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Central America Caribbean » Cuba » Oeste » La Habana
August 17th 2016
Published: August 26th 2016
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I had always wanted to go to Cuba so flew into Havana's José Marti airport full of enthusiasm and excitement-which ebbed away with every pain staking minute spent there. Firstly, the immigration queue and wait for baggage moved at an interminable pace which resulted in a 2 hour wait in the airport. Once finally fully furnished I proceeded to the exit where my promised airport transfer was nowhere to be found, instead I tried to obtain a taxi but found myself in the bizarre situation of trying to persuade a taxi to take me as I was refused by several who didn't know where it was or couldn't be bothered going that far, eventually one agreed to take me-who I later discovered had overcharged me for the privilege. Once at my hotel there was no record of me having a room until after a not so exhaustive search conducted by a lady moving at the pace of an airport baggage handler I was eventually found. Only the lift didn't work so I had to traipse up four floors with my backpack, and Samsung phones don't work on Wifi in Cuba so I couldn't let people know I was alive. With deep breaths I waited for my tour to start only to find out that the tour guide had cancelled at the last minute as he was 'too tired', a replacement was assured who would be there in the morning but come the time she failed to show up at all. Finally a third guide was procured who we could have if we would just drive to his mothers house in the tour bus to pick him up and then deposit him at his own place to get some clothes, oh and he nor the for driver had ever been on the tour before so we were lost frequently. Welcome to Cuba, this was going to be interesting.

A brief history of Cuba

I've decided that I couldn't really begin this blog without detailing a short hand version of Cuba's history because perhaps like no other place it's past is intrinsically liked with its present and future and affects the every day lives of Cubans. If you aren't interested in this or it's history then feel free to skip on but there will be a test at the end...

So after 500 years of Spanish colonisation they eventually gained independence in 1902 with more than a little help from the US and for 50 years had a stable government of sorts. But in 1952 Fulgencio Batista decided all this democracy wasn't for him so cancelled the upcoming elections and took power in a military coup, proving himself a ruthless dictator and turning Cuba into a police state. This upset a young lawyer named Fidel Castro who was planning to run in those elections, but instead of writing a strongly worded letter like my Dad does he formed a revolution. At the second attempt the revolution won in 1959(more on all that later) and Fidel then transformed Cuba into a socialist country, made allies with the USSR and severely pissed off the US in the process which led to among other things a trade embargo and the small matter of the brink of World War 3 during the Cuban missile crisis. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant Cuba lost around $6bn in annual subsidy from them and could no longer export sugar in exchange for its oil which led to the 'Special Period' of economic austerity that 'officially' lasted 10 years (but most agree is still going on) as the economy shrank 60%, Cuba's factories and agriculture were paralysed and people went hungry. Fidel ruled for 47 years until 2006 when he stepped down due to ill health and his brother Raul has been in charge ever since.

As always communism sounds great on paper but has severe limitations in reality. Positives in Cuba include there being no crime, free education and a 99% literacy rate, there are no university fees and there is free and extensive healthcare resulting in the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. Citizens can keep the house they are born in and there are no mortgages, there is racial and religious freedom and it is cheap to go out places as it is considered a right of the people. However there is a flip side to each of those points, for example the fact there are now 70,000 qualified doctors (for comparison Africa has 50,000 doctors in total) but they only earn $40 a month, in fact the average state salary in Cuba is equivalent to $20 per month and thus people need multiple jobs to survive. Everything here is state owned so there are no private business or opportunities to earn an income, that one house they are given is great but it is the only one you are ever allowed to own. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of press(Cuba is ranked as 171st out of 180 by the World Free Press Index while Amnesty international regularly scores Cuba one of the lowest in the world for not respecting human rights) and with the state owning the media you can never trust the crime rate claims or the amazing literacy stats. To speak out against the government is a crime and each neighbourhood has a member of the CDR-the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution-who's job it is to quash dissent, ensure compliance and basically tell on anyone not toeing the line. Finally despite socialism's cry for the communal one and equality for all there is a clear sense of the have and have-nots evident particularly with the Castros at the top with their numerous homes. The result of all this is Cuba as you find it today, as fascinating and contradictory as it is complex, and I had just 15 days to get under the skin of it all.

