Category Archives: Cuba tourism

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.

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Exploring Santería in Havana

Facts and figures don’t seem to apply to Cuba. All that is paraded in both the national and international press needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt – news and comment can be grossly misleading, as if there is ever a correct way to be led when it comes to ‘understanding’ a country. With Che Guevara’s diary nestled under one arm, most travellers seem to rock up brimming with confidence, churning out their knowledge about the Revolution and the lives of numerous Castros, only to head off a few weeks later dazed and confused. Cuban culture is as shadowy as the most labyrinthine streets of La Habana Vieja, today more than ever.

One of its most fascinating aspects is the cult of Santería, although any foreigner would have to dig hard even to scratch its surface. Nominally, 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, but in reality a large proportion are followers of this mysterious syncretic religion. When millions of slaves were brutally imported from Africa during the colonial era, many from modern-day Nigeria, they brought with them their Yoruba beliefs and rituals, which they were forced to mask with a veneer of Catholicism. Santería is the hybrid product of this oppression. Hence the name, which means ‘Way of the Saints’, as every deity (orisha) has its overt Catholic avatar.

Although it may not be the first thing visitors to Cuba notice, the religion is crucial to much of the nation’s treasured heritage: art, music, everyday life. Every Cuban, believer or non-believer, will be well-acquainted with the faith. Deities and symbols of Santería figure across the arts, from Wifredo Lam’s surrealist, sugar-filled paintings to Alejo Carpentier’s famous novels of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). And Havana trembles with the drums of rumba, born of the sacred rituals where orishas would be invoked by ceremonies of los tambores.

Yet the culture isn’t confined to the arts. Santería dolls swing above the dashboard of almost every old American car, protecting it against the lethal Havana traffic. Many homes hold small shrines to personal orishas. Most obviously, newly initiated priests (santeros, or babalawos) are seen dressed distinctively all in white.

The Museo de los Orishas, run by Cuba’s Yoruba association, is a large, spacious haven of peace overlooking the chaos of the Capitolio. At 5CUC, guide included, the museum is de rigueur for anyone wishing to learn more about Santería and the many orishas worshipped.

Upstairs, a vast hallway is divided by totems painted like trees. It is both a spiritual and educative space where you can wander at ease between the dozens of wooden sculptures. The whole pantheon is massive, with up to 400 orishas, but only a dozen or so figures of everyday worship are represented here. Oludomare, the one supreme God and creator of the universe, has no image – only two large, bright white sheets of satin cascade down from up high, as if to crown an invisible ruler.

The orishas he communicates through stand proud, offerings left at their feet, lit up majestically against a painted backdrop of their home – woodland, waterfall or ocean. We start with Elegúa, orisha of roads and crossroads, and protector of travellers. (His Catholic avatar is San Antonio de Padua.) Then there is the matronly Naná Buruki, grandmother of the forest, who sits beneath a tree with a child in her arms.

Yemayá interests me most. Formidable against the crashing waves of the sea that she rules, she can be beneficent or cruel. Protector of maternity and children, parents have left dolls and children’s toys in the basket below her feet in return for the welfare of their families. Her Catholic counterpart is the Virgin of Regla. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Regla every September on her feast day, paying tribute to Yemayá via the image of the black Madonna at the altar of the church – Roman Catholic in name only.

Femininity has often been associated in art and religion with water and the sea, while masculine symbols and deities tend to remain on solid land. Yemayá’s role exemplifies this. Other female deities of Santería also represent bodies of water; Ochón rules the fresh waters and fertility, her sculpture resembling a mermaid in a fishtail dress. There is also Olokún, who owns the depths of the ocean. However, when I ask about this, my guide is eager to point out that gender in the Santería pantheon is fluid and unstable – many orishas shift from man to woman at midnight. Olokún is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fish. Others have no sex at all.

Santería was inaccurately named from the start, saints being but disguises for the Yoruba orishas. This seems to epitomise the mystery of this religion for outsiders. But before delving into the provincial churches and communities – where the real practice takes place, far from any Christian altar – this museum is a great place to start.

