An old man, with a warm smile decorated by a single tooth, is our hitcher of choice for the morning. His wiry grandson helps him haul a bulky package into our rented car, which emits a loud grunt. ‘The pig,’ the old man announces in Spanish, ‘is for my eightieth birthday party on Thursday'.
In Cuba, a country where a vehicle is a precious commodity, hitchhiking is popular. In the mind-numbing heat, those resigned to waiting for a ride are found killing time in patches of shade. If I drive past a hitcher, my Cuban husband tuts in reproach.
We are in the Central Provinces of Cuba, the middle chunk of this long streak of island, and in search of the country’s provincial face. We start awkwardly, in commercialised Varadero, where poolside bingo, stale buffets, and cabaret dancers in cerise spandex are easy to leave behind. This close to such self-indulgences, the revolutionary posters that plaster the road out of Varadero read strangely. Patriotism or death. Revolution forever. Quickly though, the spanking bitumen peters out into potholed pathway as we amble through modest villages, and after two hours we are in Cienfuegos, a port city on the south coast.
An adolescent hustler on a pushbike screeches to a halt beside us. We arrange for him to pick us up later so we can check out some paladares (private restaurants in the homes of locals). This will set the tone for most of our evenings in the Central Provinces: being whisked around by ‘jineteros’ (aka, hustlers). They get a bad rep, but their commissions are small and they are helpful. This one secures me a £4 seafood grill in a cosypaladar decorated with wall-mounted crustaceans. I can’t reveal the location, since the trade is illegal in Cuba – but you’ll find it if you want to.
To reach Trinidad, our next destination, we edge through the foothills of the palm-smothered Escambray mountains, then dip down to the coast, passing quiet villages backed by mountains and roads criss-crossed by giant crabs. Without 20-something Abelito in the car (going to visit his mother in Trinidad), we would certainly have got lost. There is a dearth of road signs.
Trinidad is simply the most handsome town in Cuba, in one of the most idyllic provinces, Sancti Spiritus. Founded in 1514, the giant village – for that’s all it really is – is wedged between the towering Escambray range and shimmering coast. It was once an important colonial town which grew fat on sugar between 1750 and 1850, when its lavishly beautiful valleys were dotted with scores of sugar mills.
When the slaves were freed, fortunes dipped and Trinidad stopped growing. Today, it’s an exquisitely preserved museum piece of cobblestone streets and sumptuous squares. Walk a few streets and the village peters out into red earth, drooping palms and mountains. Drive eight kilometres and you reach a perfect stretch of beach, Peninsula Ancón, where you step out of your cabana onto white sand. We go in search of views: of red-tiled roofs, sea and mountain from the bell tower of the Museo de la Lucha, and of the soaring countryside from the ruined church nearby.
Next stop, Santa Clara, capital of Santa Clara province, and home to the eternal flame that commemorates Che Guevara’s burial place. We pass through villages, glimpsing the kind of rural life lost in the rest of the Caribbean: oxen ploughing fields; farmers sowing crops by hand. Santa Clara feels workaday, its concrete-boxes in shades of peeling pastel, but the town has life, and history. The university is dominant, especially its medical school. Students throng the humming streets, many sporting white coats and stethescopes.
Next morning we leave for our final destination: Camagüey, a four hour drive away through flat plains, criss-crossing over railway lines choked with weeds. Cuba’s third largest city – which still feels like a village – is enchanting, especially the Colón hotel, where we are staying. Built in 1927 and apparently unaltered since, it has a soberly mysterious air and an elaborate mahogany bar. We arrive on a Saturday, the night of the weekly street party. There are trestle tables, pigs on spits, copious children and the ubiquitous reggaetón music that has ousted salsa for the Cuban under-25s.
Camagüey’s streets are full of blind alleys and forked streets – a deliberate ploy to foil the pirates who plagued this part of Cuba in the 16th century. Away from the main drag, the town is deserted, its streets strings of genteel terraced houses slinking away down the next curve, where you might find in a quiet square a ruined church with a once-grandiose façade.
We visit the Plaza de la Revolución, reverberatingly empty but for a group of adolescents, kitted out in the full all-American regalia and engaged in a baseball game of some skill. Unbelievably, we come across Pedro, our ancient hitcher, sans pig. ‘Tomorrow!’ he reminds us delightedly. ‘My eightieth!’ So the pig’s time is over then. And so is ours. Tomorrow we hit the road again, this time back to Havana, and then the modern world. We have grown attached to the simple charms of the provinces. On our way home we stop to join the locals on the marble benches of a sleepy square. We stay there till the sun fades then walk back through silent streets.
Lydia Bell; Daily Telegraph writer