Travelogue : Cuba
Hola Cuba libre Sep 2000

In a subtropical frame with a quasi-perfect climate, I experienced the sensation of the taste of Cuban cocktails, the perfume of a handmade Cohiba cigar, the real heartbeat of Son and Rumba and the intellectual pleasure of a political discussion about the Revolution, maybe Cuba's most important export product?

Cut off from the Western capitalist world until the end of the Cold War, and only just emerging from a chronic economic crisis, the face of modern-day Cuba is in many respects frozen in the past — the chromed, classic American cars, moustachioed cigar-smoking farmers, horse-drawn carriages and colonial Spanish architecture all apparently unaffected by the breakneck tempo of modernization, brought on by the country's desperate need for dollars following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The last ten years, Cuba has opened the floodgates to global tourism and it shifts from a socialist stronghold to one of the Caribbean's major tourist destinations, running on "Green Gold".

Illegal migration with ramshackled handmade rafts is very popular, but boxing and baseball are national sports by which the Cubans also achieve international success. A thorn in the eye of the American eagle, a forced accommodation for the caught Taliban warriors from Afghanistan, but above all and everybody: the Cuba of Castro!

Viva la revolucion

Let me start by saying that staying in hotels isn't the best way to visit Cuba. I've spend only two weeks in Cuba and that was enough to notice that the service in the hotels wasn't good and most the personnel wasn't motivated to make your journey more comfortable. Almost every hotel is owned by the government and if something is broken there's this mentality that you have to make a telephone call to Fidel to have it fixed (as a matter of speaking). Therefore I would advice everybody who is planning to make a trip through Cuba to look for casas particulares — private houses — because that probably is the ideal way to gain more insight into the country and its people. These casas particulares operate like guesthouses, with proprietors renting out rooms in their home for private income (look out for the state-issued stickers — a blue triangle on a white background). I'll go seek them if I ever return to Cuba and maybe I will, because two weeks didn't gave me enough time to absorb everything I saw.

My vacation started in the eastern part of Cuba, defined by the Sierra Maestra. This large mountain range binds together the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Granma. In this region you are not able to get around its stirring history. SANTIAGO DE CUBA, capitol of the Oriente, seemed to be a logical place to start a trip through Cuba because it's the cradle of the revolution. On the first day I visited several places around Santiago de Cuba and got wrapped up in the history of the immediate surroundings. The Sierra Maestra has played an important role in the struggle for independence between 1868 and 1898 as well as in the Revolutionary War of Cuba in 1959. At the end of the 19th century, these mountains were the perfect hide-out from where the city's most celebrated son, general Antonio Maceo, and his men prepared the fight against the Spanish colonists. On the Plaza de Revolución stands a huge monument with sixteen gigantic steel machetes representing his rebellion and courage. Other great men like the wealthy plantation owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes — who was the first to free his slaves — and José Martí — country's most famous literary figure, whose life, ideas and martyr's death confirmed him as a national hero — were one of the first Cubans to take up arms against the Spanish and fought for freedom on the pretext of "Morir por la patria es vivir" (To die for your country is to live). These men are still much lauded in Cuba as liberators. At the entrance of the Cementario Santa Ifigenia you can visit José Martí's mausoleum surrounded with royal palm trees. In the heart of Santiago, the first square laid out in the town by the conquistadors is named Parque Cépedes. The park is known as favourite meeting place. Santiagueros, young and old, sit on the wrought-iron benches enjoying the expansive shade of the weeping fig trees and the gentle ebb and flow of activity. A small monument celebrates Carlos Manuel de Cépedes. This plaza is surrounded by splendid houses like Hotel Casa Granda, the Casa de Cultura, Museo de Ambiete Cubano, built by Diego Velázquez, and the white Ayuntamiento or town hall. And then I forgot to mention the prim-rose Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción with little stores underneath.

Cuba is a very safe country and the worst you're likely to experience is incessant and irritating, loud psssst, psssst — the nation-wide method for getting attention — from jineteros, keen to take advantage of the tourists. We first met one of these guys near the hotel when we were looking for a taxi. A young man asked us if we would like to ride to town with an old American yank-tank that stood a few metres away from us on the street. It didn't look as a cab but why not. We were six and made a deal for 3 USD. When we met the owner of the 1957 Chevrolet it became 4 USD. Why? Just because the young guy expects to receive an additional kickback (read commission) from the car owner. Remember, for any kind of help you get in Cuba, a tip will probably be expected. Everyone's out for another buck. Therefore, take lots and lots of 1 and 2 USD bills and even lots of US Coins. You must pay for almost eveything you buy in dollars, and unless the seller has small bills (not likely), you will get virtually worthless pesos in change, making costs even higher than they already are.
And this time the tip was worth it. It was really cool to enter the old part of the city in a classic American car from the 1950s which has survived in isolation from the outside world since the 1959 revolution. Nowadays, these yank-tanks have become one of the defining images of modern Cuba. With the windows down, loud music of Bob Marley and a little dog doll shaking his head up and down on the dashboard we enjoyed driving through the narrow streets. That day, it was sweltering hot and moistly although it has been raining cats and dogs all night long. Probably because September and October are the most threatening months of the annual hurricane season...

