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Cuba

November 2015

The last socialist country in the Western hemisphere, where 70 year old cars drive in everyday traffic with passengers typing on a brand new smartphone. Where all colors live together as peaceful as probably nowhere else in the world, but sometimes lacking the most basic needs. Where human rights are violated for decades, but most people still have a smile on their face. Welcome to Cuba!

La Habana

Right after the arrival we were adjusted to the Cuban way of life. Waiting an hour for immigration and another one for luggage made most Europeans nervously check their watch every minute, while the Cubans leant back and waited patiently for what they can't change anyway. The next morning we started roaming Havana's Vedado, Centro, and Vieja districts by foot for two days – the heat automatically slowed us down to Cuban speed.
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Malecón

In every other sea side capital, this street would be a majestic beach promenade, housing the most exclusive hotels, restaurants, and bars. In Havana, these times are gone for nearly 60 years. Today, the Malecón is a a six-lane concrete jungle lined with the ruins of once stately mansions. At night it awakens, when those who cannot afford Havana's clubs and bars gather on the seawall for some cheap rum, beer and chatting – or even a hot soup and a Venezuelan soap opera on TV. But it seems that the public squares, that offer WiFi access, slowly outrank the Malecón as Havana's #1 Saturday night venue.
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Street Life

Everything takes place on the streets in Cuba. Due to the heat and probably also due to the rather depressing inside of most houses, doors and windows are always wide open. Neighbours are chatting through the window, kids are running in and out, a basket on a lash is dropped from the balcony to scrounge a cigarette, Mambo rhythms are blasting through the street – you get the picture. As soon as you stop to sneak a peek, be sure to be at least friendly greeted, more often directly asked to come in.
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America!

This is a special topic indeed. Calling the relationship between Cuba and the United States 'complicated' is not even close to the truth. Before Fidel's revolution, Cuba was closely bound to the US for several decades – resulting in the omnipresent Yank Tank cars on the streets and even in Havana's El Capitolio, that resembles its counterpart in Washington not just by name. However, during the Cold War, US-Cuban relationships dropped to arctic temperature levels. The former US embassy building in Havana officially was under Swiss protection for decades and served as an 'interest section'. The last chapter of a rather weird propaganda ping pong was written under the Bush administration, when a massive LED display was installed on the building to present a news ticker from the US point of view. Fidel's reaction was the installation of not less than 138 Cuban flags in the Anti-Imperialism Park right in front of the building to block the view. After the Cuban Thaw of the Obama administration, the billboard was removed, all but one Cuban flags disappeared and the embassy was reopened a few month before my visit. Stars and stripes are omnipresent anyway: on bikes, cars and even leggings…
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Municipio Candelaria

After the first days in Cuba's largest city, we were yearning for some nature and wildlife. The small village of Soroa in the Sierra del Rosario mountains was a good way to start. Cuba lives up to its name as the green island in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. A nice and quiet place for some sweaty hikes through the jungle and some hours of reading a good book in a rocking chair.
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Las Terrazas

Surrounded by mountains, the village of Las Terrazas was founded in 1971 as part of rural development and reforestation project. After decades of cultivating coffee and other plants with wrong cropping systems, this part of the Artemisa Province suffered under heavy deforestation and erosion. The farmers became part of a model community to establish a secondary forest on newly built terraces – giving the village its name. Today, visitors can hike a couple of trails to various peaks and natural river pools. As maps are rare and trails branch out dozens of times, we unfortunately had to follow a guided tour for a rather small hike. On the rainy way back to Soroa we shared the 1977 Mercedes Benz of our taxi driver Júlio César not just with his wife and his mother, but also with his sons César Daniel and, yes, César Juan.
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Valle de Viñales

This valley is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cuba – aside from Havana and the beaches of Varadero, of course. The 'traditional charm' you will experience around Viñales is overwhelming, but has a darker side. Farming with bulls, riding on horses, all that has a romantic touch indeed and makes some great photos, I have to admit. But reality also is, that this is not just a scenery – it's poverty. The further away from the town of Viñales you get, the more obvious it gets. All you need are some solid boots (especially right after the rainy season…) or a bike to get away from the beaten tracks through the valley and its national park.
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Agriculture

I expected some kind of kolkhozes or LPGs like in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Germany, as Cuba is one of the last 'real' communist countries in the world. But after the Soviet bloc collapse, Cuba's agricultural production fell dramatically by 54 percent between 1989 and 1994. Due to the lack of investments and high fuel prices, most work is manual labour today – by humans or bulls. The other side of the coin is, that the largest part of Cuba's agricultural sector turned organic due to the shortage of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Today, sustainable farming is not a luxury in Cuba, it's an economic necessity.
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Baseball

