When we decided to go to Cuba last February I wanted to experience more than just the beach resorts where tourism has replaced sugar as the main source of national revenue. So we chose a "Natural History of Cuba" trip that took us the full length of the island, from the major cities to the villages and back roads of rural Cuba, into caves, and along remote hiking trails through uninhabited parkland.
Organized through Capilano College, our trip was run by Great Expeditions and lead by Syd Cannings, a B.C. naturalist and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and plants.He was joined by Jose Luis, a young, multi-lingual Cuban who was studying nuclear physics in Moscow when the Soviet economy collapsed and he returned to work as a "Cubatur" guide. Articulate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic he provided thoughtful commentary on political and social issues as well as Cuban history.
Unlike our previous flights to Central and South America, getting to Cuba was a breeze. Forbidden by American law from landing in the United States our five-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Varadero avoided the usual tedious delays in Dallas or Miami. Jose met us at the airport and led us to the modern, European-built bus that would be our main transport for the next two weeks. We were introduced to Francisco and Emilio, our two drivers and headed west to Pinar del Rio.
On that first drive through the villages and fields of western Cuba I was struck by several things: the verdant beauty of the landscape, the obvious decay of the industrial and domestic infrastructure, and the apparent well-being of the people. Fertile fields of tobacco, corn, and sugarcane are surrounded by low hills covered with luxuriant tropical forest. The countryside is dotted with small picturesque villages and farmsteads shaded by Royal Palms, Cuba's stately emblematic tree.
But a closer look reveals that almost everything is either wearing out or unfinished, abandoned years ago in mid-construction. From the smallest house, its roof patched with a piece of tin held down by a rock, to the hulking boarded-up sugar refineries, once the source of Cuba's wealth, to the 1950's cars that miraculously keep running, almost everything needs repair. Like a post-apocalyptic society living without the resources to renew itself, Cuba survives by fixing, patching, scavenging, and innovating. Yet the people seem to carry on without any obvious sign of despair. We saw none of the begging, homelessness, or abject poverty that are so common in many other Latin American countries.
One exception to Cuba's run-down infrastructure is the tourist industry. Our private, 40-passenger, air-conditioned bus was equipped with a washroom, a fridge full of bottled water and a state-of-the-art PA system - and there were only 18 of us.
The Soroa Hotel in Pinar del Rio was typical of our accommodation throughout Cuba. Walkways led from a central dining building overlooking a swimming pool and patio to small individual cabanas scattered among carefully manicured gardens and lawns. The cabanas were clean, spacious and fully equipped. Meals in the dining room were comparable to those in any good North American restaurant, and they were always accompanied by a group of talented Cuban musicians.
West of Havana the lush farmland of Vinales and Ancon Valleys is among the most fertile and productive in Cuba. The landscape is typical karst topography where steep-sided limestone hills, separated by sinkholes and broad flat-bottomed valleys, were formed by aeons of solution weathering. The hills are riddled with caves - irresistible places to explore. We made a habit of carrying flashlights and on one of our long hikes stooped through a narrow passageway for half a kilometre before emerging into a sinkhole completely surrounded by high limestone cliffs. A single farmhouse in the centre was surrounded by fields of corn and vegetables, a small thriving farm connected to the outside world by a long narrow tunnel.
Later that day we visited the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave in Cuba which, with 45 km of galleries, chambers and passages, is the third largest cave complex in the world. We were issued hard-hats with miner's lamps and accompanied by a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide who led us through spectacular stalactite-hung passageways to an underground pool deep inside the third level.
Before leaving western Cuba and heading to Playa Larga on the south coast we stopped for a swim in the warm surf of Cayo beach and had lunch accompanied by live entertainment in an elegant open-air café overlooking the deserted beach. At Playa Larga we transferred to small vans and drove out a narrow causeway to Las Salinas Fauna Refuge where hundreds of flamingos, their bright pink bodies balanced on dowel-like legs with backward-bending knees, waded daintily through the shallow, mangrove-choked water. In 1998 the full fury of Hurricane George struck this part of the Cuban coast snapping the heads of palm trees and damaging over a thousand houses, many of which are still missing their roofs.
From the low mangrove-choked coast of Playa Larga the drive to Trinidad took us to the foot of the Macizode Guamuhaya Mountains. The port of Trinidad, settled by the Spanish in the 19th century, was for many years the centre of gold and silver trade. Its streets, paved with cobbles that arrived as ballast on sailing ships, are lined with beautifully preserved colonial buildings, their high barred windows and heavy steel-reenforced doors a reminder that Trinidad was the frequent target of marauding pirates during the neo-colonial period.
High above Trinidad, at Topes de Collantes, we settled into a cabana surrounded by pine and eucalyptus forest planted 40 years ago as part of Castro's reforestation initiative.The next morning we piled into the back of an old six-wheel-drive Russian truck that ground its way up incredibly steep dirt roads to La Codina and the start of a hike along Escambray Ridge accompanied by a Cuban botanist. The trail, shaded by a dense canopy of tropical forest and fringed with a lush growth of ferns and orchids, led to still another cave. This one, used as a concentration camp by the Spanish near the end of the 19th century, is where peasants were held to prevent them from joining the fight for independence.
As visitors we were given complete freedom to wander through village neighbourhoods, explore the back streets of cities, and hike the trails and cart-roads of rural Cuba. The people we met, farmers, school kids, artisans, hitchhikers, were healthy, well dressed, friendly and outgoing. But the luxury we experienced as tourists clearly does not extend to the Cuban people. Although 70 per cent of Cubans own their own homes or apartments the accommodation, by our standards, is crowded and barely adequate. And while almost anything can be bought in the "dollar stores," the government food warehouses, where subsidized, but tightly rationed staple food can be bought with Cuban pesos, offer little choice.
The government, caught in the strangle hold of the American blockade and the collapse of its former Soviet trading partners, has pulled out all the stops in an effort to attract tourist dollars to its faltering export-based economy. The environment they have created is efficient, tasteful and clearly working.
The burgeoning tourist industry has brought an influx of capital to the beleaguered Cuban economy. It is also forcing gradual changes to the rigid socialist doctrines of the government. Both the American dollar and the Cuban peso are official currencies. With the dollar worth about 25 pesos, workers, who make about 200 pesos per month, are being lured into non-government jobs that yield dollars. Even professionals are increasingly attracted to the gradually expanding free marketplace where small businesses are now tolerated by the Castro regime - private taxis, parking lots, small restaurants (no more than three tables), farmer's markets, and artisans selling direct to tourists.
On a larger scale the Cuban government has entered into joint ventures with companies from Canada, Mexico and Europe. Whether this inevitable move toward a mixed socialist/free-market economy will be allowed to take place at a slow, rational pace is anything but certain. Despite the moral and economic support Cuba receives from much of the world, it is still tragically vulnerable to the political whims of its powerful and unpredictable northern neighbour.
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