Cuba Diaries – Travelogue

The movie was “Havana Nights” a sequel to the Patrick Swayze starrer Dirty Dancing.  The movie was a disaster on all accounts as compared to its prequel but nevertheless laid an all-consuming impact with its settings in quaint old Havana in Cuba (Koo-bah), sweeping me off my feet and sowing the seed and intention of visiting Cuba someday, a must do in my bucket list that I have looked forward to for the last 20 years. My exposure to these movies is what started my eternal love and romance with Salsa and Cuba. Though Salsa wasn’t born in Cuba, Cuba plays the fairest of roles in the evolution of Salsa as a form of music and dance. Unfortunately, due to the embargo levied on Cuba post the Cuban Missile crisis, Cuba has suffered irreparable damage, which was a direct fallout of the Cold War.  I say this because a small country so rich with talent never got its due on the world stage barring a few lucky artists, considering dance, music and art is the very essence and nerve center of the Cuban community. Cuba is also known for its world famous Rums, Cigars, Mojitos, Cuba Libre, Piña Colada, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Communism, revolutions, Nobel laureate – Ernst Hemingway, quaint old world charm stuck in the 1950s with its colonial architecture, classic cars like Oldsmobile, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Studebakers, Fords, Dodges and some great once in a life time experiences.

At a time, when Cuba as a country lost out to the world, people in Cuba gained something wonderful – self-reliance, making the best of the worst and more importantly on how to be happy in times of complete adversity and apathy or at least fake it very convincingly. I guess the lack of exposure to the imperialistic powers helped maintain the sanctity and innocence of the people of Cuba. I stake this claim from experiencing old world charm, still fully functional to this day and age. Cubans have evolved to being great engineers, a simple example is finding in genuine ways to make crude automobile spares to keep 60-70 year-old cars in fully running and pristine condition. 

So this is how the plan to visit Cuba bore fruit – having dealt with a life threatening health issue for the last 3 years, I was unable to travel and during this time a friend and student – Vikram Ahuja opened a travel startup – Byond travel who readily put an itinerary together. I was so excited that I wanted to share this experience with a few more friends and thanks to social media, 14 more friends, friends of friends and students of my dance school LVDS joined me on this sojourn to Cuba and hence the Cuba diaries began.

We landed at one of the most ill equipped airports in Havana on the 15th of October 2016, after having flown for 20 hours on Air France via Paris. We were welcomed by a very unfriendly Emigration official who gathered our group separately and collected our passports for a supposed, routine checkup. I guess he had never seen Indians in Cuba before, barring the people who were brought in, to build hotels in Havana. After having disappeared for nearly 20 minutes and leaving us nervous, he surfaced and guided us to the VIP emigration point which was wonderful since we didn’t have to wait in an ever winding queue. Overall a good start with some VIP treatment.  In spite of being on priority my bag took an hour to reach me and I immediately walked towards the departure gates to be greeted by Edgar Fuentes, our friendly, cheerful guide who happened to be at our beck and call for the rest of the trip. My effort to get Cuban convertibles (CUC) currency used in Cuba by Tourists went in vain because that was another long wait and no, we are not allowed to use Cuban Pesos, because that is much lower in value and only for the locals. So once the group collected their bags and joined me, we headed to our hotel – Copacabana about a 30minute drive from the airport. A quaint hotel that reminded me of our very own Woodlands in Bangalore and Chennai but with a view of the Caribbean Sea. (Costs about 70-80 CUC per night).

Day one started with a bang, we showered and immediately hit Casa de la Musica in central Havana with a young high energy band playing some salsa, Reggae-ton and Cuban pop music, the place was devoid of tourists and filled with locals. I had my first experience of a Cuba Libre the way the Cubans would have it and I must say, it was divine. Experiencing the taste of Cuban Rum for the first time after hearing all the stories about rum from Cuba, I realized why it was considered the world’s best. Yes, we do have our old monk which my dear Cuban friend Alberto Romay swears by every time he comes to India, but a Havana Club is a Havana Club and so is a Santiago, some of the finest Rums in the world. Once the band finished their set, we headed out to have dinner at Havana’s famous El Guajirito. A trip that starts with a great party, a nice drink and great food surely lays foundations for wonderful memories.