Back to the small town of Viñales, our Casa was located right next to the local baseball ground. We invested more than two hours in watching the game, but still didn't understand a thing. Anyway, Cubans are crazy about it, and even a kids game attracts half of the village to cheer passionately.
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Cienfuegos

From the rural wonderland of Viñales to the city of Cienfuegos, the so called perla del sur. I did not really get why of all places along the south cost Cienfuegos is called like that, but tastes differ.
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Castro

Fidel, Ché and their Revolution are omnipresent in Cuba. Of course the Communist Party's local office – opened day and night, by the way – was not lacking a portrait of the Máximo Líder looking for his citizens. If the old baseball fanatic would like seeing the youth across the street being more attracted to football nowadays?
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Internet

What is a matter of course in almost every other country in the world (North Korea to be ignored…) is another specialty in Cuba. There are no private internet connections, but WiFi in some hotel lobbies and public squares. These places are crowded with people, scratching their 1 hour access tickets and staring on their smartphones and laptops. An hour costs 2 CUC – nearly 10 % of an average monthly salary!
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Farmers' Market

Finally a market hall that deserved this name. Even though a giant Ché portrait was overlooking this market in Cienfuegos, the Mercados Agropecuarios across Cuba are more or less liberalized today. For decades Cuba's state-owned agricultural sector produced for one single customer only: The state itself. The production was sold to the population for rather symbolic prices in state-owned ration markets – the omnipresent bodega corner shops. During the Special Period, Cuba's extended economic crisis in the 1990's, this inefficient system was partly changed. Today, farmers and cooperatives can sell their surplus production on farmers' markets for prices freely set by demand and supply.
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Sports

It's not all about baseball! Post Revolutionary Cuba actually prides itself on its success in nearly all kind of sports – well, maybe leaving winter sports aside. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, during its sorrowful Special Period, Cuba reached the 5th place in the overall medal count – while being only the 115th largest country in the world by population. In London 2012 it was a still mentionable 16th place. Sport is politics in Cuba, so success is a necessity. That of course means, that training is tough even for the youngest.
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Trinidad

My personal perla del sur in Cuba. A tranquil, laid-back town located between a dreamlike beach and a gorgeous mountain range. And like the Viñales valley, its old charm somehow resisted the dozens of guided tour buses arriving every day.
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Playa Ancón

We gave the tourist ghettos of Varadero a wide berth, but the Caribbean beaches were just too inviting to avoid them at all. A few kilometers from Trinidad lays Playa Ancón, a peninsula with several kilometers of amazing beaches and spoiled with only three hotels so far. We rented two old mountain bikes in Trinidad and cycled down the Playa to find a lonely spot – and were so excited about it, that we did the exactly same thing two days in row.
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Cerro de la Vigía

Back from the beach we felt a bit guilty about leaving the great mountains of Trinidad aside, so we at least climbed Cerro de la Vigía for the panoramic view. The small hill is located right behind Trinidad at the entrance of Valle de los Ingenios. This Valley of the Sugar Mills is formed by the three smaller valleys of San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer, and was a major centre for sugar production from the 18th until the late 19th century – with a quite depressing history of slavery as well. Today the Cerro houses a large radio transmitter station, whose security guard established a solid business model by letting visitors climb a roof for the better view and selling drinks. Turned out to be a small sunset happening up there.
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Back to Havana

After some amazing days in Trinidad, we were everything but in the mood for the big city. Arriving back there, we found out that our Casa was overbooked and we were moved to a shabby apartment surrounded by run-down 15-story concrete monsters. But – Cuban way of life, too – a couple of hours later we found two cozy Casas in beautiful colonial buildings for the last nights. Just a few streets away, for the same price. There is a solution for everything in Cuba. All you need is what most Cubans have in abundance: time. Moved and happy, we had one and a half day left for doing all the touristy stuff: Strolling through markets, shops and cafés to buy a bit more souvenirs than planned…
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Bye Bye, Cuba

I've seen a couple of countries in the world, but I don't really know where to pigeonhole Cuba. This country is special indeed – I left with more questions unanswered then I had when arriving on this Caribbean jewel. Or, to quote the old travel book I found in our last Casa's bookshelf: To explore it you'll need at least two weeks; to dig deeper, a couple of months; to understand it – a lifetime. Unfortunately we only had two weeks…
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© 2017 Benedikt Altschuh