Cuba – A Country Full Of Contrasts
Cuba is a land of contrasts and it was a worthy challenge to decipher. I think every country has its own rhythm, and in some countries it’s easier to understand the rhythm and the rules. But with others, it is naturally more difficult. Especially because I had never traveled to the Caribbean, hence I did not know what to expect.
There is always the expectation of beautiful white sand beaches with crystal clear water and old-timers, but this country is so much more. Once I realized this, I was able to discover its mysterious life.
In this blog post, I would like to share with you my experiences in Cuba and what you could do in 2 or 3 weeks there.
But what’s more important are my personal experiences.
Also, you should definitely read the history of Cuba, which has had a significant impact on it.
Brief History of Cuba
Arrival of Columbus
Back before Christopher Columbus reached Cuba in 1492, Cuba was inhabited by various Mesoamerican cultures living on sustenance agriculture. Later, Diego Velasquez conquered the island in search for the hidden plethora of gold for the Spanish crown. The natives could not withstand the oppression, enslavement and the imported diseases from the Europeans for long. So as a result, they died on a massive scale. Later in 1526, the Spanish imported African slaves into Cuba.
By the late 18th century, wealthy so-called ‘sugar barons’ planted vast plantations of sugar cane and had their slaves work the land.
Cuba struggled for independence starting in 1868. From 1868-1878 it had a ten-year war. Finally, later in 1886, slavery was abolished by royal decree. After the Second War of Independence, Cuba was occupied by the US forces.
In the 20th century, Cuba experienced a roller coaster of presidents-turned-dictators. Gerardo Machado was elected president of Cuba in 1925. But even though the presidential term was only 4 years, he held onto power until he was overthrown in 1933.
In 1952, Fulgencio Batista became the next dictator. At that time, compared to many other Latin American countries, Cuba was prosperous and had a high literacy rate.
Then in 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the infamous revolution in Cuba. Many people fled from Communist Cuba at that time and escaped to the USA. Meanwhile the Cuban economy stagnated during the 1960’s and 1970’s. During this time, Cuba became a USSR satellite state, and economically dependent on it.
The relations with the USA deteriorated and ended in the Cuba crisis in 1962, in which the US imposed two economically devastating blockades on Cuba.
The living conditions got worse and Castro was forced to allow some free enterprises.
Until 2015, Cuba was an offline island. Nowadays, there are some wi-fi zones installed in various spots around the island. In 2016, Obama visited Havana as the first US president in nearly a century since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Today, the population of Cuba is 11 million and most are still living in great poverty.
La Habana – The Most Photogenic City
From all the 65 countries I’ve visited in my life, La Habana is the most photogenic city in my opinion.
You need at least 4 days in Havana. This city is the heart of Cuba.
Both poverty and wealth shown simultaneously in front of one’s eyes.
Beauty and ugliness glisten side by side. I felt like a time traveler gone back in time, a feeling I’ve gotten in hardly any other capital city.
Habana is unique, you feel surprisingly safe by day and night.
The ghosts of Cuba’s past still seem to linger in the sultry Caribbean air.
The odors, the stuffiness, the poverty, the annoying taxi drivers – all that will drive you out of your mind. But at the same time, Habana has a strong appeal which makes the heart of an adventurer beat faster.
You have to get involved in all of the magic. Walk through the small alleys.
Be isolated from the outside world with almost no Wi-Fi in the country.
Both annoying and affectionate, I’m sure Havana won’t leave you with a neutral feeling.
Viñales and Pinar del Rio
Viñales is a great place to understand the farming and country life of Cuba, according to other travelers. As for me, it was my least favorite place in Cuba. As soon as you get off the bus, an abundance of people approach you and want to show you their accommodation. The tourism in Viñales is so bustling that I could hardly enjoy the silence and nature around me.
After just 2 days, I was fed up and hitchhiked back to La Habana in order to explore the east side of Cuba. (Hitchhiking is not the easiest in Cuba. It’s especially challenging if you don’t speak Spanish and are there in the heat of the peak of summer.)
For everyone who wants to stay longer, you can take a horseback riding tour or hike in the Viñales National Park.
My personal highlight in Viñales: Touring around a tobacco plantation to learn about cigar production and the way of life for the farmers.
Moreover, you can get a spectacular view of Viñales at Hotel Los Jasmines.