Cienfuegos

My first city was surprising in that it was totally Gallic due to a pioneering Frenchman sponsoring a load of families to emigrate and up the number of white people. The result is the 'Pearl of the South' which is a UNESCO heritage site for its architecture in the neoclassical style-whatever the hell that means. The colonnaded streets were lined with huge pillars that supported large porches which threw out welcome shade from the sweltering sun and they even had a poor attempt at an Arc de Triomphe, so I think neoclassical just means nicking bits from as many different cultures as you can. The city seemed to spread out around Parque José Marti, a square centred around a statue of it's revolutionary hero from the 19th century which the park is named after, this poet and revolutionary from the second independence war is revered here and his words are still memorised and quoted by school children to this day. The problem lies in the honesty of the narrative, Cuba did indeed fight gallantly in the first war but ultimately signed a truce and the Spaniards stayed in control, they tried again a second time but again lost and it took the US to step in and oust the Spanish for them. But if you believe people like my tour guide then they actually won both wars and they were glorious successes, it was a little like China rewriting history over Tiannamen Square or North Korean tour guides only showing you the side they want to portray and was disturbing after a while. As well as the park and Arc the square contained a cathedral, theatres, museums and many other historical looking buildings some of which you could climb to gain a good vantage point over the whole square.

The city also had a lovely sea drive-known here as a Malecón-which is a long street or boulevard that runs alongside a huge natural bay. We walked its entirety and found a park at the end where hundreds of locals swam in the bay, others did a spot of picnicking or fishing while the much more sensible drank instead. It is only 30 miles or so up the coast to the infamous Bay of Pigs (where Kennedy/the US disastrously failed to overthrow Castro with rebels they had trained) so the coastline has also played its part in history. Walking the Malecón at night was especially pleasing as the whole city seemed to be sat on the boulevard walls relaxing and chatting without a care in the world and it was definitely infectious. We also had time to visit Laguna Guanaroca where we took a boat ride out among the mangroves to view flamingos and pelicans, there were only about 40 and 3 respectively as it was out of season but it was a pleasing diversion from war memorials.

Trinidad

As though it was showing off Cuba then presented us with yet another UNESCO World heritage site, in fact overall there are 9 on this small island which shows it certainly punches above its weight, or that the person working for Unesco is a communist. The town was built on sugar (not literally that would be silly, tasty but silly) as 11,000 slaves worked the plantations and fields for this precious commodity and from a tourist's perspective it seemed like someone had put a bell jar over Trinidad in 1850 and never lifted it off. The narrow and cobbled streets bisect rows of low slung houses joined at the hip where locals spill out of every doorway and window, you could sense the Cuban communal attitude here with every house seemingly bursting with bodies, people stopped to chat on the streets, borrow items, sell bread, help a neighbour in need or play dominoes in highly animated states. Pedestrians like me gawping at these scenes had to have their wits about them to avoid the horses and carts swaying dangerously by or the huge old Chevrolets or Cadillacs from the States still being used as taxis. The centre of Trinidad is the Plaza Mayor, a colonial square which epitomises the outside atmosphere here now as people sit outside cafés drinking a Cuba Libre, smoking cigars or enjoying the music played on the stairs. That's when they looked up that is, firstly you couldn't move for tourists (I realise I am one of them and exacerbate the problem but its my blog so I can moan if I like) and secondly Cuba has begun putting public Wifi into the main squares in towns. I think the idea is that it brings everyone together into one place but it actually just serves to give 3000 tourists their Instagram fix instead of looking around them. Anyway old man rant over. The old colonial mansions are now restaurants or art galleries and they along with the church loom large over it all and silently judge. I suppose I had so much time on my hands to contemplate all this while I waited for my food in one of the government owned restaurants where I found the slowest and most incompetent establishment yet when they set a new record of taking nearly 2 hours to bring some spaghetti. In that time I could have walked to the nearby beach Playa Ancon with it's stunning arc of white sand and turquoise warm water that was right out of a postcard picture. I'd also recommend the trek through the Parque el Cubano to take a dip under the waterfall and swim in the surrounding caves.

