Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sancti Spiritus, Cuba - Casco Viejo, Curanderos and Church

I realized that I was traveling way to slow. I had a two month visa for Cuba and I had already been in the county one month. And, I was only about one third of the way across the country. I needed to move a little faster. I heard that there were some cayes on the north side of the island and that there was good coastal fishing. I really wanted to check them out. However, I knew that I needed to cover some ground so I decided that I would try to travel by bus to Sancti Spiritus (Holy Spirit).
I checked the Viazul bus schedule and found out that there were not buses departing directly from Bayamo. I would need to catch a bus that was traveling between Santiago de Cuba and Havana. It was an easy connection to make. I bought a ticket for the earliest bus, folded up my bicycle and boarded the bus on schedule. 
About 6 hours later, I landed in Sancti Spiritus. I unfolded by bicycle and rode it to the center of town where I found a nicely gardened park named Parque Maceo. I circled the park and found a casa particular on one corner of the square.
My casa particular was the blue building and called Hostal La Ninfa (Maximo Gomez #15 Norte, Next door to my casa was the movie theater Cine Conrado Benitez. How convenient!
The Hostal La Ninfa was comfortable and clean
It was still the shoulder season and I was the only guest staying at the casa.
I did check out the cinema next door. Unfortunately, the owner said that because of the heavy rains the electricity was not working in the projection room so there were no screenings at the moment. He said to check back later. I did check back later and there were still no screenings. I got the feeling that this was not unusual.
Sancti Spiritus is a fairly large city in Cuba. There was a street just off the central park with some shops and restaurants. There happened to be a Chinese restaurant! Having not eaten any Chinese food in over a month, I decided to check it out. I sat down at a table and the waiter brought me a menu. They seemed to have a number of typical Cuban dishes, but then after turning the page I found the Chinese food. There really wasn't much of a selection. They had about 10 or 12 dishes. When I inquired about the preparation of some of the dishes, the waiter would indicate, "No hay" or "There isn't any". I eventually settled on the special fried rice. I mean how much could anyone mess up fried rice.

Well the fried rice was pretty much the worst fried rice I've ever eaten. It looked okay when it was brought to my table, but the taste was terrible. It was mushy and bland and tasted kind of like wet cardboard. I left disappointed.
Back out on the town. This is a miniature model of Sancti Spiritus. You can see the central park and a number of colonial buildings surrounding it. 
There is also a river called El Rio Yayabo in the southern part of the town and an area called the "Casco Viejo" or Old Town.
While walking near the park I spotted this old car. The hood ornament looked like the swan of a Packard, but the front grill looked like a Ford. In Cuba many cars are held together by whatever parts are readily available. Please let me know if anyone can identify the correct make and model of this car.

