A Travellerspoint blog

Trinidad, Cuba

Hostal Margaritas, Trinidad

Picture postcard cute, Trinidad is an almost fully intact colonial city of about 30,000. It feels a bit like San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, with hills and cobblestone streets. Of course, that was close to 40 years ago. Plaza Mayor has been almost fully restored, and is the center of tourism in town, of which there are plenty. In seems almost everyone who comes to Cuba stops here, mostly Brits, French, Italians, Spaniards, and a smattering of Canadians. The are also plenty of Jinteros, touts, who seem more aggressive than elsewhere in Cuba. People are still friendly, but they are clearly a bit jaded with all the tourists around, and are quick to overcharge for agua and comida, especially around the plaza.




Step away from the center of town however, and life proceeds in typical Cuban fashion, with buildings in need of major repair, horse carts and bicycles, tiny tiendas and mercados, etc.





We have spent the last few days wandering around, sometimes with our friend Terry, and sometimes not. We have eaten a couple of tasty meals here at our Casa, and then last night, based on the advice of our casa's dueno, we found Restaurante San Jose. Excellent Cuban food at reasonable prices. We had to wait, but it was worth it.

One of the oldest churches in town, now just a shell

On one of the days we took a short hike up one of the colima's (hills) on the edge of town. We walked up to the cell tower/radio station, and got into a lengthy chat with the caretaker. He took us to the roof of one of the buildings for a panoramic view of the city, sea on one side, mountains on the other. As a largely self-educated black man, he confirmed the presence of racismo here, and was not sure that even if the embargo is lifted entirely, that the common people would benefit. Of course, the hombres de negocios, businessmen, will profit, he said, but probably not guys like him. He had similar complaints about the government as most of the folks we have talked to, but again, it was even handed. He told us about the free medical care, education, food allotments, etc. that the government provides. We spoke with him for quite some time, and he let us know that most Cubans are very interested in reading, and line up for books at the library or when there are book fairs. Although a compesino, he was very well informed about what goes on in the world, more than you can say about his counterparts in the United States.

Yesterday we took the 2 CUC tourist bus out to the Ancon beach. Said to be the best beach on the Caribbean side of the island, it was nice, though not perfect for swimming because of the seagrass which started close to shore.But no matter, as it was too cold to swim, at least for us. There were several large and expensive hotels nearby, but we spent an enjoyable day lying on lounge chairs, in the shade of umbrellas made from palm leaves.


After dinner, in my endless quest for rumba, we wandered up to Casa La Musica, which is an outdoor venue just off the plaza. not a casa at all, Although not strictly speaking rumba, which has been variously defined, it was a hopping place with a very good band, that had several congas and timbales, trumpet, singer, electric base and piano etc. We met a young Belgium couple there, intentionally, as we had run into them earlier in the day at the beach, and who we had previously met at Zunilda y Raya's place in Cienfuegos. It wasn't long before Nicholas and I were buying each other mojitos, with his girlfriend Caroline keeping up without any problem. Actually, they had a few rounds before we got there.

There were some incredible dancers in the crowd, almost all Cuban, who were moving in perfect sync to the music. It inspired me to consider taking lessons once again when we return to New York. It seems that Cubans know intuitively how to swivel their hips, and it is easy to believe, as the book I just finished reading about cuban music suggested, that Elvis had seen a Latin movie in the States, and copied his moves from the movie. There was one old guy there, probably in his 70's, who was dancing expertly with a few women less than half his age, and he had no trouble leading them around, twisting and turning them with his arms, sometimes more than one at a time. A placer para mis ojos. And then there were a couple of white folks, also our age, who knew how to dance to this afro-cuban stuff. Spaniards? Possibly.

