Canadians have a pretty weird perspective on Cuba in my experiences. Growing up I would always hear stories from friends and family members about vacationing in Cuba. They would talk about the beautiful beaches, wacky entertainment, the all-you-can-drink swim up bars, and the underwhelming quality of the food. It was still always touted as the $500 all-inclusive week away in paradise. The paradise that was not without its quirks and downsides, but in the end always worth it because of its incredible value. I always heard stories of heavily armed resort security and the dire poverty the resort workers apparently lived in. No one ever recommenced or attempted to leave the resorts. It always sounded like a place that I had no interest in visiting. Why would you want to be trapped in this artificial tourist paradise created by a Communist dictator? How could you enjoy yourself knowing that outside the walls of the resort there were millions of Cuban’s suffering at the hand of a highly oppressive government. It was just not for me.
On the other hand, we also get a lot of American reflections on Cuba. The Anti-Communist propaganda from the cold war decades still emanates within American culture and media. There are still heavy sanctions, no diplomatic relations, and a ban on most Americans to travel to Cuba. Cuba is still seen as an enemy to freedom and democracy. It’s a Communist dictatorship run by an evil leader always dressed up in military uniform. Americas worst nightmare! It’s so terrible there that ordinary Cubans are so determined to leave that they will build makeshift submarines or swim the 90 miles to the Florida keys to get outta there. We have all seen Scarface. It’s a treacherous place full of terrible criminals. This is not a place I would want to visit after blindly accepting all of this information.
I always knew that Cuba could not have been as bad of place as it was made out to be. I never really saw anything that would refute the overwhelming negative reputation Cuba had though. That is, until Anthony Bourdarin took on Cuba in his No Reservations show (see video 1 below). It was probably the only piece of American produced media that has ever shed a positive light on modern Cuba that I had ever seen. It was my favorite episode of my favourite television show. I knew I had to visit Cuba as soon as possible.
Long story short – I end up getting a stupid good deal on an all-inclusive 7 days during the off-season (September) for about $375 all in, taxes included. It would be a great week in beautiful Varadero, Cuba. I would take a week from university classes and head to a tropical island to relax, all alone. Almost everyone thought this was a bad idea. My girlfriend was pissed (she had to work), my family and friends were confused and worried (I was just getting over a depression filled rut in my life), and I was going to be missing a week of the most important year of my educational life thus far. I didn’t really give a fuck. It was the best decision in my mind. I would get over the final hurdle of being terribly depressed, and I’d get to spend some time alone for some self-reflection and personal enjoyment. It was just the third week of school, I’d be able to easily catch up on the missed work.
Although the travel site indicated the resort was in Varadero, it was actually about 80 KM East of Varadero in Playa Jibacoa, Mayabeque Province (Formally Havana Province, until it was split in January 2011. This is Cuba’s smallest and least populated province). Playa Jibacoa is a small agricultural area off of the Via Blanca highway between Havana City, Havana Province and Varadero, Matanzas Province; two major tourist areas in Cuba. There are two resorts for international tourists in Jibacoa, as well as about a half-dozen resorts for Cubans citizens on vacation. Apparently these were the first and oldest resorts in Cuba. They were built in the early 90’s when the tourism industry first opened up to internationals.
The resort I stayed at was 3 stars. It did not look modern, it was not fancy. It felt comfortable, clean, and homely however. I had a great little Casa all to myself with a view of the ocean. My room was fairly modern and super clean. I probably had the best room in the resort. Some rooms were up to a 5 minute walk to the beach. I totally lucked out here. I quickly unpacked and headed straight for the beach for a swim. I met a little Cuban guy searching the beach for seashells. His English was pretty bad but I told him I wanted to check out the Cuban resort next door I had heard about. I traded him an old Manchester United Jersey for a bunch of shitty cigars, I made him take a picture wearing it. He continued to tell me about his 6 kids and his home life and tried to introduce me to his wife. Apparently she really liked white Canadian men. I declined. She was about 250 pounds and would sit on the beach next to the resort boundary all-day, every-day for the entire week. I’m not really sure what her deal was. The beaches in Cuba are apparently all open to the public, although the locals didn’t really stray too far onto the tourist filled beach. Apparently there were security guards with guns keeping them away, I never saw a single gun at the resort though.
