My Spanish is very poor. I knew this before I decided to come to Cuba, but I came anyway, hoping it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I tried to work on it, but being here it’s pretty obvious I know next to nothing useful. Thank god for Google Translate.
I needed to take a trip, and commercial flights from the US to Cuba just started a couple months before. What better time than now to come check out this interesting country, supposedly trapped in a time warp. I had no way of knowing that Fidel Castro, dictator of the island for nearly fifty years, would die 3 days before I arrived.
The Boeing 737-800 landed with a heavy thud, harder than most recent flights I’ve been on. The woman next to me crossed her chest with a sign of the cross, scared it would be her last landing. She was nice to me and offered to have her husband help get me to the bus station In Santa Clara. “His English is very good. I’m sorry mine is not.”
We exited the plane on stairs connected to the tail of the fuselage and walked around the wing. The silver American Airlines jet was the only aircraft visible on the tarmac. I don’t really think any more could be accommodated in the space. I stayed close to Damarys, not wanting to lose her getting through the terminal. A man wearing a black graphic tee and “fashion” jeans came up to me and asked to see my visa. He didn’t look official, except the credentials hanging around his neck.
“Here, take a seat,” he said, guiding me away from the line. “you need to fill out your visa.”
I asked for a pen and he disappeared into the crowd. He returned shortly and directed me into a tiny office with “Immigration” marked on the door.
For American travelers, you have to fall under 11 categories of travel, none of them being tourism. I had marked that I was here for journalism, but I had been told that no one actually checked the category here in Cuba. The man in the graphic tee kept asking me who I worked for, what my story was, how much I was being paid, and what side of the political spectrum I was on.
He would lead me to the front of the the line and hand my passport to the immigration officer, then take it back and tell me to sit. I sat for 2 hours, watching two full sets of airline passengers make their way through immigration.
I prepaid for An AirBnB in Havana and needed to take a 5 hour bus ride, so I was anxious to get out of the airport and into Santa Clara. The man in the graphic tee kept saying, just a little bit longer. A police officer came around the corner and looked at me, and for a second I thought I might get to spend some time in a Cuban jail. Finally, after there was no one left in the immigration line the man in the graphic tee sent me through.
On the other side of the door was another line, I had to send my bags through more scanners and walk through a metal detector. The scanner operator told me to take my bag to another table, but a man at a different table motioned for me to come to him. I gave him my medical card and got in line for customs behind two young guys from NYC. I quickly introduced myself and asked if they wanted to share a taxi into Santa Clara. I handed my customs form with “nothing to declare” marked and tried to walk past after watching all the previous passengers do the same, but the man stepped in front of me. “Take your bag to that table.”
I watched Julius and his friend get quickly waved past, and I worried that I’d miss another opportunity to have help getting into Santa Clara.
The customs officer took my bags in a back room to scan them again, which I watched through the slats of the baggage claim door. The officer asked me a few more questions then let me go.
Julius and his friend were sitting at the currency exchange, waiting for the worker to come back from a smoke break. I only exchanged 60 Euro because the rate was not very good, hoping to find a bank as soon as possible to exchange more.
The taxi driver agreed to take all three of us from the airport to Santa Clara in a newish Mercedes van – not the expected 1950s vintage tank of a car. I was dropped off first and probably overpaid because of miscommunication, but it was less than had I gone by myself.
A swarm of taxi drivers met me at the bus station, “La Habana? La Habana?” I initially walked passed them, but one followed me while I grabbed my bags. “Bus to Habana takes 5 hour. Taxi take 3. Bus $18 dollar, taxi $25.” That actually sounded pretty good. A driver I’d been emailing in Havana had said it would be $200 for a taxi.
The man I’d negotiated with stuffed my bags into the back of a bright green 1980s Japanese hatchback, along with a British couple’s. We squeezed into the back seat and two Cubans who I hadn’t seen before took the driver and passenger seats. Natalie, Pete and I settled in for a bumpy, windy three hour ride.
Pete and I chatted, with Natalie throwing in comments between naps, for most of the trip, till it got dark and we all three passed out. Once in the city of Havana, the driver seemed lost, stopping to ask directions from anyone that would listen. With their phone’s flashlight and a map in their guidebook, Natalie and Pete tried to guide the driver near to their “casa particular” or homestay. I had preloaded Havana on Google Maps, and it was telling me the location of my AirBnB, which I was able to direct the driver pretty easily to. After they dropped me with my bags in the street I realized Google had approximated the location. I asked a young man where the address was, which he replied, “Far.” It turned out to be about 8 blocks, not too bad even with a large backpack full of photo gear, another backpack and a rolling carry-on.
Casa Angerona was a plain house, but nice for Cubans. I walked through the gate, and the two occupants who were watching TV stood up from the couch to greet me. “Eh, Scot?” Carmen asked. “Si!” “Sit down, sit down.” she said. And that was about where the ease of communication ended. We struggled through the documentation for my stay, using Google Translate, and some input from her husband, Raul.
On the TV was a ceremony remembering Fidel Castro who had died 4 days before. I could hear the faint noise of the loudspeaker booming the words of the speaker from outside a few seconds before it was said on the television. The ceremony was happening maybe a kilometer away, in the Plaza de Revolucion.
Carmen showed me my room; high ceilings, light pastel colored walls with a few pieces of art, a small fridge and table in the entryway leading to the bedroom. The high ceiling makes it feel like you have a ton of space for the lamp, fan, full bed and bureau. The bathroom was basic, and Carmen made sure to show me that I have to hold down the handle on the toilet to flush and pull it back up.
