The casa of Ricardo and Gladys was as delightful and friendly as that of José and Daisy. The Cubans are such welcoming people, and Gladys's evening meals of pork, chicken and top quality home cooking were simply delicious. Without a doubt, eating in private houses is the way to go.
But Camagüey itself was slightly disappointing, probably because our hopes had been raised to fever pitch by the write-up in the Lonely Planet. 'Camagüey enchants on sight,' it said. 'This is one of those places that hijacks your itinerary.' If the author had gushed any more we'd have been swimming for it, but we were taken in with her stories of beautiful plazas and the town's tinajónes, large clay pots that used to be used for storing water in droughts, but which now pop up in courtyards throughout the town for purely aesthetic purposes. It's easy to sympathise with this method of storing water; one group of Canadian tourists we bumped into in town said they liked Cuba, but that there simply wasn't enough water. They'd been staying in hotels rather than casas particulares, and water can be a real problem; Manuel in Trinidad said it hadn't rained for a year (though that very night the heavens opened and an almighty tropical storm dumped its load on top of us) and Ricardo confirmed the same story (though he didn't believe us about the rainstorm in Trinidad, so perhaps there's an element of bravado in the suffering too). Water is delivered by tractor to many houses in the cities, but luckily our casa had a borehole in the garden with a hand-pump, so we never ran out.
Anyway, legend has it that those who drink from tinajónes will fall in love with Camagüey and will return again and again, though I prefer the alternative version of the story that says that any man who is offered water by a maiden from a tinajón must accept the drink, but if he does he will fall in love with her and will never leave. With stories like this in the background, Camagüey sounded delightful; in the end it didn't quite live up to the hype, though it was pleasant enough.
I've often found this problem with guidebooks. To use a guidebook successfully you have to get to know how the author thinks, particularly with Lonely Planet guides, which tend to be more opinionated than others (incidentally, we also took the Footprint Guide to Cuba, which was better in almost all respects). Some Lonely Planets have been excellent (India and Australia spring to mind), some have been adequate (such as Malaysia and Nepal) and some totally out of kilter with my own approach to life (like West Africa and Indonesia), and it seems the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba falls into the latter category. It doesn't help that it's littered with annoying American phrases and spelling – I don't 'haul ass' or 'kick it' a great deal, and all the other Lonely Planets I've bought in England have bothered to put the 'u' into 'colour' – but all that is window dressing compared to the facts. Camagüey might be a pleasant enough place to visit, but I really can't understand how the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba fell in love with it so much.
Presumably she drank from a tinajón or two during her visit...
Plazas and Casas
Camagüey does have its charms, though, even if it wasn't quite enough to hijack our itinerary. Its main draw card for tourists is the proliferation of plazas dotted throughout the city, some of which are rather pleasant and some of which are completely forgettable. We spent a very hot morning and afternoon wandering round the best of them, taking a long break at lunch in a pretty little restaurant which emptied of tourists as soon as we arrived, only to be replaced by what I can only assume were local girls having photographic makeovers.
In the shaded courtyard that kept the worst of the sun from burning holes in our heads, first a pretty brunette and then a slightly less fortunate blonde spent half an hour posing by various tinajónes and streetlights while a photographer snapped away with the girl's family looking on. If the mothers were anything to go by, it was a wise move to try to capture their daughters' beauty on film before the effects of gravity and high-fat food started to win, and we had a ringside view of proceedings. Some things are the same the world over, and given the unease with which the girls staggered around in high heels and thick make-up, adolescence is just as confusing in Cuba as it is elsewhere, though as it's normal to get married here at around 20, perhaps some aspects of adolescence live a little shorter then they do in the West.
The plazas of Camagüey also, at times, suffer from rather too much make-up. The prettiest of the lot, Plaza Carmen, has a charming church at one end, newly painted and patched-up houses, a lovely little restaurant that charges tourist prices that are quite a shock after the rest of town, and a collection of life-size clay statues of people going about their business, from the old man pushing a cart full of water jugs and a couple canoodling on a bench, to another man reading the newspaper and three women sitting on chairs and catching up on the gossip. There are some nice touches: there's a fourth, empty chair in the middle of the old women where tourists can scarcely resist the photo opportunity, and the cuddling couple sits at one end of a bench, inviting visitors to become art imitating art, but despite this obvious attempt to create an enticing and picturesque square, I found it a little clinical. Everything was just a little too neat, and a little too clean; Cuba isn't like that, and the people living in the renovated houses round the square looked a little out of place after the chaotic bustle of the nearby suburban ramshackle.
