Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. People overuse that phrase but given that Castro is near death, sooner or later the Caribbean nation will open its shores to commercial tourism and what has been trapped in time, will be fast forwarded to the present. Go while you still can. While it’s still on lockdown, and while you can still experience a type of society that your grandparents once spoke of.
Our next destination was Cuba’s best friend – Mexico. Castro had sailed from here many decades ago to overthrow the US-backed genocidal Batista government, and from what we had heard, it was dangerous in some areas and wild – in a good way – in others. We flew into Cancun and immediately caught the bus toward Tulum – the supposedly rustic jewel in Mexico’s thorny crown. Excited thoughts about sky-blue, crystal-clear oceans and vibrantly-colored fish swarming amongst sea turtles were quickly extinguished when the bus driver decided to put on a film about shark attacks. The optimist in me reasoned that the South African-set film was irrelevant to Mexico, regardless of their giant tuna fishing industry, so I watched Halle Berry make poor decision after poor decision with indifference.
Our hostel reminded us of the type of hostels you see in the Greek islands: big, white, minimalist and with moderately-functioning air conditioning. We had a communal pool, a bookshelf at reception, and a few large lizards to keep us company. Next door to us was a small, roadside shack serving up $1 fish tacos and a Mexican drink that was delicious, and whose name I’ll never know. Food in Mexico is cheap. It’s delicious. And it’s a lot more healthy than the Tex-Mex that has swept the planet. We wandered around the streets and came across a bar with the Mayan Galactic Butterfly symbol that I had dangling around my neck, and that featured at the beginning of my first travel novel, VAGABOND. We had plans to visit but never quite made it: Between long days at the beach, Mexican beers and satiating our Argentinian-born fetish for steak, our days mostly ended in food comas. At least when we weren’t exploring Mayan ruins or the underground river systems running through caves (known as cenotes).
Tulum is a relaxed Mexican village that runs at a decrepit pace compared to the extremely commercialized Playa Del Carmen. This suited us well, since we preferred the more local vibe which gave an authentic impression of everyday Mexican life. We hired bikes for our time there, and rode them every day down to the beaches and around the small town. Bikes are cheap, and definitely the best way to get around and see things you’d otherwise miss on a bus or in a cab. The main reason people come to Tulum is for the Chichen Itza ruins. These are ancient Mayan ruins with a real wow-factor. Not many people hang around for too long beyond that, but it’s highly recommended you do if you want cleaner, less-populated beaches and a cheaper location to live up your Mexican fantasies. I say cheaper, which should really read “accurate” or “fair,” since the expensiveness of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun is not a reflection of Mexico’s cost of living, but of the hotel conglomerate and package tourists who drive up prices to a completely unnecessary level. If I were in Switzerland, then paying $30 for three tacos may not bother me, but when they’re $1 down in Tulum and actually taste better, well, nobody likes being stooged.
Chichen Itza ruins can’t really be described in words, so I’ll just post the photos below. All you need to know before undertaking your own research is that they are some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in Latin America, and house a few engineering, sonic secrets that were used by rulers to exert power and influence over the people (“clap” when you’re facing them, and have a friend stand to their side a few metres away, and you’ll know what I’m talking about).
Tulum isn’t just a great place for Mayan ruins and Caribbean beaches, though. It’s also home to numerous underwater river systems that snake their way through caves, called cenotes. This became a new fascination of mine, but largely the only good ones in the world are found in Mexico, so if you want to experience this natural wonder, which has usually been exposed thanks to a giant sinkhole in the ground, then you’ll have to get over there. As you might imagine, underwater caves make for a great diving and snorkeling experience. A fair few divers get lost and die in them, since they’re risking swimming through an underwater, pitch black maze with a flashlight, and this is no more evidenced than in this famous cenote below:
Suffice to say, Mexicans want you to be a very experienced diver. We’re told it’s nothing like diving in the ocean, and in order to get over the psychological component that comes with underwater cave diving, you should be gradually trained with a certified dive instructor. We visited a few different cenotes during our time in Tulum and loved every second of it. At the bottom of sinkholes, deep underground, were blue waters filled with turtles and black catfish, protruding stalactites from the rock ceiling stabbing deep into the abyss, and countless caves that presumably led to some foreign underwater utopia. Probably filled with treasure. Definitely filled with more dead divers. Bright orange strings could be observed from various cave entrances but they soon disappeared into the dark recesses of wherever these caves led. The water was cool, bordering on cold, but certainly refreshing from the warmer Caribbean waters under an even hotter Mexican sun.
