Blog

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.

Oases of solitude in mid-Havana

Havana’s historic centre is movement, loud music, entertainment. It’s non-stop camera clicking, jiniteros vying for your attention, crazy coco-taxis buzzing past. But among all the noise and bustle there are pockets of calm waiting to be discovered and enjoyed for what they are — a chance to pause and observe, to sit down and bask in silence, to reflect on the vicissitudes of history.

The most striking of these oases is the vast courtyard of the Convento de Santa Clara de Asis, just a few blocks off Obispo. When I arrived there the street door was closed, but the warden, who was sitting just inside playing dominoes with a friend, let me in to look around. I stayed there – alone – for over an hour. The courtyard is a garden of trees and cloistered walkways, flowers and beautifully restored buildings dating from 1643. The convent no longer houses nuns, but now  contains  a hostel and the offices of the Havana Restoration Project.

A more visible sort of garden oasis found every few blocks in the centre of Havana is the “pocket park”. This is a sort of green living room for block residents. Tall palms and hanging vines provide shade for the many benches, while birds and fountains provide calming background music. Men read newspapers and play chess, mothers and grandmothers wait for children to be released from school, toddlers chase pigeons… and there’s still room for the odd tourist or two.

What got me started

In December of 2008, I flew to Cuba for the first time, not knowing what to expect. At that time it was harder than it is now to get an entry visa, so I applied and was accepted to give a talk at a Cuban teachers’ conference. I paid my own way, of course.

The reason I wanted to go to Cuba so much was that I’d been writing to a Cuban pen-pal for a couple of years and wanted to meet him. Julian was an English teacher like myself, so we always had something to talk about. We spent every day of the conference week visiting places in and around Havana. During my second week there, I took bus tours to provinces east and west of Havana.

Cuba was a revelation: not only the cars, but many other things as well were left-overs from the fifties and sixties. People seemed to be living on a shoestring, yet they were also lively, well educated and healthy.  What was going on here?

I had to come back and see more.

 

Independent travel in Cuba is easier than you think

Cuba is an attractive vacation option for North Americans and Europeans alike. It’s safe, flights are regular and available, the weather’s fantastic, the people are charming and the countryside is unspoiled.

One of the first decisions you have to make as a prospective visitor is whether you want to sample the country or just lie on another gorgeous beach. If the white-sand-and-turquoise-water aspect is the only thing about Cuba that attracts you, book a hassle-free resort package and you’ll have a great time, surrounded by dozens of (other?) friendly, polite Canadians. If, on the other hand, you want to meet real Cubans, explore the natural wonders of the interior as well as the coast, experience the colonial charm and pulsing local nightspots of Cuban towns, or sample delicious Cuban home-cooked meals… you could book a simple return flight to Havana or Santa Clara or Holguin, and tour the country from there.

Cuban B&Bs, called casas particulares or hostales, are now listed on websites like Trip Advisor and AirBnB, so you can and should book your room before you leave home. These places are where you’ll meet your first Cubans – your host family. They’ll arrange for a pick up at the airport, serve you better food than in a restaurant and help you arrange long distance taxi rides that are more flexible, faster and usually cheaper than traveling in a crowded tourist bus. Talk to them, trust them, and they’ll make your visit memorable. Other possible modes of transport are car rental and organized bus tours, but they’re much more expensive.

Many Cubans now have email and cell phones, so it’s much easier to arrange accommodation and transport today than it was even 3 years ago.