The other squares vary. Plaza de los Trabajadores is mostly a car park for tourist cars and buses, though the pink-coloured Nuestra Señora de la Merced church is an impressively dominating structure; Plaza Maceo is a forgettable junction square; Parque Ignacio Agramonte is grand and sits picturesquely under the towering Santa Iglesia Catedral; Plaza del Cristo is hot and dry and home to lots of dust and boisterous kids playing baseball with sticks and stones, though it's worth visiting for the necropolis behind the church of Santa Cristo del Buen Viaje, where the graves and mausoleums are fascinating; and Parque Martí is livened only by the reconstruction of the modern neo-gothic church of El Sagrado Corazón de Jesus. There are many squares, but not many great ones.
Pros and Cons
One of the biggest problems with Camagüey's squares is that they're empty, turning them into ovens at midday and giving you nowhere to pause. It's almost as if they have been designed to concentrate the heat; trees would transform them into oases, but trees just aren't the thing round here (though not because of a lack of water, as palms thrive happily all over Cuba). Some of the squares, such as the Plaza San Juan de Dios, have cafés with tables outside, but this is the exception, and even in San Juan it was far too hot to sit outside in the shimmering cobbles, so we ducked inside and sat out the back. Cuba excels in hidden little restaurants in pretty backyard settings, but this means the squares themselves are rarely places to enjoy; this is not the country for sitting in squares, sipping a coffee and watching the world go by. The world is generally inside, sweltering, and I can only assume that things get worse in the summer.
Even in the evening, things don't liven up much. We'd read in both our guidebooks about the celebrated Noche Camagüey, in which the main road through town, the República, is cordoned off and plays host to stalls purveying food, alcohol, music and a good time; this, said the guidebooks, happened every single Saturday, so we dutifully hung around town, waiting for things to kick off. And we waited, and waited, and waited, until we finally asked our waitress whether anything was going to happen later. She looked completely blank and didn't know anything about any night market along the República; it seems that the Noche Camagüey is either a thing of the past, or a figment of the guidebook authors' imaginations.
There was one saving grace, though, and that was the central Plaza de la Solidaridad. If it wasn't for the ancient brickwork of the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad church peeking out from under layers of flaking plaster, this square would be little more than a traffic junction, but tucked around behind the high walls of the church is a lovely little bar restaurant where we gladly hid from the sun along with plenty of other tourists.
It wasn't just a spot for tourists, though, because it turned out to be a great place to watch Camagüey's prostitutes in action. Prostitution used to be one of the big draws of Cuba in the pre-revolution days of excess, and although it all but disappeared after 1959, when Cuba was effectively off the tourist trail, prostitution has made a bit of a comeback in recent years. If you're a single man (or, indeed a single woman) wandering round Havana at night, you'll not be short of offers, and it's the same in Camagüey. The number of distinctly mediocre westerners to be seen out with gorgeous, short-skirted Cuban girls is surprisingly large, and the dollar restaurants of Camagüey are a good place to see them sharing an awkward meal in which they discover they have nothing in common save a desire for something the other one has got. It's tinged with more than a little sadness on both sides, but that's business.
You have to know it's there to spot it, though, and I'm sure plenty of visitors float through Cuba without even noticing the pros in action. Cuban women dress to impress whatever their profession, and short skirts and tight tops are de rigeur for those who can (and often for those who can't, rather unfortunately). The men do the same, with tight trousers and pec-hugging tops, and the overall effect is of a country in love with wiggling hips, long legs, sexy dancing and flirting as a way of life. Waitresses in the smartest restaurants wear white shirts, black waistcoats, neatly tied hair, tiny miniskirts and long stockings, a look that in a city like London would edge onto the tarty, but which looks nothing other than smart in Cuba.
However, the pros do go one step further and sport the shortest skirts, the tightest tops, the glossiest lipstick and the longest hair. But they're easy to spot because they're not bubbling over with the joie de vivre that characterises most Cuban woman when they walk down the street; it's hard to explain why, but it's not hard to spot the tarts from amongst the vicars, especially after a few afternoons spent hiding from the sun in the central plazas of Camagüey.