Getting There

There is no direct flight from Costa Rica to Cuba. Thus, we had to get up early to catch the flight to Panama City, the regional airline hub and on to Cuba. It was an interesting flight, as the sight of cloud banked up against the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Central, dissipating as it spread into the Pacific side of the country, showed clearly the origins of the cloud forest. Then, crossing into Panama, we could see the two great oceans of the world in one field of view, the Atlantic breaking onto the shores of Panama below and the pale blue of the Pacific on the far horizon – a sight to behold.

Cloud banked up on the eastern side of the Costa Rican Cordillera

The flight to Cuba and arrival in Havana passed uneventfully and smoothly. Soon, we were heading to Old Havana and our guesthouse by taxi, sharing the road with many of the old 50s and 60s cars for which Cuba is famous – the hype is true. Finally we arrived - behind an unobtrusive door in a dilapidated street of the old city was our guesthouse, an oasis of retro furnishings, high ornate ceilings and steep narrow stairways. On the rooftop terrace, we looked out over the old city as a near-full moon rose above. This was a good start to our Cuban adventure.

Our street in Old Havana

View from the rooftop terrace

A little ray of sunshine

Old Havana beneath the moonlight

That night we met our guide, the vivacious and very knowledgeable Yaima, and our fellow travellers, a group of 12 from diverse parts of the globe – Kevin, Odile, Mike, the fair Nello and myself from Australia, Veema from New Zealand, Anargha from India, Sabine from Sweden, Angelo from France, and Shelley, Mark and Daniel from the US - an eclectic and sociable group.

The next 14 days promised to pass well.

Time for a beer after a long flight to Cuba


The next day, it was one more early rise to fly from Havana to Baracoa in the far east of the island. Spread between the green palm-clad mountains of the Sierra del Purial and the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Baracoa was founded in 1511, the first Spanish settlement in the new world. Yet another roof-terraced colourful guesthouse in a setting of charming delapidation for us to stay in for the next three nights – it would be a pleasant base from which to explore the scenic offerings of this remote part of Cuba. Baracoa is also famed for its sea-food cuisine and, that night, we enjoyed a superb feast of lobster in coconut milk, with fish soup and salad for just USD 15 – our stay in Cuba promised not just automotive, scenic and cultural delights, but, unexpectedly, gastronomic ones as well.

Kevin and the fair Nello at our B&B

Streets of Baracoa

Entry to the central plaza in Baracoa

Sunset panorama of Baracoa

The rugged shore-line at Baracoa

Brooding sunset over El Yunque

The 1511 cross of Christopher Columbus

For our first full day in Baracoa, the whole group opted to take a local tour out along the beautiful palm-lined coast to the Yumuri River. The trip was half the fun, as our transport was a 1959 Ford Fairline, with the back cut off to add a troop-carrier tray with bench seats and canopy, plus modern diesel engine and modified mechanics – a true piece of Cuban automotive ingenuity.

Our old Ford Fairlane troop-carrier

Cuban fighting cock

Chocolate farm

We bounced along, stopping to visit a cacao farm and see how chocolate is produced from pod to bean to finished product, stopping off at Bahia Mata, where bananas were once exported before the Americans began their bullying embargo of Cuba, and finally reaching the mouth of Rio Yumuri.

View across Bahia Mata

Coast-line near Yumuri with El Yunque in the background

The name Yumuri means "I go to die" in the old Carib tongue and is so called because here the original Carib inhabitants threw themselves off the 150m limestone cliffs rather than submit to slavery by the Spanish. Today these cliffs still form a short, but beautiful, gorge which we stopped at to travel through in small wooden rowboats. The local boatmen dropped us on the far side of the gorge on a gravelly peninsula, where we could swim in the cool, clear water of the Yumuri and enjoy the ambience of this place, as vultures circled high above the cliff-tops.


Boat trip on the Yumuri

The Yumuri Gorge

Swimming spot in the gorge

Then it was a row back and a short drive in our modified Fairlane to a small wooden restaurant on the edge of a lovely black sand beach, rimmed with fossil-rich limestone rocks. This ended the day's outing, and it was back to Baracoa to continue our education in Cuban life – one more feast of lobster (cooked in coconut milk) before a visit to the local Casa de Cultura, a feature of every town here, and a place where the locals showcase and improve their various artistic talents. On this warm Sunday night, a drum band was creating a driving beat for a series of Afro-inspired dancers – the Cubans know how to entertain themselves.

