Trinidad is almost too pretty. If such a thing is possible. Pink, yellow, green colonial houses line the cobbled streets where children play baseball, and old weathered men sit on doorsteps plucking melancholically on a guitar. No car ever drives faster than a horse and cart could carry you, and in the heat of the day, it wouldn't be surprising if the whole sleepy town ground to a happy halt.Read More
For many years, there was as a divide between locals and tourists in Cuba. There were Cuban bars and there were tourist bars. There were Cuban pesos and tourist dollars (the convertible peso). When you went into a restaurant, you would be handed a tourist menu, different to the menu handed to Cubans. And similarly, there were private tourist beaches and public Cuban beaches. Ever since Raul Castro’s reforms of 2008, the law does not enforce these divisions – for example, Cubans were granted access to enjoy beach resorts and hotels – however, at times it feels a hangover from these days remains, albeit in the process of fading.
Access to many of Cuba’s beaches is prohibitively expensive. The most famous and arguably most stunning, often touted as the Caribbean’s best beach, is Playa Pilar, which is really only accessible if you’re staying in one of the all-inclusive resorts on Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Coco. While the white sand and clear turquoise waters have a undeniable daydream charm, it also feels somewhat devoid of the what makes a place distinctly Cuban: the people.
I’ve chosen the below beaches because they are all regularly used by local families, as well as tourists, and are affordably accessible to all.
Playa Maguana, Baracoa
This is a beautiful beach in its own right with golden white sand, lined with mangroves, and warm calm waters, protected by a coral reef. But, with a small village here as well, it also gives a lovely chance to mix with the welcoming community. Old men play dominoes in the mottled shade of the trees and kids play with the piglets, running wild. Located 22km from Baracoa, it’s a 45-minute journey either via collectivo (5 CUC) or in a taxi (25 CUC). The road is incredibly bumpy, but the scenery is splendid, passing by the majestic Rio Toa with the grand mountain range in the background, and offering glimpses into family life on the campesino. As you sunbathe, you may get offers of lobster lunch, craftwork or even salsa classes, but these are always polite. Make sure to find out the time of the last truck home, though there are worse places to be stranded.
Playa Las Salinas, Villa Clara
Part of the hundreds of small keys that make up Cayerias del Norte, Las Salinas remains fantastically rugged and quiet, and as a public beach, is used by holidaying locals. This is one of the more recent development projects by the Cuban government, and it has been more delicately executed than in other areas, with care taken to protect the local flora and fauna here. The long strip of white sand is dotted with a few tatty palm leaf shelters and backed by thicket and dunes. At the rocky headland you’ll find the resort of Villa las Brujas, where you can get lunch and drinks if needed. The beach is accessible via El Pedraplen causeway (there’s a CUC 2 toll), and 65km drive from Remedios.
Playas del Este, Havana
Just 18km from Havana’s city centre, is a seemingly endless stretch of palm-fringed white sand. There are numerous resorts along the 15km, but walk just five minutes away from them, and you can find a sand dune to nestle into, as if it were your private Caribbean beach. Santa Maria del Mar is the most popular, and has a party vibe every summer weekend, as the whole city decamps here. But head to the village of Guanabo, the furthest point, when you get hungry. This ramshackle little town is home to El Picolo, serving the best pizza in the city.
Playa los Cocos, La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia
My favorite beach of them all, this little village is decidedly local, home to the many Cubans who work in the imposing all-inclusive resorts lining Playa Santa Lucia. Accessible from there by foot, bicycle or hitchhiking (it’s 7km from the nearest resort), the beach here has golden sands with sheltered water (as long as you don’t swim too far out) to one side and the Laguna el Real to the other, dotted with pink flamingoes. You can snorkel to the reef just metres from the shore. The best thing about this beach is the neighbourhood: local holidaymakers roast pigs on the beach and drink rum in the shallow waters. Make friends with the charming Kiki on the snack stall, and learn about life in this tiny village.
As published in Insight Cuba, America's leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba
Eating my ice cream at Coppelia, I can’t help but think of the striking first scene of Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate. The title refers to flavours of ice cream, one representing the gay and creative while the other represents the straight in both sexual and political terms. In that opening scene, Diego eats his strawberry ice cream with all the innuendo available to him, while attempting to seduce the straight David at Havana’s most famous ice cream parlour. You can visit Coppelia yourself, which at peak times has queues around the block, and they still only have two flavours of ice cream, at best.
