After motoring over 30,000kms through South America we thought we’d take a break from the bike and fly to Cuba to explore the island and meet up with Mama and Papa Johnson, who flew in from UK.
After Nick picked up his ‘Emergency Travel Document’ from the Embassy in Bogota, on account of Her Majesty’s Passport Office royally screwing up his application for a new passport, we flew to Havana and made our way to our ‘casa’ (house). In Cuba there are no hostels. Instead you can either stay a government-owned hotel, many of which were built in the 50s or 60s and are grossly overpriced, or a ‘casa’, which is a privately-run guesthouse. Similarly, restaurants are also mostly state-owned, unless you go to a ‘paladar’, which is a small, privately-owned eatery, usually in the front room of somebody’s house or flat.
Going to Cuba is more akin to travelling back in time, than to travelling to another country. The crumbing buildings and classic American cars illustrate there has been little progress since the trade embargo initiated by the US in 1962. No ship that docks in Cuba can subsequently enter the US for 6 months afterward, which understandably acts as a huge deterrent for any country to trade with the small island nation.
Traveling around it is clear Cuba is still very much a Communist country. Government-sponsored propaganda slogans, and images of revolutionaries Castro, Cienfuegos and, of course, Che Guevara adorn many a wall.
This is the situation today, although this is likely to change in the very near future as the diplomatic tensions between Cuba and the US are starting to thaw. So, we considered ourselves lucky to experience it now before the charm vacuum that is American culture overwhelms the country, and every street is bookended by a Starbucks and a McDonalds.
Following the 1959 revolution, the Castro government nationalised all educational institutions. Still today, irrespective of income, education in Cuba is free at every level. The curiosity is that, despite Cubans being very well educated, many work in tourism as it offers them a much larger income than the meager wages set by the State. A good example was a taxi driver we met that was an Civil Engineer, although he could make more in a day driving his much-loved Lada taxi than he could in a month working for the government. Cuba even has two currencies; ‘Cuban Convertibles’ for tourists, and Cuban Pesos for the locals, to maximise the money made from tourism.
Havana is a beautiful city that oozes character, with hints of the glamour from its heyday in the 1950s. The best way to experience it is to walk along the ‘Malecon’ (promenade) like the locals, or to sit in a bar in Havana Viejo (Havana’s historic center) with a cold rum-based-drink and watch the world go by, a la Ernest Hemmingway. Either way you’ll always be within earshot of a live band strumming out their rendition of Chan Chan, or other Bueno Vista Social Club classics. We did tear ourselves away from the bars long enough to visit the Partagas factory, where we saw each step of their famous cigars being made by the skilled ‘torcedores’ (cigar maker). We also went to Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana, an imposing colonial fort that overlooks Old Havana. Originally built to defend the city from pirates, it became Che Guevara’s HQ after the revolution and today it is possible to see some of the missiles that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the remnants of a U2 spy plane that was shot down.
It is an amazing country but it would be fair to say the food is pretty basic. This is probably due to the limited ingredients available and the lack of influence from other countries’ culinary traditions. One ‘paladar’ where we did enjoy some delicious food was La Guarida. Perched on the second floor of what is a semi-derelict residential block, this restaurant is an institution. The building was even the set for ‘Fresas y Chocolate’ (Strawberries and Chocolate), a ‘gay themed comedy drama’ that remains the only Cuban film to date to have been nominated for an Oscar.
After spending a few days in Havana we headed to Viñales, a small town in the middle of tobacco growing country on the western tip of Cuba. It is set in an extraordinary landscape, amongst ‘mogotes’; huge rock formations that rise out of the earth. We hired a classic American car for a day to explore the area, including a visit to a tobacco farm where we saw the plants, the drying sheds and even made, and smoked, a few cigars.
The last noteworthy place on our tour was Trinidad, a stunning colonial town situated in the heart of Cuba. With its cobbled streets, terracotta roofs, beautifully restored architecture and ever-present live music, this was a real highlight. Our days consisted of a little bit of sightseeing before finding a rooftop bar with excellent live band, having a cocktail or two and smoking a cigar. Whilst working our way through the cocktail menu we discovered a drink called a ‘Canchanchara’. Made with the delicious Cuban honey, dark rum and lime juice, and served in a special clay cup, this is a drink we would highly recommend!