That evening I met some of the other tourists at the resort, some were pretty cool. I met these cool Irish guys who seemed like they wanted to have a good time. We quickly became drunken buddies and arranged to hire a 57′ Chevy to Havana the next day. In the morning we were to meet the driver just outside the resort. The Irish guys showed up pretty hung over and told me they were too sketched out to leave the resort. While the driver yelled at them in Spanish for wasting his time I casually ducked out and walked down the road. I ended up just renting a motorbike down the road at another resort. It was about $45 for the entire weeks rental. I tipped the bike stand employee a few CUC to pick me out the most reliable bike. Apparently all the bikes were owned by the government and pretty beaten up, but I got a pretty modern one. He explained the basics of the bike, and how wearing a helmet is optional and to stay out of the rain. The electric starter was broken so the bike always had to be kick started. I had no experience riding a bike or any scooter. I quickly got the hang of it and was cruising around in no time.
The road that connects Playa Jibacoa to the Via Blanca highway is home to a ton of farmers. This is a very rural area of Cuba, not the palm-tree laden white sandy beaches we see in vacation advertisements. This was a small fishing & farming village in a pretty remote area on the Eastern Cuban coast. The area is known for its agricultural production of livestock, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, sugar cane, milk, etc. Simply put, it’s not the stereotypical fun in the sun tourist paradise you would expect a tourist resort to be in. This location is great for many reasons though. It’s great for scuba-diving & hiking the caves. It’s about midway between Varadero and Havana City with easy access to the highway. Perfect for a dude on a motorbike. It also gives tourists an opportunity to interact with ACTUAL REAL CUBANS! There are a bunch of resorts for vacationing Cubans next to the resort, there’s a few farms with small fruit & vegetable stands along the road, there’s even a few independent restaurants too! – Apparently some laws were relaxed by Raul Castro, Cubans are now allowed to run small home-operated businesses. Before this private citizens were not allowed to run their own small home businesses, or the laws were so strict before that not too many people did it. Something about only being able to hire family members and only being able to sell surplus goods. Sounds like a retarded pain in the ass. Now its cool to run a small home business, and really good for common Cubans & tourists alike.
I came across a great little restaurant down the road from the resort, I spent a lot of time here. The resort food was fine but the food at this restaurant was all freshly prepared by the owners mother with ingredients from his farm. It was really fresh and tasty compared to the mass-produced resort buffet selection. The interior of the restaurant was characterized by its banana tree leaf awning and it’s wobbly chairs made from untreated cowhide (apparently a traditional Cuban design). Surrounding the open air dining room there were always cows, horses, chickens, goats, etc, all freely grazing a few meters from where you were eating. Your view was of a beautiful agricultural mountain side spotted by palms and other native fauna & flora. The kitchen was the owners family kitchen. When I hear restaurants in Canada classify themselves as being rustic, I giggle a little inside. This was about as rustic as it could get. Shoeing away chickens while eating freshly killed pork & lobster dishes is as rustic as it gets. The bowl full of coconut meat I was enjoying was from a coconut that almost fell on my head while trekking up to the restaurant. It was great. Oh yeah, they also had an alligator as a pet in the backyard too. See the video below.
This is where I met Alfred. He was a server at the restaurant. The guy was the most interesting fellow I had met so far. He had graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in “languages” and was fluent in about 10 of them. He apparently held a Spanish passport and was free to leave and travel the world once he was able to save up enough money (which would take a long time). We ended up talking politics quickly, even though I was told not to bring this up from various people at the resort. He was pretty open in admitting that Socialism is not good for the economy, but was great for the people. He was not very opinionated about Fidel, he realized there was corruption but he was not unhappy. He also didn’t make him out to be a hero either. He liked living in Cuba, he loved being Cuban. He lived in a shit hole dilapidated apartment building in Santa Cruz Del Norte, didn’t make much money, and had to take a packed bus 25 KM to work. However – The guy was very well educated, well dressed, an eloquent conversationalist, owned his own apartment (which was nice inside), and had a sweet classic motorcycle (even though gas was too expensive for him to ride it to work). He mentioned that he was a part time tour guide and his uncle had a reliable and modern car. I had been approached like this before, but he seemed more genuinely friendly and interesting than any of the other pedlars I had met. The next day we were out in his uncles car in Havana doing a tour of Old Havana. He was a great guide and taught me a lot about the history of old Havana, I even went into Ernest Hemingway’s hotel room!
September is a great time to visit Cuba. I ended up heading back to Havana the next day on my own and stayed in a Casa particular (Hostel) for 2 nights. When in Havana I maybe saw a dozen obviously foreign tourists a day. I avoided a lot of the touts, peddlers, and jineteras that Havana is notorious for. I got to see most of the city over the span of a few days without any issues. I even got to walk along the entire 8KM of the Malecón alone without being approached by a prostitute!