Santa Clara

The next city is synonymous with one person who changed Cuba and in some ways the world, so infamous that they only need one name: Madonna. No I jest, it's really Ché. It was here that Ernesto 'Che' Guevara led his troops to the decisive battle of the revolution and liberated the first major city from the government, the taking of this city was vital for its strategic and geographical position and effectively paved the way for the overall victory for the revolution a couple of months later. Che was actually born in Argentina into a rich family and qualified as a doctor but shunned the bourgeois lifestyle after seeing the grinding poverty in Latin America during his travels(The Motorcycle Diaries). He initially tried to help a revolution in Guatemala but was deported to Mexico where he met Fidel Castro and joined the Cuban revolution eventually being made a Commandant. in 1958 he masterminded the attack on Santa Clara at the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindao where they derailed an armoured train carrying 350 heavily armed government soldiers and defeated them all using just 18 revolutionaries, some Molotov cocktails and a bulldozer. The small museum and monuments-including the original bulldozer used to break the tracks-detail how it was done and portrays the bravery and leadership qualities he must have had to inspire young rebels to try such daring manoeuvres. The Che Guevara Mausoleum serves a different purpose because the park, monument, mausoleum and museum complex does a moving job of detailing his life and death. The bronze monument on top shows El Che looking out over a spacious and pristine park but it is below that really has an effect as the sombre mausoleum houses his remains, decked out to be like the jungle in which he died alongside an eternal flame lit by Fidel. After the revolution he helped to transform Cuba through economic reforms and was the president of the national bank but also travelled undercover to countries such as the Congo to help them in their own revolutions. Eventually he was sent to Bolivia to help their revolutionary cause under a grander scheme of emancipating all of Latin America but was caught by the Bolivian army and executed as US advisors looked on. Che's good looking face and quotations are featured literally everywhere around Cuba, it adorns people's homes both inside and out, cars, key rings, t shirts and monuments, his image is abundantly more present than Fidel's here and around the world. I think people revere him because he seemed a true revolutionary, undoubtedly he had faults (assassinating prisoners without trial for example) but he carried the fight in multiple countries and so became the poster boy for standing up to imperialism and governments, but whatever your thoughts on him he is integral to the Cuban story.

Camaguey

Next it was on to yet another UNESCO Heritage Site for its historical centre which is mainly famous for its maze of streets although I thought that was overstating it a bit. Certainly at times the roads converged in weird places and shot off in myriad directions but I'm not convinced by the legend that it was designed this way to confuse and thwart the pirate invaders, for all we know it could have just been the result of a cock eyed town planner. It was a nice place to explore though with its numerous parks and plazas as well as every second building being a church due to its highly Roman Catholic nature, and all that knee scraping seems worth it as there have been a couple of recent visits from the white robe wearing fanatic(the Pope not the KKK). We took a bicitaxi tour which is essentially two shaded seats stuck to the back of a bicycle and were then transported around like a weird Roman emperor trying to enjoy the scenery as some poor local sweated his nether regions off. First up the Plaza San Juan de Dios was a picturesque colonial square with a cobbled floor and a two towered church but its ambience came from the restaurants that lined the periphery. Next we visited the Plaza del Carmen which was yet another plaza with yet another pretty church and the Martha Jiminéz Pérez art gallery was worth a 10 minute amble. Meanwhile the Parque Iganacio Agramonte named after yet another independence hero (you spotting a theme yet?)was a nice place to relax in the evening as locals strolled the pedestrianized centre, reclined on benches to gossip or watch their kids race around the Agramonte statue. Plus use the Wi-Fi.

