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The recent death of a certain middle eastern statesman, reminds me that another of the great historic characters cannot go on for ever. As the future of Palestine hangs in the balance, so the character of Cuba will quickly change for ever when Castro finally departs. Go now, before what is, is no more.
These are the first reflections from a trip in 2001. I travelled with Spencer Scott, in association with Country Walking magazine. It was their first trip to Cuba and a learning experience for both them & the Cubans. We had the ‘dream team’ of Pete and Paula from the UK (they know who they are), and locals of varying experience and interest along the way. Giorj (who seemed to be onto a good thing), and Toni (who is one) are two who spring to mind. Many of the others remained nameless.
The Group was the usual mix of ages, backgrounds, some couples, some singles. 14 of us in total.
Spencer Scott / Country Walking do not have Cuba on their current itinerary, but for those not willing to travel independently: walking holidays are run by Ramblers Holidays and Exodus amongst others.
Or check out www.dt.cuba.com for independent options.
The whole idea of hiking in Cuba is something of a novelty to a society for whom walking is largely a necessary evil. They are beginning to get the general idea, a number of companies are now taking groups. Independent travel looks to be a great option too, so long as you take your humour and free spirit along. The Cubans are welcoming and helpful, but have a unique attitude to time and dependability.
This is the first of two reviews: in this case covering the north/west corner of the island. Mention of Havana is only in passing for we spent very little time in the City, and I was in the mood to merely sample its atmosphere. A dedicated visit would be needed to gain a real insight & produce a proper report.
(Apologies in advance for small elements of duplication between the reviews ~ this is felt to be necessary to ensure that each can be read as a stand-alone opinion for those interested in only one part of the island.)
We arrived in Havana in the dark and were taken, not as promised to either the Hotel Seville or the Santa Isabel but to the Golden Tulip Parque Central. This is ‘business class’ and our travel director is livid ~ the Cubans don’t understand the problem. Truthfully most of my group don’t care that much either. It’s a stop-over, if the door locks, the shower works and the bed is clean…
The drive has been through the industrial and other poor barrios. Even the grandeur of the old town seems at first glance somewhat faded.
Welcoming cocktails do not materialise…but I’ve had a 21-hour-day’s travel and just want to sleep.
Find my room. Wait for my luggage. And wait. Have a bath, and wait. Welcome to Cuba!
Next morning I’m awake early. I cannot see the Parque Centrale, my windows open onto a narrow side street, but I love to see a city coming to life. The two-humped ‘camel’ buses, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs are city icons. The Trabbies and taxi-bikes are more of a surprise. Young men on their way to work wolf-whistle the maid washing the Plaza’s marble walkway, shouting their no-doubt-lewd appreciation: she pauses long enough to flash them a brilliant smile and carries on sloshing water.
Havana is as noisy as anywhere else at this hour, but there is a different quality to the sound. You can hear birdsong over everything. Door clanging, people shouting greetings. Traffic is identifiable as individual vehicles passing through, not as a dull roar that overlays everything else.
My first taste of Cuba is walking tour of Habana Viejo: a tour that serves only to whet the appetite as we pass the Cathedral, Hemingway’s haunts, the music clubs. Backstreet wanderings full of flavour, devoid of purpose ~ my kind of city walking. Coffee is taken in a pretty courtyard café and we listen to our first salsa. For now the quality is irrelevant, we weren’t to know that there would, surprisingly quickly, come a time when we would seek out the table furthest from the band.
First impressions do not deceive. Havana’s glory is faded. No. Havana’s glory has been degraded, ignored, trampled under foot. The blame does not lie with the Cubans, the simple truth is that they cannot afford it. So step forward UNESCO…oh, but that Cuba could afford to ask them to step back again! Old Havana is a world heritage site. So the money is coming in. The buildings are being saved. Unfortunately, what isn’t being saved is Havana. The tenements are dire. Living conditions are downright dangerous…but to move the people out and restore the former glory of the architecture and then to keep the people out is ripping the heart out of the city. We wander in and out of the slums. Some Habañeros are totally laid back about this and welcome us, others clearly indicate that we should go away, and I’m left wondering about our own motivations. Food for thought on the long drive to our first base for two weeks of walking, the Valle de Viñales
We arrive at dusk to check into the hilltop palace that is Los Jazmines. From the balcony, watching the night close in and listening to the echoes through the valley below of a cowbell, a goat-call, a dog-bark, seeing points of brightness appear in the gathering gloom…there are times when I have to take a deep breath as I feel a place stealing a tiny piece of my soul.
