IF THERE ARE PEOPLE, THERE IS CHICKEN
I had this romantic vision of Cuba, a tropical country with beautiful beaches, langoustines, fruit shakes, mojitos, cigars, old American cars, buenavista social club, a taste of revolution and of course great limestone climbing. Friends, amongst them Bernardo, infected us with the idea to visit this island. Anyways, we needed to do a visa run so we decided to leave Rouletout and our doggies behind (thanks Bernardo and Saraí for taking care of them) and make a side trip to nearby Cuba. Our friends gave us some warnings about the dire situation on Cuba with respect to food but I hadn’t imagined to return with a completely destroyed romantic vision.
What is left of it are cigars, rum, great limestone and I’m happy to add friendly people that accept almost anything with a smile on their face. Other than that, Cuba is a dysfunctional country in most aspects of daily life, has deteriorating infrastructure and is unable to provide even basic necessities to its people. It seems, the only thing that Cuba - or its political system - is good at, is breaking any free will that might have been left in its population. But let’s take a step back. I still think Cuba is a great place to visit and there are many aspects to enjoy on this Caribbean island that seems to have been a paradise a long time ago. For the least it is a perfect show case of how a political system can ruin a country ;-).
Our flight left Mexico City late afternoon. After having bought our Cuban Tourist Card through our airline we flew into the sunset and arrived late night in Havanna. The first thing on arrival is to use one of the currency exchange machines at the airport. As a foreigner you can only buy “CUC’s” - the convertible currency, whereas locals use Cuban Pesos and - unfortunately for them - more and more also CUC’s to get anything of value in the country. Prices across the country are typically shown in both, CUCs and Pesos. However, at small stores or at the market you will only receive Pesos in return which are really not of any use.
We had booked and prepaid an accommodation through Airbnb (which surprisingly also works for Cuba) in the old town of La Habana. We had a small room on the rooftop with a great view of La Habana and our host was super welcoming and friendly. He also introduced us to some of the “customs” of the city, where to buy what, what to visit and what to miss. Despite the late hour, it was close to midnight, we decided to take a stroll, buy some beers and get a feel for the city. Easier said than done. We were surprised to find mostly dark alleys (electricity seems to be scarce), no shops or bars and people sitting on the sidewalk in front of abandoned and neglected houses - at least so we thought. After a while we found a small shop that was selling a few cans of (overpriced) beer and we headed back to our room.
The morning allowed us to see the city from our rooftop terrace, the Caribbean sea on the left, the capitol on the right and all sorts of improvised living quarters on rooftops. Some of them connected by dizzying ladders, plastic covered walls, fences to separate areas and people moving left and right. We enjoyed that view for a while, not having really understood what was going on. We hiked downtown, did a tour with an American old-timer, had our first few Mojitos and were stunned by the neglect of the historic building infrastructure. Most of the colonial houses are simply falling apart, behind what is left of the facades is emptiness, no running water, often no electricity and dozens of people living on spaces that were formerly reserved for a single family. We saw small shops, often with long queues in front of them, and tried to buy some fruits, but without success. There are many reminders of the revolution, oversized portraits of Castro and Che Guevara and encouragements to continue the “fight”. In front of the central police building our guide joked that about one million of the two million inhabitants of La Habana work for the police - denunciation is a favourite hobby and spending the night in “this hotel” is quite common. In our attempts to find a decent restaurant we ended up in an overpriced restaurant for tourists only. At least they had a reasonable choice of foods, something we will later learn is an exception in the country. At night we got a taste of the Cuban way of life and the importance of music. In front of the hotel Ingleterra was a big stage and a band played Cuban music with young and old dancing in the street. We stood out as tourists, not only because of our looks but mostly because we didn’t dance. It didn’t take long and we both got improvised classes of Salsa by young and old. If you are not dancing you must be sick so we danced ;-).
The next day started again with breakfast in a small place just across the street of our Airbnb - some eggs, dry bread, a small fruit juice and coffee - the choice was pretty limited. Soon thereafter a collectivo (a taxi you take with others) organised by our host picked us up and drove us the 200km to Viñales, a town located in the pretty valley of the same name in western Cuba. Famous for its tobacco, the rum and the limestone. Again we had booked accommodation via Airbnb - a small house at the outskirts of the city in walking distance of most of the climbing and the city center. Our host Lorenzo, a retired restaurant manager, tried everything to make our stay as comfortable as possible.
