No sooner had I added one blog post (on Canada), and taken a step closer to catching up on my travels, than I went on another international adventure. So while I’m now in debt by two weeks in Australia, I am now also in debt of one week in Georgia (Soviet version not American) and at the time of writing this three weeks in Cuba.
As three weeks in Cuba sounds like a hell of a lot of writing, this is definitely going to be a photo heavy piece. As I type, and our new puppy Hugo gnaws at my socked toes, I have made the executive decision to go for a maximum three sentence policy per picture.
We arrived in Havana late in the evening and took a long walk through the old town of the Cuban capital the next day. We came across numerous courtyards like the one above, offering a little seclusion from the scorching hot streets and general hustle and bustle.
Pretty sure this was the Plaza de la Catedral. The sanctity of the surroundings seemed to make it a pretty safe place to avoid general touts, but as you exited the plaza from any corner you would get a beckoning wave to a gift shop or restaurant of some sort. That being said, most encounters were friendly and the horde of cruise ship guests that had disembarked in the port received a touch more attention.
‘Yank Tanks’ are not as proliferate as the guidebooks may have you believe, you are equally likely to see a Lada or Trabant imported from Russia in the 70’s or a clapped out Renault 405 form the 80’s. There does however seem to be two distinct categories of Yank Tank; the preserved and gleaming originals that are hired out to the cash rich tourist by the hour and the battered, diesel smoking hard-top sedans that run on salvaged and make-shift parts. Of course, the one above comes from the latter category (minus tourists).
A slightly more garish classic American car from the 50s or 60s. This spot is perhaps more significant for the lovely bakery that sits in the Union Francesa de Cuba behind. Some baked treats make hours of walking around the streets of the old city and the suburb of Vedado much easier to swallow.
While walking around Vedado you’re more than likely to be either heading to Parque Lennon or you’ll bump into it. A classic photo opportunity awaits at this cast iron bench-cum-statue which comes with its own personal security guard. The necessity of the security guard? To make sure no-one wanders of with Mr. Lennon’s glasses.
This one could be a picture postcard for Havana, right? This is a memorial to Jose Marti, a man considered to be a national hero for his political activity and a symbol for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the nineteenth century, opposite Plaza de la Revolucion.
Plaza del la Revolucion is a very nationalistic area (as the name may suggest), surrounded by monuments, Cuban ministry buildings and museums. This wire mural of Che Guevara sits on the side of the Ministry of Interior.
As well-known for its pivotal twentieth century political history, Havana is also renown for its nightlife and in particular its Salsa music heritage. India being quite the aficionado was insistent that I participate (somewhat) in said heritage. While in Havana we attended L’egendarios del Guajirito. Despite its cash-cow, tourist drawing vibe, it did showcase the talents and heroes of the Buena Vista Social Club and similar ensembles. No cheap cover acts, the real deal.
From our AirBnB in Havana we travelled by ‘taxi collectivo’ (clapped out Renault 405 – not pictured) to Trinidad de Cuba, a colourful village near the central Southern coast. Our accommodating hosts from Havana hooked us up with a ‘casa particulares’ belonging to some family friends of theirs and, as the system seems to go in Cuba, we knocked on the door of the given address and were shown to our quarters.
Plaza Mayor (a commonly overused title in the Latin world) as seen from the gates of the main church.
The main church as seen from Plaza Mayor.
Contemporary Cuban art at Casa Ortiz.
The view West from the bell tower of the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. The museum is worth a visit for the (one-sided) perspective of the counter-revolutionary struggles.
A typical night out in any Cuban bar or restaurant is usually supported by a house band. Music is obviously reflective of the culture, often repetitive (you’ll hear the same Cuban classics repeatedly – Guantanmera anyone?) but now and again you’ll hit a spot with some authentic yet independent vibes. These guys brought energy to the room.
We took a day trip to the Valle de los Ingenios on a local tourist train, an old locomotive that ran at a pedestrian pace over some rickety bridges. A disaster waiting to happen. It made two stops, the first being Manaca Iznaga where you can scale a large watchtower, which a slaver built to keep a beady eye on his slaves, for some idyllic Cuban countryside views.
India, fortunately, was not driving the train, this was an abandoned locomotive that now rested at the end of its track at the FNTA sugar mill, a long abandoned enterprise that you could now pay a few dollars to wander around.
Despite being, rusty, decrepit and dangerous the sugar mill hinted at the industrious nature of the past, long before countries that could harness cheaper, modern equipment effectively killed the sugar industry for Cuba.
As with all things Cuban, colour is key, even on this workhorse engine.
After our dodgy rail trip we booked an equally dodgy Russian Lada and its driver for another adventure a few days later (with a beach day sandwiched in between). I sat in the passenger seat as his resilient carriage dragged us up a mountain road, littered with hairpins and steep inclines to this mirador.
The mirador was merely a side attraction on a trip to the Vegas Grandes waterfall. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the beginning of a trail and we took a slippery path that descended through the forest, past skittish wild horses, frogs and a snake. The waterfall was a treat. Tough enough to get to that only a handful of people took the effort to seek it out. We even had the spot to ourselves for a short time.
The water was fresh, cool and clean. Ideal for a swim on a steamy Cuban summer’s day and a few liberating dives from the rock beneath the torrent of water that rained down upon you from above.
