| 8 min read
Our first experience with local 'camiones'
With a shorter distance ahead between Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus, we thought we’d give the Cuban local transport a try. Camiones are basically trucks redesigned for human transport. They’re not really built for comfortable travel, but they’re extremely cheap. As we were the second and third in line at the ticket office, we were able to get a seat on one of the two long benches in between which all the other passengers had to stand while holding on a to an overhead metal bar. The camion wasn’t full when we departed, but as we drove on, more people hopped on at every stop. Every time I though no one could fit in anymore, a bunch of people managed to squeeze in. Despite being seated, we counted down the minutes until our arrival in Sancti Spiritus. As the camion drove over uneven roads, the metal bus frame poked into our backs with every bump.
Exploring Sancti Spiritus
Since we hadn’t booked accommodation beforehand, we looked around upon arrival and picked a guesthouse close to Parque Serafín Sánchez called ‘La Perla de la Ciudad’. In hindsight we regretted not having been more picky. Although it was very cheap and the owners were friendly, it wasn’t cozy at all, and later on we spotted several guesthouses that looked much nicer than ours.
In the afternoon we explored the highlights of Sancti Spiritus, one of which is the Yayabo bridge. Built in 1815 by the Spaniards, it is the only stone bridge that still remains from colonial times. Although we weren’t that impressed by the small bridge covered in an ugly yellow paint, the inhabitants love it so much that the bridge figures as an emblem on the shirts of Sancti Spiritus’ baseball team. We walked the short stretch along the river and observed three Cuban boys who were entertaining themselves by dancing on rap music.
For us, the most charming area of Sancti Spiritus is centered around the pedestrian street Padre Quintero. This lovely cobblestone street is lined with colorful colonial houses. Whereas in other cities this place would be packed with tourists and tour groups, it was really quiet here, which allowed us to have a glimpse at local Cuban life. A few kids were playing baseball on the streets, a bunch of teenagers were playing domino around a small table and elderly people sat on their doorsteps watching the world go by.
We walked on towards the pedestrian street Calle Independencia, the main artery of the city that leads to Parque Serafin Sánchez. It houses several shops and a few statues representing bells as witnesses of time.
Hidden in a side street sits a small local market with meat, fruit and vegetables. This was the first one of its kind we came across in Cuba. The meat didn’t look very appealing, but compared to other countries, it wasn’t appaling either. It was kept in the shade and it didn’t have too many flies crawling over it. Nevertheless we limited ourselves to buying just one pineapple.
Back at our starting point, we had closed the loop. In not even an afternoon we had covered all the must-see sights of Sancti Spiritus. It is a beautiful place (more so than Santa Clara in our opinion), but there isn’t really much to do. Nevertheless we stayed two days in Sancti Spiritus. On the second day we arranged our visa extension for Cuba.
Eating and drinking in Sancti Spiritus
We tried the local lunch place La Ceibita. As usually, they had run out of all the food we wanted most. I wonder why they bother handing us menus when they only have about three available options. So grilled chicken it was – again. Lunch for two people including two beers cost 8 CUC in total.
On both sides of the Yayabo bridge sits a good restaurant. One is the El Parón, which has mojitos for 1,50 CUC and offers a view of the city with its blue church tower.
The other one is Taberna Yayabo, which has an amazing terrace along the river and a decent (slightly more expensive) cocktail selection. Usually they also have the local cocktail Cunyaya, but when I asked, they had unfortunately run out of cane sugar. Please let me know what it’s like if you get the opportunity to try.
On the first night, we went to Gran Café Boulevard which seemed to be popular amongst Cubans. Strangely enough we couldn’t enter, as the doors were locked. Luckily, the waitress let us in as soon as she noticed us, and pointed us to a seat next to two Cuban ladies. The women were so bored with waiting for food that they killed time by immediately opening conversation with us. It did take a long time indeed to serve a simple pizza. In the end, the food was tasty and very cheap (6 CUP), but the portion wasn’t very big. We could’ve had a second pizza, but felt so discouraged by the prospect of waiting again, that we soon forgot that idea.
Once outside though, we headed straight to the street vendor which made piña coladas for 5CUP on the corner of the main square. The liquid dessert instantly improved my dining experience.
Next the Gran Café Boulevard sits the 'Chinese restaurant' Shangai. Thrilled by the prospect of having something different for once, we headed there on our second night. Although we got there 7PM, their announced opening time, the restaurant remained closed until 7:30 PM. The waitress let in the bunch of people that had gathered in the lobby, which was enough to fill about six tables. Once everyone had entered, she locked the door again and the two available menus were passed around. When one table had ordered, the next table received the menu. Although we got there first, we were the last ones to get to order. All that waiting for a simple menu was driving me crazy. In the end, our meals didn’t even come close to the Chinese food we’re used to. We got pan-fried, burnt Spring rolls stuffed with some kind of minced meat and the chop suey basically turned out to be rice with chicken AND CUCUMBERS. Well, that’s exotic. The good news is that it was very cheap again. We both ate and drank for less than 5 CUC. Every now and then, more people had gathered at the glass door of the restaurant, which was still locked. Although the waitress surely noticed them, she refused to let them in. The rudeness baffled us, given that half of the restaurant was still empty! Only after everyone had finished and the restaurant was empty again, the door opened again. This is caracteristic of government-owned restaurants; it doesn't really matter if the personnel gives you a nice dining experience or some cat-food on a biscuit; they will get paid a ridiculously low wage regardless.
El Rápido is a Cuban fastfood chain with shops all over the country, one of which on Parque Serafín Sánchez. It seemed to be quite popular amongst Cubans, so we went over and bought a box of ice-cream. Containing about half a liter of ice, their ice cream is the perfect dessert after a not-so-satisfying meal. Steer clear of the fries though, as they weren't properly fried and turned out as floppy as a damp old sock. Yes, this is a very serious affair for us Belgians.
- Camiones from Santa Clara to Sancti Spiritus go more or less every hour between 6h20 and 11 AM. The ‘el último’ strategy also applies for camiones. Make sure to check who’s queueing in front of you! The total distance between Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus is only 100 kilometers, yet it took almost 3 hours to reach our destination. The good news is that the ride only costs 20 CUP per person.
- We had food in the La Ceibita, Gran Café Boulevard and the 'Chinese restaurant' Shangai. Although the food wasn’t mind-blowing, it was extremely cheap.
- Sancti Spiritus has its own casa de la trova. Entrance is 1 CUC for tourists, or 5 CUP for Cubans.
Do you have questions? Did you experience something similar? Did you notice a mistake? Please share!