A guajiro, or rural man drives a horse drawn carriage past the Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba.

Breakfast, Bathrooms, and a Tower Climb in Trinidad

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

Waking up early, I listened carefully from my guest room which faced the street to the sounds of Trinidad waking up. I heard no traffic, only the slow clop-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. Farmers called out what they carried in their carts.

Plantanos, plantanos,” one old man yelled, his voice trailing off as he headed to the edge of town. He had no takers for his bunches of plantains.

In Trinidad, early morning vendors call out what produce they have to sell.

In Trinidad, early morning vendors call out what produce they have to sell.

Magaly prepared a lovely breakfast for my first full day in Trinidad. The variety of ripe papayas, watermelon, guavas, even pineapple made for a luxurious breakfast.

“We are lucky to have mangoes, papayas, and bananas grow so well here,” Magaly said. “They travel only a few kilometers to our doorstep.”

A breakfast at Trinidad's Casa Magaly reveals the local bounty of tropical fruit available.

A breakfast at Trinidad’s Casa Magaly reveals the local bounty of tropical fruit.

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The waterfalls at El Nicho in Topes de Collante, near Trinidad, Cuba. Source: Wikitravel page for Topes de Collante.

Trinidad: Sugar Town, Rebel Base, World Heritage Site

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

The casa particular where I stayed in Trinidad had a typically Cuban address: Calle Frank Pais #453 e/ Simon Bolivar y Fidel Claro.

Translated, it means house No. 453 on Frank Pais street or calle, entre or in between two other streets, Simon Bolivar and (y) Fidel Claro.

The names—Frank Pais, Simon Bolivar, Fidel Claro—are of revolutionary figures from Cuba’s history. What I discovered navigating around Trinidad is that most streets have two names.

The street signs only display one name and in Trinidad, it was the older, pre-revolutionary name that was on the street sign, not on modern maps. Sometimes for popular city streets, the old name is still used, so asking for directions can be confusing despite asking in fluent Spanish.

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In Cuba's five hundred year old town of Trinidad, a woman walks home at dusk.

An Evening Stroll in Trinidad

Evening of April 29, 2014  Trinidad, Cuba

I had booked several nights at Casa Magaly, a private residence that had been turned into a Cuban bed-and-breakfast or ‘Air BnB’ of sorts. Only four blocks away from the Plaza Mayor or main plaza in central Trinidad, the home was conveniently located for exploring the five hundred year old World Heritage site. The two-story concrete structure had a salmon-painted, but otherwise plain façade.

Magaly, the proprietor, and her son stood in their doorway to greet me.

Casa Magaly is a two-story casa particular run by Magaly and her son

Casa Magaly is a two-story casa particular run by Magaly and her son.

I found this casa particular (Spanish for “private home”) on a Cuban website for tourists seeking rental cars and lodging.

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The entrance to Trinidad, Cuba, courtesy of Casa La Milagrosa in Trinidad.

Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200*

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

Driving on the country road, I traced my way from the Autopista Nacional westward toward Trinidad on my Cuba map. I was heading southwest toward Cienfuegos, a small city of about 150,000 on the southern coast of Cuba about 160 miles from Havana. If I didn’t have to worry about reaching Trinidad before dark I’d detour at the southern coast and turn eastward to see Playa Giron, or the Bay of Pigs, but decided against it.

Instead I focused on the status of two tanks—filling the rental car’s gas tank and emptying my full bladder.

Surprisingly, gas stations in Cuba are seemingly plentiful. Bathrooms, on the other hand, not so much.

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A vintage Cuban postcard shows a typical bohio dwelling in the countryside.

‘Turn Right at Fidel to Head to Trinidad’

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

I resisted the temptation to wave to the Cuban security watchers at the school when I exited the gated enclosure of Ed’s house. Turning right I paid attention to landmarks so I would be able to retrace my steps in several days.

Making a right at the ruined roofless yellow church at the corner, I found myself driving carefully along Quinta Avenida. Before long I was looking at the ocean and the famed Malecon on my left, but I knew not to lose focus. Now, I had to rely on memory and look for the turn-off to the harbor tunnel.

