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!
[ Santiago de Cuba | Santa Clara | Cienfuegos | Trinidad | Viñales | Pinar del Río | Havana ]
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
[ Santiago de Cuba | Santa Clara | Cienfuegos | Trinidad | Viñales | Pinar del Río | Havana ]
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...
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.
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):
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