Backpacking in Cuba
Staying with Cuban families in casas particulares
Backpacking from characteristic Havana to Viñales, with its valley where cowboys and ox wagons move between tobacco fields. Learning to dance salsa in Trinidad, which has colonial houses on cobble-stone streets. Via Camagüey and Santiago to palm beaches around the turquoise bay of Baracoa. Via Holguin to Guardalavaca. And everywhere there is music.
Travelogue & photos: Chantal Nederstigt
An open-air museum with many bars with live music
In the taxi from the airport to our casa in Havana Vieja we already notice the typical Cuban street life: people stop to talk with each other and most cars are almost antiques. Our first exploration of Havana confirms that it's a beautiful place: a large open-air museum.
We walk to the sea via Prado, a promenade like the Rambla in Barcelona. Then we stroll on the famous Malecón along the sea. When we enter a cross street half way, we are in the Centro district. It is a poor working-class area, according to the Trotter guide it looks like Beirut in wartime.
We hear salsa music from behind countless shuttered windows and there seem to be parties everywhere. Eventually we arrive in barrio Chino and have a drink in one of the many Chinese restaurants. We're not hungry at all. Our bio rythm is out of whack and it feels as if it's already night.
The next morning we wake up early. We find a pastilleria on Parque Central which has excellent coffee and croissants.
We take a walk in Havana Vieja through cute streets and over beautiful squares, like Plaza Vieja and Plaza des Armas. We also visit a farmers market. We are shocked to see how little there is: a few potatoes, onions, peppers and if you're lucky some greenish tomatoes. There isn't too much fruit either: bananas, papayas, oranges and some pineapples. In comparison, the markets in Asia are paradisical. This is a different kind of poverty. In India people sleep in the streets, but this isn't fun either.
But the Cubans have much fun with music. When you peek into a house where you hear music at night, you often see people dance. In bars there is often live music of the same quality as Buena Vista Social Club.
In the afternoon we walk via Malecón to the Vedado district. In the daytime there isn't much to see, but apparently at night it's an entertainment district. We have dinner in barrio Chino. Our springrolls are fried egg stuffed with vegetables. Well, a chef must make do with what's at hand in Cuba.
After coffee on Parque Central we go looking for music. We enter a bar, but the band just plays its last song when we arrive, so we're out of luck.
Around the corner from our casa is a bicycle store that also rents out bikes. We bicycle to the Viazul bus station to book seats on the bus to Viñales tomorrow. On the way we pass the Plaza de la Revolucion, with a huge portret of Che Guevara on the wall of the Ministry of the Interior.
We ride our bikes in the old streets of Havana Vieja, then return the bikes and walk to Plaza des Armas where we sit down on a bench to watch people. A Cuban wants to take us to a good music bar. He's a nice, civilized kid, so we follow him. All of a sudden he is stopped by a police officer.
Cubanen can only have contact with tourists if they have a license. We keep walking inconspicuously, as if we were walking next to him by accident. From a distance we see that he is still talking with the cop.
In the evening we walk around in the old streets until we hear dance music. It turns out that it comes from the same bar we visited yesterday: Lluvias del Oro. Wat een goede band, dit The band is great. Chan chan, Guantanamera, Oye Como Va, all favorites are played. We order our first mojito, the famous Cuban cocktail made of seltzer with lemon, rum and mint leaves.
Cowboys and ox wagons between tobacco fields
Viazul's bus station is like an airport. You have to check in an hour before departure; you also check in your luggage, which is then transported to the bus on a conveyor belt. And there is a waiting room with coffee shop, stores and there are gates.
The bus leaves exactly at 9 AM and soon we're in the country. Along the road there are billboards everywhere with Che Guevara's face and slogans like "Victoria hasta siempre" ("Victory Forever"). When we get off the bus during a stop on the way, we immediately notice how clean the air is.
We find a casa in Viñales, a little less than 200 km west of Havana in the province of Pinar del Río and are served delicious fresh grapefruit juice as a welcome drink.