I dropped off my things and went to find dinner, following the rough directions given by Carmen. I found a “cafeteria” that was a restaurant served out of someone’s house. You order from the window behind metal bars. The options were a pork sandwich or a larger pork sandwich for 15 pesos or 24 pesos, 80 cents cuc or 1 cuc. I still don’t get the conversion, basically handing them a denomination of CUC and getting an assortment of pesos in change.
I walked to another cafeteria and bar to see if I could find a large bottle of water, but no one could really tell me where to find that. I had yet to see any bodegas or corner stores with groceries or snacks.
I continued walking and found myself in the crowd for the Fidel Castro ceremony, where dignitaries from all over the world were speaking. I know I heard the president of Venezuela and someone from South Africa, but there were many more. Most of the Cubans in attendance were in good spirits but reverent. Young and old stood together listening to the speakers and intermittently breaking out into “Viva Cuba!” chants. I didn’t bring my camera when I thought I was just going to dinner.
The bed was sounding particularly enticing. When it’s dark and I have no one to talk to and no access to the Internet, going to bed early is pretty easy.
The sun filtered into the room from a vent near the high ceiling, but I kept falling back asleep – recovering from my travels, I guess. I finally got moving around 10:30.
I walked back to the Plaza de Revolucion, wondering what I was going to photograph. I stopped at a simple skatepark, watching two young teens drop into the halfpipe. A group of young boys gathered around me and started asking all kinds of questions I could not understand. One of the skaters tried to translate, but ran out of English.
An older man in rollerblades, somewhere in his 30s, appeared out of nowhere, sitting on the steps like he’d been there the whole time, started translating more. Rodney is a tattoo artist and started showing me all his tattoos. He invited me to see his home, which was just around the corner.
In a space between two buildings, there were a collection of ramshackle shacks, haphazardly built and in some stage of disarray. Rodney quickly introduced me to his wife, who looked maybe 18, and pulled me through the bedroom to his “studio”. It had crossed my mind to get a tattoo here, but I did not really want to get one in this dark and dirty space. I still toyed with the idea.
“Do you have any clients coming today, I’d like to photograph you at work,” I asked. As I was saying this, three teenage girls came in. The space was dark and I wanted my tripod to shoot.
I walked back to Casa Angelano and added my tripod and bare-bulb flash to my backpack. I had not yet eaten breakfast or lunch and it was after 1pm, so I stopped at a cafeteria to buy a simple pizza and “jugo fresco”.
Rodney’s wife stopped me on the street and tried to tell me the girl getting tattooed wanted privacy. I sat on the street and watched young boys play with a tablet until Rodney came and invited me back in his house.
One girl was passed out on the couch, another lounged on the operation table, and the third sat at the table with her arms resting on the previous girl’s legs. Rodney sat opposite the sitting girl and worked on a small tattoo on girl number three’s finger that simply said, “love”.
After taking a few photos of Rodney’s operation, I decided to walk further into town. I walked past a Plaza de Revolucion that looked very different than it did the night before with tens of thousands of people filling the now empty space.
In a corner of the plaza a collection of classic American cars turned tourist taxis were surrounded by a squadron of tourist busses. Old white people took turns having their photos taken in the newly painted convertibles from the 1950s.
My walk took me past two guys sitting in front of a candy merchant. They stopped me and spoke in decent English. One short and fat, the other a tall skinny black man. “We are in a band he [the short one] plays piano and I play bass. We would invite you to watch a concert, but with Fidel’s death there is no music till Sunday. We will have a big party Domingo!” They continued to chat with me, gave me a peanut butter sweet from the merchant, and for some reason gave me a 3 peso coin with Ché on it. The short man started saying, “you should go into central Havana and buy some cigars for your friends.” He kept pressing, till the black man, George Luis, said, “Hey, I will go with you.” Both of them jump up and hurry towards a bus that was stopping. “Get on, we’ve paid for you.”
I’m going to preface the decision to go with them with this, I was told that the Cuban people are not dangerous, and I still have not felt that I have been in any dangerous situations in Cuba.
I followed the two men into a house on the edge of Old Havana, where life looks like it starts to get a bit rough. The short man introduces me to a short, skinny, bald man with gold chains around his neck and rings on all his fingers. “This is the Pitbull of Cuba!” he said, very happy with himself. Pitbull pulled out a large black bag filled with boxes of cigars. “This is the cigar of Fidel. This is the cigar of love, Romeo and Juliet. This is the cigar of Ché Guevara.” The Short fat man made all of the sales pitches, Pitbull just nodded silently.
I finally spoke up, “I definitely don’t need a box of Cigars, and I don’t have the money to buy a whole box any way. I want maybe two or three cigars.” “But for only $60 you can have a box of the finest cigars in the world. Take and sell them!” I was feeling very pressured to not leave empty handed, so I talked them down from a box to 5 cigars. I handed them some money, which left me with barely enough to buy dinner with. “I should be exchanging money tomorrow, and I can walk home,” I thought.
I take a quick photo of George Luis and the short fat man. Gorge grabs the pack of cigars and says, “one for us?”… Whatever. Take it, I probably won’t smoke it.
A bit frustrated with myself for getting into that situation, I separated myself from them and walked deeper into central Havana. The streets narrowed, and suddenly there were people everywhere, hanging out on their doorsteps, talking with passer-bys. A group of boys practiced corner kicks in an intersection with a beat up football.
A short, middle aged man with a baseball cap saw me taking photos of the boys, he started asking questions about me in broken English. He said he was a teacher of dancing. “My name is Michel,” he said, pronouncing it as in English. We walked further into central Havana, and Michel greeted almost everyone we passed. He was excited to show me the “real life of Habana”.
