I am not entirely sure what my attraction to Cuba has been for all these years. Perhaps it was the idea of not being able to get into USA if you had a Cuban immigration stamp. Maybe it was the photographs of classic cars and the colourful buildings or the beautiful white sand beaches with translucent waters. Now having been there, I can confidently say that this was not my most favourite destination or holiday, but I’ve learnt a lot about Cuba’s history and culture in such a short period of time.
My solo arrival into Havana at midnight was quite a rocky start. I was in a taxi with a non-English speaking person (my Spanish is literally zero) and I am headed to somewhere I have never been or prepared for. We arrive into these semi-lit alleyways with 18 feet doorways. There are people on the street sitting on the steps. It’s warm out.
The men and women are very casually dressed. Shorts, singlets with mid riffs, shoulders and legs showing. I am making mention of this because on my last few trips the culture is to cover the knees and shoulders. As I arrive, to somewhere, not really knowing if I was anywhere let alone the homestay or “Casa” I had pre-booked, the taxi driver ushers me out of the car, grabs my bag from the boot, rings the door bell and leaves. I panick. I look around. I have no idea where I am, where I am supposed to be, if I am at the right place or if I am going to be mugged or kidnapped. I have never felt so scared in all of my travels.
A few of the people on the street appear high or drunk. One man decides the right thing to do is to talk to me. I know I can’t understand his Spanish. Is it even Spanish? Or is it a slur of words put together that sounds like Spanish? In his own weird way, he tries to tell me it’s okay and that the lady is coming by pointing up to the balcony and then ringing the doorbell over and over again. Finally, a lady yells down to us. In Spanish. I keep standing there waiting while the elderly lady sitting in the doorway next to me smiles. She has very few teeth. She’s happy all the same.
I wait and I wait. It felt like ten minutes before she came down. Then the big door clicks and unlocks and a lady appears. Her name is Grace and she is taking me down the street to another Casa as hers is full. Her English is good and I understand everything she is telling me. Tomorrow, I will meet others from the group. Tonight I have my own room and will be moved again tomorrow to shared accommodation.
The lovely lady, Maria, at this Casa wants to know if I speak Spanish or French. Neither. We try our best with English and all I want is to go to sleep. It’s nice to be in warm weather again after living in Canada for the last little while. I was happy to throw on my tank top and shorts.
After a good night’s sleep, a shower and breakfast I am ready to explore. My friend Martin arrives while another lady, Sandie from New Zealand, and I talk about where we have been, why we are here among other things. We are ready to head out into the vibrant city of Havana. Martin tells me about the early morning rooster that’s been waking him at 3am the past few mornings. Being brought up in the country, animal noises are certainly not something that wakes me or keeps me awake.
The streets are bustling with children playing, locals going about their day, cats, dogs, cars and other tourists. The traffic is very minimal for a city even though it’s meant to be peak hour. A playful and perhaps hopeful dog follows us for a few kilometres. Just when we thought we lost him at the Capital Building, he reappears. It didn’t seem like he was looking for food, but more so fun, or wanting to show us around. We lose him somewhere along the way. Perhaps when we were no longer paying him attention or looking around for him.
We find our way to the tourist strip of Old Havana, Calle Obispo and into the bar that Ernest Hemingway frequented for Mojito’s or Daquiri’s. I can’t recall. Calle Obispo is very pretty, touristy and lined with bars, restaurants, bookstores and shops.
After walking around Old Havana, stopping for some food and beverages in the square, we figured the right idea was to finish the afternoon off with a ride in a classic car, none other than a red 1957 convertible Chevy. We bartered for the joyride and it seems, from other travellers, that we bartered well. Our driver was very clever and amusing with his photography skills nearing the end of our joyride. He took photos of each of us in the driver’s seat.
In the evening we met our group of cyclists. After all, I had signed up for another cycling tour and figured I would be the slowest and least fit in the group once again. The group age ranged from 23 to 63 and from all parts of the world. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Norway, Switzerland and France. There was 13 of us and our CEO (Chief Experience Officer), Elena. She was a little pocket rocket. We were welcomed with a glass of rum. The Cuban way.
Our first dinner is at a family run restaurant. Tonight we are educated about the Communist ways of Cuba. Only recently have families been able to own and run their own restaurants. Most of the pubs and restaurants are owned by the Government.
The next morning we take the bus to Vinales in Pinar del Rio, the Garden Province of Cuba. The history lesson begins. Cuba means “my land, my terrain”. Fidel Castro is a local legend, leader of the Revolution, and today is his second anniversary of his death. Wifi is only new to Cuba and is regulated by the government. There are central hotspots, normally parks within the city that have Wifi, but first you have to buy a card with data and then connect. This is why you find a lot of people, day or night, sitting in the park talking on their phones and not to each other. School, University and hospitals are all free. The school uniforms that are given to the children are to be given back to the government once they finish their grade. The main exports are tobacco, sugar cane and banana. Everything in Cuba is organic as they are not allowed to have pesticides. A lot of the areas in the west of Cuba are World Heritage Listed, especially the limestone mountains and caves.
The afternoon has us in our bike seats for the first time. A not so leisurely 25kms today over rough and rocky roads filled with pot holes and loose gravel. An indication of what’s to come. The farmlands are pretty. It’s lush. The houses are modest and colourful.
Back in the town of Vinales, we stay in various home-stays and families on the same street. Vinales is a lovely little town that is thriving from tourism. It’s clean, friendly and welcoming. In the evening we walk to the town hall for a fantastic and authentic weekly show of singing and salsa. It feels like the whole town is out for a good night. It costs roughly $7 for a 2L coke and a bottle of rum. It was passed around our entire table. Mojito’s were $3 each. Everybody was having a great time. From the amount of rum I consumed, I was surprised I did not wake up with a hangover. That’s the beauty of Cuban rum.
