There was one thing that really annoyed us about long haul bus trips across our travels: they always stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, so you were forced to eat the expensive restaurant food or go hungry. There wasn't even the choice of 7-Eleven or a street stall. The locals loved this - I think this was part of the reason they travelled on buses. We hated it. Going from Viñales to Trinidad, we stopped at a buffet restaurant with a dozen other coaches. Everyone was excited. Everyone, that is, except us and the one other tourist couple. We sat in the lounge and waited, munching on some sandwiches we had cleverly pre-purchased yesterday. We can beat the system.
The landscape was not in the least bit interesting, just green and flat. It didn't feel like we were on an island at all. The nine hours it took to reach Trinidad was excruciatingly long and we were glad to be getting off the bus.
Until we got off the bus. Within moments we were surrounded by loads of shouting women, all vying for our attention so that we would choose their house to stay for the night. We stood and listened for a while, not really making out what they were saying, but I caught wind of a lady offering a cheap room nearby so we picked her. It must be exhausting having to do that every time a bus pulled in. The house ended up being lovely, with only two rooms and the other was unoccupied. There was air-con, a terrace to sit on, it was close to town - we chose well.
Trinidad was charming. Cobbled streets, single-storey multi-coloured buildings, tons of restaurants and shops - it was definitely catering for tourists. It reminded us a lot of San Cristobal in Mexico, or Antigua in Guatemala, or half a dozen other towns that looked similar and were overrun with foreigners. Our first act was to speak to a couple of tour operators about sights in the area, but most cost more than we were willing to pay and included attractions we didn't want to see. We would have to find a different (i.e. cheaper) way to see the sights.
For dinner we hit one of the cool, modern-looking cafes. Small, wooden interior with wine racks along the wall - we couldn't say no to wine racks. Their sangria was fantastic; their pizza, not so much. One of the thickest bases I had ever seen, topped with tomato, cucumber, pigeon peas (a popular legume here) and cheese. Seriously people, Google is there for a reason. I think I will stick to pizza from Italian restaurants from now on.
After dinner we picked up a bottle of red wine and drank it on the terrace of our house, watching a lightning storm in the distance. It had rained lightly on and off all afternoon, and a welcome cool breeze swept through the town. We were praying that the storm passed through tonight and wouldn't affect our plans for the next day.
Storm coming across.
Our free breakfast in the morning was a huge spread. We absolutely chose the best place to stay. We ended up secretly stashing half of it in our bags to have at lunchtime, which I was sure the owner cottoned on to but thankfully didn't embarrass us by saying anything.
Instead of joining an overpriced tour, we decided to hire a scooter. We found a rental shop at an affordable price and told the manager about our intention to visit the national park. He immediately shot that down. Apparently the roads were extremely steep and these scooters weren't powerful enough to go up those sorts of inclines. There went our plans for the day. We hired the scooter anyway, keen to explore the countryside around Trinidad.
First stop was a nearby nature trail, five kilometres down a bumpy road that probably wasn't good for the scooter. The two kilometre walk through the forest was pleasant but not outstanding. It followed a creek to a waterfall, which was somewhat more impressive. The falls were tiny, but they dropped into a large rock pool with incredibly blue water. It was cold but swimmable, so we jumped in with a couple of local guys. Behind the walls was a cave that we could swim into, which was amazing. Not in a typical stalactite/stalagmite sort of way, but in a being-under-a-giant-rock-looking-out-at-a-waterfall-curtain sort of way On the walk back we passed a huge cliff face covered with honeycomb. After my bee attack in Nicaragua I didn't want to be anywhere near the buzzing beasts, so it was a quick powerwalk for me to safer ground.
Next was a drive to the Valle de la Ingenios, also known as Sugar Mill Valley. A mirador provided never-ending views across the green, fertile landscape, devoid of any visible sugar mills (the industry was all but shut down after slavery was abolished and the drop in economy after the Wars of Independence). The most notable town in the area, Manaca Iznaga, acts as a living museum. It looked like it hadn't changed in a hundred years (it was living up to its job title). A few uninspiring structures still remained from the sugar-processing days, and there was a slightly more inspiring lookout over the valley. The paths were lined with vendors selling white or beige clothing, hats and embroidered tablecloths. Danny couldn't resist and bought himself a shirt and hat, in some attempt to be more "Cuban". He stopped himself at the tablecloths.