Michel took me into one house after another. “This is my wife. This is my brother. This is my mother. This is my otro mother. This is my father’s brother’s wife’s son (he means daughter).” Their residences were small and dense, but had everything one would need. Simple. Several were down dark mazes of corridors, we had to duck under water hoses and piping to reach the doors.
“Do you need anything? What are you looking for?” asked Michel. “I would like to get my shoe fixed, do you know a Zapatero?” I had worn my running shoes mountain biking a year and half before and skimmed a rock with the side of my shoe, taking off a section of material, exposing my pinky toe. I’ve been running and walking in them like this since.
Michel bounced around the street, asking anyone who might know a zapatero. We’re pointed into another dark corridor where a fit, topless black man greets us at the door of his tiny home. He sat down on a chair in the middle of a 5ft by 15ft room that houses his wife, infant son in a crib, and 10 yr old son. He used a razor to tear apart a scrap shoe to fit into the hole in mine. He glued it then stitched it. It’s not pretty, but now my pinky toe doesn’t stick out. I paid him my last 3 cuc.
I woke up the next day, and hoped to find a nearby bank to exchange money. The closest bank had a long cue that I waited in for thirty or forty minutes without any real idea of what was going on. It didn’t seem to be moving. I walked the forty or so minutes to Michel’s house in Central Havana hoping to find another bank on the way. I reached Michel’s having not found a bank almost an hour late for our meeting time. We walked to Habana Vieja and found a bank with a shorter cue. Of course the rate was quite a bit lower than I was expecting, but there were no other options I knew of.
As we left Habana Central, we entered “Chinatown” marked with a pagoda arching over the street. “There aren’t any Chinese in Chinatown,” declared Michel. He stopped and told me, “The police don’t like seeing Cubans from Central with Tourists, they don’t want you to know the real Havana. Walk with some space between us. I could get in trouble with the police if they think we’re together.”
Michel led me through the touristy areas of Vieja where the fancy hotels, nice restaurants, and street performers, which I did not find very interesting. He saw I was bored and not taking any photos, so he took me back towards Habana Central, stopping at a few markets along the way. I finally saw where the locals find there produce.
Yelling into the second story of a typical central Havana building, the door opened in front of Michel. I walked through the small door finding a staircase immediately behind the door and no person that opened it. A small string ran down the wall of the stairs and attached to the lock on the door, which someone could pull from the top of the stairs.
The stairs led to a courtyard in disarray of construction never finished, but behind the door to the left a large woman greeted us. Giving Michel the customary kiss on the cheek, she invited us in. A pretty black girl was busy making cupcakes in one side of the room, and the large woman returned to putting icing on a cake. Michel explained that they were his aunt and cousin.
The aunt kept pressing sweets into my hands, a cupcake, a tart, custard… I’m probably forgetting some. It’s definitely understandable how she got to be in her current state. It was all delicious.
Yesabel, the cousin, told me that she was a musician, she plays the bongos. When I said that I played guitar, she looked excited and disappeared into a back room. Returning, she thrust an old classical style guitar into my hands. With one strum it was painfully apparent the guitar needed new strings and a tune. I sat down on the couch and pulled up my tuning app on my phone. Yesabel looked amazed. As I tuned, she disappeared into the back room again. She brought out her smart phone, opened an app and thrust it at me. I looked at Michel confused. “She wants you to transfer the app to her.” “No entiendo? I don’t know how.” Apparently there is an app in Cuba that allows people to transfer apps via Bluetooth. I did not have this app so I could not help her.
“I’m done here,” said Michel after a while, “are you ready to go?” With kisses on everyone’s cheeks, we make our way back to the street. I couldn’t really imagine trying to balance a cake while going down that steep staircase. I take a few more photos on my the street, then we’re back to Michel’s house.
Michel is very proud that he has Univision and Telemundo on his TV, two illegal stations that he buys on the way black market. “The Cuban station is just boring talk all day long. No novella, no international news.”
He lives in a simple apartment on the second floor. The door opens to a small living room with a balcony, a couch, two chairs and a TV take up most of the space. A small kitchen has enough room for the a couple burner stove, the sink and a bed opposite. Passing through the kitchen you get to the toilet, opposite to the bedroom. Michael’s wife is a tired looking short and fat woman who didn’t seem to have much to say. A transvestite named Havier lives with them, but I was unclear of their connection. Havier was very nice, all smiles while she cooked for us.
The Internet was generally accessed In WiFi Hotspots near public parks. You buy a scratch off card that gives you an hour of connection. Michel said the cards cost $3, but there were black market Hotspots for $2 in his barrio. Before dinner, all of us go to one of these, which was a dark street filled with glowing faces looking at screens. Michel handed my phone to a young man with a girl sitting on his lap. He purposefully closed all my running apps, which apparently all Cubans have a penchant for doing. (Android states that it takes less processing power to keep them all open, hence why they took away the option to Close All Apps. Every Cuban that held my phone, to use the translate app, went through and closed all my apps, repeatedly). The connection was very weak, but I was able to get some emails and chat briefly with my girlfriend who was happy to hear I was still alive.
Dinner consisted of rice, pork, tomatoes, and a small sweet banana; simple but delicious. After, Michel led me back to Avenida Simon Bolivar and instructed me to get on the first bus that came.
The passengers in the front of the bus helped me to get off at Calle Zapata. The walk home in the dark was a nice stroll, but the heat of the day still was not done. I was quite sweaty when I got back to my room. I slept with a fan blowing on me all night, covered by a light, silky sheet. As soon as the fan hit, I was at the right temperature.
