Vacation, adventure, travel: You have a few precious weeks each year when schedules overlap, the stars align, and you can, or need to, leave the paradise of home to remember something important about life that is too easy to forget. You want to go somewhere warm, but not too warm. Somewhere safe but exotic, somewhere you can recharge your joie de vivre without deleting your bank account. You want to make some incredible memories, and calendars are filling up. Well, here it is: if you want Disney, go to Florida. If you want close, go to South Carolina. If you want easy, go to Cancun, Costa Rica or Dollywood. But if you want something special, something to be experienced, if you want to share a moment of cultural history with the world, then you need to go to Cuba. And you should go. Now.
We went, and it was epic. 24 days in country. We’d seen pictures of beautiful beaches in the north and south, exotic mogotes (beautiful mountain formations) in Pinar del Río, and romantic colonial architecture in Old Havana. Cuba has this and much more that will hook and delight an imaginative and adventurous traveller. And on top of all that, this is a historic time as Cuba undergoes a post-revolution evolution of its national identity on a world stage and for its people at home. This was an opportunity to better understand, experience, and perhaps even feel the tidal shift within the cultural momentum of this thing that is Cuba.
To start with, it was my wife’s idea. She is an Asheville photographer whose pursuits through the lens are Fine Art and Adventure-Travel. These passions blend and her work shows up in our world as portraits of people and the still lives of time. She’d wanted to go to Cuba ever since someone told her that she wasn’t allowed to. The good news is that border bribes and Cancun layovers are no longer required! There are at least 12 perfectly legal reasons that a United States Citizen might receive a Cuban Travel Visa. Visiting family, participating in exhibitions, performances or contests, or pursuing religious, educational or humanitarian activities in country are a few of the valid reasons for which you would receive a visa from the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC (our mutual Embassies technically reopened July 20, 2015).
While we saw a lot, there are lifetimes more to see and know about such an intriguing and mysterious country. We concentrated our visit to the western half of the island. Using Havana as a hub, we spent time at the beaches in Guanabo east of Havana, in the mountain valley of Viñales in the far west, and in Trinidad on the southern coast. Instead of hotels, we stayed at Casas Particulares: private homes in which families rent rooms. These can run the gamut between home stay and bed and breakfast – and are an awesome view into Cuban culture and daily life. We rode in classic cars, went horse riding through coffee and tobacco farms. We saw amazing art, and soaked up the sun on beaches in paradise. These were some of the gems of our trip. But every country has the good, the bad, and the ugly. With over three weeks on the ground, we saw a little bit of everything. This is how it went down.
We got to Havana on February 26. It was gloriously warm and sunny. Flight time is less than one hour from Miami to Jose Martí International Airport just south of Havana. Customs are thorough, but certainly not stressful. Soon enough we’re on our way to Vedado, a neighborhood whose former residents of renown include Meyer Lansky and Al Capone. Shuffled like the cards from mobsters' casino decks are the preserved glory and fallen decay of stately homes and beautiful parks with their columns, porches, statuary and huge trees, as a microcosm of Cuba’s decadent, if checkered past, its problematic present, and the beginning waves of its potential future.
Once known as the Paris of the Caribbean, Havana is where the romance begins. Breathe deep and let the tropical ocean air pull you into the capital city. Enter along the Malecón, a dramatic seaside avenue into the heart of Havana. The sweep of the city fans out along the road toward the harbor and the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana beyond. Old Havana, where the colonial architecture has been amazingly preserved, and the Capital, where restoration efforts are currently focused, occupy the peninsular arm that forms the western shore of Havana Bay.
Of course, there is the feeling of being inside a time capsule. Cars, farm machinery, and durable goods come predominantly from the American 1950s, the Soviet 80s, or the last decade of growing imports from China. Hundred year old cane bottom rocking chairs, cuckoo clocks, curios and heirlooms hold memories of golden times from Cuba’s more distant past.
But Cuba has outgrown its cocoon. While rhumba and son pulse their beat in the life of the nation, a deeper rhythm is rising. Like a sleeper thick from a dream, awareness of how far the rest of the world has spun onward in time is gaining momentum. In the expanding glow of a liberalizing political economy, Cuba is beginning to make a new legacy. The arts in Cuba are entering another powerful time as freedom of expression and access to the outside world grows. The modern dance performance we saw in a small theater in Havana was as innovative and polished as anything similar in the States. Galleries boast collections from Cuban sculptors, painters, and other mixed media artists that will definitely attract world attention for the quality and originality of voice and vision.
As a city to see, Havana is replete with historic walks and driving tours that take you through various sections of the city and its surrounding lands and parks. Of course if you are traveling with children, your tour radius and access to the midnight jazz is probably going to be somewhat limited. In the same breath, traveling in the company, and from the perspective, of a child is a tour of the world in its own right. Same house, but different doors to different rooms. By the time we left Havana for Guanabo and Viñales, our daughter told us she had already made 7 new friends: 3 children, a turtle, a dog, and our Cuban Hosts. We’re friendly people; that’s how we roll.
After leaving Havana, we went east to the beaches of Guanabo, then west to the mountains near Viñales, and finally south to Trinidad and Cienfuegos (which are two beautiful towns designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Preservation Sites).
Guanabo was a technicolor, Hi-Def view into a part of Cuba where the people and the economy struggle against architectural decay, the grind of poverty, and the squalor of neglect. This is the town where many from Havana will stay when they go to the beach for the weekend. As always, a colorful array of characters animate the scene, making life happen in their work or their hustle. As usual, our hosts were among the most kind, generous, and gracious people, expanding our adopted Cuban family by two more. We’ll remember our time there for the horse and carriage rides, the unnerving tens of thousands of dried up Portuguese man o' war that color the high tide line a dusty blue, and the amazing Inflatables Fun Park in the town center that we rocked…every day.
