Saturday, 10 May 2014

Two weeks in Cuba – Havana, Vinales & Trinidad

Cuba - vintage cars and crumbling architecture. 


Havana is a city of rubble and ruin. It looks like a war has been raging for decades, and in some ways it has. The war of ideas and its global economic isolation has left the country poorer than it perhaps should be. Signs of its former wealth are everywhere – from grand colonial buildings to the smartest American cars of the 1950s – but the riches to rags story of Cuba is now part of its appeal and intrigue for many visitors.

We spent our first two days exploring the older parts of town – where the decay and structural collapse is most prevalent – and where as a curious foreigner most of the interest lies. We walked the ramshackle streets until our feet were blistered, and absorbed as much of the bustle and rhythm as our brains could handle. The streets were busy, life in Cuba feels very public and everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s never silence, no one is withdrawn behind headphones or smartphone screens and a constant salsa beat trickles from passing rattling cars, shady doorways or wide-open windows.

Old Havana streets.

One of the biggest attractions adorning the streets were the cars themselves. Old American cars, classic cars churned out of Detroit in its 1950s heyday. These cars would be collectors items or museum pieces at home, but here they remain the core mode of transport. A ban on buying and selling vehicles after the revolution meant people looked after what they already had, and many of these motors remain pristine with shiny chrome fenders and perfect paintwork, though the fumes they kick out can be a little noxious. I don’t normally give a damn about cars, but I couldn’t help but be continually impressed and mesmerised by this antique fleet during my time in Cuba.

We mostly walked in Havana Vieja – the oldest part of town; then along the seaside strip of Malecon and into neighbourhoods whose names I never knew. These anonymous neighbourhoods were the most interesting, the most real and with the most life – the most suffering. The first day we wandered aimlessly, the second day we joined up the dots. People were friendly, many people sat on doorsteps would nod and offer a ‘hola’, nobody was ever hostile during our entire two weeks in Cuba.

Walking among the buildings with crumbling colonial facades, peeling porticos or even those which are entirely ruined and collapsed, one of the most notable absences is capitalism; it barely exists in any form. At home we’re constantly harassed by billboards, posters or other advertisements; in Cuba, the only messages shouted were state propaganda. Slogans about socialism or reminders of the revolution, some of which I could loosely translate, and the only celebrities were Che and Fidel. The aspirations on display were a philosophy of equality and justice, not of private wealth and a sex-driven ego.

Not only were there no products being advertised, they also weren’t available to buy either. There’s an overwhelming lack of shops in Cuba. There’s no air conditioned grocery shops with fridges of coke, there’s no famous brands selling consumer crap, there’s no malls of endless aspiration and glossed-up misery. There are a few places selling a mixture of imported dry food and Chinese hardware, but the half-empty shelves have more dust than things you’d want to purchase. The most common ’shop’ you’ll encounter is a state-run ration outlet. Everyone in Cuba receives basic grocery rations, perhaps as much a socialist ideal of equality as it is a necessity.

Two currencies exist too. There’s the Peso for locals, and you need 25 of these to get one CUC, which is what the tourists use. The average Cuban wage is around $20 a month, a meal in a restaurant for tourists might cost $10 per head, so this two-tier economy is essential. The tourist dollar is of fundamental value to both the Cuban state and to individuals who can tap this resource. One restaurant tip could equal a week’s state-salary. People never hassle or persistently beg though, but being asked for clothes or soap on the street isn’t an unusual encounter. In Havana, we came across a couple of obvious tricksters or those solely seeking to take a dollar from you, but these were easy to spot and deal with; sometimes by giving them the coin they sought. Never were we hassled or felt unsafe, not once. We paid vastly inflated fees on the first few taxi rides, but that’s almost to be expected when arriving somewhere new. Beyond that, people were genuine, with a warmth and honesty that is hard to come by at home.