In the afternoon we walk on the rural roads around Viñales. It feels like being in a Wild West movie: cowboys on horseback, wooden houses and ox wagons. Everywhere in the landscape you see mogotes (large, bare limestone rocks), a wonderful sight.
After showering we sit down in rocking chairs on our casa's porch for an hour. Then dinner is ready. Our hostess has done her best and serves twelve different dishes. I have chicken and Saskia has fish filet. As a first course there is potato soup, which is also the most delicious part of the meal. There are beans, cucumber, tomato, bread, rice and carrots. For dessert there are plates of fresh fruit: pineapple, orange, grapefruit and banana.
In the evening we listen to music in one of Viñales' two bars. They really need to expand, half of the audience has to stay outside.
The next morning we have a sumptuous breakfast with coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, bread, Dutch rusk, butter, jam, cheese and honey. And again plates full of fresh fruit. And she even left out, at our request, the fried eggs...
We visit the valley of Viñales early. It's still quiet on the road, only every now and then a tractor, rental car or bus passes. We take a side road and walk between farmhouses into the valley with mogotes. The views are great: pieces of red soil, fields with tobacco plants, thatched sheds in which tobacco leaves hang to dry and of course the mogotes.
We pass a cowboy who laughs and asks us if we want to ride his horse for a while. It's wonderful to walk here, also because the valley is relatively level.
We end up at Palenque, a restaurant and dance club. After a lunch of yellow rice with ham, chorizo and peppers, we continue on our walk with renewed energy. At Rancho del Vincente, a hotel, we can use the swimming pool if we order a drink. That feels good, a plunge after a long walk.
During dinner there is a tax inspector in our casa. The owners urge us to say that our room price is 10 dollars a night instead of 15. People who rent out rooms have to pay a 50% tax on their income, which doesn't leave them a lot for themselves.
That night there's a salsa band in the music bar. Cubans and tourists dance side by side and with one another on the dance floor.
On our last day in Viñales we take a walk in the valley south of the village. First we visit Mural de la Prehistorica, a huge rock painting commissioned by Fidel Castro to draw tourists. After that, we walk in the valley. Again fields with red soil, oxen with ploughs and cute farmhouses with thatched roofs.
A woman invites us to eat some fruit in her home. Then we continue on through the valley. At the end we have to climb a little to get to the road. When we are up there, we enjoy a great view of the valley.
It's lunch time, so we walk to hotel Los Jasmines, a little farther up the road. The view from the pool terrace is even better. After an omelette with bread and fries we swim in the pool.
We spend an hour using the hotel's internet connection and then walk back to Viñales. The road is again very quiet. Every now and then a car passes by. Walking is really wonderful this way.
In the evening we take a stroll in the village and visit the music bar, where it's crowded once again.
Colonial houses on cobblestone streets
In Havana we transfer to another bus. The road to Trinidad is boring, and straight: along sugarcane fields and every now and then an orchard. Trinidad is in central Cuba on the south coast. The Spanish colonial past is clearly visible. The casa in which we stay is one of those beautiful colonial houses.
In the morning we stroll through a maze of narrow streets, most of which are paved with cobblestones. It's an industrious place and everything and everyone mingles: cowboys on horseback, bicycle taxis, a man with a donkey. The houses are all freshly painted, they are on the Unesco World Heritage list.
A few times people asked us if we were interested in salsa-dance classes. A Dutch person tells us that Curi is the best salsa dancer and teacher in Trinidad. When we meet Curi, we ask if he has time to teach us salse. He acts indifferently, but says it's okay. So is our lesson and before we know, our half hour is over. Tomorrow night we'll take another lesson.
That night there is a Las Vegas-style dance show in a music bar. Afterwards we visit Casa de la Musica, which has an outdoor music performance where people dance salsa. All of a sudden we see Curi on the dance floor, he is dancing with a Cuban beauty. Now we see how well he dances.