Another famous must-see is the Cuartel Moncada, just off the Avenida de los Libertadores, if only for the place it took in Cuban history. These barracks were futilely stormed by Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl and their band of revolutionaries on July 26, 1953. One building is peppered with bullet holes from the attack. The original were plastered over on Batista's — the president at that time — orders and are hollowed out again when Castro came to power. They even used photographs to make sure the positions were as authentic as possible. Be sure you find a book to read about what happened here in 1953! Although the attack was a disaster in military terms, it was a political triumph and elevated Fidel Castro to hero status throughout Cuba. Inside the building you will find the Museo 26 de Julio. Unfortunately I didn't make time to visit it but I've read this one quote of Fidel Castro that has almost the same spirit as José Martí's pretext when he started the revolution: "Vale más morir de pies a vivir de rodillas" (It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees). And Castro became even more popular when he decided to do his own defence in court after being prisoned. Speaking for five hours, he charted the plight of Cuban people using an arsenal of statistics to assault the regime. A reprisal of this speech was later published as a manifesto for revolution, known as "history will absolve me". The court sentenced him to 15 years of imprisonment but after one year Batista grants amnesty to Castro, who goes to Mexico to plot invasion of Cuba. On 2 December 1956, Castro and 82 other rebels land at Playa Las Coloradas in their rusting tub, the Granma, but they were betrayed and walked into an ambush. Cuban army easily outnumbers and rout rebels, but survivors, including Castro, his younger brother Raúl, and his close friend, the Argentinian revolutionary doctor Che Guevara, take refuge in Sierra Maestra mountains and launch guerrilla war. At this point, the guerrilla army with which Castro proposed to overthrow the dictatorship consisted of no more than a dozen fighters and seven weapons, and they were surrounded by Batista's troops. By any normal standards, the landing had been a disaster. But Castro was elated. Looking over the weary, wounded stragglers, he declared: "The revolution has triumphed." From that moment on, they started a constant flood of rebel attacks against the army troops of president Fulgencio Bastista. Castro, aged 32, and his barbudos (bearded ones), were driving triumphantly along the whole length of the island towards Havana, becoming the centre of mammoth celebration at every hamlet he passes.

Since 1959, Cuba and Castro, the República de Cuba and Fidel (Ruz) Castro, form an indestructible combination. So it appears an association that can only be broken by death. Fidel Castro is Cuba. He is the logo of the island, the symbol, he is the embodiment of his recent history. The beard, the cigar, the military outfit, for more than 40 years it defines the image of this tropical island and his charismatic leader (photo).

Mi son oriental


I've read in several books that music is a vital element of Santiagero life (photo). In this barren region, immigrants of Spanish, European, African and Haitian descent settled and established a supply of new elements in Cuba's African and Spanish mixture. African slaves brought rhythms and ritual dances to Cuba where they were blended with Spanish guitars. Son - the pearl among Cuban music - often contains an additional, sexual layer, which can be heavely chauvinistic. Because of the legandary record Buena Vista Social Club, a musical project supported by Ry Cooder in 1997, the Cuban music scene has really boomed all over the world. Rubén Gonzalez and Compay Segundo, now known as world's oldest and most famous trovadores de las montañas, come in line of traditional trova - ballad - singers in Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the son and the bolero. Therefore, you should visit Casa de la Trova (Heredia No. 208 photo) where wizened old men, who share the tunes and the talent of the likes of those mentioned before, play day and night to an audience packed into a tiny room or hanging in through the window. I've seen pictures of this place full with old photographs but because of a recent refit some of its ramshackle charisma has been tidied up. Just take some time to listen and enjoy the simplicity and naturalness of the traditional trova!

