In the morning, courtesy of our guide Jorge we saw our cobbled streets through borrowed eyes. A city founded in 1524 by the French. With its river and port, it’s economic value became clear. Initially it was self governing and profitable. In the 17th century the slave trade brought many African slaves to the province and produce of sugarcane and crops flowed out of Cuba. As we walked around, starting in the eldest street and working our way out to newer parts we began to see it both as a colonial gem and explore its post revolution state, most clearly noticeable through the dual street names. Each street had a previous religious name as well as a newer name acknowledging a hero of the revolution.
It was the 31st May, the start of a new ration month begun tomorrow so all the government stores, one of every block was getting their rations to begin the new month. Crates upon crates upon crates of eggs were being passed out of the back of a lorry. Each family is assigned a store and can go to collect the government allocated amount of eggs, flour, sugar, salt, tobacco, rum etc using their ration book. This is not enough to live comfortably on but it ensures a basic standard of provisions for everyone. There is also government stores of school uniform and supplies which are allocated accordingly. Doctors are also allocated patients on the same system so that fair and efficient healthcare, something the people are proud of, can be delivered to all. With a population of 11 million, there is a doctor for every 162 people.
With the rains seeming to be passed it was also bin day and men were loading the piles of rubbish which had been accumulating on street corners into the back of the tractor which was being pulled street to street. We stumbled upon the old jail building which is being reimagined as a brewery. The facade of the towns first church also caught our eye, now nothing more than a shell and long replaced in the centre.
We ambled to the train line where original coal driven trains were parked up on the lines, in working order. An elderly man, retired having worked in the industry all his life, poked his head out the engine room where he was having a peruse. He invited us in to which Jorge mumbled ‘we don’t have to..’ but we willingly climbed up to have him demonstrate how he needed three people at all times to drive the train. He showed us his meticulously written notes on trains and their uses around the world. He loved what he did and grinned as he shared in Spanish for Jorge to translate.
We talked economy and education, The two currency’s were a product of the 1991 collapse of Soviet Union which destabilised Cuba due to a huge loss of import and export. With new options needed for trade, they needed a stronger and more credible currency. The Cuban Peso or CUP remained but the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC emerged, tied to the USD in value however use of or exchanging the USD gets an additional 10% tax the other currencies are not privy to. Jorge wasn’t the first person to mention to us that teenagers are becoming disillusioned with studying. Whilst education is free throughout degree level and regarded highly by the elder generations, the younger generation see that the government salaries being paid to doctors and engineers don’t differ far from the street cleaners and restaurant workers. The 20CUC /USD per month salary does not entice them when tourism, touting for business and entrepreneurship is changing the earning potential of Cubans drastically.
Making the most of the afternoon sun we headed to Playa Ancon. It took two minutes standing on the streets looking at the passing vehicles to flag down a makeshift taxi. The car, more like golf buggy, was driven by the friendliest man who spoke no English but talked constantly. We sat in the back holding on to a metal frame and bounced along the 12km to the beach. Little wooden umbrellas were dotted along the sand and the sales pitch of choice was pizzas and Mojitos, a very Cuban feel. Whilst a colourful but blocky Soviet style hotel was further along, the beach was quiet, the water was warm and we cooked in the sun. I replaced my goggle tan with an enviable look of permanent sunglasses.
Come evening, we enjoyed a panorama of the city from a rooftop bar twinned with a band playing their various instruments, drums, guitars, maracas, to an incredible beat. After dinner we made our way to the Casa de la musica, the music house where the flight of steps became a musical amphitheatre and band after band performed in full volume and energy. Locals and tourists alike got up to dance salsa on the small patio in front of the musicians.
Treated to another day of sun we made our way to the historical museum for its lookout over the city. The yellow building is represented on the 25 cent coin and is as iconic from the outside as is stunning from the inside. Every way you looked had cobbled alleys surrounded by coloured housing, added to by the masses of laundry swinging in the breeze. With the rain passed the streets were now filled with markets of traders selling their goods and we seemed not to be able to resist any of the trinkets, jewellery, bags and pottery they approached us with.
In the afternoon heat we escaped the town for the Salto de Calburni waterfall. Whilst we were assured we were going by carriage, it appeared we would be riding ourselves the hour there. Luckily the horses were ‘semi automatic’ as we were dressed optimistically in our flip flops. I’m not sure how a carriage of any kind would have made it. We climbed banks, crossed rivers and were bumped around in formation. Monique’s horse was enjoying being out in front whereas mine lagged behind in the heat. The guide seemed to have taken a liking to me, despite speaking no English, and my horse was not helping me to escape the charades as he hinted and mimed that we would like to go dancing with him that night.
Once at the waterfall it was a short, slug filled trek to a spectacular waterfall and the cool water was a welcome refreshment. Whilst tropical and sharing its flora and fauna with Darwin, it was especially apparent to Monique that the sugar canes weren’t home to snakes, the water not filled with crocodiles. Cuba has little more than farm animals, bats and birds. We whiled away the afternoon splashing around, before the horses drove us home again. Our decision to move on from Trinidad brought feelings of reluctance, both at the long journey east and leaving this place which had taken only days to feel welcoming and homely.