(click on pictures to enlarge)
Several months ago, my sister suggested that I might like to join a Nature Tour of Cuba organized by the Norfolk Naturalists of Southern Ontario. No not the ones who walk around naked (those are Naturists!), but a group of people interested in bird watching and nature. I know nothing about birds other than that they have feathers and wings but I thought it would be a good opportunity to get a glimpse of Cuba before it becomes transformed, as it will, following the death of Fidel Castro and the lifting of the US embargo.
The trip started in Havana and continued through central Cuba to Cienfuegos and Trinidade close to the Escambray Mountains. From there we made our way east to the Vimales Valley. There were 19 of us in all and needless to say, the bulk of time was spent in birdwatching and nature walks. Oh yes, and drinking rum cocktails sometimes even before lunch!
Havana is a beautiful city spread out along the seafront. A long boulevard , the Malecon, hugs the shoreline encompassing architecture from Baroque to Art Deco to Modern. American cars from the 50s, now mostly rented by tourists, whizz along the Malecon, conjuring an air of American gangsters and the high life which is what Havana was like before the revolution in 1959.
Before the revolution, Batista had cut a deal with the American Mafia giving them free rein in Cuba in exchange for a cut of their gambling profits. We stayed at the Riviera Hotel, once the kingdom of Meyer Lansky, known at that time as the ‘Mob Accountant’. This is the Vedado area, the more modern part of Havana with high rise buildings, restaurants and night life. The hotel is virtually unchanged since before the revolution and the bar is identical to what it was in Lansky’s time.
Old Havana, further west, is charming. A beautification program has begun and many buildings have been repainted in preparation for an influx of tourists. Presently, there are supposedly about half a million tourists annually and the government is preparing for a million. The thought of giant cruise ships lining the Malecon is not appealing.
Chic cafes and quaint shops line some of the streets and the architecture reflects the Spanish colonial heritage.
The socialist structure still holds fast, however, and there is no private enterprise. The bulk of all profits goes to the government. Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos while tourists have to pay in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) worth about twenty five times more than the Peso. Needless to say the locals try hard to get CUCs as tips in restaurants, for playing music, and for selling souvenirs etc.
While tourists can live well and enjoy good food and fine accomodation at a price, life is not so easy for the locals. The majority of people do not have luxuries like cars and food is not always plentiful. I passed this Pharmacy and didn’t know what it was at first, as it just had a minimal amount of drugs in paper packages on its shelves. The good thing is that medical care and available drugs are accessible to all. There just isn’t any choice as to what can be had, and what is required is not always available. Supermarkets are not overflowing with food items and even the essentials are not guaranteed. Cuba only produces sugar, rum, tobacco and a small amount of coffee. Everything else has to be imported and the American embargo has taken its toll.
Lack of material goods not withstanding, since the revolution, a major focus has been on education so the literacy rate is high for both men as well as women. We did not see homeless people or beggars or people starving as one sees in many countries based on capitalism. On the other hand, people are cut off from technological advances and global trade. It was difficult to get WiFi even in high end hotels. I would have liked to have spent more time in Havana getting a better insight into how people live and seeing some of the poorer neighbourhoods but we had to leave for the countryside on our nature tour. More about that in my next post…………