Cuba – Between Decay and Progress
“Visit Cuba before it’s too late” was the recurring mantra of travellers during spring. But too late for what? Many fear change in Cuba after Obama visited and promised a relaxation of the US embargo and the ever growing number of tourists entering the country each year are deemed as a threat by those who want to preserve Cuba in its current state. It seems like an egoistic wish to keep Cuba in the slumber that the cold war put it into. On the other hand it is the oldtimers and the slowly decaying colonial architecture that attracts tourists from all over the world. And so we followed the crowds and went on a two-week trip across the island only a few weeks before the first big cruise ships were allowed to bring thousands of American tourists to the shores of Cuba.
Havana was the starting point of our trip and the place where we spent the most time. One of the most intriguing experiences of Cuba are homestay-accommodations. These so-called “casas particulares “are mostly family-run businesses and are the best way to witness the real life of Cubans as a tourist. We found a beautiful casa well-located in the historical centre of Habana Vieja with the kindest employees imaginable.
During the nights I realized how much of Cuban life happens on the streets. After dark I could hear the live music of nearby restaurants, the rattle of musical instruments that were sold in our street, the babble of voices, mopeds and in the morrow a cock crowed from a rooftop nearby. After a few nights I could barely image how to sleep without this ambient noise.
Havana is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, architectural variety and historic influences from the colonial era, revolution and the cold war. I felt like I fell down the rabbit hole and on the other side it was colorful, joyful and there was something new around every corner.
The Malecón is one of the most famous spots of Havana. The 8 kilometres long esplanade stretches across the whole width of Havana and attracts countless visitors throughout the day. Especially during the evening hours the Malecón fills with tourists, enamored couples, joggers and anglers. I don’t know many spots that are as magical during the sundown especially when the surf hits the quay wall and the spray looks like gold in the low sun.
The next stop on our journey led us to Cienfuegos, the formerly rich centre of the Cuban cain sugar industry. Our trip with a shared taxi was a good example for the way Cubans master their everyday lives. Initially we and other tourists were all driven to one place in Havana where bigger shared taxis were waiting to bring us to different destinations in the inland. Just in front of the outskirts of Cienfuegos our car broke down when the cooling water started to boil. The load of seven travellers, hilly streets and nonstop air-conditioning must have been too much for our engine. After a few unsuccesful attempts to start the engine a friend of our driver came by and drove us to our next casa. The bottom line: Nothing works like it is supposed to but somehow it always works out mostly thanks to the helpfulness of others.
Cuba is often compared to a time capsule in which the time stood still since the revolution. This comparison is especially true for Trinidad. The old city was built during the colonial era and appears to be stuck somewhen during the 19th century. Horses and mules are still a common sight in the narrow cobblestone streets and only a few of the pictuesque houses have more than one floor.
The flat architecture turned out to be a real stroke of luck for us because our beautiful casa happened to be one of the few multilevel houses in the area. On top of a rooftop terrace a narrow spiral staircase led to a lookout that offered a fine view overlooking the roofs of the city.
The 20 kilometres long headland of Varadero includes one of the most beautiful beaches of the country and lures accordingly large amounts of tourists who spread across roughly 50 hotels. Not really a place off the beaten path but at the end of our vacation we just wanted to spend a few days at the beach and stay in a luxurious hotel and simply do nothing else. I have to admit that I felt caged with all the other tourists and I pitied those who only came for Varadero and would see nothing else of Cuba. In spite of beach, pools and a cocktail bar behind every palm tree I started to miss the cosiness and hospitality of the casas particulares that we visited.
The arrival in Varadero turned out to be a downright culture shock. We arrived sweating at our resort after a long and exhausting busride and felt out of place with our backpacks between all the upscale travellers. When we were offered a drive to our bungalow with a golf cart we declined politely and kept walking while other tourists bemusingly observed how we passed by the hotel pool while they guarded empty seats with their towels. Which I also couldn’t wrap my head around: While the pool sure looked good I didn’t understand how one could favour it over one of the most beautiful beaches the Caribbean has to offer.
On our way back to the airport of Havana a part of the motorway was closed and our bus had to take smaller roads through the backcountry. We didn’t really mind as we benefited from the slow drive that showed us more of the rural life of Cuba.