“In Cuba we are free” (Baracoan Man)

In February 2015 I went to Cuba for a month, alone. I went for the purpose of adventure, but also to learn more about the Country. A country I had known to be the stuff of legends, with its revolutionary government and nurturing of the late, great Che Guevara.

People are saying Cuba is on the edge of change, that soon all the things that make it unique will turn to dust. In its wake a shining starbucks will emerge, loom up, dominate the urban skyline and all the beautiful crumbling facades will be crushed with American shops and skyscrapers.

So I decided to go to the Island and explore for myself, before, perhaps, it changes irrevocably.

I organised by trip through STA Travel who recommended I book an organised ‘tour’ with Bamba Experience. Bamba are a Mexican travel company whose motto’s include “We want to make it easy for you to be spontaneous” and “travel the world exactly as you have dreamed it”. To me this sounded great, in reality it was quite unachievable. Cuba is in some ways still a ‘communist’ country, run bureaucratically using surveillance and Government control. There is no Wifi and for the majority of Cubans, very limited access to the internet. Partly due to the U.S trade and travel embargo, ‘backpacking’ as we know it does not yet exist in Cuba.

Still, I book with Bamba who tell me I am going on a kind of hop-on-hop-off bus ‘tour’. The accommodation will be Casa Particulares; ‘Home-Stays’. Private Home-stays are on the rise in Cuba, with Raul Castro’s recent reforms, owners can open up to visitors and make some extra money. A business on the side.

Before I left for Cuba, I was fairly ignorant to most of this. I had come to the conclusion that I would be meeting many other travellers on this ‘tour’, I mean, why wouldn’t I?



The plane touched down into Havana at 6pm. I then had to wait for 3 hours in a queue, just to get into the country. After 2 hours of waiting, nobody quite knew what was happening, people got nervous, aggressive even. None of the customs officials communicated why we were waiting and it was a clear test of patience. At one point a French man accused another man of pushing in front of him and a loud- shouting argument ensued. It almost got violent. The space was cramped and hot and when I eventually reached the customs official I was whisked through by an indifferent looking girl who barely even looked at my documents. It was both frustrating and curious.

Once through customs I was relieved to retrieve my luggage and get out past all the shouting, hopeful, faces calling “Senorita!” to the money changing point where , I nervously stood in a queue and waited for at least another hour to change my wad of sterling into the curious Cuban ‘Tourist’ dollar; The Cuban Convertible or CUC.


Waiting a long time for anything turns out to be normal in Cuba. It could be for the bus, outside the bank, for a collectivo (shared taxi), for food, for your Casa Particulare host to come and greet you as you wait while the rest of the family stare as you attempt to utter some words in Spanish, which they correspondingly do not comprehend. Often you wait in a line to be disappointed, to be told the bank is ‘shutting now for lunch’ or the bus just has been cancelled for no concrete reason.

Five hours after landing in Cuba and I am still at the airport. Its getting late. I wait anxiously in the money-exchange queue; starting to wonder whether I might end up roaming the streets of Havana with nowhere to stay. All I have from Bamba is an address, written on a piece of paper. I was to ‘make my own way to the Casa’. In the queue, I meet a lovely Danish couple that I convince to take me in their taxi from the airport to Havana’s old town. We find ourselves in a big bulky car from the 1960s and at some point in the heart of Habana Vieja. The taxi driver didn’t know the location of the address I had on the piece of paper. After a period of driving through pot-holed streets and dodging roads that were basically still being constructed, the driver asked some street children where ‘O’Reilly entre Habana y Compostela’ was. The kids knew.

Finally we pulled in to a dark street where the street lights merely flickered, up to an unassuming doorway where a man with a small boy was standing. I called out “Casa Leonel?” – “Si!” he answered and in a flash, hauled my rucksack onto his back and guided me up the small wooden stairs to the top of the building.

Glad to be in real house and not wandering the streets, I sat and waited in a room surrounded by some kitsch furniture, ornaments on a mantel piece, and most intriguingly, a tinsel- clad christmas tree in the corner, left over from the festive season. There was also a balcony, with an unforgettable view. We were right in the middle of the Havana’s old town, with all its regal, colonial splendour.


I waited for my host- while I shuffled nervously, a young cool looking guy came and sat with me and seemed to speak quite good English. He asked me about my journey and I asked him about his life. He had never left Cuba, he told me, and even travelling out of Havana was expensive for him. As I reeled off the countries I had visited, I started to feel guilty for being British and privileged. We talked and as I continued waiting and wondering what was to happen next- the man with the child then came in and we laughed for a bit. Eventually, in came my host, a smartly dressed Leonel, apologising for leaving me waiting, greeting me warmly and asking me questions about my journey. He took me to my room, which turned out to be in a totally different house across the road. It was instead the Casa of Dr. Alina Reyes, who by day, worked as an eye- doctor.

