There will be a series of personal posts where I will be talking about my experience during my trip to Cuba which Ι wanted to share with my friends and family as well as colleagues or strangers who would perhaps wish to visit one day too. Even if not, I wish to make you all travel with me through my writing.
I have travelled in Europe but not much outside of it. Last January, a good friend sent around an email to invite us to her 30 birthday in Cuba! My friends are a bit crazy and I am grateful for having them in my life. For a collection of reasons (and an awful breakup), I was unsure whether I would do that trip until July. Originally my friend was organising the trip only for a week so that she makes it convenient for all of us to get time off work and to be able to afford it. A few weeks before the trip and while I was in Spain after my work contract had ended, I had no clear idea of what I was doing in October/ November onwards. Thus, I decided to change my ticket and fly 10 days earlier.
I looked online and asked friends whether it was safe for someone to travel to Cuba on their own. They were all positive. As my experience has also shown, it was safer than I expected. If you follow me on social media, I already mentioned that this was the first time I travelled somewhere on my own, just for pleasure. Being Greek and a woman, this sounds insane, but I decided to just do it. I thought that, no matter what, I would be able to communicate the basics in Spanish and I would manage. And as it turned out, speaking their language was decisive in getting to know them better. I did not find many people in the countryside speaking English.
I asked friends who knew people living in Cuba to give me suggestions on places to stay. I was, therefore, reassured that when I would arrive in this unknown territory, I would have a safe place to stay. It took me around 17 hours to arrive. I flew to Havana, stayed there for a day and travelled to Viñales by collectivo (i.e. a service like Uber that is arranged through people’s networks calling landlines/cellphones- the use of the internet is not very widespread in Cuba).
Viñales, this small village and its surroundings, captivated me.
I booked my stay there for three days and I ended up staying nine for a number of reasons. The first was the hospitality I experienced by Caridad and her son Leo, and this post is dedicated to this.
The second reason was that I could not get enough of the sceneries I discovered with Adriel, the guide I met when I got lost in the single road of Viñales. I am good at getting lost, indeed. Adriel showed me his second home, the Viñales Valley, its Cuevas (caves) and Los Aquáticos. I was extending my stay in Viñales at the end of each day.
The last reason I could not leave the province of Pinar del Rio was Cayo Jutias, a Carribean beach, very different from what I have seen before.
I will be writing more posts on these soon.
Having discovered this paradise on earth in this province, I had to take my friends that would arrive 10 days after me. After spending all the days in Viñales, I travelled back to Havana to meet my friends. We visited a couple of other places (i.e. Trinidad and Santa Clara) and I then went back to Viñales for a second time, with them. I booked us to stay at Caridad’s Casa so that they experience her hospitality. I also got Adriel to guide us to the valley. We visited Jorge’s house who was a farmer. He showed us how they make organic cigars and we got to try them and also carried some back home. Some of us hiked up the mountains and the rest rode horses to reach the most beautiful view we have ever seen.
We ended up going to Cayo Jutias for a last swim and we enjoyed the light blue waters with a few traditional cocktails, lobster and Cuban music.
To start with the Cuban hospitality, Caridad, the owner and jefe (i.e. boss) of the Casa (i.e. house) I stayed is a dynamic woman that made me feel that I have a had a second mum, a Cubana mama. (Mama Sofia I love you, you are the one and only of course!) Caridad loves cooking and I love eating so we got along very well.
She is running her Casa as a bed & breakfast (+lunch, dinner). From the state of the house, I would not say that she and her family are rich. There are no luxuries in the house as in most houses in Cuba, but I liked the green colour on the walls and the comfort of having air-con and a fan to relax after a hiking day under 35 degrees.
Caridad loves what she does and it is more than obvious. She was preparing my breakfast every day which always had a tortillita (omelette), cheese, ham, bread, butter, fresh juice, coffee as well as cangrejitos de coconut (the pastry that looks like a croissant in the photo below).
