Cuba libre: exploring the island by campervan | Travel

Our campervan passes by means of Manicaragua, a tobacco-growing (as soon as sugar-growing) city within the centre of Cuba. Manicaragua’s leaves are used for the dense core of Habanos cigars; premium leaves from Pinar del Río type the outer layer.

This is a real backwater however within the 1940s and 1950s, earlier than the underside dropped out of sugar, it had cash: there are cinemas and rundown hospitals. We cross by the pitched tin roofs of tobacco-drying homes, and see employees in excessive straw campesino hats hoeing the crimson earth.

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One farm is so picturesque I really feel an urge to go in. So we do – and have the sort of heartwarming interlude you’d by no means have on an organised tour. The farmer, Mayorilio Lopez, likes it that we’ve barged in on his day. Born in 1929, he was within the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos’ column within the Escambray mountains. He retains a rolled puro – a pure Cuban cigar – in his breast pocket however to not smoke; he likes to chew on it whereas he thinks. His son lives in … what’s that place all of the Cubans go? Miami, I counsel. Yes, there. He forgets issues now. When we go away he turns to me and locations his hand on his coronary heart.

“Have a beautiful life,” he says. “Fight for your life. Try to come back before I die.”

I’m exploring the island’s countryside in a Fiat Ducato 3000 van with my Cuban pal Alejo, because of a brand new government initiative underneath which campervans might be rented for the primary time (nicely, since a failed enterprise within the 1990s). We choose up the van in Havana and over seven days drive 800 miles on a spherical journey to Trinidad, the 500-year-old honeypot on the south coast, taking in Santa Clara – a vacation spot for worshippers on the mausoleum of Che Guevara – and some lesser-visited gems.

Lydia Bell’s rented Fiat Ducato camper. Photograph: Rama Knight

The camper is an unwieldy beast: it’s a bit like driving round in an Ikea wardrobe however we get used to it. There’s a small kitchenette and fridge, a desk that folds out right into a double mattress and two cavities for as much as 4 further folks. It can be a comfortable squeeze for 4 adults and a toddler – however it will work brilliantly for a household.

At 20 tenting spots across the western and central a part of the island – from Viñales within the west to Cayo Coco on the central northern coast (however not additional east, but) – campers can hook as much as electrical energy to run aircon (a battery, gained’t final all evening) and to remove waste. An different is to ask good folks alongside the best way (or pay them slightly) to make use of their energy and loo. In essence, nobody is tied to any explicit place, and wild tenting is allowed, although life is simpler utilizing the official websites (we’re given a map).

Having the camper means we get to see much less apparent issues than we’d on a bus tour. Plus, the $180-a-day value interprets to the equal of Cuba’s exorbitant automobile rent and a bog-standard lodge.

The Caburni waterfall in Topes de Collantes park.

The Caburni waterfall in Topes de Collantes park. Photograph: Craig Lovell/Eagle Visions/Alamy

One such place is Embalse Hanabanilla, a glimmering reservoir within the northern foothills of the Sierra Escambray, Embalse Hanabanilla, which was created by flooding a valley within the 1960s. It’s not on anybody’s must-see record – until you’re a hydro-electricity geek or a freshwater fishing fan with a penchant for largemouth bass (it has the world’s largest inhabitants), nevertheless it’s fairly, with slopes carpeted with thick forest and royal palms alongside the water’s edge.

Near the Hanabanilla lodge – a hulk of pure, Soviet-style ugliness, with a pool that juts into the lake – we discover a boatman to take us out round that lake. We climb up by means of tropical rainforest to a lookout the place we gaze, with the vultures, upon its magnificence.

There is nobody on the water other than the ludicrously well-built Cuban canoeing crew, who look bionic. The boatman takes us to a clapboard cottage-cum-restaurant on a tiny island, the place we eat a country meal of smoked pork and salad surrounded by cavorting puppies. It’s Sunday, and once we get again to our camper, we discover a gaggle of locals having a car-washing occasion. They’ve pushed their Ladas into the water and are cleansing them, swimming, and consuming Cristal, the native beer.

We spend the evening in Topes de Collantes, the village of the eponymous nationwide park. There’s no charging level, so we cease on the outskirts, chat up some locals, eat some pasta we ready on the electrical hob earlier, and crack open the Havana Club. The air is recent – you don’t want aircon right here.