After an hour or so, another group came on, all black this time, with even more drummers and singers, along with costumed dancers. They sang in a combination of Spanish and African, and although clearly done for tourists, they were damn good. I felt, really for the first time, that I was getting to hear some of the music that I was hoping for in Cuba, which until now has eluded me. It was a mixed crowd of locals and tourists with a very nice vibe. We stayed two hours before walking home. The music seems to start earlier here than in Habana, which is a good thing for us older folk, though I could have stayed even longer. Tomorrow it's back to Habana for a night before heading to Europe.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged churches buildings people postcards Comments (4)


Left Habana yesterday with our amiga from Nicaragua, in a private taxi arranged by our current hosts Zunilda y Raya. Cienfuegos is a laid back place, about three hours or so by car from Habana. It has a wide paseo, with covered walkway and many old columned buildings, a cross between French and Spanish architecture, as it was originally a French outpost. It is probably best known as the home of Benny More, a famous singer in the 40's and 50's.

We are staying in a delightful casa, just outside town on Punta Gordo. We have our own terrace overlooking the bay. Zunilda and Raya are muy amable, and cook up what is arguably, the best food in Cienfuegos, and possibly all Cuba. There are several other casas here, as well as the larger and rather ugly Hotel Jagua. Said to have been built by Meyer Lansky, with help from Batista, it is right on the grounds of the magnificent Palacio de Valle, which looks like a moorish castle. The idea was to turn the palacio into a casino, similar to Monte Carlo.

Palacio from our terrace. Construction garbage detracts, but is not noticeable from the street

At the end of the Punta, there is a small park with several gazebos selling rum and sandwiches, kids frolicking around, a local hangout. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we spent a couple of hours there.

In the morning we walked around the main part of town to Plaza Marti, perhaps a mile away. Looking quite Spanish, it has a number of old edificios, and a couple of interesting art galleries. Nanette later went back and purchased a print from Annia Alonzo. We had another cup of coffee under the colonnades of one of these buildings, and listened to One Guantanamera sung by live musicians. This seems to be a ubiquitous song in Cuba, at least for tourists, although I know it from the Pete Seeger version.

Paseo, on the way to Plaza Marti

Old opera house, Plaza Marti

Bomberos (firemen) staying in shape on Plaza Marti

Nanette and Terry

Church near Plaza

Taxi servcie

After a while, it began to get hot and we strolled back to our casa where we spent the better part of the afternoon on our terrace looking out over the bay, drinking rum and cerveza. What could be more relajando?

Your's truely on the terrace

Views looking out from terrace


On another day, Terry and I took the 45 minute ferry ride to the Castillo de Jagua, at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos, It was erected by King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746) in 1742 to protect the bay from pirates who prowled the Caribbean coast in those days.



View from fort looking out at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos

Posted by jonshapiro 07:02 Archived in Cuba Tagged photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Habana Continued

I spent another 4 days mostly walking my tail off after moving to Maribel's casa in Vedado, a newer section of Habana. This was much closer to Nanette's hotel and also near the Hotel Nacional. The latter is probably the classiest place in town, modeled after the Breakers in Palm Beach, and built in 1930's. It was also a favorite hangout of Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, and other mafioso who more or less controlled Havana during Batista's time. We had a drink and a sandwich in the outdoor bar, facing the Malecon and La Mer.


Malecon from the top of tourbus. Hotel Nacional is further down

Maribel's was fine, if a bit noisy, but no one could be friendlier than Alejandro. Her apartment was on the fourth floor of an old building on a main thoroughfare in Vedado, which generally is less interesting than Habana Vieja. After the first night the key broke, and for the remainder of my stay I would have to shout up to Maribel, and she was would lower the only remaining key in a basket. Apparently getting another key made was not that easy to do. Our friend Terry arrived from Nicaragua and she was also staying just a few blocks away. She kept me company while Nanette continued on with her art group.

Outside of main Havana cemetery

Street musicians

I made several attempts to see rumba, some of the original music of Cuba, at the Palacio de Rumba in Centro Habana. This is a very local place that Alejandro recommended. The first night, Nanette and Terry came with me, as well as our other friend, Natalie, also touring with the art group, though she is not an artist. Alas however, there was a terrific downpour and we were told the musicians did not show up for that reason. We did however manage a decent paella in a nearby palador, that I'm sure sees few tourists because of its location. The waiter, an x ray tech in his day job, was quite well educated, and confirmed that the only way to make real money in Cuba was in the tourist industry.


