“I don’t even understand this country,” our driver told us. “And I’ve lived here my whole life.”
I should have known from the start that it was futile to try to wrap my head around the mix of contrasts and contradictions that is Cuba. To use a tired cliche, it truly is a country like no other: stuck in time and full of colour, music and flavour. Twelve days and countless conversations later, I’m a little closer to understanding the systems and mindsets that keeps the country running, but I suspect that a full lifetime wouldn’t be enough to really get it.
Our arrival in Cuba went very smoothly: after spending an hour or so battling through the passport control queue at Havana airport, we found our Mexican friend Luis waiting for us at the arrivals gate; he’d flown in from Mexico City a couple of hours previously.
The five of us made our way to the exchange office outside the terminal and joined the seemingly endless queue to change money, but we soon realised that no-one was waiting for the sole ATM hidden just inside the door. We skipped the queue, used a Visa debit card to withdraw lots of cash, and hopped in a taxi to our pre-booked casa particular.
The journey from the airport was an adventure in itself as we admired the socialist billboards and hordes of classic American cars, and we were warmly welcomed by our host Arsenio when we arrived at his house in Havana Centro. The street was mostly potholes and a pile of rubbish graced the nearest corner; the opposite corner was occupied by a street vendor selling bananas. Men catcalled Janine, Ange and me as we walked down the street; when we ventured off our road onto the main thoroughfare we were offered taxis every minute or two. Havana was noisy, active, falling apart, and full of life. I loved it. The others, not so much.
We spent three nights in Cuba’s capital city. The first night, we kept things simple: dinner and a walk along the malecón (seawall) to admire the fortress and get a breath of fresh air. The next day, we used an app I’d downloaded before we arrived in the country to do a walking tour of the main sights: el Capitolio, the cathedral, the Castillo de Real Fuerza, Granma yacht, and lots of lovely plazas.
We used our last morning to visit a tobacco factory — it was very interesting but we were frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t buy tickets at the factory itself, we had to go back to one of the main hotels to get them. This apparently limits corruption, and the fact that our guide took us into the cloakroom after the tour to sell us cigars under the table makes me suspect that it’s a sensible measure.
A trip to the beach was in order after this experience. We’d been told that the hop-on hop-off tourist bus was the way to go, but when we found out that it only runs once an hour, we jumped in a bumpy taxi instead. The water at Playa del Este was crystal clear, warm and pleasantly rough; it was a lovely, relaxing afternoon.
Craig didn’t have such a relaxing time: he hadn’t wanted to come to the beach, so he headed to the bus station to buy tickets for our onwards journey. The lines were long and the taxis expensive, but he managed to get the tickets and the next day we made our way to Viñales.
I wasn’t a fan of Viñales, though the others found it relaxing after battling the touts of Havana. For me, though, it was a tourist town like so many others around the world: every second house was a casa particular, the restaurants catered almost exclusively to tourists, the markets sold a lot of plastic. To be fair, they also sold handmade items: hats, salad servers, beautifully hand-carved birds and boxes.
Accommodation was easy: Arsenio had called to make a reservation for us at the house of a friend of his, though when we arrived she moved us on to her sister’s place. Our host was pleasant enough but her lack of experience showed in her tendency to hover and her unfortunate habit of wanting to talk to us when we were in the shower.
We spent our first day in Viñales doing a walking tour of the national park. Our guide explained the plants we were seeing as we went along, and we stopped at a tobacco farm to watch a cigar being rolled and to smoke one ourselves, and at a cafe plantation for an explanation of coffee production and an espresso.
The next day we headed to Cayo Jutias, a 90-minute drive from Viñales. It was an excellent day: we hired a car and driver for the day, and he was happy to detour to the mural of prehistory and to stop in a small town along the way so we could buy lunch from local stalls. Janine and Ange went snorkelling and the rest of us relaxed on the white sand beach, drinking beer and eating the sandwiches and fruit we’d bought on the way. That evening was our last with Luis; we went out for a drink or two and watched a show at the Casa de la Música.
After our one trip from Havana to Viñales, we gave up on buses. They were always booked out a day or two in advance, and since we were a group of four, it was easier to hire a car and driver. The journey from Viñales to Trinidad was pretty expensive, but still cheaper than four bus tickets, and we shaved several hours off the journey time — on the whole, a win. It was a good day to be travelling, as the torrential rain would have made any tourism activities impossible — as it was, we pretty much just holed up in our room for the evening after we arrived in Trinidad.
Trinidad was a pretty city, and we enjoyed walking around and spending an evening listening to music and drinking truly terrible mojitos at the Casa de la Música (tip: go with straight rum, it’s cheaper and infinitely better). However, the highlight of our two nights was talking with our host, Yaneisy, who cooked us delicious dinners and told us all about daily life in Cuba and how things have changed over the last few years.
Our last stop was by far our favourite. Yaneisy had called to book us a room with a contact of hers, and we were impressed by how friendly and welcoming our new host was. Our room was comfortable, and we had dinner at his sister’s house a couple of doors down the street: a veritable feast of ropa vieja (pulled beef), fish, banana chips, salad, and rice, as well as fresh juice and the rum we’d brought with us. That evening was one of the highlights of the trip for me: we moved from the table to rocking chairs and spent several hours reminiscing and making plans for the future.
Cienfuegos itself was a nice town to walk around: we visited the picturesque town square and walked to Punta Gorda for a drink. Janine and Ange went for a swim off the point and we admired the artwork in the sculpture garden and the boats in the lagoon. Craig, Ange and I got caught in a sudden dowpour at one point and hopped in bicycle taxis to get out of the rain; the drivers promptly pulled into a covered service station to wait it out. We didn’t get back to our casa any faster, but we did end up having very interesting conversations with our drivers.
In fact, it was the conversations that made this trip what it was. One of the last talks we had was with Willem, the driver we’d hired to take us from Cienfuegos to Havana, with a stop at Santa Clara to visit the Che memorial. The first part of the journey went well, but it came to a sudden halt when the car broke down in a petrol station forecourt. Willem stripped off his t-shirt and put on some overalls that he pulled out of the boot before fiddling around underneath the car. Unfortunately he couldn’t fix the problem to his satisfaction, so he called a friend of his to organise a replacement ride to Havana. It wasn’t a problem for us — we had time to spare, and filled it up with a good chat.
It was Ange’s last night with us, so we went out for a nice dinner at El Trofeo and drank rum on the seawall while watching lightning flash across the sea. We slept for a couple of hours, then woke up at 3am to see her off: sadness all round. The next day we had lunch with a local guy we’d met in the street and had yet another interesting conversation about what it’s like to live in Cuba. He was much less optimistic than other people we’d spoken to; which was a little sad — it’s always good to get other perspectives, though.
A year or a lifetime might not be enough to understand how Cuba works, but our twelve days there were a great experience: good company, great conversations, and much better food than we’d been expecting.