Cuba. Land of Castro, Che Guevera, revolutions, embargoes and salsa dancing. I was finally going.
Relations with the US were improving, travel restrictions were starting to lift, and who knew how long it would be until the embargoes were lifted. I wanted to see the country before any of these changes affected the island and it’s unique culture.
I’m not an all-inclusive resort kinda gal…I wanted to eat, breathe and experience the true Cuba. And what better way than to stay with local families in casa particulars along the way. And I was going to feel the heat – I was going in July.
Due to massive flight delays, I got to Havana much, much later than I had expected. I had asked my Casa family to arrange a ride to their home and the cab driver they got me, Humberto, was fantastic! He showed me where to change my money, and while I was waiting, bought me a cold drink. That’s Cuban hospitality for you. The next bit of hospitality came only minutes later when street closures, due to pop up construction, had us going in circles, getting no closer to the casa. After a quick phone call, we were told to stop – the owner would walk to us and carry my bags to his home. I was very glad for the escort because the area had no streetlights. After a quick hello to my hosts, it was off to bed – I had things to see the next day!
My first stop was just around the corner…the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana
I was wandering around pretty early, so it was quiet , but it didn’t last long. Soon everywhere I went was full of vendors calling out their wares, be it fruit, peanuts, souvenirs or whatever. Then there’s the music. Music is everywhere. Salsa, jazz, more salsa…you can’t escape it. Good thing I like music!
Anyway, down the street, only a minute or two away, you come to Plaza de Armas, the oldest plaza in Old Havana (1519).
The square is home to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, once residence to 65 governors of Cuba (1781-1898), then the US governor, then the early seat of the Cuban government (1902-1920), and then Havana’s city hall (1920-1967). It is now the Havana Museum. Interesting tidbits…the structure surrounds a courtyard with a statue of Christopher Columbus by Cucchiari, and the area in front of the columns is wood instead of stone so that the sounds of carriages and horses were muffled, lessening the disturbance to the sleeping governor.
Also in the square is Parque Cespedes, a small space shaded by tall trees, featuring a white marble statue of Manuel de Cespedes. He was a revolutionary hero who started the Ten Years War, which ultimately led to Cuban independence.
My favourite part though? The book stalls that surround the square.
Also part of the Plaza de Armas is Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest of the four forts guarding the harbour. A courtyard full of cannons and mortars greets you at the entrance, and it is home to the Naval Museum. It’s also, thankfully, air conditioned.
By the time I got here, it was so hot, my clothes were soaked through with sweat. My umbrella was great for providing mobile shade, but nothing could help with the heat. I kept wandering. I passed through Plaza de San Francisco which has a bench statue with Chopin, made it down to the Capitol building, did a bit of shopping on Calle Obispo, and located the ETECSA (internet centre) with its line down the block and around the corner. Just a tip – most hotels sell ETECSA cards and you can often use their internet – some for a fee, but for the most part, not. At least that was my experience. Much better than waiting hours – yes, hours – in line to send an email.
I eventually made my way to the malecon, hoping there would be a breeze of some sort. Nope. But it did have great views of Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, one of the other forts defending the harbour.
My favourite part of the day, however, was just wandering the streets. Soaking up the sounds, the smells, the look of the back streets. I like getting lost and finding my way back. You never know what you’ll get to see.
As a female, travelling by myself in Havana, I never felt threatened or worried. Maybe annoyed sometimes by the constant catcalling, but always safe. Seriously though, the catcalling. They don’t mean anything by it, it’s a cultural thing that’s just normal and maybe they think that we like it, that it’s a compliment. But when you’re walking on your own, or even with others, and all you hear is “Pretty lady!” “Pretty lady…ooh, you are beautiful pretty lady!” “Where you come from pretty lady?” Ooh, and the kissing sounds…it can be a little wearing. But I always felt safe…it was never threatening. Just annoying.
I would be coming back to Havana for a few days at the end of my trip, so one last stop outside of Old Havana was on my schedule before heading out; the Necropolis Cristobal Colon – 56 hectares of blinding white tombstones with some lovely shade trees thrown in.
It has monuments to former leaders, a chess champion (it has a queen on his gravestone), a spectacular memorial to a large number of firefighters that died in a 1890 fire, and some odd ones, like a section to radio and television reporters.
