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

Excelencias Turísticas del caribe y las Américas - - Cuaderno De Viaje / Traveler's Notes -

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.

DAY 1

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.

DAY 2

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.

DAY 2

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.

Co­rra­li­llo.

Ca­yo San­ta María.

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