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The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana

While wandering down Obispo in Havana’s picturesque pedestrian zone, Julian and I came upon a hotel with considerable character called ‘Ambos Mundos’.
“What does that mean?” I asked my Cuban friend.
“Yes, it’s a strange name,” he answered, “It means ‘both worlds’, as in the best of both worlds.”

It turns out that Ernest Hemingway, the American author most closely connected with Cuba, lived at the Ambos Mundos from 1932 to 1939. It’s where he started writing his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls Continue reading The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana

The Bay of Pigs and tropical fish

Ernesto, our private taxi driver, let the car glide along the southern coastal road towards Cienfuegos. Behind us was the Great Zapata swamp, where we’d just spent the whole morning visiting the crocodile farm and boating to islands in Treasure Lagoon. I didn’t realize we were driving around the infamous Bay of Pigs until I noticed humongous billboards blaring slogans (in Spanish) like:

A decisive battle in the victory of socialism was fought here
or:
This is as far as the mercenaries got
and best of all:
Giron: First defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America

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Deep in conversation, Ernesto and Julian let the billboards slip by without comment, but I could scarcely believe my eyes. I’d certainly heard of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, but never thought I’d be driving past its patriotic commemoration.

Shortly afterwards, Ernesto pulled into the driveway of a free-standing house and got out to chat with a friend who was busy mixing cement for the walls of the new tourist bedroom. The friend directed Ernesto to “the best and cheapest restaurant”, where we found a table in the shade and enjoyed another great, late lunch of very fresh fish, rice and beans, vegetables and salad, accompanied by beer and coffee. Price for the three of us: $18.

Speaking of fish, the Caribbean is famous for its colourful tropical fish, and Cuba has some of the most unspoiled  reefs. I’m a bit nervous about scuba-diving but enjoy snorkelling,  so I was really delighted when Ernesto stopped off at the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) a little way beyond Playa Giron. A short path inland from the road leads to what looks like a small lake.Cueva Peces

Except it isn’t a lake, it’s a limestone sinkhole that goes down 72 meters and is full of salt water. Yes, due to a geological anomaly, sea water enters the cave underground, bringing with it schools of tropical fish from the nearby Caribbean. This means that lily-livered divers like me can rent equipment lakeside and happily snorkel on the deep blue surface of this salt-water lake, gazing down at dozens of yellow, purple, turquoise and blue tropical fish. It was paradise and there was almost nobody there.

 

 

The Cuban national bird and how to find it

Cuba is home to many exotic-looking birds, so it’s not really surprising that the Cuban national bird is colourful. It’s called the tocororo (to co RO ro).

The tocororo’s plumage may be exotic, but the bird can be found in forests all over Cuba. I came upon my first tocororo in a dry jungle in the Escambray mountains, near Topes de Collantes. Ernesto, our taxi driver, guide and friend, had taken us there for a refreshing walk before swooping down to sub-tropical Trinidad on the Caribbean coast.

You hear a tocororo before you see one; its call is a low, bubbling warble. Ernesto knew right away and stopped me in my tracks, whispering “Tocororo!” He then silently led me to within ten feet of the bird, which was sitting on a branch over the path. Fumbling with my daypack in excitement, I somehow whipped out my camera and took as many between-leaf shots as I could before the bird flew away. One of them is posted above. As you can see, tocororos are dark blue, white and cherry-red, with navy and white polka-dot wings and a very attractive forked tail. What you can’t see is that they also have an iridescent blue-green back.

For a better idea of the back, check out this much more professional photo.

My landlady in Havana

My very first ‘casa particular’ was on the tenth floor of a Havana apartment house, right across the street from the well-known Hotel Nacional, with its spacious garden, bars and restaurants, currency exchange, and email room. Living so near meant I often used the Nacional’s infrastructure: I could read in the breezy garden overlooking the sea, or send expensive emails back home to Switzerland and Canada. 