We started day 2 rather early with our tour bus picking us up by 9am and taking us to the Almandares parque and Almandares river with a little shack by the river side, home to Cuba’s number one bartender known to make the best Piña Colada in the whole of Cuba and yes, judging from everybody’s reaction they were truly the world’s best. I can’t judge that though, because I am not the kind that would generally have a Piña Colada. Later we passed through the beautiful cemetery – Colom and visited the Revolution square. Si, Cuba is known as the land of revolutions. En route to old Havana we did some cigar shopping while being educated on the best cigars in the world – Cohiba Esplendidos smoked by Fidel Castro, Romeo Y Julieta, Trinidad and Guantanamera. Post that we trudged off to old Havana and visited the Plaza de San Francisco followed by lunch at Cafe Taberna at Plaza Vieja with a beautiful Salsa band that played exclusively for us. We danced to every track being played during lunch and later walked to a popular Coffee shop called Cafe Escorial and tasted some Cuban craft beer at a Microbrewery called Factoria Plaza Vieja. Post beer, we went back to the hotel to freshen up and get all sharp for dinner at El Rum Rum de la Habana followed by the truly anticipated experience of listening to live music at the Buena Vista Social Club where 30 of Havana’s most popular singers and musicians perform day in a day out. The documentary on the BUENA Vista Social Club directed by Wim Wenders is what made Cuban music so popular the world over. We young guns had to experience the night life of Havana so we hit a local club for an after party with a lot of locals and some fun Salsa, Reggaeton, Spanish Hiphop and Cuban pop music.

Day 3 started with a Bus ride to Viñales through the mountains with a visit to the Guayabita del Pinar – Liqueur Factory at Pinar del Rio followed by the most delicious lunch at an organic farm, a beautiful panoramic view of the Valley of Vinales to live music and a boat ride at Cueva del Indio also called the Indian Caves, formed by Stalactites and Stalagmites. A mandatory stop at a Tobacco farmers house reveals the secrets of the world’s most prized Cuban cigars. The evening was spent with a visit to the Mural de la prehistoria (accompanied again by Pina Coladas) and a sunset walk through the streets of Pinar del Rio where we chanced upon a dance troupe rehearsing for a show, giving some of us the opportunity of an impromptu dance class.

Day 4 had in store one of the biggest tourist attractions Cuba is known for especially catering to the automobile aficionados of the world with a passion for classics.  My friends and I had a beautiful Marine blue Ford Mercury 65 to drive in across town. Just a word of caution if you don’t like the heat, try getting the car tours done post 4pm. A walk on the Malecon strip in Miramar, (just like our very own Marine Drive in Mumbai) which is a must do, for all who visit Havana especially after sunset when it’s teaming with locales having their own private little street parties from their little boom boxes. We later drove to the Afro-Cuban Religious Street with lots of street art by Salvador Gonzales, giving us a peek into the intricacies of Santariya which is practiced as a Cuban religion with African roots. The convoy of classics that we had hired, dropped us off at the home of Nobel Prize winner for literature – Ernest Hemmingway also lovingly known as Papa Hemmingway by the locals, as he has done a lot for Cubans including giving away all the money that he got from the Nobel Prize. The house of Hemmingway has been restored in all its original glory along with his boat, host to many famous kings, monarchs, presidents, actors and celebrities from across the world. Our tour bus took us to Fort – La Chorrera Castle, for the most breath taking panoramic view of the Malecon and Havana city followed by a visit to Havana’s land mark statue Cristo Del La Habana at Castillo El Morro, much like Rio De Janeiro’s land mark, the Cristo Redentor statue overlooking the Ipanema in Brazil, though not as big but still sure does hold its magnificence. Later we were treated to a delicious sea food platter lunch at Hostal El Canonazo along with yet another dose of great live music and dancing. The point is every restaurant, coffee shop, street, park, square has some great music being played by some of the best talents you can come across. Cuba probably has the highest density of artists per square mile as compared to any other country in the world. I guess all this is because no one is allowed to travel out of Cuba unless you are a singer, dancer, musician or an artist. I have been told that, competition to get into the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana which is the biggest in the world with 3000 students is so severe that little kids at the age of 4 are already on the streets to learn some intense moves just so, they can get in through the auditions at the age of 12. Yes, that’s their ticket to fame, fortune and more importantly freedom. 
Later we again walked around old Havana and chanced upon another city’s showcase sight called Museo Farmaceutico Matanzas. Later we attended a Salsa and Son workshop conducted by a local instructor organized by our Guide Edgar at his fiancée’s residence. Edgar has donned many a hats before becoming a guide, right from driving tanks in the Cuban army to being a bartender and as usual we were sipping on Mojitos while learning a step or two.
Later that evening we got dressed to visit yet another attraction in Havana, the cabaret at Tropicana which I would say could be given a miss if you have been to shows on Broadway, Crazy Horse, Lido or any of the cabarets across the world. But if you want to support the art scene in Cuba, I would recommend heavy tipping to artists and buying music CDs. Yes, there is a big tipping culture in Cuba which one must get used to even to use a rest room and the tip is more or less mandatory. 

