The Road to the East is Blue
SOME 400 KM SPAN VARADERO FROM CAYO SANTA MARIA ON THE “UPPER SIDE” OF THE ISLAND. THIS IS A GUIDE ON HOW TO MAKE A CUBA-WIDE EXPEDITION BY DROPPING IN ON SOME OF ITS BEST BEACHES
The 38th edition of the International Tourism Fair, FITCuba 2018, will be dedicated to promoting the sun-and-beach offers, with the keys off the north coast of the Villa Clara province as the natural venue of choice. This is a magnificent opportunity to enthusiastically resume our expedition down the North Circuit road. It is indeed a unique road, although with different names, that allows visitors to travel Cuba along the north coast north, from the sunrise shore (Maisi) to the sundown coast (Cabo de San Antonio), or maybe just moving eastwardly.
The first season of the expedition covered, in two routes, the five western provinces. This time around, we describe routes –also in two parts- that give us access to numerous keys and islets of the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago, a travel destination known as Jardines del Rey. From west to east, the set of routes goes from Punta de Hicacos to Nuevitas, in Camagüey. This time up, we sally forth from the Varadero Beach to the northern keys off the province of Villa Clara, with a one-day layover in Santa Clara, the main city. On day one, we will travel to the Sagua la Grande tourist corridor; the day after will be completely dedicated to Santa Clara, the City of Che Guevara, while on the third day we will reach our final destination.
LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN With over half a hundred hotels and almost 30 km of beach, Varadero is the country's top sun-and-beach destination, so it deserves three days at the very least. We hit the road on day one at daybreak. We head for the tip of the Hicacos Peninsula to start barreling down Via Blanca –the name given locally to the North Circuit.
Heading southeast, we get to Cardenas, a city founded in 1828. The various names the town got in the 19th century whipped its unique peculiarities into shape: “America's Holland”, due to the drains of marshlands and landfills to build stores, industries and households; “American City” by the excellence of its urban layout. “Chicago of America” or “Barcelona of the West Indies” for its rapid economic development back in the days. However, the moniker the local population likes the most is “Flag City”. It was in that town that the national flag was hoisted for the first time on May 19, 1850, by Narciso Lopez, a general of Venezuelan descent.
As we drive past Cardenas, we head towards the border between the Matanzas and Villa Clara provinces, some 50 km further on. It is mainly a flat course, but we should pay heed to the road. It is not in its prime technical condition and we can chance upon tractors, horse-hauled buggies or other rural heavy equipment. From now on and for long stretches, the aftermath of mighty hurricane Irma –it pounded the island nation in September 2017 and is penciled in as the most powerful tropical storm ever endured in Cuba- on the North Circuit is visible.
Several towns of relative importance will pop up before arriving in the municipality of Marti, a region that stands out for having one of
the dozen most revealing archeological sites from the post-agricultural era: Cayo Jorajuría”.
The peopling of Cuba harkens back to over 6,000 years ago. The proto-agricultural stage, which lasted about 2,000 years, “is a transitional timespan between the former pre-pottery-farming era and the pottery-agricultural era that came later,” some studies indicate.
In the case of Cayo Jorajuría, radiocarbon dating provides readouts of 3870-40, that is, the year 1920 BC. One of the theories that seem to hold water says that the original population, given the development the region reached back then, perhaps had encounters with their neighboring islands, now known as the Bahamas.
Moving westbound, we will be leaving other sites behind. The most relevant section, however, is on the north side, aloof from the road even from the coast: the westernmost keys off the Sabana-Camaguey archipelago. One is Cruz del Padre. Close to Punta Hicacos, Varadero, it boasts a still-operational lighthouse built in 1862.
When passing the village of Hoyo Colorado, we leave Matanzas in our rearview mirror and we enter the province of Villa Clara, en route to Elguea. Before that, though, let's take a closer look at Motembo, south of the North Circuit road.
If what some people say is true, this is destined to be a promising place for the country's economic future. Australian company Melbana Energy has contracted a patch of land there (Block 9) in its quest for oil. According to the company, there could be over 630 million oil barrels that could be drilled only by the Alameda-1 rig. Exploratory drilling is slated to start in the first half of the ongoing year.
In 1881, Cuba's first oil well was unearthed in Motembo. A Chinese family made the finding while they were digging in search of water. The name of the town is of indigenous origin and it means “fire land”. Apparently, the original dwellers had already found out about the presence of oil there, even though they were unable to cotton on to its properties.