While I was standing by the park another traveler walked by. She was Latina, but I could tell that she was a traveler by the North Face backpack that she was wearing. In Cuba, unlike many other places, there are not many hostels or tourist hangouts where you meet other independent travelers. Most people stay in family owned casa particulares which have less opportunities for social interaction amongst travelers. I started talking to her in Spanish and inquired where she was from. Turned out that she was from Mexico City and her name was Marissa. She was on vacation and traveling around Cuba solo like me. After talking a while we decided to go see some of the city sites together. 
On one side of the central park there was a large colonial style building. Not really knowing what it was, Marissa and I ventured inside. On the first floor there was a sweeping staircase that led to the second floor. Once we arrived to the second floor the space opened up into a large room filled with stacks of books. We discovered the biblioteca or library. There was nobody in the library except one lady sitting at a desk - the librarian. She was very polite and explained that the building was previously owned by one of the old political parties and used the building as a chamber of commerce. However, after the revolution it was turned into a library. Perhaps a glimpse of culture in Cuba before the revolution. Perhaps a glimpse of culture in Cuba after the revolution. I glanced over the titles of the books in the stacks. Most of the books seemed to be textbooks or history books. Not many literary works at all.
Back outside, we walked south and found the Casco Viejo or Old Town. This part of town was easily distinguished from the rest of the town by the cobblestone streets.
Also, within the Old Town it seemed as if a number of the buildings had been restored or decorated - some with bright colors and others with art work.
One of the defining landmarks of the town was a bridge called El Puente sobre El Rio Yayabo. 
The bridge is the oldest standing bridge in Cuba and was built in 1931. The bridge was originally designed by Don Domingo Valverde and Don Blas Cabrera and constructed with 200,000 bricks. 
We passed by the Teatro Principal which was built in 1839. 
We checked if any performances were scheduled, but apparently there were not. 
Inside the small theatre there were about 500 seats and a simple stage. 
Back out on the streets of Old Town, I passed by a house that was selling these hand made dolls in the window. I periodically witness situations where Cubans were allowed to operate small businesses like this out of their homes, but it was not pervasive by any means. I think that this form of folk art still exist in some of the towns in Cuba, but I could easily see how this type of art form might disappear once less expensive mass produced items are available.
It was around noon, so we decided to take a break from site seeing and have lunch. We stopped into this little cafe that served hamburgers and Cuban sandwiches. My previous experience with hamburgers led me to believe that it would be a better idea to simply try a Cuban sandwich. The sandwich was ham and cheese heated and pressed on a panini grill. I tried my first locally produced soft drink to wash down the sandwich. Overall, just a very average meal.
We walked back toward the center of town and passed by the Cathedral. In many cities in Latin America the central Cathedral is open to the public most of the day. In Cuba I found that the Cathedral was seldom open. We did not have a chance to go inside.
We walked back toward the main shopping area and came across this art museum of sorts.
The museum was the former home of artist and orator Oscar Fernandez Morera.
There was a curator that welcomed us and showed us around. The museum displayed a number of the artist's oil paintings. All seemed pretty normal.
Then things got a little weird. We were in one of the back rooms of the museum and the Curator asked us if we were very religious. I said that was a Christian. Marissa said that she was not very religious. The Curator then asked Marissa if she believed in magia (magic). She was puzzled. I think that she was confused if he meant magic like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or magic like spells and potions. 

I kind of picked up on what he was talking about right away. I said that I believed that magic is possible, but that it did not hold any power over me. The Curator then turned his attention to Marissa. Still being a little confused, she was silent. He then asked her if she would like for him to show her some magic. He said that the was a Curandero. For some reason she did not understand what he was talking about. I explained to Marissa that a Curandero is like a shaman or bruja (witch). The Curator/Curandero then asked Marissa if she would like for him to read her fortune with some huesos (bones). She was frozen. 

I have actually seen this type of fortune telling before so I explained it to Marissa. She then got a little freaked out. Reading the situation, I then pulled Marissa aside and told her that she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do and that we could leave. She shook head up and down. Then we were out of there. 

We finished up our tour of the city near the central park. Marissa was planning to catch a bus in the evening. I was planning to stay one more day. We said our goodbyes.
The next day happened to be Sunday. I got up early and went for a walk. On the patio of one of the buildings facing the central park there was this orchestra playing classical music. I stayed and watched them for a while.
At another end of the central park there were a number of men and women standing around and sitting on benches just talking about the day's news. A number of the men were sharing drinks of rum out of bottles - such a classic scene. 
I was walking around and saw some smartly dressed people walking down an alley. I followed them. I suspected that they were going to church. I always enjoy visiting churches while I'm traveling to see how people worship. I think that in Latin America especially, it is such an important part of the culture. I really wanted to see what a church service would be like in Cuba. To my surprise, the church that they people were entering was a Presbyterian Church. For some reason,  I just expected that they would be attending a Catholic Church. 
I followed the people inside the church and joined the service. Another surprise was that the service was lead by a woman pastor. It was a very cool experience.
The rest of the day I just spent walking around the town. While looking down this cobblestone street I caught a glimpse of a special moment. This father was teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle. I saw her peddle her first few peddles… such an amazing moment in life.

The next day I would be riding my own bicycle to the town of Trinidad.


  1. Nice narrative, Troy. I have to say, seeing the magic performed would have gotten my curiosity. It would have been a neat cultural experience. (if it didn't hex me of course. ;-) )

    1. I've seen stuff like this before, I don't mess with bad juju

  2. Hi T0ny! Since you are a American, what type of visa did you have? Hid you go through Mexico or Canada or some other country. I am wanting to run around Cuba as a tourist, but don't want to wait until it is ok for everyon to visit there. Thanks! Carlos Grant

    1. Hi Granny, US Citizens do not need visas to enter Cuba. But unless they qualify under 1 of 12 criteria they need special permission from the US Treasury. I received permission to conduct research and traveled through Mexico. Direct flight may start in September of 2016. Here the procedure that I followed.


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