(Editor's Note: Just weeks before former President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba in March 2016 to expand relations with the island nation, Sabrina Hernández and two fellow travelers visited the island. Even then, there was a sense of optimism about the pending improvement of relations between the US and Cuba, as Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro had announced the resumption of bilateral relations in December of 2015. Fast forward to January of 2017, and that sense of optimism has been replaced by extreme concerns about the future, as Daniel Vázquez reported in the Jan. 26 issue of NotiCen. Here is Sabrina's account (including pictures) of what she and fellow travelers encountered during a trip to Havana, Las Terrazas, Viñales and Trinidad between mid-February and early March 2016).
|Sabrina Hernández (right) and her friend Erika|
Only a year ago I traveled to Cuba with my sister and a friend, and the situation we encountered was one of hope and optimism as our trip coincided with former President Barack Obama’s normalizing of Cuban relations. We planned our trip not knowing that Obama would visit the island nation two weeks later. Aware of Obama’s impending visit, once we arrived in Cuba, we were bombarded with questions about our opinions of the then US president, and Cubans marveled at this historical moment. Excitement was palpable; as palpable as the money to be earned by an influx of U.S. tourists. Former President Jimmy Carter visited the island nation in 2011, but no other U.S. executive had been there since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
After years of dreaming of Cuba, my sister and I finally decided to pull the trigger and planned our trip for February/March of 2016. Our friend Erika accompanied us. We flew from San Francisco International Airport to Cancún, and from Cancún, we caught our flight to Havana via AeroMexico. Arriving at the airport in Havana was surreal and one of the first things we experienced was the lasting legacy of Che Guevara: upon arrival we were asked to present our insurance cards as we would have to purchase costly per day insurance if we did not have our own. This unique requirement pays homage to the memory of the co-liberator of the country, Che Guevara, and his medical pursuits. From the airport we took a taxi to our lodging arranged through the Airbnb site. Initially I had been opposed to the idea of booking a place via Airbnb, since I was intent on having the most authentic experience possible. I wanted to stay in a casa particular.
A casa particular is the home of a Cuban family who rent out a room to guests. The rates are more or less fixed throughout the country (or, at least the western half of the country) at US$25/night for a single traveler, or US$35/night for a room with two beds. We learned that in Cuba--a country that can be costly to navigate because budget hostels and affordable do not transportation exist--three is the magic number in terms of affordable travel. Every room we stayed in had both a full sized bed, and a twin bed. My sister and I split the full size bed, and my friend took the single bed. Thus, we split $35/night three-ways. By booking through Airbnb, I learned that this booking site can indeed provide an authentic experience--it offers a new platform for casa particular owners to reach prospective guests.
While we booked three nights in Havana in advance of our arrival, we did not make any further accommodations beyond our stay in Havana. As is common, Ichel took the liberty of asking us about our plans and phoning people she knew in the places we wanted to visit to arrange for us to stay in their homes. From everything I read prior to arriving in Cuba, this is an extremely common practice. However, with the advent of thawing US-Cuban relations, tourism was up dramatically and the ability to walk up to a casa particular – demarcated by a little triangle on the exterior of the house – and find vacancy was a thing of the past. Tourism was up and housing availability was down.
From Havana, our next stop was to Las Terrazas, an ecological oriented village on the western side of the island. While in Las Terrazas, we met agro-tourists, Matt and Liz. They are the owners of Joyfully Organic Farm and CSA service near Toronto, Canada. As farmers themselves, they were attracted to Las Terrazas and Cuba in general so that they could learn more about alternative methods of farming.
