After a quick stop in Habana, which primarily consisted of getting up at 6:30am to join the visa renewal queue, we headed to the mega-resort of Varadero, just east of Habana. According to the Lonely Planet, 1 in 3 visitors to Cuba come here just to visit this place. Package tourists galore.
Many independent travellers are horrified at the thought of going to 'one of those places', that the LP describes as 'really not Cuba', but we decided that it was compulsory. We wanted to see what the majority of tourists to Cuba come to see. We wanted to see what drives the Cuban economy. We figured there must be something worthwhile there if everyone wanted to see it. And when else are we going to get to visit a Caribbean resort? So off we went to our all-inclusive hotel for a night.
The hotel was a bit of a dive and completely overpriced (even leaving aside the fact that the travel agency ripped us off), but it was literally on the beach and we had fun and did our best to eat and drink enough to get value. There was another Australian couple there who were taking the same approach. The beach is amazing - kilometres of white sand, clear, warm, aqua-blue water. It was lovely, spending a day just swimming, lying in the shade, having a drink, going for a swim... Great as it was for a day, how anyone does it for 2 weeks we cannot fathom.
We then went on to the Ché Guevara monument and mausoleum in Santa Clara. We went to have a look the evening we arrived. The mausoleum was closed but we checked out the monument and watched the groups of foreign girls worshipping Ché. We asked the guard when the mausoluem was open again. "8am tomorrow". Lucky we went the night before, as when we returned the next day, the whole area was shut off for some official do. This was one of many such incidents.
Next stop was Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage (cultural) site. It is a particularly well-preserved Spanish colonial city. The degree of preservation is amazing. There are few signs of the 20th century in the historic centre, and every corner presents another amazing streetscape. However, it was really rather boring - like a museum rather than a real place. There were no locals in the city centre, no cafes or restaurants in obvious places. We have met various people who say Trinidad is their favourite place (one girl on the basis that her feet did not get so dirty there, hmm), but it really did not grab us.
We did a trip into the Valle de los Ingenios (sugar farms-factories) on a steam train (wood-burning) that belched out an incredible amount of smoke. The valley was picturesque, but the sugar farms are no longer operating, so it seemed a little hollow. The train dumped us at an old sugar mansion that was interesting for about 2 minutes. The train was not coming back for more than an hour, so we walked along the tracks back to the previous stop, giving us an opportunity to inspect up-close the state of the railway bridges. Maybe not such a good idea.
After Trinidad we spent a couple of days in the towns of Camagüey and Holguín. These towns are much more real and less touristy than Trinidad, and we enjoyed just walking the streets.
Holguín's most notable feature was its particular version of bici-taxis. Bici-taxis are everywhere in Cuba. Usually it is a tricyle carriage-like arrangement, with the passengers sitting behind the rider in the carriage. In Holguín, the bici-taxis are a hybrid between a bike and a wheel-chair, so the passenger sits to one side of the bike in the wheel chair. Another passenger may sit, riding side-saddle, behind the driver. And it is possible for both passengers to be holding children. The whole arrangement is shaded by a beach umbrella affixed to the bike. Fasninating to watch, especially when 5 are loaded on one bike.
We then sampled another beach resort - Guardalavaca. This time we got ourselves a much better deal and had much better digs. We provided entertainment for the other guests, all of whom were on package tours. They found it bizarre that we were there for just one night. They did not want to see Cuba. They were happy with just staying in the resort. They were scared of seeing poverty.
After a dispute with the resort about our towels (which were stolen), a taxi break-down, hitching a lift with an empty tourist bus and another taxi ride, we ended up hailing the bus headed for Santiago de Cuba as it headed down the street (which is not how it is done) and stopping traffic going both directions as we transferred from the taxi to the bus. We do a good job of cutting it fine.