Cuba has changed so much since the last time I went. Right after I landed in Havana, I heard the announcement of Obama taking a momentous step of restoring full relations of the U.S. with Cuba. This erased the last trace of “cold war” hostility and the communist country since then, would never be the same.
I still remember only chartered flights were available between the U.S. and Cuba. Most travelers could fly to Havana from Toronto (only 3 hours away!), or Mexico. Though available, advertisements were rare, mobile phones were not popular (yeah, no phubbers), and even common U.S. franchises, like Walmart, Starbucks, and Mcdonald’s, wouldn’t be seen in Havana. I was to be charged a few bucks an hour to use Wi-Fi in the hotel lobby. So, I thought, “what the heck”, and I had a few days in my recent life that I am off completely off the phone, and it felt… weird. To learn more about the back to 1953 experience, you will find out more about how to fly there, stay connected, and where to stay in Cuba.
I stayed at the Mercure Sevilla La Habana and it was a historic European-style hotel with refined and spacious rooms, a rooftop restaurant, and a terrace bar (that had a great view of the city including the Parliament), and an outdoor pool. For the last day of my trip to Cuba, I am exploring the local flea markets and head to someplace a little bit farther away from the old Havana.
Havana’s Flea Market
The flea market in Old Havana’s Plaza de Armas is simply terrific. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops, and live music. The market is the end result of a scavenger hunt, and it’s full of treasures. It opens in the morning and closes at around 4 pm. Old books, records, paintings, jewelry… what amazed me was that I saw a lot of vintage watches or old cameras, which might take a trillion years to find, or even be non-existent in my hometown, were just sitting there in the stalls and were sold at wonderful prices. If you are ready to haggle, it would be your shopping paradise. I got a Raketa spring watch, which was made in the 50s in U.S.S.R. for about 20 bucks, fake or authentic, I thought it was awesome and I am still wearing it every day.
What to buy in Cuba?
Apart from COHIBA cigars (that I would mention below), there are many other unique souvenirs that you could buy at home in local stores or markets.
Like Hand-made traditional music instruments – Clave, Maracas, or Guiro. More, check out the Bongo drums, bata, Boko, or tumbo; for alcohol, light rum, and silver dry would be perfect for making a nice cocktail, gold rum (5 years) and dark rum (10-25 years) are suitable for serving with ice or straight up. Of course, their prices increase depending on the number of years. Havana Club is one of the most famous brands in Cuba, while Varadero and Santiago de Cuba are quite popular too.
Another popular souvenir item is “anything-with-Che-Guvera’s-face-on-it”. T-shirt, posters, flags, coasters, towels, postcards – he is regarded as a revolutionary hero and iconically he has become a money tree to the people as an opposer of capitalism. One thing (I also mentioned in Back to 1953: Exploring Havana’s Old City Center and the Four Plazas, is a three Cuban Peso-dollar note.
Another thing that I recommend would be art items or wood sculptures as home decor. There are numerous Cuban artists in the country and their work is hugely influenced by European modern art – Art pieces like sculptures of Cuban ladies or abstract objects, canvas with colorful vintage cars, street views, and cigars are very well received by the visitors.
Have you seen Buena Vista Social Club in 1999, this movie was directed by Wim Wenders, a German director and it was a global hit that brought music in Cuba to the world. Son Cubano is the most popular, and genre of music and dance that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba during the late 19th century. The origin was not defined, but it’s always led by a singer, combining elements of Spanish guitar and African melody. It is a soft, and relaxing type of country music as if waves hitting the shore from the Caribbean. The band usually consists of Tres, a three-string guitar, clave, guiro, maracas, and bongo.
Viñales Valley: Cuban cigars and the caves
Viñales Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1999 and it’s a unique landscape in Cuba. There, apart from the beautiful sceneries, I explore the making of a famous product that comes from Cuba – let’s live dangerously – Cuban cigars. The Viñales Valley is about 2 hours away from the city of Havana and it’s a famous tobacco farm. Greeted by the tour guide and the driver (yet again I thought it was a group tour, but turned out it was only me), I hopped on a vintage Chevrolet, and we headed straight to the suburbs.
Sugar Cane and Cuba
When the car moved away from Havana, there are sugar cane fields on the side of the road. Rum is the product of sugar cane, and these products are the major exports that support the country’s economy, together with a tragic history of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until 1867, Cuba had approximately 1,400 sugar cane fields, with a production output of 700,000 tons of sugar canes – that’s one-third of production in the world. It was later Cuba lost its biggest client, the US, after 1953, and the Cuban turned to the Russians in exchange for oil and machinery. Modern technologies also promoted the output to 850,000 tonnes annually in the 1970s.