As I loafed about the streets of Stgo de Cuba away from Parque Cépedes it became very calm and quiet. There's less traffic and less commercialization in this part of town (photo). While walking around, you can expect to receive steady gazes which are honest displays of interest and curiosity. Winking, the raising of eyebrows, smiling, or saying Hola! are all appropriate casual exchanges when passing by. Greetings of Beunos dias! are always appreciated. And while you're strolling, you'll get to experience the highly social street life: citizens lingering in doorways, domino playing men sitting at tables on the kerb, lining up for rations or beating the heat at the corner bar. In a narrow street I bumped into a bunch of little boys who were playing some kind of béisbol game (photo). Ironically, the most American of sports is also the most Cuban, and baseball stands out as one of the few aspects of US culture which the revolutionaries continued to embrace after 1959. For a while, I enjoyed watching the children's game and their enthusiasm and then I got thirsty. If you like rum, you'll be well away in Cuba! We visited the Museo del Ron (San Bacilio) to discover more about this national drink. This museum is so small that it isn't even mentioned in my guidebook. Anyway, it's possible to taste some fine rum in the bar that is within the same building (Visiting the museum is not necessary if you only want a drink in the bar). In this dark bar — the windows were closed — they also make excellent Cuban cocktails like for example the famous Mojito, a refreshing combination of sparkling water, lemon juice, half a spoonful of sugar, a few sprigs of mint and a generous dash of white Cuban rum. Bruise the mint leaves inside the glass before you drink your mojito. But because I'm not a big cocktail fan I've tried a neat Havana Club Añejo 7 Años and I knew this was gonna be my favourite drink for the rest of my vacation in Cuba.

¿ Qué bolá ?


We left Santiago de Cuba early in the morning by train at the new railway station near the port, heading for Santa Clara. The train we travel on is surprisingly comfortable - it has air conditioning and a bar - given its apparent age. Although trains are slow they are a good way of getting a feel for the landscape. It is a relaxing and colourful way to see the country. Along the way you can see an incredible amount of sugarcane fields, date palms and banana trees. I decided to stand outside at the back of the railway carriage to get a better view of the land we are travelling through. Here and there I see fieldworking people take a break for a few minutes to gaze upon the train as it comes by. When I greet them, simply by waving, they smile and wave back at me before continuing their work. In this area you can see a lot of different indigenous birds too. The tocororo or Cuban trogon is the national bird, sharing the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag. Other noticable birds you'll see throughout Cuba are a kind of vultures, circling overhead wherever you are.
Because there is only one railroad, the train had to wait at certain switch points to the one coming from the other direction so they could pass each other there. As we reached Florencia the landscape changed and became more hilly (photo). You'll see more and more huts with roofs made of big banana leafs. It's for a good reason Cuba is also known as a green crocodile. Since my vacation in Myanmar I haven't seen so many various green tints anymore. And with a little imagination, if you look carefully at the shape of Cuba, you can see a crocodile in it. In this fertile area most of the men have something in common with cattleranching cowboys. When we passed a small village I could look into the little houses near the railroad. A lot of eldery people were sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. And it seemed that almost everybody has a little, brown pig in their small backyard. At sunset, I saw this cowboy with his wife and child riding a horse on a little hillside next to the railroad. It was a very beautiful picture with those green sugarcane fields in the background up against a bluewhite sky... In the evening we arrived at Santa Clara.

Hasta siempre Commandante

When I said before that the hotels in Cuba weren't so good I didn't mean all of them. I must admit I liked the one in Santa Clara. Los Caneyes (Ave. de los Eucaliptos y Circunvalación) is a neatly laid out complex on the edge of town (2km from Plaza de la Revolución) featuring Cuban Amerindian-style accommodation huts with good facilities.

This morning, the sun bursted while we were having breakfast and we decided to walk to the centre of vibrant SANTA CLARA. Santa Clara is the place to be for Che worshippers as the scene of his most famous victory during the revolutionary conflict. It took about fifteen minutes to walk from our hotel, Los Caneyes, to the Plaza de Revolución and then we stood before the famous monument of Cuba's adopted son and hero, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. In 1967, a Bolivian soldier — certain people maintain it was an United States Army Special Forces seargeant — stepped into an unused schoolroom in a dusty hamlet in the Andean foothills of southeastern Bolivia and shot Che Guevara. Thus, he gave the coup de grace to Fidel Castro's campaign in the 1960s to spread revolution throughout the hemisphere and helped forge the image of Guevara that lives today — not a totally inaccurate one — of an itinerant knight, a people's champion, a crusader for justice. Nowadays almost everybody will be familiar with that worldfamous picture of Che Guevara (photo), taken by Alberto "Korda" Gutierrez.

