Ruined houses, old cars, jazz and caribbean melancholy! Cuba is the last living museum, which still gives you a picture of socialism. Because there are signs of appeasement with the United States, we went there, visited Havana and cruised down to Viñales and the cigar makers.
Whoever lands on Cuba has to firstly take the time difference into consideration: We are talking about 50 years minimum here. Cuba is the past. After just a few steps through Havana you see old ruined houses and Chevys and Buicks from the time, when Ernest Hemingway used to throw 13 Mojitos down his throat in the famous Floridita Bar.
The first impression of Havana? Just like after a seven-day war. Alleys of palms next to ruined prefabricated buildings, hastily repaired art nouveau villas with destroyed courtyards. Only the capitol’s tourist mile is in a good state of repair. Communism has always known how to present itself to the outside world. The most important place in the town is the Malecón. This strand promenade is the equivalent to Cuba’s Ocean Drive. It’s only when you experience the sunset that you understand why this street is so important for the people of Havana. Young Cubans saunter and pose, sit on the rocks facing Florida and the Keys, where the people sit by the pool and complain that the ice maker on the floor is humming too loudly. There are no ice makers on Cuba, some of the hotels in Havana don’t even have windows (for example the Hostal los Frailes, that we were allowed to test).
Comfort is a debatable topic on Cuba. Those who are bothered by the standard, are in the wrong place.
At the end of the Malecón the ocean spits out a few cruise ships during the day and throws day tourists on to the island. These are the typical day tourists who – with the necessary safety distance – quickly want to catch a whiff of myth and breath of the past, before it’s too late. But when you see them, these tourists, then you can quickly trace their steps. You see where they dine and drink and take their photos and the ability to lose them is the same as buying a Coke on Cuba. It’s child’s play.
As we spoke about before, the Malecón. One should hang out for a whole evening there, and turn the traveller’s game around: You shouldn’t stroll through the town yourself, but let the town stroll by you. Just like a play in the theatre. The seat is the rocks, the wall, which is battered every day and night by the sea, is used to relax and sip a beer. The sun submerges the strand promenade in yellow light and the youth conjures up a boulevard that has a distinct advantage: old cars driving by simply look better than new ones. It’s a picture that makes men happy. A 1954 Buick, wine red wheel arches, beige and black tyres, highly polished, sometimes even a convertible.
John F. Kennedy would fit right in here or Marylin Monroe with husband number two, the dramatist Arthur Miller. Now the young Cubans mainly sit indoors, the generation of facebook, which is of course forbidden on Cuba, just as everything else that has washed ashore from the United States.
In the evenings, one can see the melancholy written in the faces of the youths. Mildly satisfied with a situation, which actually could not be worse.
We fulfilled an old dream of ours: to drive south west on this island in an old Chevy and in the fertile valley of Pinar del Rio to create our own Havana cigar from the dried tobacco leaves. The tourist board say that this is not possible, but the trick is – like most of the world over fast – in the offer itself. Every Cuban car owner is interested in foreign currency. US-Dollars for example. For 300 you will find someone who will lend you their car for three days. If he’s nice, take him with you and you have the perfect guide and translator, because English only works in Havana.
The next morning you throw yourself onto the motorway and quickly realise, that the engine of the car is no longer the original V8 from 1954, but a Russian Lada nutmixer, probably from around 1978. Up until 1990 the Cubans received support from the Russians, who brought some money, oil and engines with them, because even a Buick engine that has 750,000 kilometres on the clock, is going to get into difficulties at some point, even at this latitude. The coachwork stayed, the engine changed.
The valley of Viñales is amazing. The entrance: a serpentine like the Corniche in Monte Carlo. There are two larger hotels. One of them is the Jazmines, a typical Cuban colonial hotel. A jewell in the crown from the outside and in the pictures, but the interior is a bit of a catastrophe. However, the view from the pool with the first Mojito in your hand, the music of the Buena Vista Social Club in your ear: Breathtaking. The valley: a work of art. A green World Heritage Site, everything is overgrown, but somehow still kind of organized.
Two natives introduce us to Pedro, a guide who is taking us to a tobacco farm on horseback. Firstly he demands a basic fee of 50 dollars. His brother is a tobacco farmer, makes his own cigars, in the middle of the jungle of the Viñales valley. We mount the horses at three thirty in the afternoon. We would really like to gallop, but the nags move very similar to the built in Lada engines. Somehow the horses don’t have enough petrol, so we just trot casually through the greenery. There is an English couple behind us, he’s a cigar fan, she’s just along for the trip. She looks a bit peeved at her husband’s desire to come on this cool Marlboro adventure in search of his holy grail.
Pedro’s brother is a cool dude. He lives with his horses and dried tobacco on a ranch, which is made up of a log cabin. The tobacco leaves are hung up inside. The smell is as intensive as the music of Ibrahim Ferrer sounds. He offers us rum in coconuts. The Englishman is drunk after only two minutes.
Then the fun begins, the tobacco leaves are rolled out, cut to size and rolled with a bit of water to keep the leaves together. No added ingredients, no label. A match blazes, we all hold our fat Havanas between index finger and middle finger. Two puffs and one of the none smokers nearly passes out. The tobacco is unbelievably intensive. Like bittersweet chocolate containing 100 percent cocoa. We buy three boxes, the English guy four. Pedro gets his commission. On this day, these two guys make more money than the whole shopping mile from Viñales. Cigars is good business on Cuba.
So, should one go to Cuba?
Yes. Definitely. Havana is still one of the most interesting places in the world and one should go now, because you can see the reality at the moment. It is not always nice. And so are the hotels and restaurants.
Hotels in Havana:
Hostal los Frailes, double ca. 100 euros, www.hostallosfrailes.cu.
Very lovely and right at the capitol:
Hotel Telegrafo. www.hoteltelegrafocuba.com
Best Hotel: Hotel Saratoga, you have a perfect view to the capitol from the pool on the roof. Infos at www.hotel-saratoga.com
Eating & Drinking in Havana:
Best coffee in Havana: Café Escorial.
Food, expensive and bad, at Taberna Muralla. Expensive and good: La Taverna, Address:
Calle Mercaderes (there are a lot of tourists there).
Hemmingway’s favourite bar:
El Floridita, Calle Obispo 557, www.floridita-cuba.com
Reasonably good bar for later:
Casa de la Musica, Avenida de Italia.
Good hotels in Viñales:
Los Jazmines, Carretera de Viñales. www.hotelescubanacan.com
La Ermita, three stars place with a completely destroyed tennis court at the front, but a beautiful landscape view. Contact: email@example.com Double ca. 50 euros.
Buena Vista Social Club
Photography credit: @25Hpictures for Pretty Hotels