My only plan for the day was to meet Rodney and more of his friends for photos, hopefully equally tattooed and in a different location. We were supposed to meet at 1, so I decided to go in a new direction for the morning. I wanted to check on the bus for Viñales and the station was south.
I stopped at a cafeteria for breakfast and asked the pretty black server what they had for desayuno. She rambled off a bunch of things I didn’t understand, so I said, “el primero”. “Pan y queso?” she clarified. “si.”
A foot long piece of bread overflowing with pre-sliced cheese came out. Eh, good enough. I had tried to order “jugo fresca,” fresh juice, but an apple juice box came out with the bread. When the server handed me the bill, it said, “Pan y queso: $4, jugo de manzana: $2. En Total: $6.” $6! For bread and cheese! Bread should be at most $.50 and cheese, the same. The juice boxes are $.80. At the very most the total should be $2. I was upset. I argued with the pretty black girl for a while. I have no idea what she said. “This is my most expensive meal so far in Cuba. For Bread and cheese!!” I said. She tried to bargain with me, “cinco dòlares.” I eventually gave up, I’m in another country and I have no clue what the person I’m arguing against is saying.
After I gave her 5 cuc, she asked, “Que pais?” (what country?) “estados unidos” “ooh! Que parte?” (what part?) “Colorado” “Tienes novia?” (do you have a girlfriend?) “si” “Es ella aqui?” (is she here?) “uhh, no?” “(some things I couldn’t understand while smiling flirtatiously)” “yo voy ahora por Via Azul, much gracia” (I go now for the bus, thank you very much)
…. This girl, over charged me, argued with me, then basically came on to me. A very confusing ordeal.
Taxi drivers intercept me at the bus station. “Viñales?” they asked? I bypassed a younger, more aggressive driver and came to a jolly older man. “Viñales por $20?” He made the case that he would come to pick me up at my house, which makes up for the difference in price from the bus. I agreed, and he said he’d come at 9am.
Rodney’s house looked pretty lifeless. I knocked on the back door and found him mopping his tattoo studio. He said his friends came the day before, not today. He said if I returned at 5pm, maybe they would be around. I told him I would possibly be back,but knowing I didn’t want to backtrack that far. I had plans with Michel for dinner.
I typically take street portraits with only my small flash and a 12 inch pop up reflector, but since I was expecting to shoot with Rodney’s friends I brought my much more powerful bare bulb flash and 18 inch beauty dish. I decided if I was going to get portraits that I really wanted I might as well break out the big gun. It was better than just carrying it as dead weight.
I walked a new way into Habana Central and came across a school just as it let out. The students responded with differing levels of interest. Right as the kids started to dissipate, older teen boys and 20 somethings appeared carrying baseball equipment. They were playing a pickup game in the courtyard. It was beautiful and incredibly interesting to watch. A young boy, Daniel, took it upon himself to be my assistant and carried my light for me all around the field. I almost took several balls and one flying bat to my head, but I wanted to get the photos. Definitely one of those magical moments in travel that doesn’t happen unless you put yourself out there, one of the benefits of traveling alone.
After the sun had gone down and the game got more aggressive with lots of yelling, I continued on towards Michel’s house. I still had over an hour till I was supposed to meet him, so I made my way into Vieja to try and use the fancy hotels’ Internet. After catching up with my girlfriend and some emails, I walked back into Central. “Eh Cot! Eh Cot!” I heard yelling from across Avenida De Simón Bolivar. Michel was waving to me from the opposite crowded side walk. He was coming from having a drink with a friend. (It just struck me that it must have been at his residence because all the bars were still closed in respect for Fidel’s death).
A family friend and her 20 something daughter were visiting with Michel’s wife when we came in. Michel showed them my photos of the baseball game, which was at the school he grew up in. The friend exclaimed, “Esa es mi hijo!” (that’s my son!) in one of the photos. They inspected all of them to try to see more.
Havier and Michel made basically the same meal as the night before, but definitely still delicious. Havier and Michel’s wife left to get Internet, and Michel and I talked for a bit more. He walked me to Avenida de Simón Bolivar and put me in a shared taxi. I hugged him goodbye and wished him luck. I’m pretty sure he was skimming money off of most my my transactions, but he gave me an experience I was glad to have, very different than the typical Havana you’ll see as a tourist. I’ll let him have that.
I was feeling very fat in Havana despite all the walking I was doing, so I bought a tub of chocolate ice cream to really seal my obesity.
The taxi came right at 9, I was quite surprised by its timeliness. A classic maroon 4×4 that spewed black exhaust every time it accelerated, the model I couldn’t figure out. I was directed to sit in the rear, on a small bench facing the opposite side. I was in with the luggage, just like it always was on family vacations when I was a kid. Five other foreigners joined us, filling the luggage compartment. A young lawyer from Switzerland and Portugal joined me in the back, separated from the rest by the wall of luggage. We struggled to find a comfortable way to sit on the tiny seats.
In general, most travelers you meet in places like this are agreeable, easy to get along with. But every once in awhile I come across a westerner that conflicts with something inside my inner being, I despise their presence before they even open their mouths. I met such a man in the collectivo. The 4×4 taxi sat parked in the narrow street of Chinatown for 30 minutes waiting for the skinny, hunched, no neck man in his late 30s with shifty eyes partially obscured by aviator sunglasses. I feel like it’s rare to come across a face more in want of being punched. I’m not a violent man, but my fists clenched unintentionally when his image was burned into my brain. Then he opened his mouth, every word spoken with an angry self-importance which just intensified my desire to hit him. I don’t know what causes such a animalistic response to someone’s mere presence. I wish I did.