On the 5th of March 1960 a Belgian arms transport exploded in Habana harbour, killing 136 members of the crew. As a staff-photographer at the Cuban newspaper "Revolution", Korda was assigned to cover the following memorial ceremony held in Havana. Among the prominent guests were Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Fidel Castro held one of his endless speeches and Korda was shooting away, when Che Guevara suddenly appeared on the stage. Korda managed to make two shots of him, before Che turned around and disappeared.
Back in his darkroom Korda enlarged, among others, one of the Che frames. The editor at "Revolution" picked a Castro-picture for the newspaper and returned the rest. Korda liked the Che picture and put it on the wall in his Habana-studio. The picture was still hanging on the wall in 1967, by now tobacco-tinted though, when a man knocked on the door. The person did not present himself, but handed over a letter of introduction from a high-ranking member of the Cuban administration. The letter asked Korda to help this person in his search for a good Che picture. Korda pointed at the wall saying: "This is my best Che picture". The visitor agreed and asked for 2 copies of the print. Korda told him to return the next day, which he did. When asked the price of the prints, Korda replied, that since the visitor was a friend of the revolution, he didn't have to pay.
What Korda didn't know, was that the visitor was the famous Italian publisher Feltrinelli. Well known in Europe for smuggling the "Dr. Zivago" manuscript out of The Soviet Union. Feltrinelli came to Cuba directly from Bolivia, where he had been negotiating the release of Regis Debray. Having learnt from Debray, that Che Guevara was the guerrilla-leader in Bolivia and that the end might be near, Feltrinelli saw a business opportunity in the possible assassination of Che. The corpse of Che Guevara was hardly cold in Bolivia, before you could buy big posters, all around the world, with the Korda-image of Che. Copyright Feltrinelli it said, down in the corner. Korda told me, that in half a year, Feltrinelli sold 2 million posters. Later on the image has been transformed, transplanted, transmitted and transfigured all over the world. Korda never received a penny.

But back to the monument. An enormous statue of El Che has been raised in 1987, on the twentieth anniversary of the rebel's death and since October 1997, it has become a mausoleum in which his mortal remains are kept. One of the catchphrases of the revolution, "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Ever onwards to victory), is inscribed on the concrete pedestal. Beneath that stands the farewell letter Che wrote to say goodbye to Fidel Castro. Allow me to quote the final sentences: "... I would like to say much to you and to our people, but I feel it is not necessary. Words cannot express what I want them to, and I don't think it's worth while to banter phrases. Onward to victory always ¡ Patria o Muerte ! I embrace you with all my revolutionary fervor." We didn't get the upportunaty to enter the Museo Memorial al Che because the military forces were making preparations for the memorial ceremony.

As we walked on to Parque Leoncio Vidal it becomes clear that Santa Clara is an energetic city. A large number of bicitaxis and horse-drawn carriages as well as motor-drawn carriages operate on the Rafael Tristá. During the break of the secondary school, which is located next to the pedestrianized town square, Parque Vidal hums with chatter of children (photo). The enjoyable atmosphere is due to the fact that it's permanently full with people and kids racing around the promenade, whilst their elders stick to the benches underneath the towering palms. I visited the opulently furnished Museo de Artes Decoratives in the corner of the square, one of the older buildings around. In La Marquesina (Parque Vidal esq. Máximo Gómez), a bar in the corner of Teatro La Caridad, we met two deaf-and-dumb men. We drank a mojito and had a conversation expressing ourselves through sign language or should I say gestures. They were funny and could make everything very clear and understandable. Give these guys a television show and they will make a lot of people laugh. Meanwhile, an old, bespectacled man with a large cigar came in and asked us if we would like to pay for his coffee. In Cuba it often happened that someone asked us for a pen, a t-shirt or something to drink. When we finished our drinks we walked through Santa Clara's main shopping street , Indepencia, which leads to the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, the city's most significant and renowned event. This open-air museum shows some derailed carriages from the attack on an armoured train in 1958. This clash, led by Che Guevara, was to be one of the last military encounters of the revolutionary war. The tale of the against-the-odds victory is more spectacular than this legendary place. Do not expect to be occupied more than ten minutes. On our way back to the hotel we stopped in a basement cafeteria - some kind of local Mc Donalds - to order some sandwiches. We also bought two fried chickens and drinks for the deaf-and-dumb men who had accompanied us the whole afternoon. They accepted the gifts with many thanks...

El Valle de los Ingenios


The day we were going to visit Cienfuegos and Trinidad by bus, the rain was bucketing down and it didn't look like it was going to stop. On television, the weatherman said that there were two cyclones sweeping across the land, one to the west and one to the east of Cuba. And so, we sat in the middle... We enter CIENFUEGOS via the Prado Paseo del Prado (Ave. 37), a wide boulevard with its esplanade and on both sides magnificent colonial houses with arcades. Unfortunatety not all of them are maintained in a reasonable condition. The streets of Cienfuegos are built by a certain square pattern by which it is not difficult to find your way around. The heart of the city, Parque José Martí, is surrounded by some attractive and strikingly grand buildings. On one edge of the square, the Teatro Tomás Terry with its baroque-style façade, stood proudly since its foundation in 1890. Even today, some dance and theatre productions are still staged in this Spanish colonial house. The interior is glorious and captivating enough to override the dim light. Almost everything dates back to the original construction: the wooden seats, the golden framed stage, the painted flowers on the walls and the ceiling fresco pictures the past nostalgic. Fashioned on a traditional Italian design, with a semicircular auditorium and three tiers of balconies, the Tomás Terry is one of only three such theatres in Cuba. It is worth a visit! At noon, a lot of boys and girls, with their mustard yellow pants and skirts and white chemises, leave the Colegio San Lorenzo and stick together under a big plastic sack to keep them dry from the persistant rain. It's not much fun to walk around in this kind of weather so we move on south to the Palacio de Valle near the Caribbean Sea. This bizar building is a cross between a medieval fortress, an Indian temple and a Moorish palace.