The next day we visit Parque Natural El Cubano, at about 8 km from Trinidad. We walk on an unpaved road along a river, with lots of shade from the trees by the side of the road. On the way we meet a cowboy with three horses, a nice picture.
When we arrive at the park, we drink fresh grapefruit juice and change into our bathing suits, because we are going to visit a waterfall. The path to the waterfall leads through a real jungle: we have to climb over rocks and cross suspension bridges. The waterfall is gorgeous and the water is crystal clear. We get into the water: cold! But it's incredibly wonderful to swim here.
Then we return to our casa, a two-hour walk. After dinner we have another salsa class. We have learned four steps so far and can dance a whole song with the correct moves. A little stiff, but still. We are really into it now and book another lesson. Then we go to Casa de la Musica, where another outdoor party is in full swing.
On our last day in Trinidad we look for a taxi to take us to Sierra del Escambray. It should set us back 25 dollars for a round trip. Of course the cab drivers want more, 30 dollars. It's always the same. When we walk a little farther, a guy offers the ride for 25 dollars. A little too late we understand that it is an illegal taxi.
That means we could have paid less, this is almost two months of salary. But at least we get where we want to be. The gypsy cab is an old-time Chevrolet, the windows in the back are clad. That makes sense, because of the police. Cubans are not allowed to give tourists a ride: they deprive the state- owned taxis of income. When we see police, we have to duck. The back of the car smells of gas, an old-timer has its drawbacks.
We take a winding road through the mountains and are dropped in a backstreet of Tope de Collantes, so no one will see that he is moonlighting. We tell him to pick us up at 3:30 PM. Then we walk to the Codina Nature Park, a distance of 5 km. After at least 3 km we turn onto a sandpath with a sign that the park is still 5 km away. The path crosses mountains, we climb and descend the whole time. The last leg is steeply down. We have to hitch a ride for the way back, it's too hard to walk.
When we arrive at the park, a van with American tourists is about to leave for Tope de Collantes. Fortunately they give us a ride, because we don't have time to visit the park, the walk took much more time than we expected.
The tourists look at us with pity. They ask if we got lost, they can't imagine we would walk here for fun. On the way, the women are discussing their nails.
Our gypsy cab arrives a 3:30 PM to take us back to Trinidad. There, one more salsa lesson awaits us. Our salsa dancing gets better, every now and then I forget a step, but they come back to me quickly. I would never have thought I'd like this so much.
The colonial city center is World Heritage
We take the bus to Camagüey, a long distance eastward in the inland of central Cuba. It has a historic city center that is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
We explore Camagüey and soon end up in its shopping street. We walk into a few stores that look more or less modern, but their selection is still very limited.
The next morning we sleep in until 9:30 AM, despite the noise: a rooster, a pig and the neighbors' two dogs. After breakfast we take a walk through the nicest streets, along churches and squares, of the colonial part of Camagüey. On our way we also see a large market on the river bank.
In the afternoon we look for an internet café. That's not as simple as it sounds, it takes us an hour to find one. When we are back in our casa to take a shower and dress for the evening, there's a thunderstorm and it rains. That's a new experience after two weeks of sunny weather.
Santiago de Cuba
Women walk around with curlers in their hair
On the way to Santiago de Cuba on the south coast we are surprised by a gigantic thunderstorm and rain, but when we arrive around 8:30 PM, it's dry again. We have dinner in a restaurant with outdoor seating on the lively Plaza Dolores.
The next day we take a historical walking tour which is described in our guide book. Santiago is nice, but Havana is more beautiful. The atmosphere is different, though, we see women walk around with curlers in their hair.
In the afternoon we walk to the harbor, via a cute little market place with thatched covers. In the evening we visit Sala Dolores, on a square with the same name. There is a classical music performance. It's free, so most visitors are Cubans. Because the concert hall is a former church, the acoustics are great.