Valle de Vinales 

On our third full day we took a four hour bus to Vinales, a rural valley in the west of the island. Here we would stay in our first Casa Particulares, which is essentially just renting a spare room in a private house, and most accommodation outside of the big resorts is like this in Cuba. In Havana we’d stayed in a big generic international hotel as it was easier to book at the last minute from home, it was fine if uninteresting. When we stepped off the bus in Vinales, a small horde of people were waiting to offer up a place in their home. We took one with a women called Diame, who charged us 15 CUCs for the room per day, which is under £10, and eight times less than the hotel cost. She also offered breakfast and dinner for a few pounds more, so we accepted. The apartment we stayed in was unlike most of the accommodation in the small town of old colonial-era bungalows; it was a three storey 1960s council-type block and we had our own comfortable private room and bathroom. We stayed for three nights. The first late afternoon we took a walk into town, had some lunch and then wandered off amongst the farms and fields of the valley. I was tired, so we dozed in the shade of a tree surrounded by crops of tobacco and maize and clucking chickens.

The next day we arranged to go on a horse trek through the countryside. We trotted through fields the colours of rust with rich green vegetation bursting from the soil and countless vultures soaring and circling overhead. The landscape was tranquil, and huge monolithic limestone karsts erupted out of the gently rolling hills. We stopped by a tobacco plantation, where the farmer gave information in Spanish, and for some reason I was the one to translate to a Czech couple who also arrived there. I don’t speak Spanish, but a long-lost education in Latin, a smattering of forgotten Italian and some general guesswork meant I got the job. I think I got it half right. We went in the tobacco drying barn, where the farmer showed us how cigars were rolled, and I bought 15 off him, which I’ll save for a special occasion. Afterwards we stopped by a lake where we swam to rinse off the noon-sweat, before heading back to the place we started from.

Later that afternoon we took another wander out into the countryside. A big thunderstorm was rolling in just as we were approaching a mystical tree. It stood alone in the landscape, and the shape of the tree conjured something deep in my DNA. I’m not a spiritual person, but there was something about this tree and location that stirred some ancient feeling in me, something I’ve never felt inside any church or temple. It obviously had the same effect on other people too, as some shrines and weathered offerings were found amongst the arching roots. The rain began to lash down so we dashed for a hut a few metres away. A farmer who’d been out in the fields had the same idea, so we sat with him until the rain passed. We tried to communicate, but I found it difficult. After the rain stopped he said something about coffee, so I looked at Alice, shrugged, and we followed him across the fields. He led us to his house which wasn’t far from town, and was a pleasant place with a nice garden with a big sow in a shed and smattering of hens. His wife made us a delicious cup of rich black coffee, the beans harvested from his own garden plants, and we made simple small talk with the few words I knew and was slowly picking up. After the drink, and wholly great experience, we made our way back for dinner at our Casa.

The next day we rented bikes and headed out of town in the direction of some caves. The inclines were heavy going in the smothering heat, and the rush of air on the downhill glides held us from early exhaustion, which was essential as we nursed hangovers from a rum-heavy trip to the Casa de la Musica the night before. We arrived at the cave within an hour, paid the entrance fee and wandered inside. Halfway along a boat was waiting to ferry us along the river part. It was alright, but a cave is a cave, they’re pretty much all the same and rarely offer up anything new or exciting. We continued on our bike ride, looking for the river which was marked on our basic map for a spot of swimming. Eventually we heard the familiar trickle of water and so went to investigate. We locked our bikes to a tree and clambered down a jungle slope to reveal a small eden. A weir-like waterfall flowed into a small pool, and palm trees swayed on the banks above. It was perfect. We stripped down and swam in the clear cool water. I then resorted to my usual self and started playing survival. Foraging on the banks for resources and then starting a fire on a clear patch of earth. I even considered bashing in a dozing lizard for lunch, but knew I’d be taking it too far.

We re-saddled and continued down the road in the roasting afternoon heat. We were hoping to find a turning which would loop back to town, but it never materialised. We decided to turn around and head back the way we came. Our two bottles of water had soon emptied, and the crushing heat and steep hills made it impossible to pedal up, so we resorted to wheeling our bikes up the hills and free-cycling down them. We soon became exhausted and slightly concerned about our condition. We passed through villages but there was nowhere to buy drinks. We stopped by some people and said ‘agua, per favore’, and were led to a house where a kindly woman produced a bottle of iced water from her freezer. The water was cloudy but we didn’t care and gulped it down. She wouldn’t take any money from us, but I dug out a bar of soap I’d lifted from our first hotel and gave it as some kind of recompense. Watered, we continued on our way home. Eventually we reached the cave we’d stopped at earlier on, and so bought several sugary drinks and gulped them down. On the last leg the heavens opened and rain drops the size of boiled eggs smashed into our tired bodies. We made it back into town, tired, soaked but happy. 


