Charco Azul

After cycling all morning and into the afternoon from Playa Giron, along the Bay of Pigs, we headed across the swamp lands of southern Matanzas, towards the town of Australia. The odd name of this little municipality stems from the local custom of naming sugar factories after the various continents. While sugar is no longer processed from cane here, the smokestack still features the name in prominent vertical capital letters.

“Tonight we stay in Charco Azul,” Alejandro announced. This sent ripples through the back of the bus, as the itinerary had listed San Antonio de Los Baños for the night, 150 km distant. Scurrying through my trusted, I found Azul 50 km further on, in the foothills of the northeastern mountains.

“There is a festival in San Antonio; there is no room at the hotel for us. The Chaco is an Eco-Resort, very new, very modern.”

And very far away. It was already after 3 PM, and given what we’d seen so far of Cuba’s highway “system”, we might not get there before nightfall. But after we loaded the bikes on board Juan’s bus, we entered a true freeway interchange, and found ourselves on a six-lane divided highway, heading towards Havana, traveling at 90-100 km/hour. While passing 60 year old cars belching black exhaust, going half that speed, horse drawn carts @ 15 kph, and even the occasional pedestrian. Twice, we went by packs of cyclists, more youth teams in training.

The land was relentlessly flat, pocked with sugar cane farms and the smokey processing factories which attend them. Around 5:30, we reached the outskirts of Havana, where the freeway inexplicably ended in a traffic jam on unmarked city streets, devoid of traffic lights or even directional signs. A half hour of that, and we got back to cruising at highway speeds.

Before nightfall, we turned off that freeway, and wound along ever narrower roads, into the hills, Jaun homing in on by-now-mystical town locale of Charco Azul. While it appeared on, there was zero civilization surrounding it, and no obvious lodgings or restaurant.

The last turn took us onto a one lane path, steeply uphill, into a graveled turn-around surrounded by a series of stucco one story lodges on the left, a well-kept garden in the front, and a two story stone structure rising above a small bar and dining area. We learned this was “Casa de Piedra Charco Azul”, or “stone house at the blue puddle”. The puddle had been transformed into a small pool defined by a precise rocky rectangle, suitable for swimming.

Each couple received a key to one of the stucco bungalows. Inside we found the first truly modern (21st century) interiors we’d seen in Cuba. All the doors closed properly, the toilets were sturdy, beds firm and comfy, beddings new and clean. What was this place?

Apparently a resort for bird watchers. Looking out from our private balcony into the surprisingly dense forest beyond, we heard (but did not see) feathered creatures calling to us as the sun set filtered through the leaves. Later, at dinner, we learned this is also a nature park, featuring hiking/equestrian trails. Clearly not for the Cubans, but meant for northern European visitors.

A stark contrast to our Soviet-era Hotel Playa Giron the night before. Set in an equally stunning spot, hard on the Caribbean shore, this concrete block edifice was filled with non-functioning tourist attractions, such as snorkeling, bodyboarding and a surf-side cabaret. We had likewise stayed in individual stucco’d cabins. But these were flaking, barely furnished, with creaky floors, leaky toilets, off kilter doors, and each set about 50 yards apart it’s neighbor, necessitating a lengthy walk to and from dinner and breakfast. The sea wall was crumbling. It may have served for Bulgarians or Muskovites fleeing an endless winter, but Northwestern Europeans would not tolerate it.

En la mañana, we would tackle “Los Americanos”, a ride through the surrounding nature preserve, up steep hills, down swooping curves, on traffic free roads. This was the source of excited chatter at dinner, nervous trepidation, and early bed times for all but one or two party boys, who found the two stool pool-side bar ample for their needs.

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