The Caribbean Sea
The largest and least expensive island in the Caribbean. Havana with its vintage cars belongs to another era. So how about the rest of the island?
Visually, I found it pretty although decaying. Sensually, it was exotic. Emotionally, it was distressing at times. Don't bother to go if you like to shop (no brand shops here) or if you are a gourmet. Do come if you like to experience something different. Pharmacies still use old glass bottles. It’s cheaper to hire a vintage car than a modern one. The sunrises are orange. The beaches are vendor-free. The lack of internet is liberating. Who knew? It’s always cocktail time. And did I mention the salsa?
I came to Cuba with my family in January 2019. For me it was the first time, while my husband and son came here a few years before. On this occasion we decided to stay one week. We stayed in the capital for three days and for our experience of it, see my post Havana. In short, I was struck by the decaying splendour of the city and its empty shops and my heart bled for the people. I was brought up in communist Czechoslovakia and we always had food on our table, unlike the people of Cuba. I felt Cuba was abandoned by its old communist friends. And I felt personally responsible.
However, the rest of the week we spent on the road and that restored my faith in Cuba. In the given time, we could not possibly cover the whole island but I feel that we had a taste of it. Here are my observations.
We found the weather rather cool but everything is relative. This is because we came here from Riviera Maya on the coast of Mexico, where we have lived for the last five years. The weather is sub-tropical in both places but maybe in Cuba it was cooler due to the winds and rain coming from the Atlantic Ocean. After all, Cuba is in the northern Caribbean where the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet. On the practical side, driving across the island in a 1952 Chevrolet felt cold too, as draught was hitting us from the back and the side, no matter how well maintained the car was by its owner Noel. Yes, we hired a classic car with a driver, although next time I would rent a car, having already experienced the roads here. While there are no road signs across the island, the place is safe and fun for driving by yourself. People are warm and they will direct you, wherever you stop.
Everywhere we went on El Cocodrilo (the nickname due to the shape of the island), we saw royal palms, the national tree of Cuba, often with mountains in the background. And, of course, sugarcane, coffee, and rice plantations were omnipresent. However, despite growing them locally, the locals get only five pounds of rice per month through the food-rationing system, and sugar is also rationed.
Near the town of Santa Clara, cowboys worked the fields along the side of the road. Men mounted on horses, young and old, wearing boots and even barefoot, outnumbered the cars. Rodeo and ranching in Cuba trace back to the Spaniards, who introduced horses and cattle to the island, along with cowboy and rodeo traditions. According to Noel, rodeo in Cuba is second only to baseball, the national sport. Throughout Cuba’s countryside, horses are a means of transportation for cowboys and non-cowboys alike. Mind you, we have learnt from the locals that cows are kept only for milk here. Anyone caught killing cows or carrying beef can be sentenced to four to ten years in prison. Yes, it is a criminal act to eat beef without the state's permission. And even that measure does not help with the milk situation. If a child is born, the family gets a ration of one litre per day until the child is six years old. Then until age 12 they can get soy milk. After that, no supply, unless they go to PanAmerican shops where everything costs 25 times more.
On the roadside, there was an occasional ramada made of bamboo where villagers sold juice. Others stood on the side of the highway offering strings of garlic and bananas. Changes are already coming to the countryside, as the government is now opening more idle land to farmers and co-operatives. For now, there are fewer private cars than buses and we spotted only one hitchhiker, although government-owned vehicles are required to pick up hitchhikers. On the way we stopped a couple of times to eat in pretty roadside restaurants, only to find out that juice was the only thing on offer. The villages themselves look rather colourful, but if you want to stay in any of the small villages off the beaten track, you will need to check first if there is a hotel or casa particular (private homestay), not to get stranded at night.
We made six stops on our route. Two of them were beaches, Varadero in the north and Ancón in the south, just for a quick dip, and to compare with the Riviera Maya coast that we know so well. Well, both were long beaches with considerably fewer tourists than we have in Riviera Maya. So if you like quiet beaches, you will like the beaches of Cuba. The sand was less white than in the Riviera, but still fine enough. The water was light blue and clean. Some resort hotels looked built in the Soviet style, and I can't vouch for their services as we did not try them. But maybe that is what is keeping the crowd numbers low.