The following day, we wandered toward the far side of the Malecon, and due to a cold front, the waves were pounding and sloshing over the sea wall. There was little traffic, many decrepit buildings, some interesting, some not, and then a couple of very fancy hotels. Eventually we got to the river and came to an old house,1830, now a boutique hotel. We were told it once belonged to a Spanish bank president. In the lobby, was a picture of a very young looking Che and Fidel, strolling together in their army fatigues. Just outside, and the reason we stopped, was a fantastical looking series of man made grottos and bridges overlooking the sea and constructed of coral and shells. Attached to this was a Moorish looking domed tower. We learned that most of this had been constructed by some wealthy Japanese, who apparently bought the place after the bank president. Eventually, we took a taxi collectivo back to our casas, and finally got to ride in one of the ancient US cars. I think it was a Buick. These collectivos ply certain routes, and will pick up anyone along the avenida who pays a few cuban pesos to sit with the other passengers going their way.

Terry and Nanette both decided they needed a break, and I, in a determined attempt to hear rumba, made another visit to the Palacio. I got there at 4:15, after being told that the music started at that time. About 5:30, the music finally did begin. Cuban time I guess, but to my chagrin, it was anything but rumba. Actually it was more like karaoke, though it was professional singers, but still singing to canned music. They weren't bad, but certainly not what I was hoping for. I felt a little like I was in a senior citizen center, as most of the people were older, or at least looked older than me. Some of them sure could dance though. After a half hour or so, I gave up, and walked back to my casa. Unfortunately, as in Spain, most of the music venues here do not really get started until after 11 PM, my usual bedtime. I should have known that 4 or 5 PM was an unlikely time for rumba.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:45 Archived in Cuba Tagged skylines buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Book 7: Cuba, Southern Italy, Greece


FOR MY FAITHFUL READERS, IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT HERE IS THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF VAGABONDING AT 60. Please note the dates. As per usual I am writing this back in my home in beautiful, at this time of year, (July) upstate New York.

Habana Cuba, at Casa Hilda y Alejandro. Highly recommended. This is a small Casa Particular in Habana Vieja, which is the way to go if you want to meet the Cuban people. Alejandro Sr. lives in this 5 room apartment, though he considers it a house, with his wife Hilda, his son, Alejandro Jr. and his wife. They rent out the only extra bedroom to tourists for 30CUC per night, and that has only been legal for the past few years. After his son picked us up from the airport, Nanette spent the first night with me, and then went to meet up with her artist group from NAWA.

I spent many long hours talking (in Spanish of course) to Alejandro Sr., which was buena practica para mi. He told me that his son, Alejandro Jr. is trained as a meteorologist, but is forced to work as a taxi driver because that is the only way he can make sufficient dinero. When he worked for the government, he was paid approximately 400 Cuban pesos per month. The tourists use CUC'S, and there are 25 Cuban pesos to the CUC, which is equal to one US dollar.Generally things are not that cheap even for locals, despite the dual currency system, and it is more or less impossible to live on this amount of money (Equal to less than $20US). He makes much more driving people to the airport for 25 CUC's in each direction.

Doctors and other professionals in Cuba make 800 to 1000 pesos or about $US40 a month, not nearly as much as waiters. On the other hand, medical care is free, most people have some kind of government job, and everyone has some of their basic necessities provided for. At the same time everyday life is clearly a struggle for the vast majority. And there is corruption, as always, in the government and the police. Alejandro clearly understands the political issues involved, both now and during the time of Batista, when his grandparents owned and rented 24 houses, which they lost after the revolution. It was, and still is not possible to buy a house, or an apartment, but through a complicated series of trades, he managed to obtain this place. However, he does not condemn the current system totally, and presents a rather balanced view of the government. He is well educated, and because he managed to procure a Spanish passport due to his Spanish/German background, he has been able to visit relatives and friends in Florida. He is trained in telecommunications and has access to the internet in the company he works for on a part time basis. Internet access is a rarity here, so he is one of the lucky ones.

