A bicycle on an iron support standing on a rock plinth – it was the simplest monument I’d ever seen. It was a real bike too, one that had been used, not pre-cast in metal or concrete. The monument sits in the Cuban city of Cardenas, where the most of the people rely on their bicycles due to the flat terrain.
Cardenas is very important in Cuba as it is known as the Flag City. On May 19th, 1850, the Cuban national flag fluttered here for the first time. Cardenas was also the site of the first statue built in honour of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. I was on my way to see another monument; one dedicated to ‘Che’ Guevara in the city of Santa Clara. I was taking a slightly circuitous route, as I also wanted to visit the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Heading away from Cardenas towards Cienfuegos the road passes through 300 square kilometres of lemons and oranges, interspersed with banana plantations. People were using scythes to keep the weeds down and concrete pylons carrying electricity were at the side of the road.
On the six-lane highway that followed, hitch-hikers waited under the bridges and in the central reservation to catch a ride. To entice the infrequent cars to stop, people waved money but the more attractive females just wore short skirts. Other people waved cheese, bread, and what looked like birthday cakes at the passing cars. I am not sure if they were selling the food or trying to entice hungry drivers to give them a lift, by tempting them with the bright red and blue icing.
As we neared Cienfuegos fields of sugar cane became more common. Good quality sugar cane can be harvested four times before the roots have to be pulled up and new plants established. Sugar cane is used in the production of rum, or Ron as it’s called in Cuba. Probably the best known rum is Havana Club, who produce around 30 million litres per year. The best rums are aged for at least 7 years with the finest being left for 25 years. These are then skillfully blended with younger rum to produce an improved taste and colour. Caney is the finest rum on the island and they use the sugar mills that were vacated by Bacardi when they left Cuba after the revolution. As a general rule, independent farmers are allowed a maximum of 2 hectares for cultivation. They can sell 70% of their produce to the government at government prices, and then are allowed to sell the remainder at farmer’s markets, with 50% of the sale going to the government in tax.
The area around what is now the city of Cienfuegos was originally called Cacicazgo de Jagua by the indigenous peoples. In 1819, the city became the only one in Cuba to be founded by French immigrants, who arrived from Bordeaux and Louisiana. The city’s original name was Fernardina de Jagua , in honour of the king of Spain, Ferdinand VII but after 10 years it was renamed Cienfuegos as a show of thanks to the Spanish Governor who had originally given the French permission to settle in Cuba.
In 2005, Cienfuegos’ was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List because it was the first place in Latin America to be created using urban planning techniques. There are some beautiful buildings around the Parque Marti, named after Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti. These structures include the domed Palacio del Ayuntamiento, the home of the provincial assembly, and the Palacio Ferrer, distinguished by its cupola with blue mosaic decoration. The city is also home to a thermal power station and could have been the site of Cuba’s first nuclear power station if the Cubans hadn’t closed the project after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. There must be a law in Cienfuegos that states you can’t paint your house in the same colour as your next door neighbour. Sage greens, light blues, faded yellows and understated oranges all make for a photographer’s delight. Cienfuegos is also famed throughout Cuba for its musical traditions and is the birthplace of cha-cha-cha.
On the way to Trinidad crabs were scuttling across the road to return to the Caribbean beaches, which were visible between the swaying palm trees. Here the hitch-hiking appeared more organized, with people waiting for a ride in specially designated areas. An official with a clipboard and faded yellow uniform was waving at every passing car to get it to stop. People give their name and destination to the official who writes the information down on his board. Every car that stops was taking someone somewhere. It’s a sign of the life in Cuba that no-one seemed to be in too much of a hurry, whereas my fellow passenger’s reactions were ‘how would you ever get anywhere on time?’
We passed shrimp farms by the coast and then some old sugar mills in the Valley de los Ingenios on the outskirts of Trinidad. Trinidad was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988 because of its outstanding collection of buildings, mainly those on the Plaza Mayor. However, UNESCO also recognized that these buildings were only built because of the economic prosperity of the town, which was based almost entirely on its sugar mills. So UNESCO decided that the Valley de los Ingenios, including the sugar mills of Manacas-Iznaga, San Isidro, and Palmarito, called Trinidad’s industrial infrastructure by UNESCO, should be awarded the same status as the major monuments in the city. The futures of both the cultivated land and the coffee plantations were also safeguarded.
Trinidad was not only a major centre for sugar production it also thrived on the slave trade from the 1600s to the 1800s. The Plaza Mayor, the main tourist attraction in Trinidad, used to be the site of a slave market. The streets here are made from river rock and the picturesque houses date from the 1850s, when Trinidad spent a period of isolation away from the world. Doorways, verandahs, balconies, and window grilles are painted in a contrasting colour to the house fronts (Green walls with a light-blue doorway was my particular favourite.) There seems to be another unwritten law here stating that tourists can be pestered, on the streets leading to the square, to buy cigars, necklaces, and bracelets, but once those tourists are on the Plaza Mayor they must be left alone.
For the photographers I would recommend the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial as the blue colour of the walls of this museum dedicated to Trinidadian architecture and its white wrought-iron work are a match made in heaven. After a stroll around this warm and illustrious square, the Casa de infusiones called Canchanchara is a good place to have a relaxing mojito or better still the eponymous Canchanchara cocktail made from rum, lime, water, and honey.
The final stop was Santa Clara. This was the site of a famous battle during the revolution when Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and 300 fellow soldiers succeeded in defeating a superior number of Batista’s soldiers on December 28th, 1958. The next day, just for good measure, Che and his men derailed an armoured train containing weaponry and more soldiers heading for Eastern Cuba. This was the pivotal battle in the revolution and was deemed to be important enough to be the final resting place of the legendary guerilla leader, or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view. His image is seen more often than Fidel Castro’s. Postcards of Che smoking a cigar, playing golf, fishing, smiling, working out how to use a camera, appearing on TV, and even reading in a tree in the Congo can be found in most shops. ‘Che’ is an Argentinian term, which is added to the end of statements and means "mate" or "buddy" – it is derived from the Mapuche for "person".
The museum to “Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara” is understated. Pictures and personal effects has been put together, which make you appreciate that this was a real person, who lived, ate, and breathed like you and I. He isn’t treated like a revolutionary, freedom-fighter, or guerilla-leader, just as a human being. Guevara was a handsome child, indeed recognizable as Che when 5 years old, who qualified as a doctor and carried around books in his backpack when fighting for justice, including a Larrousse encyclopedia. Imagine being so famous with your associates that the bowl you last ate out of before you died has been kept and identified for posterity. Other items in the museum include pipes, armaments, and his mate tea holder.
In the tomb of Che and his 38 comrades, the ceiling is undulating to simulate a cave; our guide explained that “only real revolutionaries would be found in a cave.” Marble and 10 woods native to Cuba were used in the construction. Guevara’s bones, minus his hands, were returned to Cuba in 1997 and lie alongside those of the fighters who died by his side in Bolivia in 1967, including those of a German woman known only by her guerilla nickname of Tania. A large statue of Che, made from 20 tons of bronze, is the focal point of the outside of the monument. Surrounded by Cuban flags, Che is looking towards South America, a symbolic reference that the rest of this continent should be inspired by his role in the Cuban revolution.