|Dark roasted Cuban coffee|
As a former coffee professional, our casa particular in Las Terrazas was a delight because a good portion of the land adjacent to the house was used for coffee production. The owners were excited that I was interested in their coffee operation and proudly showed me a tin of their own, home-grown, home-roasted coffee. If you are a fan of specialty, trendy coffee at all, then the coffee you find in Cuba is really going to confuse you. Cuba, true to its general “existing in the past” kind of charm, prefers an extremely dark roasted and sugar laden cup of coffee – a style that saw its peak in the beginning to middle of the 20th century. This method of preparation and consumption is not everyone’s cup of tea, err, cup of coffee. I found it so refreshing to experience something entirely different from what I knew. I made a point to consume Cuban coffee everywhere I went. I took the opportunity to speak to Cubans about their coffee every chance I could, and let me tell you, coffee is a great conversational jumping point in Cuba. There is a tremendous amount of pride among Cubans about their preference for coffee: fuerte. One man in Havana, so eager to share with me the strength of Cuban coffee, even bought me a café Cubano – a potent dose of Cuban coffee served in a thimble-sized cup – and administered a strict warning before I began to consume it. It was dark. It was sweet. And I was in love. Cubans even have a saying in reference to their coffee preference: “Lo tomamos muy dulce porque la vida es amarga,” or, “we drink it sweet because life is bitter.”
|Tobacco leaves drying in Viñales|
From Las Terrazas, we took a bus to the popular site of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the western side of the island. This community is perhaps well known for its mogotes
(dome-like limestone outcrops) and tobacco production. It would be useful to mention that in Havana, I somehow managed to lose my tourist visa. Yes – this will forever be a low point in my life when I consider my personal responsibility, management, and organizational skills. Losing a visa in a country that has exceedingly strict regulations on, well, everything, is especially daunting. However, Ichel, the wonderful woman in whose home we stayed in Havana, accompanied us to the Havana immigration office where we learned that losing my visa just meant we needed to get to the airport at least five hours ahead of flight back to Cancun. Inconvenient? Absolutely. But overall, a serendipitous resolution to a problem I was certain would be much more serious.
|A feast in Viñales|
But why is Viñales so different from the rest of the country? It might be useful to read Insurgent Cuba by Ada Ferrer, for a perspective on why the situation might be different in Viñales than other parts of the country. Ferrer writes that during the various attempts for independence, the westernmost areas of the island were staunchly opposed to independence. The predominantly Spanish populations of the west, compared with Afro-Cuban populations of the east, preferred to remain a Spanish colony and to abide by the laws established.
We ultimately found accommodation with a woman whose husband worked for the immigration office in Viñales (and on the condition that we go to the office the very next morning to sort things out and acquire a visa so she could document the number in her guest book). After that fiasco was settled, we spent three to four days in Viñales. We made a day trip to Cayo Jutias, took tours of tobacco farms, and ate a lot of ham sandwiches. In Viñales, we ended up finding both Matt and Liz and Florence and Justin (a French couple we had met en route to Las Terrazas). In order to remain in contact, we began to utilize a note system; we would stop by their casa particular, and if they were not there at the moment, we would leave them a written note informing them of our plans for the day and inviting them to join any part that they were able. In the absence of technological innovation, we reverted to passing notes.
|Mojitos in Trinidad|
When we finished exploring Viñales, we caught a bus to Trinidad. Again, the “Cuba-is-not-economically-friendly” truism reemerges. The bus ride was not all that cheap, yet, it was the most affordable option. As someone who has traveled “on a shoe-string” throughout Latin America, I find it worth mentioning as many tourists are often surprised at how Cuba can be so taxing on the wallet.
Trinidad, close to the center of the island, was far and away my favorite location, a lovely colonial site rich and vibrant with culture. As we moved east from Viñales and other sites, the cultural changes are noticeable. The mojitos in Trinidad were sublime and better than those that I encountered in Havana.
Overall, my trip to Cuba was a wonderful and unforgettable experience. My experience of the western half of the Island left me hungry to get to know the eastern half. Living for two weeks without connection to the outside world was an inexperience in and of itself – one that my worrisome father was none too thrilled about. That I got to know another culture, another way of living, and an entirely new way of being, is something that I won’t take for granted.