We are now travelling through the province which once was very rich and wealthy because of its many sugar plantations. This sugar production enhanced Trinidad's standing as one of Cuba's most cosmopolitan nineteeth-century cities. The sugar boom made TRINIDAD become one of the most prosperous cities in the country, acquiring a host of splendid colonial mansions, many of which are still standing today. But having the wind in the sails didn't last for eternity. The downward spiral accelerated fast with European sugar beet production challenging the dominance of Caribbean cane and the slave revolts. And the clearing of forests in order to plant sugar meant that one of the region's principal sources of fuel had been exhausted. Finally, the Wars of Independence devastated the region's sugar plantations and the town again fell into obscurity. Luckily, the elegant mansions, both in the historic town and on the nearby estates of the sugar barons, were declared World Heritage Sites in December 1988 by UNESCO and so Trinidad embarked on its latest incarnation as one of the most important cities of Cuba.
It looks like Trinidad held an eternal siesta, at least during the last century. The city constitutes one of the most important architectural and urban testimonies in Cuba and Latin America displaying an environmental coherence that has been kept intact throughout time and turning the city into a strong expressive unit with a marked sense of time and place. The legacy of this short-lived sugar-boom wealth can be seen in the town's baroque church towers, Carrara marble floors, wrought-iron grills and run-down mansions. The only way to get about is on foot. The absence of motor vehicles and the basic living conditions lend the streets a strong sense of the past. We had to scout the UNESCO-protected part of the city, characterized by cobbled stones, in the pouring rain (photo). And therefore, a little bit of the intensity, of the colourful sunburnt paintwork, got lost. We could still notice that many walls were painted over several times by which a beautiful colour mixing of yellow, blue, red and rose came into being. Surprisingly, the government has chosen not to built any hotels in the centre of town but there are many casas particulares. We went to El Colonial (Maceo esq. Colón near the Fábrica de Tobacos) for dinner. It's a beautifully restored colonial residence with most fantastically, original nineteenth-century furniture and lovely, old black and white photographs that fade away step by step. One can see Trinidad must have been a very nice place to live during Spanish colonisation times.
That day we had a spell of bad luck. Not only it was still raining when we finished our dinner, but both Museo Histórico as well as Museo Arqueología were closed because of this rainy weather (at least that what they told us). Almost soaked to the bone we found shelter in La Canchánchara (Rubén Martínez Villena), a bar which gives onto a courtyard. They serve a special cocktail made of brandy (not rum), honey and lemon juice and it has the same name as the bar. As it stopped raining I went out to saunter through the deserted streets. In some of the steep cobbled streets water streamed down like a fast-flowing river. There's absolutely no buzz of human activity (photo). A few people hung in their doorway or sat behind the wrought-iron grills. These barred windows were supposed to keep thiefs outside the houses. Because of the heat the windows are often open and so these grills prevent housebreaking or burglary. It has struck me that most of the Cuban people have a grave look on their faces. Instead of a smiling face they often look glum. I must admit I had expected more happiness or people who are having a ball.
On our way back to Santa Clara we also stopped in El Valle de los Ingenios, home to the sugar estates that once made Trinidid's elite so wealthy. Do not expect any sugar mills because today, only one of the mansions of the old colonial estates remains, Manaca-Iznaga. You can climb the precarious wooden staircase to the top of the 45-metre tower for views of the entire valley, a sea of sugarcane. How higher the tower, how richer the sugar baron. From these towers one could see the macheteros working at the plantation fields. When the bell was rung it could mean that it was time for lunch or that yet another hard working day had come to an end.

Las flores de la vida


The bus trip from Santa Clara to Viñales was boring and I didn't pay much attention to the landscape until we entered the laid-back province of Pinar del Río. Our first stop was to visit the Cafetal Buenavista, a reconstruction of an old nineteenth-century coffee plantation, hidden away in the self-contained mountains of Las Terrazas. Las Terrazas is set up as centre for ecotourism and you have to pay toll if you wanna drive into the resort.