Aha! I saw the one lone small sign and quickly made the sharp right turn into the tunnel. My shoulders relaxed a bit and I took a deep breath.

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Google Maps shows the route from Havana to Trinidad in Cuba.

The Road to Trinidad is Paved with Good Intentions

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

After a Cuban coffee-fueled breakfast, it was finally time to take out the large detailed map of Cuba I brought with me to guide my driving in Cuba.

Without a cellphone (deemed too risky, I left mine home lest Cuban security spooks riddle it remotely with spyware) or GPS (no Wi-Fi outside of the limited tourist areas in Old Havana), I would have to use a map for driving across half of Cuba.

If you have a navigator or co-pilot along for the drive, then folding and unfolding a huge map and reading the small print is doable, of course. But I would be driving alone.

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My Cuban rental car is a Chinese-made Geely sedan

‘Resolving’ — Renting a Car in Cuba

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

Ed’s household maid Maria and his driver David accompanied me as I tried to find a rental car after we had finished grocery shopping.

A visit to the first rental car kiosk near a hotel was short. The older man called someone and after waiting for about 10 minutes, he hung up.

No hay nada,” he said. “There is nothing. You need to look at another hotel maybe.”

“Can’t you check the inventory on the …” I started to say. Then I stopped.

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Empty grocery shelves in a grocery store in Havana, Cuba.

Food is Optional: Grocery Shopping in Cuba

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a disappointing lunch in another Cuban state-run restaurant—mystery pork meat that reflected the sad life the pig must have lived before reaching my plate—David and I return to Ed’s house.

It was time for David to go shopping for the household and Maria insisted that I, Ms. Americana, come along for the excursion to Supermercado 70, located near the Russian Embassy. This is the only full-fledged grocery store I will see in my entire trip across Cuba. Havana only has a handful of large grocery stores and I discover their selection is rather anemic on any given day.

A former diplomat-only store, the Supermercado 70 has security guards in the crowded parking lot and at the entrance to the busy store.

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Tomb of the dead mother and baby at Havana'a Colon Cemetary

Even the Dead Must Wait Their Turn

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

If you ever wanted to slip back in time, visit the plazas of Old Havana, Cuba.

Havana was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 because of its beauty and historic significance. About one-third of Havana’s buildings were built before the 19th century and two-thirds were built before the 1950s.

The massive doors to Havana’s Office of the City Historian.

The massive doors to Havana’s Office of the City Historian

The City Historian’s office uses profits from its (ahem, capitalist-seeming) arm Habaguanex which runs restaurants, museums, gift shops, and hotels. Profits go to restoring the city’s five plazas and buildings to preserve its cultural heritage while improving Old Havana’s appeal to tourists. Read More

Cubans relax on the famed Malecon or seawall at dusk.

Everything in the Toliet

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a fitful night of sleeping and waking intermittently to listen for Cuba security skulking outside the house, I wake up before the maid and driver arrive at Ed’s house.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed's house and school across the street where Cuban "spooks" watch the house and all who enter.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed’s house and school across the street where Cuban “spooks” watch.

Walking through the empty house I look in the kitchen for a glass to drink some water. Sure enough, near the cabinets where the glasses are kept is the bulky water treatment tank where the potable water for the household is purified. Ed had already warned me not to drink untreated water anywhere in Cuba, so I carefully pour myself a glass of water from their large purified water dispenser.

In the 1950s, the Cuban middle class enjoyed all the civilized comforts of modern conveniences, including a then-modern plumbing system.

Havana was also a popular travel destination. My mother had told me stories how she and my dad had honeymooned by taking the ferry from Key West to Havana to visit Cuba in the very early days of the revolution. You can watch a short clip of the ferry docking in Havana here – the dresses and purses the women wear in the video brought back memories of my mother’s closet.

After 50-plus years of infrastructure neglect, Cuba’s plumbing and sewer systems are as cracked as the lines on the sun scarred face of a campesino farmer toiling on a Viñales tobacco farm. With every flush of a toilet, wastewater leaks and contaminates the country’s supply of drinking water.

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