I had finally arrived in Havana in one piece- but with no real idea what to expect, I settled in to my large bedroom and soaked everything in.

Havana is an extraordinary place. An assault on the senses, music around every corner and all its inhabitants existing outside in the open, communicating loudly to neighbours and tourists alike. It took some time to adjust.



After a few intensive days in Havana I left for a smaller town called Cienfuegos, the start of my journey around the Island. On the surface, Cienfuegos was a funny kind of place with not much there really.

As I disembarked the bus in Cienfuegos I was greeted by a man who shouted ‘Fefa’ and then ‘Marta’! He was standing with a bicycle so I wasn’t sure if this was the right person. I wondered if he was expecting me to sit on the back of it. Actually he just walked alongside it, pointed the way, and I followed.

Fefa’s house was a long way down a very long street which seemed to be filled with Donkeys, children playing football and old men and women sitting in their doorways, watching the action take place around them. I was quite shocked by its contrast from Havana. I felt like I had gone back in time. This is what England must have been like before the second world war… before children discovered television, video games and then the internet. However, here in Cuba , the weather made it all a lot more pleasant, to act out your life, outside.

For the first evening in Cienfuegos, It started to dawn on me, that I was not on a ‘tour’ really, not even a glorified bus trip. It seems I had been booked public bus tickets and ostensibly some accommodation. In the Casa, I was briefed by a rather sullen daughter of Fefa, shown my room and left alone. I felt as if I’d been deceived by Bamba, would the whole trip be like this? Staying in strange, off-the-beaten track houses, without the company of like-minded people? Alone in my room, feeling rather desperate, I noticed the sounds of hushed conversation. The voices were English. They turned out to be Canadian voices, two older couples who had come to Cuba for a bit of an adventure. It was comforting to know I wasn’t entirely alone.


That evening the Canadians took pity on me and invited me to dine with them in town. It was an enjoyable evening. We ate in an over-priced restaurant which the house band made up for; they were a live trio of singers whose music was heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I regretted not buying the CD. Two of the Canadians agreed to accompany me to one of the main bars in the town. After getting through some Cuban wine and then the best Pina Colada I have tasted in my life, I made the mistake of telling the local band that I played the flute. The flute was then thrust into my hands and the result was that they played the Beatles ‘Yesterday’ and I played along, badly. To my surprise the bar applauded.

The next day I was alone again. I took a little walk around the town. It was blisteringly hot. Central Cienfuegos consists of a main french- style colonial historic square, a shopping street and kind of jetty area. I attempted to visit some of the historic buildings, many were closed. I ventured into the Casa de La Cultura but was told that the viewing tower was shut off. I found myself pacing the ‘Parque Jose Marti’ square looking for something to do, mildly distracted by the music coming from one of the outdoor restaurants. In the sheer heat of the day, I gave up and collapsed on a bench in the park. There I listened to American tourists being educated about the dire state of the cuban economy, by a tired looking cuban tour guide.

After a while I realised I badly needed water. So on the shopping street I hopped into a few shops that kind of looked like ‘General stores’. They seem to sell everything from clothes to toys to soda but when I eventually got the courage to ask someone in my bad Spanish for a ‘bottle of water’ they shook their heads. I tried the same thing in a few similar shops and got the same response. No water here.


My mouth dry and my body weary I gave up on the water hunt and found myself looking in an art gallery situated just off the Parque Marti. Inside there were two young artists who spoke good English and were eager to tell me all about their work. It was refreshing to hear them speak about their pieces, to hear about Cuba’s indigenous ‘Tano’ people and to see the bright canvasses representing all of their complex ideas. Feeling a bit embarrassed but at the same time desperate for something to drink I asked one of the artists where I could get some cheap food for lunch. El Rapido she told me, is the best.


Locating places or addresses in Cuba isn’t easy, so of course I spent at least half an hour searching for it. I had to ask someone else and struggled to understand her Cuban-spanish directions. I found it. El Rapido is Cuba’s Macdonalds, without the cleanliness. The place was full of flies but I didn’t care. The toasted sandwich and water that I had finally got my hands on was delicious.

Experiencing the frustration of trying to buy something as basic as a bottle of water, wandering around a square which seemed interminably closed, I started to wander what was really so very special about this particular Caribbean Island and whether this would be it for me. I couldn’t give up hope. I had to keep trying.