There is a hop-on hop-off bus for tourists available in Viñales for $5CUC per person that lasts for one day.
The best place in Cuba for me is the east side of the island. I started to enjoy Cuba more once I arrived in Cienfuegos. From Viñales, I took a collectivo to La Habana for $5CUC and then another one for $20CUC to Cienfuegos.
One of my favorite heroes during the Cuban Revolution was Camilo Cienfuegos. He was one of the leading figures of the revolution, so the city is named after him. The best way to get to know the city is to walk aimlessly around and walk along the Malecon to the Mirador Punta Gorda. The city is quieter than other cities. And here was the first time I really got in touch with the locals.
El Nicho Waterfalls
Before going to the next big city of Trinidad, you can make a stop in El Nicho Waterfalls. It is a spectacular series of waterfalls, high in the Sierra de Trinidad Mountains and has natural pools where you can swim.
The most important thing for me was the friendship I was able to make with Elaine – my guide at El Nicho. She is a wonderful and strong woman and works all year round in this park for $ 17 a month. In addition to that, she has a child and has to worry every month about how she can make ends meet. I admire her and I thank her for sharing her life story with me and not losing her vitality.
In Elaine’s case, I think we should reconsider about what’s important in our lives and what we already have, rather than recounting on what we do not have. Unfortunately, she does not have the money to afford internet in Cuba, so I only have her name and a caricature drawing she made of me.
Thank you again Elaine, and I hope you will be able to read this! Thank you for your friendship and words.
In Trinidad, I stayed with a woman called Tia Olga (tia means aunt in Spanish) and her family. I often had dinner with her family and took an active part in their life. And I played with her granddaughter or in the evening we went together to the church with the whole family. Then I understood more about the Cuban culture and was able to better decipher the rhythm of their lives.
Trinidad is similar to Paraty, a perfect hilly city for a lot of walking. The beautiful cobblestone streets provides a pretty good workout if wandering about all day.
There are many museums and some viewpoints for the sunset to capture great photos from. The area was the main sugar cane production region back in the colonial days and there is still a beautiful plantation owner’s restored mansion.
Playa Ancon, Trinidad’s white sand beach, can be accessed by bike or you can hire a taxi. Take some time in Trinidad before you might go on a long bus ride to Santiago de Cuba (14 hours).
Santiago de Cuba
My best time in Cuba was definitely in Santiago de Cuba.
I met Marta on my journey. A wonderful woman from Misiones, Argentina, whom I had already met at the hostel in La Habana. The best part was that I only spoke Spanish these days, so I got lots of practice. We stayed for 5 days and had the nicest Casa Particulares booked in Cuba. A great garden, a whole floor for us with a terrace and a wonderful view of the sunset. If you are looking for a place to stay in Santiago de Cuba, I would recommend you to stay in Casa Azul.
Norka, who owns the house will make sure that you will have a splendid stay. The city has a lot of culture, which I fell in love with after the first day.
I had the great honor to meet great musicians who sang for me. We went to jazz bars in the evening and danced on the Plaza Marta with Cuban music.
Evenings that I will never forget.
There, Cuba finally unfolded all its magic onto me and I fell in love with the music in the country and its people. Something you have to experience for yourself.
And if you have even a hint of interest in culture and music, then you will probably love Santiago de Cuba as I do. Stay there a bit and do not hesitate to talk to people on the street or in the bars. I am really proud to say now I have a place called “home” in Cuba now.
Hitchhiking in Cuba
I love hitchhiking as you know from my adventures in Patagonia and Taiwan, but Cuba is a tough place. Nevertheless, I did it.
And I met on the way to La Habana a great woman who took me in and helped me with all my needs. With her, I was able to get to the airport after a 14-hour, painful ride to Havana in order to travel back to Mexico.
So hitchhiking is very difficult in Cuba and probably something I would not repeat.
But the experience was worth it.
Nostalgia in Cuba
I have mixed feelings about Cuba. But this is the itinerary that I chose and everything is based on my experience. And no matter where you go in Cuba, be prepared for a little nostalgia and some difficulties as a backpacker.
I always wanted to go to Cuba due to my fascination with its history and now I went and had many intense and beautiful experiences.
Now it’s your turn to decide if you’d like to visit this perplexing country with all its magic or not.