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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Cuba: A Passage Through Time

Cuba is unlike any place I have ever been before. Havana is like stepping into a 1950s Hollywood movie with its multicoloured antique cars, mohito bars, and salsa dancing. Yet, all across Cuba the architecture serves as the last vestiges of its colonial past. The omnipresent effects of the US embargo evident in empty supermarkets, rickety roads and lack of modern infrastructure. It's a fascinating step back in time without having to get into a car with Doc.

Cuba has a rich and varied history, with inhabitants dating as far back as 3,000 BC. Before Cuba was colonised by Spain in the 1500s, there were two distinct tribes of indigenous people, the Taino and the Guanahatabey. For 400 years, the Taino were forced to work in a feudal system mimicking that of Europe and gradually the diseases brought by the Spanish eventually wiped out all of the indigenous population.


In the 1800s, Cuba became a hub for slave trade with their burgeoning sugarcane industry. The Cuban economy has relied heavily on sugar exports ever since, but this declined with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1959, the U.S. backed military dictator Batista was overthrown in a revolution led by Che Guevara, the revolutionary hero memorialised in murals everywhere, and Fidel Castro. Castro became the country’s infamous communist leader right up until his death in 2016. As a result of the 'coup', the U.S. placed an embargo against Cuba in 1960, including a series of sanctions on trade.


Time seems to have stood still in Cuba ever since. A phantasmagorical 1950s time warp of crumbling colonial architecture, multicoloured antique cars, and communist party billboards, mixed in with mohitos, Afro-Caribbean beats and salsa dancing. A lack of ATMs and the need to carry an uncomfortable amount of money in a bum bag everywhere, the slow pace of dealing with systems we take for granted, from supermarkets and cashiers to transport and visas is also indicative of the technological gap.




Upon arrival, I disembarked the plane and was taken to the queue behind about 50 other tourists waiting for our pre-paid visas to be processed. A man came and took my passport and money and told me to wait. This took about an hour, which seemed longer than the flight itself as I found myself squished between hordes of American and Russian tourists all culminating at the neck of the immigration hall. At the time, Cuba had briefly opened its borders to America, many of whom had flown from Florida and were speaking loudly over one another with a bloated sense of authority on Havana and Hemmingway. To my right, I was stood beside a group of portly Russian men wearing tank tops and florescent shorts. Having tumbled off the plane in a vodka-induced haze, they were gloating about not needing a visa, chanting “Rusos! Mejor!” to the Cuban woman behind the desk. Satisfied by this display of showmanship, two of them then turned to their guide insisting that they needed to get rum for their journey to Varadero.


A lot of tourists tend to go with package deals to Varadero, a tropical beach haven, with all-inclusive resorts. Although beautiful, I doubt you truly get a feel for what a fun, lively country Cuba is by not visiting other places. We opted to travel in beat-up Cadillac taxis cross-country, wandering aimlessly down higgledy-piggledy streets in Trinidad, and through tobacco plantations in Viñales on horseback. We stayed with Cuban families in Casas Particulares - local guesthouses. Residents can apply to the Cuban government to rent rooms in their homes for extra income and it enables tourists to get to know the people living in these towns and cities. I loved every minute of it, even the ramshackle taxis, where we were crammed into the back with six other complete strangers, hurtling down the crumbling highways.


The US Embargo has certainly had a harsh impact on imports and trade for Cuba. One of the most surreal experiences was walking into supermarkets and seeing shelves bare of anything but the essentials. No 2 for 1 offers. No selection of different types of rice or pasta. No overflowing trays of apples and bananas. Canned goods from tinned tomatoes and sardines to corn lined the shelves amidst bags of local rice. Fresh vegetables were in scant supply, apart from the in-season fruits like mangoes. Yet, despite the seeming shortage of food supplies, the Cubans spend their days cooking.


Contrary to the horror stories you hear - mostly from friends who had stayed in hotels or at the more high-end resorts in Veradero - I actually enjoyed the food in Cuba. We were served authentic Creolean food prepared and cooked by the hosts of our Casas Particulares. Breakfast consisted of beautiful fresh mangoes, pineapples and a variety of melon accompanied by toast, honey and a choice of eggs, from omelette to fried. In the evening, we had fish or vegetables with beans and rice. Always flavoursome and although I don’t eat meat, I didn’t find it too limiting. However, I did end up coming home with some sort of a weird tummy bug, shooting pains in the left side of my intestine. Of course, being of a rational disposition, diagnosed myself with pancreatitis on account of all the mojitos consumed. A dose of strong probiotics and some meds cured whatever weird bug I had picked up along my travels, most likely from drinking ice in drinks or from the fruit.






