You always share the road with a wide array of transportation means.
On this day alone I took 419 photos! Don't worry, I won't be showing them all, but I share this info to prove what a jam packed fun day we've had. Today we went on the 'Holguin excursion' which included visiting three towns, a cigar factory, a Spanish fort and a panoramic luncheon restaurant. To top it all off, back in the resort we were treated to glorious water ballet. So, a lot was worth taking a photo of :)
First thing first though; the excursion we had been looking forward to so much.
Luis and Lisnel were our guides today and Nicolas our designated driver. Luis explained we were going to tour the countryside first, then go to Rafael Freyre
, a town formally known as Santa Lucia and then on to an even smaller place called La Palma where (if you had any) you could hand out your goodies like pens, paper, clothing and other useful things for the locals to use.
Hilly if not mountainous countryside
After we had seen a village and a town, our guide felt we were sufficiently able to compare a small town with the larger capitol of the province: Holguin
The countryside in Cuba is gorgeous. With 114,524 square kilometres Cuba is the largest island of the Antilles, a little south of Florida, USA. A quarter of the landscape is mountainous, the rest is either jungle, marshland or a plantation. Nowadays, tobacco and bananas fill up most of the former sugarcane fields and during our countryside tour we were treated to magnificent views.
Our premiere destination was the town formerly known as Santa Lucia, renamed after the revolution to Raphael Freyre, after the main sugar mill which was dismantled following the collapse of sugar prices on the global market.
Machinery parts of the dismantled sugar mill
Many parts of the factory's machinery now double as decorative pieces and monuments in the numerous city parks and squares. We did not stop in Raphael Freyre, only drove through it.
Then it was on to La Palma, an agricultural village typical for the province. Here, most people lived in bohios; typical Cuban historic thatched huts. The wooden dwellings are much better at keeping the mosquitoes at bay than modern concrete houses are. The open structure creates a faint draft and the palm wood and leaves keep it naturally cool. It is the draft and coolness combined that the mosquitoes dislike. Most of the villages on Cuba are like this one. The centre of the village has a few brick houses, mainly community buildings like a school, a church and the local peso/coupon store for your bare necessities.
Two Bohios, one old skool and one newer example
The centre is surrounded by the aforementioned bohios. Honestly, these villages have NOTHING! Well, the villagers do have each other, some livestock and the fantastic Cuban climate, but other than that…?
That is why Luis said that here, if we had any, we could give our useful goodies to the locals. And you read it in all of the travel brochures too. It is better to hand your extras to local schools and/or communities, than to give them to the (by Cuban standards) richer employees of hotels and resorts. If you ever go to Cuba, I certainly recommend bringing extra clothing, footwear and other useful things. You needn't worry about the customs officers on Cuba; the government is very tolerant towards those who help the Cubans. You can take an entire carry on bag full of medicines (8 kg) without having to pay import tax.
Some things never go out of style :)
Though, it never hurts to check present rules and laws.
After La Palma it was on to Holguin, with the cigar factory as a first stop. The factory tour was very interesting. The smell in the factory was amazing. In all honesty, I am a smoker.., perhaps that is why I liked it so much. The tour took us along the entire manufacturing process from cutting the tobacco leaves for specific purposes, sizes and qualities, to the hand sorting by colour per type of cigar and the boxing and wrapping.
Us giddy uninformed tourists could wander freely between the workers, asking their heads off :) The numbers of the workforce are equally divided between men and women. Your typical co-worker in a cigar factory works eight hours per day. They undergo a hefty training program first, learning all the steps of the manufacturing process.
The cigar factory. Though we were warmly welcomed, we weren't allowed to take any photographs inside :(
Then, depending on the factory's need, they are assigned a specific task. Normally they start working at the tobacco selection and cutting department, then work their way up to rolling, and may finish in the packaging section. If you are really lucky, and you have an eye for it, the highest achievable level is the sorting area, where only two people work at one time, carefully selecting the cigars per type on colour. Remember that, next time you open a cigar case and all your cigars are of even length and their colours match perfectly :) Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any photographs inside the factory. Management didn't want the competition to know about their quality secrets.
From the factory it was on to Holguin's panoramic vista point Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) which you will find in all the travel books.
View from the top of the 457 steps staircase
The writers of those books challenge you to climb the 457 steps, give or take a few. I really wouldn't know the exact number, because we spent so much time in the cigar factory that we skipped climbing the stairs all together and went to the top by bus instead. On top of the hill is a small Spanish watch tower you can climb. Climbing the two storey tower is an additional 20 steps, albeit on two steep ladders with tiny manholes in the floors to squeeze through. However, if you still have a little bit of breath left after climbing the 457 steps, do make sure you climb the additional 20 in the tower too, because the vista is truly magnificent!
