Loving Cuba is a Love/Hate Thing

I received a message from a friend recently and it got me thinking…sometimes it’s just so difficult to balance the feelings of helplessness and utter disdain I have for the s**t my Cuban friends are forced to live with (food shortages, decaying infrastructure, economic hardship) and the fierce love that I have for the country and all of the positive things that exist there (an exceptional arts & culture scene, spectacular natural beauty and the intestinal fortitude of the people themselves, to name only a very, VERY few).

Daymi and I in Manguito, March 2015

Daymi and I in Manguito, March 2015

My amigo texted me, not from Cuba but from Chile, to inform me that he’d left the island (legally…I think) to go work in South America for a while, to make some money so that he can support his four children back in Cuba. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return, but it’s what he needs to do in order to put food on the table. I’m sappy, so I cried when I imagined him separated from his family for an indefinite period of time. But for him, this is what the locals refer to as ‘la lucha’ (the fight). It’s not something you cry about -- it’s just something do.

Thankfully, for every story like this, there’s another that shines a light and brings perspective. When I first met my amiga Daymi in 2015, she was living in the small farm town of Manguito where there is almost zero to do and even fewer job opportunities. Not surprisingly, life in rural Cuba is much more difficult than in the city, and she was struggling to support herself and her son. But her desire to achieve something meaningful and to move forward in life propelled her to a much better situation. Today she’s a formally-trained and certified tour guide living near Varadero, she speaks three different languages (I believe she’s working on her fourth), and she’s happier and more vibrant than ever. Considering where she began, she’s a bit of a superstar in my books.

And then, of course, there are times when being in Cuba leads to overwhelming joy – the kind that makes you feel like your heart will explode out of your chest. I was lucky enough to be in Matanzas for the 4th International Dance Festival “Miguel Failde in Memoriam”. I’m accustomed to free concerts in the streets of Matanzas, they happen all the time -- it’s one of the best things about the city. But this was unlike anything I’d seen there before. An entire plaza filled with 1000+ people (not sure of the exact number but I know it was a LOT), all ages, and every single one of them was either dancing or moving their body in some way. It wasn’t just people and music that filled the plaza that night – there was an incredible celebratory energy and a sense of community, two trademark characteristics of every Cuban festival.

If you travel with eyes wide open here (which you absolutely should), it’s sometimes impossible to avoid getting frustrated and downright p***ed at the state of things. But if you know and love Cuba, you also accept that it’s a love/hate thing, and you know that the unwavering Cuban spirit has a way of bringing everything back into check…big time.

Varadero - Very Cuban, Very Real

Yes – you heard me right. 

Me, the person who spouts off about getting as local as possible when traveling, who prefers non-touristy things, and who is likely one of very few Cuba junkies on the planet who doesn’t give two s***s about chilling on the beach -- THIS girl is showing some love to Varadero.

No, I’m not losing my marbles, and I’m not promoting all-inclusive resort-style travel (I grapple with sustainability issues on that front). But I am a little fired up, because I’ve had my fill of the snickers and jeers and sometimes downright mockery directed at Varadero fans, by those who claim that it’s somehow less-Cuban than other destinations. How can that be? It’s in Cuba!

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned after many trips off-the-beaten-path on this island is:

Authentic Cuba is NOT about location – it’s about ENGAGEMENT. 

To be clear, I’m not saying Varadero isn’t full of tourists because that would be just…well…loony. But guess what? It’s also full of Cubans.

el campo

el campo

The truth is, Varadero is one of the best places to stay if you want to enjoy pretty much any aspect of Cuban culture, including those related to local everyday life. It can serve visitors well as a home base for their trip.

