It was a hot, long day. I was on the bus early to make the trek into Hólguin. Taking the easy option, I joined one of the organized day tours from the resort. The drive into the city took about 90 minutes. It was a great opportunity to see the countryside in daylight.
I had noticed on the drive in from the airport that motorized traffic travelled slowly. I had assumed that it was because there are no street lights. It turns out the condition of the roads probably had more to do with that. The pavement was riddled with potholes of varying sizes and it was a delicate process for the bus to weave around them. All while passing horses, horse-drawn carriages, scooters and pedestrians along the way.
Our first stop of the day was a cigar factory on the outskirts of town. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve always appreciated the smell of good tobacco. To me, a nice pipe or cigar is gorgeous. On our drive in, the guide had told us some of the history of cigar making in Cuba. In particular he told us how some of the names of cigars came about (like Romeo y Juliet and Monte Cristo, for example). The story is that back in the day, to entertain the workers, people would come in a read classic plays or novels. The names of the cigars were chosen from the favourite stories of the workers. True or not, it certainly adds to the romantic allure of Cuba and her cigars.
Inside the factory we were greeted by incredibly striking and detailed wall murals of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution. Rows of benches were set up with people rolling individual cigars by hand. It was quite fascinating to watch the process unfold. The skill and precision of the workers was definitely impressive.
From the cigar factory, we made our way into the city proper. Hólguin, the third largest city in the country after Havana and Santiago de Cuba, is known as the city of parks. With no real tourist attractions to speak of, the allure of this place is the architecture and the history. Founded in the 16th century, the Spanish influence is pronounced. We were dropped off at Parque las Floras and taken on a brief walking tour to Parque Calixto Garcia, generally regarded as the hub of the city.
Given a couple of hours to explore on our own, most of the group headed straight for the bar across the street. The rest of us scattered, taking off to explore the city on our own. Away from the cool breeze on the coast, the heat in Hólguin was almost overwhelming. The air was sticky and humid, the sun baking off the cobbled streets and stone buildings. On top of the typical city noises of car horns and general bustle, there was a constant drone of “Maniy, maniy, maniy!” from wandering street vendors selling packets of roast peanuts.
Everything I’ve seen so far in Cuba makes me feel nostalgic for what it would have been before the revolution. The infrastructure and architecture of the country is slowly crumbling, but the character is still there. It’s still possible to see the opulence and grandeur that it once had.
As I walked I was approached by several people wanting to change Canadian bills into CUC. People were also trying to sell Cuban Pesos as well. The country is slowly moving away from the two-currency system with the CUC becoming the universal choice. As the Cuban Peso becomes worthless, the locals are doing what they can to convert them before they lose all value. A common offer is to do a straight trade on a 1 Peso note or coin for a 1 CUC coin. A lot of tourists view this as a scam, and I guess it is since 1 CUC is actually worth about 25 Pesos. I viewed it more as a charitable donation though. It was also a nice souvenir, since the 1 Peso notes and coins feature Che Guevara on them, and the Argentinian guerilla fighter is an iconic face of Cuba.
Towards the end of my free time in Hólguin, I was joined by a young man named Marco. In his mid-twenties, he was enjoying a stroll on his lunch break from work at the government telecom offices. Friendly and eager to practice his English, Marco proved to be a wonderful guide, showing me several popular local hangouts as we wandered the streets. He was also incredibly patient with my poor attempts at practicing Spanish.
Meeting up with my group again back at Calixto Garcia, I was happy to return to the air-conditioned comfort of the bus. After a few days to acclimatize, the heat wouldn’t really bother me, but coming from the deep freeze of a Canadian winter, I’m finding it oppressive. Back on the road, we made our way to Loma de la Cruz, Hill of the Cross. Normally it’s a fairly direct drive to the top, but the main road is undergoing major construction, so we were forced to detour through the back roads. It was a bumpy ride, but worth it. It was a great chance to see how the average person lives in Hólguin, if only in passing.
The hill itself offers some excellent views of the city. There was a group of musicians busking at the top and a table of crafts for sale nearby. The first cross was erected in the 1500s by a Franciscan friar. For the more energetic, it’s possible to climb to the top via 458 steps. Most tourists arrive by road in a taxi or organized tour though.
Lunch was next on the agenda. Heading for the neighbouring hill of Mayabe, we were treated to an excellent meal of chicken, rice and beans. Covered with a traditional thatched roof, there were no walls, offering us wonderful views while we ate. The elevation also rewarded us with a lovely cool breeze to take the edge of the heat.
Our final stop for the afternoon was the Provincial History Museum (Museo Provincial de Historia). The museum itself really doesn’t have much to offer. The main attraction here is a presentation of traditional AfroCuban dancing and music. It was a high energy performance with great music. It was a wonderful way to finish the day.