The following morning we took a bus out of Vinales heading for Trinidad, an old colonial town halfway along the southern coast. The trip took 11 hours, two more than expected, but the journey didn’t drag. Upon arrival we were collected by a contact of Diame and taken to their Casa. This one was a little more middle class, if a bit kitsch, and our new hosts Madeleine and Jose made us very welcome. We planned to spend almost the remainder of our time in Trinidad, as some friends who’d been to Cuba had said it was their favourite place, and we wanted to soak up somewhere rather than endure too many bus rides. The town was idyllic. Old colonial houses painted warm pastel hues lined the cobbled streets, and open windows gave glimpses into people’s lives. Furniture worthy of National Trust properties filled the rooms, and chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The town was in a time warp unlike any other I’ve seen. Each morning we were awoken by the same street sounds. Horses hooves clattering on the cobbles, and the shouts of ‘El pan! El pan!’ as bread sellers wound their way around the houses. 

On our first morning there, May 1st, the street was alive with the beginning of a parade. We rushed breakfast and headed out to investigate. The procession stretched for seemingly endless blocks. Icons of the state, Cuban flags, placards of Castro and banners were held aloft by the crowd. It seemed a mix of Notting Hill Carnival and a Trade Union rally. I went into press photographer mode and took it as an opportunity to take as many pictures as possible. The usual rules of photographic engagement don’t exist at an event like this, and saw it as the perfect invitation to take pictures of people which I wouldn’t get again. From what I could work out, the parade seemed to be a celebration of socialism and Cuban society. Every different profession was represented in recognisable groups: the bakers, the lobster fishermen, the taxi drivers, the security guards. Each had their own unit and made their way to a big open space, where council officials stood on stage to applaud them as they passed. It was an interesting morning. That afternoon we made our way to the beach – Playa Ancon – which was nice but disappointingly the water was too murky to snorkel, so we read and burnt our legs. 

The next day, a little tired and sore from the sun, we decided to spend it relaxing and exploring the town. In the afternoon we took an explore and foraged for photographs. We looped around the streets, taking in local life and stopped by the more touristy old square. We climbed a tower for views over Trinidad, before navigating further backstreet cobbles. Some kids wanted their picture taken, so I obliged and then they wanted to show off their pet pigeon. Around the next corner a dead-eyed old cigar smoking man gestured something, so I leant in for a picture. He said something and gripped my hand firmly. I couldn’t understand the words, but I gave him a coin and he let go.

The day after we were booked to go on a catamaran trip to an island called Cayo Blanco, an hours sail away. There were at least 20 other people on the boat, a large group of Slovakian men, three Swiss dicks and a few others couples. We got chatting to some Welsh-Polish newlyweds, and arranged to go out for a drink later that night. The boat trip itself was good, the water was clear and offered us some good snorkelling with a variety of fish and corals. We spent a few hours on the hermit-crab island for lunch, and went off for some more underwater-gawping. There was an old collapsed jetty, and here life teemed – we even found an octopus hiding in a hollow.

That night we met up with our boat friends, Lee and Kasha, and went to the Case de la Musica for mojitos. The nightlife was a bit cabaret, so searched out a nightclub in a cave we’d heard mentioned. I asked for directions ‘donde es la cueava’ – or something – and got pointed along unlit chicken backstreets. Eventually we came cross it, and opening in the ground with bouncers at the entrance. We paid the nominal entry fee and made our way down the steps into the damp smelling cavern. We turned a corner and all of a sudden could hear the music. It opened up into a large underground chamber, a real cave, complete with a bar, disco lights and dance floor. It was unreal. We were already drunk by this point, and in total saw off around a dozen mojitos which were two-thirds rum. We danced a sweaty dance amongst locals, young stylish ones, and old women in apparent nighties. It was an odd mix but one of the most fun and unusual nights out I’ve had in a long time.

