By Gerson Eleonora – Writer for Skempi.com, History Buff and an Aficionado of all things Caribbean
Well, you saw the title so let me just jump right in here: With Fidel Castro’s passing last November Cuba experienced a resurgence in news presence for a minute. Hate him or love him, you can’t deny that Castro put that island nation on the map. I mean, no disrespect to Ernesto Lecuona, Chano Pozo and the other world famous Cuban artists from the first half of the 20th century but, albeit in a polarizing manner, Fidel Castro took Cuba’s brand name on the global stage to a ubiquitous realm.
It was this strange mystique that had always pulled me to our somewhat taciturn Caribbean cousin to the north.
Enter summer 2011; I was studying in Amsterdam but was having quite the Caribbean year; I was in a relationship with a girl of Caribbean descent (Antigua) and she was reintroducing me to Caribbean music, culture and lingo.
Ergo my vizier was aimed more intensely than ever at the Caribbean. And it just so happened that a friend from back home – who was also studying in the Netherlands – proffered me a trip to Cuba around that time, with a ragtag group of Curaçao lads.
It was to be an 8-day trip taken by five Caribbean boys attending universities in the Netherlands. The day after we all convened to go on this adventure my friend expressly wrote on my Facebook wall in cryptic fashion “Are you ready for this?”.
I knew that the minute we landed on that airfield at José Martí International Airport in Havana, I knew that the minute we cleared the gate and were handed a form with the header “Bienvenido a La República de Cuba” (Welcome to the Republic of Cuba), I knew that the minute we stepped onto that taxi-infested parking lot outside the airport and I felt that Cuban heat drown my skin. I knew this was going to be a trip that would refuse to leave me long after I had left the island.
Now, before we go on, just one thing: this will be a city-by-city recap with a few details here and there to tie everything together. In total we went to seven cities, towns and communities: Havana, Las Terrazas, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Espiritus, Santa Clara and Viñales.
Before going to Cuba we had debated staying at a ‘casa particular’ – private homestays comparable to a bed and breakfast but with a Cuban twist – but some of us had issue with that so in the end we decided to stay at the hotel Deauville in Havana, right on the Malecon boulevard. It was a very nice establishment, delicious meals and very friendly staff and it was through them that we arranged our excursions to Cuba’s other sites. And believe me it did not give us a detached and privileged perspective on the Cuban experience. The fact that we all looked Cuban took care of that.
A couple of things I noticed when we were walking or being driven around Havana (or La Habana as the Cubans call it):
- An abundance of officers everywhere you went, from both sexes and a variety of age groups.
- The many colors of the license plates: the color of the license plates indicated whether the drivers were civilians, army officers, government officials, administrative government officials or foreign diplomats.
- It seemed like everywhere you went there was live music, which was exceedingly charming.
- That Cuban heat is something else.
- That Cuban architecture is something else.
- Spanish is not the only language spoken in Cuba. They also speak a Creole language locally referred to as Cubano. It sounds like, well, nothing we ever heard before.
- And while we’re on the subject, you cannot fool a Cuban. I said we all looked Cuban and we did all speak Spanish, but that Cuban accent is near impossible to emulate. If they were a nightclub it would be the best bouncer.
- The Cuban population is a very diverse population. I saw people from all colors of the rainbow over there.
Our first excursion. We were there for a few hours. It’s a quaint community in the jungle in a province west of Havana. It was absolutely beautiful, with bungalows, flowers I’d never seen before, waterfalls, natural pools and lakes. While we were relaxing at the natural pool, a little Cuban girl just came up to us and offered us some fruit she had picked from a nearby tree, it was delicious. This kind of generosity typifies the Cuban neighborly behavior which we saw examples of again and again during our trip.
Another thing that continuously delighted us was the food. All so incredibly delicious, everything was cooked, not a single thing was processed. No wonder I hardly ever saw a fat Cuban walking around.
Four Towns in 2 days
During one of our many conversations with the hotel staff, we arranged a 2-day bus tour through four cities and towns: Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Espiritus and Santa Clara. The cities and towns were great but riding to them was a wonder in and of itself. The Cuban scenery was spectacular! Look for yourself.
Our first town was Cienfuegos. I think the best words I could use to describe this place are quaint and manicured.
We did have some good pizza over there though. I personally didn’t expect to be able to get a pizza in Cuba but it wasn’t a pizza joint or anything, it was an order and get it out of the wall kind of operation, so there was a Cuban slant to it.
We were there for a few hours and then we were on our way again.
After this we went to Trinidad, a city of which the downtown district has not changed in architecture or infrastructure since the 16th century. This was a really nice town to visit. You could feel the history everywhere. We hung out with some artisans, spoke to some of the people who were selling stuff out in the open, and just plain admired the architecture and the paved streets.
Then it was off to this charming all-inclusive resort somewhere on the outskirts of town. This was also an interesting experience. Over here we got a very delicious Trinidad cocktail and were treated to more live music and a live Salsa show. I was even pulled on stage at some point (this actually happened a couple of times during our time on the island).
The following day it was off to Sancti Espiritus, a forgettable little town. The highlight of this stop was actually when we had to help the bus driver roll the bus down a hill to get the engine working again when the bus wouldn’t start. Luckily it did, and we were off to our next and final destination on this tour: Santa Clara.
The highlight of this stop was the Che Guevara mausoleum. It was huge and very impressive. Santa Clara was the site of the decisive victory in the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and you could still see the bullet holes of that battle in some of the buildings when you’re walking through the city.
After this stop our two day tour concluded and we were once again Havana-bound. We had an absolute blast with our guide Ramon and our driver Orlando.
We were soon on the bus again after Havana to yet another destination: Viñales. At this site we hung out with a folksy Tobacco farmer and went horseback riding on a wide open field. And you want to talk about murals?
And the beautiful scenery didn’t end there.
Back to Havana
Havana is as dichotomous as it is beautiful. There, the city where we spent most of our trip, we walked through the more picturesque areas but also walked through some slums.
You probably noticed that I kept my travel story apolitical, it gave me too much of a Pandora’s Box vibe to do otherwise. But I will say this: after having visited the island I do understand the point made by both defenders and detractors. I’ll just leave it at that.
Aside from this, it was a beautiful experience on a life altering scale. My impressions and experiences really were too numerous to mention. Additionally, the whole adventure proved to be a bonding experience for us as a group as well.
Many of the people we met there were so humble, generous and full of joie de vivre, e.g.: One morning I saw a group of girls randomly break into song and dance on the street using nothing but rhythmic hand-clapping. And the atmosphere is such an intriguing blend of Communist austerity and Latin Caribbean exuberance and sway.
I highly recommend you get yourself a taste.
Gerson, a Caribbean man born and raised in Curaçao and another of my talented cousins is a writer for skempi.com, an online streaming platform for independent Caribbean artists. He is also a history buff, an aficionado of all things Caribbean and the proud owner of a glutinous palate for cheesecakes and Tres Leches.