Conquistador Diego Velazquez wrote about the “fear of the aboriginals for the underground fire of the gods.”Today, the locals of Motembo still cook with natural gas by just piercing holes in the ground and setting up small devices.
The underground mineralization of the place empties into Elguea, a place near the sea, which is home to several thermal springs. It boasts chlorinated water rich in sodium, sulfur and bromine and radionics with sulfured medicinal muds.
Bone and joint conditions, nervous system problems and skin diseases can be successfully treated with this local mud. Women are by far the patients that make the most of its benefits.
Returning north after straying off the circuit to pay a visit to Elguea, Corralillo comes next, a town and a municipality that share the same name. Every so often, parishioners of this city and the neighboring rural settlements swing by the beaches El Salto, Ganuza, Sierra Morena and La Panchita, very intimate and beloved among the local population.
The next destination is the tourist corridor that runs through Sagua Grande, Nueva Isabela and Isabela de Sagua. The latter is a small fishing town blessed with breathtaking sunsets. This is no doubt the right place to stay overnight.
Crossed by the homonymous river, Sagua la Grande is Villa Clara's second-largest city. Officially founded in 1812, it acquired tremendous economic, financial and commercial acclaim when La Isabela became the main in-and-out seaport for the entire central region. Architecturally speaking, it qualifies as a city of neoclassical and eclectic spirit. Some of the highlights of the urban layout are the local railway station, the Catholic Church, the Palace of Arenas, the Gran Hotel, the Casino Español and La Casa Moré mansion.
At the end of the municipality, in the mouth of the river, lies Isabela de Sagua. It stands out for its cultural values and seascape, let alone its location off the north-west cays of Villa Clara, quite near Cristo and Esquivel keys.
LEAVING THE NORTH CIRCUIT BEHIND
On the second day of the trip, we stay away from the North Circuit for 24 hours to set sail towards the provincial capital, where we'll stay all day and night. On our way, we will meet Cifuentes, a crossroad of several municipalities of the territory, and gateway –from north to south- to Santa Clara, populated in the beginning by 18 families of Remedios who fled the attacks by corsairs and pirates. Right on the leveled area of the Church of Carmen, a dozen marble piles carry the names of those who founded the village.
As most of our large cities, the architecture of Santa Clara basically reiterates the neoclassic and art deco styles, with good cases in point in several religious buildings, including the cathedral and the iconic La Caridad Theater. Commander Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna is one of the city's most beloved symbols.
The cultural and historical stay in Santa Clara will be wrapped up in El Mejunje, an artistic and recreational center created in 1985 by the enthusiastic cultural promoter Ramón Silverio, out of the ruins of an old hotel on Marta Abreu Street. It got a good name for itself back in the 1990s. It has been one of the places that have contributed the most, in recent decades, to fostering tolerance and respect for everybody's identity. It offers a varied programming we'll surely enjoy in full swing at night.
MARCHING ON THE FINAL DESTINATION
On day three and en route to our final destination –Cayo Santa Mariawe return to the North Circuit. The route is on a tourist road of about 110 km, which is in very good technical conditions. The intermediate stopover will be in San Juan de los Remedios.
Staying on that course, just another picture-perfect town comes out, Caibarién, a fishing village per se. It was founded on October 26, 1832, when a bunch of Span-ish adventurers decided to camp there and set up a hamlet there. Caibarién is the gateway to the pedraplén that takes us to Cayo Santa Maria. With a length of 48 km, the road, propped over rocks thrown on the seabed, is considered the longest of its kind on the face of the planet.
Built in the 1990s, the road was built with special heed on the minimization of environmental impacts. It features 46 bridges with a total length of 2,298 meters. According to some studies, the bridges guaranteed 94 percent of natural water exchange on both sides of the road, thus keeping the salinity and the temperature intact.
It was the “Great Admiral of the Oceana Sea”, Christopher Columbus, who named the keys off the northern coast of the Cuban archipelago as Jardines del Rey (King's Gardens). Technically speaking, they are called Sabana-Camagüey. Dozens of islets, keys and cays over 465 km from the bay of Nuevitas to the Hicacos Peninsula can be found.
The part that we will now visit belongs to the northeast coast of Villa Clara. The Santa María, Ensenachos, Las Brujas, Francés, Cobo, Majá, Fragoso, Las Picúas and Español Adentro keys amount to nearly 50 square kilometers, and approximately some 14 km of beaches.
Tourism development has provided this area with major hotel infrastructure. In the course of FITCuba 2018 –the keys will be the natural venue of choice- the destination will have a second launch. Surprises are in store. We'll see them all as we live them out.
Sagua la Grande.
Cayo Santa María.