But Cuba has far more to offer for those seeking a unique experience in a country that is rich in culture with an incredibly friendly populace, and a varied landscape. And indeed this is how we experienced Cuba during our 2004 cross country tour that took us from Vinales in the far west to Baracoa in the far east.
Day 1-2 Havana
Day 3 Vinales
Day 4 Zapata Peninsula
Day 5-6 Trinidad
Day 7 Escambray Mountains
Day 8-10 Cayo Coco
Day 11 Guantanamo
Day 12-14 Baracoa
Day 15 Havana (flew back from Santiago)
The distance is deceiving, appearing as a reasonably short drive when peering down on the little globe in my office. But the distance across this long narrow island is 1,200 kilometers, and even longer when you consider the weaving route we took through some areas. Somehow we managed to navigate reasonably well in our rental car with limited to no signage (without GPS).
To plan a self guided trip through Cuba is an experience in itself. Cuba probably took more advance planning than any other country we have visited. At the time, it was not possible to reserve hotels directly, in fact hotels did not even have web sites that provided descriptions of the hotel. Instead we had to rely on guide books, and then had to make the reservations through a central government agency. Cuba after all is a communist country. And even after ensuring we had everything arranged well ahead of time, we discovered that one of our hotels changed without being consulted. One learns to accept the ways of the Communist Party, as resistance is futile. In similar fashion, we were able to rent an aging rental car likely going on its second or third engine. Finally, there was the Tourist card we needed in advance, along with hep A and typhoid shots.
For those Americans reading this posting, keep in mind the U.S. government will not allow you to travel to Cuba barring a few allowable exceptions. There is one technicality though that I became aware of that might be of interest. By the letter of the law Americans can visit Cuba as long as they don't spend any money there. Not sure why that is (or at least was) the case when we visited. So if you happen to be American but your spouse is Canadian, then the simple solution is to have your spouse pay for everything. Only an option if your spouse happens to be Canadian... so let it be known now that I did not spend any money while in Cuba. But just to be safe, ask Customs to stamp your tourist card instead of your passport on arrival.
Our plane landed in Havana in the early afternoon, and we met the Havanatour agent who provided us with our hotel vouchers. Then it was off to the car rental booth where we patiently filled out paperwork and got our car an hour later. Finally we were on the road with our handy map of Havana I went to the trouble to pick up before we left. But without any signage, it was not much help. We got hopelessly lost but managed to make our way to the ocean where we simply followed the coast to take us into the heart of old Havana where our first hotel, the El Comendador, was located. It was a two story building with an inner courtyard, a comfortable and atmospheric place.
If we had one regret during our trip, it was not spending more time in Havana. One day on the way in and another on the way out was nowhere near enough time for this vibrant city. But we did manage to get out and explore the city by foot a little. While most people tend to get around by walking, there were a fair number of cars. And yes it is true that Cuba could be considered the world's largest museum of old American cars. When Castro took over in the 60's Cuba stopped importing cars for the most part, so the Cuban people had to manage with what they had. So they've kept the American cars running all these years out of necessity. Even without the ability to order replacement parts, they have become very innovative in maintaining the cars and managing to keep them running.
Wandering through Havana, it was apparent the Cuban government was developing a split personality. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba went through what they refer to as the 'Special Period' when Soviet subsidized imports all but dried up. So pragmatically, they have increasingly opened the country up to tourism to generate income, but in a communist sort of way. They try to funnel most tourist into the all inclusive enclaves like Varadero, and they certainly don't make things convenient for the independent traveler. And they seem to try to separate tourism areas to the point that Cuban citizens are not even allowed to enter some tourist zones. They do not want their citizens to be clouded by Western influences... But gradually they continue to allow more private enterprise to legally start businesses supporting tourism.
One more sign of the changes in the works was the historic areas of old Havana that were being painstakingly restored to their former glory.
While the revitalized squares were certainly impressive, it was the older areas of Havana with crumbling buildings that reflected the real Havana. Again, due in part to the Special Period, materials and funds to properly maintain buildings are scarce. So most at the very least need a coat of paint, and are held together and roofed with whatever they can get their hands on.
