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. Continue reading Where do Cuban cigars come from?

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.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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. Continue reading At the crocodile farm with Ernesto

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).

Cuban Boa 609kb

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. Continue reading Ernesto and the big snake

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. Continue reading A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

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)

cuba-habana-cementerio-de-colon-y

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. Continue reading Havana Landmarks – some tips

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

images

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.

 

 

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.