His son has been fortunate to have spent a year or so in Calgary, Canada, in part because his wife is a nuclear engineer,and got a temporary position teaching at the university there. His English is quite good as a result, as is his wife's. During the boom times of the petroleum industry in Calgary, he was able to get work for the oil companies predicting the level of pollution in the city that was generated by oil production. After oil prices dropped precipitously, this was no longer possible. And so, while his wife worked at the university he was forced to take on a number of menial jobs, although he was still much better off then here in Cuba. He and his wife have recently obtained their visas to return to Calgary for two years, and plan to do so in the spring when his wife will resume teaching at the university.

His wife Hilda was not feeling well, so I didn't see much of her in the four nights I spent here, but they were lovely people, and made me feel like I was part of their family. Alejandro Sr. was incredibly helpful and full of useful suggestions. He even surprised us by showing up to say goodbye when we were out to dinner for our last night in Havana, and no longer staying at his place.

Building of Casa Hilda y Alejandro (1st floor)

After another lengthy discussion at the breakfast table today, I wandered around Habana Vieja on my own, taking pictures of the elegant, but largely decrepit buildings along the Paseo del Prado, and the renovated heart of the tourist district on Obispo Street. Though most of the buildings are late 19th and and early 20th century, they are a mix of colonial, neoclassical, art deco, and incredibly ornate baroque styles.




Just off Obispo Street, heart of the tourist district

A More typical building on the Paseo

The Capitolio, looking very much like ours does in the US, frames the end of the Paseo, and is now surrounded by scaffolding so that the renovation can be completed. (Or is it to prop up the dome?)


As noted in many guide books, most of the buildings look largely as they did when they were constructed, mostly a result of benign neglect and lack of dinero. Right now Habana looks even more scuffy than usual, as many of the smaller streets have been dug up to install new water and sewer lines.


What makes the city especially inviting is the blessed lack of traffic, at least in this old part of town, and of course, there are the ubiquitous 1950's US cars scattered about, many of which are taxis.



There are also several old plazas with colonial churches and a mix of other styles, looking very much like Spain. For a large city, Habana simply invites strolling about in a leisurely fashion.



As Alejandro and I discussed, if the place is inundated by Americans because of the changes Obama has wrought, it will be good for the economy, but a disastre for Habana because of the lack of infrastructure. There are no McDonalds or Burger Kings here, and I hope to God they keep it that way. Not likely, at least in the longer term.

Generally most everyone is very friendly and welcoming. I have experienced no animosity towards Americans, but because of the economic conditions many people are, if anything, overly interested in befriending tourists, in the hope of trying to get a CUC by acting as a guide, etc. As I was standing on Obispo street, a woman came up to me and starting chatting in Spanish, and then asked me if I could buy some milk for her child. Thinking this would cost a dollar or two I agreed, but when we went off the nearby market, they wanted to charge me 13. I refused this, but ended up paying 6.6 CUC for a gallon of milk, realizing as I did so, that she probably had worked something out with the manager of the market to kick back 3/4ths of this amount. Oh well.

Lunch counter and market for locals

On other days I took shots of locals on the street.




I couldn't resist these kids right on my block

On Sunday, I walked about a mile or so to a small alley in Centro Habana. This part of town is grittier, and for the most part, is clearly not a tourist area. The buildings are in worse disrepair. However, I had read in the Lonely Planet that today there was outdoor Rumba drumming and dancing on some small side streets. When I arrived at the Callejon, there were a number of tourists there, as I had been forewarned. The alley was decorated with various Santeria paintings and Afro-Cuban sculptures, all of the funky variety. There was no music however, and I sat down on a bench next to a young German kid. We chatted for a few minutes about Cuban music in general, as he had been here for almost two months. Eventually the drumming began and I stood on top of a bathtub sculpture to get a better view. All the drummers were women. This was a surprise, and then there was some rigorous dancing with both men and women, some of whom wielded fake swords, and all wearing colorful costumes. It was fast and furious, but unfortunately, didn't last more than about 20 minutes.