The town and valley of Vinales are named for the vineyards which the Spanish tried to establish here. They failed. From the town we walk up through fields of tobacco and maize. Soil the colour of ochre and farmers to match. Oxcarts and ploughs. We’re followed briefly by a litter of kittens, scenting affluence no doubt. Up a flight of a hundred or so steps to a cave in the mogote (strange lumpen hillocks that rise from a flat valley floor) through a tunnel of a couple of hundred metres and out into another valley. The landscape is dotted with casa de tabac, the small sheds where the harvest is hung for three months to dry.
Most of this will be sold to the government at state-fixed prices. On the other hand these farmers generally have private plots where they grow cabbages, tomatoes, lettuce, beans. There are restrictions on how much of this they can sell, but still their standard of living is much higher than in the city where workers are totally reliant on the state ration and whatever dollar-sideline they can find a way into.
We’re led on this ramble by a local whose name we never caught. A wizened and shabby little man, who could name every plant and tell of its uses and dangers and who had two-way conversations with the birds.
The main form of transport hereabouts consists of thin unkempt horses, or better-fed oxen. The bullock sled: V-shaped of two simple slats hitched behind a pair of beasts is a surprisingly swift, albeit unsteerable, ride.
For miles, the casa de tabac are the only structures here. There are no family homes, no farms. Three rivers flow down from the mogotes and the land is liable to flooding. After one such devastation in the late 1980s in which four people died, Castro banned the return of people to live in the valley. There is an emptiness you can touch. It will not last. People are beginning to drift back in already. Shacks on the edge of fields, one feels, are more than temporary shelters. We meet a couple passing the time of day on their porch and we are introduced as a bunch of Brits walking around the farmland for fun. This is clearly an alien concept: throughout the tour we will meet with utter disbelief that we are simply walking because we like to walk. (A bemusement not difficult to understand in the circumstances). Whether taking pity on the insane, in a spirit of generosity, or with an eye to the dollar-gain, it is hard to judge, but our new acquaintance disappears into the gloom of the shack and returns with a large bunch of sweet dwarf bananas to distribute amongst us.
This proves to be the aperitif and shortly we find ourselves at a paladare: these family-owned restaurants are one of the few ways Cubans can make real money from the fledgling tourist industry. Another is the 100-peso-a-month licence to rent rooms. Many of the beautifully painted cottages in the small towns have ‘rent-a-room’ signs tacked to their verandahs, some offering optional extras such as “gastranomique services”. For walkers the paladare is something of a mixed blessing. Keen as we are to eat locally and plough our dollars into the local pockets… what we really want is to walk…three-course two-hour lunches do not bode well. The food is plain ~ I’d expected more spice than we got ~ but well-cooked and plentiful. The options are generally: fish, chicken or pig ~ with optional rice and beans. In the cities you will find steak, but frankly, I’d say stick with the fish, chicken or pig: they know where they are with that.
Lumbering after our refuelling stop, we head into the Cueva del Indio. This grotto used as a refuge by the Guanahahabeg people during the Spanish conquest is now a major attraction. We embark on a small overloaded skiff and putter past rock formations: serpent, death mask, champagne bottle ~ my group seeing far more shapes and creatures than the official guide can nominate, it’s a little like a school trip. The real charm of the place is simply obliterated by the numbers and the noise of people.
SAN VICENTE – VALLE DE ANCON
“Commencing in the Valle de San Vincente the trail climbs up a mogote to the magnificent Valle de Ruisenor. It then passes through a 200m natural tunnel and opens into the Valle de Ancon” This is, as they say, an understatement.
Up the mogote ~ a wonderful hand-over-hand scramble, rocks and trees for support. The top isn’t particularly evident, hidden in dense vegetation. Down is much like up, finishing with a steel ladder in rock cleft, rungs too far apart even for my long legs. So onto the valley floor. A complete, enclosed mini-valley. It is known locally as the Nightingale’s Nest. Even here crops are growing; the earth is ploughed. (Did they really bring oxen the way we’ve just come?) A dilapidated cottage stands ramshackle and forlorn. We’re surprised to discover that it has not been abandoned. Inside it looks like nothing so much as a gold-rush miner’s stake hut…the plain wooden bed has a coverlet. There is a lash-up of a sink dangling from the ceiling in the corner. A woodburner. Half-eaten corn-cobs on the table. Only an empty plastic lemonade bottle speaks of the 20th century.