Holguín

We stopped off at Holguín really to break up the journey but it still managed to provide some interesting insights to Cuba nevertheless. It is important historically as it was here in 1492 that Christopher Columbus first made landfall in Cuba-although he thought it was Asia so must've really mistyped it on his Satnav. The area is also intriguing as it is the birthplace of both Batista and Castro so has contributed a fair bit to Cuba's modern history. The only real touristy thing we did was ascend La Loma de la Cruz which is essentially a big hill that provides panoramic views over the 'City of Parks' accompanied by a plain white cross on it dating back to 1790. We found an intriguing slice of Cuba in our hotel where there was a celebration called Quinceañera as a 15 year old girl came of age called. This seemed to involve a party and lots of running around or diving into swimming pools but it was a scary thought that 15 is designated as the appropriate age where they are legally allowed to marry and become pregnant etc, at their age I still thought the hymen was something you sang in church.

Baracoa

The drive the following day took us along the northern coast of Cuba through the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, a national park that apparently hosts lots of endemic wildlife. We stopped off at Bahía de Taco, a beautiful bay full of mangroves and manatees which would have been a great claim but the shy creatures stayed away. We continued on through places like Moa which gave another inkling to the ways of Cuba as they mine nickel that contributes towards 20%!o(MISSING)f the economy. The elephant in the room is the fact that the improper practices are also giving the local population cancer, a fact acknowledged by my guide with his depressing sentence 'yes it looks like it is having this effect but we really rely on it...' a sentence that he left unfinished and hanging in the air but the truth was in the silence. Money was a recurring theme the further East we travelled mainly because there seems to be a lack of it and it was fairly apparent in the style of housing and dilapidated feel of the towns that there was less wealth in Holguín and Baracoa than on the western side of Cuba. Baracoa itself is the oldest and most isolated town in Cuba, situated near the tip of the island and a short hop of less than 100 miles to places like Haiti so it had that laid back seaside feel where the pace of life is slow and everyone waits for the cool night temperatures and sea breezes. There were some worthwhile sights here too such as the Museo Arqueológico 'La cueva del Paraíso' which was a wonderful little museum within an original cave structure where the remains of the Taíno culture were found in burial chambers. These date back to 700AD and the original skeletons are still there frozen in time in the foetal position as well as some 2000 pieces of ceramics and 3000 year old petroglyphs. It was well worth a visit for the cave structure alone and you could also ascend to the top of the caves for perfect views over the town itself. The town also has the Cathedral de Nuestra Senõra de la Asunción (they love an impossibly long Spanish name) which is essentially a fairly ordinary church with some nice stain glassed windows but the undoubted highlight is the Cruz de la Parra, an original wooden cross erected by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Although much smaller in stature than expected due to people shaving bits off for prosperity it has been verified via carbon dating to be authentic and so was pretty unique to see. The town also has 3 Spanish forts dotted around and as you can walk Baracoa in its entirety in about 20 minutes we visited them all even though none are now forts per se, in fact all were so small I felt I could invade with some of my school kids let
Santiago de Cuba-Moncada barracksSantiago de Cuba-Moncada barracksSantiago de Cuba-Moncada barracks

Site of Fidel's first attempt 1953
alone the British Navy. Fuerte Matachín is now a museum that showcases a vast array of history from animals, music, indigenous and famous residents of Baracoa while still retaining some of the original guns. The Castillo de Seboruco is now a hotel but it still looks vaguely fortish, it's best feature is that it is atop a hill that let's you view the 575metre high, flat topped mountain El Yunque from afar, but it looked steep and it was very hot so that was as close as I fancied getting frankly. Meanwhile the Fuerte de la Punta is now a restaurant overlooking a bay full of shipwrecks and litter. At other times we also tried the famous Baracoan cuisine of bacán, a green plantain mixed with shrimps and coconut sauce all wrapped in a banana leaf that tasted nice but was way overpriced. Baracoa is also the centre of the chocolate region and you could visit a cocoa farm and learn how it's grown etc which the others tell me was a nice trip, but as I've done this previously I opted for the beach of Playa de Miel and ended up as dark and crispy as the black sandy beach I lay upon.

