An image of a Cuban carryinga sack home on a dirt path in the Valle de los Ingenios just outside Trinidad, Cuba.

The Valley of the Sugar Mills: The Tower and the Madding Crowd

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

After our entertaining lunch, we decided to drive the short distance from central Trinidad to the Valle de Los Ingenios, once the largest sugar-producing region. The Valle or Valley of the Sugar Mills was home to Cuba’s sugar cane fields, plantations, and the ruins from more than 70 formerly operational sugar mills. The entire Valle de Los Ingenios is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserved so visitors can imagine how this verdant valley once bustled with the hard work of African slaves and later, Cuban workers toiling around the clock to harvest sugar cane.

An image of a The pile of rubble is from a collapsed house, all too common in Cuba where homes suffer decades of neglect.

The pile of rubble is from a collapsed house, all too common in Cuba where homes suffer decades of neglect. Photo credit: Iris Gonzalez.

Walking back to the casa particular to get into my rental car, Wade, Camille, and I passed homes that were crumbling from years of neglect. This being resource-poor Cuba, the construction materials from one disintegrated house was in a heap, waiting to be repurposed.

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I linked up with Americans Camille and Wade during my time in Trinidad, Cuba.

The Americans in Trinidad

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

Wade, Camille, and I walked Trinidad’s streets until we found a restaurant for lunch. It must have been a tourist haven because we spotted a trio playing the traditional son music of Cuba outside its entrance.

Street musicians play Cuban son music outside a restaurant in Trinidad, Cuba.

Street musicians play Cuban son music outside a restaurant in Trinidad, Cuba.

El Dorado only had another table with several local men sitting there quietly, but not eating. We were the only ones ordering a meal. The food was good—we had seafood with the customary white rice and Cuban black beans.

What  made the meal memorable was the singer and conjunto who accompanied him.

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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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