City centro, Holguin's city centre was next on our itinerary. Holguin, capitol of the same name bearing province, is the fourth largest city in Cuba with roughly 100,000 inhabitants.
On the streets of Holguin
Though the city is full of obvious signs of neglect, the former glory of early 19th century architecture still shows. Despite the sad status of some buildings, and despite (or maybe because of) economic hardship, the atmosphere is laid back. It was only at the bus stop where local 'entrepreneurs' tried to hassle us. Fortunately, we were warned by Luis who told us we had to watch out for anyone who said he had family working at the cigar factory (because the cigars they are selling you are fake) and for people who said they were sent by our guide. Luis made it clear he was NOT sending anyone to sell anything on this trip. But as I said, other than at the bus stop, we were quite happy and safe wandering around on our own.
Because I needed some cash, I went to the bank.
The beautifully restored Bank I went to.
There, as I stood in line, I remembered how I use to stand in line with my father when I was only a little boy, on vacation in southern Europe, obviously before the introduction of the Euro. That whole process of exchanging money came back to me, and it was no different here in Holguin. Yes, there was red tape, yes there were inexplicable rules on who got in line first at which teller and yes, I had to count my money twice to make sure I was given the correct amount. But, I loved it all! It brought back great memories. Cuba has two currencies; the Peso (Cuban wages are in pesos and people buy their bare necessities with these) and the Peso Convertible, known as CUC, for use in the luxury stores and especially for the tourists. One CUC is worth twenty pesos and on average people make about 500 pesos per month.
Many people can only dream of what they see in the 'dollar shops'
., if they have a job. A pair of trainers, sneakers if you will, can set the average Cuban back a year's salary.
The slightly cloudy day was perfect for visiting the city. I wouldn't dare walking through a city at high noon in full blazing sun. We saw the people in their daily lives, watched cabbies taking pride in their 50's and 60's American Classics, children gazing through the windows of the 'dollar shops', the stores where you can buy luxury goods and pay only in CUC's. After a good hour and a half of parading through this lovely city, it was time for lunch.
Our government operated tour (as they all are in Cuba) took us to a special place: Mirador de Mayabe, 8km southeast of town. This is a restaurant built on the natural balcony of one of the hills that surround Holguin and it provides fabulous views to go with your food.
Restaurant Mirador de Mayabe lies on a natural balcony of a hill
At the restaurant an array of touristy things was 'forced' upon us. There was a band playing Cuban Classics, with two scarcely dressed dancers. There was a leather wear stand just outside and there was a horrible sketch artist who really needs to change his profession. Lunch on the other hand was great. We enjoyed the local special: rise with black beans, fries, a small salad and 'pork married with chicken' wrapped in chicken skin and baked in the oven. To accompany the delicious food we were served a beer called “Mayabe”. When I first read the label I thought it said 'maybe beer' and as so often is the case with local brews it could have tasted horrible. But it was actually quite nice. Instead of maybe beer, I'd say definitely beer! :)
By now it was well in the late afternoon and time to head back to resort.
I may not look it, but boy did I enjoy that cigar :)
The trip took us once again through the lovely Holguin countryside and fortunately was uneventful. Back at hotel I first had to take a leak; that Mayabe beer wanted out :) Then we went to the lounge area for coffee with one of the cigars I bought at the factory. Evening light soon began setting in and I just HAD to go to the beach to catch the sunset. So, off I went. Glad I did though, it was a magnificent sky. The hour of rest back in the room, followed by a shower to freshen up before dinner, was just as marvellous. By the way, dinner was a good as always.
After dinner a band started playing by the pool. Brilliant Cuban music and harmonic improvised jazz sounds. Those guys were absolutely fabulous. The rhythm infectious, the copper section blazing and the singer performed with heart and soul.
I apologize for the poor quality of the photo. It was incredibly hard to shoot without flash
If that wasn't enough, a dance group appeared to perform and it turned out to be water-ballet. What a magnificent show this is! Acrobatic feats whilst splashing around the well lit water. It truly was a very impressive performance. Horribly difficult to take photos of, but sooo beautiful that I wanted to capture everything. Once the show was over, it literally was. Looking back that evening on a day jam packed with fun and interesting sights, I felt overwhelmed. The people we met, Cubans and fellow tour passengers alike, were warm and friendly. All the smells, sounds and tastes came back to me. I had gained new knowledge of the Cuban history and of manufacturing cigars. I had enjoyed the cultural differences and I felt like a local when walking the streets of Holguin.
Human fountain :)
All-in-all a perfect day.