The cenotes were a definite highlight of our time in not only Tulum, but Mexico as a whole. I’ll even go further than that and say they were a top ten experience of Latin America. Tulum, for us, retained that rustic, weathered charm that is so prevalent in South America, and delivered environmental eye-candy around every corner.
Next, we decided to visit Playa Del Carmen, since Cancun was filled with nothing but resorts and if we were going to leave Mexico, we wanted to leave Mexico with a Mexican experience.
After exploring the rural farmland of Vinales, we jumped on a bus and headed toward the UNESCO Heritage city of Trinidad. We read a lot about this city online and (gasp) in our Lonely Planet guidebooks. I’ve ironically found that in the day and age of the Internet, where there’s so much noise to syphen through, that the good ol’ guidebook can sometimes come in handy. Some backpackers detest the very idea of them since they apparently give away all the best kept secrets about a destination, but on occasion I’ve found out about towns and villages in them that I haven’t seen on the Net.
I’m guessing that’s because these texts have been largely ignored, ironically transforming globally-published “secrets” into some cases, more off the beaten path, or subtle tourist destinations.
So off we went by bus, stopping off at a few small villages along the way which were home to convenience stores and Che Guevara merchandise, and into the ancient city of Trinidad. Trinidad is best described as a mix between Havana and Prague: It is its mix of ancient architecture, quaint shops and cobblestoned streets which pronounce its former wealth thanks to the Caribbean sugarcane trade. Like Cuba in general, pre-Castro, it was a very wealthy city that was at the forefront of Latin American economics – an example to smaller, struggling countries on how to montetize their resources in the then-booming Americas.
Upon arrival, a man in a bicycle-taxi shouted out our names. We looked at the size of him (he was small), then at the “bicycle-taxi” and its seeming lack of luggage space, and then at our backpacks, before giving each other a “How the hell is this going to work?” look. But it did work. Somehow. Although as we started peddling toward our host family’s place, the little man really began struggling and our bike almost halted to a stop. We hopped off and carried our backpacks up the hill, where we reconvened onward to El Tulipan: the beautiful home of Marga and Bernado. When we arrived, we were greeted with a beer and their last Cohiba (famous Cuban cigar). “Cuban hospitality,” I thought to myself, “is something I can get used to.”
We were staying on the top floor of Marga and Bernado’s home, where we had a large outdoor balcony, a view over the bustling street, and a two bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. It had a red and pink bohemian decor, a bookshelf with some great Cuban reads, and a stocked minibar. Each morning, we would wake up to a huge breakfast spread over our table. We had eggs, a tomato salad, Cuban ham, a coconut spread, coffee, juice… So much food. We struggled to finish it each morning, but were so grateful for the hospitality and warmth we were shown. After a full day’s breakfast, we went off to explore the town.
Trinidad is home to amazing sunsets which drape themselves over the hilly mountains and urban skyline. We watched the sunset while a bunch of Cuban kids played Cuban music for us, and later went out for Sam’s all-time favorite meal – Nutella crepes! The crepe store has to be the number one greatest thing to NOT have a big presence in Australia. From Malta to Paris, Phillippines to Cuba, the takeaway crepe seems to rule the planet and many of our hard-earned dollars have exchanged hands with the global crepe-man! As we waited for our crepes to be made, a cross-dresser walked in and began ordering his own. He came up to me, having spotted my childish, yellow Brazil World Cup watch, and asked if he could buy it from me.
“This is the missing piece of my costume, look at how well it will match my green pants and tanned skin? And these fingernails? Please, how much did you pay for it? I’ll pay you double.”
I politely declined, since the watch is probably the only sentimental thing I’ve collected this entire trip, but if it had been anything else I would have just given it to him. Cubans are fairly poor, and I’d never actually sell something to someone in that position. Like this trip and others, I’ve given a few things away, or left clothes and books behind for people to have. After talking to the cross dresser for a little while out front, we walked in the dark streets past casas, home restaurants and the occasional bar until we reached our place.
