Author Archives: jessicaagalliver

Havana: some questions answered

A few tips for getting the most out of Cuba’s spectacular capital city…

 

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I’m going to Cuba. I’ve heard Havana is noisy and dirty, and the beaches of Varadero are the place to be. Should I bother visiting?

Yes, you should. The palms and piña coladas of Varadero ain’t got nothin’ on Havana. It is dirty and noisy, though. Get excited!

 

Where should I stay?

If you want to soak up the colonial charm of the old town, find somewhere in Habana Vieja. It’s lovely just to be able to wander around, and after losing a couple of hours in this maze you’ll be very grateful for a nearby refuge. However, culture vultures or those wanting to escape the madness should head for the wide, green boulevards of Vedado. This district is my favourite – cinemas and theatres abound, and you’re never far away from a world-class music venue.

Re accommodation: I heard recently that with the recent surge in tourism, Cuban hotels are all booked up forever and ever. Whether that’s true or not, don’t let it put you off. If you want the real deal, stay in a casa particularthese private homestays go from experienced family businesses to couples just renting out a spare room. They tend to be cosy, clean and serve delicious meals, including generous breakfasts. TripAdvisor and MyCasaParticular have plenty of recommendations. Book in advance in high season, but don’t stress out – somebody will put you up.

However, if you prefer the backpacker vibe, I stayed in Casa de Ania (Calle Jovellar y San Francisco) near Vedado, which I would definitely recommend. Hostels are pretty new on the scene in Cuba but this one strikes the perfect note, with several shared and private rooms and a nice common area to meet fellow travellers and drink rum not on your own.

 

How long do I need to get to know the city?

Probably a lifetime, but three to five days will do if you’re on a whirlwind tour. You’ll have time to scamper around and see all the beautiful sights, but still have a moment or two to stop and stare, sip a daiquiri in an old Hemingway joint, and watch life at its liveliest on the Malecón.

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How do I get around?

Those world-famous American cars, or máquinas, aren’t just there for show – they keep Havana moving all day and night. They’re essentially shared taxis that travel fixed routes. The key to getting one is not being shy. Stick your arm out and indicate how many people you are with your fingers, and when someone stops, just tell them where you want to go. Try and get a good map so you know which side of the road to stand on, or ask your hosts if you’re not sure! A short ride should cost about 50 cents, or 1 CUC for longer journeys. It can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s definitely the quickest way to get around.

Alternatively, use your feet. There is so much to see and take in that if you’re feeling energetic, this is the perfect way to roam. Wear sensible shoes, and take plenty of water.

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I’ve heard that communist states have a pretty miserable cultural life. What am I going to do with my time in Havana?

Even a quick visit will put paid to this myth. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and culturally rich as Cuba’s capital, and even in the hardest years of economic crisis, the country has been a very good place to be an artist or dancer. Whether it’s cutting-edge modern art you’re into, or the catchy melodies of traditional son (think Buena Vista Social Club), you’ll never exhaust what Havana has to offer.

For those interested in Cuba’s revolutionary history, the Museo de la Revolución (Calle Refugio 1, Monserrate y Zulueta) is not to be missed – the palace is a sight in itself, and the collections are fascinating. Other great museums include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (San Rafael, Monserrate y Zulueta) – look for Wifredo Lam’s abstract sugar canes and the bright canvases of Amelia Peláez. Lots of small, contemporary galleries are dotted around Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana, and are definitely worth a look around. The Centro Wifredo Lam (Calle San Ignacio, cnr. Empedrado) is a fantastic (and free!) exhibition space and always has interesting displays on.

Havana boasts a world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro (Paseo del Prado) – pop in and see what tickets are on offer. The classical concerts every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís are also terrific (book the day before). Check LaHabana.com for current listings of loads of musical and cultural events.

It might get dark at some point, but Havana never sleeps. If you don’t want to either, start off by sipping mojitos in one of the million bars in Habana Vieja or Vedado. Or do as the locals do – buy a bottle of Havana Club and head to the Malecón. If you like jazz, head to La Zorra y el Cuervo (Avenida 23, N y O) – you enter through a mysterious red postbox into the underground club. Entry costs 10 CUC and includes two drinks, and listings are posted outside – if Miguel Herrera y Joven Jazz are playing, you would be mad not to go. Later on, La Gruta (next door to La Zorra) does good salsa nights on Wednesdays, and the hybrid bar/club/gallery Fábrica de Arte (Calle 26, cnr. 11) promises an otherworldly experience and, obviously, excellent music.