The Hershey Electric Railway

The method of transport everybody tells you not to bother with in Cuba is the train. Slow, hugely unreliable and subject to schedules changing at the last minute, the national rail service Union de Ferricarriles de Cuba is not recommended for those with limited time or patience.

But in the case of the old Hershey Electric Railway, the journey is a beauty not to be missed. It takes four uncomfortable hours (experienced locals bring cushions) to complete the 90km journey from Havana to Matanzas, but the experience is worth every minute.

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The train was built in 1922 by the US chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, to connect his remote sugar mill to the two cities. The factory was nationalised during the Revolution and renamed to commemorate the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, but the train continued chugging along, still known informally by its former name.

We caught the 12.21 from Casablanca (a short ferry ride from Habana Vieja) and sat down to a no-frills carriage filled with Cuban families, for whom our adventure was the run-of-the-mill slog home from the capital. The train stopped and started numerous times to allow for latecomers before we eventually set off, rumbling along the tracks in no hurry and pausing at a very tiny rail-side village for passengers to hop on and off.

Sometimes the ride was leisurely and peaceful, but more often we gripped out seats nervously as the carriage swung precariously from side to side. The roar of the engine precluded all attempts at conversation, and all we could do was gaze out at the surroundings.

Certainly nothing to complain about. The journey begins in the suburbs of Havana, literally passing through people’s backs yards and starkly displaying the ‘real’ Cuba – a life of hard agricultural work, but at a slower pace than in the exhilarating capital. Cattle and goats graze in the fields, and banana and sugar cane plantations abound. Occasionally a tractor makes its rounds, but more often a horse and cart.

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Lush green countryside is scattered with sky-high tropical palms, and the rolling hills seem like they go on forever, despite the knowledge that a few miles north is the Atlantic, and – not much further – Florida, worlds away from this rural part of the Caribbean. Come 3pm (true to form in hurricane season), the sky darkens and the palm branches blow threateningly in the wind.

The train at last grinds to a halt a few hundred yards before the platform, and we all jump off onto the rubble-strewn tracks to walk to the station. The sky opened as we arrived in Matanzas, and stayed that way for most of our time there. But it was the journey that was the real gem.

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First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

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So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

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Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

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However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

A reflection on ‘women travellers’ …

Cuba, perhaps surprisingly, has been hailed for many years for its record in women’s rights. In 2013, it came 15th in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, above both the US and the UK. 50% of university students are women, 60% of doctors, and 48% of high government. Equal pay is guaranteed by law: the Cuban Family Code demands that men share household duties with women, and every female gets free birth control assistance. Needless to say that complete gender equality is an ongoing process rather than a reality, but it is one that the country is taking very seriously.

What I have found interesting while preparing for my visit to Cuba is the way different guides and resources treat the problems that female travellers are much more likely to face than their male counterparts. Most guidebooks include a section on ‘Women Travellers’ somewhere near the back, often given the honoured position at the end of an A-Z (no corresponding section on Men Travellers, unsurprisingly).

I don’t mean to suggest that this section shouldn’t be included – quite the opposite. My time in Cuba will inevitably be filtered through my experience as a solo female traveller. I think it is hugely important to research what to expect and be wary of, and how to overcome the challenges you might face. The advice travel guides give is practical and encouraging, especially in the case of Cuba – a ‘dream location’ for women, according to Lonely Planet. The consensus is that machismo still exists in daily life, manifesting itself most obviously in the perhaps annoying but ultimately harmless piropos (come-ons, whistling, etc.) that women are bound to receive. But in general, we can feel safe, comfortable and respected.

So it is not the mention of these issues that is problematic, but rather the way they are squashed into a little paragraph – a small addendum to refer to, if need be, on the off chance that you might be a woman. ‘Women Travellers’, along with ‘Gay and Lesbian Travellers’, and often ‘Senior Travellers’, are all lumped together in a way that suggests vulnerability and departure from the norm. The main body of the guide represents this norm, catering for the default user – the white, heterosexual male.

