Cuba’s Cayos

Lyn Funnell discovers a new destination untouched by mass tourism

When anyone mentions Cuba, people immediately picture Havana’s crumbling mansions, old American cars, and musicians playing loud, catchy salsa music. But that is just the tip of the clichéd iceberg.  There is far, far more to the Caribbean island than that!

To the East of Havana, over halfway across Cuba on the Atlantic coast, are the tiny islands, known as the Cayos, or the Jardines del Rey, (the Gardens of the King.) They’re as near to perfection as Mother Nature can get, with transparent turquoise sea absolutely heaving with a wide variety of fish, unmarked pale cream sand, just begging to be walked along barefoot, and huge plants and palm trees waving in the gentle breeze.

The Cayos are a fairly new addition to the world of tourism as they have only recently become accessible. A prize-winning masterpiece, The Causeway stretches across the sea from the mainland for 48km. It has 45 bridges to protect it from being damaged in storms.

Several high-quality all-inclusive hotels have been built there, carefully designed to blend in with the environment, nestling between the trees.

The FitCuba fair was held there in 2012. The guest was Juan Martin Guevara, Che’s youngest brother. I met him twice and had my photo taken having a cuddle with him!

He represents Argentina, where his family came from. I interviewed him in Spanish. He thought the world of Ernesto, as Che was always known, and used to call him Little Father. There were 15 years between them. Juan Martin is 69 now, and he’s still got a twinkle in his eye! Their parents had five children, three boys and two girls, all three years apart.

There are a lot of interesting places to visit in the vicinity of the Cayos, if you can drag yourself away for a day!

Two police motorcyclists, Yuniesky and Manuel, accompanied our group every time we left the Cayos. They loved being with us as they have absolutely no crime to deal with. They just have the occasional road accident to sort out. They’re trained in first aid. There’s a modern medical centre on the Cayos within easy reach, or for emergencies a helicopter can fly patients to the large hospital at Santa Clara.

We travelled to the Sugar Museum, near the ancient town of Remedios. I’d really been looking forward to seeing it and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s unique. The large sugar mill was full of a succession of huge elaborate machines that squeezed the juice from the sugar cane. Another one heated it up to extract the sugar, leaving a highly concentrated syrup, which was stirred rapidly, then the molasses were removed from the sugar crystals and used for an ancient rum.

The final product was a dark sugar. Any impurities were used for feeding pigs or for compost. The empty cane was used for furniture, fuel, and a few other things. So it really was a completely green factory, even that long ago.

In the grounds are literally dozens of rusting engines in all different shapes and sizes. Such a shame. They must be worth a fortune! We rode on the one running steam Sugar Train to Remedios. The driver let me sit in the engine and blow the hooter. Boy, was it hot in there! Of course I did it for you, Dear Readers!

I’m now fluent in Hooter Language. The trackside signs tell you how many times to tug on the wire that blows the hooter. The whole town turned out to meet us in Remedios. They treated it as a holiday and were all dressed in their best clothes. Any excuse! They don’t see many tourists.

There were bands playing, groups around the square and in bars playing salsa and singing, people dancing on stilts, women in National Costumes giving us flowers out of baskets, plus, of course, welcoming drinks.

We split up and walked around, talking – or being talked to – by the locals. Thank goodness I speak Spanish. There’s so much to find out, and it’s so interesting to learn about a completely different way of life like that!

I met one of the waiters from our hotel. He spotted me! He introduced me to his young daughter and said she can play out safely all day in the town. She’s only four. There’s no crime in Remedios.

The town was founded by the Spanish in the early 1500s. And they’d probably recognise it if they returned! The church is one of the oldest churches in Cuba. It was built from 1545-1550. It’s the only original church in the country as it was enlarged, but never demolished to build a new one. Even Havana Cathedral doesn’t have an altar as wonderful as Remedio’s 22 carat gold altar.

Round the corner, we went in a bar with a great atmosphere. It was obviously the youngsters’ favourite place to hang out. There were groups playing live salsa in different levels of it.

I noticed that several of the males were obviously gay. Not so long ago they’d have been harassed and arrested. Now they’re accepted and safe to practise their beliefs. (The year before, I met a gay man who’d escaped to the USA overnight by boat because he was persecuted all the time. Now he’s allowed to visit his country as a tourist.)

In the morning we left our hotel and caught a catamaran, sailing across to Cayo Coco while our luggage went right round on the coach. Oh what fun! We sunbathed or danced in our cozzies with salsa music playing and a bar on the deck. Lots of Vitamin R! (Rum to you!) It’s made from natural ingredients and no chemicals, it’s very good for the temperament and you never wake up with a hangover!

We ate cold snacks, made by the cook in the galley below. One of the crew threw a fishing line behind the boat and he caught a big barracuda almost at once, although it took him a while to gently wind it in. Later he did it again and caught the biggest grey mullet I’ve ever seen! Where was the Captain? On the deck, dancing with us!

He stopped the catamaran and the crew produced flippers, masks, snorkels and life-jackets for everyone. Most people dived off the boat, but I’m not a strong swimmer and the water was quite fast-moving. I had just as much fun leaning over the side. The water was absolutely full of different kinds of fish, in a rainbow selection of colours.

All around us were tiny atolls, with palm trees on them. As we approached the golden beach, a band was playing, and everyone came down to the shore to greet us. We waded into the sea and climbed into small boats, with our bags above our heads. Then we climbed out again and waded to the shore in the luke-warm water.

A huge buffet awaited us under a great long canopy on the beach. I ate my lunch, then I rushed into the wonderful water again. Oh, sheer heaven! An unforgettable  experience, highly recommended! (Oh alright then, you can go if you like. But don’t tell anyone else! We don’t want to spoil it.)

We spent the night on Cayo Guillermo. The hotel was almost buried under all the foliage. It’s sort of shabby chic. I absolutely loved it, but my friend hated it. Funny. The beach was wonderful again. The hotel had prepared the most amazing buffet for us. We could walk from stall to stall, choosing what we wanted to have freshly prepared for us. I loved the old cart, full of a wonderful variety of shellfish. Very artistic!

In the morning, after a huge buffet breakfast, we left for the long journey to Havana. We stopped outside Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevera mausoleum with a photo gallery. Everyone knows the iconic photo of him wearing his beret, but you should see him when he was relaxed. He was a cross between Johnnie Depp and Brad Pitt. All we women thought he was gorgeous! Then we went to see his tomb. You have to view it in silence.

Finally, in Havana, we checked in to our 5-star hotel. In the morning, the LAMA bikers all turned up to meet me in their leathers, lining up their antique bikes outside the hotel. Everyone’s face was a picture! I’d written several articles about their bikes and they were very grateful. The bikes are fragile now. The old cars get the publicity but the bikes don’t.

Useful Information
You can fly direct to Santa Clara without having to travel from Havana. You can also fly from Havana to the Jardines del Rey Airport.

This year FitCuba will be held in Varadero, from the 7th-10th May.

The LAMA bikers will be there, showing off their antique bikes. They do a lot of charity work.

They’d be grateful for any mirrors, tyres, sparkplugs, etc if you have room in your luggage, to help to keep the old bikes on the road. Some of them are over 60 years old.
The Presidente of the Cuba LAMA group, Adolfo Prieto Rosell. Adolfo speaks English.
+53 7 8733193
+53 5 2635467

You might like to take a two-tier holiday, first in the Havana area, then at the Cayos to unwind.

The Cuba Tourist Board is at
154 Shaftesbury Avenue
London WC2H 8HL
Tel: 020 7240 6655
Fax: 020 7836 9265

Gaviota Catamarans Head Office
(5345) 66-4115.