My 75-year-old landlady, Magdalena, lived alone in a four-room apartment, with me as her only guest. Every morning at breakfast, she treated me to freshly pressed papaya or guava juice and lots of Spanish conversation, which sometimes turned into a cross-examination on my private life. Anyway, it did my very elementary Spanish a lot of good, and I learned all about Magdalena and the conditions of daily life in Cuba: where she shopped, where her three grown-up children lived, what to see in Havana, where I should be careful.

Later in the day, when I returned from one of my many sightseeing trips to Habana Vieja, there’d be some small treat waiting for me from the dinner Magdalena had cooked for herself and her granddaughter: maybe a slice of flan, which she called ‘poodeen’, or a dish of sweet potato chips.

On the evenings when I didn’t go out, Magdalena and I would sometimes sit side by side in the living room, watching her little old Sanyo TV. There were only five channels, two of which were monopolized by talking heads. That left the Cuban dancing channel, a Brazilian soap opera or news reports. The TV content may not have been scintillating, but we found lots to talk about anyway. Magdalena was refreshingly critical of all government announcements.

Learning to salsa in Trinidad

My very first time in Cuba I booked a two-day bus tour from Havana through Central Cuba and back. Our group was small – only ten people – so within two hours we were like a large family dropping in on Cuba. At 11 a.m. on the second day, our bus driver let us off in Trinidad, a wonderfully photogenic colonial town.

After a short walk over cobblestones, Bertha, our Cuban guide, led us through saloon doors into the welcome dimness of Trinidad’s Casa de la Trova (house of music). About ten musicians, sporting the usual sunglasses and straw hats, were already singing and playing guitars, woodblock, maracas, bass and conga drum.

We sat down and ordered TuCola (Cuba’s answer to Coke) or fresh pineapple juice, feeling surprised, alarmed and thrilled that we’d landed in a place that looked a lot like the Buena Vista Social Club. Surprised, because Bertha hadn’t warned us; thrilled, because all the musicians resembled Compay Segundo; alarmed, because it was starting to look as if we were expected to do more than just sit there and watch.

The only other guests in the place had suddenly stood up, revealing that they were professional dancers dressed in sexy leotards.  Young, tall and beautiful, the couple carefully demonstrated the cha-cha-cha, making all the moves look easy. They exaggerated their steps. They smiled encouragingly and repeated…. No takers. Then came  salsa. Our faces hardened, eyes narrowed. It wasn’t going to happen to us – we weren’t going to be lured into touristy salsa lessons, especially not under the scrutiny of fellow tour members. By way of example, Bertha jumped up and started dancing with the band leader, who was easily thirty years her senior. They stepped and swayed together smoothly, as if dancing was their favourite activity.

Next, the male dancer asked our Linda to dance. Being from Colombia, Linda had a head-start in the world of Latin American movement. She looked good right away. This did not reassure the rest of us. Next, the female dancer pulled Antoine from Geneva to his feet.  He was definitely less agile than Linda and did not seem to be enjoying himself, although he stumbled through the steps with a fixed smile on his face.

One by one, the rest of us were invited – or pulled – onto the dance floor, where the professionals worked hard to make us look good. In the end, if not totally relaxed, we were at least all moving to the music and mentally composing postcards home about one more incredible Cuban moment.

Trinidad musician

Cuba travel in 2020? Some useful links

If you’re a US citizen and want reliable information about legal trips to Cuba…

Cuba is still there, unspoiled, beautiful, friendly, very different from other cultures  and waiting to be discovered. Don’t let a thick-skulled autocrat and prejudices from the 60s get in the way of your travel plans. For a quick, factual update on the current US government’s Cuba policy you can read the NYTimes here.  And for concrete suggestions about how US citizens can still travel to Cuba,  the ViaHero website  has ultra-clear and up-to-date information about what you can and can’t do.

Briefly, the once most popular travel category for US citizens, “People-to-People”, has been scratched, so would-be US visitors to Cuba have to find another reason for going. That reason is “Support for the Cuban People”. Americans can support the Cuban people by staying at a BnB (called a casa particular or hostal), by eating in small restaurants and by avoiding the big beach hotels (which tend to be run, wholly or in part, by the government or army).

