Edit Blog Post
Published: March 9th 2015
The winds of change are blowing across Cuba. In Old Havana workers are lifting 16th Century cobblestones to lay poly pipe for water and gas, power and optic fibre. The end of the Castro era is nigh and a thawing of relations with the US seems inevitable. The embargo will be lifted and the children of Cuba face a very different future from the one their parents faced in the 1960s.
It's understandable the mixed emotions of excitement and trepidation felt by Cubans at this time. Castro era poverty has been balanced by performance on just about every social index - free health care, education and aged care, high literacy and low crime rate to mention a few. Despite continuing questions over human rights and freedom of expression, Cuba has outperformed almost every country in Latin America in per capita number of doctors and teachers, and last week UNESCO announced Cuba has 0% child malnutrition. So throw in an extra million US visitors a year, and access to capital and what do you get? A lot for the regime in Havana to ponder as it confronts generational change and extraordinary opportunity.
We flew into Havana (La Habana) from Cancun,
Mexico, and our first stop was a casa particular in Old Havana. Casa particulars are a great Cuban innovation. Faced with a dire shortage of hotel rooms, the government tourism office registers private houses and apartments as tourist accommodation. Havana has thousands of them and they are cheaper than hotels ($25-$40/night), and you get to meet the locals. Most are homestays where you rent a room in someone's house, but our first one was a vacant ground floor apartment with 1960s decor in a courtyard with ancient wooden doors leading onto Plaza Vieja.
La Habana is like the eccentric great aunt you always wished you'd had. She's boisterous and fun, exotic and colourful, and crumbling away in her own time. She's elegant and complex, can seem a bit scary but is really quite safe, and underneath her flaking exterior is a timeless classic beauty ...and just when you think you're getting to know her, she will salsa shimmie out of reach again. If La Habana were a dish she would be a rich and layered tiramisu with a liberal dose of coffee and rum, served at an outdoor table in a plaza, with a strong expresso and a fat
We spent 6 nights in Havana and loved this amazing city with its jumble of architecture, narrow cluttered streets, interesting people, classic cars, bars and restaurants, and an impressive array of museums and galleries. It's colourful, edgy and intense but the enduring memory of Havana, indeed of Cuba, is its music...
Live music is everywhere in Cuba; on the streets, in every restaurant and bar and in dedicated music halls called Casas Trovas. More than anything it's music that tells the story of Cuba - son, salsa, mambo, trova, chachacha, charanga, danzõn, reggaeton - from its roots in African drumbeats that fell in love with a Spanish guitar, it is the inspiration of Latin America and the soundtrack to a swashbuckling history, of slavery, war, occupation, heroic revolution and impoverished independence. Cuban music can be everything from big and brassy to sad and soulful; it laughs and cries and storms, and almost always inspires the Cubans to dance - Cubans don't dance like they're alone, they dance like they're on stage and they own the rhythm.
Whereas Havana is raw, energetic and intense, rural Cuba is laid back and serene. We left Havana to travel
west to Viñales, then along the south coast to Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Across the island farmers grow tobacco, sugar, coffee, bananas, rice and corn, using oxen and Brahmin cattle to plow rich brown soil under a blazing sun. You see some small tractors around but like the cars, they are old contraptions, lovingly maintained. Throughout Cuba people ride horses and use two and four wheel horse carts to transport people and produce. Its very manual, hands in the earth farming and this develops a rhythm all of its own. Old men stop to chat before saddling the oxen for an afternoon behind a single furrow plough.
Viñales has picturesque limestone caste formations, tobacco, rice and corn fields and a busy little town which is hub for the surrounding villages. We walked through the nearby countryside, visited tobacco farms and went through a cave in a boat. It was Saturday afternoon and I took up position in the stand and watched the young guys playing baseball. They were very competitive and highly skilled. And I'm sure I took a photo of a 40 something Fidel, on a horse...
Cienfuegos is on a majestic natural harbour, settled in the
19th Century by French immigrants. They call it the Paris of Cuba and the extravagant cupolas on the tops of their houses tell a story about the prosperity that came from sugar. Near Playa Rancho we visited a lake teaming with flamingos.
Trinidad, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988, is a 15th Century Spanish colonial city set on a hill between the Sierra del Escambray range and one of Cuba's finest beaches, Playa Ancon. Trinidad was one of the first settlements established in Cuba and is picture postcard stuff with bright stucco buildings, cobblestone streets, classic cars, serenading troubadores on street corners, horse drawn waggons and kids in starched school uniform. It's enough just to walk the streets, soak in the atmosphere of 500 years of history and see the Cubans going about their business. But we hadn't been to the beach for a while so we went down to Ancon to splash in the sea. The Carribean usually impresses and Playa Ancon is a beutiful crescent of white sand fringed with coconuts...bliss... And in Trinidad I met a French dwarf in a bar who was just a little too eerily reminiscent of Hemmingway...
learn so much from the Cubans' ability to conserve stuff, to repair, recycle and reuse things in a way that is both utilitarian and stylish. Whether it's a 15th Century building, a 1940s Buick, a 1980s Lada or a homemade trishaw, rarely is something thrown out. Instead it is loveingly restored and recommissioned, because that is what generations of Cubans have done so they can return to the important things in life - music, family, rum and cigars, and baseball. Pre World War Two Cubans did it because everyone did it then; post war Cubans have done it through necessity brought about by crippling poverty due to an embargo that strangled the Cuban economy and albut isolated Cuba from world trade. Cuba leads the world in sustainable practices - their buildings are majestic and their classic cars are so cool...
And so from Trinidad we returned to Havana for a couple more nights before our flight back to Mexico. La Habana is one of those cities that becomes etched in your memory. She's one of a kind, irrepressibly energetic, earthy and in your face, but nonetheless a classic. And when it was time to leave I had the sense
of leaving something of my heart behind, and taking something away that is both magical and enduring. And isn't that what travel is all about?
We head now to Ecuador; to the mountains, beaches and jungle on our way back to Santiago, some family time and then home across the Pacific.
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