Cuba seems to be mostly flat farmland, but towards the end of the two and half hour journey we left the highway and got on a narrow, winding mountain road, mountains that are very reminiscent of Thailand, Laos and China.
Viñales is a small, colorful town where every house seems to have a room for rent. Lots of tourists come here to explore the coffee plantations and take horseback rides. Everyone seems to be surprised I’m staying for eight days. Most are here for only a day or two.
The driver dropped me off in the central park. I asked a local if they could call my AirBnB host, when soon enough a man comes by asking if I’m Scott. We walked further than I would have liked from the main strip into a quiet neighborhood and are greeted by a lovely, girl-next-door sort of brunette white young woman. Marisex (Marisay?) is the owner of the Casa Particular, and is expanding. Her mother is the cook and her boyfriend, a lawyer, seems to run all her errands.
I settled into my small but nice room and ask for a suggestion for lunch. The boyfriend led me to a restaurant filled with tour bus patrons, but with an awesome view of the mountains and limestone cliffs. The menu didn’t have any prices, so I asked. $10 for any item which included the “buffet style appetizers”. I don’t know what they meant by buffet style, but they just kept dropping off more and more food on my table. There was no way one person could eat even close to all of that.
I’d been communicating with Raul via Facebook before my trip, and he found me at my table. He announced he was taking some friends climbing and described how to find them at the cliff. After I finished what I could of the meal, I changed and went looking for Raul.
The road gets progressively worse as you walk further from town, and digresses to a dirt path. I reached a metal gate with the sign, “la cueva de la Vaca,” (the cave of the cow), and followed the arrow to a group of small houses. The path continues through the patio of one small hut, which offers fruit and drinks to the hikers and climbers who pass through. From there you can see the cave where Raul told me to meet him. There are a hundred broken concrete steps that lead straight up the mountain to the entrance of the cave.
George and Imarta were preparing to climb a 5.10c. It was their last day in Viñales, and they were trying to make the most of their five days here. The next morning they were returning to Havana where they are professional dancers. George let me climb the route with the condition that I cleaned it.
After I cleaned the route George asked if I wanted to do one more. He pointed out a line of bolts that skirted the entrance to the cave I later realized passed all the way through the mountain. I jumped on, unsure of the grade, but it looked easy enough. I clipped the first two bolts with no problem. As I reached toward an undercling I felt a sharp pain in my right arm. I looked to see a swarm of wasps coming out of the undercling. Another stung my arm as I swatted them away and simultaneously moved up the rock to the left, away from the bolt line. The wasps gave up as I moved a satisfactory distance from their nest. I had officially met the Avispo de Viñales. I finished the route, moving around their nest to the left and extending a draw from the route to the left. I think I missed the crux because the route I did didn’t seem to have a crux besides the wasps.
Raul, Henry, and Tito were trying a hard route with an extension out the roof of the cave, which they thought was 5.13. I watched them climb the first part before the extension and thought it looked fun. Raul told me it went at 5.12b. The draws were already up, so I might as well try it. Raul shouted Beta as he belayed me, not expecting me to get far since I told him I generally climb 6c/6c+ (5.11c/d). The route was powerful and gymnastic, just my style, and with Raul’s beta I ended up flashing the route which went through a series of toufas and stalagtites! I hadn’t sent 12b before, so that is very exciting!
Raul cleaned the route on top rope, flying up with no problems. It was getting a bit dark, but he recommended I try a 6c+ before I left for the night. I got into the crux and fell several times in a row, getting my right hand stuck in the sharp pocket. The light was low and Raul recommended I try again later. He finished the route easily and cleaned it.
I was still full from the massive lunch, so I skipped dinner and took a short nap before going back to the parque central to meet all the climbers at 10pm. I was finally a bit hungry and went to grab a sandwich for dinner.
Three fat, older Israeli men (who easily could have been mistaken for cubano) sauntered down the street and into the small restaurant. “I want a cola,” said one. “I want orange juice. Oraannge Juice,” said another to the server who looked lost. “orange juice. Orange Juice!!” he said again. I spoke up. “Jugo de Naranja.” The server understood and left. “Why doesn’t anyone here speak English,” said one of the men in a heavy Israeli accent. I laughed. “You’re in Cuba!” I thought to myself. I chatted with the men from my table, and they continuously conferred amongst themselves for the correct translation in English. They barely spoke English; I laughed more to myself.
I stayed in the plaza with Raul and the other climbers, as they were wishing the prohibition of Fidel would be lifted. Finally I said my goodbyes just before midnight.
The breakfast Marisé made for me was far too much for one person to eat: an omelet; 3 pancakes (the flat, dense, sweet kind, more similar to a crepe, that most places outside of the US make); a plate full of sweet bananas, pineapple, and papaya (which for some reason is always terribly disagreeable to me, the smell and taste are nauseating); bread with butter and chunks of ham and cheese; and some sort of pie, maybe coconut, with flan?? I think. I made a dent and definitely didn’t eat lunch.
Raul greeted me in the street outside of a casa particular where he was waiting for two guys he was guiding for climbing. I was joining and helping put up easy routes for the two. Andrew from Seattle and Johannes from Austria had both climbed a little before. Raul took us to another area, further south than the Cueva de la Vaca, a narrow slot between two tall cliffs, maybe 15 feet apart. We climbed three 5.8s for the two, and I tried an 5.11c. I fell at the powerful crux, not seeing a jug on the top of a toufa nor the feet in the low light of the cave. Raul put up and Andrew attempted a 5.10c. For me this climb was pure type 1 fun. Big moves through a long overhang on amazing holds. I kept shouting, “wow! The perfect hold!”
