The decision to stay at an all-inclusive resort isn’t one we make. Our ambitious tour itinerary means a splash in every corner of the island and it’s easier to go with a tour operator to achieve all of this. Thinking we’ll need some luxury to wash away the beaten dusty roads, they stick us in an all-inclusive resort, which isn’t something we’ve ever done before and isn’t particularly Cuban. Trinidad feels far away from the emporium of luxury we find ourselves in, minutes from the beach, seconds from a free bar and in the lap of some natty air conditioning. Luckily, the beach is a public one so we’re not tuned out of Cuban life completely. It’s Sunday and the church is the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Groups of friends and families swarm to the beach, standing in groups of five up to their chests in the water, each clutching a plastic cup, one holding on to and dishing out the Havana Club and occasionally another holding a mixer like Tukola (Cuban-brand coke, or lemonade). They are noisy and ferociously good-humoured. Apart from persistent begging from a few individuals who are actually just asking for sun cream for their children as it’s really hot and sun cream is really expensive and exclusively sold in hotels and resorts, it doesn’t seem like the worst request in the world. The beach is full of life, and as the soca thunders out its repetitive BOO-TA-BOO-PA beat, the sea breeze collects in our sweatiest patches and we lie back and watch Cuba party like no other.
Inside the resort is staid and boring. We meet American couples who bring their own flasks to these types of resorts so they’re never without beer, fill up their plates to high heaven at the buffet and never leave, either the poolside or the resort or the air conditioning. Not much fun is being had. We see English couples all complaining and queuing. And an endless stream of sophisticated and sassy French families, having the times of their lives, enjoying the land and its people and interacting with it. Why are the French so goddamn cool? After a luxurious three days of snorkelling through the reef, getting a splinter in my foot and a heavy monsoon blighting an entire afternoon, there’s too much free beer and buffet crawling around our systems and we hit the road east once more. We’re on our way to Santiago but as it’s 500 kilometres away, have a stop in Camaguey, a surprisingly large city (close to a million people) that most people use as a stopover between Havana and Santiago, a place that strands you and charges you in excess for everything because hmmm where else are you going to go? As you come in off the motorway into the centre of the city, you’re thrust into an increasingly bizarre set of narrow winding streets operating on a makeshift one way system, the road names caked in grime and impossible to decipher, the final destination seemingly near and far simultaneously. After being constantly invaded by those dastardly pirates of the Caribbean, the citizens of Camaguey moved from the coast about 200km inland and made the layout of the city labyrinthian and purposefully confusing to flummox any pillaging pirate in his steps. After asking for directions from an irate breastfeeding mum, a teenager on a bike and an old man we are no closer to where we want, the Gran Hotel, seemingly the only hotel in the city, definitely the most famous. A young man in a UK premiership football vest and baseball cap follows our car on his bike, unwilling to leave us alone, trying to thrust a laminated card advertising his casa particulares into the open car window despite our protestations that we have booked somewhere. We pull up outside a bank round the corner from the phantom hotel, on the verge of a mega-argument with the frustration of not being able to navigate the narrow streets. The man on a bike comes to a halt and patiently waits outside Katie’s window for her to emerge. I get out of the car and run to where I think the hotel is. I’m soon lost. Meanwhile, he tries to convince her he has a nice house but her argument that we have pre-booked only serves for him to amp up his sales pitch before a rickshaw driver arrives and shouts at him to leave, before asking Katie some leading questions about her marital status. Meanwhile, I’m lost in the winding roads and no one wants to tell me where Gran Hotel, the most well known hotel in the area is, and I’m wondering about, getting increasingly agitated and my limbs are crying out in relief at not being cramped in a car and finally, the hotel, tucked into a main street in a manner you’d never expect to know. A concierge and I cut through buildings, canteens and offices to get back to Katie who has forged a friendship with the rickshaw driver who bundles up to me and repeatedly protests his innocence, his honourable intentions and his good nature. I smile. We drive to the hotel.
Camaguey is dusty and so we head to the pool only to be greeted by insanity. Hard nose ragga destroys the speakers. Teenagers in bikinis wiggly their hips inappropriately by the water’s edge. The entire pool area is one family, made up of different sexes, generations and racial backgrounds. They all sport the blingest of bling we’ve seen on Spanish bodies, dripping with thick gold chains, big costume jewels and perfect manicured nails, buxomly spilling out of bikinis and speedos. They thrash around the pool playing a violent version of volleyball that involves submerging the losers, they shout at each other in good spirits but aggressively and loudly. Our dip in the pool lasts a frantic five minutes as we intrude on their space, their completely furious takeover of the area. As Katie and I stand in the shallow end, shivering and watching, we watch as one of the tough guys, spilling with tattoos runs up to the king, an old white Spanish dude sat in his chair with his hair slicked back and a massive cigar, a pinky ring weighing his hand down. The king whispers in the tough guy’s ear and the tough guy runs over to a shrimp guy backed into the corner by two other tough guys, one holding his wrist, a look of terror splashed across his face, tough guy one relays the message menacingly into his ear. He replies, tough guy relays the message to the king and so forth. Where would your imagination go at this point? We were there, watching Scarface unfold before our eyes in 3D.
Camaguey has not much to offer at night apart from a few tourist spots. Any other restaurants are tucked into the winding streets which seem to shut down completely at night, bars are etched into the walls away from prying eyes so we head to the square with a few touristy restaurants, before realising they all join into one, open air and filled with massive Camaguey water carriers, pots of exquisite size and stature. Afrobeat throbs in the background. The stop-off doesn’t allow tourists much opportunity to be with locals so after a few drinks and a simple meal, we head back to the hotel to listen to the night’s noise, the gangsters spilling in and out of the downstairs bar in good spirits and in intense moments of quiet menace. I sleep with one eye open, just in case.
The 300km to Santiago is torturous despite the early start but we cross fields and fields of wild dogs and red soil, banana plantations and tobacco plantations, fields of sisle and fields of emptiness.
When we arrive, though, the city leaps up and grabs us by the hands and embraces us. The spirit of Cuba is here…
To be continued…