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I’m hungry.

Not to worry – Havana isn’t famed for its food but there are some very decent cheap eats and more upmarket paladares. La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207) does very good traditional fare. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey, 457a bajos) is shamelessly hipster and always full of tourists, but the food is great and the mojitos strong. For cheap peso restaurants, Los Primos (Calle 23 y H, Vedado) is very good – the mango batido (milkshake) is delicious.

In general, fish is always a good shout, but steer clear of the pizza (except in Don Giovanni, #107-109 Tacón y Mercaderes). Vegetarians can usually get huevos fritos (fried eggs) with the staple beans and rice, even if it’s not on the menu.

 

What should I take?

Clean, cool clothes and sensible walking shoes, and whatever essentials you can, as finding provisions in Cuba can be fraught (tampons, always remember tampons).

A good book – try Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (not for the faint-hearted).

It’s best to take money with you, which can be exchanged for CUCs in banks, but there are lots of ATMs throughout the city as well.

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Any safety concerns?

Havana’s pretty safe, so no need to worry at all. However, like in any capital city, it pays to keep your wits about you. Hold on to your bag and watch your pockets, especially in crowded places. Sometimes things are snatched by someone on the back of a motorbike, so make sure you fasten your bag securely around you or wear a money belt. Look out for scams, too – a common one is somebody chatting you up and taking you to a bar, then the waiter bringing you a hugely inflated bill. Cubans are friendly, but keep an eye out for people being too friendly.

 

Do: drink overpriced cocktails at the top of the Habana Libre hotel for the stunning view, even if only once.

Don’t: … not dance salsa. You must dance salsa.

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Useful resources and things to read:

Lonely Planet is a reliable guide for the main sights, and a great guidebook to buy is Christopher P. Baker’s Moon Guide.

The Huffington Post have a great series of articles on Cuba at the moment, including David Latt‘s excellent travel tips. I also enjoy the in-depth pieces on Havana by Guardian Cities, especially Oliver Wainwright‘s latest insight into the changing world of tourism.

Contact me with any questions or suggestions!

¡Buen viaje!

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Is the US embargo against Cuba on its last legs?

Speeding down the highway into Havana, you’re somewhat thrown into the deep end in terms of revolutionary images and slogans. I’m thinking specifically about the first one I saw on arriving in the country: a black billboard on the side of the road that shouted “EL BLOQUEO” (the “blockade”, or the US embargo) in large white letters. The final “O” was represented by a large noose, and the subtitle read, in translation: “The longest genocide in history”.

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On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to condemn the embargo. Out of 193 member states, there were 191 yes votes, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution. In 1992, when it was first drafted, 71 countries abstained from voting. Three did so last year. The shift is a telling sign of overwhelming international opposition to the policy. But will it make a difference to the US Congress?

Full diplomatic ties have now been restored between Cuba and the United States. This summer, embassies were reopened in both countries. Trade and travel restrictions have been eased by the Obama administration. In the eyes of the world’s media, Cold War animosity is all but a thing of the past. Tourists visit the island by the busload and warn others to follow their lead “before the Americans get in!” The coverage of Pope Francis’s recent visit depicted a healthy, happy nation and a promising future for all in its inhabitants, finally released from political isolation and a crippled economy. But for the average Cuban, on a wage of under thirty dollars a month, this remains a distant hope.

The UNGA vote has apparently given us a much-needed reminder that the “blockade” is still very much in operation, held firmly in place by an unshakeable Congress. Last month, Obama said he was ‘confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore’. This so-called confidence seems more of a desperate nudge, as Republicans show little inclination for change. The Cuban government has made clear that full normalisation of relations is impossible without the embargo being lifted. As foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez recently suggested, only this would ‘give some meaning’ to the recent thaw – in other words, as it stands, it doesn’t mean all that much.

