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Where do Cuban cigars come from?

Good cigars require at least two things: good tobacco and expert tobacco rollers. To see where the good tobacco grows, you can go to Vinales in the wild west of Cuba. Take a tour bus from Havana (which I did) or, (if you want to stay overnight in Vinales) a long-distance collective taxi arranged by your casa particular in Havana. Vinales is only a couple of hours from the capital. As you ride through the relatively flat fertile landscape of  province Pinar del Rio, you will start to see little houses painted in pastel colours and surrounded by fields. Pinar del RioThese are tobacco farms.

 

You will see men on horseback in high white boots, their small horses trotting  in the grass beside the road, a dog at their heels.  Or a farmer standing on a heavy sledge made of logs and pulled by oxen (below), which is used as a harrow to flatten a plowed field.P1020993 Continue reading Where do Cuban cigars come from?

Are Cubans religious?

You might expect that in a socialist country like Cuba there wouldn’t be a place for religion. That’s what I thought, too, when I first visited the country in 2008. Churches looked closed; people didn’t seem to be wearing crosses. But then in early 2011, quite by accident, I found myself travelling by ferry across Havana harbour to Regla, a district apparently known for its church.Regla f

The people standing in the passenger room of the ferry were normal-looking Havana citizens – not middle class, not poor – just dressed in informal, colourful, body-tight clothes. But as the oily ferry made its way across the harbour’s rainbow oil slicks, the female passengers, a clear majority,  started pulling on shawls and knee-length skirts, unwrapping bouquets, tying up their long, wild hair and lowering their voices. By the time we docked on the other side, they had transformed themselves into pious worshippers ready to enter the church of Nuestra Señora de Regla.

Regla churchThe church itself is nothing special (see right), but it obviously exercises strong power on people.  Only 20 or 30 steps from the ferry dock,  it consists of two rooms: a large nave dominated by the formally dressed black madonna pictured at the top of this post, and a smaller side room where a similar madonna, backgrounded by small sailboats and fishermen, is much closer to worshippers, who kneel to pray behind a railing, light candles and leave flowers.

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These two black madonnas holding a white baby Jesus interested me from the beginning, as did the history I read about how African slaves brought to Cuba in the early 1800s were forced by their masters to worship as Catholics. Their own West African gods (many of them were from the Yoruba tribe)  did not disappear entirely, but resurfaced in an amalgamation with a Catholic saint. Thus, the Virgin Mary was amalgamated (or syncretised) with the Yoruba spirit Oshun, who was worshipped as the goddess of fresh water, life, love and beauty. And so on, each Catholic saint being linked with a specific Yoruba spirit. The Virgin of Regla is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, and you will find both black and white Cubans praying at her altar.

There are many kinds of Christians in Cuba: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists … as well as Catholics. And, although these aren’t religions new to Cuba, church membership and attendance is on the rise. The worshippers I observed in Regla were clearly on a mission to make or fulfil a personal vow, remaining very serious the whole time they were inside the church.

As a tourist, you will occasionally notice Cubans dressed from head to toe in white, often carrying white umbrellas. These are followers of Santeria, a religion based on the syncretisation of Catholic saints and Yoruba gods or spirits. The people in white are going through a period of purification before becoming leaders of Santeria worship, which usually takes place in people’s homes rather than in a church-like building.

Santeria couple

So, to come back to the original question, Cubans are much more religious than one would expect.

 

 

 

 

Why visit Trinidad?

After Havana and beach resorts along Cuba’s north coast, most tourists will want to see the town of Trinidad. Why? Because, with loads of historic charm, its cobble-stoned center is small, walkable and traffic-free; it’s also extremely photogenic and feels totally authentic. Maybe you won’t be transported back to 1513, the year Trinidad was founded, but you will certainly feel as though you’ve stepped back into the early 1800s, when Trinidad reached its economic zenith due to the sugar-boom.

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Sugar brought Trinidad European immigrants and new wealth, but also the African slaves whose labour created that wealth. Today you can see a few of the mansions built by the sugar barons, containing rich furnishings imported from Europe; several are open to the public as museums. And if you are really observant, you can – sadly – also witness vestiges of slavery on the former sugar plantations, in the form of manacles, bells and watch-towers.

What makes Trinidad especially picturesque are the rows of more ordinary houses, one-storey buildings built right out to the sidewalk or street, with their window grilles made of iron or wood. Continue reading Why visit Trinidad?