For starters, it’s a mere 25 minutes by car from Juan G. Gomez Airport, and even less if you’re staying at a casa in the town itself. If you like the countryside, travel 15 minutes south of the entrance to the peninsula and POOF! You’re in el campo. Rural Cuba is that close when you’re in Varadero. There’s nothing but acres of rustic farmland, horse-drawn carts, the odd baby goat bouncing about and a plethora of tiny villages to explore, like Cantel and Camarioca (not to be confused with Boca de Camarioca). The best part? You’ll be the only gringo there.

in Varadero

in Varadero

We don’t need to talk about how stunning the beach is – it’s Varadero; enough said. But what is worth mentioning is the fact that during the winter months when the resort beaches are crowded, the section in town near the end of Calle 43 is practically deserted. In other words, if you’re staying at a casa particular, you’ll be close (or even on) a far-less populated slice of paradise. Even if you’re staying at a resort, you don’t need to go far to get away from the crowds and still be on one of the best beaches in the world. And if you go during June, July or August, it will be packed with local families enjoying their summer vacations. How is that not ‘real Cuba’?

If you love nature, you can snorkel just a little bit further west at Playa Coral, or check out the caves at Bellamar (sometimes touristy, but always totally worth it). For die-hard hikers, the incredible Yumuri Valley is just up the Via Blanca on the north edge of Matanzas, where you can try your luck at reaching the summit of Loma del Pan. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the tranquility and the views of the valley on the way up are un-be-lievable. Skip the jeep tour and arrange for your own transportation, or take a private tour so that you can enjoy the drive and explore the quaint little villages that dot the valley on your own terms.

Loma Del Pan

Loma Del Pan

Is it nightlife you’re after?  Varadero is chock-full of great restaurants and bars with live music and dancing, like Calle 62 or Casa de la Musica for example. And guess what? There’s no shortage of both tourists and locals patronizing those places. In fact, when my Cuban friends want a crazy night out, the strip in Varadero is often the destination of choice. Dancing, socializing and la fiesta has been an integral part of their culture forever — it doesn’t get more authentic than that.

Are you an arts and culture buff? No hay problema. You can attend performances by Ballet Nacional de Cuba as well as Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba on a day trip to Havana (or in nearby Matanzas, once renovations at Sauto Theatre are complete). And there’s no denying that the talent performing at some of the resorts is spectacular in their own right. Rumba and Santeria can be experienced all over the island but they’re prevalent in Matanzas and the surrounding area (i.e. all around Varadero) because, as some people believe, that part of Cuban culture originated there. If museums are your thing, take a short side-trip to the city of Cárdenas where you can visit Museo Oscar María de Rojas, one of the most interesting I’ve ever been to. 

Cárdenas

Cárdenas

If I keep going, this list will be three miles long. My point is, ALL of the things I’ve mentioned are no less real or authentically Cuban than those you can experience in a non-resort area. And they’re all accessible if you’re staying in Varadero – that’s what makes it a super cool place to use as a home base. Travelers can enjoy one of Cuba’s most stunning beaches, with so many of the other goodies practically within arm’s reach.

Varadero isn’t just a stretch of land filled with all-inclusive hotels…it’s also a town full of Cuban people living, working, shopping and spending time with friends and family. At the very least, tapping into a local vibe here can be as simple as having an engaging conversation with the bartender serving your mojitos, or the person cleaning your room. It’s possible you could end up with a glimpse of everyday Cuban life without ever stepping off the property, although I highly recommend doing so. When it comes down to it, meaningful interaction is what counts — not your address.

Those who swear by the mantra “Varadero isn’t real Cuba” should think again, because authentic Cuba is anywhere the locals are. And there are plenty of them in Varadero, which makes it a perfectly acceptable choice as a home base for visitors to Cuba.

Hey — now there’s an idea for a nickname…Base Camp Varadero

Yep, I like it.

The One Thing You Shouldn't Stress About When Traveling to Cuba

Rosita and I, during my first solo trip

Rosita and I, during my first solo trip

There are a lot of things to consider when traveling off the beaten path in Cuba. Knowing some Spanish definitely comes in handy, but holding yourself back from engaging with locals simply because you’re worried about how well you speak it is something you should never do. The truth is that no matter where you travel, communication is about a whole lot more than fluency in the language…

The Best Way to Experience Matanzas

Matanzas is a gritty city, steeped in culture but just far enough off the beaten path that it can seem completely devoid of tourists much of the time, especially outside of the downtown.

