Stepping into San Jose Airport in Havana, the dazed traveller is greeted by a flamboyant display of national flags flowing from the high ceiling of the terminal. For such a solitary country, the gesture of internationalism provokes curiosity about whether the claims of island solitude are actually true.
For many travellers, the political rift that divides Cuba from all other countries in the Western hemisphere is the inspiring force behind a visit; considering the cost of flying to the Caribbean, I did not want to be disappointed. That moment of doubt, however, was quickly assuaged when we dumped our bags into an elderly Lada driven by a software engineer and headed for the city.
Our driver spoke fluent English, unlike most of the airport staff, including those in the exchange booths where we tediously exchanged Sterling into convertible pesos (CUC$). The convertible peso ensures that handsome revenues are sapped from foreign visitors, who make most of their purchases with the tourist currency. We paid our driver 35 convertibles for the journey into central Havana, which included a stop at our casa for the night. With 24 pesos (moneda nacional) to every CUC$1, we understood why the amiable Nelson was a taxi driver rather than accepting a government salary of a few hundred moneda nacional pesos a month. He happily chatted to us throughout the journey. One interesting fact: apparently the Cuban government runs Microsoft software, the pirated versions.
With the end of the desperation of the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has entered a transitional phase of fresh prosperity. Controls on self-employment have eased; by paying a steep tax, Cubans can rent rooms in their homes to tourists and gain access to those valuable convertible pesos. For visitors, it´s a cheaper and far more cordial option than the state-run hotels. Plus, there´s usually the offer of a sumptuous breakfast and dinner if by the second day you´re tiring of pizza or rice and beans.
Cuba is a land of great accessibility once you´re inside the island of isolation. Reliable Chinese buses haul tourists between attractive locations, organised with an astounding efficiency uncommon to most tourist-laden developing countries. With some cities having a population of about 75,000, the eager traveller can contentedly flit between town and country.
Wherever you travel, the spectre of the revolution will become familiar. From large murals in the cities to pieces of wood nailed to trees in the middle of nowhere, the message ‘Viva Fidel! Viva Raúl!´ rings out across Cuba. Yet although public loyalty to the revolution is demonstrated on most available walls, a quiet chat with a few Cubans will reveal common discontent. The convertible peso has brought the government the hard currency it critically needed, but at the expense of social equality. Most goods that we would count as necessities (including some medicines) are sold using convertibles, which are elusive to any worker on a government salary. Cubans are notably articulate when describing the successes and disadvantages of their unique political regime. Several I spoke to were fluent in English, thanks to their university training in a major city.
For an island which we associate with insularity, there are surprising regional differences. Outside of the towns and modest cities there is little but occasional clusters of roadside houses. Migration within Cuba is quite common, and your casa hosts will almost always make arrangements with a friend or a relative at your next destination on the road.
Given that transport and the organisation of accommodation is so easy, a road-trip through the intriguing regions is essential. The last stop on our itinerary was Baracoa; bordered by mountains, sea and river, it is truly a traveller´s gem. We were greeted by a group of primary school teachers, swigging rum and smoking to celebrate the end of the school year. Together that night we danced to reggaeton on the promenade, and the following day we dipped in el Rio del Miel (the river of honey).
There´s always something or someone to discover in Cuba. A trek across the country will provide staggering insights into the politics, culture and attitude of a nation unsure of its future. But in that moment, when you reach that distant tip of the island, nothing but satisfaction will overwhelm you. And why not? After all, it is most likely that there will be a few of Cubans clutching some celebratory rum nearby.
Enlaces: Solidaridad Española con Cuba
Las Damas de Blanco
Viajes a Cuba
Vuelos baratos a Cuba
Travel to Cuba