After collecting the gear from his clients, Raul wanted to go to the cave and climb with his friends, but when we got close, all of them were on their way out. It was maybe 3:30 and just getting to the right time for climbing in the cave, but at 4pm the prohibition ended and everyone wanted to drink.
We climbed onto the roof of Henry’s bare bones house still under construction while Raul went to find rum. Raul’s best friend, Fidel, described for me how close knit their friend-group is. I’m always jealous when I find friends like this because it’s something I’ve never really had, being the social butterfly jumping between too many friend-groups. (Also, how Cuban – Raul and Fidel).
By 4:30 I was drunk on Havana Club (I quite like their spiced rum). I understood very little of what was actually said between friends, but they were hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was thankful that such a tight knit group allowed a stranger into their circle.
We separated to get food and then met at 10 in the plaza, like every night. More rum flowed and kept finding a full glass in my hands. Thankfully, I remembered to drink water before I passed out, and I woke up with no hangover.
Marisé had set up a touristy horse ride for me, and a man with a bicycle walked me to a tobacco plantation where the tour began. A man with character and decent English pulled a group of foreigners into a barn and described how tobacco plants are selected and grown, and why Cuba makes the best tobacco. He then showed us how they roll the cigars and gave us each one to smoke. For the best cigars they take out the stem of the leaf which apparently contains the nicotine, so the cigars had a very neutral odor and flavor, far less harsh than anything I’ve smoked. They used honey as the glue to keep the cigar together, and dip the mouth end in honey, so you get a sweet flavor through the smoke.
The horse I got really liked to trot, the bounciest thing to ride. Walking is somewhat smooth, and when a horse breaks into a canter or gallop it’s easy for your body to move with the horse’s. Trotting jars your body with every step, but I finally figured out why English Style makes sense, standing in the stirrups and sitting in the saddle in a rhythm that matches the trotting, making it a far less jarring experience. It would have been easier if I didn’t have a backpack full of photo gear bouncing with every step.
My guide took me solo along the established tourist route, stopping at a coffee plantation and a beautiful vista. I tried to take portraits of as many of the farmers that caught my eye, but I had yet to capture a portrait I really loved.
I know my Canon system inside and out, but I brought my Sony camera and Flashpoint strobes. With my Canon I can set my camera to aperture priority ⅔ stops underexposed and set the off camera flash to plus ⅓ automatic exposure, and the mix of overall exposure and added light is beautiful and just a bit past natural looking. Most viewers wouldn’t notice that it’s artificially lit. The results on the Sony and Flashpoint with the same settings are completely unpredictable, but the strobe is typically the key element of the exposure, making the appear very artificial. I can find the right mixture with manual, but it takes experimentation and time that my subjects don’t always give me.
I had worn shorts, which was a mistake, my legs rubbing on the leather saddle. My butt was also quite sore by the end of the 4 hour tour.
I found Raul guide two girls from Bulgaria in another area of the climbing. The girls were beginners and already tired by the time I arrived. Raul was going to set up a rope swing in the cave and invited me to come. We climbed the steps to the cave and Henry and Fidel were waiting for us. Raul climbed a long, severely overhung 7b+ twice to prepare rope, once leading and again to clean. The other end of the rope is walked/climbed to a comfortable stance between a stalactite and the wall. The swing takes you far out into space beyond the cave and pendulums you back toward the rock. It was definitely a freeing feeling.
A house I passed everyday walking to the climbing at Cueva de la Vaca
The two girls invite us to join them and several more friends from Bulgaria for a family style dinner at the cafeteria next to the climbing area. I arrived after dark and Raul, an older farmer that runs the farm, was waiting expectantly. No one else was there yet and he had prepared an impressive table of food. He asked where the others were, but I had no idea. I had had no contact with them. We waited till 8:30 and Pablo got increasingly more anxious. Finally they showed up, the two girls and two couples. We had quite interesting discussions on politics, traditions, families, relationships, and the state of North Korea.
The food was served family style with plantain and banana chips as starters. We had some sort of meaty, salty blackened fish, and goat with the bones just chopped into it making it hard to eat with any real style. There were green beans, a pear/potato like fruit called choyote with a nice subtle flavor and a similar starch called chuma/Yuma? Both were quite nice.
I was just glad not to be eating another meal alone. I expressed thanks that six Bulgarians were speaking English so one American could be a part of the conversation. They said something to the effect of, “we can barely understand each other in Bulgarian, so why not English?”
I met Fidel and Raul in the plaza and went into the bar next door with a live band playing pretty amazing regatone and salsa.
I woke up late and rushed to meet Raul in the plaza. He was helping me find subjects to shoot and working as my assistant. We went back to old Raul’s farm and took portraits of several of the workers and an older woman in a house a bit further away. After, Raulito found some La Sportiva Solutions that were the perfect fit so I didn’t have to walk all the way back to my casa, and we went up to the cave.
I climbed an overhanging 11a, scaring up wasps every several feet. I did not want to get stung again and tried to stay at a safe distance from them, the crux of the send. Raul cleaned the route, stopping to swing his chalk bag at the wasps, destroying the nests and scaring away the wasps he didn’t kill. He came down upset, two wasps had stung him.