Speculation that the US might abstain from, rather than opposing the resolution this year was quashed when Ronald Godard, US deputy ambassador to the UN, stated that the language of the motion had not changed sufficiently to reflect the steps taken by the two countries. The ‘expressed will’ of the Obama administration to end the embargo was recognised and the recent changes welcomed, but little else was amended. Abstaining would have intensified pressure on the Congress – hence Godard’s description of the motion as ‘unfortunate’.

Unfortunate is a term perhaps more suited to describe the $121 billion in damage done to the Cuban economy by the embargo over five decades. A report by the American Association for World Health found that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993, and doctors in the country have access to less than 50% of drugs on the world market. In 2011, Amnesty International reported that treatments for children with bone cancer and HIV/AIDS were not readily available, having been commercialised under US patents. Food, medicine, technology and other necessities have all been in critically short supply. The consequences of the bloqueo, described by Rodríguez as ‘a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans’, are hard to overstate.

Neither has the embargo achieved its goals. History proves that such sanctions do little more than hurt ordinary people, and fail to touch those sheltered in the high ranks of government. The renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, ever critical of the Cuban government, underlines such a view on the Huffington Post:

‘The five decade prolongation of the “blockade” has allowed every setback we’ve suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects. But its existence has not prevented the luxurious mansions of the nomenklatura from swimming in whiskey, their freezers packed with food while modern cars sit in the garages. To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.’

It gives the government a useful scapegoat, she argues; a ‘big bad wolf’ to blame everything on, from the limited Internet access to the harsh violations of the right to freedom of association. If the embargo remains in place to put pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record and make the transition to democracy, fifty long years have proved its failure.

When we remember that the US turns a blind eye to the human rights records of trading partners Venezuela, China and Vietnam, it becomes clear that this argument doesn’t hold. Double standards turn sinister when the word ‘Guantánamo’ is whispered. Failure to close the notorious detention centre may be the biggest stain on Obama’s presidency, and it leaves any righteousness from Cuba’s northern neighbour without so much as a leg to stand on.

The bloqueo is little more than a relic from a time when Communism was the ultimate bogeyman, the enemy that legitimised any dirty tactic, no matter how high the cost. As one generation grudgingly makes room for another, public opinion shifts in both countries. Young Cubans yearn for the freedom of financial stability over anti-Yankee patriotism. And the influence of anti-Castro lobbyists on the American public is loosening its grip: a report by the Pew Research Center this July found 72% of people in favour of lifting of the embargo.

So how bright is the future? It all depends on the next president of the United States. Hillary Clinton has indicated her commitment to call on Congress to end the embargo. No Republican candidate supports such a move. But for both parties, the issue is likely to take a back seat over the election period. Change is still far off, and it’s about time the news of the world reflected this. Meanwhile, as the bloqueo enters its 55th year – the most enduring trade embargo in modern history – the people of Cuba continue struggling to make ends meet.

Walking tour: Havana’s best ‘piropo’ spots

Piropo: Untranslatable word. Term used fondly to describe the whistles, hisses, kissing noises and comments any woman should expect as she steps out onto the streets of Cuba’s capital. Commonly mistranslated as ‘chat-up lines’, since the last thing solicited is a chat. It’s more a game of action and reaction, subject and object, predator and prey. For aficionados of everyday sexism, this is a must. Here follows a guide for the best places to experience this intriguing phenomenon first-hand.

Throw yourself right in the deep end if you really enjoy being hassled and head straight to the wonderful maze that is Habana Vieja. Getting lost in these streets should provide a comprehensive introduction to the practice of piropos, especially if you only have a few days in Havana. Listen out for the distinctive ‘Psssst!’ or occasionally ‘Hey lady!’ and try not to recoil visibly at the kisses and winks. Examples of personal comments heard include ‘chica linda’, ‘bonita’, ‘muy sexy’; but there is a wide range of derivatives. You’ll never be bored.

If you’re with a man, forget the whole tour. As someone else’s property you’re officially off the market and no longer fair game for piropos, and so you may run the risk of being well and truly left alone. If you’re lucky, somebody might jovially offer your companion to swap you for his girl, and you can all have a good laugh. But this is the extent of it, so try to stick with women to guarantee that the comments are completely unrelenting.

