We found Cuba to be absolutely fascinating and very different from any of the other Caribbean islands. It felt like we had taken a big step back in time, before the days of modern cars and a permanent connection to the virtual world.
After two weeks when we were finally ‘snorkeled out’ at Jardines de la Reina, aided by a good breeze, we sailed overnight for Cienfuegos, 160 km to the northwest and situated in an enclosed bay. We anchored off another government run Marina Marlin, where, after a lengthy but friendly check-in we were free to go ashore and enter the ‘time warp’.
Of the vehicles on the road a good many dated back to the 1950’s and 1960’s and are now considered classic cars. Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges, Russian Ladas plus more that we couldn’t recognise, most beautifully kept although sometimes the evidence of repeated, careful body work would show.
There were also plenty of horse drawn carts, bicycle- and motorcycle taxis. Apart from the fleet of smart yellow taxis used mainly by tourists, there were relatively few modern cars.
Cienfuegos is mostly a rather scruffy two-storey town, in contrast to the stately colonial structures in the historical centre, some topped with gracious domes.
For many years Cuba was one of the world’s underdogs and it is still not favoured by many due to its political system. We, however, found it fascinating to see how a people’s democracy in a socialist state functions. Good health care and education is free and there is a small gap in salaries. From what we were told by the dock master in Cienfuegos, pay ranges between 400 and 700 CUC (Cuban Convertible Dollar) per month. A medical doctor earns 700 and somebody who sweeps the streets gets 450 “because it is an important job to keep the city clean”.
It was difficult to determine whether the limited variety in stocks that we noticed in the shops were due to goods being rationed by the government or if it was due to economic hardships that followed the collapse of its biggest trading partner, the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s isolation from the world.
Possibly because of its isolation over the decades, Cuban society is not as obsessed with being ‘connected’ as the rest of the world. With local cellphone simcards calls can be made and SMS’s sent, but for an internet connection, people have to make use of dedicated wifi spots. Most parks, restaurants and hotels provide these wifi spots and internet access is available for 1 CUC per hour, irrespective of how many bytes are used.
What is also interesting, and sometimes confusing, are the two currencies used: CUP (Cuban Pesos) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Dollar). The CUC is at 1:1 with the American Dollar and CUP converts at 25:1 with CUC. In the shops prices are noted in both currencies but in tourist areas and for tourist services like taxis, prices are only quoted in CUC. Street vendors and the local vegetable market only accept CUP. At the ATM’s you can withdraw both CUC and CUP. It appears that the government has created two different currencies, one for the relatively poor locals and the other for better off tourists.
Another dimension that we hadn’t noted on the other Caribbean islands was the preservation of colonial architecture. Spain ruled Cuba for nearly 400 years until its independence in 1902, as is clear in many beautifully maintained historical buildings, striking statues and memorials scattered throughout the cities.
It appeared that the current generation of Cubans are happy people, proud of their rich history and Spanish cultural heritage as well as of their independence derived from the revolution lead by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera which freed them from the Batista dictatorship in 1959.
Since Megs was flying back home via Panama from Cuba’s capital, Havana, which is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, I decided to join her for two nights. Pete opted to stay on Moondust and prepare her for our crossing to Panama.
Many Cubans rent out rooms in their houses for extra income and we found a room in a gracious family casa in Vedado, a quiet, beautiful suburb, where we thoroughly enjoyed our stay with Mayra, our extremely friendly and helpful hostess.
We visited an exhibition of the 1962 Missile Crisis at the nearby National Hotel and like good tourists we visited Old Havana, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Since Cuba is known for dancing, we would have loved to attend a cabaret or dance show. However, being sailors we knew that we would not be able to outlast the Cuban night life. All shows started at 22:00 and finished at 02:00!
Travelling back to Cienfuegos, I reflected on all we had seen and enjoyed in Cuba which made it our most worthwhile and memorable stop in the Caribbean.