Avoiding the all-inclusive trip, I got to experience a little bit of the real side of Cuba.
Although my Spanish is really rusty, I had the pleasure of meeting many Cubans – who after a little trust were willing to share their thoughts on the country.
My flight arrived in Varadero, which I recommend you avoid if you really want to have an authentic experience. It’s extremely touristy and full of Canadians. Don’t count on hearing any Spanish there.
I stayed in Varadero just for a day and made my way to Santa Clara. The city is famous for Che Guevara and the last battle of the Cuban revolution. The city brings you back in time.
Up and down the colourful streets, horses with old school carriages are clacking their feet on the cobblestone ground. The city is a great place to chill. You’re most likely to find peso restaurants here, where you have to line up to get ice cream or coffee. In Cuba, there are two currencies.
Most of the peso restaurants are government owned, but you can find a few privately owned ones. El Alba is a must go if you want delicious arroz moros (bean rice) and fresh lomo (pork). You can also find many museums and an interesting tobacco factory in the area.
One great thing about Cuba that a lot of Canadians have no yet discovered are the casa particulars. They are private homes of Cuban families who rent out their extra rooms. You get a taste of home cooking and get to chat with the locals. It definitely beats staying at the massive all-inclusive hotels.
After Santa Clara, I made my way to Trinidad which was my favourite destination. The best way to get around is to take the Viazul Buses. They are cheap and somewhat reliable. They are often full, however, so you can sometimes catch a ride with a bus full of trabajador (workers) who travel to the city to get to work. This is where Spanish will come in handy.
The city of Trinidad is not very big so you’re going to want to get lost walking around the beautiful streets. You can also take a day trip to Ancon beach if you’re in the mood for some sunbathing. The city is famous for its drink, Canchanchara – made with rum, water, lemon and honey. So enjoy the rum and the salsa will get easier. Make your way down to Casa de la Musica and dance with the locals.
And then, of course, there’s Havana. The city is a dream. Much more hectic than the other cities but it has so much to offer. I could live in Havana for months learning Spanish and salsa. But Cuba has a lot more to offer than just the city experience.
The bus I wanted to take to get to rural Vinales ended up being full so I had to negotiate with a taxi driver from Havana to get there. He took me in a 1955 Cadillac with a brand new engine from Japan. During the ride, he told me about how he’s frustrated with Cuba. He said he has been able to save money over the years but doesn’t have the opportunity to travel outside of Cuba. Many countries are restricted for Cubans, he explained. Being young and educated, he said he feels resentment towards his government.
However, people had different things to say in Vinales. I spoke with farmers who had quite a positive attitude towards the government. Vinales is an agriculture town, famous for its tobacco farms. When Fidel Castro came into power in the late 1950s, he re-distributed the land equally to the poor farmers of the area. A farmer I spoke to said he is grateful for that and his chance to get a free education, despite not making much money as a farmer.
In Vinales, I went horseback riding through the mountains and tobacco farms. I watched the sunset enjoying a fresh cigar and mojito. Being in rural Cuba, it was pitch black after the sun went down. Feeling good after a few mojitos I galloped my way back to my casa trusting the horses instinct to get me home. It was quite the feeling.
There are a lot of changes to come for Cuba now that the US has dropped it from its terrorist ‘black list,’ which hopefully will ease trade and travel. I’m happy for the Cubans and from what they told me they are happy with the changes, although some were skeptical.
I hope to go back to Cuba one day and experience a little bit more of the local life. For now, haste luego Cuba!