At the crocodile farm with Ernesto

Ernesto next suggested a trip to the Zapata Peninsula – to the “Swamp of Cienaga”, to be exact. Presumably he thought I needed to see a tourist attraction with more excitement than lakes, bird-filled forests and waterfalls. So after driving for at least an hour in the fast lane of the pot-holed and badly patched six-lane highway known as the autopista, we turned off towards Australia… that is, the village of Australia, Cuba. Apart from slaloming around potholes, it had been a fairly peaceful drive, during which we’d only encountered a handful of other cars and the occasional highway worker, machete in hand, cutting back the flowering bushes on the centre strip.

In Australia, a roadside policeman flagged us down for a document check. We held our breath while it was established that Ernesto’s papers and permits were all in order,  freeing us to continue down this smaller road, past ox-carts, farmers on horseback or bicycles and uniformed school kids being transported in farm wagons.

Our first visit was to a large lake with an island, where a Taino village had been re-created. (“Taino” is the name of a group of native people living on the island of Cuba when it was settled by Europeans.) We spent some time walking around the displays on the  island, and finally found ourselves trapped in an embarrassing native-dance-and- face-painting ceremony. This meant that, despite discreet wipes, when we later entered the Criadera de Cocodrillos (the crocodile farm), our faces still sported the odd yellow or red stripe.

The croc farm’s first display consisted of baby crocs in a way-too-small basin, attempting to bite each other’s noses off. Next came the child crocs – about 3 feet long – which visitors could hold (bound and gagged) for a photo.crocs2

A high arched bridge took us to the lake, where dozens of huge, evil-looking adult crocs were “resting” on the shore.  A chain-link fence enclosed the lake, so I felt fairly secure about photographing the reptiles, who had an unnerving habit of holding their jaws open in order to snap them shut on passing flies. We were soon joined by a small group of Russian tourists wearing brand new outfits and all kinds of bling. The croc farm wardens then zoomed into action and started “feeding” the crocs by waving whole fish filets dangling from long poles over the crocs’ heads. A snapping frenzy followed, and once in a while a croc would even catch a flying filet.

Keen to take pictures, the Russians pushed forward and held their phones over the fence; we remained at the back. It was then that one of the Russian ladies dropped her pink-clad iPhone into the croc enclosure. She cried operson-woman-hand-appleut of course, and the others craned their necks to view it lying on the ground below, but no one knew what to do. Except the wardens. They quickly transformed their feeding poles into batons and started stomping the ground with them as they opened the gate into the enclosure. Baton-stomping continuously, they marched towards the massed crocs, who started backing off. Before the men could get near the phone, however, Ernesto deftly reached through the fence and picked it up, handing it back to the Russian damsel with a slight bow, his gallantry only slightly marred by a smidgen of  face-paint. The wardens didn’t look too pleased, but once again Ernesto had saved the day.

Ernesto and the big snake

The first time he took us to Lake Hanabanilla, our taxi driver Ernesto negotiated us a great deal with a motorboat driver ($25 for the day) and we started off on the two-hour ride to the waterfall at the other end of the lake. After we’d explored the waterfalls and were on our way back down the lake, our boatman steered close to the limestone cliffs on the far side. Then, he cut the motor, stood up, and seemed to be searching the narrow, sun-baked ledges.

Boat trip on Hanabanilla
Cuban friends Ernesto, Julian and the boatman on Lake Hanabanilla

Finally, after a bit more ledge study, he said something about a “maja de Santa Maria”. At those words, Ernesto became electrified and started fumbling in his backpack. With an old camcorder in his stubby fingers, he stumbled up onto the prow of the motorboat, which was still bobbing around in its own wake.

While Ernesto was balancing on the prow, trying to video something, I asked my friend Julian what a “maja de Santa Maria” was. I couldn’t see anything. “A snake – a really big snake” was his answer. It turned out to be a Cuban boa (see note below).

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Then I saw it. The snake was at least 6 – if not 8 – feet long. It had been lying, looped over itself, on a ledge a little above our heads, but with all the commotion of the motor and human voices, it had started to slowly  unwind itself and slither along the ledge. Ernesto was by this time beside himself. “Please, Heather,” he begged, “can you help me with this camera?” In his excitement, he had forgotten how it worked. I examined the multitude of buttons and tiny symbols for a second, but had to admit I knew nothing about camcorders. “I’m really sorry, Ernesto,” I said, “but I haven’t the faintest idea”. He watched the reptile’s gliding getaway, grief-stricken. Then I remembered my Lumix and managed to catch the last seconds of slithering before this magnificent specimen disappeared from view.

Nature note: The Cuban boa measures from 2 to 4.5 meters in length. Its diet consists of birds, rodents, bats and lizards. Prey is initially seized by the snake with its teeth, and it then coils its body around the prey and squeezes, eventually causing suffocation. It can be found in moist and dry woodland in Cuba as well as rocky habitats. EpicratesAngulifer1

A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

Ernesto at el NichoThat’s Ernesto above – the Santa Clara taxi driver who made my visits to Cuba so much better. He took us to the most picturesque places in Central Cuba: to national parks with hiking trails, lakes and waterfalls, to the northern beaches, to colonial towns like Trinidad, Remedios and Sancti Spiritus, to cultural treasures like Cienfuegos and the Harvard Botanical Gardens.