One of Caridad’s son was making the cangrejitos on fire as shown in the photo below. The process was taking place in the backyard of their house.
I believe Cubans eat these for breakfast or as merienda (snacks) and they were probably selling them around the neighbourhood too. I could not figure out what was the deal because Caridad’s son was not speaking clear Spanish- it was more cubañol and I might have misunderstood. Everything I write is my interpretation of my understanding in Spanish that it was getting better day after day.
Caridad was giving me merienda to take with me on the mountains or on the beach for which I never asked. I was drinking papaya or mango juice every day. She was cutting the fruit for me.
She was preparing the strongest coffee I ever tasted which was the best I had in my life.
The quantity of food was very rich. So, the stories I heard that I need to take food with me from home because their food is bad are not true. I carried so many snacks (mostly chocolate) in my luggage from the UK. What I did, in the end, was to give a pack a day to Caridad to enjoy! She loves chocolate and, in Cuba, they do not have the diversity of products we have in Europe so I got to make a person happy. I was giving her my food and she was generously giving hers to me.
There are no supermarkets. I didn’t see any. There were only Mercados (markets) and Bodegas (convenience stores specialized in distributing food) that have very few products to buy or get stuff with coupons that the state offers to Cubans. What I found strange was that I had to leave my bag to a person at the door when going to a mercado. I think we had that in the past in Greece too. I felt many times that Cuba is how Greece used to be in the 1960s. I was not born but from old movies I have watched, it seemed like it. Going back to mercados, I went to two different mercados. One was for Cubans and the second for tourists. The prices seemed a bit different. There is this interesting situation that tourists pay in Cuban Convertible Pesos, namely CUC (1 CUC is around 0.90 Euros) and locals in the Cuban Peso National, namely CUP. (1 CUP is around 0.033 Euros) This makes things complicated sometimes and more expensive for tourists but undeniably, tourists have much more money and paying 5-7 CUC for a bottle of Rum, for example, is still cheaper than what you buy it in Europe.
When I was going back home after hiking the mountains or walking along the long beach and swimming, and after a couple of mojitos that only cost 1 CUC in Viñales, Caridad had my dinner ready. I tasted amazing food in her house. Lobster was my favourite as I tried it for the first time – cooked in tomato sauce!
I had fish which I don’t know what it was but it was delicious and was served with Yucca. Yucca is a plant in the family of potatoes which I liked very much and is one of the things I will miss coming back to the UK, except if anyone knows where they sell it so that I buy it.
Caridad was making the tastiest chicken..-chickens in Cuba are everywhere, even in the national roads- including Caridad’s garden. Her house also had roosters walking around. They were waking me up every morning while crowing.
Rice was part of the cena (i.e. dinner) every single day. She was also frying plantains (similar to bananas but different). She was also preparing soups that I am not very enthusiastic about when it’s 30 deg outside but I was trying everything! She told me that many tourists were complaining about the food. They were saying that it was similar every day. I did not complain about anything although you might see me complaining in real life sometimes (!). I was only happy and I was living the NOW, as every Cuban I met does.
I only drank bottled water the 20 days I stayed there. Cubans though boil the water they drink if they get it from the sink. Caridad was even washing my clothes every time I asked her to. I was always willing to assist her in cooking but I was her guest so she did not let me do anything. I was only putting the empty plates in the sink of a very old kitchen that reminded me of my grandmother’s in my village. She did not have a kitchen stove as we do to prepare food. She had different appliances old and less old ones where she was putting all her magic and spices (who said that they don’t use any spices? – not true).
Caridad did not speak English but I was so excited by her kindness that after a couple of days in her Casa, I was able to communicate with her and tell her stories as a 5-10-year-old girl speaking Spanish. The progress I made these 20 days in Cuba was exceptional. I was impressed by how much I got immersed by the Cuban culture when I realised that people did not speak English. I had a basic knowledge in Spanish thanks to Juan, the best Madrileno teacher I got to learn it with. This knowledge gave me the opportunity to get to know the people and to understand them.
