A Travellerspoint blog

How I remember Cuba

Looking beyond the salsa and mojito

When Colombus neared Cuba on October 27, 1492, he subscribed it as 'the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen'. He expected to find India, but instead discovered this Caribbean pearl in turqoise waters. To the island and its people the visit of Colombus was the start of a history with very painful episodes: genocide, slavery, bloody independence wars, a period of corrupt and violent quasi-independence, and then a populist revolution.
521 years after Colombus I arrive on the island, not quite as spectacular with a fleet of Spanish vessels, but at Jose Marti International airport in Havana. So many tourists arrive here to go straight to the beaches of Varadero and stay there for their entire holiday. Why do that if you could travel around the island and get a taste of the 'real' Cuba? It's easy to be charmed by Cuba. It's an exciting and vibrant place with music on every street corner, salsa, mojito, old timers, vivid colours, beautiful nature, colonial cities...

But don't be mistaken: Cuba is a totalitarian state with many absurd and repressive regulations. Behind the smiles and the music lies a hard reality. Daily life is a struggle. Still, change is happening. When in 2008 Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raoul due to illness it was the start of some reforms to the communist system. For the first time since the revolution people are allowed to start up a private business, to sell or buy houses, to have a computer and mobile phone, to access internet, to buy a new car. But there is always a 'but'. Paperwork, taxes and bureaucracy make it very hard to take initiative and the government can still take everything away from you at any time leaving you with nothing. Earning money stays a suspicious thing in a country where salaries paid by the government are just symbolic and insufficient for people to live.

It's hard to sum up Cuba in a few words. It's a country full of contradictions. Billboards with Che Guevara's image still glorify the revolution, yet nobody knows what - or who - will come after the Castro brothers.
I travelled the island for three weeks in group, guided by Alexis, a 'real' Cuban. From colonial cities such as Havana, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba to the mesmerizing nature of the Valley of Vinales, the mountains of Sierra Maestra and the waters of the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico... If you're willing to travel and explore, Cuba impresses and leaves you enchanted. You'll keep the music in your ears even days and weeks after coming home :-)

Feel free to read about my trip in this Cuba blog. If you want to experience it yourself, don't postpone your visit! Changes are coming, it might be your last chance to see communist Cuba with all it's peculiarities.

My other travel blogs:
New Zealand (2010)

Uganda (2011)

South west USA (2012)


Posted by Petravs 13:46 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Saying goodbye


I hate goodbye's. We have our last group dinner in the beach resort and Alexis arranged things perfectly. We had to come to the lobby around 8 and then surprise, no dinner in the overcrowded buffet (or 'vreetschuur', as my Dutch fellow travellers call it), but two long tables on the terrace near the pool where a delicious 4 course meal is prepared just for us. Shrimp cocktail, soup, lobster, beef, dessert,... I haven't eaten this much in weeks. We take a group photo and ALexis surprises us with a photo compilation of the trip. All this time he took pictures, and we didn't even know; We watch the compilation on his laptop. He stresses that he's not saying goodbye yet, he'll do that at the airport, but it feels like a goodbye and it makes me feel a bit melancholic. We've had a fantastic trip and Alexis and Frank did a great job showing us around their beautiful and complicated country. We hand them over their envelopes with tips and thank them.


The real goodbye comes the next day when we get into the bus for the 2,5 hour drive to Jose Marti Airport. Leaving Varadero we get to see the 'real' CUba again and we have a stop at a mirador (look-out point) over Cuba's largest bridge where they serve, according to Alexis, a delicious Pina Colada. I order a alcohol free one and it really is yummy. When we reach the airport there's only time to quickly unload the bags. We cover Frank and ALexis in hugs and kisses and wave them goodbye as they drive away in an empty bus. From there on it's check-in, paying tax, passport control and boarding at 5 pm for the 9 hour flight. I sit next to Erna. Unfortunately we seem to sit right in a freezing stream of airco. There's not much they can do about it and we get an extra blanket. After 3 weeks in very hot temperatures we are freezing :-)

We arrive at Schiphol the next morning, say goodbye to eachother and then I meet my dad in the arrival's hall. The sky looks grey and I already miss the colours of Cuba. As we start the two hour drive home, I play one of my Cuban cds, clinging on to the memory of this impressive trip.