The valley of VIÑALES is very amazing. It's one of the most outstanding and attractive areas in Cuba. The limestone pinnacles that have been eroded into bizarre surreal shapes are impressive. The Viñales valley is an outstanding karst landscape in which traditional methods of agriculture (notably tobacco growing) have survived unchanged for several centuries. Although there are not so many hotels in this area, we had the opportunaty to stay in Los Jazmines (Carretera de Viñales km 25) along the winding road into Viñales village. This elegant colonial-style, pink with blue hotel is settled in an unbeatable hillside location with stunning views of the most photographed section of the valley (photo). Therefore it is said that it's one of the best located and most attractive hotels in Cuba. I enjoyed sitting on the balcony of our room looking at both the sunrise as well as the sunset. The panoramic view was incredible beautiful and colourful. The fertile valley is encircled by mountains, and its landscape is interspersed with dramatic rocky outcrops. These unique mogotes or boulder-like hills were formed during the Jurassic period through a proces of erosion. I was also lucky to see the smallest bird in the world, the zunzuncito or bee hummingbird. It's fascinating who they hoover on rapidly beating wings to extract the nectar from flowers.
Early in the morning you can see vaqueros, Cuban cowboys who roam over the red earthen tracks with their horse and straw hat. Probably on the way to the indigenous constructions known as casas del tabaco, or triangular tobacco huts, that the valley lodges (photo). These drying sheds are covered with palm leafs for moisture and coolness. It is not surprising that this area produces the best tobacco in the world!

Viñales town, located in the valley itself, still preserves the traditional scenery of a peasants settlement represented by its main street, columns in both sides and houses with red tiled roofs and with a unique and pleasant appearance (photo). The laid-back atmosphere and the diminutive size turn Viñales into a quiet and peaceful village with absolutely no kind of hassle. Luckily, it has not been particulary developed for tourism. There are not many restaurants and no offical accommodation. At the moment we were wondering where we were gonna eat that evening, we got this address of a casas particulares by a word of mouth. We were full of the traditional black beans and rice, Moros y Cristianos (as being served just about everywhere) and therefore we were very enthousiastic to go and look for that place. And because it is said that you can get the best food in the private houses of course... As it was illegal for houseowners to serve food to people not staying in the house, most will do it anyway if you are "discreet" about it. We've got some delicious lobster with fresh vegetables and avocados for only 7 USD per person. So if you're planning to visit Viñales maybe this could be a perfect place for you to stay (Nelson Leon, Calle Camilo Cienfuegos No. 4). We also saw the double bedroom with private bathroom and it all looked very clean and above all, it is right in the centre of the city. Leon told us it was 15 USD for the room, breakfast included.
Sitting on a bench on the lazy little main square (photo), which hosts all of the noteworthy buildings, or in an outdoor café upon Salvador Cisnero is an excellent way to spend your afternoon. While we were having a cold drink, a whole troop of children were standing in line in front of the ice-cream maker to get some soft ice-cream (photo). We have been enjoying the beauty of life just like the people of Viñales when they rock backwards and forwards in the rocking chairs on their porch! Sometimes I wondered if the Cuban people have the same idea on the conception "freedom of life" as I do?

I already mentioned that tobacco is an instrintic part of Cuban culture. Tobacco farming and cigar smoking are nonetheless closely linked with the history and spirit of Cuba. Therefore we went to PINAR DEL RÍO to visit the diminutive cigar factory Fábrica de Tobacos Francisco Donatién (Martí), probably the most important highlight of this little town. Who am I, as a non-smoker, to talk about cigars but anyway, this factory is home to Vegueros cigars, a lesser-known brand but well respected amongst connoisseurs. The intimate, non-mechanized workshop is dominated by a cosy atmosphere. You get an insight into the care and skill involved in producing some of the world's finest cigars. You can witness the continuation of the tradition which began in the nineteeth century. While a compañero reads out articles from a newspaper or novel, tabaqueros (photo) sit at wooden desks rolling and cutting tabacco into shape. After the cigars are approved they'll be banded and boxed. Beware of the harassment because a lot of people will try to sell you a box of cigars, even within the factory itself.
The most prestigious cigar brand nowadays is the Cohiba, a name given to a tobacco plant by the indigenous islanders. After it was introduced in 1968, Cohiba quickly became the flagship brand of the Cuban cigar industry. Developed initially as a medium bodied protocol cigar for presentation only by officials of the Cuban government, Cohiba was marketed widely beginning in 1982. The Cohibas undergo a unique triple flavor-enhancing period of fermentation and the Cohiba Esplendido became the most exclusive cigar brand in the world. Other well-known brands are: the Trinidad, Castro's favorite, a light cigar full of flavor, the Monte Cristo, considered the premium until Cohiba was created and then the cigar named after the lovers in William Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo y Julieta. The brand is traditionally credited with the introduction of the Churchill shape in honour of the British statesman Winston Churchill.
A few blocks away from the cigar factory we visited the Fábrica de Bebeidas Casa Garay (Isabel Rubio). In this rum factory, they produce the Guayabita del Pinar brand. It's a compact factory where you can see the several production stages and you'll get a free sample of both the dry and sweet version but it was not really my kind of taste.

