We woke up at 6am without the alarm because of the jet lag. The breakfast lounge was crowded with French and Americans, the personnel indifferent to our presence and the buffet, full but uninspiring. The plan was to drive to Trinidad with a stop in Cienfuegos. With very few road signs – and not always pointing to the right direction – the GPS assistance was necessary to navigate through the beaten-up Havana roads to the Autopista Nacional.
After we reached the Autopista Nacional (A1) things got easier. There is only one highway that runs across the western half of Cuba and it is huge with three lanes on each way and no turns! You drive for several kilometers without the slightest hint of a curve. There is no traffic at all and driving at the speed limit of 120km/h feels like going at 50. The only reason to turn the steering is to avoid the occasional pothole, not a serious problem and certainly smaller than I imagined.
About 50km from Havana we entered into heavy fog, with 15-20m visibility that lasted for 80 long kilometers. The only interesting sightings in the heavy fog where the big propaganda billboards with slogans about la revolución y socialismo. As we discovered in the days to come, this is the only kind of billboard in Cuba, no commercial advertisements whatsoever.
As we exited the highway to Cienfuegos the road became narrow. The main means of local transportation is the horse carriage. I trusted the gps that led us through narrow roads until we entered in a dirt road and arrived at a dead end where a train loaded with sugar canes blocked our way. Lesson learned: use the gps AND your judgement, trust your instincts. We had to return some 5km back and take the right road to Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos is a beautiful provincial capital with very interesting architecture. In 2005, UNESCO put the Casco Histórico (historic center) of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage List, citing it “as the best extant example of the 19th-century early Spanish Enlightenment implementation in urban planning. The downtown contains 6 buildings from 1819-50, 327 buildings from 1851-1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century. There is no other place in the Caribbean which contains such a remarkable cluster of Neoclassical structures” (source archiseek.com).
We parked the car off Paseo del Prado (Calle 37), the main road that runs through the town, surrounded by beautiful neoclassical buildings and a central promenade. We walked along the busy shopping boulevard, a nice pedestrian street with plenty of shops that were open on Sunday.
Parque Martí is the name of the vast main square with some of the cities attractions, the imposing Palacio de Gobierno, the Catedral de la Purísima Concepción (1869), the neoclassical Palacio de Ferrer (1918) and the Teatro Tomás Terry (1889). The size of the almost empty square generated a feeling of grandioseness.
The streets behind the Parque Martí are residential with an eerie ambience. We went back in time along empty streets run by horse carts, colorful houses with the worn out facades, elders sitting on the entrance footsteps and women drying their laundry. All of this and the bad smell coming from the sea felt like walking in the back streets of Piraeus – the port of Athens – in the 50s.
Punta Gorda is the name of the peninsula and ex-upscale neighbourhood at the south end of the city. We had lunch in Palacio de Valle, an impressive building that looks like a Moroccan casbah with an equally impressive interior. Benny Moré was born here and naturally the lonely guitarist was going through his repertoire. A plate of shrimp enchiladas and a couple of beers later, we took the road to Trinidad.