I think the most touching one, however, was one I just kind of stumbled upon. It was being serenaded. There was an old man, a younger man (his son?) and a guitarist singing the song Quizas, quizas, quizas (or Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps in English). They motioned me over, but I didn’t want to intrude, although to them it wouldn’t have been intruding. It was just so touching to see and hear.
Okay – day two. A quick flight to Santiago de Cuba was in store, and it would be my base, off and on, for day trips. The terminal for domestic flights from Havana was a disorganized zoo, but I made it onto my plane…which had no air conditioning. Sitting in a tin can with no airflow on a sunny day when it’s 35C outside is one way to lose weight. The flight itself was problem free and I landed in the hottest city in the country.
My casa family was fantastic – Carmen and Jorge. They were an older couple who never had children, so everyone that stayed with them became family. I certainly felt that way. The dinner I had with them that night (Pea soup with pork, salad, a huge plate of rice and chicken with pineapple and plantain with plantain chips and homemade ice cream to finish it off) set the bar pretty high for meals. They wanted me well fed and happy. And I was.
With the flight and settling in, I didn’t have time to do much, but there was time for music. There is always time for music. I found myself on the rooftop patio of the Casa Granda, a hotel adjacent to Parque Cespedes, listening to a live band. The view wasn’t bad either.
Day three was a day tripping day. I’m on a tour and we’re hitting a bunch of the local highlights. First up…Revolution Square. Every town has their version of it, but this one was quite striking. It was dedicated to Antonio Maceo – a local who rose to become second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence in the Ten Year War. He was wounded 24 times before being killed in a battle outside of Havana in 1896.
Those large shards coming out of the ground symbolize the machetes they fought with and there is an eternal flame in a marble lined bowl at the base on the other side.
Next on the itinerary is a school. In its previous life, Cuartel Moncada, or Moncada Barricks, was the site of an armed attack that many say was the start of the Cuban Revolution. The goal was to storm the barracks, retrieve any stored weapons, and send false messages to the army using the secure military communications equipment inside.
The battle did not go well for the revolutionaries. Many were killed, captured and then executed, or some, like Castro, apprehended and jailed. While imprisoned, Castro wrote a speech entitled “History will Absolve Me” which was smuggled out page by page. This became the manifesto for his movement.
These days, part of the building is a standing monument to the battle, bullet holes and all. The ones currently in the wall are not the originals…Batista quickly had those filled in. But Castro had the holes redone using photographs. This section of the building now houses the Museo Historico 26 de Julio (also known as the Museo de la Revolucion).
Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, final resting place to about 80% of the key figures in Cuban history, was my next destination. Make sure you wear sunglasses here…the white marble is blinding on a sunny day.
This is a huge cemetery. It is also to be the final resting place of Fidel Castro…which is why they raised the entrance fee and added a photography fee. It is undergoing renovations to make it worthy of him, and someone’s gotta pay. What draws most people to this cemetery though is the mausoleum of Jose Marti – a Cuban national hero. He was an intellectual who also became a key strategist in the war for independence from Spain. Castro used the Marti strategies in his own fight for independence.
The mausoleum is impossible to miss. The hexagonal tower (each side representing one of each of the original six provinces of Cuba) was built atop soil from all Latin American countries.
It is designed in such a way that during daylight hours there is always a sun beam entering the mausoleum. That was because of something that Marti wrote: “Do not bury me in darkness / to die like a traitor / I am good, and as a good man / I will die facing the sun.”
Even to this day he is so loved and respected that the military stands on guard 24/7, with ceremonial shift changes happening every thirty minutes.
It was a bit of a drive to the next spot – the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre. Cuba’s only basilica sits high on a hilltop in the village of El Cobre. Gorgeous. You can see it in the distance as you make your approach – it’s cream colour just glowing bright, popping out of the surrounding green.
It was built in 1927, but there has been a hermitage occupying the site since 1608. It is a shrine to the Virgin of Charity – the patron saint of Cuba, to whom miraculous powers have been attributed. There is an entire wall full of crutches and prosthetics, left by people who prayed to her.
Ernest Hemingway even had a character in “The Old Man and The Sea” promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre, and when he won his Nobel prize for Literature, he dedicated it to her, placing it in her shrine. There are also glass cases that display baseball jerseys, and medals from both the Olympics and Pan Am Games, left as thanks to the Virgin.
One last stop before heading back to town…Castillo de San Pedro del Morro. It’s an enormous rock fortification at the entrance to Santiago Bay, about 14 km from the city. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Apparently it is the best preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, based on Italian and Renaissance design principles. All I know is that I really liked it. The views were spectacular, and I could imagine people running around, up and down the (many) staircases and manning the cannons. You could practically smell the gun powder.