The far eastern coast of Cuba

We had one more full day in Baracoa and our initial plan was to visit the Humboldt National Park and stop off at a white sand beach on the way home. However, the bridge had broken, so we resorted to Plan B, a trip up to the Yunque Waterfall, where you could swim in beautiful clear fresh water. Just the Fair Nello and myself decided to do this, so we joined a group in an old Willys jeep converted to troop-carrier for the slow haul up through the barrios of Baracoa and then along a pot-holy dirt road that took us inland.

A different aspect of El Yunque

All aboard the old Willys jeep

Hinterland of Baracoa

Passing through mixed banana/chocolate plantations and palm forest, we slowly approached the table-topped silhouette of El Yunque Mountain. Most people on the trip were planning to climb this 575 m table-topped mesa, but our waterfall option seemed a more relaxing and, definitely, less sweaty way to spend the day. Thus the two of us set with our young uni student guide, Raoul, for the relatively short, but undulating, walk along a country road that followed the Rio Duaba deeper into the mountains.

The crystal waters of Rio Duaba

The beautiful fresh clear water rushing down over cascades invited us in. We accepted and swam across the fast-flowing stream to reach the far bank. Here a short bare-footed rock scramble led us up alongside a rushing side-stream to the 10m waterfall itself and its deep, refreshing plunge pool - what a great place for a swim!

Swimming spot on the Rio Duaba

Duaba waterfall and plunge pol

Swimming here and in the river below was a very relaxing way to spend the day, but eventually it was time to head back and rejoin the sweaty and tired climbers of Yunque Peak for the old jeep trip home.

Rainbow over Baracoa

The clouds rolled in at the end of day bringing some heavy showers, but to sit on the sheltered roof-top terrace of our B&B with a cold Bucanero beer in hand and a full rainbow arching over the roof-line of Baracoa was a perfect way to spend our last evening in this eastern end of Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba

That night it rained heavily and grey skies greeted us the next day. We weren't too worried as it was moving day – adios to Baracoa, which we had greatly enjoyed, and hola to Santiago de Cuba – a 6 hour journey by road. Our bus (which would be ours for the rest of the trip) was waiting, a modern bus with 24 seats for 12 people – luxury compared with the tight squeezes that we had had in Central America.

The mountains of the Sierra Maestra

With Eduardo, our driver, at the helm and Yaima running the commentary, we headed off to leave Cuba's Atlantic coast and climb up into the palm-clad hills backing Baracoa. As we climbed higher, palms gave way to pines and the road twisted its way along the mountain ridges, before finally descending the much lusher Caribbean side of mountains. We had just crossed the eastern end of the Sierra Maestra.

Grey day in the Sierras

A farmer's hut in the mountains

The dry Caribbean coast of Cuba

La Revolucion is never far from mind

That lushness did not last for long, for the strip along the Caribbean sea was much drier with cacti and xerophyllic plants. After an hour or so, we left the highway to climb up to a viewpoint overlooking Guantanamo Bay. In the distance (with the aid of binoculars) you could see the buildings and infrastructure of the notorious American military base there, thumbing its nose in the face of Cuban sovereignty. Normally I am quite restrained, but an appropriate gesture seemed necessary, so lining up the base, I gave the American military the Braveheart Salute (perhaps a guard watching through binoculars got the message – one can but hope).

Panorama of Guantanamo Bay

From Guantanomo, we cruised along the highway past sugarcane fields and banana plantations to reach Santiago de Cuba. This city of a million people, apart from being the second largest on the island, is the cradle of the Cuban revolution.

Memorial to Antonio Maceo

From the shelter of the nearby Sierra Maestra, a rugged mountain range, Fidel Castro launched his fight against the Batista dictatorship. It is also where Antonio Maceo had earlier launched the war of independence against the Spanish.

Santiago Harbour

Memorial to Fidel Castro

Canon ball ramp at Fortress El Morro

Spanish history runs deep here and, before heading to our local guesthouses, we paid a visit to the superbly restored 17th century fortress, El Morro, which guarded the entry to the Santiago Harbour (to keep out the Engish and the pirates). It was good, though, to settle in to our rooms in a quiet off-street guesthouse and have yet another superb meal, this time a la casa – the culinary adventure continues.