Alternatively, you could enter and exit Cuba via Mexico. ExpertVagabond can tell you how and has lots more ideas about what to see and do.

You can also volunteer to help the Cuban people physically. If traveling with groups of volunteers appeals to you, see Globeaware, which offers vacations in Cuba for volunteers.

And for help with ideas on independent travel… 

To explore Cuba on your own, it’s best to use casas particulares rather than hotels, which are overpriced and often not very good anyway. You can eat very, very well at casas too, or go to small local restaurants recommended by local people. To travel around the country, take comfortable Cuban Viazul buses or cheap and friendly shared taxis, which travel city-to-city as well as along agreed routes in bigger towns. Use the network of casa owners and taxi drivers to advise you on where to go and what to see next, but also consult a good guidebook like Lonely Planet’s Cuba. If you want to travel independently, with a local Cuban planning and organizing your trip for you, why not check out ViaHero for that, too? The service only costs $25-30 a day.

It’s best to book at least your first BnB before you go to Cuba. Trip Advisor has hundreds of reviewed listings and discussion groups. Cuba-junky is a Cuban site where you can also book rooms, etc.. And if you want  to rent a larger accommodation for a while, there’s always AirBnB, which now serves Cuba, too.

If you want honest and enticing descriptions of beautiful places to experience, check out ytravelblog, which offers good information and advice. The same goes for Goats on the Road‘s recommendations. There are actually dozens of informative and inspiring travel websites to choose from, but here are two more: Borders of Adventure, and Where to next, darling?.

Finally, for tips, inspiration and an overview of the whole experience of touring Cuba on your own, you might like to read my book, ‘Among Friends: Travels in Cuba‘.

A trip to Cuba’s Northern Keys

I expected Santa Clara to be a boring place to stay for a week, but I had to because it’s where my Cuban friend lives. Sure, it has Che Guevara’s mausoleum, but that’s something you can see in half a day. Then what?

Well, as it turned out, I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my tourist HQ. By hiring Ernesto, the taxi driver recommended by my BnB hosts, my friend and I went on daily excursions to the nearby Escambray mountains, to the Northern Keys, to the great Zapata Swamp (crocodiles), and to all kinds of picturesque places in between, like Trinidad, Remedios and Cienfuegos. At prices lower than what tickets for a Cuban bus tour would have cost, we had our own private chauffeur who always found authentic places to stop for lunch, showed us the wonders of Cuban nature, told us lots about farming in Cuba – and even took us back to his house for a coffee at the end of the day.

On our first excursion to the Northern coast, I was blown away by the calm turquoise of the water and the whiteness of the sand. The place was totally unspoiled! As we drove along the narrow causeway over the tiny islands called keys – an empty road that seemed to be afloat – all I wanted to do was get into that warm water. Ernesto took us to Las Brujas, where we had lunch at the one and only restaurant. After that he withdrew to his taxi for a siesta, while we each dealt with the long white beach in our own way. I wasted no time going in for a dip and then walking along the empty beach for a mile in each direction. My Cuban friend, Julian, dragged a sunbed into palm-shade and settled down to read a book with his eyes closed and listen to the wavelets lapping the white sands.

On the way back to Santa Clara, we stopped at a private home where Ernesto knew we could buy great tropical fruit: papayas, guavas, pineapple. The prices were low and the quality was fantastic. We filled two bags and started the one-hour drive back to the BnB, where supper was waiting.

Hanabanilla: Lake trip with lunch

I knew that Cuba has masses of coastline, but I hadn’t heard anything about its lakes, of which there are a surprising number. My next excursion with taxi driver Ernesto took us to Lake Hanabanilla (pronounced Ha na bah nee ya), a long, winding artificial lake to the south of Santa Clara in the Sierra de Escambray mountains. We were going on a boat trip.

Ernesto picked us up early and we headed south along a road that started rising into thick forest. The temperature immediately dropped ten degrees, springs gushed out of rocks and we could hear birds singing in the trees overhead. Ernesto said this was the place he always drove to for family picnics in the summer. Then we caught our first glimpse of the lake: actually a very wide dammed up river surrounded by dark green mountains. No buildings – just landscape.

