It has been less than one week since I journeyed from Havana to Mexico City, and it has been just two full days since I returned home to Tennessee from there. I was gone for six weeks, and whenever I settle back in to my normal routine following a trip of similar length, it always feels as if everything “back home” has changed, even though it usually hasn’t.
I am in the early stages of reviewing and labeling the over 6,000 photos that I took during my travels. That is going to take awhile, to put it mildly, but I did eyeball my pics, looking for a few images that were representative of each place I visited. This was, suffice to say, not an easy task. I have much to say about the “real” Cuba, and some strong opinions about “Cuba for tourists” vs. “Cuba for locals.” These stories will manifest themselves in time, and will be interspersed with tales about my first trip back to Mexico since I left there in July, 2014.
But to whet your appetite and to find a starting point for my own storytelling, I thought I’d write just a few paragraphs about Cuba – one per city visited, let’s say – and post a few pictures as well.
Enjoy…and thanks for reading!
A timeless, can’t-miss city with idyllic weather, caught-that-day seafood, and an afternoon breeze that is as consistent as the clouds of black smoke fuming from the exhaust pipes of the city’s cars – Soviet Ladas and American Thunderbirds both. Havana is like a dream. The much-photographed architecture is as famous as the city’s reputation for being a hub of vibrant Afro-Caribbean music; French neoclassical hotels sit next to 1960’s Art Nouveau Party buildings, which in turn sit next to apartment blocks so dilapidated one could be forgiven for thinking that their silhouette at twilight was a news image from Aleppo. For the guidebook tourist, Havana has more museums and forts than a person can reasonably hope to see – at least not if he or she wishes to keep enough energy in reserve to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway after dark and pay homage at any number of the city’s legendary drinking establishments, the best of which have a sort of “speakeasy” vibe to them. For better or for worse, nearly every stereotype about Havana is true. Old cars really do ply the malecón, as waves crash over the sea wall and fishermen cast their lines. Women of all colors really do stand on their balconies, rollers in their hair, and beckon to their kids, who really do kick soccer balls around on the narrow streets below. Men really do lean against graffiti-tagged alley walls, cigars in mouths as they watch neighbors play dominoes. Sunset, which gives the buildings of Vedado an ethereal glow, really does seem to last forever. No place is perfect – and there are plenty of cracks in the city’s veneer – but for the adventurous traveler, Havana comes close.
Like Antigua in Guatemala, like Granada in Nicaragua, like San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico, Trinidad, in central Cuba, is an oversized small town with more life in its cobblestone streets than one may think at first glance. Sure, more than a fair share of Trinidad’s tourists use the city as little more than a base for trips to the beach or to the mountains, but there is a surprising number of absorbing museums, including some wonderful galleries, spread among the hilly streets. And bonus points go to Trinidad’s burgeoning live music scene. It usually kicks off early in the evening, with musicians serenading diners in the city’s charming restaurants. Closer to midnight, the action moves to the Casa de la Música, less a house than a terraced square, where regular salsa demonstrations take place and where you can sit, mojito in hand, and soak up the sounds and the ambiance. But never fear. Despite the pre-dawn crow of the rooster or the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves on cobblestones not long after, the day starts late in Trinidad, allowing you to sleep off that hangover. Make sure, however, to have the owner of your casa particular rouse you before it’s too late in the day; a thimble-sized cup of coffee and one of their massive, papaya-banana-and-guava-juice breakfasts will surely tide you over as you rent a bike and head to the white sand beaches and azure waters of nearby Playa Ancon, or, better yet, the pebbly sands of La Boca fishing village, where you can wade 50 meters into the sea and be standing in water that is still only up to your waist. What are you waiting for?
Neither exciting nor boring, Camagüey grows on you, in much the same way as confidence grows in your ability to navigate the city’s labyrinthine streets without getting lost. I killed three fulls days in Camagüey effortlessly; the city’s many enchanting plazas and busy pedestrian streets aided me in so doing. A bit more than halfway between Trinidad in the east and Santiago in the west, Camagüey is about as far inland from Cuba as most travelers dare to visit, but it is worth the nine-hour bus ride. The city of just over 300,000 inhabitants is home to my favorite square (Plaza del Carmen, with its pink-and-white church, its tinajones – clay pots, historically the city’s main industry – and its bronze sculptures), my favorite market (Mercado Agropecuario Jatibonico, where you can buy produce grown on the premises), my favorite park (Casino Campestre, where you can go for a jog, watch a baseball game, or pay respects to independence hero Ignacio Agramonte at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución), and my favorite casa particular (Hostal Lavastida, with its rooftop terrace, free bike rental, and $8 dinners, during which enough food is served to feed an army). There isn’t much nightlife, and the nearest beach is over 100 kilometers away, but despite these apparent shortcomings (by Caribbean standards, anyway), Camagüey is my second-favorite city in Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba
The most challenging city I visited in Cuba, in ways both good and bad. The city, simply called “Santiago” by locals and barely a stone’s throw from Guantanamo Province with its famous prison – I mean bay – played host to so many momentous events in the country’s history that I cannot imagine anyone really wanting to know Cuba not making at least a cursory visit. And considering how far it is geographically from Havana (16 hours by bus), that “cursory visit” should really be expanded into two or three itinerary-packed days. After all, it is in Santiago that Fidel Castro’s revolution began, with his ill-fated attack on the Cuartel Moncada (barracks). And it is in Santiago that Haitian colonists (and their slaves) first settled, bringing salsa and rumba further across the West Indies. It is in Santiago that the only land battle was fought during the Spanish-American War. It is in Santiago that Bacardi Rum was first manufactured and bottled. It is in Santiago that Hernán Cortés, who would go on to conquer Mexico, was appointed mayor of what was the then-capital of Cuba. And it is just outside of Santiago that notorious pirate Henry Morgan sacked Castillo del Morro, one of the biggest coastal forts in the Americas. In other words, you won’t run out of things to see and do. That being said, the weather here seems hotter than elsewhere in Cuba, the jineteros (touts) seem more aggressive, and the air seems more polluted. Go to Santiago. But keep your wits about you.