A city with none of the usual defining features of a desirable Cuban destination: no beach, no sea wall, fewer vintage cars and less salsa music. And yet, Camagüey is one of my favourite places in Cuba. When friends have come to visit, they always seem to love it too. Here’s five of the reasons why we like it so much.
1. It’s not Havana.
There’s a lot about Camagüey which makes it seem like the complete opposite to Havana, and makes the six-hour drive from our house in the capital worthwhile. For starters, the overall vibe of the city is so sedate. Sellers on the street don’t give you any hassle and are more honest with their pricing. The main shopping street is pedestrianised so that you are not at constant risk of being clipped by the wing mirrors of huge cars easing down tiny streets, or run down by a crazed coco-cab. There aren’t snaking lines of tourists outside every decent restaurant at dinner times. It’s just relaxed.
What’s more, there seems to be more space. The agromercado for example, is spacious and easily browsable, and the last couple of times I’ve been, the produce has been really fresh and varied. (This isn’t always the case: after the hurricane last September, it was looking very sad indeed.) Coming from the land of giant superstores, there’s something quite familiar-feeling about this market too – all the bicitaxis waiting for shoppers at the gate, and the gentle bustle of it, makes it seems like a giant outdoor supermarket. And it’s not just the market. Unlike many places in Havana, the streets of Camagüey aren’t covered in massive piles of garbage and rubble, so you can stroll more easily. There seem to be more pleasant squares, places to sit, and parks than in Havana, all of which are cleaner and better maintained.
And finally, you can breathe! The most common mode of transport here seems to be the bicycle, which means there’s less exhaust fumes and less noise – and it’s more eco-friendly! I’m sure it’s more economics than eco-awareness which determines people’s choice of getting around, but it definitely creates a more pleasant atmosphere. And you can make a saving too: a trip from the bus station to the centre of town in a bicitaxi costs about $2, and you might even get a little guided commentary from your friendly driver (peddler?!) on the way
2. It is creative!
Camagüey is something of an artistic hub, it seems. Many writers, artists, sculptors and musicians were born in and often studied in the city, and it maintains that arty feel. It was the home of national poet Nicolás Guillén, and the successful sculptor Marta Jiménez, whose galleries you can visit, and whom you can read more about here . There are loads of other art galleries, and you can sometimes meet the artists themselves there too. Musical groups often borrow a gallery space to rehearse, so occasionally you will stumble across professional level musicians entertaining passers-by through an open door. There is also the ballet school, which feeds the Ballet Nacional de Cuba with many of its dancers, and which opens its doors so that you can watch the dancers rehearse.
3. The architecture and the streets are special.
Camagüey is a total maze, with wonky streets sending you off in strange directions if you’re not careful. Just to add to the navigational fun, most streets have two names, one from before the revolution and one from after. Flying in from Havana at night-time, you can see how Camagüey is different: even the littlest towns are set out in rough grids, but from above, Camagüey’s streets look like a big glowing scribble. There’s a myth that the city was designed this way in order to confuse any raiding pirates… a myth which is pretty ridiculous if you consider that the city is about two hours’ drive from the coast. More convincing is the theory that the city just developed quite randomly and without much planning, with everyone just making sure they had a quick route to their local church, of which there are about fifteen! Amongst the beautiful churches, there are mostly colonial buildings and housing, then the odd modern building thrown in. Somehow this mixture works well. There is less of the crumbly decay of Havana, and there’s generally a feel of the streets being well-maintained – possibly more since the city became a UNESCO heritage site. Near to the Plaza de la Revolución, there are more modern tower blocks but, placed as they are in pleasant green parkland, they are not the eyesore they could be. One of the nicest spots is in the Plaza Del Carmen where you have a lovely view of the two-towered church alongside the modern sculptures of every day local folk, having a chat or reading the newspaper.
4. It gives you a different perspective.
There’s a definite tourist trail in Cuba and inevitably, this has resulted in some places here having a very ‘touristy’ feel. However, despite it’s very convenient location for travellers, situated half way down the island on the way to Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey doesn’t feel that touristy at all. Nor does it feel like ‘stepping back in time’ as so many rural Cuban places are nauseatingly described; nor it is an impoverished backwater to which no one wants to go. It’s a real, living, working town. When you go out to eat, you are in the minority as a visitor, because you are surrounded by local people enjoying the place where they live. I am most aware of this when we go for a night out at La Trova, which is the local bar/live music place in the central square. In other towns and in places in Havana, I have to spend evenings in these sorts of places trying to avoid eye contact with sleazy guys who skulk around dance floors attempting to canoodle with/seduce foreign women. Gross. Happily, this has never been an issue in Camagüey – no-one seems remotely interested in anything other than hanging out with their friends and getting stuck into a bottle or three of Havana Club.
5. It’s a home from home (from home).
Danny’s family is from Camagüey and his family home is also a casa particular, which is the Cuban version of a B and B. They worked hard to transform their house into a beautiful home for both guests and themselves, by retaining with some of the traditional features, such as the original red brick walls and the lime tree, and by adding a sort of luxury edge, with big airy spaces and plenty of home comforts. There are also many interesting twists, such as the locally-made furniture and art. My favourites are the coffee table, which was made by a local carpenter, and which incorporates a salvaged bus window into its surface, and the giant clothes peg/magazine holder… just because it’s awesome. The walls are decorated with the work of local artist and friend of the family Elio (those artists again!) and the back garden is looking more and more like a spa retreat every time we go, especially with the latest addition of fairy lights and hammock. The house has been operating as a casa for over two years now and the whole family is involved in running it. You can have a closer look and see more pictures on the facebook page www.facebook.com/508sanjose or look at the Instagram for some more of Elio’s paintings www.instagram.com/at_home_in_cuba.
Those are just five personal reasons why I love this place, and I am suddenly aware that not a single one involves any of its fascinating history, or any real factual information. You’ll just have to come and visit and find out more from the bicitaxi guy who picks you up from the bus station…
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