We left Havana heading to Vinales along the Autopista which is the main highway that runs the full length of Cuba. Many stretches are divided four lane highways, and it has to be the least traveled four lane highway in the world! There were stretches where we would not see another car for miles at a time. About half an hour outside of Havana, we approached a car that was broken down on the side of the road, and as we got closer, two large young men ran out into the highway in front of our car with arms outstretched. As I slammed on the brakes, they immediately opened the back car doors and jumped in before we had any idea what was happening. I thought surely we were going to be at least robbed, if not worse... But in broken English, one of the two explained their taxi had broken down and they needed a lift to the next town to reach a wedding. So off we went, dutifully delivering them directly to the church so they would not be late.
Suddenly my pre-conceived notions of needy locals preying upon tourists flew out the window, and from that point on I lowered my guard a bit. In fact we started giving rides to all types of Cubans as we crossed the country, probably 20 to 30 in total. You have to understand that Cuba at the time did not really have a properly functioning transit system. In fact, the way it works along the highway, is people would congregate at major intersections. A uniformed Police Officer would be stationed at these intersections, and they would pull over any vehicle that was not full so they could fill any empty spots with passengers. Even trucks had to pull over to pick up follow comrades.
As tourists, we were exempt from the forced taxi duty, but in the spirit of comradeship we decided to pick up people along our route. We met a lot of ordinary Cubans this way and learned a lot about Cuba, and how they felt about Fidel. In the countryside it was interesting to find that all the people we spoke with seemed to truly admire and support Castro. And historically he did do a lot to bring education and health care to the poor rural areas of the country when he gained power. But people generally live very simply in the countryside, with horses and donkeys seeming to be far more common than automobiles. Some even carry their baby chicks around with them as we learned after picking up a lady and her small child who hopped in with their bags. Soon we could hear the chirping of chicks in the back seat, with one escaping briefly from the bag before being recaptured.
Vinales is an area of limestone karst topography, with large limestone 'mountains' rising up, referred to as magotes. We drove along weaving through the magotes, definitely one of the most scenic drives we took through Cuba. We stopped to take a boat ride through a river that had carved its way through one of the magotes. We also drove past the largest mural we had ever seen, a painting of dinosaurs taking up the entire cliff side of one of the larger magotes. The area is also the source for most of the tobacco that makes its way into the world famous Cuban cigars. At one point we randomly stopped and wandered through the tobacco fields and farms where we were greeted with friendly curiosity.
From Vinales, we headed off towards the Zapata Peninsula with our primary destination being a bird sanctuary. But to most, the area is better known for the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. A bungled attempt to displace Castro, the effort eventually did more to prop up Castro who used the event in his anti-American rhetoric for years to follow. Even today, you are constantly reminded of the victory and the glory of the Cuban revolution as you drive along the roads leading to the Bay.
Enroute we stopped at the park office to pick up our personal guide for the bird sanctuary. We drove out along a single track mud road into the sanctuary running alongside a large mangrove estuary where not surprisingly we saw a lot of birds. Highlights included Pink Flamingos and Roseate Spoonbills. An interesting visit, and we ended up learning as much about Cuba as birds from our guide.
As I mentioned before, Cuba was slowly allowing private enterprise to set up and support tourists. We stayed at a few private casa particulars which were similar to a bed and breakfast. We also ate at privately run restaurants, or paladores. But we learned that the rules for legally operating a paladore were onerous, and didn't always make economic sense since the fixed monthly payment to the government exceeded the revenue one could expect, especially in more remote areas of Cuba. So we were often discretely approached by locals wishing to serve us dinner. So with an adventurous spirit we decided to give it a try, and it turned out to be a good decision. The standard meal was fresh lobster dinner for $10 per person, expensive by Cuban standards, but a deal by North American standards. The lobster was always fresh, actually the best lobster I think we've ever had. We also had our best meals in this manner, as Cuban resort and restaurant food does unfortunately live up to its poor reputation.
At the Bay of Pigs, we were approached by a man who wispering, asked us if we would be interested in having a lobster dinner at his house that evening. So we made arrangements to meet outside of the town in the evening along a dark road. We picked him up and drove a short distance to his house. As we approached his small village we were instructed to turn off the car lights and discreetly parked near his home, and crept into the dinning room. His wife cooked the lobster as his children played. Our hosts regular occupation was an electrician and horse trainer, and he was moonlighting as a restauranteur on the side. No doubt, he made more from serving a few occasional tourist dinner than he did as an electrician or horse trainer.
