It was a beautiful and quite eventful drive. We headed south with a stop at Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs before ending just in time for sunset and an ocean swim at our hotel outside of Trinidad.
After we left Havana, the first thing I noticed was the lines and lines of people standing around in groups alongside the highway. Curious, I asked Abel our Cuban tour leader why so many people were standing alongside the road, some in packs and others alone. He told me about the immense challenges of getting around Cuba. These people alongside the roads and highways were waiting for a free ride to most likely visit family and friends in the provinces.
As the economy collapsed over a million Cubans fled the countryside and moved to Havana seeking jobs. Unfortunately the government could not keep up and today there remains a huge shortage of bus service for Havana’s 11.4 million residents. Cars are so expensive that most Cubans do not have them so they are forced to take whatever mode of transportation they can find to get out of the big cities and into the smaller cities throughout Cuba’s provinces.
This can mean riding standing up in an overfull bus, siting in the back of a pickup truck or riding crammed inside any other kind of vehicle that has spare room. It can take literally days to reach your destination and getting there can be quite challenging switching methods and modes of transportation frequently along the way.
As Abel said, “To travel anywhere in Cuba is a nightmare” unless you are one of the lucky few to have your own car. A seven-hour car ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba takes around 24 hours via train and taking the local bus can be worse.
Meanwhile, huge half full tour buses like ours pass the people by along the highway. It is illegal for a tour bus to pick them up with paying passengers inside however if a tour bus is empty and going from point A to point B then they must pick up hitchhikers along the road who must pay for a ride to their destination. Obviously, transportation in Cuba is yet another thing that simply does not work well under Communism.
The ride was rather long so we made a few stops along the way. Our first morning stop was at this beautiful touristy farm made into a rest stop. It had oxen you could climb on and get your photo, a baby crocodile and fat tree rats. There was a small gift shop with local handicrafts and a bar and coffee shop.
My favorite thing about this stop was the amazing coffee! It was by far the best and most memorable cappuccino I had the entire week in Cuba. You would think being in Cuba that the coffee would be amazing but I never had a good cup of Joe at all in Havana. It was usually all watery. The expressos were good but not the regular coffee. Finally I found exactly what I’d been longing for. Delicious, mouth-watering Cuban cappuccino! It was delightful and even came with a sugary pastry.
I also couldn’t resist snapping a photo for a few pesos of me holding onto a baby crocodile. When in Cuba why not hold onto a tiny crocodile? Later at our lunch stop in Playa Larga, I’d learn more about the crocodile population on the island as we had a visit with a naturalist before lunch.
As we drove throughout the lush, tropical Cuban countryside our charismatic never stop talking tour guide Abel filled us in a little bit about agriculture in Cuba. I learned a few surprising facts. First of all, Cuba does not raise cattle. The cattle industry completely died out during the Special Period thus the cattle they do have is extremely expensive at 29 CUC per kilo (meaning over one month’s salary). Only the rich eat beef in Cuba or of course the tourists. Second of all, Cuban soil has a ton of iron in it thus never gets flooded. This allows Cuba to successfully grown rice. Lastly, I learned that Raul has been encouraging more private ownership again in the farming community to help Cuba grow their own produce. It has the perfect climate and soil however Cuba still imports over 80% of their food thanks to Communism.
Around lunch time we neared our destination, Playa Larga, a small fishing community set near a huge national park. I was really looking forward to our lunch at a small seaside paladar called Enriques where supposedly we would be served the best lobster in all of Cuba.
Abel told us that his past guests said Enriques was the best meal they had during their entire visit to Cuba. We would be served plates of traditional Cuban food such as rice and beans, plantains and meats along with a seafood extravaganza of lobster, shrimp and locally caught fish. We were in for a feast!
When we entered the palador the deliciously aromatic smell of amazing Cuban cooking flooded my nose and my stomach growled. We were a little early so would have our meeting with the naturalist first followed by a gourmet feast.
Our presentation was held on the rooftop deck of Enriques which afforded a gorgeous view of the sea and also a preview of this sleepy seaside town. I could have sat here all day feeling the fabulous sea breeze on my skin and smelling the delights cooking up in the kitchen below.
The naturalist told us more about this special park, the Peninsula Zapata, which is a huge swampland of over 5,000 square kilometers, similar to the Florida everglades. This is one of the most important parts of Cuba for migrating birds as it has a very special biosphere. This part holds two important records: One for the world’s smallest hummingbird and Another for the world’s smallest orchid (which is smaller than a grain of rice!). There are over 350 different species of birds in Cuba and you can find 250 of these species here at the park.
I listened with enthusiasm during our thirty minute presentation on Playa Larga’s National Park yet my interest was slowly waning due to the amazing smells creeping up from the kitchen below. It smelled heavenly!
There was so much food for our group of 16 that I felt terribly guilty. Lobster and fish is a luxury that most Cubans cannot afford to eat.
After a very delightful and filling lunch it was time to board the bus again. Our next stop was at the Bay of Pigs Museum where we received a full tour and witnessed the Cuban Propaganda machine in its fullest.