Viñales was almost the opposite of Guanabo. The town itself is rooted in flat, alluvial valleys surrounded by mogotes – steep sided, sometimes isolated, mountains and hills … think Cashiers, North Carolina. There is a central plaza flanked by regal, yet humble colonial-era buildings, including a church. This region could be the focus of an entire visit. The mountains cover an expansive area, and trips to the coast and its idyllic cays launch from Viñales as well. For us, a highlight of our whole experience was the horseback tour of coffee and tobacco farms inside the national park near town. The coffee we sampled was delicious, Trumie got to hold a baby chicken and eat fresh sugar cane, and we even went through a natural cave tunnel to the other side of a mountain. We also learned something fascinating about a class of cigars called “puros.” At a certain point in the tobacco harvest, 98% of the nicotine of the plant concentrates in the stem. The farmers then remove the stem to make the cigar enjoyable but not addictive. At the end of the tour, Trumie even got to ride a horse with the Gaucho’s five year old son….who could already ride standing up in the saddle if he wanted. Their insta-friends smile was something to take home for a rainy day.
A four-hour car drive across the remarkably unpopulated Cuban highway took us through the city of Cienfuegos and on to Trinidad. For us, this was our favorite leg of the trip. We stayed the week in the Blue House in La Boca, just southeast of Trinidad. Our hosts were two sisters in their 50s and 60s and one of their husbands, a retired farm veterinarian who now tended the productive gardens of the home. Many who visit the area tour historic military sites, sugar plantations, and waterfalls in the nearby Escambray Mountains. We spent most of our days at some amazing beaches. The coastline in the area varies from clear rocky waters favored by snorkelers and a sandy hotel zone toward the end of the peninsula. We found the perfect blend in a beach where a ridge of uneroded rock formed a natural and very calm pool for swimming. A palapa serving drinks, sandwiches ,and a big grill out on Sundays rounded out paradise. Trumie learned to love snorkeling and we continued to love the fresh Caribbean wind washing over us looking at the mountains that run into the sea.
Before we get back to Havana, we need to talk about food. The best food in Cuba is made in private homes – especially at the homes in La Boca. Eat there if you can, and if you have to eat out, look for recommendations from locals. Overall, restaurant fare was worse than disappointing. The first time I saw Gordon Blue in the poultry section of a restaurant menu, I thought it was an endearing misspelling. But then it was on every menu in every restaurant. In fact, menus in most restaurants were nearly identical. A state-run cooking school provides most of the gastronomical training available in Cuba. Unfortunately, that Cuban sandwich you are dreaming of…sizzling ham, melted cheese, spicy mustard, vinegar pickles, all grill pressed to perfection…you won’t find one farther south than Miami. The mustard left in 1959, and I think most spices must have run out shortly thereafter. What you can order everywhere – gas stations, restaurants, private homes, and more, are plain ham and cheese sandwiches on highly glutinous, un-toasted, un-pickled, un-mustarded, un-lettuced bread rolls. It seems that flavor and food could be one thing that sees sharp improvement in the coming years. But just in case it doesn’t, my wife is bringing a first aid kit with spices and condiments the next time we visit.
As our days added to weeks and the weeks added up, the idiosyncrasies of culture and place assembled a broader portrait collaged from a thousand snapshots…a young man with old eyes, chewing a cigar stub in deep repose. This was a country of patience and endurance, deep imagination and resourcefulness. People are used to slow change or no change. Growing access to broadband internet and American music video bling glory may accelerate that desire for change. Most people we spoke with were cautiously excited about the prospects of an opening relationship between Cuba and the United States, and even Cuba with itself, as its leadership undergoes a slow, but undeniable evolution toward a modern world.
We came back to a different Havana. Quite literally, in the wave of preparations for the first visit of a sitting U.S. President since 1928, the city had undergone extensive road re-paving, building repair, and landscape artistry, transforming it into a world capitol of global promise.
Our last few days in Havana took us through the Plaza de la Revolución to the Necropolis of Cristobal Colón (Christopher Columbus). The Plaza is a huge public square and massive obelisk to mark the triumph of an era of Cuban history and transformation. The necropolis is a huge cemetery: 140 acres, which is 7 and a half football fields by 7 and a half football fields. Its avenues of white and pale yellow mausoleums and chapels seem to intensify the heat and light of the mid-day sun. Initially constructed in the late 19th century, it now inters a century and more of Cuba’s people. Care and neglect alternate amongst the tombs and graves, applying Cuba’s recent historical legacy to the living and the dead alike. Its historical weight and architectural scope definitely beckon a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.
As scheduling would have it, President Obama arrived the day before we left. The city was more relaxed and less patrolled than I would have imagined, but the people we talked with buzzed with an inner tension of optimistically anxious fatalism. Many watched the live broadcast of Air Force One landing and some were moved to tears by the power of what they hoped represented a watershed moment in their lives.
We celebrated our final night at Kilometer Zero, a corner jazz bar that fronts the Capitol building by a block. Its music, patrons, and dancing spill out onto the sidewalk through large open windows. The house band, Zona Libre, is an all-ladies group of five multi-instrumental performers just owning it up there, night after night.
The rain cleared as we arrived at the airport. I had my last ham and cheese sandwich, slugged back a final cafe cubano and boarded the plane for home. Gaining altitude, we could gradually see more of the city, more of the land, and more of the sea. To us, with some time shared in a country of new friends, Havana looked as though it were crouched by the shoreline like a grandfather and grandson watching from the pampas and the cane across the vast potential of the unknown blue Atlantic.
Written by Billy Roberts
Photos by René Roberts