On the way back to the casa we were redirected several times by loud, boisterous crowds which I just assumed was a protest of some sort. Nope. It was the beginning of Carnival season so the conga would just spring up. When I hear conga, I think conga line. This was no typical conga line! Carmen met my roommate and I at the door, made us dump our bags, and led us up the street a couple of blocks to reach the street behind the house. She motioned for us to stand up on the steps leading to a home and then we just stood and waited. We didn’t wait long for this massive group of people to slowly groove towards us, drums pounding a constant rhythm that just made you want to move. And that’s what this crowd did. I don’t think I can quite explain just what it looked like. Think of a crowd maybe 15-20 people across…maybe more, for about three or four kilometers, slowly kind of gyrating to the music and down the street. People on the edges grabbing you to try to drag you in (Carmen would slap their hands and give them the evilest of eyes…like she’s gonna tell their momma). Whistles blowing, people laughing and calling out. Really kind of hypnotic. It goes on for hours and only stops when the last of the people fade away. I wish I could have taken a video or photos, but Carmen made sure we didn’t take anything with us…even our pockets had to be empty. I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like that again. Incredible.
Okay – travel day. Time to trade in the heat of Santiago for the cool(er) breezes of Baracoa…a more laid back town where the country’s chocolate is made. Sounds like my kinda town! After a quick stop at a local market to pick up some fresh snacks, we were on the road.
And what a road it was. The journey took between five and six hours, depending on if you stopped for breaks to stretch your legs or eat. If you Google map it, there are three different routes listed…we took the Carr. Central de Cuba, the route that hugged the coast, the route that took La Farola.
We made one ‘sight seeing’ stop before getting to Baracoa…to Guantanamo. We could see the naval base and the surrounding area, and on the local map it’s listed as “illegally occupied by the United States.” There was a lot more security in this area than anywhere else we went to, with road side inspections included. Very desert like in this area with just scrub brush and an invasive species of plant this just sucks up all the water, killing everything else. It was a very somber stop.
La Farola – a 55 kilometer road that travels over a mountain pass with so many hairpin turns that we were warned to take motion sickness drugs if we thought we needed them. Hmmmm. The views along the route were spectacular. It started out in grey granite and ended in lush growth along the Atlantic coast with scenic lookouts dispersed throughout. Just be aware that you happen to stop for photos, locals will most likely appear out of nowhere to sell you bananas, oranges or cucuruchu, a local sweet made of coconut, sugar and orange, guava or pineapple. Yum!
My first impression of Baracoa when I stepped off the bus – cool. Not cool as in awesome or amazing, but temperature wise. Strong breezes right off the ocean made a huge difference, especially when compared to the landlocked sauna that was Santiago. Now, I’m not saying that it wasn’t hot, because it was still around 35 C…but with a refreshing, constant breeze.
My casa here was lovely. The upper floor of a home with a rooftop patio with chairs and a nice view. I spent a few hours up there after dinner, music and dancing.
Baracoa was cleaner, brighter, felt safer, and just had a much better vibe to it than Santiago. You felt like you could go out at night without too much hassle, you know, beside the ‘normal’ stuff. It’s a small town too, kind of quaint, or antique as someone put it which is rather accurate as it is the oldest colonial city in the Americas. It’s remote, and was pretty much isolated from the rest of Cuba until La Farola was finished in the early 1960’s.
There wasn’t much to do in the actual town, but it was a great anchor for excursions. The first thing I chose to do was tour a cocoa plantation and then head to a beach. The plantation was pretty cool. It didn’t just grow cocoa – it grew tons of various fruit and the area was used more for educational purposes than crops. I did see cocoa though. Did you know that one cocoa tree produces about 100,000 flowers (each a potential fruit), but only about 1% actually turns into a fruit? Kinda disappointing, huh?
How someone figured out that a soft mushy bean with no real taste, covered in a white gelatinous goo could be turned into the deliciousness that is chocolate, I have no idea. But I’m glad they did.
At the end of the tour they made us this fantastic traditional version of hot chocolate called chorote made with coconut milk, fresh cocoa, a bit of cornstarch to thicken it up and a dash of cinnamon. It was heaven in a cup. I attempted to make it for myself once I got home, but it tasted nothing like theirs. I’ll keep trying though.