Everything Caridad did for me was from her heart (de corazón), hence, divine. A reason I did not want to leave Viñales and stay there for my whole trip was the fact that I found a home away from home, thanks to her. She made me feel like a princess. I was enjoying sitting at her rocking chair reading my book. By the way, the rocking chairs must be a thing in Cuba, they are everywhere and I wanted to put one in my luggage and take it with me back in the UK. People in Viñales seemed so relaxed and happy on those.
Leo, Caridad’s son, is a 22-year-old guy with whom I was playing Uno in the evenings while drinking rum.
I took the chance to find out how young people live there, and what they think about the government. Leo, as well as other young people, praised the education and health system which is free and accessible to all Cubans. However, although Leo speaks Spanish, English and French like me, he is not able to travel. Moreover, he learned these on his own. From books. For a Cuban to travel, they need an invitation from someone to the country they want to go (this is the case with many nations who need to travel to foreign countries) but also, it is extremely expensive for them to buy a ticket to another country. The only country they can go to without a visa, is Russia. Reflecting on that now that I am back in the UK, I think it explains why sometimes Cubans try to gain more money from tourists. It’s not really ‘ripping off’, it might be a necessity for them to have a chance to travel or to do things that with the CUP is impossible.
I also found myself asking silly questions to Leo like, ‘why do you have internet only an hour a day?’ to receive the simple answer that ‘we cannot afford to have it for longer’. Things that we take for granted in Europe, are not conceived or applied the same way in Cuba. I was asking him about relationships and he was describing how easy it is to meet someone. He and his friends just go and talk to girls and ask them to dance in the Casa de la musica (i.e. salsa/ reggaeton/bachata place) of Viñales. The rest is simple in his view, girls either want and get more intimate with them or reject them. Love is simple for Cubans. I explained to him that in Europe people don’t go to talk to someone so easily even if they like each other. They might gaze at each other but they will not approach each other. He laughed. I then went on and explained that people also use dating applications on their phones as relationships are too complicated with many people being busy with work, not making time to go out to meet actual people at a bar. I went on saying that what people do elsewhere is to see photos of potential partners and to choose whom they like or not on the screen of their smartphone. I remember him smiling when I said that. Thinking about it now it sounds funny.
This took me to reflect on the whole mentality of communication in the places I have lived during time and compare it to what I experienced during my stay in Viñales and in Cuba, in general. I realised how direct and expressive people are in Cuba. You may sit at a table to get a coffee and if you are on your own, the waiter or someone else will approach you to start a conversation. The first thing is to ask you where you are coming from and how old you are. Asking a woman ‘how old are you’ in Europe is a forbidden question! Cubans on the other hand, just ask. Cubans reminded me of kids that express their thoughts unfiltered, as they think about it inside their mind. They are also hugging each other a lot, they give one kiss on the cheek when they meet. They do not make plans for the future, they have the mentality that ‘todo es posible en Cuba’ and they smile! I saw very few people not smiling in Cuba, no matter what their situation was, even the ones that were chasing tourists to get some Cuban pesos.
Most people in Cuba were not carrying smartphones and wi-fi or 3G are not of great quality. Some of them do not have a cellphone. I saw a few phone booths on the streets – no, they were not red as in London and tourists were not taking fancy photos-. People were actually using them. My smartphone was not working at all for 20 days, -it had no signal- but I solved this issue as, whenever I needed to call someone to arrange something, I would simply ask Caridad, a taxi driver or whoever I would see with a phone to call from theirs on a local number to plan my day ahead. There was no person that refused to give me their phone to call every time I asked and smiled at them. 🙂
I did not really know what to include in my first post about Cuba but I thought that hospitality is a good start. I will go on with the experiences in the Vinales Valley. Bear with me.