Bienvenidos a Cuba
I was woken up by the sound of a roaring rainstorm, outside of our tall windows in a house built in the 1920’s, it's around four in the morning. Tropical rain always sounds different to me, it has a sort of ‘wetter’ quality to it. Thunder grumbles low and slow in the background. It was our first night in Havana, and part of me still can’t believe we’re sleeping in Cuba.
We had flown in from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on one of the first Southwest runs to Cuba since they started flying down a month or two ago. The flight was short, forty-seven minutes long, and it was a noisy flight. Some passengers were probably excited to start their winter vacation, and I suspect some are coming back to see their relatives for the first time in decades. The flight attendant sang ‘Guantanamera’ through the speakerphone as we landed, everybody clapped.
We would spend a few days in Havana, before heading out of town to split a week between Vinales, and Trinidad. I had some expectations in my mind of what it is like to be in Cuba, and perhaps even some stereotypes based on what I’ve heard about the politics and history. But by the end of our trip, most of those perceptions were blown away… and I feel like I know even less about the country after.
Our first day in Havana was mostly spent on a guided tour with Pepe, an entrepreneuring ex-sociologist whose Casa we tried to stay at, but unfortunately was already booked out during this high season. We went along with a few other guests that we met the night before. Pepe arranged two vintage cars for us, because that’s what you do when you’re a turista here: you ride vintage cars. A nicely restored early 1930’s Ford, and a more practically restored mid-50’s Ford. Vintage cars are an obvious attraction here in Cuba, and government-sanctioned taxi drivers knows that.
Google any pictures of Cuba, and first thing you’ll see is one of these old cars driving down some old alley way of Havana Vieja. That’s one of the pre-conceived image of Cuba that I have, at least. But reality is that you’ll also find a good amount of 1970’s Lada from Russia, and plenty of Chinese-made Geelys on the streets. Hyundais are also prevalent here, and I even spotted several new Mercedes.
But it’s the vintage cars that takes the spotlight, how can it not? What I do like about these cars though, is that they’re not restored meticulously for the fancy of some wealthy businessman looking to show it off in the annual Pebble Beach concourse. These cars are ingeniously kept running by tossing together whatever parts are available. I bet lot of these olden Detroit cars--ironically or pointedly--run on Russian Lada engines and transmissions.
If you can take your eyes off of these cars, however, you get to see a bustling, lively, albeit crumbling in some parts capital city of Cuba. Havana in a way is the heart of Cuba. When Fidel, Raul, Che, and Camillo rolled into the city, that’s when the revolution won.
Havana Vieja is the most visited part of the city, where an eclectic mix of restored Spanish, Gothic, Art Deco style buildings, divided by cobblestone streets are packed densely against one another. From here, the structural quality of buildings exponentially decreases as you get further away. Lack of capital investments, resources, and money have over the years chipped away at the walls and roofs. But reconstructions and restorations are underway, slowly for now, but surely to pick up if sanctions are loosen.
People in Cuba are warm and friendly, even in the capital city. Sure if you’re in the tourist district, everybody will try to sell you something. But everywhere else in Havana, they’re mostly just going by their own thing. Growing up, I’ve heard of Cuba as this isolated socialist island-country, ruled by an oppressive militaristic regime. But somehow, I get the sense that people are generally… happy. Don’t get me wrong, life is hard here. This is a very very poor country, and information does not flow as freely as you ideally would think it needs to. But anytime I asked for a portrait of someone, they tend to flash back a sincere smile.
And it’s not all propaganda all the time. Private businesses are allowed to an extent. The government do take a huge chunk of the profit and redistributes it to the country as it sees fit. But homelessness is low here, 85% of Cubans are homeowners. And lot of money are invested in healthcare and training health practitioners. Did you know that Cuba have produced a lung-cancer vaccine that is currently being tested in US and EU? Or that Cuban nurses and doctors were contributed to containing the Ebola outbreak in Africa?
Maybe the most revealing experience we had, was at the hip Fabrica del Arte Cubano (or FAC for short). Located in the residential, but up and coming Vedado neighborhood (honestly, it reminds me of the hipstery East Austin neighborhood), the Fabrica is a converted warehouse that now functions as a modern art-exhibit/bar/cafe/dance hall. And it is open to all.
