After 6 weeks travelling around Cuba and several bottles of Havana Club later, it was time to sail away from the shores of the largest Caribbean island.
Cuba was one of the destinations I’d been looking forward to visiting the most, and it didn’t disappoint. We only saw a fraction of this great country, and I hope we can do it all again one day, but for now here are some of our favourite memories.
Music emanated from all directions, and there was a mojito bar at every turn. Restaurants were more likely to have a live band playing than a functional toilet and it was easier to get my shoes repaired than to buy new ones. When mum’s suitcase didn’t arrive she thought she might have to spend the rest of the trip sporting Che Guevara t-shirts and intricate traditional Trinidad crocheted trousers.
We cleared in to Santiago de Cuba on the south east coast, then sailed west along the isolated Cayos, exploring the mangrove lagoons teeming with bird life, white sandy beaches inhabited only by fluffy tree rats and scaly iguanas and changed our minds about swimming back to the boat after finding a baby crocodile half submerged in a pool of water amongst the trees.
We sailed through Jardin del le raines (garden of the queen) where we hunted lobsters hiding under rocks, after spotting their feelers peeking out the edges giving their game away.
We didn’t see a single other sailing boat during the entire route from Santiago to Cienfuegos, a dramatic contrast to our previous Caribbean island experience.
From Cienfuegos we sailed to Cayo Largo and back, snorkelling with a vibrant and busy under water world, playing music, making campfires and battling barracudas. We felt totally spoilt, rocking up to a fresh strip of white sandy beach every evening, dropping anchor and having the whole place to ourselves.
Away from the boat we galloped across red earth in Valley de Vinales, two street town, where every house has the door open and rocking chairs on the porch.
Here horses outnumber motorised vehicles and every other person wears a cowboy hat.
We watched the sun set over the table top mountains, smoking a cigar we’d rolled ourselves earlier in the tobacco farms.
Music wafted around every street corner as we entered Trinidad.
We cycled down wide roads, being overtaken by horse and carriage, yellow fields either side and green mountains rising up behind, until the sea appeared before us, a vibrant blue, lapping at a sandy beach dotted with straw subumbrellas to shelter us from the hot sun.
The evenings were spent strolling through the cobbled streets, ambling from courtyard restaurant to rooftop bar, searching for that perfect mojito. Every establishment had their own extremely talented live band to ensure we’d heard multiple renditions of Chan Chan by the time the sky turned pink.
A few moments after our feet touched the ground in Havana, we were encircled by a group of buskers singing Guantanamera.
The maze of streets and alleyways of the old town were full of life.
Neighbours gossiped with each other across balconies, whilst the melodic tones of a saxophone emanated from the bar below, and across the street hips swung past the open door of a salsa club.
There were streets full of art, and roads full of shiny cars, honking in unison, ribbons streaming out the back as they gave tourists a sightseeing tour.
And surrounding it all were buildings of grand stature falling apart beautifully.
It’s hard to write about Cuba and not mention the political situation.
There was more happening beneath the surface than we as tourists could understand in our short visit. Since Raúl gave Cubans the freedom to run their own businesses, such as a ‘casa particular’ (homestay) or restaurant, capitalism is creeping into this communist country. Yet everything is still highly policed.
For example, our cowboy horse riding guide in Vinales said he wouldn’t dare to not declare all his earnings, as other people would’ve seen him out with guests and would tell the officials.
In Havana we witnessed a surprise visit paid by government officials to a whole street of casas to check that the number of people staying there matched what was in their books. We heard stories of people whose businesses had been so successful that the government took them away and of taxi drivers who once they start earning too much, have to pay extra for a special license.
It’s strange (and sad) to think that the neighbours we saw teasing each other affectionately, would also spy on one another and get each other in trouble if they thought the other was breaking the government’s rules.
Confusingly, Cuba also has 2 separate currencies: one for locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC), with the former being worth a fraction of the latter. A lot of things therefore have two prices, one for tourists and one for locals, the latter being a fraction of the former. It’s very hard as a tourist to pay local prices for anything. In fact in Cuba I felt more of a tourist than I have anywhere else in the world (exemplified by our choice to stick mainly to the tourist track, having limited time on land). Once you arrive at your first casa, your hosts will offer to organise everything else for you, food, excursions, a taxi collective to your next destination, even a casa IN your next destination. From then on you are simply passed from one person to the next, who will organise and take care of everything for you. Whilst extremely convenient, especially if you are short on time, it adds an element of superficiality to the whole experience, and it is not cheap. To step off this train of people is hard, when you ask your hosts how to organise something yourself or if there is any local transport available, they suddenly clam up.
This treatment of tourists and the difference in the two currencies has created a huge gap in earnings between those involved in the tourist industry and those not. A doctor or teacher for example might earn around £40/month, compared to those who turn their houses into a casa and can charge £20/night/room. This (as you might imagine) has resulted in a large number of people opening the doors of their house to foreign guests, so that streets which were once full of neighbours chatting with one another have turned into streets full of tourists, the locals having moved out to say with relatives. This has led to doctors choosing to cater to tourists in favour of saving lives and teachers working in the marinas instead of classrooms.
In my opinion, this is an amplification of an effect seen throughout the world, where careers which directly create money, such as advertising and banking are rewarded the most. For a country that once valued medical training, teaching and art so highly, I hope they find a better solution.