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 to Cuba, I can confidently say that this was not my most favourite destination or holiday. What I can say is that I have learned a lot about the history, politics and culture. I have expanded my knowledge on how others live and view the world around them.
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 drive into these semi-lit alleyways with 18 feet doorways. There are people in the streets dancing and playing loud music while others are sitting on their entrance steps watching. It’s warm out.
The men and women are very casually dressed. Shorts and singlets with mid riffs, shoulders and legs showing. I am making mention of this because on my last few overseas trips the culture is to cover up.
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. He grabs my bag from the boot, rings the door bell and leaves. I panic. 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 the Casa owner came down to greet me. The big door clicks and unlocks and a lady appears. Her name is Grace. 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 the new Casa wants to know if I speak Spanish or French. Neither. We try our best with English while she attempts to explain everything about her home and all I want is to do right now is sleep.
It is nice to be in balmy weather again after living in Canada for the last little while. I was happy to throw on my tank top and shorts without the need to cover up every inch of my skin.
After a good night’s sleep, a shower and breakfast, I am ready to explore. My friend Martin from the UK arrives at the Casa while another lady, Sandie from New Zealand, and I are in the midst of talking about where we have been and why we are here. We are ready to head out into the vibrant city of Havana. Martin tells me about the early morning rooster that has 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. However, I do find it unusual that roosters are kept in the city.
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 is 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 weave our way through the streets to the tourist strip of Old Havana on Calle Obispo and into the bar that Ernest Hemingway frequented for Mojitos or Daquiris. The street of Calle Obispo is very pretty, touristy and lined with bars, restaurants, bookstores and shops.
After walking around for a few hours in Old Havana we stop for some food and beverages in the square. Afterwards we agreed it was the right idea to finish the afternoon off with a ride in a classic car. Of course we have to pick one that really means something. We go for the red 1957 convertible Chevy. It is red and it is a convertible. What more could you want? Speed (because of the colour) and the wind blowing through our hair. We bartered with the driver and it seems from other travellers that we bartered well. Our driver was very clever and amusing with his photography skills. He stopped along the esplanade to take 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 (refer Vietnam) 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 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 where get to know one another. Tonight we are also 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 still 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 given to the children are to be handed 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 25 kilometres today over rough and rocky roads filled with potholes 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 homestays with different families on the same street. Vinales is a lovely little town that is thriving from tourism. It is clean, friendly and welcoming. In the evening we walk to the town hall for a fantastic and authentic weekly show of singing and salsa dancing. It feels like the whole town is out for a good night. It costs roughly $7 for a two litre coke and a bottle of rum. It was passed around our entire table. Mojitos were $3 each. Everybody was having a great time. From the amount of rum I consumed I am surprised I did not wake up with a hangover. That’s the beauty of Cuban rum.
Today is beach day! We have 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 confident I can ride the fifty kilometres in the required time, I am willingly going to give it my best shot. By the cut-off, I hesitantly fell only six kilometres short and was swept up by the bus picking up the stragglers.
Can I tell you though, the roads in Cuba are not the best. Full of potholes and sometimes not even asphalt but dirt. The amount of concentration required to stay upright takes a lot out of you. Very rarely are you able to cycle along and drift off into your own world.
The forty 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 was not going to get my hopes up to be disappointed by another ordinary beach. I am from Australia so a good beach has to be super spectacular. Cayo Levisa 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 Colada 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. Four kilometres of that was up and I was determined not to stop or get off my bike. 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. I felt like a kid again. My speed downhill was much more courageous than some of the others. I was able to catch up a little.
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 six kilometres, running along beside us in hope for some food. At our checkpoint and resting point 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 could not see the end. This was very disheartening. We were on our way to San Luis, the tobacco growing area. This area does not produce the most tobacco for Cuba but the best quality because of the sublime 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 in the season. Tobacco can either be shade grown or sun grown which affects the taste. The leaves on a tobacco plant can be 45cm long and 20cm wide. I had no idea they were so big! Once the plants are grown the farmers only pick one leaf per plant at a time. Who knew?
A new morning and new day. This is not the longest in distance but the most challenging. Whenever you hear challenging as a cyclist you know it is full of hills. Not small hills but the long ups that seem to never end. Parts of the road were not asphalt but dirt. Full of gravel and potholes once more. It makes it so much more difficult to navigate. The 47 kilometer road is to take us to Soroa. Midway we rested at 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. The Artist’s own works are on display and are for sale. It is a shame he does not 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 cattle property as a child. His wife makes us all coffee on the archaic, self-constructed cook top. The coffee is thick, it’s hot, it’s delicious and served in half a coconut shell on top of a coconut trunk as its holder. Think of a macchiato served on top of a full-sized mug.
After most of us thankfully use the outhouse we continue down the road to the cave that protected Che Guevara. This was the hideout and headquarters for the Cuban Army during the 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 is 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 unique as it is completely self-sufficient. Almost all of the people who live here never leave even though it is in very close proximity to Havana. This quaint and quiet little town is very well kept. You can tell that the people who live here are super proud. Close to the town is a waterfall where we go for lunch and some cool down in the water flowing over the rocks. It’s a nice afternoon.
Back to Havana by bus we go. As always, we have a farewell dinner and exchange phone numbers to keep in contact on Whatsapp. It’s a great way to share photos and videos from the trip. For me, I survived the ten days without internet and sent my photos once I landed back in Canada. Whilst some people fly out early tomorrow morning, I still have another day and night to explore.
On my final day in Cuba I had some alone time. Trust me, it is 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 arrival day. It was directly across the port.
As I was on my own 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 as I had already seen a few ferry come and go in different directions. This ferry was filled with locals going about their day and I knew that I had certainly paid the tourist fare, not the local fare. At any rate, 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 is 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. The fort is a very solid and 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 young man 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.