Soon a Rasta looking guy came over and tried to sell me a homemade cd. He said it was the only way for him to make an extra few bucks. His English, learned in the streets, was pretty good. I asked what his commission was, and then gave him the 2 CUC that he indicated. This made us friends, and he proceeded to rail against the "fucking communist system," that never paid him a living wage. He didn't blame the Americans and clearly understood the difference between our government and the people, as I have found most people do. He didn't understand why Fidel and his brother Raoul, were such good buddies with the "fucking Spanish, who killed more Cubans than anyone else." He was indeed a Rasta, he explained to me, and was duly impressed when I told him I had seen Bob Marley in person before he died. He said there were a number of Rastas in Cuba, and "the fucking government hates us because we smoke ganja, talk about freedom, and think for ourselves. He wore the typical Rasta black,yellow and red cap over his greying hair and looked to be around 50. Later I asked his age, and he said 48, which is why, he added, " he couldn't wait too long for the fucking government to change its ways."He showed me a picture of his wife and son, whom he said, he couldn't really support. Then it was time to introduce me to several of his friends, a few of whom also had dreads, but not all. Another younger man, with a bit of grey hair, said today was his 36th birthday. His English was also good, and he said it was because he worked in the Fort Museum and got a chance to speak to tourists. He wanted me to know that his monthly salary was 350 Cuban pesos or about 15 CUC. Una broma, he said, a joke. Manuel, the Rasta fellow, went off to buy some cerveza with money I had given him, but returned with a small carton of rum, no cerveza to be found. We passed this around, as well as several other cartons that had mysteriously appeared and Jorge, who's birthday it was, said he was happy now because at least he was getting to do some drinking on his birthday and was able to spend time with his girlfriend, who he then introduced me to. It wasn't long before Nayari sidled up next to me on the bench. In her early 40''s, and skinny, she was not especially attractive and had burns on part of her face and hands. She handed me a small plastic cup of rum that was making the rounds, and then started flirting with me, calling me her esposo, or husband. She did not speak English and so we conversed in Spanish. I don't know whether she had another esposo or not, but she did say she had a 9 year old son and worked as a dental assistant.

Manuel then suggested we go into a shop owned by Salvador, a local artist. Currently he was in Miami doing something to promote his own art. Apparently he is fairly well known, but in my humble opinion his art needs all the promotion he can give it, since most of it is all the same primitive pseudo-African looking stuff. Not withstanding, Salvador it seems, has money, and is the chief organizer of the rumba gatherings on the Callejon. Because he was not there, the music didn't last nearly as long as the 3 to 4 hours it usually did. Too bad. Manuel went on to tell me that Salvador was kind of the neighborhood benefactor, and was responsible for all of the street art on the Callejon. Interesting to know where he got his money. I didn't ask, and it is hard to believe he got it from his art work, but quien sabe? Always hard to account for taste in art.

We went back outside to drink more rum. Jorge talked more to me in English while Nayari was trying to kiss me at every opportunity. When Jorge got stumped with an English word or two, despite my attempts to talk to him in Spanish, he turned to a young, and rather clean cut black man (everyone here was black), and asked him how to say it in English. It turns out that the soft spoken Pato, was a professor of English at Habana University. He also happened to speak French, German, and Italian. Damn impressive for a 27 year old.

Continuing our discussion, both Jorge and Manuel said, after I asked about it, "that of course, even in the fucking communist system there is racismo. White people, or at least lighter people, as much of the country is mulatto, always get the better government jobs." Pato agreed with this as well. "Todo el mundo," I chimed in. "Siempre lo mismo, todo el mundo." (Always the same, all over the world). After a time, I said I wanted to start walking back to Habana Vieja and mi casa, and Manuel said that he lived there as well. Nayari said she would walk with us, but went off to get her resident papers because she might be hassled by the police if was seen walking with me.

While she was gone, Manuel asked me if "I wanted to fuck her. Not very pretty," he said, " but I heard she was really good lay and it was obvious she has eyes for you."