One evening, we went for lobster next door at a family restaurant that was literally deserted. The long walk down the driveway led to a nice courtyard with a few plants and trees, a screen showing the Cuban baseball, and a few tables and chairs for us to sit in. When we arrived, there were a group of guys who looked a little bit shady but were nice. We think that one of them was related to the owner, who came out with a couple of menus which detailed some really delicious meals. Lobster, of course, was what we were going to eat since it costs a fortune back home. Lobster is basically Cuba’s version of chicken: cheap and plentiful. Sam’s plate came out with three lobsters on it – all for only $9! My lobster came out half off the plate, since it was so large. After we finished up and paid the cheque, the owner came out and presented me with a cigar and Sam with some nice beads that his wife had made.
“These are for you. Thank you so very much for coming and eating with us. My wife made this (presents it to Sam) and I rolled this (a cigar). Please come again soon, we will have more presents waiting for you!”
We were taken aback by again, the warmth of the Cuban people. Cuba reminded us a lot of Greece, in that the hospitality of the people was of huge importance to the locals. Kindness, smiles, warmth, helpfulness – simple virtues that are becoming more complicated to come by in certain faster, and more developed, societies, were heavily presented not just in Trinidad, but all over Cuba.
Over the next few days in Trinidad, we visited the beach by bus and really took it easy. Like the beaches near Vinales, there were plenty of people about who were drinking rum from the bottle while sunbaking, and men on the beach selling pizza and prawns (shrimp). One man, who worked for a hotel, told us that if we need anything to just let him know, and he would get it. We suspect that to buy drinks, you had to be a guest of one of the hotels but we weren’t sure. Regardless, we just enjoyed relaxing on the beach and observing the Caribbean waters.
Cuba isn’t exactly touristy, but there are some tourists. Mostly, you’ll see French and Canadians, and for the first time in perhaps ever, we didn’t hear a single Australian accent while abroad. My dream of visiting Cuba was about to come to an end, as our next and final stop would be Varadero – hands down the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Better than Thailand, Philippines, Greece, Australia and Fiji. How is that even possible? I guess Cuba has a lot of untapped potential that one day, more of the world will get to experience!
We wanted to explore Cuba from every angle we could. To do this, we embarked towards the small countryside town of Vinales, where we stayed with a former international Cuban baseball player who played at the Olympics. His name was Orestes, and his wife Lourdes was a phenomenal cook.
We were told that Vinales’ sporting hero Orestes would be waiting for us at the bus stop. We didn’t know he was a former famous player, but when we stepped off the bus and saw an unusually tall and built Cuban man, we suspected he must have been some kind of athlete. Orestes helped us with our bags to his home, where we met his wife Lourdes, and their son’s girlfriend. Their son was away on military duty at the time, and we guessed that the girlfriend was helping them out with the family business (although that term doesn’t really apply in Cuba). Casas can only operate if licensed by the government. The Castro regime has their hand in everything, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a local farmer cultivating coffee or a former famous baseball player – everybody is essentially equal, since the government takes almost all of your earnings anyway.
Upon arrival in Vinales, we were showed the way to our spacious room which had outdoor chairs and tables. In Cuba, there are no hostels and all of the hotels are government-run. This is the only way to impact in a positive way while travelling through Cuba – trying to give what money you can to the locals who allow people to stay in their homes. The government still gets their cut. Nothing rung this home harder than when the police arrived at our home in Havana. The look on our host family’s faces was terror. As the police woman entered, books and records of who stayed and when were presented. Cash was beginning to change hands. We left that place (the best of any accommodation on our trip) with that raw reminder that the government will literally enter your home and take what they want. The implementation of a dual currency (Cuban Pesos [CUP] for locals, and Convertible Pesos [CUC] for foreigners) also means that certain shops won’t serve you unless you’re Cuban. In some places, I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water. This means that trying to leave behind extra money for the locals is worthless, since they can’t convert it, as to do so, they need to go into a government-run exchange house (and they’d be busted). Keep in mind too that one foreign peso is worth 24 local pesos, so you pay 24 times as much for everything than what locals do. Given the average price of a mojito almost everywhere is only $2, you can’t complain.
So, the reality of Cuba’s “tax” system is what made our experience with Orestes most interesting: We reasonably expected a former sports star to live somewhat lavishly, but there was no indication at all that he was better off than anyone else.
