With the 9 trips I have now done to Cuba, I have made a sincere effort to see more than just the fishing. Usually, I try and build in a few extra days so that I can explore neighborhoods in Havana, or travel to a town or two in the countryside. That said, I have never had the opportunity to see any of Cuba east of the fishing locations of Jardines de la Reina and Cayo Cruz.
Just back from a great hosted trip aboard the Halcon in Jardines de la Reina, I made plans to see more of the east. Once off the boat, I picked up my little rental car in Ciego de Avila. It was the beginning of an adventure that was both great, and sometimes daunting.
What people will not understand, not having traveled around the Cuban countryside, is the lack of infrastructure and the wide variety of methods of transportation. The Carreterra Centrale is the highway which runs the entire length of the island. East of Ciego de Avila, however, it is never more than a two lane road. And that road is shared by cars, trucks, buses, tractors, bicycles, hitchhikers, and virtually thousands of carts being pulled by horses or oxen. Imagine going 60 miles an hour down a highway, when you turn a corner and everything has come to a stop because a farm wagon being dragged by oxen is holding up a line of buses and trucks! Then, imagine you are driving at night when the situation is still the same, and there are no streetlights, or even lights on those carts! Crazy.....
I saw most of the known towns in this part of Cuba, like Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. But much of this region is devoted to agriculture, and is lush and pastoral. While fields of sugar cane were prevalent around Ciego de Avila, crops changed to pineapple, banana, and even squash and potatoes as I moved east. Best of all, there were fields of mango trees, and it was prime time for this best of all fruit. I ate it every day, everywhere I went! Love those mangos.
The best thing I did on this trip was talk with people. My Spanish is getting better. It is still muy malo, but I can have a basic conversation. In every town I visited, I reserved the magic hours of 6-8pm for exploring the back streets. After school and work, and with houses still scorching from the heat of the day, everyone would be outside. There would be groups of men gathered playing dominoes, neighbors talking on their front stoops, and kids playing soccer or stickball in dusty alleyways. With a smile and a Buenas Tardes, everyone would wave you over. "You are Americano? What are you doing here?!!!" Our time together would usually end by sharing a drink of local rum.
More in a day or two. Just realized that this blog post is getting too long!