Beautiful countryside, pristine beaches, the element of standstill in time, friendly helpful people (taxi drivers excluded) – these are some of the compliments you could pay to Cuba. Food however in Cuba is possibly the worst fare in the world, at least in my travelling experience thus far. That being said, this was the culinary highlight of the trip – a home cooked meal at Casa Messi in a small town called Remedios.
There wasn’t much to do in Remedios, it was really just a little stopover on the way to Cayo Santa Maria. Stella, the in casa pug, kept us mildly entertained though.
AT Cayo Santa Maria we stayed at a 5* resort, which could only be a starring system assessment of the beach as in reality you could confidently attribute a rating of -1* for food, 2* for drinks, 3* for room. However, that beach, sea, sky combo was quite epic.
Demonstrating, through selfies, that this was (mostly) our beach.
Sad because of the food.
From Cayo Santa Maria we took an empty coach ride to Havana, where we stayed for one brief night, before hitching a ride in a taxi collectivo to Vinales in the Pinar del Rio province. The Vinales Valley is famed for its tobacco plantations, the rich red soil donating all the nutrients necessary to grow the lanky plants that the pungent leaves dangle from. The climate, you sense on arrival, is indeed tropical. High humidity persists, towering clouds always looming throughout the foreground of a deep blue sky and thunderstorms that bring brief but torrential downpours (like the one that greeted our arrival) are intermittent.
Vinales, despite having to suffer a horrendous stomach bug throughout the entire stay (and the remainder of our time in Cuba), stands out as my personal highlight of the Cuban experience. The limestone mogote littered scenery is dramatic, the setting genuinely rural and the land appreciated and mostly unsullied by the locals.
Traditional homes and wandering livestock are common throughout Vinales, it’s not uncommon to see a few pigs cross your path, a brood of chickens scattered around your feet or indeed a horse and cart trotting down a main road.
Tobacco is key to the regional economy, the harvest of course rolled into cigars. A large percentage of the harvest is given to the state to be sold as the famous brands you see worldwide, however the farmers are permitted to keep a smaller percentage for their own sale or use. We strolled down this pathway, deep out in the valley, to find a farmer adorned partially in old military attire, wielding a machete and smoking the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen. He kindly showed us his drying and fermentation house (below) and explained the process from harvest to rolling.
Tobacco stench from a night out on the town is grim, but the aroma of the leaves in one of these drying and fermentation houses is at the other end of the pungency spectrum.
An old bicycle, strangely found halfway into some woods.
During one of our more adventurous hikes we really hit some deeper farmland. Although you’d spy the odd tourist group on horseback, you could still appreciate the landscape and its function for the Cubans.
I don’t think the oxen had used this crossing.
Good views of the limestone mogotes could be had for those intrepid enough to brave the heat and humidity.
The local bus service.
On one afternoon, I decided to hire a mountain bike (too small, mostly rusted and reasonably broken) and explore a little deeper along some of the lanes.
Tobacco fields and more fauna adorned mogotes.
While our first hike took us deep into the countryside and the tobacoo fields to the north and east of Vinales (Parque Nacional Vinales), we took a rather less travelled loop around from the east that brought us back up above the valley to the Hotel la Ermita – a place where I wished we had stayed rather than in our casa particulares in Vinales which was a converted horse stable.
This rather quiet route was free of other travellers and allowed you to pass some of the colourful local homes that sit above the main town and valley below.
How to spoil a good view – stick a sweaty westerner in it.
Before (above) and during (below) sunset view from the balcony of the Hotel La Ermita restaurant of the Valle de los Ingenios.
Better than our stable with lumpy bed and pillows.
Before we began our hike to Hotel la Ermita we had taken a taxi ride east of Vinales to this canopy zip line experience. Two guides took us and a few others up into the forest canopy after the daily downpour had subsided. Despite many things in Cuba being bodged, repaired or still used in questionable condition we were relieved to find the facilities and equipment in excellent nick. The zip lines were fast and long and offered great views of the canopy around you and the mogotes beyond.
All set for a day as a steel worker.
On our final evening we took a romantic dusk walk to the southern side of town and out into the local communities and tobacco fields. This gentleman, Antonio, beckoned us over to his medicinal garden and showed us around his home and coffee making facilities. He got very excited about coffee grinding.
From the lushness of Vinales we took our final taxi collectivo back to the bustle, colonialism and culture of Havana. However, Havana is not all crumbly colonial buildings and American classic cars, at times the brutality and functionalism of communist influence can be seen in Havana’s architecture, too. Luckily, we didn’t stay here…
…or here (although this was a pretty lively community area).
We did however stay here, as a final treat and for a bit of Cuban luxury we plumped for one of the infamous ‘mafia’ hotels of the 50s and ’60s. This is the rooftop pool of Hotel Capri, once built (not by himself) and owned by the notorious mafia boss Santo Trafficante Jr, a man closely linked to attempted assassinations on Fidel Castro and JFK.
Our time in Havana ended just down the road from the Hotel Capri at the grandiose Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we were served minnestrone soup (from a can?) yet were serenaded by an eighty year old Cuban lady at a grand piano. A somewhat fitting analogy for our time in Cuba.