Camagüey is often overlooked on the tourist route through Cuba. It isn’t as colourful as Trinidad or as captivating as Havana and it doesn’t have the big-ticket sights that draws in visitors. But that was exactly what we loved about it.
It was the first place we visited that felt a little closer to the ‘real’ Cuba, where the workings of the city were not orchestrated solely for tourist enjoyment. We weren’t hassled in the streets, no one approached us trying to sell a tobacco tour or get us to dine in their expensive restaurant. Even when we asked a tour operator about transport options to the beach she said straight up that we could take a public bus instead of giving us the hard sell for her expensive private tour.
The labyrinthine streets where we couldn’t help but lose our way led us to unexpected plazas and unique street art. We could wander freely around the city without fear or frustration of being seen only as a walking dollar sign.
Despite sticking out like sore thumbs we almost felt like we blended in with the crowd. No one cared that we were there as foreigners and for this reason we loved being in Camagüey more than any other Cuban city. Here’s what we got up to during our stay.
In case the name isn’t obvious enough, Cinema Street is an entire laneway dedicated to everything film. With five cinemas and cafes and other business paying homage to the big screen, if you are even a tiny bit into movie watching, this place is a must see.
Many of the complexes opened in the late 40’s and 50’s but were sorely neglected and eventually fell into disrepair. But to celebrate the city’s 500th birthday in 2014, the entire street was given a dramatic facelift. Now the cinemas showcase anything from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to small Cuban films.
To the absolute delight of the cinema attendant in Cine Casablanca we squeezed in 3 movies during our two stops in Camagüey. After our first movie she came straight up and asked if we were interested in the evening session which was due to start in less than an hour. Or perhaps the next morning? What about tomorrow evening?
We politely declined as we were leaving on a bus the next day but she came out beaming when we entered the cinema a week later. She even let us request an unscheduled movie when we rocked up as the theatre was empty.
Unfortunately the movies don’t seem to be that big amongst the Cubans.
The theatres are basic. There are no plush velvet chairs or leg rests, just simple red vinyl seats and a rudimentary projector. But the rooms are air conditioned which was a big plus for us in escaping the Cuban heat and at just 2 CUC a ticket we couldn’t get enough.
We came armed with cups full of 20 cent churros, cones of 10 cent ice-cream and bags of lollies from the corner shop. There is also street popcorn around the corner for those who like a more traditional movie snack.
We really struggled to find decent, and more importantly, cheap food in other cities, but in Camaguëy there seemed to be a liberal sprinkling of great restaurants that weren’t whacked with the tourist tax.
On the recommendation of our casa host we ate at El Carmen on the main pedestrian street Maceo. It looks pretty posh with white linen tablecloths and finely-dressed waiters and some of the menu items are exceedingly expensive, but in the final pages is a full menu for just 3 CUC including a main, drink and dessert. Our host recommended the pork medallions and they didn’t disappoint.
Our friends and expert budget travellers over at klogs and kangaroos also discovered excellent little El Solar. With lobster on the menu for just 3 CUC, this is probably the cheapest (and most delicious) shellfish you will find in the country.
The churros and soft serve ice-creams for next to nothing is also a great stop for a snack. We were there nearly every day.
Half our time in Camaguëy was spent having no idea where we were going.
What we thought was a straight road would veer slightly left and before we knew it we were heading off in another direction altogether or back on a plaza we had passed half an hour earlier.
With so many unmarked alleyway and tiny backstreets trying to follow a map was futile.
So we didn’t.
We just setting out to explore following nothing but our basic instincts and the pull of our cameras and we found some great spots that were not in the guidebook.
There was art work made from paint scrapings and brick, leafy squares with carefully sculpted clay pots for which the town is famous and wooden carts topped with all manner of fresh produce.
Camagüey is the perfect place to wander aimlessly and soak up the workings of a conventional Cuban city.
The ballet, shown at the Teatro Principal, may not be like a show at the Sydney Opera House but it sure is a great cultural experience. The whole town trickles out of the maze of streets, dressed in their finest to fill out the once glamorous theatre. The red vinyl seats are squeezed in tight looking down on the scuffed wooden stage with its heavy velvet curtains.
Family and friends of the performers get pride of place in the front row.
The costumes are bright and colourful rather than demure fairytale princess but that is just the Cuban way.
Note that when the curtains close and house lights go up this doesn’t always mean there is an interval. If you leave your seat there may not be a reminder to return when the show resumes 5 minutes later.
Shows run Friday through Sunday and tickets start at 5 CUC.
With more than a dozen plazas Camagüey definitely has enough open spaces to sit and watch the world go by.
The major squares are surrounded by leafy trees and open-air cafes and are perfect for people watching. Around the wifi zones Cubans congregate on benches and steps loudly discussing life over Skype while holding their phones or laptops in the air to get a better signal. The smaller squares are a little more peaceful.
Many towns have just the one church built in the centre on the main plaza. Not Camagüey.
As the bus drives into town you will notice several sets of spires puncturing the otherwise flat city skyline. This town has many churches.
Take a walk and see for yourself.
Camagüey wasn’t the prettiest or the most charming of places we saw in Cuba but it did feel the most authentic. We loved our time here, getting lost in the maze of streets and stumbling upon unexpected sights.
Have you been to Camagüey? What were your impressions?