Leaving the valley is as dramatic as entering. The farmer-cum-ranger has joined our guides. At the cave entrance flaming torches are distributed and we’re led through the other ‘door’ to the valley: the dark & twisting tunnel.
This is Cuba at its most sublime.
Which of course means that we’re heading straight on to the ridiculous.
We pause for a picnic lunch in a dried up river gulley. Provisions are not inspiring ~ the packed lunch is another concept with which our hosts clearly need some training. Travelling independently, it would be possible to put together a much better picnic ~ I’m prepared to believe that the company handling the Cuban end of our arrangements quite literally couldn’t understand what we were about. This is a little odd since other tour groups have been taking walking parties for years…it could be that this was seen as being ‘more upmarket’ and therefore less ready for the real thing? Or perhaps just more concentrated on the walking?
Thence an amble to the Mural de la Prehistorica. Every guidebook (we consulted most of them) will tell you that you will either love this or hate it. Mild amusement-cum-disbelief was where we settled. One side of mogote has been cleared of vegetation back to the rock-face, upon which has been painted a 3-year-old’s view of evolution (in true 3yr-old primitive art style). This shows the ascent of man from the amoeba via the dinosaur. The artist is famous throughout the land!!
Apparently, the project was put forward by Castro’s secretary years ago. We imagined the conversation:-
- “Hey Fidel! Why don’t we strip all the vegetation off of one them mogotes, and get this chap I know to paint giant dinosaurs and things on the rock.” - “Que?” - She must have been a very good secretary. I can’t help feeling anyone else might have been shot ~ or possibly committed for treatment.
The programme seemed geared to our spending some considerable time at this ‘attraction’…but you can only spend so much time in the presence of beauty and we retreated to a nearby holiday-village for shade and cold beer.
After a suitable adjournment a bus arrives. We look across a dead flat valley floor and contemplate Los Jazmines on the hill. Why, exactly, do we need a bus? We send it away…and are rewarded by a wonderful trail across the fields of young tobacco, through clouds of butterflies, clutches of chickens, and trees being tapped for resin…to be concluded with a short steep clamber back to base.
“Full days walk to the Region’s most fascinating sight – Los Acuaticos - a statue perched atop the Sierra de los Infiernos which represents the patriarch, Felix, of this water-worshipping community.”
Where did this description come from? Who or what is Felix? Is there, in fact, a statue? The local opinion seems to be ‘no’. Maybe there is and it is sacred, not for tourists. Or maybe there isn’t and the story is just for tourists.
A stunning walk nevertheless. We climb and climb up through the trees and look up to the cliffs of the Sierra rising above. “Are we going to the top?” we ask, with a nod to the heights. Oh yes. O-K! We climb. Reach the plateau at the foot of the cliffs. Pause. Look up. “What? You mean the top-top?” asks the guide. “No way!” We’re relieved. Unnecessarily so. You cannot walk – it’d be a full ropes’n’all climb. Yeah…we knew that.
Following the path along a plateau rich in flowers and grasses, we meet a farmer and his young son. In a small hand-tilled plot they’re planting garlic, the boy pushing the bulbs into the earth with his bare feet. The sweet dwarf bananas are brought from the hovel and shared. It’s difficult. Uncomfortable. We should pay ~ but in doing so it’s clear that we are engendering the “very nice very cheap” hawking culture that soon descends into the “gimmee pen, gimmee rupee” attitude that saddens Nepal. I don’t know what the answer is.
We tear the farmer and his son away from their labours, or maybe, like guard dogs, they see us off the premises. A patch of coffee beans drying in the sun. We’re invited to smell and to taste. Nothing. Coffee beans do not taste of coffee until roasted. As so often, I wonder about humankind: how did we discover this?
Onward gently onward.
Perched on an outcrop we come to a family home. Tales are told, cross-cut by conversation. I lose the thread and am not sure if I’ve held the gist. This family are important. They are the centre of the Felix legend, the vindication of Los Acuaticos. There was a sick child, and impotent medics, and an unhelpful church. There was a faith and a pilgrimage and the water. Sacred water. Belief. And the child was cured. I lost the detail. When? Where? Who? How does this family fit in?
