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.
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.
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.