After I jumped on the severely overhanging 12b(7b) that Raul had climbed to set up the rope swing. The first part was maybe 11b, and you skip some anchors, back clean a couple bolts while moving between stalactites in the roof and get a no – hands rest, straddling a stalactite, before attacking 20 feet or so of 35 – 40 degree roof. I fell making the last move, a mono for your right hand, an undercling for the left. I moved my feet up, and my finger in the mono was stuck and quite painful. After taking and changing the finger in the mono, I made the throw to the last jug before clipping the anchors.\
I was absolutely wiped after. Raul cleaned again, stopping to swat some more wasps and getting a couple more stings.
While we were shooting, my legs suddenly became very itchy. Raul said maybe it was ticks, which I thought he was misinterpreting chiggers. When I got back to my room I used the flashlight on my phone and started seeing barely visible objects moving on my legs. Looking closer, they were in fact tiny tiny ticks looking to bury their tiny tiny heads in my skin. I pulled off probably close to 50. I must have crouched in a nest in a field while I was shooting. I’m hoping they are all gone.
I received several emails in a row about job requests, all for the week I was supposed to get back in Boulder. I’m thinking of cutting my trip short and buying a new ticket home Sunday night, skipping 2 days in Cuba and a day in Miami. I would have to forfeit my original ticket, but it could be worth it.
I found a last minute ticket on Delta for $180 from Havana to Denver on Sunday, which simplified my return by quite a bit. I was going to have to get to Santa Cruz from Havana, then I had a 24hr layover in Miami before finally returning to Denver on Tuesday. I bought my original tickets from Miami round trip for $205, then used Southwest points to get to Miami. But it ended up being a pretty big hassle since Southwest flies into Ft Lauderdale and I flew out of Miami. On the way in, I ended up having to pay for a hotel room in Miami which pretty much negated any savings I made by this schedule. So, by just missing my original return flight (net loss $102.50) I didn’t have to take a taxi to Santa Cruz ($25), find two more Casa Particulars ($40), pay for a hotel in Miami ($80) and Uber to Ft Lauderdale ($45). I guess I saved $90….oh and I got my Southwest points back to use again later.
I was planning on going to the beach with Raul today. I woke up early to try and rent a scooter, but I could not find one available in all of Viñales. So, I thought I could quickly buy an Internet card. I stood in line behind maybe 5 people waiting for the telecommunications company to open its doors. I was in line for over an hour. It’s amazing how slow some people can move. An Israeli man came in line after me and we talked for a bit, the usual things travellers talk about. But then I realized that they might ask for my passport, which I don’t carry. The Israeli man asked if they would take Euros. He told me they will definitely want my passport and I told him they definitely won’t take euros. So we ended up combining forces. He provided identification and I paid for his card as well as mine. He then paid me back in US dollars.
My climbing pack had been quite badly ripped for some time, I had performed ill-advised surgery on it, causing it to rip even more. I walked past a warehouse full of women wearing matching candystriper uniforms working away behind ancient looking industrial sewing machines. Raul had mentioned that one of them women might be able to fix my bag. I ask the man who appeared to be in charge, and he disappears with it into a back room, motioning one of the women to follow him. After 20 minutes or so, the woman comes back out with my bag looking better than it had in years! I ask how much. “No es nada,” she said with a smile. It’s nothing. I insist, but she insisted harder.
I ran into an American climbing guide who had come to check out La Cueva de la Vaca the day before. He had come solo and was looking for someone to climb with, which was perfect. I had neither rope nor draws, and since I wasn’t going to the beach I might as well climb.
I took Pete to the other side of the cave which has morning shade. It was definitely cooler than climbing in the sun, but not by much. The air was perfectly still and the humidity swallowed us. We climbed a 6a, 6a+, 6b, 7a+ (5.12a, but definitely easier than a lot of 11s I’ve climbed). By the time we finished these it was 2:30, perfect time for the sun to be leaving La Cueva de la Vaca. Pete put up the draws on the 7a/7a+ that I’d failed to finish a few days before, struggling at the crux but sending. I led again and felt much better going into the crux, but a foot slipped and I fell. When I tried the move again, right hand in a painful undercling, left hand on a bad pinch, feet awkward, I was able to get my left foot high and reach static with my left hand to the good pocket. Pete said it looked far too easy. He convinced me to leave the draws and try again. He then onsighted Wasp Factory (7b, but more realistically 7a). I tried the 7a+ again, failing again to go static to the pocket. Once again trying the move I was able to go static. I was pretty tired after and told Pete I would belay him, but I was done. He tried La Playa (7b+) at my recommendation, but futzed around on several parts, tiring himself out before he reached the crux, at the top of severe overhang making several hard moves separated by short rests on stalactites. Because it is so overhung it’s pretty much impossible to clean while on lead, so I volunteered to try to follow it. I ended up feeling quite good, floating up the 6c+ first section and through the 7a+ section before the severe overhang. One of the cruxes felt pretty strange, and I don’t remember how I pulled through on my onsight attempt, but the last crux went much better. From a rest on a small stalactite, my right hand was on an undercling of another small stalactite, my left foot pasted on the side of the resting stalactite and my right toe hooked behind it. My left hand went a little far left to a pretty good undercling. With the right toe hook, I could move my right hand to a mono I took with my pointer finger. I bumped my left hand far left to a small but positive flake. Moving my right foot to the smaller stalactite, I set myself up for the dyno to the finish hold, a thin but positive triangle flake. Pete was thankful he didn’t have to climb it again, mentally preparing for the possibility if I was too tired.
We made plans to climb the next day and separated to find dinner. I was going to go back to the plaza after a shower, but… sleep.
I ate breakfast at the casa and walked to meet Pete and two Germans in the plaza. We were taking a taxi to a climbing area a few kilometers north, Cuba Libre, above a cabaret club built into a cave.
