Step Out of Your Comfort Zone into the Real Cuba

The clip-clop of horses’ hooves startles me awake and I sit up with a jolt, forgetting for a brief moment where I am. I had drifted asleep in the backseat of a 1950s Chevy, traveling from Varadero Airport to the city of Trinidad. Rubbing my eyes, I peer out of the window to see tiny villages dotting the landscape, horse-drawn buggies clopping along beside us and children kicking around a soccer ball in the street. This was the Cuba I was after, not those white sand all-inclusive beach resorts located on Varadero Beach, teeming with tourists as more and more visitors start to arrive on this sacred island. I didn’t want to head to Havana, to the bar where Hemingway supposedly drank, or to the cigar factory or the rum factory. “Everyone else can have that”, I thought to myself as we trudged along, “and they will never know what they are really missing out on”.

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Choosing to hire a taxi versus taking a bus was an easy choice, as I had come to explore the countryside, get to know the locals, and experience an authentic Cuban vacation. Upon leaving the airport I had passed throngs of tourists loading onto buses and I watched in amusement as my cab driver laughed to himself, shaking his head and muttering in Spanish, making fun of the sombrero-wearing tourists. We weren’t quite to Trinidad yet I noticed, as my cab driver informed me of an unexpected stop. Gasoline is very expensive and many taxi drivers stock up when it is cheaper, and save it for when the prices spike. I watched in amusement as my driver took a drum out of his backyard and siphoned it with an old-fashioned garden hose. A few short minutes later, we were cruising down the countryside once again.

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The dust kicked up by the car increased as we pulled into the city of Trinidad. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this city is often considered to be the world’s biggest open-air museum, brimming with cobbled streets, historic buildings and live music. Wandering the streets by foot is the only way to explore Trinidad, although horse and buggy are favored for longer out-of-town journeys. 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 no sense of urgency, and never in a rush. There are just a few tourists buzzing around, no flashy signs, and no real restaurants in sight; just a city filled with clothes hanging from windows and balconies, dogs wandering around, and the sound of horses’ hooves throughout.

While exploring and lost in thought, I began to note all the things that many people will miss out on when they visit Cuba. It’s easy for us to get around this country – after all, Canadians are perhaps the most welcomed people in this beautiful island nation. But what about the Americans? Will they receive the same hospitality that we as Canadians receive? It takes no time for my cab driver to invite me over to his house for a family dinner, a practice that I have experienced almost every time I have been here. I’ve eaten more food with Cuban families than I have in restaurants; they are just that hospitable.

After filling my belly with some delicious Cuban food (yes, Cuban food is delicious, contrary to popular belief) and the infamous Canchanchara cocktail, I hit the streets again, which had seemingly been transformed into an endless series of street bands and rumba dancing. It wasn’t long before someone handed me an instrument and invited me to join in. As I shook my tambourine, a Cuban man saddled up beside me and asked where I was from. As I shouted “Canada” over the loud music, he smiled and embraced me in one big bear hug. Shaking our rattles and our hips, we made our way to the main square, where a live salsa band was performing on stage. In front of it was a large dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs. It is here where I truly immersed myself into the crowd, dancing with throngs of young and old, professionals and beginners; until at last, the music stopped and the sun began to rise.

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Catching a bus laden with Cubans, the next stop on my journey through the island was to the city of Cardenas, a short hop over from the tourism capital of Varadero. It was here that the first Cuban National Flag was raised, on top of the Dominica Hotel in the year 1850. Most tourists to Cuba miss this city, once an important part of history and now riddled with rundown buildings and the smell of horses in the air. It can be hard to find a restaurant here, never mind a motorized cab, and hotels are nearly non-existent. As I stepped off the bus and into the huge park in the middle of town, I noticed one thing – everyone was on their cellphones. Unintentionally, I had come to the one place in the whole city that offered free Wi-Fi. It appeared that Cubans were already beginning to see some changes taking place in this city.

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As I started walking, in search of a Casa Particular (our version of a bed and breakfast), I spotted a sign that read “Studio 55”. Scratching my head in bewilderment, I stumbled through the doorway not knowing whether to expect a replica of the famous club in New York City or something entirely different. It was the latter of course, slightly more posh than I would have expected, but lacking anything resembling the real Studio 54. Alas, this wasn’t my last run-in with an Iconic American venue; later that night, I dined at the Hard Rock Cafe. Outfitted with the traditional neon sign, it appeared from the outside to be the real deal. I warily stepped in, hoping that the city of Cardenas had not submitted to the American way, and was instead greeted by the Cuban version of this popular chain restaurant, complete with traditional and authentic food and service. Embracing the local culture that is so prevalent here is one thing us Canucks are good at. Chowing down on local food, dancing to the music and embracing this “Hard Rock Cafe” was an experience unlike any other, and something you won’t get at the all-inclusive resorts located just 30 minutes away in Varadero.

Unfortunately for many upcoming visitors, they will never have the chance to experience the city of Cardenas and all that comes with it – the hospitable people, the knock-off restaurants and clubs, and the timeless sense of history. While lapping up mojitos and playing beach volleyball all day on white sand beaches may appeal to the masses, this is not the real Cuba. As a Canadian, I am not only thankful, but grateful to be able to experience the magic of this island time and time again. I can only hope that as more tourists make their way here, they step out of their comfort zone and embrace all that Cuba has to offer.