Fresa y Chocolate is Cuba’s most famous and internationally acclaimed film to date. Part of the film’s success was in its daring critique of the Cuban government and the confrontation of the country’s ingrained homophobia, but for international audiences it was as much about the magical way in which it conjured the chaos and beauty of Havana life.
Many visitors to Cuba made the pilgrimage to the apartment of Diego - fabulously played by Jorge Perugorria - wanting to walk through the towering wooden doors into the airy colonial courtyard and to see the room itself, where the bulk of the action takes place, as crowded with antique bric-a-brac and religious iconography as with the chemistry between the two men. In 1996, the enterprising owner turned part of the building into paladar La Guarida (www.laguarida.com), which for years offered the best meal in town.
In Vedado, they also opened up a bar in homage to the film. Fresa y Chocolate is a hip hangout for local film students with red director chairs and film paraphernalia plastering the walls. In the adjacent Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) headquarters, you can also pick up film posters, rare DVDs and see exhibitions. Located on Calle 23, this is cinephile central with the Cine Charlie Chaplin opposite (one of the biggest art house cinemas in Latin America) and the small cinema Calle 23 y 12, which screens just one Cuban movie a day.
Fresa y Chocolate is just one in a long line of art house movies created with the assistance of ICAIC that has made Cine Cubano famous world over. Established in 1959, it was part of the government’s programme to educate Cubans and support Latin American cinema. In its heyday, it nurtured acclaimed directors such as Humberto Solás and Fernando Pérez. Increasingly however, Cuban films are independently financed and digitally filmed to avoid the political limitations imposed by the institute.
Cuba is also home to the Havana Film School, which lists Soderbergh and Spielberg amongst its fans. The initiative of director Julio García Espinosa, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Fidel Castro, they wanted to create, in Garcia’s words, a “factory of creative energy.” Designated a non-government organisation, it does not actually count as Cuban soil, therefore Americans can bypass the travel ban and study here too. I met dozens of American film students in the city, and sometimes it feels like every young person in Havana is a film fan or critic.
For any lover of cinema, a fantastic time to visit is during the annual Havana Film Festival (www.habanafilmfestival.com). For the first two weeks in December, the entire city is gripped with film fever, and the often dilapidated and sweltering art nouveau cinemas are packed day and night hosting screenings of the best cinema Latin America has to offer. Those visiting outside the festival, should go to the prestigious Ludwig Foundation (www.aflfc.org/eng/whoweare/ludwig) to discover the emerging art scene of Cuba. They host a daily exposition with talks from every discipline including film.
But anytime you wander through the city you’re likely to stumble into a film event, a home cinema hosted in a local’s front room or just a group of friends discussing the classics over a cafe cubano.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens
People are always surprised when I talk of the thriving art scene in Cuba. They assume the strictures of the socialist regime suppress any form of expression until only a bland diet of state-sanctioned work remains. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With an utterly unique and peculiar socio-historical context, Cuban art in many ways stands alone.
Furthermore, it’s everywhere; from private homes turned into open studios and small street galleries to lurid Afro-Caribbean murals on city walls. In addition to free education, there are multiple government programs assisting the arts. Castro’s 1961 dictate - “Within the revolution anything, against the revolution nothing” - still stands, but artists find multiple, subtle and stunning ways in which to negotiate and undermine this often discovering even greater creative depths.
But nowhere outside Havana seems such a hub of creativity as Camagüey, home to many of Cuba’s most celebrated artists. Located in the middle of the country, Camagüey feels different to its neighbors, though with its history of defiance - it has nurtured revolutionary poets and thinkers - this comes as no surprise.
They say the city’s twisted layout was designed to confuse and disorientate the pirates and pillagers who frequently ransacked the city. I purposefully lost myself in the labyrinthine streets imagining these gallivanting marauders and cowering citizens. With low rise brightly colored houses, it feels distinctly South American. As the third largest city in Cuba, it is decrepit in parts, but the beautifully restored historical center was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2008, the 9th Cuban city to achieve this.
Emerging at Plaza del Carmen, I met a gathering of life size sculptures of everyday Camagüeyanos: a man reads a newspaper sat on a bench; a pair of lovers embraces and a gaggle of women gossip over coffee. There was a spare chair amongst the women so I joined them, becoming part of the art. These characters feel distinctly Cuban: familiar scenes you’ve seen all over the country depicting the strength of community, the passion of the people.
