Note: My friends John and Caroline Charnley are currently cruising aboard Discovery Magic, their 50 catamaran. They’re also English, so, they don’t have any restrictions when it comes to cruising in Cuba, and they’ve graciously agreed to provide this in-depth account of their visit for us US residents who are so close, yet so far, from Cuba’s shores. And let this be an open invite to any potential guest bloggers out there. Share your stories with us!–Bill
We spent a week in Cuba: three days based in Marina Hemingway, whilst we visited Havana and some of the west of Cuba; and the rest of the time sailing the 300 nautical miles around the coast to Cayos Largo on the south coast, where we could check out in order to head to Grand Cayman. Cuba is poor, basic and struggling. Yet is has great wealth in its colonial ancestry and its history. The people are in awe of Fidel Castro, respectful of Raoul, accepting of their lot, and apprehensive of change. They are open and charming, yet strangely have little interest in (or perhaps don’t feel that they should be asking about) the lives of those who visit their country.
Having been told how poor and run-down Cuba was, we was taken aback as we travelled the ten miles in to the city of Havana: not by the fact that the country is obviously struggling from the years of economic hardship, but by the scale and opulence of its past.
Now used as embassies and business bases, the grand houses of what had been the wealthy Miramar district have retained their ornate facades, sweeping stairways, – some with ornate wrought-iron entrances to once-formal gardens. Today the avenue into the city is still elegant with Royal Palms standing erect and high above the neatly manicured area that divides the two highways. It is used both as a fitness track and a means to walk in to town.
We hadn’t appreciated that the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Castro famously made rallying speeches to the masses that crammed this vast area, was planned under Batista. Now, not only does it give homage to Castro and Che Guevara, with their images each adorning the side of an eight-storey building, but it also has a dramatic tower that is a memorial to Jose Marti. He is seen as a father figure in the liberation from the Spanish in 1878. We enjoyed both the museum dedicated to him and the panoramic city view from the top of the tower.
Being driven past a sea of tower-blocks, a huge Italianate church – forlorn with boarded windows and a forest of flag poles that once marked the US embassy, we came to the Malecon.. (If I knew where it was on the keyboard I would have put a cedilla under the ‘c’.) This is a four mile seafront promenade, flanked by faded-pastel buildings of arches and balconies. Many of these are empty-shells or even just the front facade shored-up, but some are being restored and new uses found for them. One can’t help wondering about the fate of the many similar buildings that stretch back from the seafront, street by street. Oh for some investment and a little imagination!
As you come to Centro Havana, so you travel back in time to a European city of the early 20th Century. The neo-classical Capitol building, set in Parque Central, and the Gran Teatro, with its elaborate curved balconies, are just two of the manifestations of affluence that was lavished on this city from the 1800s to the 1920s. Other buildings show the hallmarks of upmarket shops and gracious living that was once Havana. Although a lot of the buildings are languishing, we were encouraged in seeing what a difference the restoration work was making to the Opera House (built 1837) and ballet school: for instance, craftsmen are working on the lavish decorations of the vast ballroom, which can now be hired for private functions.
The ‘Old Havana’ district is all about life. With no traffic in this area, it’s a great place to have a Cuban coffee and just people-watch. This is the heart of the tourist area, with good reason. Open squares, narrow streets with arched colonnades and overhanging balconies of elegant ironwork; plus numerous possibilities to step through a doorway in to the shade of an intriguing courtyard……
American 1950s car are a quintessential image of Havana. Look at any street and you will see their curvy trunks and bonnets awkwardly protruding beyond the rest of the line. But for us tourists they are great! (The other great icon – the Cuban cigar – was rarely to be seen.)
Live music is everywhere: three men playing in the square, a whole band at the restaurant, someone practicing the violin in the shaded recess of an arched courtyard…. Dancing, too. It was great to get a glimpse of the practice session at the famous ballet school, but we were able to both to watch the diligence of a flamenco class and see its passion at a local restaurant. The arts are of the people and for them, not just for the tourists. Amazingly, the opera house has a different performance each week and for the Cubans the cost is about 30 cents.
Seen as an event of historical significance, the Pope visited Cuba in 1998. Until just before that time, the Cathedral de San Cristobal had been closed to all. Whilst this is a well-maintained place of worship, many buildings have crumpled faces of old age and bodies of neglect. But again, there is hope. The medical school that was part of the university and started in 1738 has been restored, as has the Plaza de Armas, with its Baroque buildings and colonial atmosphere. There is certainly a rich heritage that may yet survive the financial paucity and political stalemate of today. Religion currently appears to play little part in people’s lives.
Transport is a real issue. Our driver is the proud owner of a shiny Lada, lovingly maintained, washed everyday and home to a lot of Toyota parts to keep it going. He inherited it in 1987 from his father, who had been a government official and thus allowed to have a car. At least there are no traffic jams and it was novel to be able to walk across the ten-lane highway going through Plaza de la Revolucion with just a cursory glance in either direction. The transport issue is, of course, greatest in rural areas and small towns. It used to be that if there was someone wanting a lift you were obliged to give them a lift. This no longer seems to be the case and sometimes as many as twenty people would be waiting in the hope of a lift, seeking refuge from the intense heat in the shade of a bridge. Others ride pillion on bicycles, use a mule and cart, a tractor or peddle tricycle. The buses (often they were trucks) that we did see, were completely packed.
The only internet available is to tourist in some hotels. (Incidentally, it seems that it was only four or five years ago that Cubans were allowed to enter a hotel.) There are great shortages and even as a tourist you would be fortunate to find anything that could be described as a gastronomic delight. When offered a menu, most of the choice was unavailable and the six main dishes all have rice and beans as their main ingredient.
It seems that the rations people have are difficult to eek out and luxuries, including milk and beef, are very expensive and difficult to get. (On a wage of 45 CUC[$45US] plus some local pesos per month, milk is 1.86 CUC per quart.) All farm produce is handed over to the government, although on the main highway locals were holding out cheese, cooked chicken, even suckling pig, in the hope that a passing driver might stop. In Nueva Gerona, on the south coast, we saw people fishing by floating on rubber inner tubes, whilst others waded out with their nets: presumably they are allowed to keep what they catch.
Of the 11 million population, nearly 4 million live in Havana. Whilst we didn’t go to anyone’s home, we were told how cramped and basic accommodation is. Newly weds are almost certain to be living with older generations. The glimpse we had of some living areas was shocking, with the dingy ground floor of an old building housing several families in what were not more than shacks.
The export market for sugar cane collapsed in the ‘90s when perestroika changed Cuba’s trading relationship with the Soviet Union… The rick red soil of the flat plains to the west of Havana looked very fertile and again you are left wondering about the potential. If only ….
We didn’t have time to explore much the mountains, but they are lush with tropical vegetation. Some of the bigger limestone caves are a major tourist attraction, as is the Valley de Vinales. Here mogotes (gigantic karst formations) rise dramatically from the valley floor, which in itself is an attractive landscape of corn and tobacco fields.
As for the sailing? We only sailed the western half of Cuba. It is a long coastline with few harbours that one is allowed to stop and unless you tuck in close to the coast you are against the Gulf Stream. At each port there is lengthy paperwork for checking in and out. I am sure if you had time there are many lovely beaches to explore and certainly some amazing diving and snorkeling. (In one bay the 200m contour line of the sea bed cuts across the entrance to the harbour and then goes to just a few meters, providing a home to a stunning array of sea life.). We didn’t find it the sailing particularly pleasurable and we certainly felt solitary. John has already written about the political situation – which is fascinating. This country, however, is well worth a visit, but more so for the enquiring traveller rather than just a vacation destination.