Posted by Petravs 13:25 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Culture shock in Varadero

Getting closer to Havana again, we spend the last 2,5 days in a beach resort in Varadero right by the Caribbean Sea. Our hotel is right at the end of the line, fairly new and apparantly one of the best in whole Cuba. It's strange to think that untill recently Cubans weren't even allowed to stay in hotels themselves! When we arrive it's a culture shock to me. It turns out to be a mini village where they drive guests around in golf carts, that's how big the place is. Two huge pools (a 'quiet' one, and an animated one), a tennis academy, massage corner, huge dining area, a Japanese, Italian and Mexican restaurant, a theatre, .. and ofcourse a wrist band (blue this time) to give us round the clock access to all this luxury. I instantly miss the 'real' Cuba. This place has no soul, no magic. A golf cart drops us of at our building. On foot it's a 10 minute walk from the lobby. THe room is very spacious and comfortable and overlooks the noisy pool. We head for the white sandy beach and seek refreshment in the turquoize water.


Dinner turns out to be a fiasco. To go to the seperate restaurants you need to have a reservation, so we all end up going to the massive buffet. Only by now Marjolein's foot is hurting because of all the walking on the domain and she litteraly says she can't make it. I stay behind with her, Sjannie and Remco and try to find a golf cart for her. That takes us about half an hour. Imagine that, to catch a ride to the buffet :-)
When we finally arrive in the gigantic and warm dinner hall (hundreds of tables here) everybody of the group has already eaten and Marjolein is totally upset. After dinner there's a Micheal Jackson tribute show in the theatre. I imagine it's like this on a cruiseship as well.


The next morning I need to escape for a few hours. With a few people we catch the bus to Varadero town. Not much to see there. We mainly use the opportunity to buy some souvenirs and I head back by noon and read a bit by the 'quiet' pool. Only it's not that quiet. I overhear a Canadian woman telling her lifestory to one of her fellow travellers. Honestly, her story doesn't interest me a bit, the fact that god seems to tell her when a relationship is right or wrong to her, but she speaks so loudly that I can't turn the sound of. I switch to the beach where the best time is around 5 and 6 pm when the sun is less strong and people start to leave to get ready for dinner. Together with Inge, Danique, Bart, Erna and Sjannie I decide to have a quick dinner and then head to the beach again to watch the sunset. It's magnificent, such beautiful light and cloud formations. Ok, I admit, even though we are in Varadero this is a moment to remember :-) We sit on the sand untill it gets dark.


Posted by Petravs 12:53 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Witnessing Cuban everyday life in Santa Clara

The city of Santa Clara is forever linked to Che Guevara. On December 29th, 1958, Che and his fellow revolutionaries derailed an armored train here, using a borrowed bulldozer and homemade molotov cocktails. The battle lasted 90 minutes and effectively sealed the fate of the Batista dictatorship. The event is remembered a boxcar museum, but the site is a bit disappointing to me. The celebrated bulldozer is mounted on its own plinth at the entrance and you have to pay a small entrance fee to be able to go inside the traincars. We don't stay long and instead stroll through the streets of Santa Clara, just witnessing everyday life. The city isn't pretty like Trinidad, but there's a nice atmosphere. Central in the city lies the Parque Vidal. Many Cubans are sitting on the benches in the shade here. No stress, no hurry. An old lady approaches me, asking for money. "No, lo siento, senora, " (I'm sorry), I say. She smiles at me and waves as she moves on to the next tourist. Along with taxi bikes there's another peculiar way of transport around the park: a man walks around with a goat and carriage, for kids apparantly :-)


Santa Clara is our last stop in the 'real' Cuba, for the last episode of the journey we move on to beach paradise Varadero.

Posted by Petravs 02:36 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

"Meet my grandpa, Buena Vista Social Club member."

Having lunch in a quiet place somewhere on the way to your next destination, you might expect to get live music - after all we are in Cuba - but you don't expect to get a Buena Vista Social CLub member playing along. When we enter the outdoor resto 4 young guys in bright green shirts are playing. And you cannot but notice the smiling old man, also dressed in green shirt, playing along on a cello.
We order lunch, clap after each song, and then one of the young guys says: "meet my grandpa, from Buena Vista Social Club." I'm surprised. I have the BVSC on my iPod since years now. Many of the members have died by now. But this guy is alive! 85 he is. I buy their cd and he signs it. 'Lul├╣'
I still don't know if he really played with the Buena Vista's, as I can't seem to spot him in the info on the interet, but I'd like to think he at least played with them a few times :-)


Posted by Petravs 12:45 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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