The land that time forgot
Old-time style in Trinidad. Picture: Lyn Murphy

The old rocking chair creaked softly as we sat on the porch. In the distance the warm evening glow of the sun shone on the "mogotes" - limestone outcrops, covered with vegetation. Among the most ancient rocks in Cuba, they stood like guards protecting the tobacco fields.

No tourists come to this private tobacco plantation, the owner explained, as he rolled a perfect Cuban cigar and handed it to me. This was definitely Cuba off the tourist track. We'd arrived courtesy of a wrong turn, ending up on a very narrow dirt track asking directions. Next moment we were inside a storehouse where harvested tobacco leaves hung drying.

Early morning mist hung low in the valley above Vinales - a quaint agricultural town in Western Cuba, under government protection as a perfectly preserved colonial settlement. Colourful single-storey houses with rocking chairs on the verandas and oxen pulling carts in the main street indicated that, in Vinales, life is lived at a very slow pace.

Nearby, on the face of a mogote is the 120m-long "Mural de la Prehistoria", depicting the history of evolution. Painted in 1961 by Cuban artist Leovigildo Gonzales Morillo, it was restored in 1980. Gonzales used cracks in the rocks to create effects of light and colour.

I was being driven around this unique Caribbean island for a week by locals I'd met on a previous visit, who said they would show me the real Cuba. Whereas driving in Havana requires patience and nerves of steel, here in the countryside there was very little traffic. There were also very few road signs and even fewer petrol stations.

We were heading to the port city of Cienfuegos ("hundred fires" in Spanish), some 250km south-east of Havana. Exiting the motorway, it became obvious that fluent Spanish was a distinct advantage. "Discolpe que lo moleste" ("sorry to disturb you") became a frequent phrase as we stopped and asked locals, sheltering from the baking sun under trees or bridges, for directions. Directions which often differed, resulting in tours of back streets, narrow streets with dead ends and lots of laughter.

Cienfuegos, birthplace of the cha-cha-cha, is a city with a great musical tradition. A statue of Benny More, reckoned to be the finest ever Cuban singer whose unique voice has inspired generations, stands in the main street. Its French influence, eclectic architecture, elegant buildings, public squares and museums have earned Cienfuegos the reputation as the "Pearl of the South". Kids were playing football on the street in the main square, a woman was selling fresh mangoes from a cardboard box outside her front door, a sole fisherman on the jetty cast his net.

Continuing along the picturesque coast road, we arrived in Trinidad. Trinidad is unique. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, Trinidad appears to be in a time warp with the original town virtually unchanged. Everywhere there were bicycles and horses, both oblivious to cars, so drivers needed to be exceptionally cautious.

The historic centre has cobbled streets and incredibly beautiful, colourful colonial houses. Much has been carefully restored. The oldest buildings have porches parallel to the street, many with iron or wooden grills and ornate decorations on the top. Locals stand chatting to each other from behind these grills, or simply sit watching life go by.

On Plaza Major we entered the Church and Monastery of St Francis. Our guide put a finger to her lips as she removed a "no entry" sign from the uneven steps, as if to say "don't tell anyone I'm letting you up here". We climbed higher, past the enormous old bell to the top of the pastel-yellow tower for the best views of Trinidad, its verdant countryside and distant mountains.

Down at street level again and feeling hungry, we enquired after somewhere to eat. Following a young girl down narrow cobbled streets we arrived at a closed large blue door. A woman dressed in a bright floral dress ushered us inside - through her house, past the lounge with faded photographs on an old chest of drawers, past the kitchen into a courtyard with four tables. No tourists and no menus either, so we settled for the dish of the day - chicken in beer was home cooking at its best. Delicious!

Under the stars that evening we joined locals dancing salsa to a nine-piece band on a cobblestone square at Casa de la Musica - a great meeting place for locals and tourists alike.

I'd anticipated spending the next day driving through the countryside taking photographs so I was totally unprepared for adventure in a nature reserve called Topes de Collantes in the Escambray Mountains. The adventure was on horseback and, not having been on a horse since I was 12, I questioned my sanity as my ride stumbled on loose rocks and ochre-coloured mud, venturing deeper down the steep narrow ravine through humid rainforest. When the three horses in our group could go no further, their owner tethered them to a tree and indicated to continue on foot.

With orange mud squelching through our toes, a tree branch in hand for stability, we set off, the tantalizing sound of a waterfall in the distance inspiring us to continue. This was the largest waterfall in Cuba, Caburni Falls, and though the walk appeared to take forever, we were rewarded by a stunning sight as its waters cascaded down a steep rocky cliff, collecting further down in a deep emerald green pool. Returning, we noticed a sign saying the waterfall was a 45-minute walk away. I think someone had rubbed out the "2 hours" in front of it . . .

Crossing the 27km-long causeway early evening to the island of Cayo Coco, a flock of pink flamingos were disturbed and took flight. The birds migrate to this region in the wet season (April to November) to breed. Part of a chain of islands called "Jardines del Rey" or King's Gardens, this area is still largely wild with swamps and scrubland populated by wild cattle.

Driving north along the scenic route next morning, on streets everywhere were Cuban flags. It was July 26 - Revolution Day. Large red and black signs with M 26-7 (The 26th of July Movement - the revolutionary organisation led by Fidel Castro which overthrew the Batista government). While large crowds were gathering in Havana and Santiago de Cuba to celebrate this anniversary, in the small town of Cardenas life went on as usual.

It was like entering another era. The main street was filled with horse-drawn carriages. In the centre of town, Parque Colon is dominated by the first statue of Christopher Columbus erected in Cuba.

Nearby, the tourist area of Varadero boasts white sand, turquoise water and perfect weather. Connected to the mainland by a drawbridge, this 19km peninsula was originally where families from Cardenas had their summer residences. It later became a fashionable beach for the wealthy and is now home to Cuba's top resorts. Hard to believe that just 90 miles (145km) to the north is Key West, Florida.

One of Cuba's oldest attractions, Las Cuevas de Bellamar, are 40km to Varadero's south-west. Inside the caves, crystal formations shone like glittering diamonds. Our small group stood silently as we stopped, 26m below sea level, marvelling at marine fossils dating from 26 million years ago.

Outside in the bright sunshine, heading west, we crossed the Bacunayagua bridge, a fine example of Cuban engineering. Built over the Yumuri River, it is the highest bridge in Cuba at 110m above the water. Heading back to the hustle and bustle of Havana, the narrow track off the main road was irresistible. It led to a magnificent white sandy beach, palm trees swaying in the late afternoon breeze. We swam in a turquoise clear sea, not a tourist in sight. Again, this was Cuba truly off the beaten track.·Lyn Murphy is manager of Claremont Cruise & Travel Centre.

The West Australian

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