It was a short drive to Maguana beach after that. I’m not much of a beach person, but I thought, why not? White sand, clear blue water, a gentle breeze, a hot sun and cool shady spots. Perfect. I want to mention that the main beach had a lot of hawkers trying to sell everything from jewelry to wooden carvings, and they came by frequently. So. If you want to be left alone, walk all the way over to the right, cross the rivulet of water and you are on a part of the beach they can’t go to. A little slice of heaven. Just keep track of the water level…it goes under at high tide.
The next day, my last one in Baracoa, I had decided to hike in Alejandro Humboldt National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What makes this park so different is that a lot of the underlying rock is toxic, so it has forced the adaptation of many species, creating new ones along the way. No one knows how many, although studies are ongoing. The problem is that the vegetation is so dense and the water itself toxic to humans, that all food, water and equipment have to be hiked in, so in these temperatures, people can last only a few days at a time.
This hike was just what I needed…getting out in nature and just smelling that green smell. The smell of trees and dirt and sun and growing things. With a tinge of mango in the air. The first part of the trail cut through all these mango trees…and they were all ripe and falling like missiles around us. I was literally walking with my arms above my head to fend them off.
If they didn’t split completely when they hit the ground (or us) we could pick them up and have a snack. Even the horses we saw along the way were eating them off the ground. It was also hard not to slip in them…splattered ripe mangos are like ice!
Other parts of the trail were slippery as well, but that was due to the rain we had before we arrived at the park and the fact that the ground was clay. Going down a hill, no matter the degree of the slope, when the terrain is wet clay it’s hairy. I swear I almost dislocated a shoulder a few times by grabbing at trees as I felt myself going down. I never fell the entire way, but it was a close thing.
One cool part of this trip was when we reached a wide area of water that we needed to cross. A man was there with his cart, watering his oxen. He came over and offered us a ride so we wouldn’t get our feet wet so we piled in…and held on because that thing was rocking all over the place. He kept going when we reached dry land and we really picked up some speed until one person got too nervous to continue and made him stop. I tipped him a bit as a thanks.
Early the next morning, before I left, I went to the church in the main square as soon as it opened because I wanted to see the “Cruz de la Parra”. It’s a meter high wooden cross that was supposedly left by Christopher Columbus at the harbour entrance in 1492. It has been carbon dated, and is about 500 years old, so who knows. Over time it has unfortunately lost quite a bit of its length as people took parts of it, but it is now out of reach.
I just think its so cool that I was only a few feet from something that was once in the possession of Columbus. I know that I’d been in towns that he established, but this was different. Really tangible. It was only then that the age of the town I was standing in hit me. This town was more or less cut off from the rest of its country for four hundred years. My country will only be celebrating is 150th birthday next year. Wow.
I had a bit of time left before I departed so I wandered around a bit – something I hadn’t really had time to do, unfortunately.
I was now headed towards Camaguey, but it was too long for one day, so there was another stop in Santiago. I took advantage of the little time I had left there to tour a rum museum and not much else.
The next day was another long travel day with a couple of stops thrown in, with the first being Bayamo. Bayamo was the second settlement in Cuba and the setting for quite a few historic events during the War of Independence from Spain. When Spain’s Queen Isabella was dethroned in a coup, the elite of Bayamo rose up in revolt and that kicked off the Ten Years War. Against the rules, they played a martial song in the parochial church which eventually became the Cuban national anthem.
In October of 1867, with a small band of 150 men, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes seized Bayamo from Spanish forces. But the Spanish were back two years later, and instead of handing it over to them, the people of Bayamo chose to burn their city down, leaving only the center of the city remaining as it was. And a very pretty area it is. The church where they played the anthem is still there, shining bright in it’s newly restored form. There wasn’t much time to look around since we were only there for about a half hour, but it felt quite mellow.
Back on the bus, you could just see the landscape changing. So far on this trip we hadn’t seen any cows – no beef on the menus, just pork. But now we were passing fields with grazing cattle. And I mean really large fields….as far as the eye could see. Every now and then we’d drive past huge swaths of sugar cane, but there was definitely a change in the animals we were seeing.
One thing I haven’t mentioned before now are the roads of Cuba and how you must have NO FEAR behind the wheel because it’s a constant game of chicken. I’m not kidding. If you’re driving along and the other side of the road is in better condition, you just swing your vehicle over until oncoming traffic is really close and then you switch back to your lane. Until you can move back over. And you also have to take into account all of the horses and carts and mules and bikes and whatnot that are also sharing the road. It can get quite hairy, so most of the time I just chose not to pay attention and trust our driver. Trust the driver…he does this for a living……trust the driver….