A Paladar in Trinidad.

A paladar restaurant in Trinidad. Photograph: Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

The subsequent morning, again on the highway, we cross modest memorials to troopers of the civil warfare: for 5 years following the 1959 revolution, US-backed counter-revolutionaries launched guerrilla strikes, which resulted in fairly just a few deaths.

The sierra and Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, the place you’ll discover the Caburní waterfall, are a preferred day journey from Trinidad, although most individuals head to Parque el Cubano, which borders Trinidad. But having the van means we are able to go to the Nengoa waterfall in Guanayara park. The camper doesn’t make it up one explicit highway – it’s not a four-wheel drive – so we stroll the previous few miles. Our route takes us by means of woods of mamey, bitter orange, espresso and banana, shaded by avocado and the royal palm, previous ferns and flittering butterflies. Weather-beaten limestone cliffs rise as much as a bell-shaped opening of birch timber the place the waterfall thunders. We are encircled. We are alone.

Heading in the direction of Trinidad, we cease at a country paladar (non-public restaurant) for an early dinner. El Manantial has a veranda crammed with hammocks, ferns and goatskin chairs. We eat tasty tilapia from its pond after which it’s a drive downhill, glimpsing the hazy, late-afternoon blue wash of the horizon and the unspoiled forested slopes of the southern foothills.

Trinidad is among the most touristy city in Cuba. But justifiably so: nowhere else showcases Cuban historical past so gorgeously – from the final 500 years to a thriving (within the case of this city, anyway) current. Casa particulares (non-public leases that predate Airbnb however are virtually all now on its web site) abound, in addition to paladares, arts and craft stalls, dance colleges and every part in between.

I have been to Trinidad many instances, so I ask Alian Rojas, a information I do know, to take us someplace completely different. We go to a personal, magnificent colonial home, was a temple to Yemayá, the Afro-Cuban goddess of the ocean. There’s a pumpkin within the window (pumpkins are sacred to Yemayá, and to her followers, it is a no-go meals) and the Babalaô-orisha, or excessive priest, is rocking in a chair on the patio, wearing crisp white linen trousers and guayabera shirt and nursing a cigar. He is surrounded by crowing cocks and fats white doves and is prepping for the initiation into Santería (the dominant Afro-Cuban faith, which hails from the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria) of a woman who is mendacity down in a room subsequent door. But, being Cuban, he finds time to speak, regardless. His premonition-filled desires and religious visions began on the age of 13. His father, an atheist communist, initially thought he was mad. Numerous years later, lastly satisfied of his son’s authenticity, he wrote to the state, requesting to show the household home right into a temple. The powers that be acquiesced.

Vintage American cars are a common sight in Cuba.

Vintage American vehicles are nonetheless a standard sight on the streets of Cuba. Photograph: Zodebala/Getty Images

When the warmth of the day softens, we trundle down within the campervan to the lengthy, scrubby finger of land that’s Península de Ancón, 10km south of Trinidad, the place there’s among the finest seashores on Cuba’s south coast. We lounge fortunately within the aquamarine waters of Playa Ancón and loll underneath fats palms till the solar dips behind the horizon. This time, as an alternative of casting round for the final of the maquinas, the rumbling basic vehicles heading again into Trinidad on the finish of the day, we’re free to remain until the sky turns inky blue-black, consuming our personal chilly beer provides.

Back in Trinidad, we park on a quiet avenue of red-tiled rooftops and shuttered porticoes, the place we’ll sleep later. We can’t enter the city centre: it’s pedestrianised, one thing which lends it an unhurried really feel. The big, uneven cobblestones on this Unesco-protected city imply there’s no dashing, even if you wish to. On the slender streets, the camper feels a lumbering eyesore. But we’re grateful: right here, we’re simply one other bunch of vacationers within the throng, although it’s been candy to see some offbeat and surprising issues alongside the best way.

• The campervan was supplied by Cuba Private Travel, which has leases for $180 a day, when renting for per week (e mail by way of the web site for particulars). Vans are for at least two adults and a most of 5 adults and one baby. Diesel, at $1.25 a litre, just isn’t included. One passenger should be over 25

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