As soon as we arrived in Havana, we knew what we had to do: take a tour of the city in one of the many beautifully preserved classic cars. We hired a driver and an English-speaking guide, and off we went. The city is an interesting mix of ambitious government buildings and humble houses, with evidence of Soviet-era austerity intermingled with private enterprises everywhere. It’s colorful and cheerful and vibrant, and at the same time, it’s ready for a fresh coat of paint — kind of like the car.
Standing on the sidewalk shortly after we arrived in Havana, we watched the cars going by and realized just how much of the country’s history is reflected in its vehicles.
There are plenty of classic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s — a period when the US supported Fulgencio Batista’s rule over Cuba, even as he became an increasingly corrupt and controlling dictator. Many of the classic cars from that era have been painstakingly repaired and restored to beautiful condition, while others are threadbare, rattling shadows of their former selves.
In the late 1950s, Fidel Castro organized a rebellion to bring about political change in Cuba. With help from Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and a great deal of fighting throughout the country, Castro’s Cuban Revolution achieved victory in 1959. Once in power, Castro’s party allied itself with the Soviet Union, leading the US to impose economic sanctions on Cuba. That’s why most of the cars we see from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are simple, sturdy Soviet-made models like the Lada and the Moskvitch.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Cuban economy suffered and people generally had a tough time scraping by. Things have improved since then, and we see some newer cars, mainly Peugeot and Renault imports. The government charges immense fees for the import and sale of new cars, and as a result, most of the newer cars are government-owned tourist taxis, with a few belonging to wealthy private owners.
Of course, the cars don’t even begin to tell the complete story, but it’s fascinating to see the history of Cuba so obviously imprinted in the traffic on the streets.
Walking around downtown Havana today, we explored streets and alleys, markets, shops, and churches. The best part was seeing how everyone dresses, walks, talks, and interacts.
We spent some more time exploring Havana today. We returned to our Airbnb early in the afternoon because our hosts, Mali and Hector, invited us to join their family and friends for a Christmas Eve dinner. The invitation was a touching gesture, and it was fun to sit down to a holiday meal with the whole group. We swapped lots of stories, and learned how our hosts helped develop internet-based lodging in Cuba and played a key role in bringing Airbnb to the country.
Today we got a ride to Viñales, a town in western Cuba known for its scenic surroundings and for producing top-quality cigars. After the scenic drive, we walked around some of the local tobacco fields on our own. We found a friendly tobacco farmer who let us take photos of him and his farm. Back in town, we watched a group of friends playing Cuban music. We watched sunset over the lush green valley, then returned to our Airbnb, where our hosts (Norma and Carlos) served up a delicious home-cooked meal. Carlos makes the best mojitos!
Why is Cuba famous for cigars? That’s what we were wondering when we set out for Viñales, a small town set in a scenic valley in western Cuba, surrounded by rocky karst hills and cliffs. The valley is known for growing tobacco using traditional agricultural methods and for its hand-rolled cigars.
On our first day in Viñales, we headed to the tobacco fields, hoping to catch a farmer at work. It wasn't long before we found what we were looking for: a farmer working in a field of young tobacco plants. As we shot photos of this charismatic man in the glow of the afternoon light, we asked him about the process that would turn his plants into cigars.
“All of my tobacco is grown organically, then harvested and dried in that drying house over there, for at least three months,” he explained to us. “The government buys 90% of the leaves for a very low price” — to be used in the government-owned factories that produce brand-name cigars. “And I get to keep 10%, for the hand-made cigars that I sell locally.”
The farmer stopped pulling weeds when his wife brought a cup of coffee over. As soon as he finished the coffee, he traded the empty cup for a cigarette. With a big smile he said, “In Cuba, three things keep us going: coffee, tobacco, and rum!”
The farmer’s wife showed us the drying house, where we learned that the dried tobacco leaves get fermented with the family recipe of honey, lime, rum, and other ingredients. The soft parts of the leaves are then separated from the stiff center, which contains most of the nicotine. “Our cigars aren’t as addictive as the factory ones,” she explained, “because we remove the middle part of the leaf.”
