A public square in Camaguey. These plazas are popular gathering places, where Cubans can catch up on local gossip — and take advantage of Wi-Fi. (Photo: Bonnie Munday)
Of the two days we spent exploring Camaguey’s art galleries and speaking to the artists — not to mention enjoying some really great meals complete with live Cuban music accompaniment — a standout moment was taking in a rehearsal of the renowned Camaguey Ballet, which is marking its 50th year. World-class ballet in a small city in central Cuba — who knew?
Before coming to Cuba I’d wondered if I would feel vulnerable as a tourist walking around in the streets of various towns, especially after dark. Well, never once did I, or any other person in our group, feel unsafe or threatened. We easily and comfortably got around on foot and by “bicitaxi” (bicycle rickshaw).
Our next stop was Santiago de Cuba, at the southeastern tip of the country. Ringed by the majestic Sierra Maestra mountain range, the city is home to the bullet-pocked Moncada Barracks (now a museum) that Fidel Castro and his band of rebels, including brother Raúl, stormed in 1953. They failed, were jailed, and then traveled to Mexico, where they met Che Guevara, with whom they returned to Cuba to eventually overthrow the dictatorship led by Fulgencio Batista. Santiago celebrates all things Revolución and is home to the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, the final resting place of many national heroes including Jose Marti (whose poetry was used in the song “Guantanamera” — which you may have heard once or twice) and Fidel Castro, who died in 2016. We visited the cemetery and saw the simple boulder that holds Castro’s ashes; he wanted no statues in his honour.
Cuban cuisine has a reputation for being bland, but while it’s true that the local dishes are not spicy-hot like some other cuisines in the Caribbean and in Mexico, I didn’t mind because the food is so fresh, and the flavours like onions, garlic and herbs weren’t overwhelmed by too much heat. And there were fresh vegetables and fruits at almost every meal. One of my favourite dishes was Ropa Vieja, or stewed shredded beef.