Thursday, December 27, 2018

Truckin' Up the Mountain - Topes de Collantes

December 27, 2018
Trinidad, Cuba

Tour Day 5 – Soviet Army Trucks, Nature Walks, Coffee, Cigars, and Dancing

The barkeep had our welcome-cocktail glasses ready and waiting to be filled upon our arrival!  Possibly my favorite Cuban tradition. ;-) 
An early start deserves a delicious breakfast, which is the opposite of what we got (don't go to the Hotel Las Cuevas for the food). 

Today's primary activity involved a bus ride up into the mountains north of Trinidad, to the Parque Natural Topes de Collantes in the Escambray Mountains. The itinerary seemed a bit unclear. We had heard we'd be driving up the mountain in the back of a Soviet troop transporter, but the morning started with an hour-and-a-half long, slow-going bus trip, and we started wondering if the truck thing wasn't going to happen for some reason or another.

Our first stop was at the park's welcome center, at a quite chilly 2,600 feet above sea level, where we picked up our guide for the day, Roberto (not Robert). Roberto was a soft spoken, but very sweet, continuously smiling guide that seemed to enjoy his job. And I feel I should point out that he looked quite dapper in his hat, which I coveted. He gave us a quick lay of the land while at the welcome center, and we hopped back on our bus (what about this Soviet truck?) and headed even further up the mountain.

This was coffee country, and our first stop was a cafe-slash-low-key-coffee-education-center where they served coffee made from locally procured beans. Good stuff, and much needed to re-invigorate ourselves after a long morning on winding mountain roads. While I was working at Nespresso in 2016, we got to be the first company to sell Cuban coffee in the U.S. in decades. This involved Nestle arranging to buy a whole lot of coffee from Cuba. I was curious to know if Roberto had heard anything about this, and what his thoughts might be. He was only vaguely aware, and didn't have much of an opinion. Or had an opinion that he'd prefer keeping to himself.

Finally, here at the cafe, it was time to climb into our Soviet transport vehicle instead of our bus. The covered truck bed had plastic waiting-room type chairs bolted down to the floor, and it appeared there were once make-shift seat belts installed that were no longer functional. It didn't take long until we understood why we were going to need a vehicle suitable for rough terrain, as we veered off the pavement and started climbing up a rough dirt road for about five miles. The lackluster suspension along with the fact that, as previously stated, we were riding in plastic waiting room chairs, made for a rather bumpy ride. The landscape was an interesting blend of jungle-meets-evergreen; quite pretty. Just don't hang out the side of the truck, as the road wasn't that well maintained and our truck drove right through tree branches that frequently came perilously close to thwacking us in the face.

Arriving at the mountaintop, we were greeted by yet another little bar/welcome center, in what was described as the ruins of a coffee plantation, where it was time for a quite strong welcome cocktail consisting of rum, ginger, honey, and lemon. It received mixed reactions amongst the group, though Caroline and I enjoyed it. Fortified, we went on a 30-minute or so nature walk, where Roberto talked to us about the various plants and what they're used for. The highlight was seeing all of the absolutely beautiful orchids attached to and seemingly growing out of tree trunks along the walk.

After a relaxing lunch back at the welcome center/bar/restaurant where we had the honey-ginger cocktail, we headed back down the long bumpy road back to our waiting bus. A final impromptu stop was made at a roadside fruit stand where a woman was also selling small bags of freshly roasted coffee beans. I of course had to buy a bag to bring home (update - it was delicious!).

Since we were apparently slightly ahead of Linette's army-trained rigid schedule, she decided we should swing by an old sugar plantation before heading back to Trinidad. I think the group (definitely the two of us) would have loved to have headed straight back, to allow time to wander through town or take a quick trip to the beach. But Linette decided for us. So, the two things to do at the plantation are to use an old human-powered mill to squeeze cane juice out of fresh sugar cane (Linette and I did that, since the rest of the group doesn't like to participate in anything), and climb the lookout tower where plantation managers used to keep an eye on the slaves. There were also vendors out selling textiles, but I doubt there's ever been a tour group so thoroughly uninterested in shopping - fine by us.

We still arrived back at the hotel with a bit of afternoon time to explore Trinidad, so we asked to be let off the bus downtown so we could wander a bit before dinnertime. The wandering was brief, as we found ourselves wandering right over to a popular pedestrian-only area near the town center where tables are set up on a terraced street. We decided to have a couple of drinks and take in the scene. In the evenings, they clear out many of the tables from this spot, a band sets up, and this street becomes a makeshift nightclub. We'd be coming back later.

After freshening up a bit at the hotel, we headed back down the hill to town for dinner. This was one of the two evenings during the tour when we were on our own for dinner, and I had researched restaurants to find just the right place to go. On the way there, we passed by a couple of furry goat legs randomly lying on the cobblestone street. Probably Santeria related, and wouldn't be the last goat legs we'd see. The restaurant ended up being fully booked, so after a bit of exploring, including running into and chatting briefly with Justin and his dad having their dinner, we found ourselves lucky enough to get a table at a rooftop paladar called Obbadala.  This reasonably atmospheric and snug dinner-spot served the most 'gourmet-style' menu we'd seen in Cuba. My red snapper in salsa verde was particularly good. Caroline's garlic shrimp was much less inspired. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our meal, sitting beneath the stars in front of a giant, inflatable snowman perched behind Caroline's head.

Trinidad seems to be a night-time sort of place, where music and dancing persists into the wee hours. By the time we returned to the terraced pedestrian street to check out the local dancing scene, things were just getting going. The street is actually roped off, and they charge an entry fee to foreigners (only about $2.00) and nominal fee for locals. By the time we found a spot on the cobblestone steps, ordered some drinks, and pulled out our cigar for ridiculous cigar-selfies, the music was just getting started. 

Not surprisingly the music was excellent, and the dancers absolutely amazing. Clearly many of these folks are here every night. We were adequately intimidated and contented ourselves watching the locals put on a show for us. Our favorite local dancer was a middle-aged guy that the singer kept calling 'primo', who needed no rest and found a new young lady to dance with for each song. It could be partly the nightclub atmosphere, but people in Trinidad definitely seem more laid back and happier than the residents of Havana.

We didn't last long at the Trinidad dance-fest, as it had been a long day, but we were glad to have joined the masses for music this evening. A definite highlight of the trip.



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