Like many of you, this year’s endless winter pushed me to seek the warm sun-filled days of the Caribbean.
As a consummate backpacker, lounging by the pool on a resort wouldn’t provide the respite I longed for, and so, I set to create a vacation that combined a little more culture, adventure and interaction with the locals than the typical all-inclusive vacation to the sun destinations.
Following a little Internet research, it was clear that socialist Cuba could provide the culture shock I pined for along with the sunny beaches my vitamin-D-deprived body needed. As one of the safest — boasting the most doctors per capita in the world, the best educated — higher literacy rates than the U.S., and having the highest standard of living in the area, it makes for an ideal destination for the sun-seeking intrepid traveller.
Accompanied by a child-hood friend from Azilda, Roch Belisle, we arrived in Havana, the country’s capital, with our first two nights' accommodation booked in Habana Vieja, the old, preserved part of town.
Home to some 300- to 400-year-old buildings, the former Spanish colonial city oozes character from its architectural masterpieces at every corner. In an effort to get off the beaten path of this well-preserved city, we hired a tour guide named Yariley who walked us around town avoiding American muscle cars and answered the endless battery of questions I fired her way.
She explained the history of the country and the rise of Fidel Castro who instilled a Marxist-socialist system when he came to power in 1959. Socialism is still alive and well on the largest island of the Caribbean. Housing, education, food and the basic staples of life are all provided free of charge from the state, while income tax is virtually non-existent for non-business owners.
Central planning allows for a daily ration of food supplies, toilet paper and other life’s necessities, that are distributed from local dispensaries. Yariley pointed these out to us as we walked past them every few blocks.
“Huevos — Huevos — Huevos,” yelled a teamster from the dispensary to let the neighbourhood know that a shipment of eggs has arrived. Seconds later, Havanites came out of their densely populated buildings to collect their share of the shipment.
Until recently, almost all businesses, including hotels, restaurants and factories were owned and operated by the government. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its primary benefactor, Cuba went through a period of unfathomable poverty and mass hunger in the early '90s as economic support from Mother Russia abruptly ceased.
In the years that followed, Fidel Castro liberalized parts of the economy allowing some 150 occupations to be conducted ‘for profit,’ many of which were focused on hospitality.
The tourism industry of Cuba was born. Palladars — privately owned restaurants — and Casa Particulars — in-home bed and breakfasts — sprouted like wild fire as industrious Cubans saw the prospect of upward mobility for the first time in a generation.
It is within these Casa Particulars that Roch and I would lay our heads at night for some $10 to $15 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) each. Yet another aspect of this country that makes it a unique destination is its dual currency format.
As tourists, we converted $CAD into $CUC, which is pegged to the US dollar.
The CUC can be used to purchase non-essential goods ranging from a meal at a restaurant to a new refrigerator, those linked to the tourism industry or converted to Moneda National (MN) to purchase basic staples like produce and meat.
Most Cubans are paid by the state in MN and are barred from converting their hard-earned dollars to CUC, further limiting upward mobility as their dollars can only be used to buy consumer-staples.
This creates a unique inequality for individuals operating Casa Particulars as it allows them access to valuable CUCs that trade 25 to 1 with the MN. For this reason, they can be found everywhere and competition has driven the quality of the establishments to more modern levels. Air-conditioned rooms featuring ornate tile work are commonplace and provide excellent value to the intrepid traveller.
After spending two nights in Habana Vieja, we trekked over to Vedado, a more modern part of Havana that was established by the Americans before the socialist revolution that features a more active nightlife bustling with locals. We used our time in this area to soak up the legendary jazz and skillful dancing of the cultural centre of the country while enjoying a few mojitos.
Although the classic cars of Cuba make for a very photogenic city, the smog and exhaust fumes they produce led us to greener pastures. Boarding a local bus, we headed to Vinales, a quaint town in the foothills of the lush tobacco farms of south-western Cuba.
Upon disembarking, we were accosted by Casa owners and quickly found a two-bed room with a large ‘balcón’ overlooking the mountains. Maria, our affable casa owner, adopted us as her own, preparing large breakfasts and dinners for us featuring farm-fresh eggs and bacon, as well as massive lobster tails while helping to organize our hike into the nearby plantations.