There were also giant clay pots, called tinajones. Known as ‘the city of tinajones’, the residents once used them to collect rainwater to stave off drought. Now the pots have become the city’s trademark.
Just off the square, an open door invited me into a studio with vivid paintings many addressing issues of women’s rights. The artist Martha Petrona Jimenez was hard at work and I learnt they were her famous sculptures in the square. We sat in her leafy courtyard and talked about the arts in Cuba. She extolled working in Camagüey, saying this square in particular was home to many artists. She also told me about UNEAC, The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. This organization has headquarters in every region and is a great place to start when on the hunt for talent. They host free events, talks and exhibitions, and often have a bar - a great place to meet with the local art community.
Martha pointed me towards Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sanchez (above), two of Cuba’s most prodigious contemporary painters. Their home in the center of Camagüey functions as both gallery and a bona fide piece of art with every surface covered in work. Ileana greeted me, warm and welcoming, despite it being the end of the day.
She talked me through their work. Her paintings were a celebration of color and glitter while his were darker, some reminiscent of Egon Schiele in a palette of red, white and black with religious undercurrents. They have collected antiques for 20 years – they married in 1971 - and every surface is covered in vintage toys and oddities. Ileana told me how her inspiration changes from day to day and how she feels deeply privileged to be able to make the art she wanted in this country. The implication I gathered was that not all others were so lucky.
Censorship is still rife and testing the boundaries a potentially dangerous endeavor. But, for us visitors, talking to artists and hearing their stories firsthand offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand this country and the complex realities of those trying not only to live here, but create something of beauty and value.
All Photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens.
I arrived to dancing in the streets. There was an all-women conga line proceeding down the dusty road, circling back on itself and returning to the small hall where it had started, a bottom-shaking, whooping caterpillar. As they wound past me - sweating under the weight of my rucksack - they beckoned me to join in. With just a moment’s thought, I threw down my bags and joined the party. That set the tone for my entire experience in Baracoa.
Located on the far eastern tip of Cuba, an area known as the Oriente, this is Cuba’s oldest and most unique city. Surrounded by verdant jungle covered mountains, it was cut off from the rest of Cuba for hundreds of years. This was where troublesome revolutionaries and outcasts were exiled, though Siberia it is not. With an abundance of natural resources like coconut, cacao, bananas, yellow sand beaches, and a tropical climate; I would happily take exile here.
This partial isolation accounts for the unique culture with excellent local cuisine and a Caribbean party spirit. In 1964 they constructed La Farola, a 55km road cutting through some of the most dramatic scenery in the country, which suddenly opened up Baracoa to the rest of the world.
Dance is intrinsic to this place. The women on my first day were predominantly mothers who danced while the kids were in school. One afternoon, on a walk up to Museo Arqueologico to see the burial chambers and petroglyphs on display here, I came across El Ranchon. By day this popular hilltop disco hosts classes for school kids to learn salsa. Pairs of ten-year-olds twirled and twisted in the afternoon sunshine, and I realized why everyone here dances so well.
On my first night I headed to El Patio, a small, busy bar with live music and a labyrinth of dancers every Thursday and Friday night. After refusing the first three offers, I finally was dragged onto the crowded floor feeling embarrassed. My partner, a local nicknamed Pequeño and an incredible dancer, somehow led me in a semblance of salsa despite my malcoordination, occasionally saying, “Just listen to the music.” This wasn’t very encouraging, but each time I got a little better, until finally I would accept any offer of dance that came my way.
Every evening, the square outside the Casa del Trova fills up with locals and tourists, a band plays on the steps, and soon dancers gather in number and pace, a starlit spectacle. Every Saturday night here is Carnival. The street is cordoned off, food stalls roast hogs and chickens, families congregate around the al fresco tables and giant sound systems blast out from windows above. The youth of the city is out in full force, and everything revolves around the dance floor. Salsa threesomes form with the most impressive dancers creating a stunning complication of limbs, utterly mesmerising to watch.