And as we all know from playground bullying, you will always get the most attention when on your own. This is the best way to really get a feel for it. You’ll probably be offered a lot of sex and, if you’re lucky, maybe a few relationships. ‘¿Te falta un novio?’ (Do you need a boyfriend/ are you missing a boyfriend?) As a woman without a man beside her, a part of you is missing – so apparently it’s a free for all.

Next stop is Centro; the busy roads of the centre. Walk past large groups of men for the best results, although comments from people on their own are pretty common as well. Interestingly, they often come just after you’ve passed, so be patient. This way, since you can’t return the gaze directly, it becomes much easier not to treat you as a real human being – any form of social interaction is cut off.

Venture out to the leafy boulevards of Vedado only if you have ample time in the city. There is a danger of having real conversations with people on these streets, so exercise caution at all times. Still, you’re never far away from a degrading remark or sexual proposition.

If you still don’t feel quite like a sexual object, end your trip on the Malecón. Simply sit down and people will come to you. Read a book, enjoy a conversation – look as preoccupied or uninterested as possible. Be sure to tell people to leave you alone several times, because no seems to mean try harder in the world of street harassment. In the more secluded parts, very occasionally, men masturbate as women walk past. But this is slightly off the beaten track.

None of this is to suggest that women do not face this kind of treatment everywhere. Street harassment is a worldwide problem that may be worse and is certainly more threatening in other cities. The term machismo is perhaps misleading as a culturally specific term that confines inequality to the region of Latin America.

Relatively speaking, Cuba is a very good place to be a woman. Statistics place the country highly in world rankings of gender equality. 50 percent of students in higher education, 60 percent of doctors and 48 percent of high government are women. Childcare is free, as is birth control assistance. Men and women are guaranteed the same salaries. It all looks great on paper, hence why a stroll in Havana can be quite a sobering experience. Equality is quite an empty term if you are reduced to a sexual object the second you venture out into public space.

Havana is one of the most culturally rich and exciting places I have ever been. This makes the constant reminder that, as a woman, you are somehow less entitled to actively enjoy it, a real shame.

Retreat to Las Terrazas, Cuba’s model eco-village

Little more than an hour’s drive along the Autopista, south-west of Havana, is a turn-off to the village of Las Terrazas. This strange and charming complex is skipped by most travellers who head straight for the better-known countryside around Viñales. Aside from the occasional guided bus tour, visitors are mostly Cubans escaping the chaos of the capital for a relaxing weekend.

On arriving in Havana, I was struck by the shocking amount of pollution. The beloved old American cars guzzle gas at an appalling rate, and buses spew out thick black exhaust fumes that even Castro has lamented for their impact on public health. Overturned dustbins on every corner and litter strewn everywhere mar the beauty of the cobbled colonial streets, and people happily lob empty bottles of rum off the Malecón at night. Next to the old fort across the harbour, the brightly burning oil wells are quite an eyesore.

All these gives rather a one-sided impression of the island’s relationship with the environment. Visitors who don’t stray from Havana and Varadero may wonder why on earth in 2006 the WWF named Cuba the world’s most sustainable country. A visit to Las Terrazas will correct any snap judgement made. In the late 1960s, when virtually nobody had heard of climate change, a plan was conceived to reforest a large portion of land in the western Artemisa province and create a self-sustaining settlement to house some 1000 inhabitants. Deforestation has been a nationwide problem since the damage of the colonial sugarcane industry, and Las Terrazas is perhaps the country’s biggest success story. Built around the ruins of French coffee plantations, its name refers to the terraced slopes, constructed to resist erosion, overlooking a reservoir and small lake. During the Special Period of the 1990s, the environmentally friendly Hotel Moka was constructed to introduce tourism in the area. Soon to follow was an ecological research centre, many artisanal shops and organic farms.

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Another attraction is the eco-restaurant El Romero. Strict vegetarians are usually limited to pizza or fried eggs with rice in Cuba (and things must be virtually impossible for vegans) so this place is quite a treat. The staff proudly inform you that everything is cooked with solar energy, and all food waste is recycled. Most products are grown locally, and they even keep their own bees. A complementary ceviche made with lotus roots is served first, and options à la carte include a delicious bean pancake, pumpkin ‘steak’, and multiple soups and dips. It could rival any London deli without the pretension and inflated prices. Everything is healthy, tasty and creatively presented – you won’t want to eat anywhere else.