The expansive, traditionally cultivated farmlands are a welcomed respite from the hustle and bustle of this nation’s capital. Hiking the rolling green fields surrounded by tobacco sheds, banana trees and meandering rivers, I was reminded that this is not the Cuba you see in tourist brochures, yet its beauty is equally striking.
We took our time away from the tourist centres to spend an afternoon like the locals and got wrapped up in the national pastime, baseball. We made our way to the industrial hub of Pinar del Rio and bought the best ticket we could at field level on the first base line for $2 each. The atmosphere in the stadium is electric as the local team sought to advance closer to clinching first place in the national league.
Their batting prowess proved too much for the visiting team as Pinar del Rio’s team crushed their opponents by eight runs, much to the delight of the fans chanting their support to the tunes of the many unsanctioned bands in the crowd.
With already a week behind us and not yet a dip in Caribbean waters, we hired a taxi to drive us to the sleepy sea-side town of Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba in 1961. We decided to splurge a whopping $15 per night on a room in a Casa directly on the beach with a well-cared for patio featuring cast-iron rocking chairs overlooking the kilometres of sandy coastline.
Renowned for its scuba diving, this area features an impressive variety of fish and coral life, as well as cave diving in Cenotes, in-land limestone sinkholes.
After my very first scuba dive, I was hooked and decided to take my licensing course with the local instructor. Before long, I was licensed and moving on to more advanced dives including an underwater cavern dive down to 38 metres, or 125 feet.
Suspended by the buoyancy vest in the absolute darkness of the caves, I felt like an astronaut quietly charting new territory. Around this time, the voice of my father came booming into my head reminding me ‘not to do anything stupid’ and wondered if this crosses that line. Pushing the thought out of my head, we waded deeper into the cave to explore some colourful pools and cathedral-like limestone formations on the walls around us.
After five days in this sleepy town enjoying the company of locals, eating deep-dish pizza for under a dollar a piece and swapping travel stories with fellow back-packers, we logged into the only computer with Internet access in town and planned our trip to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, our next destinations.
The former pirate stronghold of a city was settled by French immigrants who left their mark in the wonderful architecture the city of Cienfuegos has to offer.
After the comforts of the sleepy-sea side town, we didn’t linger long in this industrial city before heading towards the UNESCO heritage city of Trinidad.
Founded exactly 500 years ago in 1514, this city was a playground for the wealthy sugar and tobacco farmers of the past. It has been well-preserved as a historic city featuring cobble-street roads and Spanish colonial architecture along with a few museums and art galleries. Truth be told, it is now a consummate tourist-trap with throngs of buses and industrious Cubans peddling their wares.
Seeking to avoid the ‘day-trippers,’ we moved on to a tiny little town on the ocean a few kilometres away.
The gem of this town was the amicable and refreshingly service-oriented Casa keeper, Elpidio. Following a few glasses of high quality ron, he opened up and shared his novel-worthy life story. As a young man, he won a bartending competition put on by Havana Club that rewarded him with a trip to Rome to show off his talents promoting the spirit in the Italian capital.
The day before he was to be sent back to Cuba, he fled and sought refuge in northern Italy. After obtaining his citizenship, he began to court the idea of returning home to his rapidly reforming native country. He now spends the tourist season in Cuba operating his Casa with his growing family before heading to Italy every summer to supplement his income and further improve his Cuban ‘retirement plan.’
We spent our remaining few days decompressing, soaking up the rays and enjoying the company of fellow travellers while admiring the gorgeous vistas of the Caribbean ocean and the Escambray Mountains from Elpidio’s rooftop patio. The last stop on our journey was the cosmopolitan city of Santa Cruz, home of the mausoleum to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Our return flight was scheduled some 18 days after our arrival to this warm and welcoming country, full of surprises around every corner.
Along with spending time on warm beaches soaking up the sunrays, our vacation brought us face-to-face with a culture and economic system that disconnected us from the consumerism of the West while reminding us what is important in life and appreciating what we have, and you simply can’t ask for more than that in a vacation.