December 10, 2018

Cuba, the sense of safety

Twelve  days in Cuba

Text & Photography by Kim Vermaat

Cuba, an internationally coveted destination for globetrotters, is enjoying a strong summer season in its tourism and hospitality industries this year, boasting over two million visitors thus far.

These industries continue to grow in defiance of the realities brought on by the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and the US-blockade. In large part, this is thanks to the rise in visitors from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Russia.

The majority — 63 percent — of its hotels are rated four and five stars, and 74 percent are within close proximity of a beach. Cuba’s first new 5-star hotel, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, can be found in the heart of the UNESCO-protected Old Havana. Many other big European hotel chains can also be found housed in beautiful, historic buildings throughout the country.

The island consists of 15 provinces and is 11 million people strong in its population. It is well known, of course, for the allure of its tepid, azure ocean waters, its white sand beaches, and its world-renowned cocktails and music. But perhaps its most understated quality is the sense of safety one may enjoy while exploring the country, as crime against tourists is virtually nonexistent. Cubans are a true mix of many ethnicities and cultures.

Not only can you see it in its centuries-old cities’ architecture that still wears its charm with much pride and valor; it is representative also in the passion that is poured into its vibrant-colored arts and crafts that depict everyday life. It is even apparent in the rhythmic melody of its verbal communication.

Getting around is pretty easy, as tour operators and their fleet of air-conditioned buses move regularly and swiftly. Tropicana Touristik planned everything for us in a very swift and smooth way.  The roads, while nearly always empty due to the scarcity of cars on the island, are well connected, making for easy movement from one city to another. Internet has been available since 2016 and is easiest to connect to at hotels and plazas/parks. Being unplugged from the otherwise ever-present internet of the West, offers an opportunity to truly be present in the now.

Trinidad, Cuba.

During our 12-day experience, we visited four cities in four separate provinces: Havana (La Habana in Spanish) in Cuidad de Habana, Viñales in Pinar del Rio, Cienfuegos in Cienfuegos, and Trinidad in Sancti Spiritus.

La Habana is the country’s capital and largest city. It is also its own province and houses the nation’s largest port and the heart of its commerce. Over two million Cubans call it home, making it the fourth largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region. Founded in the 16th century by Spanish Conquistadors because of its location, it served as a key post for their journey to and from the Americas. The city is rich in Spanish architecture and its streets are flooded with vintage American cars from the 1950s in myriad colors. Notably, since 1982, Old Havana has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Viñales is a quaint (would quaint be a better word here?), small town in the island’s countryside. It is the site of the most important natural reserve and is also where the majority of the nation’s tobacco is produced, due to its climate. Housing in Viñales consists mostly of colorful, one-story, wooden houses with porches and matching rocking chairs out front.

Many are known as ‘casas particulares’, which are private homes that offer private lodging to foreigners, very much like a bed-and-breakfast – a unique opportunity to experience life as the locals see it. Its breathtaking landscape makes it a winner for nature lovers and horseback trekkers, alike. Viñales Valley is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cienfuegos (one hundred fires in Spanish) is on the southern coast in the heart of the former sugar plantations. Originally home to the Taino indigenous people, the city was settled by the Spanish and later by French immigrants from Bordeaux – many of the street names in Old Town still reflect French origins.

Its affluent European history is still visible by its countless prestigious buildings harkening to a bygone heyday. Visiting this city is like taking a step back in time. Some of the casas particulares in Cienfuegos are Italian Baroque designed palaces that allow one to experience life in all the glamor of that era.

Trinidad is described by many as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South), because it is one of the best-preserved cities in the Caribbean from the time when sugar trade was the main industry in the region – today the main industry is tobacco processing. It lays in central Cuba and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.

Modern day life influences have not yet visibly tarnished this special place. Small houses line the streets and cobble stone roads lead you to visual treasures upon treasures to discover. It’s as if the Spanish Conquistadors had just left, certainly when locals pass by on horse and carriage.

Fun Facts:

–       School enrollment is mandatory and free from the ages of 6 to 15. Grades 10-12 are considered pre-college for university bound students. University students receive stipends while enrolled in any of the 47 universities on the island.

–       Enviable literacy rate – 99.8% amongst its adult population.

–       The national healthcare system, available only to locals, has an impressive 170 patients to every doctor ratio (compared to over 300 in other places). Nearly all medical procedures are covered, including some cosmetic surgery that would be considered optional in the vast majority of other countries.

–       The lack of fast food restaurant chains that litter seemingly every street in nearly every other land is refreshing. In their stead you will find hundreds of restaurants and street vendors ready to serve.

–   The streets tend to be relatively empty between 11-18:00 due to unbearable heat. Folks get their errands done quickly during the cooler morning hours, and then stay indoors until sunset. The streets then come alive with a vengeance in the evenings. Everyone from babies in strollers to the elderly in wheelchairs are carted out to the town squares for playtime, mingling and, of course, to ignore one another as we do nowadays while seemingly everyone logs onto the web.

–       Approximately 200 varieties of palm trees exist on our planet – 90 of them can be found in Cuba.

–    Ernest Hemingway lived on the island for more than 20 years, on-and-off. Before purchasing his home off the beaten path (now a museum) he lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana. El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana’s Old Town are considered to be bars Hemingway patronized and, as such, are still tourist hotspots.

–    The fruit – my Orishas! – avocados are the size of a rugby ball, mangoes are that of a volley ball, while the coconuts are at least that of a football… and the taste is incomparable!

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For more pictures related to this article, please visit: www.kimvermaat.com/l/cuba  

Tour operator: Tropicana Touristik in Berlin – www.tropicana-touristik.de

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