The village is stunning, with the whitewashed houses all offering magnificent views across the lush green landscape. Cork palms and trees bearing dozens of different fruits are scattered across the slopes. It’s so peaceful that after a few weeks in Havana, it seems unreal, even slightly spooky. Every now and then, an eerie humming sound breaks the silence as a tourist soars across the lake on Cuba’s only zip-lining tour. The land around the village, incorporated in 1985 into the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of the Sierra del Rosario, is ideal both for short walks and long hikes.

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As if all this weren’t enough, Las Terrazas has lately developed into a prospering artistic community. You can visit a dozen artists at work in their small lakeside studios, including Lester Campa’s impressive and internationally renowned studio. His work includes rough sketches of female nudes, as well as many large-format landscape paintings. Particularly evocative is an untitled work representing a central waterfall flanked by two tall green mountains and two rounded hills in the background – a hymn, he says, to the female body.

At 90CUC for a double room, the impressive Hotel Moka isn’t for travellers on a budget, but it rents out rustic cabins a few kilometres away, opposite the natural baths of the Río San Juan. As families come to picnic here on weekends, the site becomes a strange mix of remote tranquillity, blaring music and rum, which seems to characterise much of Cuban country life.

It’s definitely worth sacrificing a night in Havana or Trinidad for Las Terrazas, whether you are interested in art, environment, hiking or none of the above. It’s an ethereal experience that dislodges any fixed opinions of Cuba formed elsewhere. Beware of the mosquitoes.

Cuba’s outdoor WiFi hotspots

There’s another revolution in Cuba, and this time it’s online. All over the country, WiFi is being made available in plazas, parks and outside important buildings. Throngs of people are gathering daily, armed with laptops, phones and other devices for what would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Life here is rapidly transforming, and this is one of the most visible changes.

Walking down Havana’s busy shopping street, Boulevard de San Rafael, I was suddenly accosted by a teenager shouting fast Spanish at me and thrusting dozens of small packets into my arms. Soon they were everywhere. ‘¿Tarjeta de Internet?’ ‘¡Wifi, wifi, wifi!’ ‘Cinco pesos… ¡tres pesos!’ It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. In the small square opposite were hundreds of people, and hundreds of small screens.

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Some held phones at arm’s length, smiling and chatting to friends and relatives abroad. Others were sat on benches typing furiously away at laptops, worlds away from the city life around them.

Having only been introduced outdoors a few months ago, these telepuntos (hotspots) are everywhere. All you need is a scratchcard which gives you a username and password to connect whenever you please. Whatever the weather, Cubans are plugging in at all hours to connect with the wider world. One night, I left a jazz club on the Malecón to find a dozen users still going strong on the steps of a library. (Havana is pretty safe, apparently to the extent that you can parade your iPhone at 2am without concern.) It didn’t look like they were packing up anytime soon.

The same thing is happening in the provinces. The network ETECSA, Cuba’s state-controlled service provider, pops up on my phone as I walk through almost any plaza. This is usually accompanied by hard sells from groups of competing teenagers. I chatted to one student in Cienfuegos who had been going to and fro between his sister’s birthday celebrations and selling Internet scratchcards in the city centre – one card sold, one more mojito.

Earlier this year, telepuntos were limited to small sales offices, where you bought similar cards to rent a computer. Otherwise, the only Internet access outside authorised workplaces was the unreliable and expensive WiFi in the lobbies of a few swanky hotels. Now it’s al fresco, communal, available to all – except that you still have to pay.

The strict laws and controls on Internet access in Cuba are well-known. Only in 2008 were citizens granted the right to own a computer. For a fee, sending and receiving emails was permitted. But a direct Internet feed required government authorisation, usually only granted for professional or educational use – so the vast majority were limited to a local Intranet of approved websites.