We went to explore the city and buy some basic foods but failed completely. The supermarkets offer an array of rum, 2 types of Nestlé cookies, sugar, 3 types of sweet drinks, coffee and bottled water. We found one more that sells salty crackers but this is it. No fruits, no vegetables, not even bread or butter. Many years ago I visited Prague when it was still behind the iron curtain and was shocked about the choice that was offered in their super markets. Compared to what is on sale in Cuba now however, it was paradise. Quite desperate, we ended up in a tourist restaurant and ordered a pizza. A good hour later we received a tiny round something that at least filled our stomach…
Luckily, Lorenzo tried to make the best for us at breakfast. Eggs, bread (when it was available in town! Sometimes flour delivery was delayed and then there was no fresh bread in town), some fruits and coffee. At least we had enough energy to explore the climbing which is really great. Steep limestone, tufas, caves, a huge variety of choices. We were late in the season and it was hot, so we rarely saw any other climbers at all. It also limited our motivation a bit and we were still tired from Jilotepec, fun climbing and exploring was the motto. We made a stop at Raoul’s farm our daily routine of our hike from the cliffs, at least he offered some tasty food, amongst them a typical dish, “ropa vieja” (a pork meat dish). He also sold local rum and his own cigars, so rum and cigars it was. Fruits were still scarce, we identified a mobile vendor of fruits that was around in the morning and sometimes had a few mangos or mameis, a pineapple maybe and this was it. Unbelievable in a country where everything grows!
From time to time we saw huge crowds in front of a specific shop. We tried to understand what was going on but just saw people walking away with a white box. Lorenzo explained it to us, with his usual sarcasm: if there are people, there is chicken. Queuing is the national sport on Cuba. Many basic supplies are rationed. Chicken, rice, beans, butter, oil, to name a few. When or if they are delivered to town, huge queues build up in front of the store and the lucky ones will get what they are waiting for. To our surprise we also learned, that many of these supplies - as well as fuel - have to paid in CUC and not Cuban Pesos! Just to put it into perspective, a litre of fuel costs a bit more than one CUC. The typical pension is 60 Pesos per month which equaled 2 CUC at the time of our visit. Surviving is really a challenge.
For days we tried to rent a motorcycle from the government run office but it was either closed (most of the time), or out of motorcycles (rest of the time). Reserving was not possible and after a few days, we simply gave up and decided to rent bicycles. We toured the area, inspected some of the climbing spots a bit further away and ate more ropa vieja. One day we were lucky enough to find langoustines in one of the tourist restaurants, of course at American prices but at this point we were willing to pay anything for decent food.
A trip to Cuba also needs to include some snorkelling in the clear waters of the Caribbean sea. Maria La Gorda at the westernmost tip of Cuba came highly recommended by our friends. A collective taxi - an old Lada 1500 with a hobby rally driver and former police man - raced us through the countryside to the remote dive and snorkelling spot. He also explained to us what it means to own a car on Cuba - a luxury only very few can afford and is typically handed down from generation to generation. The cost of an old Lada 1500 can be anywhere from 50’000.- to 80’000.- CUC (which roughly equals the same amount in dollars)! On top of that you have to pay government exorbitant monthly fees for owning it, more if you use it to earn a living as he was trying to do, independent of the fact that you make money with it or not. The same actually applies if you have a horse or, as our landlord, rent rooms to tourists. Back to Maria La Gorda. This place was developed as an international diving center, with individual housing units, a restaurant and 2 or 3 dive boats. The place is just amazing, palm lined beaches, a coral reef and maybe just a handful of tourists. Unfortunately you can also feel that it is a government run place - the food is close to inedible, the service is crap and from what we have heard from others that stayed there, the rooms are anything but comfy. Luckily we just stayed for the day and could enjoy amazing underwater views and all sorts of colourful fish.
Back in Viñales we climbed again, amongst it the “most beautiful route in Cuba” - Mucho Pumpito, a steep 2 to 3-pitch route on big jugs with amazing exposure and views. To get there we again had to take a taxi and luckily, on our way back an old truck took us back to Viñales. More climbing was just interrupted by a trip to Cayo Jutías, a great beach north of Viñales. It took us a while to convince our taxi driver to take the long way to the beach but he took us through great landscapes, small villages and abandoned tourist projects to this wild beach. We also found 2 guys selling freshly barbecued langoustines, of course hidden in the jungle. On our way back we again saw one or the other brand new Mercedes car parked on the roadside and finally received an explanation: these are officials of the communist party! Only the pigs are more equal…
Between climbing, beaches and rum and cigars our 11 days in Viñales went by quickly and it was time to head back to La Habana. Our flight back to CDMX was scheduled for 6 in the morning, so we decided to stay another day and night in the capital. Our Airbnb host Dr. Elizabeth - a doctor for infectious diseases - was super welcoming and - after we toured La Habana for the last time - prepared dinner for us. It was interesting to hear her view on the situation in Cuba. Having been able to study for free despite coming from a rural area she was trying to convey positive aspects but in the end the deteriorated - formerly famous - health care system, the exodus of the educated masses and its implications and her fight to make it in a systems that doesn’t reward anyone for his efforts dominated. She actually has to rent the room to pay for her car, a luxury she only could afford because she worked on a government program for many years in Africa…
Thank you Cuba, it was beautiful and very interesting, I just wish the food would have been better ;-).
Info about the climbing on Cuba and especially Viñales can be found on theCrag.