After enjoying the beautiful Viñales Valley, we headed for the village of Soroa, located about halfway between Pinar del Rio and Havana. Where Pinar del Rio makes do with tobacco, the region around Soroa has become known for its coffee plantations.
In Cuba, it is wise to look for gasoline in time. It is not a given that any gas station will have gasoline in stock and certainly not the gasoline for newer cars like our rental car, of which there are very few around. Only two in ten Cubans own a car at all, and the street scene is dominated by old Ladas, Moskvitches and Oldtimers. Finding a gas station was not the problem, but it indeed proved difficult to find “gasolina especial” our Peugeot was in the mood for. We inquired at several gas stations who all directed us to one gas station where it was sold. We filled the tank and were startled by the price we had to pay. We paid 1050 CUP and for this we filled 35 liters which amounted to 0.18 cents per liter. A full tank for 8 Euro, where else are we going to experience that?
We checked into “Casa Vivo” in Soroa and drove straight to the village of Las Terrazas, 12 kilometers away. The road went with many curves through a green hilly landscape and promised well for the nearly nine kilometers of hiking we had planned to do. The start of the hike was at Baños del San Juan. While hiking, we spotted several interesting birds including Cuba’s national bird with black back and red belly that listens to the name Tocororo.
We also passed a ruin of a Cafetal, or the remains of a coffee plantation and tried to imagine how things used to be here. It was extremely hot today and after more than an hour and a half of hiking we had not even completed three kilometers while the 400 meters of altitude were yet to come.
About halfway along the route, Romy, Dagi and Frank took the shortcut to Las Terrazas, while Eddy walked back to Baños del San Juan via the long route to retrieve the car. At the top of the 453-meter-high Loma de Taburete stood a colossus of a monument commemorating 40 years of revolution. Fortunately, Eddy was able to enjoy the view more than this typical socialist monument.
Finally, we were all reunited in Las Terrazas. Looking for a restaurant, we ended up at “Comida Criolla y Vegetariana” in Soroa. There was only one dish on offer and that was chicken. In the end, even the chicken was not enough for four people and we were also served “jutia” which later turned out to be Cuban hutia, a kind of tree rat. Bon appetit!
Booking a Casa Particulares generally includes breakfast. We now knew that the standard food in Cuba is rather monotonous because there are simply no other ingredients to buy. Breakfast is also rather modest and the same in almost every Casa. Usually the first thing served is a plate of papaya, pineapple and guava pieces followed by a basket of pieces of bread combined with some cubes of cheese and sausage. A glass of juice is also a standard part of a Cuban breakfast along with a cup of coffee or tea. In any case, the owners do everything they can to make the guest comfortable and always serve the “desayuno” with a smile and enthusiasm which pleased us very much.
After breakfast at Casa Vivo, we spent the morning in Soroa, first visiting the orchid garden. This botanical garden is the only one of its kind in Cuba. It was founded in 1943 by the Spaniard Dr. Camacho and is primarily dedicated to the cultivation of orchids. After his death in 1961, the garden was declared a National Heritage Site.
Then we climbed the 375-meter-high Mogote de Soroa. The wide path ascended slowly and we were distracted by the many birds that accompanied us on the way up. On the way the view was blocked by a thick row of trees so the surprise was only greater when we entered the summit after the last step. A 360 degree circular view opened beneath our feet and we could see why there were many turkey vultures hovering around here that apparently, like us, could not get enough of the view.
On our way to Playa Larga, we passed Havana again and headed for the south coast of the island. In total we had 260 kilometers ahead of us, via the highway that was a manageable distance. We were getting used to occasionally swerve because of a hole in the road, or a horse and carriage or a scooter in the opposite direction appeared.
Still, we were glad when in Playa Larga we parked the car at our next Casa on the beach and could wash off our sweat in the warm water of the Caribbean Sea. Of course, after dinner we also ordered a number of different cocktails at this idyllic spot under the palm trees overlooking the sea. It could hardly have been better.
The Zapata National Park is immediately adjacent to the village and even though swimming in the sea was a pleasant experience, the main reason for scheduling a stop in Playa Larga for us was to visit the largest swamp area in Cuba. It is home to more than 60 different species of birds. The park can only be visited with a guide. We have picked the lady up in Playa Larga before driving to the entrance. A 12-kilometer straight dirt road leads through the park. Along the way we were able to spot some colorful and interesting birds. At the end of the road was a lagoon on either side where many waterfowl live including flamingos, herons and pelicans. We also saw some kingfishers that were unfortunately a bit camera shy.
Playa Larga is located on the so-called Bay of Pigs. In 1961 at the Bay of Pigs invasion about 1300 Cuban exiles and CIA advisors landed with the goal of overthrowing the young government around Fidel Castro. They immediately came under heavy fire and after only 3 days they failed miserably. Before the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S. government initially denied any involvement in the invasion, but later President John F. Kennedy took full responsibility.
On our way to Cienfuegos we also decided to go into the water again. We are not exactly beach people, but an hour cooling off in the clear waters of the Caribbean was not a punishment.
Our Casa in the town of Cienfuegos was situated just outside the center, but still suitable for a walk into the town.
When the worst of the heat was over we walked along the Malecon in search of something to eat. Cienfuegos is built on the shores of a large bay connected to the sea by a narrow opening. Even Columbus wrote about the beauty of the bay in his travel stories and we fully agreed. Along the water we walked toward the old town where the colonial buildings soon came into view.
Even before we reached the central square, a local man pointed out a restaurant to us. No standard Cuban fare tonight, but a plate of spaghetti and a pizza for a change. Another lap around the Plaza Libertador José Martí with its beautiful opera house “Teatro Tomás Terry” and then back to our Casa. On the way back we had another cocktail by the water before heading to bed.
Because Cienfuegos is so beautifully situated by the sea, the next day we visited Fortaleza Castillo de Jagua, a fortress near the narrow connection to the open sea that was supposed to protect the bay and the city from enemies.
We crossed the bay with a small boat that served as a ferry for this purpose and after a short walk we had already arrived at the drawbridge and spent a little while inside the walls of the fortress.
We then drove to another beautiful Jardin Botanico that invited us to have lunch and walk around the garden. Many king palms in two neatly arranged rows accompanied us to the restaurant and entrance where plants and trees grow from all corners of our earth.
The flora in the park was certainly worth a visit and made an impression, but it was the fauna that startled us and that for us was the highlight of the day. A huge owl felt disturbed in its afternoon nap and betrayed itself by flying up from its hiding place in the crown of a palm tree to land on a branch 10 meters away. Unfortunately, the pleasure was only of short time, because soon the owl disappeared. Also we left the Botanical Garden, because Trinidad, one of the most beautiful cities in Cuba, was waiting for us.