Anyone with an interest in dance and music should come here. But no matter how shy you are or how many left feet you have, this is somewhere to knock back some rum and coke with the locals and don your dancing shoes.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading provider of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens
Drinking in Havana generally seems to been done out of a bottle of rum sat on the doorstep on a balmy evening watching the cinema of street life pass by. Or, if you're feeling more sociable, taking to the Malecon, dancing on the wall as the sea crashes behind you while salsa seeps out of an old stereo. After all, a bottle of Havana Club will set you back less than $5, and the view is free. That makes it a pretty appealing option. For the first few weeks of my stay, the only alternative I found was taking a table at the tourist-driven bars, forking out for their over-priced mojitos and money-in-the-hat bands. La Bodeguita del Medio, the former haunt of Hemingway, is beleaguered by bad service and cruise-ship crowds, while places like Dos Hermanos or El Tocororo have a nice atmosphere, but in that charming, grown-up way.
La Bodeguita del Medio | Tyler Wetherall
I wanted to find my bar. The bar that I would return to again and again; I would have a favorite drink; I would know the name of the barman; and every time I went, I would walk away with either interesting stories or interesting friends. If I had lived my life in Havana, it would be the bar where my tribe would congregate.
La Bodeguita del Medio | Tyler Wetherall
The closest I had come to finding that was Fresa y Chocolate (Calle 23, e/ Calles 10 y 12) in Vedado, also headquarters of the Cuban Film Institute. Named after the Oscar-nominated film of the same title - the movie about forbidden homosexual love began to turn the tide on institutional homophobia in Cuba - the bar naturally attracts a liberal-thinking, chilled-out crowd, with occasional live acts or gallery launches. Monday nights are particularly fun.
Next up, some friends took me to Cafe Madrigal (Calle 17 #809 altos, e/ 2 y 4), one of a boom of new bars to open thanks to the effects of Raul Castro's 2010 reform program kicking in. Inside a 1919 Vedado mansion, it's packed with film memorabilia - I particularly liked the sound umbrellas for light shades - and kitsch artefacts from the life of owner, Rafael Rosales. An intellectual, arty haunt for young, hip cinephiles they meet to discuss the latest art house flick while sharing a platter of tapas. They have plants growing out of the sink, antique lamps and bare brick walls, in that trendy mix of kooky and vintage that wouldn't look out of place in New York.
Tyler Wetherall | Cafe Madrigal
It was at Cafe Madrigal a friend tipped me off on what would become my favorite bar yet, Bar Zorba. It's one of those places I didn't know if I should write about. These come along rarely. A google search later, and it seems no one else has wanted to share it either.
All I had was a name and a vague area, so with no other leads, I jumped in a taxi. The taxi driver hadn't heard of it, but was on board with my mission of tracking it down, so we ended up driving around, as I occasionally got out to ask directions.
Three false starts, one embarrassing misunderstanding involving suspected breaking and entering, and I was ready to give up, until rolling down a quiet side street, we came across a handsome young man stood outside a gate. Giving it one last go, I asked if he knew the way, and lo and behold, we were there. I tipped the cab driver generously for his efforts, but when I tried to enter, the handsome gatekeeper told me it was a private party. It was only with a lot of pleading and a dramatic retelling of my battle through the night to make my way there, that he agreed.
Tyler Wetherall | Cafe Madrigal
Walking under a canopy of trees, a tiki hut style room emerged decorated with fake flowers and buddha statues, which opened onto the green, tropical gardens, with ponds and leafy alcoves, perfect for cocktail drinking and canoodling. Young, cool habaneros filled the bar and dance floor. Mainly university students and arty types, the bohemian, party vibe was in full force. It was like discovering the secret party garden.
It was kitsch in its tiki aesthetic, but that sort of kitsch that just encourages you to be a little bit silly, to dance a littler hard and behave a little more outrageously. It was one of those parties you imagine will keep going into the following morning, only getting more fun, and that every time you return, it will be there waiting for you, which it was.
Sadly, the owner asked me to keep it on the down low, which means you'll just have to track it down for yourself.
"I've only got two weeks in Cuba; what should I see?" This is a question I get asked from a lot of holidaymakers wanting a taste of the country on a limited time schedule. So I thought I would share a recent itinerary I devised for one such traveler, which incorporates city, culture and beach. Days 1-3: Havana
Habana Vieja | Tyler Wetherall
Base yourself in Centro so you can just as easily explore the stunning colonial architecture of the old town, as you can head into Vedado, where you will do the most fulfilling eating, drinking and playing. Check out the best of your accommodation options in my previous blog here.