There is a lot to see and do in Havana. A LOT. There is even apparently a national zoo in the middle of the city. It’s unbelievably diverse, dirty, clean, beautiful, ugly, etc. It’s so many elements in one city. Old Havana is virtually trapped in the 1950’s with its classic American cars and aging infrastructure. New Havana is like what a beautiful modern Spanish town would look like. It’s the political center of Cuba and home to dozens of international embassies and homes to the elite. The university of Havana is here, it’s really great too. It feels like your not in the same country you were in 10 minutes ago. It’s such a stark contrast of old and new worlds.
After leaving Havana I spent the next few days religiously riding around on my motorbike. I went all along the coast on the Via Blanca from Havana to Varadero. I made pit stops at government rest stations for commuters along the way. There is one about every 10 KM along the highway. All serve the same hot ham & cheese sandwiches and cold Cristal beer. I probably ate about 50 ham sandwiches during the week, Cubans love ham.
A notable town along the Via Blanca is Matanzas. It’s one of the bigger cities in Cuba. It’s known as The Venice of Cuba. There are a bunch of beautiful buildings here and some awesome steep hills to drive up and down on a motorbike. It also has a ton or bridges, Cuba is full of impressive bridges. Here I met this guy that was apparently an airline flight attendant that had a wife in Montreal. He was heading to a bar down the road and invited me to come along. We checked out this awesome beach bar that had some modern bass heavy electronic music pumping non-stop. I drank a bunch of Cristal, and was almost committed to go out and get a $15 tattoo of Che in someone guys basement. I decided that would probably be a bad idea. I did want the tattoo, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to swim again all week if I got it.
It was getting pretty late and it started to rain. I was mostly sobered up at this point, we started drinking & partying early in the afternoon after all. By 10:00 the rain mostly stopped and I had to make the 40 KM journey back to my resort in Jibacoa along the highway on a motorized scooter. The rain was on an off the entire way, cars on the highway were really courteous of me. They were going probably 120 KPH though, I was electronically limited to 40. Cuban drivers are really amazing, another stereotype bashed. There were literally thousands of huge crabs crossing the road for some reason. It was really hard to avoid them so I just stopped and picked a bunch up and put them under my seat in hopes that the resort chefs would cook me them the next morning. This is when I realized I was taking a huge risk. A Cuban Police Jeep ended up stopping me and asked where I was going and why I was on the highway this late. My breath definitely smelled like beer. I explained to her that I had lost track of time in Matanzas and was on my way back to my resort. She followed me all the way back to the resort making sure I was okay. Every time I stopped to collect more crabs she told me to get back on the bike. She was really nice and told me to enjoy the rest of my time in Cuba when I got to the resort gates. She was nothing like the bitchy try-hard female cops in Canada! Super hot too…
I feel like I should end this here. Maybe i’ll do another edition in the future. I left out a lot of interesting stuff. I will include a nice slide show of some pictures I took while on the trip, even though I didn’t really get any photos of any of the coolest experiences I had in Cuba. Cuba is great, you should really go. They don’t even stamp your passports and they don’t generally vocally dislike Americans, Cubans just oppose the American government. It’s an awesome and safe country that’s well suited to independent travellers. You could theoretically backpack Cuba on a Tourist visa as well, as long as you give some sort of proof of accommodations during your stay. Tourists can pretty much do whatever they like in Cuba, Cubans treat them with respect too. Whether that is because they are forced to be nice to tourists by the government, or are actually genuinely nice is kind of still up in the air. It usually seems pretty genuine however.
Go to Cuba and have fun. Leave your resort too, there is nothing to be afraid of. No one messes with tourists, it’s a hefty jail sentence for a Cuban if they do. With all that being said however, you should represent your country well. You don’t want to be going to Cuba and acting like a classless twit. You can get away with pretty much anything you can think of, you can party as hard as you want. One guy I met said he had been deported from the country three times before, and they always told him to come back soon. Don’t be that guy though. Have fun, freely explore the beautiful countryside & cities, and get to know some people. Jackasses will only ultimately have bad experiences in the long run. If you respect Cubans they will play it forward tenfold. I was invited to a couple families homes for dinner after giving them lifts home from the highway. This is how you really experience Cuba, or any country for that matter.
Here’s a bunch of videos and pictures. Enjoy
Video 1: Anthony Bourdain in Cuba – My inspiration
Video 2: Pet Alligator at a Cuban family farm
Video 3: View from my table at the restaurant
Video 4: Action shot of Jibacoa on a scooter
Video 5: Jibacoa Beach
Video 6: Al-Jazeera produced documentary on the new Cuba