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Cuba: Beauty in the Ruins

Cuba is one of the most fascinating and unique islands in the world. Its tropical beauty shines from behind crumbling buildings and an even more fragile economy. It's a relic from a by-gone age, when Cold War powers faced off and the olive-green fatigues of Fidel Castro were a symbol of stubborn defiance. Now his slogans and bearded face appear on the rare poster or billboard, wholly ignored by the people going by in horse-carts and rusted out Classic Cars. But we were captivated by the island's irrepressible spirit.

I visited Cuba a few times back in 1999-2003 (*more about that later!) so was curious to see how it had changed. I knew that Obama had loosened the embargo a decade ago so expected to see a much different place. I just went back with my friend and colleague Manu as part of our new company's first tour there, and we were so excited!

First off, many Americans don't know that they CAN travel to Cuba as long as they follow certain guidelines. One way around the decades-long embargo is the "Support for the Cuban People" exemption, where you patronize only privately-owned businesses and hotels, and don't stay in or use any government establishments.

Havana is filled with beautifully renovated, privately-owned homes for rent. They're not all of similar quality, however, and some may have small rooms up narrow stairs, or shuttered windows onto interior courtyards.

Havana -- the capital city of ~2 million -- is a mix of Neo-Classical, Spanish colonial, and Caribbean architecture. The gleaming dome of the 1920s Capitol building (above) rises behind hundreds of crumbling façades, which occasionally get saved from ruin.

Most of the buildings, however, are shells of their former glory, and you'll see gaping entryways full of abusive wiring, or make-shift platforms beneath high ceilings to create a "middle floor" for more living space.

"Classic Cars" are everywhere -- both renovated and not -- and are truly a part of the Havana cityscape. They're a good money-maker for the locals, who show a fierce pride in their vehicles, and they really are a fun way to get around, especially with the "Barbie pinks" and garish purples and greens. There seemed to be many more of them than I had remembered from 25 years ago, so clearly the tourist economy has something to do with it!

Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is also full of wonderful "street art":

Some political and some just fun.

You also see stately reminders of Colonial Spain, when the city was fortified with defenses:

There are majestic stone churches, formal porticoes, and even a fountain made from Tuscan Carrara marble:

Despite the decades of Socialism, they're masters in the service industry. Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming and we never felt any sort of resentment or aggression.

We also saw a host of creative and talented young people, many involved in Afro-Cuban traditions, like this all-girl dance and drumming group:

And this Acapella choir, who sang and danced with such joy that it brought tears to our eyes:

We enjoyed wonderful meals...

And had fun learning local culinary traditions...

And drank boatloads of rum!

But the reality for most Cuban people is vastly different. They face food shortages, long lines for rationed items like flour and oil, and there's not a lot of variety in the produce you find in the shops. Prices keep going up and many people can't afford basic staples.

Food is so scarce that the Cuban government just issued a plea for help to the World Food Program to provide them with powdered milk to feed the nation's children. A handful of government-owned shops sell overpriced imported goods from Spain but you can't pay with cash and of course most Cubans don't have credit cards. We waited in line for 20 mins just to try and buy a 4-pack of yogurt and eventually gave up because their power went out so they couldn't make a sale. The "deli case" was bare except for a tube of processed meat.

More shocking is the total lack of medicine. 25 years ago the government boasted that the country didn't have much but they had universal health care for all and a 97% literacy rate -- but what good it that if the shelves are bare and the kids don't have pencils? Here's a pharmacy in the small town of Viñales:

Not only are drugs scarce, doctors are abandoning en masse given the jaw-droppingly low salaries. We met a neuro-specialist who makes $20 USD per month -- and not only is that not unusual, it's the standard salary for everyone in the country! (when I was there in 2002 it was $12 USD, so it hasn't changed much) The basic fact is that people have no money and there's very little to actually BUY. (*see the end of the blog post for ideas on how you can help during your travels.)

In the countryside, many people still live on subsistence farming, where they grow what they need to live on but still have to pay fees or even "in kind" to the State.

The countryside was lovely and bucolic for us as tourists, but clearly life is extremely hard for most Cubans. On one of our walks we met a man riding his horse (barefoot!) through the fields...