Next we were on our way to the historic town of Trinidad, a Unesco world heritage site. Although the distance was short we had several adventures that side tracked us. The first was picking up some young women who happily provided directions, but neglected to tell us that the route conveniently passing through their village, and was a significant detour away from Trinidad. After figuring out where we were, we got back on route.
As we entered Cienfuegos, our Russian built rental car started to experience problems as it would uncontrollably go into neutral while driving. We stumbled across a Havanautos office in town where they made some repairs and we were on our way again. But a few minutes out of town we started to experience the same problem, and were lucky to make it back to the office. Initially we were told we would have to wait until the following day before the car could be repaired, even though our evening's accomodation was still about an hour's drive away. After about an hour of extensive discussion, they finally agreed to provide us with another vehicle. But then he explained that the new car had 80,000 km so it required service and we would have to wait a day for it too. After more heated debate, he finally relented and allowed us to be on our way. It turns out he was a good comrade afterall.
We drove on towards Trinidad in the dark, driving slowly because there were many people and animals wandering along the roadside. As we entered the town we felt like we were being transported back in time. The simple but attractive buildings still had their original appearance, likely due more to a constraint of new building materials than conscious preservation. Although today they realize the town as a tourist asset so no doubt safeguards are in place to preserve the town in its original character. It was the type of place where the greatest pleasure was to simply wander and take in the atmosphere, and admire the architecture. A few buildings were designated as museums so we were able to tour the inside and learn a little about the history of the area, the wealth of the town being bullt largely on sugar cane industry. As a former basketball player, I was also extremely impressed by the athletic ability I witnessed on an outdoor basketball court. Cuba has a strong tradition in athletics, particularly baseball, volleyball, basketball and track and field.
Inland and just west of Trinidad is the Escambray Mountains. As we drove up from the coast into the mountains we ascended from dry dessert terrain at the base of the mountains into lush green tropical forests at the top. We spent a day in and around the Parque Codina, hiking along a loop trail near the park office, and driving along a ridge top dirt road with views down the mountain valleys.
Being a narrow island, it did not take long the next day for us to cross the island to Cayo Coco, a developing beach area along the north end of the island. The final approach was along a long 20 km man made causeway that seemed to go on forever.
Cayo Coco was a newer tourist development, so was not as crowded as some of the more established beach areas of Cuba. We stayed at an all inclusive resort for three days in order to have some down time. Although I only lasted about an hour on the beach before getting restless and seeking some adventures. The first distraction was a scuba diving day trip. After about 30 minutes in a pool, we were officially certified as Cuban divers and off we went on a boat to a nearby reef. We dove a shallow reef with an incredible variet of fish and coral. The next day we visited a national park nearby and wandered along the ecological trail and boardwalk that meandered intermittently through forest of epiphyte covered trees to rapid ocean currents flushing out the estuary. In the evenings, we took in the evening entertainment of plays and singing put on by the young Cuban artists at the resort.
White beaches of Cayo Coco
Our next destination was Baracoa at the far east end of the island. Our most aggressive day of travel awaited us, as we had to cover the longest distance to date along a stretch of highway that seemed to deteriorate the further east we went. With the final section being over a mountainous stretch, and darkness approaching, we decided to stop short and settle for Guantanamo, otherwise known as "Gitmo" for those in the military know. We tried the first casa particular we could find, but it was full. A young man offered to take us to another nearby. But after visiting another 3 or 4, they too were surprisingly full. Never knew Guantanamo could be such a popular destination... So we had to settle for the ugly concrete Soviet built hotel (the Soviet inspired buildings were always easy to spot).
The next morning we were back on track for Baracoa, passing along beautiful cliffs dropping off into the blue ocean, and then climbing streadily up and over the mountains to reach the town. As we drove we passed locals wandering along the road carrying plants harvested in the mountains, as well as occasional roadside vendors. Unfortunately one of the more common items being sold was the shell of the bright yellow endangered Polymita snail. They were often strung along a string to make a necklace. These snails are endemic to Cuba, living in the mountains near Baracoa, and have become endangered due to poaching. So if you go to Cuba do not support the poaching by purchasing yellow snails!