La Habana Veija


Despite its turbulent history, HAVANA suffered little damage in the country's wars and revolutions, and stands today much as it was built 100 years ago or more. Bursting with centuries-old buildings and buzzing with a strong sense of the past, there's an air of faded glory about the city as big 50s and 60s American automobiles still dominate the streets and paint and plaster peel off everywhere. The city is peppered with glorious Spanish colonial architecture, much of which is under restoration. Old Havana - La Habana Vieja - was declared an Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982. Since then, the government has been overseeing restoration work. In the last ten years, the arrival of both Canadian and European investment has meant new hotel construction as well as the refurbishment of old properties. After years of undeniable decline, this impressive metropolis is rising like a phoenix from its ashes.

We stayed at Ambos Mundos (Obispo No.153 esq. Mercaderes), translated as "Both Worlds". It's the same hotel where Ernest Hemingway used to stay (room 511) and write for ten years from 1932, before he moved to his house in Cojimar. This stylishly artistic 1920s hotel features an original metal cage elevator and a nice rooftop terrace. You'll find monuments, museums, cobblestone plazas, restaurants and cocktail bars all within easy walking distance so there's a lot of sightseeing to do...
After strolling through narrow, dusty but atmospheric streets bristling with life, some of them with refined colonial mansions, we ended up in Central Havana. Without knowing we stood in front of Havana's most memorable landmarks, the awesome Capitolio Nacional (southwestern corner of the Parque Central). Its solid, columned front gloriously dominates this part of the skyline. Modelled after the U.S. Capitol, though smaller, it was home to the Cuban Congress before the Revolution. It now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. I was silenced once inside the magnificent polished entrance hall. An plushly decorated interior full of striking and extravagant Rococo-style details. The seat of the House of Representatives and the Senate prior to the revolution, both beautifully furnished in Cuban mahogany, are two fantasticly ornate main chambers that make this place really worth seeing!! The walk round, with a free tour guide, is surprisingly brief and shouldn't take you more than twenty minutes. In front of the Capitolio Nacional there's a parking place for taxis. You can see hundreds of classic American cars — Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs — from the 1940s an 50s, which have survived in isolation from the outside world since the 1959 revolution, ply the roads. Some are beautifully maintained (photo), others are rolling scrapheaps (photo). Almost all of them are now employed by their owners as taxis. Another attention-grabber is undoubtedly the Gran Teatro, next to the Capitolio Nacional (between San Rafael and San Martín). As it looks good on the outside with its balustrated balconies, colonnaded cornices and sculpted stone figures it's even more impressive on the inside. Nowadays, the Gran Teatro itself is still used for theatrical and opera performances. Other parts of the buidling are used as ballet or theatre classrooms (photo). You don't need to attend a performance to get a proper look inside. For only 2 USD you are able to get a guided tour by a beautiful young Latino lady. An enormous marble staircase led us to the second floor where there used to be a casino in the good old times. Because it was Saturday there weren't much students practising for a performance but we were lucky to see some artists paint the decor for the wellknown opera "The Swan Lake" of Tchaikovsky. It was painful to see that so many fresco pictures were affected because of water that oozes through the ceiling.
The Museo de la Revolución is only a few blocks away from the Gran Teatro. Because I didn't make time to visit the Museo 26 de Julio at the Cuartel Moncada in Santiago I decided to visit this one and it was soon entirely clear that the Museo de la Revolución must be country's most comprehensive celebration of the revolution. And would it be a coincidence that the museum is housed in the sumptuous presidential palace of dictator Bastista? The revolutionary war was surprisingly well documented photographically and there are some fantastic dramatic pictures and interesting quotes. At first, I read most of the annotations with enthousiasm but after an hour it became monotone. There is just to much to see and not all of it is as interesting. On the second floor some exhibits were vaguely relevant and I lost attention. In my opinion they should make a pithy selection to gain in strenght. Anyway, I would like to share with you a quote of Fidel I wrote down during my visit: "The guerrilla's formation process is an uninterrupted appael to each man's conciousness and honour. Che knew how to get into the most sensible feelings of the revolutionaries".
That day we also crossed the Plaza de la Catedral, one of the most historically and acrchitecturally consistent squares in the old city. Surrounded by eighteenth-century aristocratic residences, the former Swamp Square — this was swampland when the Spanish found it — was renamed when the Jesuit church was consecrated as a cathedral in 1788. Around the plaza there are several art galleries and workshops as well as the Museo de Arte Colonial. A couple of blocks away from the Plaza de la Catedral you can find the biggest and best secondhand book market on the Plaza de Armas, the oldest of Habana Veija's squares. Early in the morning, on every weekday as well as on Saturday, the book vendors start to unpack their cardboard boxes. Albeit these boxes are printed with the logo of Havana Club, El Ron de Cuba, they are now filled with old books (photo). So if you are looking for particular publications of Fidel Castro's speeches of Che Guevara's theories, it is very possible you'll find it here. You can even find some colonial-era literature.