At first, I thought the Viñales Valley is filled with notorious drug lords and cigar-making huts, it was actually not as “dangerous” as it sounded. Apart from tobacco farms (like Veguero), it is a natural wonder with lots of interesting things to see and do.
Walking through the Viñales town where there are some nice local cafes and some houses with massive porches and vibrant paintings would turn into lively restaurants after dark. There, you could buy the luxurious COHIBA cigars at low prices.
The history of Tabacco
Have you seen an image of Fidel Castro, smoking a cigar in his green military uniform? This is not only a trademark of the persional image, it is also a push to the famous Cuban cigar’s brand – Cohiba. A high-quality cigar can be sold in great value, and whether you smoke or not, this is something that you may want to know more about when you are in Cuba.
There was an interesting legend among cigar smokers: Right before President Kennedy in the US signed off the embargo of Cuba in 1961, he called his press secretary in the White House to purchase more H. Upmann cigar. The next day, the secretary informed Kennedy that he found 1,200 cigars, and Kennedy exclaimed words of satisfaction, and signed the embargo accordingly. Habanos S.A announced their business results in 2017, the sales of cigar worldwide reached a record high of five billion US dollars, with a 70% of market share in the world. Locally, you will see a lot of locals on the streets, holding a rather low quality cigar (as the high quality ones are exported), but this is part of their lives, and their pride.
Cigarettes were introduced to Europe when Colombus landed in Cuba in 1492, and the expedition team found the natives Taino were smoking in the inland. Originally, the native Indians in America thought that smoking was a way to impress their god. They smoke tobacco, chew tobacco, or squeeze juice out of tabaccos in the past. By getting themselves a little light-headed, they thought it was a way to interact with god during religious ceremonies. Tabacco was also used as a medicine to heal wounds. The word Cohiba came from the native language of Arawak, meaning tabacco, or smoking. It was later became a world-known brand of cigar.
Soon, smoking was brought back to Spain by Father Fray Roberto Pane, and started to spread in the 16th century to the neighboring countries like France, Portugal, Britain, and later to the Philippines and China.
After the revoluation in 1959, the production of cigar was nationalized. Many tabacco farmers escaped to Dominica, Ecaudor, Honduras and Nigaragua with their cigar production skills. Yet, Cuba is still the best in terms of production of Cigar. The business is under the government’s control, and 90 percent of the production has to be handed in to the government, and 10% are allowed for retail or own use.
The best place for tabacco is in western Cuba. While it takes only about 45 days to grow, it has to be wind dried for 50 days and then put to fermentation for another 40 days. This is an important process and it determines the density, color, taste, texture and quality of the cigar. Cuba has the best rollers to produce the cigar and the finished products will be packed and shipped all over the world.
Don’t forget to go to the top of the craggy low mountains and admire the unique landscapes of the valley from a viewpoint. These mountains are rich in limestone and covered in a lush rainforest with a sheer rock surface. Farms and single-story dwellings are scattered in between in the flatlands that make a picturesque impression on the viewers. Some of the farms have horseback riding tours that tourists could sign up for. However, since the farmers in the Tabacco farms are less likely to give you a guided tour in English – a visit to Veguero could be a great option as the farm include a small patch of field, a drying hut, and a warehouse; the workers in the farm will introduce the plantation, harvest, and process of making cigar, they will also give a live demonstration on how the cigars are rolled. in Cuba, 90% of the harvest is required to submit to the government, while the remaining 10% is at the farmers’ discretion to sell or self-use. Not only these technically legal untaxed cigars are freshly obtained from the origin, but their price is also much lower than anywhere else in the country.
Cueva del Indio and Cueva de San Miguel
There were mountains, and there were caves. Go underground and see the impressive underground cave systems, like the Cueva del Indio, or the Cueva de San Miguel of the valley. These Indian Caves are located on the outskirts of town and it would be leisure to walk through these caves and see the rocks and streams.
Lastly, the Mural de la Prehistoria is an icon of the valley. It is a giant, colorful mural painting on an exposed cliff about 4 kilometers west of the Viñales Village. The painting was designed by Mexican artist Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo in 1961. Viewers do not really have to get up close to the paintings are 120 meters long. The huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters, and humans in the painting symbolize the theory of evolution and it’s the best way to end your visit to the valley before heading back to Havana.