A Weekend in Cuba

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Months out from our departure for Remote Year, we were already scheming all sorts of fantastic side trips, the first of which would whisk us to the island nation of Cuba a mere two weeks after landing in Mexico City.

When facing the reality of this on the ground, it was a little daunting. We were still adjusting to life on the road, so the prospect of being thrown into a totally new environment seemed like it might be a bridge too far. Thankfully, it ended up being the total opposite, a literal breath of fresh air, and a wonderful immersion in a culture and environment that would make Mexico look normal.

I have to admit I didn’t know a huge amount about Cuba before going there. I’d seen Thirteen Days (the movie about the Cuban missile crisis), the hipsters wearing the Che Guevara T-Shirts, and the concert film by the Manic Street Preachers where they played a historic free concert in 2001. This was the first show by a western band in the country, and a sort of protest vote in outreach to the isolated communist nation (Fidel Castro was even in the audience).

Major Lazer followed up with a similarly historic show on the sea wall to 400,000 people just last year, the stage for which still stands and I got to run through each morning.

So music has played an important part in healing the wounds between Cuba and the western world. This makes sense when you experience the place in the flesh. There is music everywhere. It feels constantly in motion.

Either way, I was hoping that some of the gaps in my history would be filled in by the guide on our classic car tour of the island. Sadly she didn’t seem overly interested in giving us the ‘from scratch’ Cuban history lesson.

In general it seemed that while the Cuban people were proud of their nation and their spirit, they weren’t particularly proud of their politics or their history. It was mentioned a couple of times that there are no hard feelings towards the USA. In fact quite the opposite, everyone wants to move there. After a while we gave up trying to extract our history lesson, and just enjoyed the amazing scenery and architecture.

Here’s the crazy Remote Year crew cruising down the waterfront in 4 bad ass classic cars:

Cuba is another planet. Like an amusement park ride that stretches as far as the eye can see. Even getting around is a game, flagging down massive spluttering cars from the 1950s, haggling with the drivers, then admiring the weird arrangements of tchotchkes that decorate the interior as you make your way (hopefully) to your intended destination.

But there is something even more alien that permeates everything. Maybe this is just the Caribbean, but everything seems to glitter in golden light, beaming against the clear blue sky and ocean mist. The colours are bolder, the air is cleaner, the sounds are brighter.

It is a delight just to be there.

It’s an absolute tourist trap of the worst variety. The service is terrible. The food is awful. Everything is wildly overpriced (unless you get off the beaten track), and yet you don’t care. You can’t help but laugh, grab another Mojito and just carry on for the crazy ride. It feels like every corner you turn there is something weird or wonderful to see or do.

There are no ATMs. If you run out of money you’re on the hunt for one of the few foreign exchanges and standing in a ridiculous line.

There are no corner stores. If you’re lucky there will be a gas station that has a strange assortment of goods locked behind glass display cabinets. They will almost certainly have Nutella.

There are sandwiches everywhere, and they are all terrible. Why are they so obsessed with these terrible sandwiches?

But you can get a bottle of rum and a cuban cigar for $5, so you know, just go with the flow.

We went to what was supposed to be one the best clubs in Havana to see a local rock star of a band. We had to wait outside for at least an hour, vying to be one of the chosen few to catch this fantastic act. It was incredibly odd, and an absolute riot. There were more sandwiches.

Back down at sea level, running was an absolute dream. That altitude training has been paying off, and it was incredible to run down the sea wall, waves spraying water out onto the road. Fishermen would reel in their catches and flick them back into pools forming on the pavement. So you’d need to skip off to the side occasionally to avoid stomping on a fresh fish flapping at your feet.

On our final day we explored the old city, climbed a tower in a cathedral, visited a club that was pumping so hard it had people spilling out onto the streets already at noon, ate a disgustingly delicious monstrosity at Sloppy Joe’s, and wandered the streets smoking cigars and drinking beer.

A perfect end to a wonderful weekend. A+ would Cuba again.