Cowboys, horseback rides and pig roasts make for family adventure in Cuba

CIENFUEGOS, CUBA—It was on the drive home from Hacienda La Vega to Cienfuegos that we came across a road block involving a multitude of cowboys and a couple of defiant cows. The villagers stood outside their front doors watching as the cows alternated between refusing to walk and fighting against the cowboys’ ropes. When I jumped out of my taxi for a closer shot of the battle of wills, one woman shouted a stern warning that translated as: “Be careful because the cows are not like the bulls. Bulls close their eyes and attack. Cows attack with open eyes.”

There were cowboys dotting the road that mildly hot December day, sporting leather cowboy hats, some even wearing chaps. It felt for a moment like we were back in Alberta. I fought the urge to beg to join either the cowboys or the farmers on horseback — a more relaxed bunch wearing floppier hats and travelling solo.

At Hacienda La Vega, though, I got saddle time, riding behind the roadside homes through fields and past garlic crops, communing with more placid cows and their egret friends, goats, chickens and pigs, passing through gates, riding down side roads to a sandy cove with crystal clear water. My 9-year-old daughter got to ride, but for safety’s sake my 5-year-old son went in a wagon with my husband.

The writer's daughter gets time in the saddle in the countryside with a farmer from Hacienda La Vega.

The writer’s daughter gets time in the saddle in the countryside with a farmer from Hacienda La Vega.

I went to Cuba to celebrate a milestone birthday — my 50th — and our first Christmas away from home. It was my third trip here in just one year and I wanted my family to understand why this island nation is so much more than a beach resort.

A suckling pig seemed a fitting birthday splurge. Hacienda La Vega — a cattle ranch that offers trail rides and lunch — had a small pig and enlisted a restaurant neighbour to roast it on a spit over charcoal for hours for a feast rounded out by rice and beans, roast squash, cabbage and tomato salad and the all-important mojo (garlic and oil sauce for the meat). The crispy pork skin was deep-fried into chicharrones.

The day before, while wandering Trinidad, we had stumbled across a pig roasting on a spit in a restaurant courtyard, but it was hours away from being ready. That same day we had faced a road block of a different kind.

We got to ride in this new horse carriage on its first day out on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad.

We got a ride on a new horse carriage on its first day out on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad.

A bridge just minutes from Trinidad in Sancti Spiritus province was unexpectedly closed for a safety check. There was talk that it might have been rumbling. Even with a Spanish-speaking guide, answers don’t always come easily in Cuba.

People wandered up and down the row of colourful parked cars, our yellow Cubataxi was flanked by a white Peugot and purple Ford Fairlane. They sought refuge in bits of shade or strolled down to the Caribbean Sea. A spirited horse cart driver that didn’t want to bend to the police officers’ will tried to argue his way past the roadblock, but was turned back. Minutes later, the bridge was declared safe and we were off to Trinidad.

Photogenic Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Spanish during the sugar and slave trade era, is full of cobblestone streets, gorgeous architecture and a rainbow of painted homes. But it was our slick, new red-and-white horse carriage (coche) that turned heads during a one-hour city circuit with a cochero named Armando.

A sunny stroll through the open-air arts-and-crafts market for wooden cars and double-ended dolls (the black Lulu and the white Marilu) did my kids in, so we sought refuge in Restaurante Esquerra, where the specialty is ropa vieja (shredded meat) made with lamb, colourful sprinkles top the flan and the public Wi-Fi is just outside in Plaza Mayor.

At La Canchanchara, our Cubatur guide Ricardo Zaldivar Rodriguez introduced us to Trinidad’s signature cocktail made of honey, lime, water, ice and aguardiente (a rum “fire water”) in small wooden cups. It was the drink of choice of mambises, guerrilla independence soldiers who fought against Spain the late 1800s.

Minutes from town, we had a little white sand beach time at gorgeous Playa Ancon. With just three hotels, it hasn’t been taken over by all-inclusives so it draws a laid-back mix of locals and foreigners. With no change rooms to be found, we slipped into our bathing suits behind a shed and wriggled back into our clothes right on the beach using towels as privacy shields.

Cubans are mad for baseball and, while we didn't get to see a game, we stopped to check out the stadium in Cienfuegos.

Cubans are mad for baseball and, while we didn’t get to see a game, we stopped to check out the stadium in Cienfuegos.

Cuba’s south coast boasts the Caribbean Sea and the Escambray Mountains. After flying into Havana, we made the 3.5 hour road trip past sugar cane fields and rice paddies to Cienfuegos, “Pearl of the South.” It’s the only Cuban city settled by French immigrants, starting in 1819. In the upscale neighbourhood of Punta Gorda, sugar baron mansions now mostly house casa particulares and paladars (homestays and private restaurants respectively), but we picked the Hotel Jagua for its pool.

The seven-storey, geometric hotel opened in 1959 as an example of “Cuban architectural rationalism” or “rational modernity” and was influenced by Le Corbusier, according to a commemorative book called Gran Caribe Jagua Hotel: Identity, Culture and Hospitality. (The property is now managed by the Spanish-owned Melia hotel chain.)

Cuban hotels do brilliant breakfast buffets. Also included in the Jagua’s “modern American plan” was dinner, which most nights was offered next door at what we called “the castle,” but is the Palacio de Vallé, another architectural stunner.

For me, the taste of Cienfuegos will be bocadito cerdo asado, a roast pork sandwich served streetside that we lucked into after lining up at the bank one morning to change our Canadian dollars into CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos). Or maybe it was the child-pleasing chocolate ice cream (Nestlé) from the Guanaroca Café across from the hotel.

I missed sampling a termite at Laguna Guanaroca, a protected area with a lake that’s home to flamingos. I hiked past huge termite nests in trees and monstrous ant hills, admiring trees that grow fruit used to make maracas, but missed the row boat ride when my temperamental youngest rebelled. Ditto the El Nicho hike my husband and daughter got to do in the Sierra del Escambray mountains.

Family travel has its challenges and when you try to bend kids to your will, like cowboys with cows, you will lose some battles. Try to enjoy the consolation prizes.

A sunset view from the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos down the Punta Gorda neighbourhood.

A sunset view from the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos down the Punta Gorda neighbourhood.

Every morning we took a moment to appreciate the roosters that woke us up. At Restaurante El Cochinito, I feasted on grilled pork topped with local onions and sided by mashed yucca while a singer serenaded my son one day and a roving vendor sold us homemade popcorn and made-in-Cienfuegos potato chips the next. Two inflatable Santas outside homes sparked a conversation about how privileged we are to live where Santa brings multiple gifts and the shelves of supermarkets and toy stores are always full.

As much as I love the Cuban countryside, my lasting image of Cienfuegos is of the funky Parque de las Esculturas where the kids scrambled around faded modernist sculptures like a non-sensical rhinoceraus and a couple of rather frightening fish clearly trying to make a statement, and sat for a couple of blissful minutes cradled in two giant Cuban hands cupped together in a welcoming embrace.

When you go:

Get there/around: We flew Air Canada to Havana and then hired Cubatur ( to pick us up at the airport and drive us to Cienfuegos (about 3.5 hours) and provide a guide/translator/fixer.

Stay: We stayed at the Hotel Jagua ( in the historic Porto Santo area of Cienfuegos with views of the Caribbean Sea and the all-important swimming pool. We were only allowed two per room so needed two rooms.

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