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.
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.
Majority-Catholic Cuba is officially secular and from 1969 to 1998, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. Christmas Day 2016 we visited Piano Bar 1514 a club named after the year Camagüey’s first location was settled. The only foreign patrons, we enjoyed 1 CUC (US$1) piña coladas and 1.50 CUC mojitos while Cubans danced to both Spanish- and English-language songs from different eras.
The locals’ dress ranged widely from very casual to formal. Patrons appeared to wear their favourite or best clothes whatever they were including sneakers and baseball caps or dress shoes and shirts. The variety extended to the people with all ages, skin tones and genders dancing and enjoying the evening together.
Casa Austria was our favourite Camagüey restaurant and we dined there twice in three nights. The second time we took away apple and peanut strudel for the Havana bus trip. Casa Austria had an impressively broad menu considering Cuba’s general ingredient scarcity.
Nearby Casa Austria we chanced upon Eduardo Rosales Ruíz’s art studio and gallery. Eduardo is inspired by indigenous Cuban cultures including the pre-Columbian cave art discovered at Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey and Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud). Rocío wished to visit Isle of Youth south of mainland Cuba to see the Cueva Punta del Este art.
Rocío and Eduardo enjoyed good conversation. She was fascinated in a book Eduardo had, Los Indoamericanos en Cuba by Felipe de Jesús Pérez Cruz. This Spanish language book documented the indigenous history in Cuba from the origins to the present, including examples of current Cubans of Aboriginal ancestry. The book aimed to refute the belief that pre-Columbians had been wiped out in Cuba.
Upon our return to the gallery the next morning, Eduardo had arranged an official tourist guide friend to take us to the Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve (Refugio de Fauna Río Máximo). We wanted to see the flamingos. The only issues were the guide didn’t know how to get the reserve and he didn’t have transportation. We did make it to the reserve using alternative means. The beautiful flamingos and the adventure to see them are worth a separate post.
An architect, Rocío loved Cuba’s buildings. She noticed aspects I didn’t and could explain the different styles. Many Camagüey eaves featured a particular style of timber supports.
Walking in the street, the fruit and vegetable seller who suggested we catch the train to Nuevitas recognised us. He had finished for the day but was kind enough to give us two tapioca disks.
On our last night we drank Cuba libres with the locals outside Cafeteria las Cubanitas.
Cuba is a country like no other. Its lack of resources and free market has meant objects obsolete in other countries are still used. At Camagüey’s bus station I spied an ancient cash register propped up on an office desk. The printer also came from a different era.
From Camagüey we took a Viazul bus to Havana where we would welcome 2017.