Although Baracoa is a small town, it has some interesting history. It is the oldest Spanish community in Cuba, founded in 1511, and was also Cuba's first capital. It is also the location where Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba during his first voyage.
Cuba has a rich music tradition, and we certainly came to appreciate this in Baracoa. One day they closed down an area of town and outdoor street musicians played into the evening. We also wandered into small little taverns to listen to very talented Cuban musicians. If you plan on visiting Cuba, a great introduction to Cuban music is the movie Buena Vista Social Club. The movie was made by accident when an American producer arrived to film some African musicians in Cuba, but at the last minute the African band was refused a permit to go. So stuck in Cuba with his equipment and staff, they managed to round up some aging artists who had been all but forgotten. The music is incredible, and they went on to tour around the world. But the movie also gives insights of Havana and its people and culture. Another suggestion is to listen to Radio Cubana over the Internet. They play a good selection of Cuban music.
While wandering in the town we came across a friendly young man Norge who offered to take us on a tour the following day. So we ended up heading out to visit an organic farm that grew cocoa, bananas and citrus trees. We look a small row boat up a river that followed along a deep canyon. And we stopped at points along the ocean to wander, and visited a couple small villages. We had our lunch at one of the beach stops, being served fresh fish.
Taking a dip near Baracoa
As we started to wind down our trip, we drove back over the mountains to Santiago de Cuba. We dropped off our car, arriving with plenty of extra time to deal with the beauracracy. We then boarded a domestic flight with Cubana Airlines for a one hour or so flight back to Havana. Knowing that Cubana had the worst safety record of any major airline in the world, we were admittedly a little nervous boarding the flight. Perhaps not the wisest choice. But we felt somewhat reassured when we realized that about a third of the passengers were other tourists. As our plane took off, 'smoke' started to creep into the cabn from ceiling vents. There were a lot of panicked looks among the tourists, and our pleas for an explanation from the stewardess were ignored. But we soon realized that none of the locals seemed to be panicking, so smoke filled cabins must be commn and nothing to be concerned about... and as the flight continued the smoke did eventually dissipate. We learned later that it was likely something to do with condensation.
When we arrived in Havana at about 11pm, our second adventure commenced when we learned that taxis don't service the hotel that late. So we were stuck with all the other tourist in the same predicament. But we were saved by a French couple who had pre-arranged for transit to their hotel Los Frailes, which just happened to be the same hotel we were staying at. Out of courtesy, we allowed our French saviours to secure their room before us. Then, it just so happened that the last room available was the nicest one in the hotel, which we received a free upgrade for. We didn't mention it to our new found friends...
With one last day in Havana, we had a chance to wander through the old section of the city, taking in street performers and visiting the outdoor art market. Cuban artists are very talented, and the artwork is very inexpensive. So we picked up a couple paintings to take home, and ended up spending more on the frames back home.
One of our paintings showed Havana at Sundown (see photo below). Notice how all the buildings have antennas on the roofs, in an exaggerated fashion. I'm certainly no art critic, but my interpretation of the painting is it represents the end of the Castro era, as the sun is setting. Inside the homes people draw in the tv and radio signals from Miami to hear the news being broadcast by former Cubans living in America. With a desire to one day soon gain freedoms similar to their relatives living across the Florida Straight, their hopes and dreams emanate brightly from buildings.
Havana at Sundown, by Cuban artist Joel Humberto Rojas Pérez
Overall, Cuba was an amazing destination, and one of our favourite trips. It is truly a unique country, and no doubt it will continue its transition as Fidel Castro's revolution continues to become a thing of the past. But I would encourage you to visit soon before Cuba potentially becomes more and more like its Caribbean neighbors that rely almost entirely on tourism. Cuba is like no other country in the Caribbean, indeed in the world. And also one of the safest places to visit in spite of preconceived notions that Cubans must be anti-American. The reality is Cubans see you as an individual first, and don't seem too quick to pass judgement. There are few safety or crime concerns, although I would try to avoid Cubana Airlines if you can...
If you have any questions about Cuba I'd be happy to try and answer as best as I can. Just keep in mind we visited Cuba almost ten years ago, so no doubt things have changed since.