I said no, "that my own esposa might not like that too much."

"Is she in Cuba?"

"Yes." I said.

"Well anyway, " he went on, "she's not here so what difference does it make?"

I said thanks, but no thanks, and when Nayari returned in a few minutes, she insisted on holding hands and calling me, mi amor. When I held back, she said, that she thought I was timido. Not wanting to insult anyone I said that I liked her, but was not interested in having sex. She still wanted to hold hands for a bit, which, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to, at least for a few minutes. We started walking back in the direction of the old city, and not having had anything to eat since the morning, and by now it was 5 PM, I asked if there was anywhere we could stop so I could get something to eat. They took me to a little place in someone's house, and although Manuel and Jorge at first said they were not hungry, they quickly changed their minds. I didn't really have enough money for everyone, but agreed I would pay for Nayari to eat, and then give them another 5 CUC to go out and get some pizza. Of course they were hustling me, but I have to say they did it in a nice way, and I didn't feel threatened in any way. It was more like I felt sorry for them, which I'm sure they counted on, and if I had the money, probably I would have bought dinner all around. Nayari of course was thrilled with her meal, probably the best she had eaten in a while. She wanted my address and email, even though she has no way to get in touch.

Nayari lounging in the restaurant

The professor showed up, and apparently knew the owner, as she gave him a free plate of food. When they returned from the pizza place, we resumed walking, and they pointed me toward the Museum of the Revolution, not far my casa. They said they would continue on their own as it might not be good to be seen with me. Perhaps they were all scamming me a bit, and none of them lived in Habana Vieja, but it was an interesting way to while away the afternoon, and to talk with them about life and politics in Cuba.

The following day, today, on Alejandro's recommendation, I took the a bus tour around the city, which is quite spread out and much of it looks different than old Habana, complete with the occasional Russian style, ugly block building, and a few fancy and expensive hotels. I got out at the university and walked around for a bit, and there were some interesting old neoclassical buildings there, also in disrepair. Nearby was the Cuba Libre Hotel, formerly the Hilton, and supposedly Fidel's headquarters immediately after the revolution.

Next stop, Plaza de la Revolution. Now the political center of Cuba, there were enormous sculpture like faces of Cienfuegos and Che on the side of two adjoining buildings, as well as a rather phallic looking monument to Jose Marti.


Posted by jonshapiro 14:27 Archived in Cuba Tagged people children photography buildings_postcards Comments (3)

Farewell Picnic

The school wide picnic in my honor took place as scheduled. We walked a mile or two up the road and then climbed up a bit to an open pine forest.


Groups of kids went off to create their own cooking areas as did the teachers. As the honored guest, I wandered among the various groups sampling the momos, chicken, and other pre-packaged food they had purchased.

There were hundreds of hungry and aggressive crows that would dive bomb for any available food whenever they could. They would practically grab it out of your hands if you weren't paying close attention.


Playing Uno

Tashi and a few teachers preparing momos

Elementary grade teachers

Kids Posing




Many of the groups had picked small wild flowers and and put them down on the forest floor like welcome mats. It was all quite endearing.

A bit hard to read, but it does say welcome

At one point some of the older girls began dancing to music on a cell phone and I showed another group how to play hide and seek.


School wide photo

Later in the evening Tashi and Puti gave me a few handmade gifts. Here I am wearing the hat and scarf.


The next day, Tashi and I left for Jammu. As with any road trip in the mountains, it was not without its adventures. We had to spend an extra night in Kisthwar because the road beyond was blocked by a landslide. It was cleared overnight and we got to Jammu the next afternoon, where I spent a few days in comparative luxury in a decent hotel.

Clearly I was now back in civilization.

Shop on main street

Before heading back to Mumbai, Tashi showed me the house he was building and we visited the boarding school where his boys are studying. After so many years it was a privilege to meet his whole family.


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This is the last post you will see for several months. We are heading out once again, to southern Europe this time, and as usual I will take notes and photographs, but will not blog until after our return in mid-April.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:16 Archived in India Comments (4)

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