Some guides are conscious of this danger – the excellent Moon Guide on Cuba, by Christopher P. Baker includes a clear and detailed analysis of women’s rights in Cuba, and places practical information for female travellers just after the paragraph for men. Some might argue that this belittles the problems that women have to deal with, aiding and abetting that delusional argument that we all live in a happy, equal, post-feminist world where things can be tough for men too, you know. I see it differently. I believe this suggests that it is just as legitimate for us to belong to the world of travel as it is for men. We are no longer a special case.

This is important when it is still seen by many as a challenge for women to travel independently, and specifically for women to write about travel. Historically, men have been associated with public space, able to move freely around a globe that is theirs to document and possess, while women have been confined to the static realm of the home. I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoirs of his youthful journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople – an amazing read that definitely deserves its place as a classic of travel writing. But I was struck by how subversive the work would have been if it had been written by a woman, and how different her experience would have been. Leigh Fermor was definitely buoyed on by his tireless zeal for different cultures, his aptitude for languages, and his care for all the people he met – but he was also deeply dependent on his gender. He could turn up alone at the homes of strangers and introduce himself to anyone he met without thinking twice. He might camp out under the stars or walk for miles in the dark alone, and on meeting any other travellers or locals, he would simply say hello and perhaps offer them a swig of his hip flask, and enjoy the pleasure of their company in return.

Because he was a man, this is billed as friendly and forthcoming, rather than unwise or provocative. The differences in the way men and women are treated as travellers and as writers run deep. It makes me sad that women still learn, however subconsciously, to hold back. Sadder still that this is probably to be recommended in many parts of the world, for reasons of personal safety and security.

Yet there is no such excuse with regard to travel in countries like Cuba, which apparently has a great deal to recommend female travellers. Those who teach women they are unwise or unable to travel in such places alone are only blinded by prejudice. But I am hopeful that this is changing, and travel writing and resources need to change too to offer a supportive (but not prescriptive) guide. We shouldn’t be seen as a group that need special protection, distinct from the confident and experienced male canon. It’s not weird anymore for women to chart their own path around the world, so it might be worth rewriting the guides to reflect this, rather than sticking on a cursory note at the end.

tracing the revolution: #2 Comandancia de la Plata

‘Condemn me if you will’, Castro famously said in a speech during his trial, ‘History will absolve me’. The fact that he was given a trial at all is testament to the influence he already wielded. Batista was anxious not to fuel the growing unrest across the country. Castro was given a mouthpiece to publicly lay out his cause: to correct the poor quality of life suffered by the vast majority of the population, to introduce universal education, and to instigate agrarian, governmental and economic reform. His words would become deeply ingrained in Cuban history.

Castro was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on the Isle of Pines (now Isla de la Juventud, or the Isle of Youth), but he was released less than two years later, under an amnesty to celebrate Mother’s Day in May 1955. In exile in Mexico, where he met Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the movement crystallised, money was raised, and support and resources were gathered.

But it took another unsuccessful rising at Playa las Coloradas in December 1956 for the survivors to realise that more time and support within Cuba was necessary. So they based themselves in the mountains at La Plata, deep in the Sierra Maestra. It’s a two-mile uphill hike to the rebel headquarters, a breathtaking setting hidden away in dense cloud forest.

Casa de Medina, Comandancia de la Plata. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Anagoria 2012

Casa de Medina, Comandancia de la Plata. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Anagoria 2012

The command station – Castro’s bedroom, the kitchen, and the radio-communications building where their message was broadcast – forms part of a small museum which is left exactly as the revolutionaries experienced it. You can also visit the hospital buildings – far below to protect the rest of the rebels from the cries of the injured – and see the ever-enduring farm of the Medina family, whose assistance was crucial for the rebels.

How do you get to this remote hideaway that thwarted Batista’s forces? The base is Villa Santo Domingo, near Bartolomé Maso. The trip to the Comandancia de la Plata costs CUC$33, guide compulsory. Photography also costs an extra CUC$5. More information and (very very positive!) reviews on TripAdvisor.