As we were riding back to Trinidad the accelerator of the scooter became stuck, meaning Danny could only control our speed with the brake. He pulled over to have a look and discovered a loose cable, but didn't have the tools to fix it. We passed by a garage and asked if they had any screws we could use. The mechanic tried to be helpful but he didn't have the right sized screw and had no other solutions. We had no choice but to try to carefully ride the remaining eight kilometres or so back to town using solely the brake.
We made it to Trinidad okay, but as soon as we hit the centre of town the cobblestones commenced. As we tried to turn a corner (at a low speed), the wheel slipped and the whole scooter tipped over, with us on board. We scrambled to pick ourselves up and have a look at the damage. I didn't have a single scratch on me, but my right leg had trapped itself underneath the scooter when it fell. My ankle, knee and hip were all twisted at a sharp angle, leaving me hobbling for several days. Danny's joints were fine but he came away with a huge gash underneath his knee that did not stop bleeding for the next 24 hours. Fortunately it was fairly low impact and no other vehicles were around, although the humiliation factor was running fairly high.
We pushed the scooter back to the rental shop to find no one was there. We parked it outside and went to eat lunch, worried about how we would explain the situation to the manager. We had paid a large deposit and we were anxious we wouldn't see it again. An hour later we returned and told him the story. The only damage to the scooter was the end of the brake handle being snapped off (about one inch long) and some lost oil. Functionally it was fine, except for that loose cable preventing the accelerator from working properly. We were so very, very thankful that he was understanding and returned all of our money.
The walk of shame.
Our next priority was sorting out Danny's leg. All we wanted were some bandages, but the pharmacies here didn't seem to sell them (not to tourists anyway). We were continually advised to visit the International Clinic, a little way out of town. We ended up taking their advice and making the walk out to the doctor, who cleaned up the wound and dressed it neatly, with some extra supplies for tomorrow. It shouldn't be that hard to find bandages.
The rest of the day was spent limping around town, checking out the fantastic art shops that lined nearly every street, sipping happy hour cocktails, eating plantain chips and finally eating dinner about 9pm (just as it was getting dark). Afterwards we wandered over to the main plaza, where live salsa commenced at 10pm at an open-air cafe. Hundreds of people were in the audience, locals and gringos alike. Slowly people started standing up to dance, although there wasn't a whole lot of room on the makeshift dance floor. I knew nothing about salsa dancing and I wasn't about to start learning tonight, instead happy to stand at the back and watch from afar. We stayed for a while, impressed by the band more than the dancing, before making our way to bed fairly early (by Cuban standards).
On our final day we organised a taxi to take us out to Topes de Collantes, a nature reserve park about half an hour away. Danny chose the taxi based exclusively on car model: a Lada. Danny owned a Lada back in Australia, and gawked every time he saw one (which was all the time, as they were everywhere). I don't think he picked wisely. Going up the steep hills towards the park entrance, smoke suddenly started pouring into the car from the engine. We quickly pulled over so the driver could tip water over the bonnet, in an attempt to cool it down. It was only a short delay before we could nervously continue on our way.
We started our hike of the Salto del Caburni track by walking 500 metres down a steep road, then 3.5 kilometres down an equally steep dirt track, with natural rock steps helping to prevent us from sliding the entire way down. Every step forward was a reminder that we would have to take as many steps up to reach the top again. Luckily the scenery was captivating and the temperatures were bearable, distracting us from this inevitability.
At the bottom was a natural swimming hole with a small waterfall flowing into it. The water was perfect for cooling off, but it would have made more sense to do this at the top of the climb (if only nature worked in reverse sometimes). After a quick dip we continued to walk along the path to the main falls, a long stream of water running down the rocky cliff face. It was the end of the dry season and the water level was low, which meant we could climb over the dry river bed to the base the falls. It also meant that the waterfall wasn't nearly as impressive as it would be later in the year. We took the mandatory photos then started the long, arduous climb back to the top.
In the heat of the afternoon we thought it would be a good chance to check out the beaches, so we caught a bus to Playa Ancon. The beach was stunning: white powdery sand, warm turquoise water, and not a single tout. Palm tree umbrellas ran up and down the coast, providing much needed relief from the blazing sun. It was another beach that was picture perfect - the Caribbean was living up to its reputation.