The next day we visited another farmer, who showed us how the tobacco is cut, layered, rolled, and trimmed to make cigars. Then he lit a cigar for each of us to try, and we found that the fermented tobacco’s smoke filled our mouths with a unique, rich, sweet-and-smooth flavor. We are not smokers by any means, but we have to admit it was great to experience the whole process, from farm to cigar.
This morning, we met Oleg, who served as our guide as we toured several spots around Viñales. We learned more details of cigar-making at a tobacco farm. We were shown the whole process, from harvest to drying to hand-rolling the cigars. We had a delicious lunch at an organic farm, and after some more sightseeing, we enjoyed another beautiful sunset over the valley from a new location.
We spent a good part of today on the road, riding in a classic car from Viñales to Trinidad. We stopped briefly in Cienfuegos for lunch on the way, but we didn’t have time to check out the town. We arrived in Trinidad in the late afternoon, and explored the nearby city streets on our own this evening. The hosts of our homestay, Amaro and Yamira, are both doctors who gave up their jobs at the government hospital to spend more time (and earn more money) welcoming tourists to their beautiful home.
This morning we went on a walking tour of Trinidad with Adonis Marcos, who was a great guide. He showed us Plaza Mayor, Museo de Historia Municipal, the viewing tower, and informed us of the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. In the afternoon, we met with a local photographer named Yram, who took us to see the studio of an artist friend, Carlos César Román. We spent hours talking about photography, the art that Carlos makes from found objects, and the connections between art and local politics.
During our trip to Cuba, we made a point of meeting a few local professional photographers. An acquaintance connected us with photographer/videographer Yram, and we spent a fantastic evening with him in Trinidad. We admired each other’s photos, geeked out about photography equipment, discussed current trends, and imagined future ones. We were particularly impressed with what Yram is able to accomplish given his limited access to equipment. For example, he wanted a videography boom arm to achieve smooth camera motion for documentary films. Unable to buy what he wanted, he figured out how to make one from scratch using aluminum tubes, household hardware, and his own tools. We were amazed — and a bit ashamed of how much we spend on gadgets.
One of Yram’s documentaries that we watched was about his friend Carlos, a painter and sculptor who has exhibited all over Cuba, and also in Canada and the US. We were impressed with his work and asked Yram if we could meet him. We spent the next afternoon with Yram and Carlos, in Carlos’ art studio.
The walls of Carlos’ studio were covered with sculptures of Fidel Castro. We had heard that Castro banned public exhibitions of his image, except those authorized by the government. “All my Fidel sculptures are built out of used materials,” Carlos told us. “Fidel told us to never throw anything away, that everything can be fixed or reused. I think he would approve.”
Carlos revealed other insights: “In this one, Fidel’s beard is made up of empty pill packages. When people are feeling bad in Cuba, they often turn to Fidel, as if he’s the medication that will fix their headaches.” We thought that was clever.
Some of his work is more critical. One of his pieces has a giant mouse trap attached to a door with the Cuban flag painted on it. “The key to the lock is here, attached to the trap,” Carlos explains, “but if you grab it you might get caught in the trap. To me, that sums up what Cuba is all about.”
Carlos’ work is creative, beautiful, and daring. Carlos and Yram are great examples of a recurring theme we saw in Cuba: through ingenuity people can achieve a lot with very little.
Today we got a ride to Santa Clara, where we met Airbnb hosts Antoine and Saily. We really connected with them… they’re both very artistic, and they decorate their house in a very creative and tasteful way. Plus Antoine does some amazing fashion photography.
Saily connected us with her friend Emilio, who took us on a guided walking tour of Santa Clara. He was incredibly fun to spend time with, and great at recounting the history of the city! The 1958 battle of Santa Clara was a pivotal moment in the Cuban revolution, with Che Guevara emerging as a national hero. We visited Che’s mausoleum, the statue of Che holding a child, and the Tren Blindado (armored train) monument commemorating a particularly bold victory of the revolutionaries.
We returned to our homestay in time for a New Years Eve dinner and party with our fabulous Airbnb hosts. Tomorrow we’ll get a ride back to Havana and fly home. It’s the end of a great trip, and the start of a new year.