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URBAN HIKE

Urban Hike Cuba
updated: May 21, 2011, 9:30 AM

By Peter Hartmann & Stacey Wright

This week we took a break from our quest to walk all 256 miles of public streets within the city limits of Santa Barbara, and instead wandered off to Cuba to experience a whole new world.

We arrived in Cuba with plans to drive a rental car around the island and visit several tourist destinations. Thinking we could get a map at the rental car agency turned out to be a mistake, and we had to settle for a map that was nowhere close to scale, very rudimentary and intended for French tourists...Ultimately we made do, and successfully traveled across about half the island discovering a very diverse culture, incredibly friendly people, good food, good drink and spectacular scenery.

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In all, we spent 9 days in Cuba, arriving in Havana, and then driving to the lush valley of Vinales, Largo Beach/Villa Guama, the coastal town of Trinidad and back to Havana. We took hundreds of photos, a few of which feature the Edhat bag...

We'll tell you briefly what we know about each of our destinations, and share a few photos that unfortunately don't do justice to the beauty and intrigue of Cuba.

HAVANA: The capital of Cuba, the city today is a mere shadow of its former grand self. It is the largest city in Cuba with about 2.1 million inhabitants primarily of African, European, Asian and bi-racial descent.

The Spanish first arrived in Cuba in 1510, and in 1592, Havana was established as the sixth Cuban city. In 1762 the British captured the city, but returned it by treaty less than a year later. Havana grew and prospered, thanks largely to the abundance of sugar, tobacco and a thriving slave trade. In 1898 (following the abolition of slavery in 1866), the US battleship The Maine was mysteriously sunk in the Havana harbor. This led to the beginning of the Spanish-American War, and gave the US an excuse to occupy the country. US occupation lasted only for three years until a treaty returned it to Spain in 1901. From 1902 through 1958, success of industry and commerce led to a boom in Havana, and the city was made up of restaurants, theaters, mansions, spectacular architecture and incredible culture; in fact it was described as the Paris of the Caribbean by many.

In 1958, some 300,000 American tourists visited Havana, and thousands around the world applied for immigration status. However, the fun was about to come to an abrupt stop. Following the Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro abruptly expropriated all private property and industry (including the newly completed Hilton Hotel), under a communist model. The US and others retaliated with trade embargoes and other restrictive measures. For many years, Cuba relied on The Soviet Union for assistance, but with the disintegration of that country in 1991, economic hardships ensued for Cuba. Consequently, the once magnificent city of Havana is now in a state of urban decay so obvious and severe that it appears the clock just literally stopped ticking in the late 1950's or so.

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VINALES: After staying two nights in Havana, we headed southwest to the agricultural town of Vinales. It is located 189 kilometers (117 miles) from Havana, near a gorgeous, lush valley. Although 117 miles doesn't sound like a very long way to travel, in Cuba the going is slow, and the distances seem much longer than they are. This drive took us at least 4 hours, with little or no stops.

Vinales was established in 1878, and is reported to be Fidel Castro's favorite place in Cuba. The views of the valley are spectacular, so it's not hard to believe that this may be true. Today coffee, tobacco, fruits and vegetables are farmed using very traditional techniques. We saw numerous cowboys, oxen pulled plows and a lot of burning of the fields in and around the valley. In 1999, Vinales was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the tourism industry stepped it up to provide nice accommodations and restaurants to the visitors who put this stop on their itineraries. Additionally, there are two different caves near Vinales which are open to tourists - we visited the Indian Caves, and so did the Edhat bag.

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PLAYA LARGA: After a night in Vinales, we struck out on the longest leg of the drive - from Vinales to Playa Larga and its environs. The drive, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) took us almost the whole day. We stayed at a government owned and operated resort called Villa Guama, which is located on the shore of Laguna del Tesoro, or "Treasure Lake" as it is referred to by the gringos. The lake, with an area of 16 kilometers, is the largest freshwater lake in Cuba, and is a natural habitat for thousands of birds. Tourists come from all over the world to bird watch - we heard this area is home to a hummingbird no bigger than a honeybee, but we can't confirm this... That night we tried crocodile steak, a regional offering. As we might have guessed, it pretty much tasted like chicken. The next morning on our boat ride from the resort to our car, we passed a huge termite nest. Then after checkout, we stopped into the crocodile farm across the street from the resort, and learned about the resurrection of the nearly extinct Cuban crocodile. After a quick stop down the road at Playa Larga (on the Bay of Pigs), we beat it out of town for the 200 kilometer (125 mile) drive to Trinidad.

