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Saturday,  July 13, 2024 1:26 PM 

The Cuba you don't know

The Cuba you don't know
Blake Wolfe

Blake Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and editor, who joined PAX after nearly 10 years in Canada’s newspaper industry. In addition to PAX, his work has been featured in publications such as the Metroland Media group of newspapers and the Toronto Sun.

More than a million Canadians visit Cuba each year, and according to Karen Puebla, executive assistant for Cuba's tourist board, Canada is the country's "biggest and most important market."

But when it comes to Cuba, most Canadians automatically think all-inclusive beach resorts and Havana. So Cuba tourism teamed up with tour operator Cubatur to showcase some of the country's lesser-known towns and the cultural side of this Caribbean get away.

Our first stop, about half an hour from the Santa Maria airport, was the Che Guevara Memorial. It included a giant statue of the freedom fighter, a small museum and Guevara's final resting place, alongside numerous fellow rebels. It was a sobering experience that grounded us in Cuba's revolutionary history.

About an hour from the memorial this sense of "the real Cuba" deepened in the town of Cienfuegos, which was full of French-inspired architecture, painted in colorful pastels. We checked into the beautiful Hotel La Union, with its courtyard fountain, rooftop bar with live Cuban music, and a feel of "being in Old Havana." According to Puebla, "people from Europe like to stay at this hotel." Like all the hotels on this trip it was boutique size (none had more than 35 rooms), belonging to the Enchanted family of properties.

Cienfuegos is located on a bay, which we got to enjoy while eating a seafood lunch at Club Nautico. Its dark wood bar and trim gave it an old world charm, complimented by the breeze from the bay, while we sipped on the rum/pineapple based Cienfuegos Passion. Other activities included visiting the Palacio Valle, the Botanical Garden (blossoms peak December-March), and Tomas Acea Cemetery.

Like most tourists, we were obsessed with getting online, and at the city's main square we discovered a black market for the country's one-hour WiFi cards, which were going for three Cuban Convertible Pesos. At legitimate outlets, they are 2 CUC, and can sell out quickly.

The Che Guevara Memorial

The next day we drove about two hours from Cienfuegos to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Trinidad, passing numerous horse-drawn buggies along the way.

"People into photography love Trinidad," said Puebla. "Because of the colonial architecture it's a live museum. We do photo tours there and in Havana."

The town grew wealthy from the sugar trade and plantation owners had mansions and small palaces built for themselves. Now they are home to cultural and government institutions. We also visited some of the private homes that have converted front rooms into restaurants, art shops, and craft stores.

There's a shortage of hotels in Trinidad, but a beautiful 5-star option is the Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad. It only has 40 rooms and is consistently 95 per cent booked.

Other highlights included Culture House, Cantero Palace Museum, street craft markets, and Iznaga Valley.

For an authentic experience, we grabbed a drink at La Zomita, a tiny dive with friendly Cubans hanging out and having a smoke. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., shots were 10 cents, beer (their brand Bruja translates into 'witch's brew') was 1 CUC.

Fun fact: most locals have songbirds and they have contests in the morning to see which bird sings the longest.

We explored another UNESCO World Heritage site when we checked into the Avellaneva hotel in the historic center of Camaguey, about 5 hours from Cienfuegos. Avellaneva was one of five Enchanted hotels in the city. It was a single storey, with two rooms right off the lobby, and the rest nestled around a courtyard with colonial-style columns. Our FAM group filled the place.

For lunch we ate at the hotel restaurant. Cuba is not known for the food, but we enjoyed a lovely plantain fufu (wrapped in bacon) with chicken in the "Camaguey style" (with beer sauce).

The city was full of public squares and artists. One that combined both, and touted as one of the best heritage sites in the city, was Plaza del Carmen. It was dominated by a baroque church, but the real charm came from the statues by city artist Martha Jimenez, capturing local life, including three gossiping women, aka "The Nosey Neighbours." Her workshop was right there, and we are told she likes depicting voluptuous women "because they're interesting."

For a local beer we went across the street to El Paso Restaurant and got a Tinima (named after a local river and aboriginal chief).

Additional cultural recommendations included Cuba's only contemporary ballet company (world class and only 5 CUC at Camaguey's main theatre), visiting artists Joel and Ileana Jover's home, and taking a "bicitaxi" (bicycle taxi) tour.