In fact, all along the highways and main roads there were people on horseback or in horse-driven carts since the price of gasoline just rose by a whopping 500%! One of our drivers told us that he had two jobs: "one, taking people around; then the other, waiting in line for 7 hours to refill my car with gas."

Lunch with our friendly driver

To get to one of our hikes we actually hitched a ride in an ox-cart to avoid a muddy stretch of road. It was one of the most amazing things we did all week!

The driver would yell out the name of the ox who had to pull more (in order to balance them out), and would occasionally mutter at them under his breath, things like "pull harder or I'll turn you into hamburger!" 😄

At the end of our hike, we were warmly welcomed by a local family who grow their own tobacco. They provided a lunch that was so copious it made us uncomfortable, but they assured us that none of it would go to waste.

This, we learned, is how tourism can truly be a "Support for the Cuban people." We paid drivers, guides, farmers, and private home-owners to show us around their country and they responded with hospitality all down the line. From the tobacco grower:

To makers of traditional (and delicious!!) coffee (liven it up with a shot of Havana Club 😉):

To the restaurant owner who pulled out a hive of stingless bees (who knew??) and let us sip honey directly from the hive using straws! It was amazing. Pure liquid perfume.

Another stop on our itinerary was the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad (not to be confused with the Caribbean island of the same name).

The old colonial town is one of the best-preserved in all of Cuba, and visiting really does feel like traveling back in time.

Sure, this horse carriage was for tourists but there were plenty who were just running daily errands! There are no fancy hotels but plenty of charming small guest-houses:

Here's a peek into someone's living room, complete with old clunker bike and sewing machine. No frills, for sure!

But these gorgeous tile floors speak of a grander time:

We loved seeing the old public library, with some fascinating reading on Mao and Marxist theory 😉 . I couldn't resist reaching my fingers into the card catalogue!

The city lit up at night, with music playing from every doorway...

... but the city also shut down at night, with daily blackouts that sent us in search of our flashlights. The blackouts were random and could last from 2 to 12 hours, a result of the government's inability to pay for electricity. It got so bad while we were there that there were demonstrations in a few cities around the island (a big risk, as any protest could land you in jail for 20 years!).

Meanwhile, on our wonderful holiday we just went to the beach (which was amaaaazing). Warm water, soft white sand, palm-frond huts, and cheap rum. What more could you want?

We soaked in the music, from folk combos at lunch to a local orchestra practicing in "the band room" (bringing back sweet memories of my high school!), to electrifying dance bands at the Casa della Musica.

And of course, we had to try a salsa lesson!

Everything we saw revealed Cuba to be an island of contrasts. On a dusty highway a faded Fidel urges you to fight or die...

... while in Cienfuegos this glamor-girl got ready for her quinceañera (turning 15) photoshoot amid a power outage and torrential downpour (her friend held the flashlight through the hair styling). It was in the hall of a once-grand colonial palace with Moorish architecture.

After the tour was over, Manu and I spent an extra week to research activities for a new walking tour, and we were transported by the lush beauty...

We walked past coffee bushes that had so many white blooms they looked like they had been decorated by a wedding planner, went under soaring archways of swaying bamboo, and hiked to cascading waterfalls. We disappeared into the darkness...

And cooled off in fresh-water pools.

Clearly the situation is dire but how could we not fall in love with a place where chickens rest happily on dozing pigs?? 😍

In the end we were completely charmed by the warm spirit and boundless energy of this verdant and vibrant nation. We have the sense that once the tide changes Cuba is going to rocket to stardom. The people are READY and want nothing more than to see their island prosper and thrive. And we hope to be there to see it. 💜 💚 💛 (here we are with two of our wonderful local guides)

We're already planning our return for 2025 -- late Feb/early March for both the "Classic" tour and the new walking tour. See below! -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Manu bought herself a place and set up shop in Havana. She had SO much fun! 😄

As for me, I visited over 20 years ago when I was a travel butterfly, flitting from place to place, without a stable home or job, and didn't have a digital camera. But I did find a few pics! Here's me in 2002 goofing off with the host at my B&B in Havana, back when renting out a private "Casa Particular" was a relatively new thing (I still have that dress, by the way!).