In just under two weeks. we had some incredible experiences from dancing with the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, horseback riding in Viñales and partying at Casa de la Musica in Trinidad, and of course I met some wonderfully weird and wacky people along the way.


I have written three separate travel tips on Trinidad, Havana and Viñales for ease. You can find them at the bottom of this blog.




Handy tips usurped from the following guides:

Fantastic website on Cuba for information: http://cuba-junky.com/

Interesting blog about Cuba, worth a read!

Good to give you a steer on places to go:

Interesting ideas of where to go here:


Places to stay:


The two websites I used were:

I believe that booking.com is now being used as well. All of them are pretty similar, nothing too pristine and a bit old school, especially in old Havana but you meet some lovely people and learn about their lives.

This website has also been recommended: https://www.cubacasas.net/


Transport links:


A taxi from the airport in Havana to the centre is around 25-30 CUC or shared about $10

Best bet for transport is to organise a ‘collectivo’ (shared taxis) with your casa to other places on the island. These are cheaper and quicker than the buses. You can also order private transfers.

170 dollars for taxi from vinales to Trinidad- 85 dollars

Trinidad taxi to Cienfuegos – 50 Dollars each- can get classic car – leave early in morning and take 4:05 bus from cienfuegos to Havana - 4 hours – 20 dollars

Transport Trinidad to Havana: 70 dollars each or we take direct taxi from Trinidad for 130 Dollars – 65 dollars each

Wifi


In Cuba it can be difficult at times to find. In Havana, you can buy a wifi card at the Hotel Ingleterra or at one of the kiosks nearby but again they can be hard to find. There are wifi zones in Parque Centrale but they cut in and out. It was like trying to use a metal detector on a 100-acre soccer pitch to find a five-cent coin. Rare, but not impossible.


In Trinidad, they have a wifi hotspot in Plaza Mayor. The wifi even reaches a few restaurants in the square, so you can surf the internet and grab a drink/meal. Wifi cards can be purchased at a shop right by the square and also throughout town but the best prices were at the ETSCA booths or from the tourist info centre, they were $2 an hour. Most hotels have internet cards for purchase also but will charge as much as $6 per hour card.

TOP TIPS:


Beware the con artist!

I got conned within the first hour in Havana! Watch where you take out the map/guidebook as you're automatically a target. Don’t go with anyone that offers you cigars, they will charge you a huge fee. In my case, I was like the crow in Aesop’s fables. Oh so flattered to be told I looked like this guy’s sister and that my Spanish was ‘muy bien’, I opened my mouth and dropped my money straight into a cigar trap. The man asked me where I was staying. I replied that I was staying with Anna and he asked me if that was in Havana Vieja and I said yes. He then told me he knew Anna well, she was his cousin. Further solidifying how amazing it was to find some random guy on the street who sold cigars AND knew our casa host. So that turned out to be absolute horseshit. This is admittedly one of my most embarrassing travel stories but I feel compelled to share it to stop others from being as stupid as I was. Ask at your Casa where to buy them or get them at a plantation ready rolled and straight from the source!

  • Download Galileo Maps for offline maps of Cuba. You can use it to find your way around in the absence of google maps.

  • Take a few Spanish classes before going, most people don't speak much English and it can be difficult to organise bookings and transfer without basic Spanish. If that fails, hand gestures and pointing.

  • Only drink bottled water.

Make sure you bring the following as they are hard to come by:

  • Tampons

  • Energy bars or chocolate/snacks

  • Chewing gum

  • Suncream

  • Sunglasses

  • Rolling tobacco and paper if you smoke

  • Tissues

  • Medical kit with paracetamol etc. Although the pharmacies are not too bad.

  • Adapter

  • Mosquito spray

Also: remember that car is ‘carro’ in Cuba and not ‘coche’ like in Spain!

Other places to visit in Cuba include:

Cienfuegos

Santa Clara

Playa Pilar: This is where Hemingway used to frequent

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