We stroll through their yard. Ogle their washing ~ how exactly do they twist the corners to keep it on the line without pegs? Pete tries out the coffee grinder. And perhaps we all dream a little of another way of life ~ filtering out the hardship, the isolation. We are invited in. We traipse, en masse, in boots, the full length of their family home. Each of us filing away details to be swapped later: plastic kitchen utensils, wedding photos, embroidered covers, simplicity and adornment, plastic flowers, books, toys. We have come in the back way and as we exit the front, the current patriarch, aged and venerable, rises from his seat on the stoop, shakes each of us by the hand, smiles and thanks us. Wishes us well. It felt like a benediction. Was this a father whose faith was rewarded? Or a child who was cured?
Off the headland and back onto the main plateau we come across a…a barn?...or a drying rick? No walls and a roof. It casts shade for those that want it and with the wide view of the valley and the hills beyond we start to teach the locals about what makes a picnic spot.
It’s wonderful. Do we really have to move? Not yet. If we do, then surely Muriel (la Prehistoria) is on the other side of that lump there…so if we drop down – round – over and up… And so we do, leaving our guides at the road, and trust to memory and instinct to bring us back to the hotel.
As tradition demands Richard & I, as first home, get the beers in…having to smile as the waiter does not trust our meagre Spanish. Yes we did mean 12, not 2. We group by the pool in late afternoon heat, but at this height the water is freezing and no-one is tempted.
Never fight a perfect moment the sages say ~ but to embrace an entire day of perfection is unnerving, even in retrospect. Sally and I sat on adjacent balconies for a while eavesdropping on the Americans above, amused at their narrow world-view. Several balconies along, Pete waves a Ron bottle in my direction: what more invitation does a girl need? Sitting on his balcony over pre-dinner drinks we talked about our lives and loves and homes…and watched the colour fade out of the valley below. Deep red and lush green fade to grey, then again the darkness is lit by lights, fires, homes, and life echoes through the silence.
I love this place.
We’re leaving Viñales in the morning: so just a quick word about Los Jazmines. For the size & setting see Insight Guide’s Cuba: section on Pinar Del Rio. It is unpretentious. The food is adequate, the band you can do without, the service is good. The setting is stunning, & it has its charms. In the evenings we came home to little notes from our chamber maids wishing us love & luck…banish those cynical thoughts: for we also came home to exquisite bath-towel origami: pink lotus flowers, or swans, or abstracts…Thank you: Dora, Maible & Anieskal.
~ TRANSFER DAYS
Vinales back to Havana was an easy day of light travelling. We call in at the Biosphere Reserve…trees and flowers, a couple of snakes, too many tourists, a tree-creeper, a hummingbird, not enough quiet. Somewhere else on route we stop to wander down to the base of Cuba’s largest waterfall. Locals are splashing about, and there are the most enormous tadpoles. [Note to Cuban entrepreneurs: THIS is a picnic spot] But we’re booked into lunch. Still it’s a non-walking day, and it’s Vernie’s birthday, so we indulge in a long lunch with a cocktail or two and a dance or two to chill us into slouch mode for the drive back to the capital.
Again, it’s but a night-visit. This time we’re staying at the Santa Isabel. I could go into raptures about this hotel, but that would spoil it for you. Hang the expense! Stay there. I have a photograph of my room. It shows a simple marble-topped table, the end of a cast iron bedstead, with a simple white coverlet and dancing coloured lights on the wall, the suncast through the stained-glass windows. That I had a Jacuzzi went completely unnoticed!
My notes from that night tell tales not to be re-told… but they finish: “ ‘You could hear your gathering from the other end of the square’...and if you could what you heard was laughter”. I suspect we may have had a mojito or several.
The following morning we were scheduled to fly to Barracoa, the island’s first Spanish settlement, 1512, which could only be reached by foot or by boat until the road was built in the 1960s. Flight schedules had been changed (there are only a couple of flights a week) so this proved not to be an option. The alternative was a flight to Santiago de Cuba & a drive from there. When we finally saw the landing strip ~ relief was the predominant reaction. It is very short. There are hills to the side. There is water either end. Picturesque, but probably not very forgiving. Those of my cohorts who had not enjoyed the road-route in…precipitous is a good word…changed their mind about the alternatives.