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TRINIDAD: Our last stop before returning to Havana, we landed at our "all inclusive" resort after about a 200 kilometer (125 mile) drive through the rural areas of Cuba. Hot and ready for a refreshment, we hung out first in our beachside bungalow, and then spent a little time on the beach. Not the type to loaf for too long, we went into the town and caught a great show - including fire dancers, musicians, acrobats, and a variety of other local entertainment, all in an outdoor theater near the steps of an old cathedral.

Like Havana and Vinales, Trinidad has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 people, and hosts tens of thousands of tourists each year. The cobblestone streets, magnificent plazas, brightly painted homes and businesses, museums, shops and restaurants are wonderful. Trinidad is a wonderful old colonial city, built with the fortunes of sugar barons and others, waiting, like a clock whose hands have stopped, to enter the 20th century.

Aside from visiting the town of Trinidad, we snorkeled at nearby Playa Ancon, which is a national park and preserve. On our journey the previous day, we had picked up a gentleman who was desperate for a ride from Cienfuegos to his home very close to the beach in Trinidad. He fast became our friend (and even fixed a flat tire we got), and offered to take us to the preserve for a morning of snorkeling. The water was warm and crystal clear, and the sea life was amazing. Able to free dive very deep and for long periods of time, our friend and his partner even caught a giant crab, which they took home for dinner - with the blessing of the "park ranger".

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BACK TO HAVANA: After two nights in beautiful Trinidad we headed out to make the 375 kilometer (235 mile) trek to Havana. About an hour into the drive we got delayed by a bike race, and spent a couple of hours following the racers, their pace car, and their lag wagon into a town. Apparently, the Cubans take their bike racing seriously, and the event is significant to slow traffic to the bikers pace for the duration of the ride. This, our longest driving day by far, was truly a lesson in patience...

The following photos were taken during our entire drive over the 9 days we spent in Cuba, and are in no particular order...nor are they as good as they should be...we took thousands of photos in all, and encourage anyone who is inclined toward photography or just in search of adventure to take a Cuban road trip of your own, and do it just as soon as possible.

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Our last two nights were spent in Havana, staying at the Hotel Nacional. We took in a show at a nearby club one night, took a horse drawn ride around the town, visited "Papa' Hemingway's home of 22 years, made more wonderful Cuban friends, and generally behaved like the tourists we were.

The last of our photos chronicle the last days of our trip, and our precious time spent in Havana. Among these photos you will see the "Gentleman of Paris" and the "Lady of Havana". The story of the Gentleman will follow...the story of the Lady is simple: after watching us take the photo of the Edhat bag on the Gentleman of Paris, she persistently asked to have the bag...not wanting to give it up too readily, we eventually decided that she could use it more than we could, and so it was hers. We even showed her how the bag fit into its own pouch...we made the Lady of Havana very happy with our humble little gift, and are hoping to one day return to Havana and see her toting with her bright gold bag.

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THE STORY OF "THE GENTLEMAN OF PARIS": There lived a mentally ill homeless man so beloved by the people of Havana that following his death, not one, but two statues of him were erected. We happened to come upon "The Gentleman of Paris" located near the Basilica of the San Francisco de Asís Convent in Old Havana, and promptly dress-ed him up with our Edhat bag. (The other statue is located in the residential neighborhood of Miramar.) Tourists are told that if they touch his beard and his finger simultaneously, it will bring good luck...

Nobody's certain who bestowed upon the man the title "The Gentleman of Paris", but it is suspected that his European attire and suave sophistication have something to do with it. The man apparently never referred to himself by that name, but instead called himself the "Emperor of Peace".

Legend tells of a Spaniard named José María López Lledín, who was born in 1899, around the village of Funsagra, in Lugo. When he was about 14 years old, he left Spain for Cuba, where he remained until his death in a psychiatric hospital in 1985, at the age of 84 years old.

The Gentleman first began to wander the streets of Havana, after being released from a prison in Havana. Having little means of providing for himself, he survived on what he could salvage from the trash cans and from the generosity of others. He slept in the portals of churches or other public places. He dressed in ragged clothes and let his hair grow so long that he began to put it up in a bun that fell halfway down his back in ringlets. His beard gave a touch of distinction and overall, in spite of his filthy appearance, he became seen as an elegant figure at various locations throughout the city.

He carried a small backpack, in which he kept pieces of paper, newspaper clippings, pencils, little empty perfume bottles and wild flowers, and would give these to anyone who gave him something to eat, a cigarette or a coin. Never one to beg for food, he was always polite and generous with those with whom he came into contact, and each time he gave away one of his many presents he would say "Thank you" and add: "God, Peace and Fidel…!" Based on an ability to read, write and express himself with great style, along with his interest in current affairs and impeccable manners, many surmise that The Gentleman of Paris had been well educated before his arrival in Cuba.

