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The Soroa Hotel in Pinar del Rio was typical of our accommodation throughout Cuba. Walkways led from a central dining building overlooking a swimming pool and patio to small individual cabanas scattered among carefully manicured gardens and lawns. The cabanas were clean, spacious and fully equipped. Meals in the dining room were comparable to those in any good North American restaurant, and they were always accompanied by a group of talented Cuban musicians.
West of Havana the lush farmland of Vinales and Ancon Valleys is among the most fertile and productive in Cuba. The landscape is typical karst topography where steep-sided limestone hills, separated by sinkholes and broad flat-bottomed valleys, were formed by aeons of solution weathering. The hills are riddled with caves - irresistible places to explore. We made a habit of carrying flashlights and on one of our long hikes stooped through a narrow passageway for half a kilometre before emerging into a sinkhole completely surrounded by high limestone cliffs. A single farmhouse in the centre was surrounded by fields of corn and vegetables, a small thriving farm connected to the outside world by a long narrow tunnel.
Later that day we visited the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave in Cuba which, with 45 km of galleries, chambers and passages, is the third largest cave complex in the world. We were issued hard-hats with miner's lamps and accompanied by a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide who led us through spectacular stalactite-hung passageways to an underground pool deep inside the third level.
Before leaving western Cuba and heading to Playa Larga on the south coast we stopped for a swim in the warm surf of Cayo beach and had lunch accompanied by live entertainment in an elegant open-air café overlooking the deserted beach. At Playa Larga we transferred to small vans and drove out a narrow causeway to Las Salinas Fauna Refuge where hundreds of flamingos, their bright pink bodies balanced on dowel-like legs with backward-bending knees, waded daintily through the shallow, mangrove-choked water. In 1998 the full fury of Hurricane George struck this part of the Cuban coast snapping the heads of palm trees and damaging over a thousand houses, many of which are still missing their roofs.
From the low mangrove-choked coast of Playa Larga the drive to Trinidad took us to the foot of the Macizode Guamuhaya Mountains. The port of Trinidad, settled by the Spanish in the 19th century, was for many years the centre of gold and silver trade. Its streets, paved with cobbles that arrived as ballast on sailing ships, are lined with beautifully preserved colonial buildings, their high barred windows and heavy steel-reenforced doors a reminder that Trinidad was the frequent target of marauding pirates during the neo-colonial period.
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May 24, 2013, 2:00 PM
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