The best way to describe Vinales would be as a small, sleepy town with lots of greenery, old American cars and rugged streets. It feels smaller than most country towns we have been to, and reminds us more of a village. As soon as we arrived, Orestes and Lourdes ushered us outside to a table and two chairs and showed us a couple of activity menus we might be interested in. We asked if we could go horse riding through the countryside, and Lourdes arranged for us to leave an hour later. While we waited, she cooked us hot dogs in bread rolls with an oddly-textured cheese. It looked like tofu, but its taste was more subtle feta. Anyway, after we finished lunch inside we returned outside, where Orestes showed us newspaper clippings about him from when he was an international baseball player. He also showed us a handwritten note from Fidel Castro addressed to him, letting Orestes know that he is proud of him for representing the Cuban people at the Olympics (might have been Atlanta or Sydney, we can’t remember). It was amazing to see this handwritten note addressed to him, and he was very proud and happy to show us. Before we knew it, a local came to the front door and we were off to ride horses through some of the remotest places we’d ever been. On the way out, we noticed a huge plethora of baseball trophies Orestes had won as a professional. Lourdes informed us that he now dedicated his time to teaching children how to play.
Off we left with a young Cuban guy who couldn’t speak much English. We walked around for ages while trying to find bottled water, but everywhere was sold out – and it was extremely hot in Vinales! After conceding that we wouldn’t have any water for the next six or seven hours, we trekked through a village until we arrived at his brother’s house. Before we arrived, he asked if we spoke any Spanish at all. Repeatedly. Nope… Not anything that would allow us to converse properly, unfortunately. When we met his brother and jumped on our horses, we realised why he had sounded so disappointed when we told him no: his brother didn’t speak a word of English. Which was okay by us, but as the day wore on we couldn’t understand anything he said, so we’re sure that plenty of interesting and important facts went in one ear and out the other. For hours on end, we rode through small, rustic villages and at our first stop, we galloped up to a small barn house where a legitimate Cuban cigar roller was waiting. Inside the barn, the Cuban man asked us to sit at his wooden table. This was as farmland as you get – the only difference between the inside of the barn and the outside, was that there were four walls and a roof.
“You wanna smoke a cigar, my friend?” He asked.
“Okay,” I replied – why else was I in a Cuban tobacco farmer’s barn house?
“This is the best cigar in Cuba. I made this with my bare hands. This doesn’t have any preservatives. It’s fresh. Not like the Montecristo’s they roll in the Havana factories.”
I nodded. He had a point. He pulled out a hand-rolled cigar, chopped the butt off, and dipped the end in honey.
“This allows you to draw the smoke through without it being harsh. it also gives a good taste.” I drew on the cigar, and felt like I always felt when smoking a cigar: out of my depth. Weren’t cigars reserved for older, more hardcore folk? I was a water rat from Australia with shaggy hair and a beard. As much as I wish I did, I did not fit the picture.
As I sucked the hot smoke back through the tunnel of the cigar, it caused the thick honey to crackle and pop. The honey didn’t change the flavour of the cigar as much as one might expect, but it did help to hold in any flaky bits from the cut. It dawned on me that I was surrounded by genuine, hard-as-nails Cuban tobacco farmers, and I was sitting in a tiny barn house in a small village so far away from home that the classic backpacking concept of “Going off the beaten path” looked tired. Where ever we were wasn’t off the beaten path. It was a whole other world.
While smoking the cigar, the man who looked like a darker version of Crocodile Dundee, taught us how to roll a cigar from scratch: How to tell the difference between young and old leaves, how to add flavours to them with rum and honey, how to roll them up inside a bigger tobacco leaf and create the perfect cylinder, and how to store them so that four months from today, they would be ready to smoke! It was all eye-opening, and a much more primitive, simple yet complicated process than what I was expecting. The most interesting part was when the tobacco farmer bent the cigars in half – showing to us how flexible they were when raw. After four months in the bottom of his fridge, alongside his vegetables, they would harden up the way most smokers know them to be.
I’m no connoisseur, but after smoking the finest Cuban cigars money could buy (Montecristo, Cohiba, and Epicure No.2), the cigars this farmer rolled were far superior: Smoother, tastier, and simply more enjoyable – and this is coming from a non-smoker. We heard from other backpackers who had visited Cuba that the very best cigars didn’t come from the legendary factories, which fetch a fortune in Australia and Europe, but rather from the poor farmers in the countryside. We can definitely attest to that now.