View from the ramparts of the 17th century fortress, El Morro

The moat of El Morro

Lighthouse at tthe entry to Santiago Harbour

We had a free day in Santiago and it was too hot to spend three hours in a taxi for a short walk in the mountains, so we spent a relaxing day wandering the streets of this bustling city – a bit of culture here, a coffee in a shady courtyard there and tai chi with the locals on the terrace of the impressive cathedral. Santiago is a curious mix of beautifully restored colonial buildings, neglected modern edifices and crumbling street-front houses.

Basilica Metropolitan Santa Ifigenia (first built in 1516)

Interior of the basilica

The Ayuntamento (home of the colonial governor)

The narrow streets were busy with pedestrians, motor-cycles and cars old and new – the old 1950s vehicles blowing clouds of exhaust smoke into the air. Crowds of people sat around the wifi hot-spots glued to their smart phones and the sounds of Latin music were never far away. If nothing else, Cuba is a vibrant place.

Nello and Kevin cruising Santiago

Casa Valazquez - the oldest house in Cuba built 1516
(interiors left and right)

Colonial buildings in the main plaza

Our street in Santiago

View over Santiago Harbour towards the mountains

That night, we all headed out to a salsa nightclub, where a 7-piece band and two young dancers showed us how it should be done and then invited everyone to join in. Some of our group showed a real flair, while others ……. oh well, it was good fun, regardless.


Some of the many 1950s cars that
cruise the streets of Santiago


The next day was a long travel day – 8 hours to Camagüey, Cuba's third largest city. The trip began with an early stop at Santa Ifegenia cemetery to visit the tombs of Cuba's heroes – complete with a moving changing-of-the-guard ceremony. It said a lot to contrast the huge monumental tomb of José Martí, considered the father of the nation for his fight against Spanish rule, with a more recent simple granite boulder and its plaque with one single name "Fidel".

Cementerio de Santa Ifegenia

The massive edifice for Jose Marti .....

.... and the simple granite boulder for Fidel Castro

Streets of Bamayo

One of the famous tinajones

From there, we headed to Camagüey, with only one stop for lunch in the town square of Bayamo, another of the seven original settlements of Cuba.

A touch of Cuban farmland

The landscape changed gradually as we went - once across the hills of the Sierra Maestra, we left the south of the island to pass through flatlands dominated by sugar cane and tropical fruit plantations. These gave way to gently undulating terrain, where cattle grazed on pastures sprinkled with scrubby trees. A string of small towns came and went until, with the sun low in the sky, we arrived at Camagüey.

In the Plaza de los Trabajadores

The old church in Bamayo

Camagüey streetscape

For the first time, our guesthouse was in a busier part of town. As we sat out on our balcony looking down on the narrow street, life passed by – the usual sounds of people talking and walking, but, in the course of drinking one can of beer, we also saw small modern cars, big 1950s cars, bicycles, pedicabs, motor-bikes old, new and electric, a big smoke-belching old Russian truck, a tractor towing a large water-tank and a horse and cart ……. only in Cuba!

Camagüey Ballet School

The next day commenced with a bit of culture – Camagüey has one of the two top ballet companies in Cuba and its dancers are world-renowned.

Some of us headed off with Yaima to visit the ballet school and watch some practice sessions (unfortunately there was no performance while we were in town), while learning a bit about the history of ballet in Cuba – it's not all salsa here.

First arabesque

Off in a pedicab ....

.... to view the sights of Camagüey

Then, in the afternoon, we took a pedicab tour of the city, visiting several of the many small plazas, each with its unique set of colonial buildings. Pedicab is the best way, as the city was designed to confuse invading enemies and the streets resemble more a cracked plate than a set of crossed lines. Together with its tinajones (very large clay pots used by the early settlers to store water), this makes Camagüey fairly unique amongst Cuban cities. Getting lost here is easy to do.

Camagüey is reknowned for its plazas .....

... and parks

Salsa in the streets

Having had our taste of salsa in Santiago, it seemed time to embrace the Cuban nightlife. Notwithstanding the city layout, after dinner Kevin, the fair Nello and I found our way back to the Plazadel Gallo in time to listen to a 6-piece band driving out a loud salsa beat in the square, after which we retired to nearby bar for a couple of piñas coladas / mojitos while listening to the sweet harmonies of a chica-led jazz group. It was a great way to end an interesting day.