We were beginning to despair of finding a patch of golden sand, for which Cuba is rightly famous, to call our own. We’d planned to go to the beach near Cienfuegos, and again near Trinidad, but there were so many tourists in Cuba that we literally couldn’t find anywhere to stay. We’d been travelling for three weeks and had spent one day at the beach. Something had gone badly wrong.
We were bemoaning our fate to Rafael, our casa owner in Camaguey, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. This is typical of Cuban hospitality. It took a day and numerous phone calls, but when we came back one afternoon he triumphantly declared success. He’d found a place for us to stay at the Playa Santa Lucia.
There are two sides to Playa Santa Lucia: one, with all-inclusive resort hotels that were last in fashion when the Soviets were still exporting Ladas to Cuba; the other, south of the ‘strip’ with a few houses, bars and tiendas scattered amongst palm trees. It was here, amongst the palms, that Rafael found a motel for us. It had a swimming pool, an al fresco bar and restaurant, and was a short walk to the beach. It cost €30 per night.
It was clear from the moment we set foot on the beach that we were staying in a Cuban area. It was the weekend and families were eating, drinking and swimming on this southerly stretch of beach with no facilities beyond some thatched umbrellas. A lot of rum was being consumed and a lot of fun was being had. The water was crystal clear and sublimely warm. We dived in and realised what we’d been missing.
Relaxing in the warm azure waters, it felt like we were washing off the dust of the many Cuban towns we’d visited and the many kilometres of road we’d travelled. It was glorious. The beach here stretches for 20km and we walked towards the resort hotels through the surf, watching fishermen at work in the shallows.
It was clear when we left the public beach and entered the resort beachfront. Suddenly there were people wearing wristbands, and people checking them, loungers by the dozen and Canadian English replaced Cuban Spanish as the lingua franca. We were searching for lunch but none of the hotels took our fancy. Instead, we found a small restaurant just off the beach and ordered up some cold beers and grilled fish.
After a long lunch we wandered further along the beach before retracing our steps along several kilometres of beach towards our motel. Passing the strip of resort hotels, we stumbled upon a wedding on the beach, which was drawing a crowd of unofficial onlookers. As we stood there the groom took the microphone and burst into song at the altar. They do weddings differently in Cuba.
As we walked, dark forbidding clouds started to gather and for a moment it looked like we might get caught in a thunderstorm. Luckily the rain held off just long enough for us to get back to the motel. The rain was warm and didn’t last long.
That night we sat out by the pool, drank mojitos, ate fried chicken and (bizarrely) cabbage, and pondered the transformation that the Cuba we’d come to know over the last three weeks had just undergone. Being by the beach was like being in a different country.