Afterwards we look for a bar with live music. We can't find any, even though it's Saturday night. So we sit down on a bench in Parque Cespedes to watch Cubans. Children are playing with skateboards, tricycles, etc. There even is a bicycle cart, which takes kids for a spin for one peso.
The next morning we get on a camione (truck) packed with people to Punta la Gorda, where we take the ferry to Cayo Granma.
We take a walk on the island in the bay of Santiago. We swim at the only, diminutive pebble beach on the island. The water is nice and warm. Some kids who are snorkeling give us a beautiful shell.
Coconut palm trees and beaches around a turquoise bay
The bus to Baracoa, at the south-east end of Cuba, leaves exactly on time. On the way the bus has a breakdown. It is fixed on the spot, with ropes that lie on the side of the road.
Baracoa has wonderful views of its turquoise bay. Baracoa lies behind a mountain chain and has a tropical micro-climate. It's much greener than the rest of Cuba, with many coconut palm trees.
The next day we put on our hiking shoes for a long walk along the Toa River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Baracoa. It's really tropical here. Every now and then a farmer on horseback or with an ox passes. And then it's again just palm trees, the river and lots of green everywhere.
We have to cross the river a few times. People who live here, wear jackboots, are on horseback or step from rock to rock to the other side. The first time, this works fine for us, too. The second time is harder: the rocks are smaller and farther apart. Oh well, we'll take off our shoes and wade, we think. But the stones under water are slippery and we're afraid to break our legs. Some kids help us. One of them even stands in the river in his sneakers and leads us by the hand to get to the other side and stay dry. Muchas gracias, amigos!
Walking gets increasingly hard, we have to cross that river again and again. One time we cross with bare feet, when there are just pebbles in the river bed. The time after that we give up and turn. The water is crystal clear, we see fish swim in the river.
When we arrive at the difficult crossing, we don't know how to get to the other side, this time without help. We vind to big palmwood sticks which we use to cross.
Back in the village we go to the pool of the hotel where we had dinner yesterday night. Tonight we have dinner at Walter's, our casa host. He used to own a palador. Those are private restaurants which are only allowed to have twelve seats, so they can't compete with the state-owned restaurants. The food is good: fish filet in coconut sauce (Baracoa's local speciality) with rice, sweet potatoes and a salad.
In the evening we hear a good live performance by a band at Cafetaria Rumbos. Fortunately it's not a tourist trap, there are many Cubans in the audience. The one dollar entrance fee includes a drink. We try the typically Cuban malta, a non-alcoholic drink that tastes like caramel. It's also drunk with milk. The liquid looks a little like beer (it has a head), but doesn't taste like it.
The next day we are having breakfast on the roof terrace and enjoying the sun, when all of a sudden a torrential rain shower begins. Fortunately we are sitting underneath a lean-to. The shower ends soon, but it remains overcast. It looks like great weather for a bike ride, so we rent bikes.
The bikes are not very good for riding in the hills. We have to walk uphill, when we descend we can't pedal. Still it's good to bicycle.
There are many slogans along the roads of Baracoa, painted on houses or large billboards. Most tell of course what a good thing the revolution was for Cuba and about the DCR, Fidel Castro's party. Cubans are brainwashed with this. Not that they have a choice: the CDR is Cuba's only political party.
We pass the village of Jamal. An ordinary, typical Cuban village with a cathedral on a square. We keep bicycling toward the coast. The route remains hilly. A little after noon, we arrive at a small beach, where a small business man is willing to sell us a drink. He makes a delicious lemon drink for us. We talk about music and of course he mentions the kind that is most popular among young people: reggaeton. I ask him if he knows what the popular song is called that we keep hearing. He writes it down for us: "Pichea" by Eminencia Clasica.
The band in Cafetaria Rumbas plays the same songs as yesterday. When they are finished a schmalzy popular singer takes over and we're no longer entertained. Someone tells us about an open-air dance club, a short distance from here on a hill. There we have fun on the dance floor for a couple of hours.