Twenty minutes later we were in a motor-boat chugging towards the far end of the lake, where there was supposed to be a spectacular waterfall. Ernesto had hired a boatman  for $25, and had arranged for us to eat lunch for $3 each in a peasant cabin high above the lake on the way back from visiting the waterfall.

So here we were, sedately making our way uplake, photographing the tall palms, the wild limestone formations, the water birds, and soaking up the silence. It took nearly two hours to get to the other end, but it was worth it. The deep pools at the bottom of the waterfall were a clear, dark emerald – ideal for a dip. We were the only people there, except for a peasant woman and her son, who had ventured down the mountain to catch a glimpse of exotic tourists.

On the way back, our boatman cut the motor and pointed out Marta’s cabin far above the lake’s sapphire surface, so we jumped ashore and stumbled up a winding path to find our table under palm branches. Cold beers for all and a gorgeous view of lake and sky while Marta and her helper prepared the trout. Then came fishing stories from the boatman, animal stories from Ernesto and school stories from Julian – all in Spanish. I was pleased just to laugh in the right places. Lunch was of course delicious and left us feeling content to be ferried back to the little dock and thence to Santa Clara by our faithful and endlessly resourceful taxista, Ernesto.

 

 

How Cubans weathered hurricane Irma – a personal account

Hurricane Irma began her assault by striking Cuba’s north coast on September 8th, 2017, with 260 kph winds.  At that point, Cuban Hurricane Watch had been evaluating Irma for some time, finally triggering full civil defence procedures. But these could not stop Irma’s steady and violent progress as she churned popular resorts such as Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero into sandy chaos.

My Cuban friend Julian, who lives in Santa Clara, some 50 km inland from the northern coast, hunkered down with his family – his wife, 100-year-old mother, son and daughter-in-law – to wait out the storm. This was not their first hurricane. They had water and food, lanterns and flashlights, a gas cooker, a battery-powered radio… Here are excerpts from his emails, which started arriving as soon as the storm had moved on.

11th Sept. There are some fallen trees like these (see above) in Santa Clara, but not too many. Fortunately, as a security measure in the days before the hurricane, the most dangerous branches near houses and power lines were cut. … The power supply is a short-term problem and will be solved within days, but the destruction of agriculture will cause major difficulties. 

13th Sept. Thank you so much for your messages. It is encouraging to know that we have friends who care about us. After 5 days of blackout, electricity returned early this morning. Water had come the day before. So, now we have the basic conditions for a civilized life. Everywhere people are working hard to repair the damage. Saturday (Sept.9) was perhaps the longest day in our lives here in Santa Clara. Heavy rain and strong winds began around 3 a.m. and continued until Monday morning. As soon as this situation began, there was a power cut and a water cut that continued until yesterday and today. The lack of electricity was the worst consequence for most people … Fortunately, I had a very good transistor radio with rechargeable batteries  – a present from a German friend  – that made it possible to listen to news about the situation all the time.
However, it is important to mention that the human losses were minimal compared to the power of this hurricane. In Cuba only 10 people were killed, 6 of them in Havana, and mostly because of imprudence or refusing to be evacuated. …The Cuban Civil Defense is very well organized to fight these disasters. Hundreds of thousands of people who live in vulnerable areas or houses were evacuated to safe public or private buildings, where food and medical assistance were provided.

22nd Sept. At home I may say that our daily life is back to normal, though there are some people who must be having a harder time. Yes, both at the peso markets and CUC stores there is basic food to buy, though in some cases there are long lines. …It is encouraging to know that a number of Canadians have also come to Cuba to help with rebuilding and rewiring. The reconstruction and repair work is going on well: more than 90% of homes have electricity, and a high percentage also have tap water. The subsidized food is also almost normalized, though we are already feeling the shortage of vegetables, as almost all crops were lost. Elementary schools have begun classes, as well as most universities.

For me, Julian’s emails illustrate Cubans’ lack of self-pity in dealing with major difficulties. I admire their courage and their concern for each other in the face of so many obstacles.