Camaguey. The third largest city in Cuba is also known as the “city of squares” because there are so many. I think it should be called the city of churches because it has fifteen of them.
Given it’s size, the city didn’t feel that big. It felt kind of small and quaint, but that may be partly because of it’s maze like layout. Seriously…it could get confusing, but at least I wasn’t looking for anything specific. I just wandered around with no real plan and enjoyed the architecture, colours, and general feel of the place.
When the night with its cooler air arrived, everyone came out to play and socialize. Not kidding…kids were easily out until midnight with their families, playing in the squares. The later it got, the more people were out. I’d seen this everywhere in Cuba, but never more so than in Camaguey.
One kind of unique thing about this city…they used to constantly suffer from water shortages so these giant earthenware containers (up to 2.5 meters tall and 1.5 meters wide) were made to collect rain water. Placed under the gutters, they were partially buried to keep them cool, but the size and the quantity of how many you owned became status symbols. They represented your wealth. There are still some scattered around the town.
I climbed up it…after paying a fee…to take in the view. Lovely rolling fields of green for as far as the eye can see with mountains in the distance. The stairs were very steep and very narrow, and while I had no issues with that, I saw others that did. Not everyone made it to the top.
After letting the food settle for a bit, it was off to the Casa de la Musica – an outdoor venue by the Plaza Mayor. There was an area with tables in front of the stage, but the majority of people sat on the rows of concrete steps that led up the side of a hill. This place could, and did, hold hundreds every night. The bands were always amazing, and changed about every hour or so. The bottom area was filled with people dancing (with different degrees of rhythm), but everyone was having fun.
My first full day was a day of horseback riding in the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, part of the valley of sugar mills I mentioned earlier. From what I gathered beforehand, it would be a three hour trip. What I didn’t catch, was that it would be three hours each way, making for a total of six hours on a horse. For a person who can’t remember the last time she rode one.
Anyway, the scenery was gorgeous and we had a few stops along the way such as an old sugar cane plantation where we could sample sugar cane juice. Where we stopped to rest the horses there was a guy with coffee beans. He proceeded to manually grind (pound) the beans with a huge mortar and pestle contraption and make us coffee however strong we wanted it. Stir with a piece of sugar cane and drink. The last stop was at a waterfall, but I hadn’t been told about this part, so I had no swimwear… but everyone else in the group did. Oh well.
I don’t have many photos from the horseback riding because inexplicably all three of the camera batteries I had with me died quick deaths. I may have been the heat because it was bloody hot and they were almost in direct sun with just a thin bit of cloth protecting them. I hate that though…I would have taken soooo many pictures because it was just so pretty!
After saying adios to my horse I had a bit of time to walk around, get lost, and then find my way back for salsa lessons and supper. I had taken Cuban street salsa a few years back and hoped that I hadn’t lost it all. I knew I could still do the basic stuff since I’d been dancing since I got to Cuba, but anything more than that was a toss up. One of the instructors saw that I had some experience and showed me some more advanced moves. Wheeee…just zipping around the dance floor, twirling, spinning, giving the hand flourishes….So. Much. Fun.
The next day was a short hike in Parque el Cubano that reminded me so strongly of home. The smell of the green, the rise of the hills, the sound of cicadas….What didn’t seen like home was the large wall of wasp nests. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. Lets just say I used my zoom lens to take a photo of that. You could tell by the colour of them that they weren’t home, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.
At the end of the trail was a lovely waterfall with a convenient perch to jump into the water from above.
I stuck to the shallow end which I was fine with. Just the cooling off felt nice. After about an hour the area got too full of people for me so there was the short hike back and then another quick jaunt to a beach. I’m not really a beach person, but I did want to put my feet in the Caribbean. It was much warmer than I thought it would be.
Under the monument was the Che museum which gave a detailed account of his history from childhood to the capture of Santa Clara in 1958. Che’s remains, found in Bolivia, were laid to rest in an adjacent mausoleum in 1997 and there was empty space for the 37 other guerrillas who lost their lives in their last campaign. It was a beautiful tribute. Very solemn.
After a nice dinner out, it was back to my casa so I could pack up and get ready to leave for 0500 the next morning. Humberto, my taxi driver when I arrived, would be picking me up.