Santiago de Cuba

We moved down to the South coast and on the way passed a nondescript little cove that one would glide right by if it wasn't named Guantanamo Bay. The help given by the US to gain independence came at a cost and that price was the strategically important bay at Guantanamo which they managed to sign up for indefinitely thanks to some cunningly crafted wording in the small print of the contract, the first nail in the coffin for the hostility between the countries. It is now a US naval base that contains 10,000 people, war machinery, Cuba's only McDonalds and Starbucks plus some prisoners kept under more than questionable conditions. To be honest they have positioned it so well tucked around some hills that from the viewpoint you could see next to nothing, but seeing as I'm tanned and not shaved in a couple of weeks it was probably a good thing we couldn't get too close or I'd be shoved into an orange boiler suit and subjected to Celine Dion's greatest hits in no time.

We ended up in Santiago de Cuba which is referred to as the 'hero city of the Republic'. It was here in 1953 that Castro led the first assault of the revolution, although it failed (it was poorly planned-they even got lost on the way) he then used his trial in Santiago for a now famous 'history will absolve me speech'. After being exiled and then returning in 1956 it was in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains where he based his headquarters for the second crack at the revolution and it was in Santiago itself that he declared it victorious in 1959. Accordingly it has lots of important places to visit, starting with the Cuartel Moncada where Fidel attacked what was then the second largest army barracks on the 26th July, this date is now seared into the Cuban conscience and you see 'Julio 26' adorning nearly as many edifices as Che's face. You can visit the barracks which look more like a hospital than anything but you can still see the bullet holes in the front and see some artefacts inside. Nearby was the Plaza de la Revolucíon which was a huge space more resembling Tiananmen Square for its scope and at the centre stood a 16m high statue of one of the heroes of the independence wars. Next was the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia which even my Spanish can translate to mean it was a cemetery. It was a large and beautifully presented space that brought to mind the style of those in Buenos Aires with it's huge mausoleums and grand tombstones mainly decorated to war of independence victims, heroes of the revolution and famous Cubans. It is a national monument and had a special eternal flame, mausoleum and goose stepping changing of the guard for José Marti. Pleasingly the next few sites had nothing to do with independence wars, revolutions, statues or plazas which was certainly a shock as I didn't think Cuba had anything other than that. The Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Moro is yet another UNESCO heritage site and is a muscular fort situated on 60 metre high cliff overlooking the beautiful sea, it was definitely worth a visit with its massive walls, numerous floors, original artefacts such as cannons and picture perfect view of the bay it protects and the coastline. We also visited the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre, a nice looking church with the usual stain glass windows etc built on a hillside in the village of El Cobre and is the most sacred pilgrimage site for Cubans. It's more the story that I wasn't buying because they come to worship a tiny figurine that allegedly performed the miracle of rescuing 3 fisherman during a storm and the whole church is built around this tiny plastic doll encased in glass. The Catedral de Nuestra Sensoria Ascuncion back in Santiago's centre seemed a bit more normal-no worshipping the doll of Chucky in a glass box or anything here-just a pretty double towered cathedral looking serene and nearby was a pleasant lookout that gave good views over the Tivoli neighbourhood down to the water. Other than that we had a nice couple of meals and wanders around the city that is a bit of a Marmite place which people tend to love or hate, I found it OK and it did us no harm.

