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Finding the Authentic Cuba

Forget Havana and Varadero, I found the real Cuba in parts unknown and trust me, everyone needs to discover it.

By: Women Who Explore + Save to a List

I land with a bump into blue skies, palm trees and a runway that has been closed to American tourists for a long time. Instead of jetting off to Mexico where white sand beaches, five star resorts and Bahama mamma drinks awaited me I instead chose to visit the elusive Cuba. Fascinated with this country for years, it is only in recent months that visitors from all over the world can now roam freely in the country. Newspapers and magazines have been bursting with photos of crowded streets in Havana where selfie sticks are the hottest commodity, or the white sand beaches of Varadero where tourists are sipping mojitos on beach chairs. The cobbled streets, the 1950’s cars and the historic houses screamed my name and I knew, I just knew I had to get there before everyone else did. There is something so undeniably exciting about traveling to Cuba, a place that has been stuck in the past for years without proper access to car parts, television and internet but has now the chance for change and hope for the future. I just hoped I wasn’t too late, that the incredible untouched beauty of this place wasn’t overwhelmed by tourists.

Havana was my first destination, after all it housed some of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes and if sipping cocktails in the very same establishment wasn’t inspiration for a story, I wasn’t sure what would be. I landed in the city of Varadero though, choosing to opt for the less expensive flight and hoping I could see a bit of the countryside while I traveled from one city to the next. As I walked into the hot sunshine I hailed a cab, knowing I wanted to talk to the locals while making my way to the city. Overly friendly and eager it appeared that every cab driver was vying for my attention and for a moment I felt overwhelmed and perhaps a touch nervous as my Spanish wasn’t up to par to be negotiating with drivers. As I eyed an elderly gentleman up, the other drivers quickly backed away and I was met with a big grin and a “welcome to Cuba” shout as he grabbed my backpack, slung it into the trunk and opened the passenger door for me.

“Off to Havana please” I chimed to my driver, whose name I soon learn is Yani. With a twinkle in his eye he turned to me and said “are you sure you want to go to Havana?”. As I started to process his question Yani informed me that he knew somewhere in Cuba even better than Havana, that would take the same amount of time to get to and he promised it would be unforgettable. I am not sure if it was the Cuban heat, the friendly look in his eye or the fact that I can be somewhat spontaneous but I agreed and we set off. As we passed through small towns laden with locals selling fruit from the trees on the side of the road, kids kicking soccer balls through the fields it began to occur to me that I had yet to spot a single tourist with a selfie stick, nor had I any indication that there were more travelers throughout the country. As I sat back in the 1950’s Chevy I listened as Yani told me stories of his family, his upbringing and his country that he is ever so proud of.

As bright blue water came into my view, along with buildings of stunning architecture I think I must have gasped. Clean cobbled streets, bright colored buildings, beautiful people and the sun sparkling down made this city look as it was glittering. And most shocking of all, where were all the tourists? There we no resorts in sight, no selfie sticks and certainly no bars with "Hemingway drank here" signs. “Where the heck are we” I asked Yani as he chuckled to himself as the expression on my face. “Welcome to Cienfuegos” Yani proclaimed, “I have arranged for somewhere for you to stay for a couple nights with a good friend of mine in a beautiful casa particular”. Considering at this point I have not only handed over my money to Yani, agreed on a strange destination and had only good things to say about him, I happily thanked him as he dropped me off in front of a beautiful house. After a brief tour of the house and gardens, as well as an introduction to the pool that lay waiting for me in the courtyard and after handing over my whopping $25 for my three nights stay, I set off to explore the city.

Founded by French colonists in the second decade of the 19th century, the architecture here is simply stunning. Parks, plazas and monuments simply sparkle in the sunlight and I make my way around learning about the ancient fortress of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Jagua as well as Hotel Jagua. I speak to locals who speak perfect English and are happy to show me around, asking for nothing in return. I pop into cafes and sip mojitos with the bartender and chat about the lack of tourism that often reaches this city. I learn that American’s are not seen here very often, yet Germans, Canadians and Britain’s can be found here. Quietly I contemplate this fact, wondering if the media has let this city down, choosing instead to focus on places like Havana. On the other hand, I take relish in the lack of urgency, the lack of tourists and the authenticity I feel from it. Spending three days exploring this city leaves me satisfied that I indeed found an incredible city in Cuba to explore, with clean streets, beautiful people and fascinating architecture. But I must say I did feel a little let down by just how modern it did seem. Where were the horse and buggy and the dirt roads? Where were the little illegal restaurants run out of people’s houses? I craved more and so back into the cab I went with Yani and I asked him to take me somewhere that I could find all of this.