I spend a lot of time there when I’m in Cuba and I know the area reasonably well. It was the first place I landed for my initial solo trip, and Matanceros were the first group of locals that I interacted with -- I suppose that makes it the most memorable by default. But with a few years and loads of experiences now under my belt, I know there’s much more to it than that.

Las Cuevas de Bellamar

Las Cuevas de Bellamar

Which begs the question – why do I scratch my head whenever someone asks me to recommend a list of things to do and see there? The truth is, the most interesting and moving experiences happen when and where we least expect them to.

According to Trip Advisor and Airbnb Experiences, there are a lot of boxes to check on the list of interesting tourist sites in Matanzas. Some of those include Las Cuevas de Bellamar, one of the best examples of Cuba’s massive cave system complete with some very impressive stalactites and stalagmites, and Museo Farmaceutico, the beautifully preserved 19th century French Pharmacy in the centre of the city. Another interesting site is Castillo de San Severino, a fort built in 1735 on the Bay of Matanzas which also serves as a museum for both the history of slavery and Santeria (a personal favorite of mine which is usually deserted).

Those are certainly some of the worthwhile highlights of the city, especially for people with limited time and an agenda to keep. But if you’re fortunate enough to be able to linger for a while – a few days or maybe longer – and you want my honest opinion on the best way to experience Matanzas, I would simply tell you this:

Keep it simple. Meander through the streets and talk to people. Look, listen and engage.

Because what’s really special about Matanzas isn’t something you’ll find on a menu of points of interest promoted by a tour company, or written about in a review on a booking website.

Rehearsal - AfroCuba de Matanzas

Rehearsal - AfroCuba de Matanzas

There’s a special vibe there. It’s everywhere – in the streets, in people’s homes, in the markets and cantinas – and if you’re moving too fast because you’re focused on completing all of the items in your itinerary, you’ll miss it.

You’ll miss the inherent AfroCuban elements -- not those on display at the museum, but those happening all around you in the neighborhoods you’ll pass through on your way there. For example, at Rumba Park in La Marina, a little triangle-shaped, tree-covered patch of concrete at the junction of Calles Manzano, Matanzas and 278, it’s common to see street performances by local rumba groups such as Los Muñequitos de Matanzas or Grupo AfroCuba de Matanzas. And travelers can also miss the fact that if they listen carefully, they can often hear conga or batá drums beating somewhere in the distance, signifying either a toque (a Cuban version of a jam session) or perhaps even a Santeria ceremony taking place in the vicinity. If you happen to encounter one of these while you’re exploring the city, don’t be afraid to stop and observe.

Street market, Versalles

Street market, Versalles

There’s also a vibrant street market scene -- almost every neighborhood has one early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with extra-large markets located next to Estadio Victoria de Giron baseball stadium (meat, cheese and fresh produce vendors) and Playa Tenis (hardware and other household items). These are all great places to people-watch and engage with everyday life in Cuba.

For me, the most indelible memories have been forged during very casual and unplanned events, such as the rumba practice session at a private casa which I discovered while taking street photos (they saw me standing at the doorway with camera-in-hand and invited me to sit in). On another occasion, while exploring the area around the Hershey Station, my friend and I were invited to step into a unique little stone fabricating shop owned by a local named Armando, a business which has been in his family for generations. There have also been numerous times when I’ve been invited to indulge in whatever a local family might be cooking for dinner over an open fire in the street, such as a bowl of steamy caldoza (stew), or my favorite – chicharrones (delicious little chunks of deep-fried pork belly).

Armando, working in his shop

Armando, working in his shop

Those are the types of experiences that sear themselves into your psyche — the ones that connect you with local people living their everyday lives, and ultimately connecting you to the real soul of a place. You won’t find locations, dates and times for those adventures in any guidebook.

