Cuba: A Time Capsule.
“Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” – Ché Guevara
Do you like WW2-style rationing, a state-controlled press and the notion of rolling back Americanisation for the good of your fellow comrade? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Cuba, where you don’t get a say in the matter.
Stuck in its own colonial time capsule, Cuba is what happens when a charismatic band of bearded renegades are left in charge of an entire municipal system: ramshackle, beautiful chaos. By creating a socialist economy that removed all incentive to innovate and progress, Castro and Guevara formed a country where the likes of free healthcare and poverty coexist, and inadvertently made an astounding travel destination, unique in a world becoming more homogenous every day.
“I remember being excited to see my first ‘real life’ communist, before feeling disappointed on realising they were boringly human in appearance.”
Of course, the recent talks of Cuba opening trade with America again is set to change all that. What made my trip in the August of 2015 so interesting was that, on one hand, Cuba was still a wormhole to the 1950’s (with all the vintage Chevrolets to prove it), but on the other hand, it was going through a cataclysmic shift not seen since the start of the 1953 revolution. My adventure unfolded like this…
I’d never seen the Caribbean before. I’m unsure what the normal reaction is, but mine was possibly a little OTT. When I saw the Columbian coast meet the same cyan waters I’d seen advertised a thousand by Thomas Cook, I was so awestruck all I could do was hold the camera to the window, gape, and tell Emma to be more animated. Emma is my ‘uni friend’, a well-seasoned traveller used to such sights, but nothing could prepare either of us for Havana.
“Havana is like a bankrupt 19th century aristocrat that downright refuses to stop buying himself luxuries.”
Having read Orwell’s 1984, I’d gone to Cuba naively assuming that Big Brother, 2 + 2 = 5 and doublethink would be as commonplace as a London bus. In this frame of mind, I remember being excited to see my first ‘real life’ communist, before feeling disappointed on realising they were boringly human in appearance. In fact, for the first few days, it was the similarities to home, rather than the differences, that struck me most. For instance, I saw a teenage couple holding each other on the beach wall: “WHAT HEROES!” thought I, remembering the plot of 1984, “how brave! Is love legal in Cuba?”
I’m embarrassed about this now: obviously Cuban people have the same basic human emotions. In fact, they express them more freely than your typical European. Yet, as weeks went by, I gradually became aware of how Cuban society was different, which was more commonly shocking than not e.g. janitors earn as much as doctors (£20/month).
Havana is like a bankrupt 19th century aristocrat that downright refuses to stop buying himself luxuries. As such, the cathedrals are tip-top, the hotels are majestic and the parties rave until dawn. For tourists at least, it’s easy to overlook deeper problems like poverty and crumbling houses, and I forgave the urine stench, the humidity, and the thickly polluted air quickly.
There was heaps to do, but cultural musts for the budgeting traveller include: Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes, El Fuerte de Fuerza Real (GOLD BULLIONS!) and Museo de Ciudad (GUNS AND DAGGERS!).
The nightlife was simple: grab your friends, (which for a Cuban includes everyone from your mum to the long lost mate you found two hours ago) and hit the Malecón. This was like the city’s communal beachside lounge, where everyone drinks on the street to the backdrop of the sound of salsa troubadours and waves breaking. Most Cubans can’t afford a nightclub, so it’s always packed. It also means that more expensive bars, like the London-priced Floradita, are frequented purely by tourists. As a result, the Cuban youth are top notch at finding free ways to have fun, as evidenced by our game of street football with a half-flat ball.
Looking back on the trip as a whole, Havana was a cultural and economic hub; the place to get, see, and do anything and everything. But my best experiences happened on the road…
“The most Ché-centric place on the island”
Santa Clara was our first stop, and the lack of tourists made it appealing after Havana. It was also the most Ché-centric place on the island, and communist-age propaganda papered the town walls. Yet, some locals didn’t even know about the Plaza de Revolution, suggesting some kind of disenchantment with the communist era; after all, it is the greatest monument of Ché Guevara’s contribution to the revolution.
The Plaza itself seemed a cross between a rally square and a baseball stadium (Cuba’s favourite sport). It was vast, and at one end stood a bronze statue of Ché proudly wielding a machine gun atop a pillar, inscribed with his famous mantra “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” – Until Victory, always. Beneath the square lies Ché’s museum, and his very bones lie in a crypt aside a rock garden. Take off your hat when entering unless you want to appear disrespectful (as I accidentally did).
After a night of salsa and Emma being harried by several Cuban men, we hit the road again.