Most people have never heard of Cárdenas, a city that runs mainly on horse and buggy, filled with hotel workers and paladares owners and where the only place to get Wi-Fi is a public park in the center of town. The streets are lined with clusters of friends and families, often hanging out on the stoops in front of their small shops or houses, chatting with a lack of urgency and seemingly never in a rush. There are no tourists buzzing around, no flashy signs, no real restaurants in site, just a city filled with clothes hanging from windows and balconies, dogs wandering around and the clip clop sound of hoof beats throughout. “Welcome to the real Cuba”, I thought to myself as we pulled up to a big metal door on the side of the road with no sign that Yani promised was my place of residence for the next two nights. Just minutes away from the resort city of Varadero, it felt like I was in a different world altogether and quite frankly I wasn’t sure I would like it near as much as I liked Cienfuegos.

As I headed out into the dusty and dirty streets of Cardenas I soon realized that everyone local and their brother was crowding in the huge park in the center of town and I quickly understood that it was indeed the only place to get Wi-Fi access. I sat down on a bench next to a young couple and said hello in English, crossing my fingers I could have the same luck here finding some friendly locals to tell me about the city. Looking up from their phones, they smiled and said hello back and asked me where I was from and what I was doing in their city. It appeared Cardenas doesn’t see tourists very often. As I spoke about what I was looking for, a meaningful connection with a place I had longed so long to explore it became apparent to me that I had already found this connection with the people I had met. Our conversation flowed naturally and they offered to take me to a real Cuban restaurant for an unforgettable experience later that night. “Meet us at the Hard Rock Hotel” they shouted as they bounded off towards home. They were already gone before I could process the words ‘Hard Rock Hotel’ and I scratched my head in bewilderment that these locals were taking me to the Hard Rock Hotel for a real authentic experience.

Hours later I twisted, turned and got lost several times on my way to the Hard Rock Hotel, a place where no one I asked seemed to know about. I slunk down a dark alley in hopes that it would magically appear before my two new friends would think I let them down by not meeting them. After a few more wrong turns I looked ahead and saw the traditional neon sign boasting the words Hard Rock Hotel. By now I was a little hot, a little annoyed and disappointed this was their idea of a real experience. I warily stepped inside hoping that this city had not submitted to the American way and spotted my friends. Completed decorated in traditional Cuban décor with music blasting over the speakers it indeed looked nothing like the traditional Hard Rock Hotel I was used to. Authentic service and food followed, as well as a table laden with Cubans and all for the price of $7 a person, including drinks and dessert. Chowing down on local food, dancing to the music and embracing this “Hard Rock Cafe” was an experience unlike any other, and something I highly doubted I could get at the all-inclusive resorts located just minutes away in Varadero.

The days and nights that followed in Cardenas included plenty of local restaurants that were indeed inside people’s homes, long rides on the dusty roads with the driver even letting me steer the horse and meetings with friends that I will have for a lifetime. There were no tourists that I met, no judgement that I felt for my terrible Spanish and a lot of laughs. There are no big hotels, no white sand beaches and certainly no modern conveniences. What there is here though is culture and pride for their country. I came to Cardenas unsure of what I could gain from it, a little weary of the boringness of the town and yet I was leaving in tears, sad to leave friends and a place I felt tugged at my heartstrings.

I never did make it to Havana where I could have sipped a drink in Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, nor did I see a white sand beach and there were no selfie sticks in sight. I came to this country for inspiration, to feel a connection and to explore the unknown and I left with a sense of hope and pride for the people of Cuba. I saw the amazing effect of Wi-Fi as family members talked to one another from across the world and I saw tourism dollars being spent to improve streets and buildings. My hope for Cuba is this, that they can become a nation that retains their culture and charm yet can offer the people things to better their lives. My hope for the people that visit Cuba is this, may you come back changed, more respectful of cultures, more inclusive to all and more open to things you have never thought to try. 

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We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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