Every morning, at whatever hour we’d set the evening before – 8.00, 8.30 – Ernesto would honk the horn of his precious white Peugeot in front of the door of our casa particular and sit there patiently till we’d gathered up our stuff and piled into the car.

And all the while he was driving, Ernesto was thinking of ways to make our trip better. It could be anything, from stopping at a little mountain café where they grow, roast and serve their own delicious coffee, to taking us on an impromptu bird-watching walk in the forest, to finding out where peasants serve a multi-course lunch in their own home for $3 per person. To locate such places, he’d stop a farmer on horseback or maybe one cycling home from his fields and just ask: “Is there a good place to eat around here?” Most of the time people would know about where to get home-cooked meals or meals of grilled fresh trout from a nearby lake. Here he is, waiting for our order to be served and showing a  local child how to work his phone.

Ernesto shows a local girl

 

Havana Landmarks – some tips

This post features tips about places you will probably consider visiting in Havana, whether you are travelling alone or with a guided group. Your guide book (or my book Travels in Cuba) will have more background information, but my insider tips will hopefully help you get more pleasure out of your visit.

Tip #1 Take photos in the Cemetery of Colon (Necropolis de Colon)

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If you like taking dramatic black and white photographs, you should visit the Cemetery of Colon in Vedado, which is overflowing with extravagant white marble statues and mausoleums from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery is vast and park-like and contains the elaborate tombstones of famous as well as not-so-famous Cubans.

 

One tomb you shouldn’t miss is that of Amelia Goyri, a well-to-do lady who died in childbirth and was buried with her child. Her fame is based on two miracles connected with her burial.  The grave is marked by a life-size statue of Amelia holding a baby in one arm and a large cross in the other. Local people – mostly women – visit the grave to pray for the health of mothers and babies, leaving flowers at the feet of “La Milagrosa”, the miraculous one.

 

Tip #2 Visit restaurant El Patio in Cathedral Square

El patioFor me, this is the most beautiful restaurant and outdoor café in central Havana. It’s located in the Plaza de la Catedral, right in front of Havana cathedral.  You can sit at  metal tables under its hallmark white umbrellas and sip your freshly squeezed juice or coffee for hours.

El Patio is my favorite place for people-watching. What can you see? Well, scenes like: a photographer posing fashion models on cars, tables and steps, Creole ladies dressed in colonial costumes planting big kisses on male tourists’ cheeks, a man pushing a bike loaded down with an entire ice-cream store, several 80-year-old locals dancing to the rhythm of musicians who have installed themselves on the opposite side of the plaza.

My extra tip: the restaurant toilets are located on the other side of the  gorgeous inner courtyard or ‘patio’ for which the restaurant is named. Take your camera. As you walk through the courtyard, admire the elegant fountain of cut stone decorated with flowers, admire the windows of the floor above (featured in the photo at the top of this post) and, finally, bask in the balm of silence and splashing water.

Tip #3 The Hotel Nacional for vintage 40s and 50s atmosphere

Hotel NacionalThe Hotel Nacional oozes with pre-revolution tradition. From a distance it reminds me of a giant Spanish mission as seen in cowboy movies. Closer up, as you walk down the palm-lined driveway,  you’ll enjoy the vintage cars, and as you enter, you’ll feel like you’re in a 1940s film with uniformed bell hops, cigar-girls, grand ballrooms and many other hotel features of yesteryear.

But don’t let the layers of tradition scare you away. If you go through the lobby to the back veranda, you can sink into one of the comfortable couches and enjoy a (very reasonable) drink or snack. Even the indoor bars and cafés are reasonable. (In my book I describe my first drink in Cuba, consumed in the Churchilmojitol room with signed photographs of the formerly glorious and gorgeous looking down.) Last but not least, the hotel’s back garden, which overlooks the bay bordered by the Malecon, offers vast and inviting scope for visitors who just want to sit in the breeze and talk, or read, or discreetly sip a very fresh mojito. 

 

Tip #4 El Convento de Santa Clara de Asis

I’ve already devoted a full blogpost to this hidden oasis of tranquility in the old town of Havana, with its extensive  gardens and beautifully restored 350-year-old buildings.  My tip is that this restored convent is also a hostel, where you can book a room for your stay in Havana, e.g. with TripAdvisor. Lots of atmosphere, lots of space, centuries of tranquility.Convent Santa Clara