“A silhouette on the horizon, a flash of light, and a man of 60 years adorned with a white cowboy hat, white wellies and moustache to match…”
Havana is one of three must-see places in Cuba. Another is Trinidad.
Trinidad is an UNESCO-approved gem. The streets are cobbled, the walls are Smartie-coloured, and the gardens are abuzz with hummingbirds. The buildings are just as beautiful, and many offer a great view of the surrounding countryside, thick with jungle, and the glittering Caribbean to the south. There was a cave nightclub too, which was expensive, sweaty, and a massive highlight for me (even if the only Cubans there were staff and/or hookers). The music was reggaeton. The only solace to be had in leaving the caves was returning to the stunning Casa Meyer, our ‘casa particular’ that evening. Casa particulars are the Cuban version of a B&B, they can be found everywhere across Cuba and average around £14/night.
NB: Drinks are as strong as they are cheap in Cuba and, provided you like rum, you’ll have no problem getting hungover. Be wary of the vodka, or anything not rum-based for that matter (see later pre-drinks disaster).
My favourite part of Trinidad was the sugar plantation trip. Not because of the sugar (there was none, for reasons unexplained), but because we decided to walk back to the nearest town instead of taking a taxi. “The most romantic walk in all of Cuba,” the guidebook said, and so we ignored the taxi drivers’ warnings that the railway bridge was broken, and headed down the train line.
So the railway bridge wasn’t exactly in tip-top condition after all. The sleepers had corroded with time, and the far drop into the river below made it look like a Takeshi’s Castle challenge. Oh, and there were hornet nests under the rails, making literally kicking a hornets’ nest a distinct possibility. But the taxi drivers looked on, and rather than lose face, all seven of us gingerly took to the task.
The task wasn’t going well. Aude, one half of a beautiful French couple we’d met at our casa, quipped that perhaps it was a ‘romantic’ walk because the man could save the damsel in distress. We’d made 10 metres in as many minutes, and in dire straits.
But then, a silhouette on the horizon, a flash of light, and a man of 60 years adorned with a white cowboy hat, white wellies and moustache to match literally ran over the same bridge to help us. By us, I meant the girls, whom he guided through the hornet minefield in no time. Then he laughed and watched the boys helplessly make a fool of themselves. Actually that guy was a bit of a dick.
He received a tip from the damsels he’d saved. Emma and I didn’t tip, and this is why:
1) I was jealous
2) I’m a student
3) Some Cubans will happily wring dollars from any tourist, under the impression that we have more money than them. And we do, especially as there’s a high proportion of over-25’s travellers. But they take it too far, where other countries seem happy to receive a mutually fair amount.
It got to the point where you’d ignore a ‘hello’ in the street because you knew the conversation would end with someone somehow wangling cash out of you: quick to offer help, but quicker still to hold out a hand for a tip afterwards. A Cuban would never rob you* but some short-change travellers routinely.
*Stealing so much as 1$ from a tourist is a minimum of ten years in prison
Hence there was rarely a deed done purely for humanity’s sake, and this was something that we decided not to fuel. Of course, it’s ultimately the poverty caused by the socialist system that’s to blame.
Anyway, rant over. It was definitely a walk to remember, and the treacherous bridge and walk afterwards was a reminder to always say yes when exploring, rather than Google it first to check it was safe.
Emma’s favourite stop. This was a surprise given the mixed reviews of the colonial French towns, and even in the so-so weather that accompanies the tail-end of a hurricane. Let’s just say we found the town worthy of its title: Pearl of the South.
Top of the list was El Nicho. A series of waterfalls that carves a blue line through dense green jungle. We beat the crowds for utterly breath-taking views and a dip in the clear blue pools. Emma needed a little convincing in the form of a reverse rugby tackle to go head and shoulders under the especially fresh freshwater.
After five or six breakdowns on the way back, we had grabbed a few ice creams at 9p/scoop, then headed to a square whilst we awaited the bus. The square was home to their Parliament, and more cultural delights such as a neo-classical theatre and a museum.
It was also here I asked a carpenter to carve me a guitar pick out of wood. Something must have been lost in translation, because he duly picked up his guitar and offered it to me. I seized the opportunity to introduce the present Cuban kids to The Beatles. I also introduced them to The Sex Pistols, inadvertently whipping them into a frenzy and before long Cienfuegos square became a boxing ring. Whoops. I eventually got my wooden guitar pick though, and quickly fled the scene with Emma to grab the bus to Playa Girón.