Spend at least a day getting lost in Habana Vieja, dodging bici taxis and cat calls to ogle the beautifully restored buildings of Calle Mercaderes and Plaza Vieja. I recommend the Preservation and Social Programmes Tour with San Cristobel travel agency (Calle Oficios #110 bajos, e/ Lamparilla y Amargura) to learn about the way funds from tourism are channelled back into restoration and social programs. This includes a visit to the Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belen, a former ruined 17th-century convent turned active community center for the needy, which is always a moving and educational experience.
Castas y Tal | Tyler WetherallEat at any one of the many new paladares currently forging a contemporary Cuban culinary culture out of the previously dire dining scene. Castas y Tal (Calle E #158, e/ 9a y Calzada) and San Cristobel (Calle San Rafael # 469, Lealtad y Campanaro) are two of my personal favourites.
Music pulses through these streets, rattling out of vintage car radios or streaming from open windows, and you need to spend at least one night dancing till your eyes sting with sweat. Go for Miramar's El Diablo Tun Tun (Calle 20 esquina a 35, upstairs from La Casa de la Música) -- especially on a Thursday -- to get your hips swinging to the sweet beats of live salsa, though the dance floor gets hot with hip-grinding when the reggaeton starts up.
There are many potential sights, but the Cuban part of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artesgave me another perspective on Cuban cultural history through artists I had never encountered before, such as the deeply moving work of Antonia Eiriz.
Day 4-6 Trinidad
Trinidad | Tyler Wetherall
There are more casas here per square kilometer than anywhere else in Cuba, so you can have your pick of colonial residences, most dripping in antiques. Spend one day exploring the cobbled streets and churches of this 19th-century Spanish colonial settlement -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 -- ending with an evening drinking mojitos at Casa de la Musica. I woud take another day to explore the lush surrounding countryside of the Sierra del Escrambray diving into waterfalls and hiking up overgrown trails, or, for those with a higher tolerance for tourists and touts, do the beach bum thing on Playa Ancon. Make sure to dine at the hidden gem La Ceiba (#263 Pablo Pichs Giron) at some point during your stay.
Day 7-8 Santa Clara
Casa Hostal Florida | Tyler Wetherall
If that intellectual revolutionary has always fascinated you, come here for mass indulgence in Che hero-worship. With a museum dedicated his life's work, his mausoleum and the site where he ambushed an armored train in 1958, you'll come away with a better understanding of the man himself, or at least his legacy.
Santa Clara also has some of the country's most interesting and edgy night scenes thanks to the many students here. Although taking to Parque Vidal with a bottle of rum is just as satisfying: sit beneath one of the mighty palms, listening to a man strumming his guitar and watching the youth of the town dance their modern day courtship. Book into the Hostal Florida, one of the most beautiful casas in Cuba. If you can't get a room, have dinner in the on-site paladar located in their overgrown tropical garden terrace.
Day 9-13 Cayo las Brujas
Momo on Flickr | Some Rights Reserved
There are countless beaches full of tourists brandishing their all-inclusive wristbands, who spend their holiday in the air-conditioned sanctuary of tour buses or the sanitized resort bar. No matter the beauty of the beach, I find it an uncomfortable pleasure, and would much rather somewhere shared by locals. While you really need to get further afield, away from the well-developed, state-controlled cayos to find such a beach, Cayo las Brujas is one of your best options within reach of Havana. Public beach Playa Salina is little more than a strip of white sand, with wind-battered tattered palm shades, under which Cuban families on holiday enjoy picnics and loved-up honeymoon-ers splash about smugly in the shallow, turquoise waters, while at the other end is the average yet affordable Villa las Brujas.
Caibarién | Tyler WetherallI chose to stay in Caibarién, a study in precarious architecture and surreal small town idiosyncrasies. This is a place where horse and cart is still the most viable form of public transport, and by the afternoon you can't purchase a loaf of bread in the supermarket. It was an hour's drive to the beach by day, but by night we got something closer to real-life Cuba.
An alternative to Cayo las Brujas is to head back towards Havana through the Viñales region, and check out the lesser-explored coast of the Pinar del Río province such as the three kilometers of sandy beaches on Cayo Jutias or the more developed Cayo Levisa.
Although, as much as you plan, it's the unplanned adventures -- hitch-hiking along dusty streets in the midday sun, barbecuing freshly caught lobster on the beach, getting lost and finding yourself somewhere completely unexpected -- that makes any trip to Cuba worth taking.