After we left the tobacco farm, we rode to a cave where we went… caving. There were a lot of tight squeezes, plenty of bats swooping over our heads, and our young guide was friendly enough to fill us in on a bunch of facts about cave formations which went way over our heads. Out in the remote areas of Vinales, there are wild banana trees and coffee plants, so we were given a chance to try them too. Caving was an interesting exercise. We hadn’t done it before, and probably won’t again, but trying to mend your body in order to make it past back-breaking rocks in pitch black darkness was humbling. I wondered how many poor cavers got trapped, had rocks slide on top of them, or drowned from rainfall – since half way through caving, the rain started falling and the cave began flooding!
We jumped back on our horses to visit another small village. This one gave us coconuts on arrival and showed us how they farmed coffee plants and pineapples. We were genuinely intrigued by how much interesting and complicated work goes into farming, and appreciate eco-tourism a lot more now. At this farm, we mostly sat around for a while while our local guide exchanged banter for almost an hour with one of the other farmers. We were given samples of a local alcohol similar to rum, with a piece of fruit in it. A few coconut juices and mystery-rums later, Sam became fixated on the chickens, and took countless photos of them. We shared the table there with an Italian couple from Milan, who were doing a similar trek around Cuba. After we departed, we made our way back to the stables but not before I almost flung off my horse and into a fence heavy with barbed wire. The paths in the Cuban villages are treacherous: there are pot holes everywhere, uneven ground and deep ditches. Our guide decided it was a good idea to yell at my horse to run downhill through ditches and pot holes. Suicide 101 if I ever saw it. My horse absolutely stacked it, fell and seemed like it was a millimeter away from snapping all its legs. I was flung forward but managed to hold on. My horse recovered after falling over towards the barbed wire fence. The guide thought it was funny.
Once we got off our horses we noticed that the animals were branded the old school way, numbered with hot irons. That’s considered animal cruelty these days but Cuba is in a giant time warp, so we doubted they knew any differently. After we headed back to our house, Lourdes cooked up GIANT LOBSTER for us. So big, I had to finish Sam’s for her. They were larger than the plate. We didn’t realise lobster came so big. Back home, it would be well over $100 IF you could order something this size, but in the Cuban countryside (and all of Cuba, for that matter), king lobsters are normal. Commonplace, even. It’s their version of chicken. Something we would both gladly enjoy over the next three and a half weeks in Cuba.
In Vinales, the highlight of our trip was ordering a taxi to drive us an hour away to a beautiful beach called Cayo Jutias. Seriously beautiful. Remember, there are nice beaches to be found all over the world, but this was the Caribbean, which meant the water was warm, flawless, and bright blue. To make the experience better, we were driving in an old American car, with music blaring as we passed plenty of villages in the Cuban countryside. At the beach, we noticed that nobody was drinking beer. Over in Cuba, people buy bottles of rum and drink them at the beach. They even swim out into the ocean with bottles of rum and small glasses, floating around and getting drunk. We laughed on the drive there and on the way back, as it felt like a scene out of a Hollywood movie: Old American car, perfect countryside, and an even more perfect beach all chaperoned by a young, friendly Cuban guy.
We would soon get ready to leave Vinales and head to Trinidad. During our week in Vinales, we experienced a secluded Latin experience that was far from commercial or even widely known. Largely, this was attributable to it being Cuba. It may very well be one of the last places on Earth that isn’t Westernised or in some way influenced by the West. Or even modern technology. Before we departed, I bought a few books and newspapers detailing the many botched CIA missions that were sprung into action in a bid to overthrow the country. America had gone as far as poisoning everyday folk just to get back at Castro, and to wage a war. There are of course two sides to every story, and I guess what I now hold in my hands would be declared as anti-American propaganda, but from our experiences with Cubans, there are zero hostilities towards Americans. It’s just the US government they don’t like.
I did a few background checks on these alleged CIA missions which aimed to cripple Cuba’s agricultural industries, and incite terrorism, and according to Wiki Leaks and even recently released US Government files, they check out. The plot thickens… Biological and chemical weapons were used on innocent Cuban civilians. A ridiculous number of assassination attempts were made on Castro (including giving him an exploding cigar, and a wet suit filled with poisonous algae). I mean, after reading through all of this, including the accusations the US government had admitted to, it was both macabre and creative. You couldn’t even think half of this stuff up if you tried…