Havana

Havana on the other hand is like no other I have come across and it is all the better for it. In the1950s it had become the precursor to Vegas in it's heyday full of American gangsters gambling and partying away in hugely decadent casinos and hotels but then Fidel took over and shut it all down, in the process giving away the buildings to the poor and decreeing that nobody could alter the outside of buildings. And thus Havana has sat untouched and deteriorating ever since, wandering through the narrow streets of this Centro Habana was fascinating as 160,000 people squeeze into an area of 4 square kilometres, the once lavish buildings still stand with a faded grandeur as paint peels, walls crumble and light bulbs work overtime to battle the gloom that permeates from the corners. People sit on doorsteps, kids kick footballs in tiny alleyways, bikes whip past too close for comfort and the bread sold is hauled up via a string over balconies. And then suddenly through the bobbing heads you'd spy some magnificent edifice rising in the distance like the Capitolio Nacional which with its white brickwork, domes and columns is a blatant rip off of Barack's in Washington. Other historic buildings in that area that are stunning to look at include: Grab Teatro de la Habana, Hotel Inglaterra, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Edificio Barcadi, all of which I don't have the vocabulary to detail but are well worth wandering to. And then you reach the actual neighbourhood that is designated the historic masterpiece: Habana Vieja-here in Old Havana some 900 historic buildings covering 500 years of history lie within just a few kilometres, there are way too many to name but just wander from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Plaza Vieja and try your best to take in all the architecture, cathedrals, plazas, squares, forts, museums, shops, atmosphere, music and characters. When you're exhausted from all of those you can drag yourself down the pretty 8km sea wall of the Malecon backed by the Havana skyline or nip across the bay to the two huge forts in Parque Hsitorico Militar Morro-Cabana that stare down at Havana itself. And none of this is even taking into account the many avenues, independence squares, revolution museums, cigar factories, Hemingway memorabilia or galleries around Havana that you can also see, but this blog is too long and Havana too densely packed with sights to fully detail. Just go and immerse yourself in it.



Cuba has been a real eye opener, it is one of those countries that has really made me think and question what is going on around me, perhaps because the Cubans didn’t seem to do so themselves. Admittedly between the Spanish and the Castros they have only had 50 years of democracy and what most would see as normalcy so maybe being subjugated by omnipotent rulers is all they've ever known and so they are used to not questioning and simply accept this is life, or perhaps they realise it all but think the positives outweigh the negatives in the relationship. The only difference I can see between Batista and Castro is that the former was a string puppet of the United States whilst Castro is his own man so maybe that's all they really look for in a leader. But you can sense that the newer generations are becoming more savvy and starting to question so the recent decisions to relent and allow them basic civilities such as mobile phones, the internet, private businesses, cars, homes and the freedom to travel etc it may have just staved off a new revolution. Plus the renewing of ties with America may well have saved a battered economy that still relies heavily on Venezuela.

For me in the end it wasn’t the propaganda or revolution rhetoric that I'll remember most. Instead I loved the Cuban way of just making things work and getting by, the communal spirit, the passion playing dominoes and their huge cigars, people sat on porches in rocking chairs or entertaining half of the street for a gossip. We got a great insight into all this by staying in the Casa Particulars which are home stays operated by locals families and I can't recommend them highly enough over staying in a dull hotel room, watching the way of life pass you by in these has being a particular highlight. I didn’t quite grow to enjoy the laughably poor customer service in government establishments or their tour company (Cubatur) you are forced to use who bring a whole new level to incompetence. It has definitely been a good time to visit just before the influx of Americans and dollars arrive and changes the way of life here beyond all recognition and signals the start of a whole new chapter of history for Cuba that should be fascinating to witness, I guess I’ll just have to return in the future to find out for myself.


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26th August 2016

We loved our time in Cuba
The Cubans are resilient people.... who know what they have lived and don't seem to completely realize what they have missed. Havana and Trinidad were our favorites. Loved reading your impressions.

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