So, to anyone inquiring about the best way to spend time in Matanzas, my answer is this:

If you have an agenda, use it loosely as a guideline and be flexible, allowing yourself to get side-tracked by the sounds and aromas and conversations happening around you.

If you don’t have an agenda and you prefer to let things unfold organically, you and I are on the same page, and you probably don’t need any advice.

Either way, as long as you take your time and have an open mind, following your instincts and your senses, you should have no trouble tapping into the special heart and soul of the city of Matanzas.

On Your Terms -- The Best Way To See The Yumuri Valley

When the bus from Matanzas winds its way up the Via Blanca on the way to Havana, there's a point at which the uninteresting shrubs that line the highway end abruptly, giving way to the spectacular, vast Yumuri Valley.  Its lush landscape spreads south as far as the eye can see, like a massive thick green carpet over rolling hills, studded with more royal palm trees than I’ve ever seen all in one place.  No matter how many times I pass that spot, the view still takes my breath away.

View of the Valley from El Mirador

View of the Valley from El Mirador

You can view the valley from above from several different points including El Mirador, the snack bar on the west side of the Bacunayagua Bridge,  and Iglesia de Monserrate, the church on top of the cliff overlooking the city of Matanzas.  But to really discover the true beauty of what lies within, you’ll want to get right down into it and meander through the countryside and the tiny villages.  The Hershey train runs through the Valley from Matanzas to Havana and you may have time to take a few photos as it makes its scheduled stops (especially if the train breaks down, which is a distinct possibility) but you’ll be at the mercy of the train schedule.  Your best bet is to hire a taxi to take you through at your own pace and if you split the cost with a friend, you can probably do this for under 50CUC each, for a few hours of exploring.  I was lucky enough to have my amigo Jorge Felix, a local photographer who's passionate about showing Cuban life through his lens, accompany me. Not only was he a wonderful guide but he offered tips on how to take better photos as well.  

Ophelia

Ophelia

The highlight of our drive was stopping at Casa Ophelia – a sprawling ranch on a lovely large property which included a small lake complete with grazing cows, and piglets and chickens running amuck.  Her yard was littered with old appliance and car parts, miscellaneous construction material and an old rusty jeep, which I’m certain will be put back into commission someday.  Ophelia is the matriarch of the family and the original owner of the home where she lives with her son and grandson.  After some gentle coaxing and a dose of Jorge’s charm, she felt comfortable enough to allow us to take photos and to share a few stories about her rural life.  Always keep in mind that, even though Cubans are known for their openness and willingness to share, it's still a privilege to be allowed into their personal space and to record what we find there.

Pina de Raton

Pina de Raton

Nearing the end of our drive, we made a stop at a little souvenir stand and “typical Cuban ranch”, as described by the State-run tour companies promoting Yumuri Valley jeep excursions.  We had the place to ourselves (the bonus of doing your own thing off the tourist trail), so we had time to chat with the locals working there about life and business in the valley.  I had my first taste of Piña de Raton, a delicious type of mini-pineapple, and had just enough time to chase it down with a glass of guarapa con ron (sugar cane juice with rum) when we heard engines in the distance.  It was the sound of the jeep caravan ten or twelve vehicles long, carrying a throng of sunburnt tourists to their last stop after a marathon day of boating, snorkelling and horseback riding. That was our queue to make our exit.

The Yumuri Valley may not have any of the mogotes (unique, steep-sided hill formations) which draw so many travelers to Viñales, arguably the most famous valley on the island.  But Yumuri possesses its own indelible charm -- winding roads (some no more than a dirt path), quaint villages, sprawling pineapple fields, guajiros riding their horses and carts, and tons of shades of green in every direction.  A much slower pace than that of the city, it’s peaceful and serene, and definitely worth taking a private tour to observe life in the Valley and experience real tranquility.
 

Tranquilo

Tranquilo