Cuba is known for its classic American cars from the 1950s. The country’s streets also carry Soviet vehicles from the 1960s to the 1980s along with modern Chinese auto-mobiles. However, old Japanese cars are a rarity.
The Havana man driving his old right-hand drive Toyota
On Rocío and my second full day in Havana we saw this ancient Toyota sedan. The sighting piqued Rocío’s interest as a previous long-term resident of Japan.
Rocío with the old Toyota in Havana’s street
The car’s proud owner told us he got his Toyota while visiting Japan with the Cuban military in 1985.
The Toyota owner proudly standing next to his car; note his right arm tattoo sleeve
In typical Cuban fashion, the car is still running decades after manufacture. It is also right-hand-drive, another point of difference to other Cuban vehicles. The owner wore a tattoo sleeve on his right arm, probably for sun protection as opposed to fashion.
Soroa, 7 kilometres north of the Havana-Pinar del Río Freeway is a village known for both its waterfall and orchid garden. As fans of orchids the latter attracted Rocío and me and we made a detour to Soroa between Viñales and Havana.
Getting to Soroa from Viñales without private transport took two colectivos and then a Jeep organised by a tout from the mechanic near the Candelaria/Soroa junction. The travel logistics and costs are listed below this post.
Soroa Waterfall (Salto del Arco Iris)
The Soroa Waterfall has two entrances. The Jeep dropped us off adjacent the lower, southern one where we paid the 3 CUC (US$3) entry fee.
Entry signs to waterfall Salto del Arco Iris; cascada is Spanish for waterfall; entry costs Cubans 10 CUP (US$0.40) and foreigners 3 CUC (US$3)
January is well outside the May to October wet season so the waterfall was a relative trickle. Despite this, the overhang and surrounding greenery still made a beautiful setting.
The Great Cavern of Saint Thomas (Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás) is Cuba’s largest cave system. Near the town of El Moncada 18 kilometres’ drive west of Viñales, the cave belongs to Parque Nacional Viñales.
The Santo Tomás Cave path is 2.8km long
As a geology lover, Rocío was keen to see the cave, especially after seeing artefacts from it in Havana’s Fundacion de la Naturaleza y el Hombre museum. From Viñales we hired a car and driver for 20 CUC (US$20), waiting time and return journey included. Continue reading →
Viñales including its surrounding national park is one of Cuba’s premier tourist destinations. Three hours by road from Havana, its picturesque limestone outcrops (mogotes) and tobacco fields attract day-trippers and longer-stay travellers.
View of mogotes surrounding Viñales
Rocío and I visited Viñales twice in January 2017: a day trip from Pinar del Río and then four nights. We arranged our Casa Adela accommodation a day in advance to ensure we had a decent stay. Over the new year we heard reports of tourists sleeping in Viñales’ streets because all beds were full.
Parque Nacional Viñales (Viñales National Park) sign; note the different hand shapes
Founded in 1845, Finca el Pinar, also known as Finca Robaina, grows some of the world’s finest tobacco. 20 kilometres drive south-west of Pinar del Río, the farm and its cigars became famous under Alejandro Robaina who passed away in 2010. Alejandro’s grandson, Hiroshi Robaina now runs the property.
Although Rocío and I weren’t cigar fans, we didn’t want to miss seeing an iconic aspect of Cuba. From Pinar del Río we took a Lada 2107 taxi to Finca Robaina (20 CUC/US$20 round-trip including waiting time). Fortunately our January 2017 visit coincided with the tobacco growing season when the fields were lush and green.
Finca el Pinar tobacco farm workers on a break; note the black seedling trays on the left
Unlike most tobacco farms, Finca Robaina remained independent post-revolution. Alejandro was persuasive enough to convince Fidel Castro it shouldn’t be taken over by the state. However, 90% of production still goes to government-run cigar factories in Havana. State company Habanos SA’s Vegas Robaina brand is named after the family.
160 kilometres west of Havana is the intriguing city of Pinar del Río. Not a major tourist destination itself, south-west of Pinar del Río is the famous Robaina cigar tobacco farm Finca El Pinar and to the north, Viñales’ wonderful landscapes.
After the new year in Havana Rocío and I were ready to go west. From Parque de la Fraternidad we caught the local P-12 bus to near the National Bus Terminal (Terminal de Ómnibus Nacionales). On 19 de Mayo Avenue we took an old Chevrolet van colectivo to Pinar del Río. Part way there the vehicle experienced a flat tyre.
Our classic Chevrolet van parked under a tree on the roadside between Havana and Pinar del Río
While changing the tyre, the driver used a rock to support the axle. The van’s lights contained images of Che Guevara.
Driver changing tyre on way to Pinar del Río; note the rock and the Che Guevara image
Camagüey Province’s Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve (Refugio de Fauna Río Máximo) contains not only Cuba’s but the Western Hemisphere’s largest flamingo nesting site. After not getting to Cayo Sabinal, Rocío was determined to see the flamingos at Río Máximo.
Flamingos at Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve
In Camagüey City we asked people and agencies how to get the reserve. No one seemed to know. State tour company Ecotur hadn’t organised tours there for two years due to the track there requiring a truck and the lack of on site hygiene facilities. An official tourist guide, who also didn’t know the way, recommended we hire a large US car (with driver) that had been converted to diesel to maximise our chances of reaching the reserve. In the city centre while looking for such car, we met an old man who reckoned he knew a way there. Then we met a younger guy who was willing to take us and had a friend with a car.
Instead of a hulking diesel-fueled US classic we had the opposite: a small Soviet petrol sedan! But our Lada had character, including huge windscreen cracks and no internal rear door handles. Time for another crazy Cuban adventure. Continue reading →
Camagüey, Cuba’s third largest city was founded in its current location in 1528. The city’s labyrinthine streets in its UNESCO world heritage-listed historic centre are worth wandering. Camaguey is also a good base for exploring its eponymous province, Cuba’s biggest, including Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey, Nuevitas and Refugio de Fauna Río Máximo, the Western Hemisphere’s largest flamingo nesting site.
Camagüey’s central square; the building on the right features an image of Che Guevara and a common official Cuban phrase ‘until victory always’ (hasta la victoria siempre)
Rocío and I first visited Camagüey for an afternoon in between the bus from Holguín and the train to Nuevitas. Returning Christmas day after a night on a hut floor, we desired a shower and proper bed. From our worst Cuban accommodation we chanced upon our best: Casa Juanita y Rafael, a lovingly decorated guest house with super high ceilings and a beautiful courtyard (25 CUC/US$25 per night). The courtyard included a fish pond in Camagüey’s symbol, a large ceramic vessel called a tinajón.
Our guest house (casa particular) courtyard featured Camagüey’s symbol the tinajón (large ceramic vessel)