Cuba was everything I imagined and a lot more. My decision to fly to Cuba for my birthday was one of the best ideas I've ever had. Flying from Mexico City is the shortest and cheapest ticket you will find so it was a no-brainer. My mother, who I haven't seen in a few years decided to meet us there flying from Peru for the celebrations. And I had this fear in the back of my mind that, change is upon this beautiful country, as the relationships with USA are being re-established, so I really wanted to experience the place before that.
The feeling of walking into a time capsule is undeniable, since the moment you land at the airport, the place is small, slow, kinda stuck in the 70's. As you walk out the door, there's a bunch of different old school taxis waiting to take tourists to their destination. The drive to La Havana takes about 45 minutes, tropical, warm weather, palm trees, small buildings and the smell of the sea.
Taking a stroll through Havana vieja is a must, the colonial buildings are beautiful, colorful and the living proof of a decadent time, there was a period in Cuba's history where money was abundant, the pre-revolution years. Now the decay of many buildings is, on one side very nostalgic, on the other side, very sad. A lot of Havana is being repaired, or restored, which is good, but seems to take a long time, sometimes even longer than it took to build. Irony is a word that came to my mind many times during this trip.
I think that there's no easy way to understand Cuba. Their history is pretty complicated, there's not many communist countries left so it makes the whole thing even more new, and different. I am not going to explain exactly what happened, but long story short, Cuba's most recent important history moment was when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara started a revolution for equality, and took president Batista out of government on 1958. Since then Cuba has been a communist country and that's why its the way it is today.
If you ask a local what do they think about Cuba, the revolution or the government, well most likely they will respond: "it's complicated". There's always two sides to every story and some people benefit from the revolution, others lost everything. And you have to be very careful with what you say as a local, cause your words can get you in trouble. Education and access to medicine is free. But prescription drugs are expensive, if available. Your average educated person, that went to college and has a career, doesn't make more than $40 a month. There's an allowance of food that every head of family receives monthly, but its barely enough. Lines are long at stores that are, most of the time, semi-empty. Fruits and vegetables are available till certain point but very expensive. So the good and the bad co-exist very closely in this tropical country, and that's why Cubans have become very creative to bring some extra cash into their homes.
Locals use a word to describe their creative ways of making a living, outside their 'legal' jobs: cubaneo or cubanear. There are plenty of creative ways around this, our tour guide is a dermatologist and makes 40CUC(convertible Cuban peso) a month through her official job, but she knows a lot about history and speaks English, so she figured a way of becoming a tour guide a few days a week, she can make up to 40CUC a day doing this, which is a lot in Cuba. Owners of old school cars give tours around the city for up to 60CUC a day, which gives the tourist a sense of nostalgia and re-living the glorious days of La Havana. Of course there's the seller of art and knickknacky stuff on the streets, but it goes beyond that. Some people open their homes as little restaurants called 'paladares' where home made food is cheap and delicious. Musicians are very good, they are playing everywhere and always have a CD ready for sale. While we were wandering around town looking for a theater to buy tickets for a show, a man started guiding us without us asking, but he was so nice and friendly... on the way he showed us a side of the city we had not seen, the poverty, the clusters of little, poor houses, and it opened our eyes to the least seen side of Havana; we were grateful and payed him a few CUCs for his help, which of course he was expecting.
Cubans are resilient, enthusiastic, amiable, very friendly and loving people. I think we were able to see and experience this by exploring on our own, staying with locals at 'casas particulares', walking the streets, and talking to people, instead of staying at a big hotel, flying in with a hired tour with 60 more Americans that go on a big bus everywhere rolling around with a tight schedule.
After a few days in La Havana we decided it was time to see some of the country side, so we went to Viñales, land of tobacco fields and guajiros. I turned 35 surrounded of natural beauty, in a little, picturesque town on the most western province of Cuba.
The valley has a luscious green color, as far as you can see there's plenty of pine forests, and limestone cliffs surround it. The land is rich and has a beautiful orange color, there's magnificent caves to explore and miles of trails to check out by horse, if you are ready to be super sore the next day.
Horseback riding seems easier than it is. We hired Jose to guide us across the valley, his horses were tame and good looking, mine was dark, his name was Mulato. Early breakfast and then we rode! Our first stop was Palillo's tobacco plantation, him and his 3 brothers have been working that piece of land for decades, they still work the land with bulls. Palillo has great sense of humor, he is a strong sixty something guajiro, he smokes 10 cigars a day and works very hard, he is in great shape. They do well with the tobacco, his family knows how to work the land and they sell their own unmarked cigars. Even though they have to give 90% of their production to the government, they manage to make a profit of what they have. We sampled some good, classic Cubans, rolled by Palillo's wife, at the end we bought a bunch, and left happy of meeting such a cool cat.
We also visited one of the most amazing caves I've ever been to, deep, dark and with a natural pool that we were able to swim in. Last we stopped at a coffee plantation where we learned about the process of harvesting, drying and toasting coffee beans, which is almost an art.
Viñales didn't disappoint, it's colorful, slow paced, and full of surprises. There was plenty to explore around the valley, by horse, by bus or just walking. Town itself had a couple of small markets with souvenirs, a few good restaurants, bars with live music, a lively plaza, plenty of horse power(literally) everywhere you look and a really interesting botanical garden where you can find rare flowers and plants. So we walked around a bunch, no rush, explored, watched the sunset while smoking cigars and drinking rum, and basically breathe in the mountain breeze.
Headed back to La Havana for our last couple of days before flying back to Mexico. 9 days is barely enough to see a little bit of such a vast country, and I rather spend more days in less places than try to cover too much ground without being able to really enjoy it.
There's a few places that I enjoyed the most in La Havana, so I will leave you with my top 3 spots to visit.
1. El Malecon. This place is character of it's own. 7kms by the ocean, where all Havana hangs out, they call it the largest coach in the world. It's the perfect spot to catch the sunset and feel the breeze that cools off the hot Havana days. At night young and old hang out there, home is too hot to stay in, and most likely you live with all your extended family so it gives people a break. On the weekends teenagers dress up as if they were going out to a club, buy some beers or rum and head towards el Malecon, there's music and people dancing. You can barely find a place to sit on a Saturday at midnight.
2. Fusterlandia. Cuban artist Jose Fuster has made his house and his neighborhood into a piece of art. Think Gaudi meets Picasso meets the Cuban revolution. The project is called 'La alegria de vivir' (The joy of living) and its a colorful mix of architecture, scenes and characters that surround you while walking through the streets of this place. The best part of it is that the initiative has brought business and tourism to the area, that otherwise would just be another poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
3. La Bodeguita del Medio. The classic Havana bar, with the best, most expensive Mojitos and excellent live music. Ernest Hemingway use to hang out here. This is a very touristic place but definitely worth visiting just for fun.
I was awed by Cuba every minute I was there. The pace is slow, there's lines to buy most anything vital, not so vegan friendly and the dollar exchange rate is terrible. But the Caribbean feeling, the proximity of the ocean, the happiness of the people, the colors and the sound of music in every corner makes it an unforgettable experience. The situation in Cuba is hard to understand, it seems that the revolution had its time, and its trying to survive at expenses of the people. Fidel is old, and Raul, his brother seems to be ready to embrace change even at a slow pace. Cubans are ready for change, even though some believe it will never happen.
If you decide to go to Cuba, make sure to talk to people, to go off the touristic routes a bit, use the public transportation, go to the local markets, see how the real people live, it's the only way to understand a bit our brothers and sisters of modern day Cuba.