There are two differing explanations for the Gentleman of Paris' arrest and confinement at Castillo del Príncipe (The Prince's Castle), a prison in Havana. One says that when he arrived in Havana as a 14-year old boy, he "was hired by a high-class lady to perform housework, that included committing adultery with him". The woman's husband reportedly found out and told his wife that either she report José María for stealing valuable jewels or he would start a great scandal, divorce her and leave her in abject poverty. She agreed to the deal and the boy was arrested, beaten and locked up. It is said that "the lie and injustice, more than the bars of his cell, drove the young and handsome man crazy, and thus he was released". The other explanation is that young José María set sail from Spain aboard the Valvanera, and during a powerful hurricane the steamer was shipwrecked. Miraculously he survived, but the trauma of the experience "was the cause that made him lose his mind".

At the time of his death at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, José María had been in treatment there for 12 years. It is said that he was "affectionately treated by excellent doctors, psychologists and nurses who loved to speak with him in his lucid moments".

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 175433 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-21 10:22 AM

Great pictures with wonderful personal and historical details

 

 COMMENT 175439 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-21 11:10 AM

Your stories and photos brought back memories of one of the most interesting and thought provoking trips of our lives. Thanks for sharing. We went almost ten years ago on the last of the cultural exchange trips sponsored by the SB Museum of Art, before the Bush admin decided visits ("trading with the enemy") should be stopped. Do you care to share some details? Did you fly through Mexico or Canada, have a travel agent or arrange car and hotels on your own?

 

 AQUAHOLIC agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-21 01:39 PM

Cuba is definitely on my 'bucket list'....I would love to hear how you planned your visit, and from what country you entered Cuba.

 

 COMMENT 175469P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-21 01:46 PM

This is excellent! Thanks for the hobo story (s) Whether or not they are totally true, his statue placement at the church of St. Francis says something significant about the local culture. Thank for the Travelog.

 

 COMMENT 175499P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-21 05:17 PM

I love that they aren't afraid of color on their buildings. Even in a state of disrepair, the bright colors bring such joy.

 

 COMMENT 175529 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 07:17 AM

Thanks very much for the great photos and stories! It is so idiotic that US citizens cannot visit Cuba! What's the point?

If we want to visit Cuba in our lifetimes, I would suggest emailing our senators and representaives to ask their support for making Cuba accessable. Contact info can be found by Googling "california senators and representatives 2011"

 

 COMMENT 175535 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 07:31 AM

What a great fascinating trip you had! Thanks so much for sharing it.

 

 BLT agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 07:52 AM

I read this with great interest. Thank you for sharing some of your adventure in Cuba with us.

 

 COMMENT 175551 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 08:34 AM

Please tell us what steps you took in order to take this trip. Did you get a license? Did you enter from another country? What currency did you bring with you? Please, give us the details...I would love to go go Cuba, but have always been under the impression it is technically illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba for "tourism". Thanks SO very much for sharing!

 

 COMMENT 175586 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 01:22 PM

Lovely photos and story ...thanks! I spent a couple of months in Cuba back in 1971 as part of the Venceremos Brigade. We were Americans, Canadians and a few Europeans who supported the people and their revolution by coming to cut cane, live in rural camps and study the changes being made in the country. A remarkable time it was! The people were so friendly, the old buildings were still vibrant and the island had a feel of great promise. Sadly, 40 years and more of American belligerence and blockades have created great stress on the tiny country. Your posting gives me some hope that the Cuban people can somehow survive the hulking threat to their north.

 

 COMMENT 175610 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 02:41 PM

586;Are you actually placing blame or responsibility on the US for the way things turned out for the people of Cuba? Please tell me I have misunderstood your post.

 

 COMMENT 175634 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-05-22 07:05 PM

re: 610...I do indeed place responsibility for much of the economic and political aggravation experienced by Cubans in the years following imposition of an economic, cultural and social embargo by the U.S., beginning in 1960 and continuing even to this day under Obama's reaffirmation of the blockade, as being in the "interests of the United States." Our country, magnitudes larger and more powerful than little Cuba, and notoriously jealous of American hegemony and sense of entitlement throughout the world, has squeezed the island for all its life. Whether you think that is a good thing is your business. I, however, think it is raw imperialist fury against a group of people who had had enough of the neo-colonial control of their country by U.S. banking, corporate and political interests.

 

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