I was surprised to find the art here to be very honest, conceptual, and open. On one wall is a repeated phonetic spelling of the “DEMOCRACY,” while across from it is a triptych of faces against multi-colored backgrounds. I have no clue what this all means. But it gives you a sense of a different Cuba may be in store in the future.
After about 40-50 minutes of walk, we arrived at the bus station to Vinales. A lush mountain region where a lot of tobacco and other agricultural products are grown. We took Viazul, the nice air-conditioned tourist bus. Tourist buses run pretty regularly here, but they do get booked out during the busy season. The trip should’ve taken 4-hours, but add on a flat tire, it took 4 more hours to get to Vinales.
By the time we got to Vinales, it was close to sunset and too late to go anywhere far. So we strolled around the town. It’s a very small town with just one main streets where all the restaurants are located. There are about 1000 houses in this town, and it seems that nearly all of them are Casa Particulares that you can book a room in through Airbnb. Aside from tobacco, tourism is obviously the primary income here.
The next day we took a guided horseback tour that we arranged from our casa. It’s a nice little tour through the beautiful valley. We got to see the tobacco farm where they showed us how tobaccos are harvested and processed before it's rolled into cigars, then we smoked one dipped in honey. There is, of course, the story of how Cuban cigars helped Che Guevara’s asthma. 90% of the tobacco crops are dedicated to the government cigar factories, and the rest are for local consumption or tourism. Surprisingly, I saw more tourists smoking cigars than locals do throughout the trip.
During the tour, they tried to sell us on everything, from the locally produced liquor from a small guava fruit, to the cigars, to a $2 tour through a cavern. Tourism is important in this region, and it’s growing. More new casa are being built to accommodate increasing number of tourists.
A short cab ride from town takes you to Los Jasminez, an overlook where you can see the whole region.
Sunsets are always spectacular on this island.
Trinidad de Cuba
After another long bus ride, we arrived at Trinidad in the Sancti Spiritus province, more or less halfway between Havana and Santiago. A UNESCO heritage site, the city is very old, founded in the 1500s. Cobblestone streets line the alleyways, in between old spanish colonial style buildings. Most of these buildings are now turned into restaurants and museums.
Just like Vinales, you can take different day excursions out of town. And just like Vinales, the city is filled with tourists, and I mean absolutely filled with them. Hang around the main plaza at night (where everybody goes to drink and check emails) and you’ll see nothing but visitors. Plenty of music coming from the cafes and Paladars--privately owned restaurants in converted buildings. Come around a corner and you might see salsa lessons.
After about an hour bicycle ride (on some very questionable bikes), we reached Playa Ancon, a little beach south of the city. Beaches are beautiful here, the Caribbean sea is blue and clear. Almost no vendors or sellers, other than the occasional fresh coconut guy. With a big beach blanket and a good book, you can spend all day here.
On our last full day in Trinidad, we managed to find a collectivo to take us to Topas de Collantes, a National Park with several waterfalls. We hiked down to Caburni fall, about an hour and a half of straight downhill hike to a cascading waterfall. It’s been awhile since I’ve hiked in a tropical forest, forgot how the humidity can get to you.
But once you’ve reached the Waterfall, you get a nice cool breeze from the mist. And down from the waterfall, visitors dive into the cool waterfall fed swimming hole.
Coming back to the city, we stumbled upon a Paladar with rooftop seating. And luckily, right before sunset, we found ourselves a table facing the sea. With the sun setting against some epic clouds and a band played music right next to our table, it was a nice cap to our trip before we head back to Havana for one last night in Cuba.
Epilogue: Last Night in Havana
We arrived in Havana in the early afternoon, with just enough time to take one more stroll in Havana Vieja, enjoy one last sip of Pina Colada and find some standard tourist trinkets to take back for friends. As we wrapped up our trip in, I feel like I got to see a little bit of Cuba (albeit from a turista point-of-view), but also feeling more perplexed by it. The impact of the embargo is real and noticeable, even as a tourist, and I can’t imagine how much harder it must be for majority of people here.
But it’s also hopeful. Some people described Cuba as a country stuck in time. I find it as a country very much in the verge of change. It’s a country shaped by revolution, both bloody and peaceful. And you can feel that another one is coming. And just like most revolutions, it’ll probably be lead by the young, optimistic, and vibrant new generation of Cubans.
And PS.... She said YES! :D