We absolutely loved the three colonial towns that we visited and the Valley of the Sugar Mills, with old haciendas that used to produce sugar. Here we found stalls with sugar cane juice called guarapo and admired the view of the hills from Hacienda Manaca Iznaga's tall watchtower. In the past from there the guards watched the slaves working in the sugar fields. It is this work of the slaves that made the sugar barons of nearby Trinidad very rich. Their palace homes are well renovated today so the town feels like a fairy tale frozen in time. The city of Cienfuegos has even larger palaces of the sugar barons on its malecón (seaside boardwalk). The town of Santa Clara is known as the City of Che Guevara, as it has his monument, mausoleum and museum. We found this cobbled-street city very romantic, with a lively social life on the benches of the main plaza, Parque Vidal. Here we also found a vibrant music scene, which everybody praises Cuba for, and the only official gay club in the country. We enjoyed a guaracha band with comic lyrics, known as the local Buena Vista style. The city of the little cultural revolution, I would say. We were particularly amused by the goat carriage rides for children, a symbolic representation of Che's journey from his hometown in Argentina into the big unknown world. What a form of weekend family entertainment! You could not invent it if you wanted to.
From the small villages to the streets of Havana, we could see evidence of the economic struggle. So while Fidel and Che did succeed with the revolution, they did not bring 'wealth' to its people. I doubt if they brought equality either. We stayed the first two nights in a casa particular in Old Havana and I found it shocking that the old houses, that looked as if they would collapse any minute, housed Afro-Cubans only. No accommodation solution for them? The rest of the population seemed to be housed elsewhere, undoubtedly somewhere safer. And none of the Afro-Cubans seemed to be employed; they were just sitting outside their decrepit houses. I believed that in communist countries everybody had the right and the duty to work, like we had it in Czechoslovakia. It seems the same does not apply in Cuba and at first sight it looked to me like discrimination. However, there is hope, as the new constitution (of April 2019) bans discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation. Only time will tell if this is truly implemented.
The most important aspect of Cuba is that wherever you travel the people are interesting and interested. We talked to many and found them quite open. Cubans have this unbelievable ability to not dwell on all the hardships. If I lived on an island that had been screwed by everyone from the Spanish to the Americans, including their own government, I'd be ready to moan. But they all told us the same positive story: they are ready for change.
The average Cuban salary right now is the equivalent of about $20US per month, while a doctor in Havana earns $40US. However, many living expenses are subsidised, so we need to see it in perspective. People aren’t homeless and starving, and they have free healthcare and education, but they are not consumers flush with cash. Despite this, I am not sure this would be a place for me to live. To visit, yes, but to live? Take education, for example. It would bother me being educated but knowing there was little productive I could do with that education. We met a waitress in Havana who studied dentistry but working in a private bar gives her a better living. Ask any waiter here; they have a university education but now work in private bars for foreigners. The recently introduced private ownership is already producing little wonders. You may say it's no different back home: a few years ago the UK Office of National Statistics reported that a third of graduates were in low-paid unskilled jobs. The difference is 'low-paid'; in Cuba private ownership is providing better-paid jobs than those that require an education.
And while we went to see the Museum of the Revolution in Havana and Che's Mausoleum in Santa Clara, the visitors were all foreigners. We did not see a single Cuban admiring the revolutionary deeds, nor did we find one person who would tell us they still worshipped the icons of the Cuban Revolution. Although the sculptures and posters of Fidel and Che can be seen everywhere, I don't think they are in Cuban hearts any more. Yet the people were all passionate about their country, full of new hope. Let's hope their new reforms will happen at the right speed for them. Not too fast, not too slow.
How to get there:
This depends where you are coming from. Air France, KLM, Air Canada, Finnair, American Airlines are a few of those that fly here. There is a visa requirement for all, except for the nationals from Visa-exempt countries. There is also a travel insurance requirement, although nobody checks at the airport. If you are from Europe and want to apply for a Cuba Tourist card, you can apply online. If you are American, it is still legal to travel Cuba with a US passport, even after the June 2019 travel restrictions. For the details on how to go about it, check viahero.com.