(Photo taken in Vinales)
Tragedy: We’re interrogated by police at Jose Martí airport, it’s oppressively hot, we get constant harassment in downtown Habana (even locals agree), we’re heckled by the entire Cuban male population.
Redemption: we can’t find a car that hasn’t come straight from 1950s Detroit. Downtown Habana is an assortment of crumbled apartment buildings and beautiful dilapidated colonial sites, every second bar is a haunt of Hemingway or Graham Greene, the music, tourism is nearly non-existent, ration shops are reality, rum is drunk by the bottle, Locals invite us to play dominoes in the streets, we buy cigars from people’s living rooms.
LA HABANA: We spend our first two days walking the 8km Malecon from Vedado to Habana Centro y Vieja. Everybody hangs out on the seawall, kids dive into the water like it’s their backyard, old men fishing, couples lounging & at night it’s the centre of action for Cubans to drink endless rum, teenagers dance, families socialize because “what else would you do in Habana?” We spend our sunset on the Malecon drinking Ron Planchao rum in a juice box.
Tragedy: We chat with two Cubans in Obispo who seem to have the knowledge of the nightlife, they invite us to Escalares del Cielo at 10pm. Instead we drink rum on the Malecon with Hector, a lovely local Cuban wanting to practice English and talk about the world. THEN our two Cuban acquaintances seemingly hunt us down and start berating Hector about trying to scam us for money. Dodged our first bullet. But wait, there’s more. Hector was then pulled away twice by police and eventually arrested, cuffed and taken to jail, where we’re asked to go bribe & bail him out. Racism and foreign integration is apparantely not welcome in Habana.
Redemption: Culture and history in La Habana is overwhelming and complex, colourful, modern and old. Museo de la Revolucion offered the Cuban perspective of history and war, the whole city is filled with Murals and statues of Gomez, Jose Marti, Camilo Cienfuegos, Castro & Che and the defining phrases “Socialismo o muerte!” “patriotism or die!”
PLAYAS DEL ESTE: We escape to the sea for one of the most stunning beaches we’ve seen yet… White sands, aqua clear water, camas and parasols, seafood lunch served to us, beer and rum in coconuts are served constantly while a Cuban big band do the rounds. Beautiful day in the Carribean.
Tragedy: Everyone is terrible and now we are without valuables and dignity.
THE FINAL REDEMPTION: We spent the rest of our week in Viñales, 3hrs west in the countryside, near Pinar del Río. Its the part of Cuba you absolutely must see! Elsita, our casa particulares hostess, and her friend Manuel are the coolest craziest Cubans you’ll ever meet. Picture a small colourful pueblito surrounded by limestone cliffs, red soil farms, tobacco plantations and palm tree valleys. We spent our time sitting from the porch, sharing stories with locals, riding bikes in the countryside to Moncada and natural caves, drinking and salsa dancing with friends at the one live music-dance bar in town. People in Viñales are generous and friendly, horses and bikes are the town’s main transportation, people sell vegetables from their porches. Also everyone wears cowboy hats and drink excessively.
As beautiful and soul redeeming Viñales was, in classic Cuban style, things were not that easy for us- and we were told our departure tickets did not exist and we couldn’t leave. We didn’t even have enough money to leave the country. Yada yada and now we’re in Costa Rica, kicking back in Jaco beach.
So after much discussion we have decided the only thing we can say about Cuba is it was an experience. If you are up for all it has to offer, you should go soon. Viva Cuba!