In the early morning my Cuba Cruise dropped anchor in Nipe Bay located on the northeastern coast of Cuba in Holguin Province. After a quick breakfast I hopped on a bus with twenty other cruisers for an excursion dubbed Cuba Life, which would have us zipping around dusty backstreets that pass through lazy farming villages and gusty beach towns.
Our first stop was a visit to an old farmhouse where two smiling men clutching massive machete sliced and diced fresh coconuts. We each grabbed a straw, sipping and slurping fresh coconut water as the late morning sun bleated across the horizon. Two lazy bulls stood in a mountain of mud as a flock of hens gorged on leftover coconut cream while their chirping chickadees zoomed around their legs.
A short drive down the road and we arrived at the very spot where Christopher Columbus on October 27, 1492 famously declared “it is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Today a visit to Parque Monumento Nacional Bariay offers guests an opportunity to remember this historic spot which saw cultures from the New and Old World unite. Thatched roof huts set the scene for a short-but-sweet performance where locals dressed as an early indigenous tribe re-enact a scene from the past when tropical chief’s sparred over pretty princesses. The earliest human presence on the island is said to have been located here about 10,000 years ago, when numerous aboriginal settlements were part of Cuba’s early landscape.
Our next stop was the province’s main tourist resort Guardalavaca which is home to one Cuba’s most famous beaches. The area’s name pays tribute to a buccaneer past – Guardalavaca meaning “keep the cow safe,” which is thought to refer to the need to protect livestock and valuables from marauding pirates who once used the area as a refuge point. Unfortunately our beach day was interrupted by afternoon showers but still managed to appreciate a jaw dropping panoramic view while nibbling on lunch from a local restaurant.
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Our final adventure was offered by a real character. Nene has been a hard working farmer since he was a little boy and spent an hour proudly showcasing his finest crops. He waddled along a dirt path wearing a cowboy hat, puffing a cigar and hacking away with his machete at a branch of sugar cane. After offering up a sample for each of us to chew he pointed out his favourites which include banana, plantain, avocado, yucca and breadfruit. Nene’s farm tour finished at the family homestead where his wife offered up wee cups of Cuban coffee which paired nicely with chewy papaya jelly and fresh salty cheese.
After a non-stop day zooming across rural Holguin I was thrilled to arrive back on the boat in time to enjoy a few rum sloshed cocktails at sunset. I perched myself at the bar at the stern of the ship and spent the next hour enjoying a parade of traditional Havana Club cocktails which were thrown together by two Cuban bartenders. The duo paraded me through four of their favourites: The Havana Club Cocktail packs a punch (martini extra dry, rum, lime twist), The Mojito our favourite sweet Cuban offering (rum, sugar, soda, mint, lime), The Havana Especial a tropical sipper (rum, maraschino, pineapple) and The Cubanito a twist on the Bloody Mary (rum, tomato juice, tabasco, worcestershire).
Having soaked myself in the sun all day I waved salut to Holguin as the ship set sail for our next port of call. Having just consumed a fare share of rum I arrived to the dining room staggering this way and that not just because the boat was swaying. I plopped myself into my seat and with a smug mug announced to the table, “Havana Club had sufficiently set the mood for a delightful evening.”