Journey into Cuba: inside the legendary island's cities and backlands
This is a Cuban proverb that had proven itself to be true the moment I arrived on the Caribbean island. I was hanging out of the crooked car window of an old American vehicle that had been renovated over a dozen times. My hair was dancing in the wind and my skin was bathed in the heat that enveloped the city, even late at night. We were on our way to Cárdenas, a smaller city in the north-central part of Cuba that rarely enjoys the company of tourists, or “yumas,” as they are referred to by the population.
In Cárdenas I was going to be staying with the family of an acquaintance of mine. Their kindness reached beyond my expectations and I was soon told to call her parents “Mami” and “Papi.” Awash in the spirit of Cuba, our arrival was to be celebrated with a dinner and every attending family member contributed with an authentic dish of their own. The smell of rich, herbed, and fruity foods filled the courtyard of the small house and soon enough we were setting the table with arroz congrí, oven-cooked chicken, cold salads, breadbaskets, lobster, and flan for dessert. It was a feast that most Cubans wouldn’t be able to afford and it was an honor to be treated in such fashion.
During my days in Cárdenas I got the unique opportunity to experience Cuba from a local perspective. I was living under one roof with Mami and Papi, roamed the streets to pick up groceries, went dancing late at night, sat on our front porch to gaze at the stars and exchange stories about the world with next-door neighbors, and cycled amongst horses, donkeys, and bicycling-taxis that filled the streets. I also swam at a small beach that that was located next to a run-down rum factory that overlooked a specific part of the sea where many had attempted to leave the island in the past.
It was a great start of my trip and only the beginning of a mind-blowing journey that would culminate in an active series of experiences, fascinating landscapes and inspiring encounters with Cuban society. I was nervous, this I had to admit. I had traveled by myself before but that had been in a country where people spoke English, where one could always rely on Internet and Mobile data connectivity, and pay with debit and credit cards. This trip would be different, that was certain.
Each city and town that I visited in Cuba has a style of its own. Santa Clara is best known for its historical influence during the 1959 Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. The Tren Blindado was a train that got derailed by guerrilla leader Che Guevara and his troops. It was a historical moment for Cuba and as a result, three of its red wagons have been made available as a historical attraction and now serve as a museum for tourists and visiting Cubans alike. Another impressive monument was the Che Guevarra Mausoleum, a blank plaza that showcases an immense statue of Che and sculpted figures of other icons of the revolution.
Trinidad was an idyllic city that, judging by the amount of foreign visitors, was high on the list of must-sees. Unlike other cities, the majority of ventures in Trinidad only allowed tourists to pay using CUC, a separate currency from that of the locals’ that was initially designed for foreigners and the purchase of luxury items, but overtime has become a part of the general economy.
Ernesto, the host of the casa particular that I stayed at, was one of the most generous and accommodating people I met throughout my trip. In 1997 the Cuban government started allowing Cubans to privately rent out rooms in their houses or apartments and since then he has made several rooms in his house available to tourists to generate some extra income. He informed me of all the do’s and don’ts in the area and connected me with a scuba instructor with whom I explored the bottom of the ocean.
During the day I would walk the neatly paved brick streets in an attempt to get a better grasp of Cuban life and visited the Convento de San Francisco, an
bell tower that overlooked the city and offered a great view of the mountains in the distance. Evenings were filled with visits to the renowned Casa de La Musica where locals and visitors alike got to show off their dancing skills and were sometimes followed by dancing festivities in a nearby cave that had been transformed into an underground club.
Visiting Cienfuegos offered quite the opposite experience. The majority of side-streets were typified by potholes and dirty pools of water that one had to be careful not to step into. Its plentiful, pompous manors and palaces are the heritage of the city’s cosmopolitan and prosperous history and the Teatro Tomás Terry is a must-see theater that has showcased performances by legendary artists ranging from Enrico Caruso to Anna Pavlova.
One of my favorite features of Cienfuegos was the Paseo del Prado, an elongated street that stretched from the northern part of the city all the way to its most southern point. Walking along the bay area offered a welcome breeze and the paseo was connected to a small road that led to a hidden beach where Cuban families splashed in the water. Here I went inside the water and, being the only tourist, was struck by how easily the local population took me in.
A young boy that couldn't have been older than five years came up to me and without expecting an answer asked, "You're not from here are you? Would you like to play a game?" He presented an empty can of soda, lifted the lid and hit it as hard as he could with his middle finger. He gestured that it was my turn and explained that the person to knock it off would be the winner. However, his attention was quickly caught by an older boy that was giving out candy and he left as suddenly as he'd come. I particularly enjoyed this moment because I was blown away by his inventive idea to make up a game with what little he had, proving that the smallest things in life can make us happy and the importance of sharing those moments with others. This would continue to be a reoccurring theme throughout my entire journey and is one of the characteristics that I came to appreciate most about cubans.
Viñales was a rural city that was situated in a dreamlike landscape of green and lush mountain valleys. I remember waking up to the sound of a pig being slaughtered next door and the rumbling of horse carriages that drove by. My days were filled with horse riding through the valleys along with visits to caves where one could swim in an underground lake as well as a trip to one of the tobacco farms where cigars were rolled right in front of our eyes. One sight that should not be missed is the Mural de la Prehistoria, a large mural in the Valle de Dos Hermanos that had reportedly been ordered by Fidel Castro. The mural has been colored in basic colors that can be found in nature and represents the becoming of the social human being.
Havana is the island’s world-famous capital that long ago used to be the Las Vegas of the Caribbean but underwent a major transformation throughout the Revolution. It is a complex, vibrant city where the richest and poorest of Cubans meet in the busy suburbs that thrive on tourism. Many youth move here in the hope to find prosperity and opportunities to start a modern life for themselves.
The city is a center where young students attend school six days a week, where elderly men play dominos and seek shade on park benches as the younger ones catcalled after women and cycled their way through the city to make what little money they can. It is a city where women support babies on their hips as they converse with next-door neighbors and where eager tourists wander the streets with dollars ready to spend.
The province is divided in 15 parts with Habana Vieja, or “Old Havana,” being the most thriving one because of its historical heritage that over the years has undergone several renovations with the help of UNESCO. The neighborhood houses over 900 landmarks including the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral Square. Socialist slogans and illustrations can be found in most of street corners that easily stand out on the walls of vibrantly colored houses.
Major parts of the city consist of run-down houses that give the city a picturesque look as well as the American vintage cars roaming around, offering tourists the opportunity to explore the city fifties-style and drive on the legendary Malecón with its sea walls overtaken by constant waves. It is a common meeting place for Cubans after the sun has set and a welcoming air in a city that for so many years symbolized the encroachment of Communism in the Western hemisphere. Tradition is upheld with the ritual of firing a cannon every night at 9:00 P.M., once used to announce the closing of the forts and city walls, but nowadays is a cultural ceremony that serves as a reminder of the island’s vibrant history.
As my journey came to an end, I came away with the impression that Cuba is a country rich with a luminous vibrant culture that has overcome many obstacles in the storm of history and did so with a humorous approach. The tropical temperature tempers the character of the Cuban people and their inventive and generous approach culminates in a rhythm of life that is as elegant and alive as a joyful dance.