It’s beach day! We’ve been told that we need to cycle to a certain point, by a certain time to catch the ferry across to Cayo Levisa. Whilst I am not sure I can ride the 50kms in the required time, I am willingly going to give it my best shot. By the cut-off time, I fell 6kms short for the day and was swept up by the bus picking up the stragglers. The roads in Cuba are not the best, full of potholes and sometimes not even asphalt but dirt. The amount of concentration required takes a lot out of you. Very rarely are you able to cycle along and drift off into your own world.
The 4o minute ferry ride takes us across to Cayo Levisa. The billboards beside the road on the way in showed snow white sand and translucent water. It felt like this was false advertising. I certainly wasn’t going to get my hopes up to be disappointed by another ordinary beach. I’m from Australia, so a good beach has to be super spectacular. Cayo Leviso was spectacular. It felt like a dream. It had the perfect setting with deck chairs and sun umbrellas for everyone. We even had our own “drinks boy” who trudged down onto the sand in his suit, back to the bar, and back to the sand with a tray full of refreshments – $3 for a Pina Colado or a Mojito. Not that I believe in perfection, but this was pretty darn close.
Another interesting story we were told today is that Cuban’s are not allowed on ferries. Why? In case they want to escape Cuba. I still have no idea if this is true or not.
Day four of cycling is the longest day at 65kms. 4kms of that was up and I was determined not to stop or get off. My determination paid off and I reached the top at the tail end of the group. The downhill part on the other side was a relief and such a treat.
Today I noticed the poverty. Poor villages, starving dogs, ribs sticking out on horses and thin farmers. At one point a dog followed us for 6kms in hopes for some food. At our checkpoint he was very lucky to receive some biscuits that were “accidentally” dropped to the ground. Not by me, but another animal lover in the group. This brought me a moment of joy.
We seemed to cycle forever today in the heat. At one point the road was so long and straight that I couldn’t see the end. This was very disheartening. We were on our way to San Luis, the tobacco growing area. This area doesn’t produce the most tobacco for Cuba but the best quality because of the conditions. The soil is pH neutral and full of nutrients. It is said to be the best tobacco area in the world. From October to January, the tobacco is planted. In light of the cyclone this year the crop was planted very late. Tobacco can either be shade grown or sun grown. This affects the taste. The leaves on a tobacco plant can be 45cm long and 20cm wide. I had no idea they were so big! Also, once the plants are growing they only pick one leaf per plant at a time. Who knew?
This cycle day isn’t the longest in distance but the most challenging. Whenever you hear challenging as a cyclist you know it’s full of hills. Not small hills but the long ups that seem to never end. Also, parts of the road were not asphalt but dirt and full of pot holes once more. The 47km long road is to take us to Soroa, but before we get there we visit a local home.
This house belongs to an artist who opens his home to unfortunate and underprivileged children in the area. He teaches them art with the mediums he has or is given. He has his own works on display and are for sale. It’s a shame he doesn’t realise how we have to carry the artwork home, otherwise he may have displayed them a little differently. His home is a traditional hut and it reminds me of camping on a friend’s property as a child. His wife makes us all coffee. It’s thick, it’s hot and it’s delicious. The coffee was served in half a coconut shell on top of a coconut trunk as its holder.
We continue down the road to the cave that was used by Che Guevara as the headquarters for the Cuban Army during 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. People of Cuba idolise Che Guevara as another leader and hero for the Revolution. The cave is unbelievably large and cool inside. There’s a creek rapidly flowing next to it. You can picture soldiers standing guard and protecting the entrances.
The final cycle day takes us to Las Terrazas. This town is quite unique as it’s completely self-sufficient. Almost all of the people who live here never leave, even though it’s very close to Havana. This quaint and quiet little town is very well kept. You can tell that the people who live here are super proud.
Back to Havana by bus we go. As always we have a farewell dinner and exchange phone numbers to keep in contact by Whatsapp. It’s a great way to share photos and videos from the trip. For me, I survived the 10 days without internet and sent my photos once I landed back in Canada.
On my last day in Cuba I had some alone time. Trust me, it’s hard to feel alone in Havana. Firstly, I walked to the markets for some cheap souvenirs and then headed to the little ferry. I wanted to go across to the fort which I saw on my first day. It was directly across Havana Port. This is the first time I felt a little uneasy not knowing any Spanish. Normally in countries I feel okay because English is widely known and accepted. Here, it’s a little different. Anyways, I fumbled my way through the security and asked questions to get on the ferry. Once on the ferry, I still wasn’t sure if I was on the right one. It was an adventure!
As I reached the other side of the port and disembarked, I had no idea on where to go. I had no internet, no maps, nothing. I followed the local people as they seemed to know where they were going. I followed them up the hill on tiny footpaths and stairs until I reached the top. At the top there was a beautiful view over Havana City. It was quiet here. A nice place to sit and reflect on the busy and vibrant city across the water.
I carried on walking to the fort, paid the entrance fee and looked around. A very solid, steadfast building that stood out from the city side. As I was leaving I walked around the markets at the fort’s walls. The Cuban men were staring at me and only one was brave enough to talk to me to tell me how beautiful I am. It doesn’t matter what country I visit, or how different or strange I appear to others, these words never get old. I thanked him, bought some souvenirs and walked away with an air of confidence and a smile.