Cuba is shaped like a banana (well you have to use a little imagination)
Whoever planned Highway 1 did not spend much time doing so. It appears as if he opened a map of Cuba, took a 2” paint brush , dipped it in red ink, and with a broad stoke drew a line lengthwise along the middle of the country, labeled it Highway 1 and handed it over to a construction crew.
They built what they saw. A huge motorway with four lanes going each way, an enormous median and huge verges on either side. All this for a country with no cars. It runs for a couple of hundred miles and is almost a straight line, except for where the architect’s hand was shaking with excitement causing a few slight curves in the road. Even so it never runs through a town, and there are incredibly few turn offs. All there is on either side is untamed countryside, with the occasional shack with a sign hanging rather forlornly on the outside proclaiming it to be a restaurant. We drive for well over 100 miles and pass just one gas station. Little of the land is farmed which is rather a sad commentary on the economics of the country.
Today Highway 1 looks like something from a Sci Fi movie where the entire population of the earth has been killed leaving the occasional survivor to wander the roads in an old car found discarded on the side of the road. We drive for miles without seeing a car. But now, as we leave Havana, what we do see is horse and carts. Sometimes they are on the grass verge, sometimes in the slow lane and occasionally in the fast lane coming towards you. It is a surreal experience.
You might think that driving is easy in Cuba, especially on this motorway with no traffic. But you would be wrong. The road surface is so bad, pitted and rough on the inside two lanes and with huge potholes on the outside lanes, that you cannot let your concentration wander. After 90 minutes we take the turn off to Cienfuegos.
Now we are on a two lane country road where the potholes have grown to craters. One of the few road signs we see is this one
which says all you need to know. The road stretches ahead for miles with no traffic.
As we get further into the country the sign changes, accepting the reality. The only traffic is horse and carts
And this is rush hour
Cienfuegas is known as the “Pearl of the South”, a charming name for a charming seaside town. It is situated on a huge spectacular almost totally enclosed bay. The town is based round a graceful town square and a long pedestrian street that is a hive of activity both day and night.
Many of the streets have colonnades making it a very appealing and stylish town. Even more appealing is the long spit of land that reaches into the bay and has a clutch of outrageously eclectic palaces built by the moneyed classes in the 1920’s
It owes most of its style to the French who, run out of Haiti by an uprising of their slaves, settled in Cienfuegos in the 1800’s. As happened throughout Cuba, the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair in the 20th century and it is only in recent years that some of the colonial buildings have been beautifully restored while others are still being worked on
The cafes that were so much a part of the French way of life are slowly returning
and a few of the eclectic mansions are being turned into restaurants
Presumably the abundance of style is what caused one travel writer to state “if Cuba had a Paris, this would be it”. Well as charming as it may be, let me assure you that Cuba does not have a Paris, nor does it have anything vaguely reminiscent of Paris.
For, while parts of the town centre are being restored, the country’s economy will insure that it is a very slow process. Much of the town still looks like this
or even worse
And even though the town sits on this beautiful natural bay, it has done nothing with its waterfront, an area that anywhere else in the world would be full of charming restaurants and bars.
And once out of the center of town, living conditions get even worse
The conditions for the dead are not much better. There is a stunning cemetery, but it too is sliding into disrepair
Despite it being famous for the “sleeping beauty” statue
and the angel
But the town and its surroundings are too beautiful to ignore. It may be a struggle but it will become a place that people talk about. What Cienfuegos has is an idyllic setting. The narrow entrance to the bay is guarded on one side by a well preserved fort
and is home to a picturesque fishing village made up almost entirely of wooden cottages that are not so well preserved
On the Caribbean side there is a perfect picture postcard beach.
It would of course be so much more picture perfect if it had sun. But our entire trip has suffered from the absence of sun, a constant cover of clouds and almost daily rain showers
Adding to the charm of the city is the lack of cars and abundance of horse and carts. Sadly that is a sign of how poor the people are, but it certainly makes the town picturesque. The horse and cart is the main form of transport. People use them like a car, to go shopping visit friends, or get out of town for the day. They can even register them as taxis, and many do. It is a useful source of income as they drive around town picking up locals and charging a small amount of money to take them where they want to go
Other more entrepreneurial people have turned their carts into tourist buses, taking tourists around town for a somewhat larger fee
Although not all have met with success
Finally there are those who use it as a removal service
And talking of removal service, you might wonder what happens to all that the horses leave behind. The streets in town are in fact very clean as cart owners have a clever contraption that sits under the horses tail and catches anything that may be expelled from that part of the horse. The country roads are a different matter all together. There is more horse shit on the roads out of town than there is in my blog. If you are not swerving to avoid potholes, then you are swerving to avoid excrement
Then of course there are the people. It must be said that in general we are not finding the Cubans to be friendly. In other developing world countries (which Cuba surely is) people have greeted us wherever we go and children always wave and laugh. This does not happen in Cuba, which is surprising as they depend heavily on tourism and recognise the potential of it.
However there are always exceptions that bring some joy and maybe a laugh into our travels. I think the one memory of Cienfuegos that will always stay with me is a brief encounter with some road workers. Having dug a large hole in the street one of the workers was having a cigarette break and taking a rest in the hole he had just dug. He looked exhausted, but when I asked if I I could take his photo, his response was perfect
Welcome to Cuba