The next day we bicycle to the beach, it's a sunny day. This road is a little more level and leads us through tropical surroundings with thousands of palm trees and little thatched houses. In the evening we first pack our backpack for tomorrow, because the entertainment begins only after 10 PM.
It's wonderful, so much music
During the first two hours, the trip in a taxi van to Holguin goes over a very bad road with many potholes, so no relaxed sitting back and looking at the landscape. In Holguin we are dropped off on one of the two main squares.
From the outside our casa looks like a ruin, behind the barred windows only bare concrete is visible. We think they must have gone bust, until a woman comes outside and gestures we should enter. Behind the dilapidated front is another wall and behind it a regular house.
In the evening we take a stroll in the town center. We are amazed to see how popular ice cream is. People are waiting in line for a seat outdoors. When they are finally seated they order coupes of at least half a liter of ice cream.
We sit down on a bench on the central square to watch kids going out. They are waiting for a band to perform live. It's wonderful, how much music there is on Cuba. While they're waiting for the performance, the sound system plays music and many people are dancing already. Cubans are not capable of sitting down when they hear music.
We often see people with shirts or sweaters of which the label is turned to be on the outside. We assume that they do this to show they are wearing factory- made clothes and not home made, which is common on Cuba because stores have such limited selections.
Sleepy village with two stores
We take a car trip to Gibara on the north coast, which is also Holguin's port. After some negotiating we find someone willing to take us there for 8 dollars. To avoid the police, we take the worst roads. There is a 5,000 pesos fee for illegal taxi transportation, which is more than the average annual income on Cuba.
Gibara is a disappointment. It's a sleepy village with two stores, a snackbar and a restaurant. The ferry that is supposed to go to the beach is out of use. It's only possible to get there by private boat.
In the evening there is music for the youngsters on the Malecón. Of course everyone is dancing and each group brings their own bottle of Havana Club rum and plastic cups. They share their rum with us.
The next morning we cross a suspension bridge to a pretty nature reserve and then to a beach. In the afternoon we relax on the only beach in Gibara itself.
There is also music on the beach of Guardalavaca
Immediately after breakfast we try to hitch a ride to Holguin. This isn't easy. There are hardly any cars here. And when the police arrives and stays at a distance of 50 meters from us, our chances of hitching a ride are gone. Fortunately the casa hostess arranges for someone with a car to pick us up.
Back in Holguin we stay in the house of a pediatric doctor. We walk a distance of around 8 km to a tourist resort with a swimming pool, Mirador de Mayabe. We are tired and sweaty, so it's wonderful to jump into the pool.
The employee bus takes us back to the village for a dollar. It is an old Dutch regional bus, like so many here. We have a conversation with an entertainer who asks us what the meaning is of the Dutch texts in the bus: "Achter uitstappen" ("Exit in the back") and "Opstaan voor iemand misstaat niemand" (Offering your seat to someone is always a good thing").
After dinner there is live music at Casa de la Trova. We enjoy the salsa sound. It's lively, a nice mix of Cubans and tourists. Our salsa lessons come in handy now that we are asked to dance. We go to bed at 1:30 AM. The first roosters are already crowing, stinking rotten animals they are!
The next morning we take an illegal taxi to Guardalavaca for a day on the beach. Guardalavaca is Cuba's largest beach resort after Varadero. On the way we are stopped by the police. The driver gets a 20 dollar fine and is incredibly mad. We get to hear all Spanish swear words.
Guardalavaca has a white sandy beach with the clearest sea water in the most beautiful color I have ever seen. It looks like a Bounty commercial. There are only "all-inclusive" hotels and resorts here. We have to laugh a little when we see all those people with their hotel bracelets.
A little farther a group of people are playing music with a guitar and drums. What else on Cuba? It's strange to think there is ice in The Netherlands where we return tomorrow.
Cuba is a great destination, with all ingredients for a wonderful vacation. We enjoyed both the culture and the natural beauty, the warm climate and the music.