I cannot take credit for calling our one-night stay in Varadero a one-night stand. That credit goes to Yuni, our guide for the people-to-people exchange we enjoyed in Cuba last year. She was open, informative and warm and she always kept us smiling.
We began our Cuban adventure in Camagüey, smack in the middle of the island. Remedios was our second stop and, in spite of its location less than 6 miles from the north coast of Cuba, we didn’t dip our toes in the ocean until the next leg of our exchange, which took us to Matanzas and Varadero.
For the first two hours of our drive to Matanzas much of the scenery looked familiar. The palm trees, pastureland and tobacco fields continued along the two-lane roads until we reached the A1, a six-lane divided highway. Even then the views were familiar until well after our comfort stop (also not my term) at Ranchon La Aguada near Aguada de Pasajeros. This roadside stop includes a restaurant, restrooms, souveniers and a convenience store.
Finding Cuban Wine
Our stop at Ranchon La Aguada will always be memorable for us – not just because of the beautiful, open, palm-covered building (the ranchon) and immaculately-kept restaurant, but because for the only time during our time in Cuba we found Cuban wine for sale. We asked at every hotel and restaurant where we dined, but no Cuban wine.
We found Campo Alegre Sangria and Campo Alegre Vino Tinto de mesa and decided red table wine was a safer bet than sangria. We purchased the Vino Tinto in a 500 ml box (it was only available in a box – 500 ml or 1L) for 7.50 Cuban Pesos. Here is what we know about it from the box:
“Campo Alegre wine comes from a selected mixture of grapes which offers a red table wine of nice taste. It is recommended to accompany daily meals turning them into special moments to be shared with the family. It is recommended to consume fresh at temperatures between 16 and 18ºC. 12.5% Vol. Alc. Contains sulfite. Product of Cuba.”
We didn’t have high hopes for this non-vintage wine but we can both say with enthusiasm that it exceeded expectations in every way. It had nice aromas and flavors of red and dark fruit, a medium body and smooth tannins. It wasn’t the sweetish, grapey wine I was expecting. It would successfully pair with chicken, pork or pasta. Score one for the roadside stop!
In several places along the A1 Highway we noticed large, rusting, spiky hunks of metal along the road. When I asked Yuni about them she told me they are for defense against air invasion. Should the island be attacked from the air these large metal remnants of sugarcane machinery would be thrown out on the highway so it could not be used as a landing strip. A low-tech defense that sounds like it might be effective.
About 20 minutes down the road from our stop at Ranchon La Aguada near Aguada de Pasajeros the farmland began to change. By this time we had left the highway and were a on two-lane road again. Small, family farms still dotted the countryside, but very large banana, sugar cane and citrus orchards elbowed them out of the way for long stretches.
Some of these large farming operations were identified as UBPCs (Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa) or collective farms; others weren’t identified as such, but nonetheless were large operations with legions of tractors and other farm equipment. This farming was very different than the family farms we had seen previously.
The small towns we passed through looked much the same as they did throughout Cuba. Many more houses were brightly painted, but the mix of bicycles, bicycle-taxi, horse-drawn taxi and buses looked familiar.
The smell of the ocean, and petroleum from oil refining, greeted us in the city of Matanzas. The city is known for its poets, musicians and Afro-Cuban culture. Our visit did not do the city justice, but we managed a peek into the rituals of Santería and we visited the oldest baseball park in North America located in Matanzas. Once again the contrasts in Cuba were so interesting.
The port in Matanzas was a major entry point for salves brought from Africa to work in the area’s sugar cane fields. African slaves, and those Africans that remained in the area after slavery was abolished in 1886, contributed greatly to the music and culture of the area and Cuba.
Santería is a fusion of West African religious practices and Catholicism, which had been imposed by the colonial Spanish. Slaves brought from Africa were prohibited from practicing their own religion so they incorporated their practices into the Catholic religion to disguise them. Santería is the result.
We met Ana, a Santera (Santería priestess), who described a few general points about the religion. To become a priest or priestess the individual must complete a year-long period during which they dress in white and then complete 7 days of religious ceremonies. The history of Santería and its practices are not documented in books, but are passed along to believers orally. Santería followers worship both West African and Catholic saints. Distressingly, practices do involve animal sacrifice. Worship takes place in the home, rather than in churches, where an altar is kept.
Batter up! We had the pleasure of meeting Rigoberto Rosique, a Cuban National Baseball star who played in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Rosique was part of a trio of talented hitters called Los Tres Mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers) and is a member of the Cuban Hall of Fame. He led us on a tour of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame located at the Estadio Palmar de Junco the oldest baseball park in North America. The park was built in 1874.
After the tour we spent time watching a few innings of baseball. The crowd was enthusiastic and the young ball players took the game very seriously. The ballpark is home to a baseball school for youngsters under 18, who must attend school regularly to participate in baseball school, and for adults under 23. The baseball school has placed many ball players in the Cuban league.
One Night in Varadero
Talk about contrast. Varadero is a beach resort town located on the Hicacos Peninsula 30 miles along the ocean from Matanzas. The 12-mile long strip of land juts out into the Atlantic and is dotted with all-inclusive resorts and golf courses unlike anything we had seen in our travels through Cuba so far.
Our room at the Malia Las Americas was palatial, the views of the beach were striking and the all-you-can-eat dinner and breakfast buffets were truly overwhelming. The ocean was a beautiful turquoise color and the clouds provided a gorgeous contrast. We had time to walk the beach, listen to the sound of the ocean from under a palm umbrella and shop (no Cuban wine here!)
This was an enjoyable stop, but one night was plenty for us. We’re not beach people. The beach was filled with tourists enjoying the sand and surf and I wondered how many spent an entire week relaxing like this without further exploring Cuba. I talked to one German man who was there with his family for a week enjoying the warm weather and water. They planned to spend the entire week at the resort. Of course if you are free to travel to Cuba as a tourist taking this kind of vacation in Cuba makes perfect sense.
Next stop, Havana.