In 2013, Raúl Castro announced that full Internet access would soon be permitted. You only have to walk the streets of Havana to see that the Cuban government seems to have made good on its promise. However, restrictions certainly still exist, particularly concerning the freedom of the press – a sticking point between Cuba and the rest of the world. According to US-based NGO Freedom House, a growing number of outspoken bloggers are routinely harassed and detained for their criticism of the government. The nation is still one of the ‘enemies of the Internet’ named by Reporters Without Borders, which argues that connection problems can no longer be blamed on the US embargo since a submarine cable linking Cuba to Venezuela was installed. The main barrier is financial. In a nation with shockingly low wages, people just can’t afford to sit back and surf the web.

Yet as the political climate shifts, so too does the urban landscape. Park benches are occupied not by old men smoking cigars and leafing through Granma, but by citizens of all ages staring at screens. Headphones shut out the world around in favour of an exciting, virtual space that links Cubans to a community they have long been denied. This might seem a shame to those of us who find it more of a luxury to switch off for an hour than to connect. It may appear to spoil the tranquillity of those leafy plazas where people stop to collect their thoughts, read in peace, or talk to strangers like old friends. Far from it – nothing could do away with the all-important rite in Cuba of park bench chatter. But now relatives in Miami can join in the conversation.

I’m currently staying at the lovely Hostal Los Ricardos, overlooking the main plaza in Sancti Spíritus. The WiFi just about reaches the balcony. It feels like breakfast in bed.

Fátima, o el Parque de la Fraternidad

Fátima o el Parque de la Fraternidad guarantees a complete upheaval of any prejudices foreigners may have about the freedom of the arts in an authoritarian state.

A few nights ago, a couple of fellow travellers and I attended the national premiere of Fátima in Havana’s main cinema. Going to see a film in a foreign country is always a fun experience, whatever is on offer – so stumbling upon this event felt like quite a coup. Directed by Jorge Perugorría and produced by the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography), the film was first exhibited at the Festival de Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano last year, but this was its first showing in cinema.

A little intimidated by the glamour of all the spectators (I almost got turned away in shorts), we were soon reassured by the familial warmth of the event. The vibe was of excitement and achievement rather than elitist snobbery, as would no doubt have been the case the other side of the Atlantic. Before the showing, the cast were invited up one by one onstage and each presented with a kiss and a single rose. Emotional speeches followed as everyone, down to the last technician, was remembered and urged to come up and join them – we were a little worried at one point that soon the whole audience would be onstage with just a few bewildered tourists to applaud…

Based on a short story by Miguel Barnet, the film traces the story of the charming and kind-hearted Manolito. It eschews chronology in favour of constantly flashing back and forth, from the protagonist’s youthful homosexual affairs in the provinces and conflicts with his stepfather, to his migration to the capital, where the tranquil Parque de la Fraternidad becomes the illicit meeting point for all sorts of ‘buscadores de experiencia’.

The story doesn’t really kick off until he meets Andrés, a suave, unscrupulous lover who comes to dominate his head and heart. The relationship hits the rocks when Andrés persuades Manolito to prostitute himself as a transvestite to earn extra money – and so the persona of Fátima is born, after a deity Manolito envisioned as a child. Andrés eventually leaves him for the possibility of a better-heeled life in Miami, and we first meet the protagonist in the aftermath; dressed to kill in a blond wig and heavy makeup, mascara smudged in tearful resentment, shouting accusations at the camera.

Their relationship is mapped through initial scenes of honeymoon bliss, most memorably the first liaison in Manolito’s bedroom, where their passion is forever delayed by a hilarious dance just shy of a strip tease. Exaggeration is the name of the game here; the filming reflects the lovers’ heady emotion, and the scene ends in a brilliant freeze shot of the two dancing together like good friends.

Romance gives way to raunchy comedy as Manolito becomes diva of the cabaret, regularly pimped out by his boyfriend to clients who stop by the park to pick him up in dark American cars. This funny but unforgiving portrait of sex tourism and Havana’s racy underworld may be a surprise to those unfamiliar with Cuban cinema, given the regime’s repression of homosexuality. Since the ICAIC’s golden age of the 1960s, directors like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío have tested the censorship and questioned the system without overtly criticising it. Fátima enters the country’s celebrated canon of LGBT cinema that includes the Oscar-nominated classic Fresa y Chocolate (1994), which tells of the relationship between a homosexual and a macho Communist militant. These films challenge the viewer’s expectations – they both shock and amuse – although some viewers may regard the humour of Fátima as slightly less than politically correct. I wondered, as the audience erupted into fits of laughter for the umpteenth time, whether every punch line was based on the protagonist’s status as a gay prostitute, or just most of them.