Day 5 we set out on a 6-hour long drive to Beautiful Trinidad, the oldest City in Cuba with a stopover in Cienfuegos where were treated to a seafood fare for lunch at a local club. We reached Trinidad early evening and walked around the old city while we had a cocktail that is intrinsic to Trinidad made of sugarcane juice called Canchanchara. After the long walk and kind of getting lost, we checked in to the beach side resort that was booked for us called Costa Sur, late in the evening and called it a day. Approximate cost for stay per night works at 90 CUC for a beach bungalow.

The next morning on Day 6, we woke up to the most stunning view of the Caribbean Sea just outside our beach villas. We took a long walk on the beach and stepped in to the Luke warm water, had breakfast and then drove to Topes de Collantes a nature reserve in the Escambray Mountain range where we took a tiring trek to a beautiful waterfall with a blue green natural pool. A jump into its chilly refreshing waters was totally worth the long tiring trek. 

The climb back was more excruciating but at last we reached our resort and just soaked ourselves in the pleasantly warm water of the sea and watched the sunset. 
Once the night grew on us, we were back 
in Trinidad for the night for another memorable experience of dancing and listening to salsa music under the stars at Casa de la Musica where the lineup of bands never ended, it was like a mini music festival. Bands would play their sets one after the other and tourists and locals would get to mingle and dance with each other. We hit a unique night club in Trinidad which was set in a natural cave called Disco Ayala. 

After a night of hectic partying and some romance on Day 7, we drove back to Santa Clara enroute to Havana to visit the Che memorial and Museum. Makes one wonder why one man would fight wars of various countries without any personal gain, probably an ideology set in stone, just for a single minded objective of freeing the human spirit off tyranny and imperialistic rule, regardless of colour, race, religion or nationality. 
Reached Havana at 5pm, checked in at Copacabana and headed out to watch a boxing match but to our bad luck, the match was slated for the next day and we never got to watch pugilists punching away, which Cuba has been famous for in the world of sport. Ironically Cuba has such a strong American influence that their national sport is Baseball. We had dinner in old Havana at the beautiful Floridita where Hemmingway frequented and had a series of Daiquiris. A daiquiri that Hemmingway regularly had, has been named after him at Floridita. This was the last day before we were leaving Cuba and as you save the best for the last, this was truly the highlight of the trip – the most brilliant experience ever. A visit to fabrica de Art Cubana – FAC for short, an arts complex by day with multiple facets and studios of art, dance, music, digital arts, fine arts, architecture, theatre, Films, etc. and an eclectic tasteful night club by night with live music by a modern jazz fusion Cuban band on one level and another dance floor with commercial retro music, satiating the senses of elitist art loving consumers and at the same time exposing art to the masses by keeping entry to the club as low as 2 CUCs per head and the affordability quotient at 10 CUCs for 4 drinks and a pastry. 

Learnings and myths about Cuba that were squashed during his trip.
1. Cuba is a 100% safe country.
2. Cuba, though being third world, is frightfully expensive especially if you have a regular middle class Indian mentality where you convert every international currency to INR before you make a purchase. Average spend per day should be worked at 60-100 CUCs in case you want to travel to Cuba.
3. One CUC equals one USD.
4. Tourists are not allowed to allowed to transact in Cuban Pesos, because that is much lower in value and only for the locals
5. The best compliment I have received is “I dance like a Cuban with a lot of soul”. You could train hard to be a LA or NY style Salsa dancer but to dance like a Cuban, you got to be born a Cuban.
6. Bacardi though originally Cuban was completely moved brick and mortar to the USA. 
7. You can’t export classic cars from Cuba.
8. And last but not the least, Cuban cigars are not rolled on the thighs of Cuban virgin woman.

The last day in Havana was dedicated to getting a hair cut by the world famous hair stylist Josephita, who cut UN Secretary General – Bun Ki Moon’s hair at her Salon called Salon Correo in old Havana and shopping for street art by local artists for my studio and friends. Bought a few Cuban dresses, fridge magnets and Car number plates as gifts, along with a few traditional musical instruments like the Claves, Guiro, Maracas and the Charangas.

It was time to bid adieu forever, to a piece of history that will soon be lost to commercialisation as soon as the embargo is officially lifted. So if you plan on visiting Cuba, now would be the best time.

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Pics by Ravi Chaudhary, Prashanth Sardesai, Ramya Ramdas and Lourd Vijay