We woke up with hangovers to the usual street sounds, but had to force ourselves out for another excursion we were booked on – a trip into the mountains. I lay with a sore head on the pavement until a Russian army truck picked us up, and we rattled our way up steep mountain slopes. We stopped by a shitty and pointless visitor centre, stopped by a ‘coffee farm’ which was just a cafe with a few farm ornaments, and then got to the place we’d start the 2km trek to the waterfall. It was mostly downhill which was hard on the knees, but the day was overcast which a small mercy. Once we reached it, we discreetly got our swim clothes on and plunged into the pool. We had a good swim in the deep cool water, and as we got out the heavens opened. We marched back up the trail, still in my swim shorts, and the truck took us to a much needed lunch in a chilly mountain restaurant.

The next morning we sought out the tourist train to Valle de los Ingenious. It slowly clunked through nice countryside, and made two stops. One at a village which had a tall tower, built by a wealthy landowner a few hundred years ago so he could keep an eye on all his slaves on the surrounding sugar plantations, and the second by an old hacienda which was now a restaurant. We took a walk with another British couple we’d met on the train, who’d been travelling south and central America for 6 months, and sought out the river. We didn’t swim, but there was nothing else to do other than sit in the restaurant. The stops were fairly uninspiring, but the train ride was a pleasant morning out. On the return journey the train hollered on the horn as a cow was standing on the tracks. The dozy beast didn’t get out of the way, and it met an instant death under the locomotive. The train stopped and the two carriages were separated so the cow could by pulled from the rails. It made an interesting spectacle. As we continued local men on horseback raced by with smiles on their faces and machetes under their arms: it was steak for dinner for the rest of the week. Later that night we met up in a bar with the British couple we’d met – Ronnie and Sarah – and sank a few mojitos.

On our final full day we took another boat trip to a different island - Cayo Macho. There was only 7 of us tourists on this trip, so immediately it was better. The snorkelling was improved too with more fish and further varieties of coral. We took lunch on the island, which we’d heard was famous for its population of iguanas but we weren’t quite prepared for what we found. Dozens of the dinosaur-looking beasts waited for us on the beach, they were obviously used to being fed by people and so weren’t afraid of us. I was busy photographing some sunning themselves, when I didn’t notice some other creatures approach. A type of giant tree rat, known as Hutias, live on the island, and were also tamed and seeking food. At first I was unsure of these enormous rodents, were they safe? I soon realised how comical and tame these wild beats were, and enjoyed photographing them as they sought food from us. After lunch which involved guarding it from the island’s hungry inhabitants, we took in another snorkel before reluctantly heading back to the mainland. At dusk I took a ride in our hosts 1952 car, which was a fun experience I won’t forget.

The following and penultimate day we took a private hire minibus back to Havana, with a mix of tourists and Cubans. An American woman’s self-centred and self-unaware monologue from the seats behind us almost drove us to despair, but being English we’re unlikely to turn around and give her both barrels. Upon arriving in Havana we walked up to our final accommodation, a Casa on the 14th floor of a tower block. The apartment was glorious, with fine furnishings, impressive art and awesome views. We took a good walk around, but struggled to find the energy or enthusiasm for further exploration, and spent our remaining 24 hours relaxing and winding down, ready for our return flight home. The taxi drive to the airport contained an interesting conversation about the problems Cuba faces; how the two brothers have destroyed the country, socialism smothers progress and the only solution to their struggles is capitalism and an opening up of the markets. Small steps are being taken in this direction, and surely it’s only a matter of time before this tropical socialism succumbs to global pressures. Part of me liked some of the aspects I’d seen of the socialism in Cuba, there was no visible very poor or very rich; unlike home. I’d seen fewer beggars than I would’ve had at home, and the few down-and-outs seemed to be treated fairly well by the various authorities they ran in to. That said, Cuba is crying out for a little bit of capitalism. The inability to buy a drink in a village, because there’s no shop, feels nonsensical, and if people want to provide services whilst bettering themselves, I don’t think they should be prevented from doing so. Especially by a totalitarian ruling elite who dictate oppressive laws of a low-lying equality whilst wallowing in luxury themselves. But nearly all rulers and leaders are like that, everywhere you go. 

Cuba as a travel destination was excellent. I’d recommend it to anyone and am surprised more people don’t choose it as a backpacking destination, it would be perfect for an inexpensive three-month explore. The people are fantastic, the countryside is stunning, the cities are throbbing, the food gets a bit boring and limiting but the rum is free-flowing to compensate. If you’re thinking of going, do it sooner rather than later. Many of the charms may be lost or diluted once the inevitable collapse of the socialist state finally occurs.