That said, the depiction of a society entrenched in homophobic prejudice is realistic and poignant. One violent scene where Manolito is tricked into following a would-be lover into a secluded backyard, only to be beaten up, is particularly harrowing. Another all too accurate theme tackled is the economic crisis of Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, as we are shown a thriving black market and the struggles of individuals who are forced into the sex trade to earn their keep. Manolito’s freedom to send his mother presents and eat well in a time of strict rationing (the film constantly zooms in on meat being chopped up and fried) comes at a high price. Most moving is the nocturnal scene where Andrés leaves Havana for Miami in a packed motorboat – as thousands did, and still do – leaving his lover heartbroken and alone on the Malecón.

Probably in defiance of US Hollywood blockbusters, Cuban film has instead imported many traditions of European art-house cinema. Fátima is no exception, paying homage to Pedro Almodóvar in its irreverent humour, innuendo and delightful celebration of kitsch in all its forms. Ernan López Nussa’s lovely, if slightly schmaltzy soundtrack has strong hints of pianist Yann Tiersen, renowned for films such as Goodbye Lenin and Amélie, whose wayward, loveable characters would no doubt find a kindred spirit in Manolito.

Whether or not Fátima has reached or will reach international audiences, it certainly deserves acclaim. The film treads an excellent balance between scandalous humour and real issues very close to its home. While the plot and characters are maybe a little over the top for some viewers, the film avoids cliché, and the series of improbable events rarely descends into farce.

Viñales on horseback

The stunning countryside surrounding Viñales, in Cuba’s western province Pinar del Río, makes for a wonderful and relaxing few days. When Havana takes it out of you – and it probably will – the area provides idyllic peace and quiet. Covering about 150 sq km, the Parque Nacional was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, and for good reason. This is the world of coffee, tobacco and sugar plantations. Hard at work all year, this is where the guajiros drive the nation’s economy behind the scenes.

Prehistoric Cuba was a great limestone plateau that rose out of the sea, and this was gradually eroded by water to leave sheer, mountain-like formations called mogotes (haystacks). These awe-inspiring features give the countryside an unparalleled beauty.

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No better way to experience this than on horseback. After days of trampling around Havana’s dusty streets, it was a wonderful relief to get off my feet, even as a very inexperienced rider. The horses, bred everywhere here for transport, are well-behaved and visibly much better fed than those lugging tourists around the capital.

A guided tour across the aptly named Valle del Silencio offers a brilliant morning before the punctual afternoon downpour. Excursions trot leisurely into the valley via a rustic tobacco farm. It’s not currently the season (the seeds are planted in October and harvested in March-April) but it was interesting to see the way the leaves are dried and the cigars are made.

After a quick tour of the finca and a complementary cigar dosed in local honey, the tour continues through fields of rice and maize, banana plantations and a small coffee centre. We passed by trees laden with oranges, avocados, limes and almonds, and colourful orchids adorned the path.

The trip wasn’t really improved by all the stops, which were little more than tourist gimmicks selling overpriced produce. An optional walking tour through the caves (although they were impressive) was probably not worth the additional cost – I have a pretty bump on my forehead from the unforgiving rock face as a big group of us squeezed through narrow crevices with no torch, ni nada. Careless tourists or careless guides, either way this was an unnecessary add-on to an otherwise spectacular morning.

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The town of Viñales consists of a few streets packed with restaurants, tour agencies and a million brightly painted casas particulares – almost every resident family rents out a spare room. What was once no doubt a sleepy agricultural village is now a tourist hotspot, but this hasn’t entirely rid it of its charm. The less-frequented Café Mogote, a block north of the main plaza, is worth checking out for its delicious cocktails and beautiful views of the valley (it also has a teeny tiny kitten!!).

complementary kitten

complementary kitten

Live jazz plays in the centre from early evening, and the salsa kicks off not long after dark.