Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Splendid isolation

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Blowing an Atlantic gale in Baracoa. That’s the airstrip just short of the water! 

The current selection of my book club, The Distant Marvels by Cuban-American writer Chantel Acevedo, centres on the town of Maisi on the hurricane-prone Atlantic Coast in Guantanamo Province, near where our Cuba odyssey finished in Baracoa. The book tells the story of an elderly evacuee from the deadly 1963 Hurricane Flora, Maria Sirena, a former lectora or professional story-teller, who entertains fellow evacuees by recounting her colourful life as the daughter of revolutionaries fighting in the Spanish-Cuban War of Independence. By coincidence, as I turned the novel’s  pages, the scenes brought alive by my familiarity with the setting, Hurricane Matthew was roaring towards that very coastline, crossing around Baracoa.

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“The most beautiful land that human eyes could set upon”.

The day we arrived in Baracoa an Atlantic gale was blowing too, the winds whipping up the darkened waves with wild white crests and bending the copious palm trees. By the next day the weather had settled, returning the town to what Christopher Columbus described as “the most beautiful land that human eyes could set upon”. Baracoa was where Columbus first set foot on Cuban soil in 1492. The conquistador, Diego Velazquez, established a settlement in 1511 which became the fledgling colony’s first capital. Baracoa retained this status until the crown was taken by Santiago de Cuba, its isolation because of the high Sierra del Purial mountains making it accessible only by sea until the 1960s when the first paved road between the town and Guantanamo went through. Columbus is said to have planted a cross, the Cruz de la Parra, in the sands of Baracoa Beach, the sacred relic now safely behind a protective grill in the local Cathdral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.

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The Cruz de la Parra planted by Christopher Columbus in the sands of Baracoa beach. 

At the time of settlement the area was populated by the Taino people, but European diseases played havoc as they did with the indigenous people in other Spanish colonies. Taking price of place in the town square is a statue of the local Taino hero Hatuey who raised an army to fight the Spanish. He was captured and sentenced to death by burning at the stake. Legend has it that, asked if he wished to convert to Catholicism to ensure his passage to Heaven, he replied that if Spaniards were in Heaven he would rather go to Hell. Remnants of Taino culture can be observed at the local Archeological Musuem in a cave behind the town. Glass-enclosed exhibits, indigenous jewelry, ceramics, sculptures and skeletons are on display.

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Taino Archeological Museum and exhibits. 

Baracoa’s abundant climate and setting have endowed it with plentiful food resources. Tropical fruits, coffee and cocoa flourish while absolutely fresh seafood graces restaurant tables. Laden almond trees grow wild in the forests and on an island in the middle of a river our helpful boatman found fat specimens and cracked them fresh for us. A combination of necessity, isolation and the verdant climate has resulted in Baracoa developing a reputation as a centre for alternative medicines.

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Baracoa treat…almonds fresh from the tree. 

We were due to leave the splendid isolation of Baracoa by aircraft for the one-and-a-half hour flight back to Havana. But hearing that the plane was waiting for a few replacement parts, and having viewed the runway of the local airport, which ends abruptly before it pitches into the Atlantic, we didn’t complain when we had to take a four-hour bus ride across pot-holed dirt roads to get to the airport at less remote Holguin.


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Soul city

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The 1520 Catedral de Nuestra de Senora overlooks  Parque Cespedes and Santiago Harbour.

If Havana is the heart of Cuba, Santiago is its soul. The city was founded in 1515 by the Spanish Conquistador Diego Velazquez and for over 100 years was an early capital of Cuba. One of its first mayors was another conquistador, Hernan Cortez, who was later to claim Mexico for the Spanish.

Culturally Santiago is regarded as the birthplace of Cuba’s signature Son musical genre, best recognised through Buena Vista Social Club’s sound, an irrepressible mix of Latin and African rhythms and harmonies with other influences thrown in. Santiago’s cultural melting pot persona was enriched by its proximity to Cribbean islands Jamaica and Haiti from where both English and French speaking slaves were brought to replace dwindling indigenous workers in local plantations and mines. Today the city retains pride in its cultural roots with a strong representation of museums, clubs and cultural associations and world-famous institutions such as the Afro-Cuban dance company Ballet Folklorico Tucumba. One of the best-preserved Spanish fortresses of the 17th century sits atop a cliff face at the entrance to Santiago Bay reminding visitors of Spain’s early and many tussles with pirates.

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The centre of Santiago de Cuba. 

Santiago is known as the Hero City of the Republic as the incubator of the Cuban Revolution. It was from the Moncada Barracks in 1953 that Fidel Castro first struck out against President Batista in an abortive attempt to overthrow the dictator, its mustard-coloured walls still bearing the bullet holes of the uprising.  It was during his trial for the insurrection that Castro made his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech. Castro was imprisoned following his trial but later exiled to Mexico.

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(Top) Moncado Barracks still bears its insurrection scars; (above) Castro announced the success of his revolution from this balcony. 

It was Santiago’s citizens who were the first to rise up against Government troops in 1956, the start of the revolution that would ultimately topple Batista. With the Revolution finally succeeding in 1959 Castro chose a hotel overlooking Santiago’s main square Parque Cespedes to announce the victory.

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World Heritage-listed Castillo de San Pedro del Morro at the entrance to the Bay of Santiago. 

Another landmark Santiago attraction is the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, the final resting place of many of Cuba’s historical figures and heros including Jose Marti. Built in 1868 for the victims of the War of Independence against Spain, and the yellow fever epidemic, its 8000 internees include Emilio Bacardí of rum dynasty fame; “martyrs” of the Moncada Barracks attack; the “father of Cuban independence”, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819–74); and internationally famous  Buena Vista Social Club member Compay Segundo. Marti’s final resting place is an impressive mausoleum where each half-hour every day a round-the-clock guard is changed with great ceremony. We were told that Santa Ifigenia will be the final resting place of Fidel Castro when the time comes.

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The entrance to Cementerio Santa Ifigenia.

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(Top) Jose Marti’s mausoleum; (above) changing of the guard. 

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(Top) Buena Vista Social Club’s Compay Segundo’s grave; (above) Emilio Bacardi’s resting place. 

 


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Coffee break

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Historic cobble-stoned streets in colourful Trinidad de Cuba. 

Trinidad de Cuba nestles under the Escambray Mountains on the Mediterranean coast of central Cuba. Surrounded by lush plantations growing sugar, tobacco and coffee Trinidad, which dates back to 1514, and its famous Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) were World Heritage listed in 1988. The cobbled-stone streets, colourful original buildings and white, palm-fringed sandy beaches of Trinidad make it a favourite with tourists.

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The famous watch tower in Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills)

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Looking out over the plantations. 

Travellers can enjoy a variety of activities in the city like learning to salsa, or Cuban drumming, swimming under waterfalls or horse riding through the plantations. Our choice of the latter had a serendipitous outcome – notwithstanding having to contend with a single-minded steed with a penchant for prickly bushes: our ride culminated in one of the best and most unconventional cups of coffee I have ever enjoyed.

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My single-minded steed.

Deep in the valley at a simple thatch-roofed and rude timber lean-to a local plantation owner played host to caffeine-deprived visitors with the freshest of drops, grinding anew for each guest fresh beans to the sounds of an African plantation workers’ song that had been passed down through the decades. The grounds were then added to water boiling on a simple flame and brewed to perfection for serving to the waiting guests. Delicioso!

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Grinding to the beat.

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Brewing time. 

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The best cup of coffee ever!