Downtown Havana is also the place to be if you are keen on cocktails. No one should miss the great writer's favorite bars in the old quarters. Hemingway always went to the Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado e/ San Ignacio y Mercaderes) to drink his usual tripple, a mojito, and then he usually went straight to El Floridita (Monserrate esq. Obispo) to taste the excellent daiquiris served there, shaken not stirred. The Bodeguita del Medio is made famous by Hemingway. This immensely popular classic was the hangout for Havana's bohemian crowd in the 1940s and became Hemingway's favorite roost. The walls of this usually overcrowded bar are covered in autographs and scribbled messages and therefore some of the old spirit has retained. Today, El Floridita is one of Havana's most expensive restaurants. Because I didn't only want to follow into Hemingway's footsteps, I discovered some other cosy open-front bars near to the Ambos Mundos hotel in the tighly packed shopping street of Calle Obispo, the backbone of old Havana. If you follow the luring tunes that cascade from the corner of Obispo and San Ignacio you will find a predominantly local crowd and an extremely relaxing port at Café de Paris. I stopped here for an inexpensive mojito, while I watched street vendors take their chances to sell cigars to other tourists or beautiful mulata women passing by (photo). This little bar, with a worn simplicity that belies the party atmosphere stirred up by a live band, is always packed with a mix of tourists and locals. As you see, I like to hang out in a cheerful café. It always a nice place to spy on other people's habits or to write some notes about my experiences into my dairy. Did I already mentioned that Lluvia de Oro (Obispo esq. Habana) is a very lively and busy bar too! Hungry? The best option for lunch is to grab a snack in one of these bars or from one of the street stalls dotted around Habana Veija (photo). You need pesos to pay for a snack in these stalls. When I walked back to my hotel I took a glimpse inside the Drogueria Johnson, a dimly lit pharmacy. Its authenticity is very intriguing. The dark-wood shelves and cabinets must be of a bygone era.

Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately time flies and there is still so much to see in Havana like for example the oldest cigar factory in the country, Fábrica de Tobacos Partagás, the famous seawall Malecón, Casa Natal de José Martí and the cultural heart of the city known as Vedado to mention only a few. These are all good reasons to come back again once more because it was time to say goodbye. We left Havana throught its very wide, almost deserted avenues. On the long, monotonous road to the airport I realized I just began to feel at home in Havana.
Inasmuch as I'm already able to summarize my staying here, Havana seems to be a melting pot of cultures and races, an open-air museum under the strict direction of the bearded Fidel Castro. And I guess many Habaneros are proud of their capital city (photo). Meanwhile, I'm glad I have seen it. Havana is a virus, resistant to any medicine...

I would like to end this journal with two beautiful quotes of Compay Segundo. One romantic retrospective though of an old trovador (a) and his answer to a question of a Gramna reporter about the philosophy of life (b):

  • "They were very romantic times. We tipped our hats to the young women, and if you liked one of them you would toss your hat on the ground. If she liked you too, she would step on part of the hat, just the brim. But if she didn't like you, she'd step all over the hat, demolish it. I transmit that setting, which the public perceives and enjoys."
  • "Everyone should have a philosophy for living better. I am a scholar of life. Every night before I go to sleep, I analyze every detail of what I did that day. I evaluate things and people, which helps me avoid mistakes. I don't sit in the corner waiting for death: death has to pursue me. I'm going strong. I hope to reach 100 and ask for an extension, just like me grandmother did."

Photo Notes:
Most of the photos were taken on Kodak Tri-X pan 400 Black & White film using an old Nikon Nikkormat FT2 with a standard 50mm lens. In a few cases I used colour negative film. All were hand-held.
Copyright notes:
This is a non-profit web page. All the establishments mentioned in this travelogue are hotels and bars I would like to recommend to people who like to travel around in Cuba. This travelogue is written by / the photographs are taken by Joël Neelen except for the photographs of Che Guevara (© Korda), Fidel Castro (© Salas), the tobacco fieldworker (© Renaudeau/Hoa Qui), Casa de la Trova (© Giuseppe Lo Bartolo), the jam session and the ballet dancers (© Melissa Farlow). Thanks Bart and José! © November 2000. All Rights Reserved.