Alighting the bus at Playa Girón, we immediately received a warm reception from some locals. One of them had a cool bandana, so cool that I bought two. We negotiated at length on the price, but eventually settled on me paying £7.50 and buying drinks for everyone there (?!?). In any case, the deal tuned to gold as the extra £3 spent on drink bought us a salsa lesson and a guide of sorts, who got us a casa for £10. There was even a pool!
I’d never Scuba-dived before, and all I had to go on was what Emma had taught me the night before. Fortunately, I ignored the probability of getting the bends, and after a quick demo before jumping in, had one of the most memorable hours of my life ebbing and flowing with the undercurrents of the Caribbean Sea. The reef itself was fluorescent from all the Sun that filtered through the surface above, and we saw lionfish in the hull of a sunken ship. £15 well spent. It is my personal highlight, and we’d chosen an amazing area to dive: the Bay of Pigs. That might ring a bell for the GCSE historians among you; it’s where the Cubans crushed an American invasion and stunned the world in the process. I also lost two games of chess against my Scuba-diving instructor, who was one of many Cubans who play daily and hence are all grandmasters.
“The Cuban salsa scene; a colourful barrage of maracas, alcohol, and people who dance better than you.”
Viñales is the third must-see destination. There are five things to do there: explore the valley, the caves, the coffee plantations and the tobacco farms. Luckily, the 5th thing is to horse trek between all of them, and so all were checked off in one afternoon.
Trekking around a rocky expanse of jungle-crested mountains on horseback was an experience in itself, the fresh morning sun lighting the valley dramatically, and worth getting up early for. Papito, our eccentric guide, first led us to a coffee farm. Here we learnt about making Arabica coffee, and sampled some fresh espressos, which were good if not worth the price tag. The poverty of the farm was as clearly visible as the ribs of the livestock in its fields, and it was another reminder of how the Cuban people relied on tourists to make ends meet.
Second stop, the cave, or tunnel, as it soon transpired to be. I actually found the cave itself all the same, and a little boring, and so Papito tried to save this dull section of our horse trek with some ridiculous wit. Luckily, it was so ridiculous it became actually funny. So when he cast his torch on yet another rocky shape and declared it an ‘elephant’, the group fell into hysterics.
The tobacco farm was my favourite stop, and offered the best view of Viñales valley. A refreshing Mojito cost £2, and the farmer demonstrated how to roll a cigar as we puffed away on a complementary cigar of our own. I asked if I could roll one myself, and after handing over a little cash, I soon had ‘cigar maker’ to add to my CV. It was actually easier than rolling a normal cigarette.
Viñales has the best tobacco growing conditions in all of Cuba, and so it was here I bought the majority of mine to take home. I’d do the same again, as the organically grown, honey-dipped cigars available aren’t found elsewhere, unlike the more iconic Cohibas and Montecristos.
That night, I took to the square to find El Pollo the best club in the village (Emma was busy adopting the embryotic position in the casa with a dodgy stomach). With free entry for Cuban nationals, it was here I first fully experienced the Cuban salsa scene, i.e. a colourful barrage of maracas, alcohol, and people who dance better than you. In fact, it was this aspect of the National Curriculum (yes, salsa is compulsory in Cuban schools) that ensured no British bloke could bag a girl ahead of a Cuban. I have video footage of one guy dancing with two girls at once, destroying the ratio and being generally greedy. Luckily, I was with a group comprised of Dave, Jack, Cathrina and Tim, none of whom were Cuban, and we collectively took a wrecking ball to the average level of dancing. It was a fun way to bid farewell to the quaint village of Viñales, our final destination, before returning to Havana.
We met a Leeds medical student on the way back, who’d just spent 6 weeks on placement there. She said the whole system was surprisingly good, and the totally state-funded service Cubans receive was only held back by lack of equipment. Apparently, some treatment is out-dated, but with the highest doctor/capita statistic in the world, this is definitely something the Cuba revolution got right.
The last few days in Havana felt as brief as they were beatific. Cheap vodka, which more resembled paint stripper than anything else, ill kick-started both our nights back in Havana. We visited a jazz club with a London telephone box for a door, and ended up being accused of burglary by the owner. That was an exciting misunderstanding.
But all good things must come to an end, and we chose to end ours at the Hotel Nacional, reminiscing over the sunset which bleached the sky a warm auburn colour. Cuba is a colonial Spanish prince, wrapped in second-hand clothes. He hates his parents, and crosses the other side of the track in a prohibition era America to drink, and dance to black music in a salsa rhythm; out of time to the rhythm, but thrilling to behold nonetheless.
Cuba, I’ll see you in twenty years, and hopefully you won’t have changed at all.