Internal flights in Cuba must be experienced. Book a weekend at the other end of the island just to indulge. The entrance lobby in Havana is modern enough, but deserted. There is a souvenir stall. A single glass display case, largely bereft of stock, and a postcard stand. If you select a handful of cards and stand long enough at the counter, someone will eventually come to reluctantly relieve you of your dollars and give you your change in Cuban pesos. Only Sally had the patience, & this was the only time we saw the national currency. Called through to the departure lounge, we discovered the x-ray machine was defunct so we had to duck under the barriers and be checked through arrivals instead.
The departure lounge itself is outside ~ beach-taverna style: Fred Flintstone chairs, thatched sunshades, postcards of the revolution alongside capitalist t-shirts. I tell you again: I love this country!
Jumping the gun a little, for my holiday continued in the south western corner of the island (more on which in another place), our final day on the island was ‘at leisure’ in Havana.
Like Santiago on the southern tip of Cuba, Habana is best explored on foot. Unlike Santiago, it’s a pleasure to do so. Escape the guides and just wander. Find treasures like the old pharmacy, apparently still doing business. Sit for a while on the harbour side – locals do come and talk, but they simply chat for a while & move on. There is no undertone. Habañeros come straight to the point (but don’t take offence at being turned down): -“I’m looking for someone, and I think it might be you!” -“I don’t think it is!” - “Ok. Shame! Maybe we could have a coffee anyway?” You could easily fall for these Latinos…perhaps even more so, when they take the hint and wander away still smiling their farewells.
Out along the Malecón you can see what the town once was, and what it might be again…there is money being spent. But you know the locals will be moved out. These apartments will become hotel rooms or offices or condos or weekend retreats for the Miami-riche when Castro has gone and, with him, the embargo. It’s hard though, to resent the shades of former glory being resurrected.
The market is full of tourist trash and art that I’m not qualified to judge. Spend my last few dollars on cheap souvenirs, fulfil my commission to buy cigars for the boss, and head back for our final lunch at the wonderful Santa Isabella. While everyone else dashes out to cram in the culture and take the photos, I retire with Pete & Paula to chill in the shade of a nearby bar to savour a couple of “Daktaris”, while listening to Cuba’s answer to fag-ash-Lil at the piano, pictures of Hemingway on the wall. It lacked the elegance of the 1930s or even the 1950s, but there was only one place on earth it could be.
I’m glad I got here before it disappears.
Reference is made to the use of US Dollars. At the time of this trip the American dollar (in cold hard cash) was accepted everywhere in strict preference to the Cuban peso. It could be exchanged, legally, at licensed Cadeca or illegal on the street, with a going rate of about 1 Dollar to 20 Pesos. Banks would exchange at the official rate of 1-to-1.
Fidel Castro has now announced that from 8 November 2004, US Dollars are no longer legal tender. Not only that but there is a 10% tax on dollar exchanges and all exchanges must be at the official 1-dollar = 1-peso rate. This is a response to the tightening of the US trade embargo & the tax is not applicable to other currencies. The latest advice is to take Euros, which are more readily exchanged than sterling.
* * * It wouldn’t be right to finish any kind of Cuban tour without a cocktail or two, so here’s a couple of my favourites. Both are light, slightly sweet, totally wicked.
Not to be confused with the Mogote (a hill), the Mojito is Cuba’s national drink…Do indulge:
In a tall glass you need to crush several mint leaves into 3 tea-spoons of brown sugar, together with the juice of half a lime. Add 50ml white Cuban rum Fill glass to top with crushed ice & a dash of soda
THE DAIQUIRI (affectionately a.k.a. the Daktari)
50ml Cuban rum Juice of the other half of the lime 2 tea-spoons of white sugar Shake well, serve ice cold in a frosted martini glass.
Evocative, thoughtful, personal and thouroughly deserving of E (as usual). I would probably wish for more of the 'political' or 'social' glimpses (there are some, I know) in case of this particular country; but then that was a walking holiday, so I can't really complain.
Elffriend 07.12.2004 16:47
Another great review from you. I wish I could still go walking Lisax
Scott_Howitt 07.12.2004 00:15
What a great review. When I lived in Puerto Rico I met a lot of Cubans, they are fun loving lot. I wish Cuba would open back up to the US so I could go. I have to get my Cuban cigars through St. Marteen. It is quite silly. I also make mojitos by hand all through the summer. I make up a big batch of simple syrup so it is easier to mix them up. No waiting for the sugar to disolve. Scott
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