The taxi driver promised to come back at 6 to pick us up, and we found our way through the jungle to the steep approach trail, 5.2 scramble up loose rock. Pete had downloaded the guide book on his phone and went to work locating the climbs. We warmed up on the easiest climb that wasn’t in sun, a 6c that was very difficult to spot the bolts from the ground. It was incredibly weird, awkward movement to get through, around, and over several stalactite features. Not my favorite. Pete lead and it was overhanging enough that I needed to follow to clean.
We jumped straight onto a 7b/7b+ we thought was called Moscow Mule, but wound up being a new climb not in the guidebook. It was proper hard and realistically 12a, but very good. Steep climbing out several stalactites brought you to the crux, a bit of an awkward stance on mediocre holds and a deadpoint/dyno cross with the left hand to a progressively better hold the higher up right you go. With 2 inch advantage on me, Pete was able to get it a bit easier. But after you’ve expended your energy on the dyno, the struggle isn’t over. Several big moves left, then right, then left, then right lead you to another crux, a throw to a die shaped hold and cross with the right to a better hold, this being your first rest since before the first crux. To gain the ledge both Pete and I took an extremely painful hand jam with the right and carefully move across a slab to the anchor. We both took at both cruxes the first go. Pete sent his second go and I cleaned, taking again at the first crux.
Pete climbed the route to the right, which was apparently actually Moscow Mule, but he felt the 7b rating was quite the exaggeration, 6b+/11c was more accurate. I elected to spend my limited remaining energy on the 7a+ on the arrete to the right. I got my hands mixed up in the crux and took a big whip out into space. I was able to get back to the wall by a combination of boinking and swinging, which for some reason is becoming more and more worrisome in my head. My trust in ropes and equipment is for some reason diminishing, and I can’t figure out what is going on with my head. I took another short fall at the top when another German told me the holds were left but meant right. I had found a mono crimp inside a scooped sloper and was pulling up, only to find more slopers. I had ignored a large tufa to the right that had several good holds that you couldn’t see from below. Pete climbed and fell at the top in the slopers, and I climbed again to clean, absolutely destroyed and taking my way up after the first crux. I felt my climbing trip coming to an end, my body was tired.
Pete wanted to climb a 5 star 6c in the next alcove, which required down climbing and re-approaching another sketchy loose scramble. Pete struggled through most of the climb, muttering about how terrible it is. I followed up to clean with Pete top belaying me, grabbing a couple draws instead of the shitty holds. He was not mistaken, it was an astoundingly terrible route, the 5 star rating a complete mystery.
We waited to well after dark, the taxi failing to show. A couple from Spain offered up one spot in their car, which I said Pete should take, since he spoke the best Spanish, and send back a taxi for us. A worker at the restaurant told us it was unlikely Pete would find a taxi willing to come that direction at this hour. About 20 minutes later another couple from Spain drove up with enough room for myself and the German couple. They dropped us off at a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, Pete did find a taxi and went back to find us about when we left.
The previous day my stomach had been quite unhappy. I woke up with an emergency run to the toilet and 4 or 5 more after. By 10, it had calmed enough I could go out.
I was dedicating my last day in Viñales to taking more portraits, and I figured out a system for my light where I didn’t need an assistant.
I was trying to meet Pete and Raul in the plaza before they left for climbing, but I got distracted taking a couple people’s photos. I arrived 12 minutes late and they were already gone.
I walked around the streets for three hours taking portraits of anyone that allow me. I was surprised at how willing everyone was. I would walk up to a house with everyone out on the porch and ask to take portraits. The parents would smile and send their kids out to have their pictures taken. I don’t think I had any negative responses to my request; lots of smiles and laughter.
I finally found my brain starting to make sense of Spanish, able to comprehend some of what people were saying and formulate a somewhat intelligible response, something resembling a conversation. Of course, the day before I’m leaving I’m starting to be able to effectively communicate. Everyday, Marisé’s mother asked me about my day, and I was happy I could actually respond.
Marisé called a friend who had a collectivo going to Havana and we waited on the street for them to pick me up. A panel wagon full of Europeans drove down the dusty road. A man threw my bags onto a roof rack and I took one of the last remaining seats. The wagon had two from France, two from Spain, two from Greece ( and a couple more, I can’t remember) Most were headed to Trinidad or the National Parks, I was the only one actually heading to Havana.
Listening to the two Spaniards, who were strangers to each other, converse in Spanish, I thought, “It sounds so crisp and clear!” I could understand so much of what they were saying compared to the Cubans, who’s thick accent and use of slang makes it very difficult for a novice to decipher.
The driver pulled off the highway into a rest stop and everyone was confused. The driver told everyone to get out and grab their bags from the roof. He was continuing to Havana, and I was his only passenger. Everyone else was transferred to another collectivo going to Trinidad.
The driver drops me close to the address of the AirBnB my girlfriend had booked for me (the AirBnB website refused to let me book it while currently in Cuba), and I wandered around the block looking for the correct address. I stepped into a coffee shop and asked to use their phone. The madre de casa particular told me which house it was and to ring the buzzer when I got to the door. It was a large brick building and setup much more like a guest house, taking over the entire 3rd floor with five or six separate rooms, shared living room and kitchen.
After settling into my room, I went in search of internet. I walked the several blocks to the Riviera Hotel, but as I got close I watched massive waves crash over the Malecón waterfront promenade. The high tide and an incoming storm were causing larger than normal swells. I tried my best to capture the swells without getting myself and my camera soaked.
The kids getting their internets
I had picked this casa particular because of it’s vicinity to Fabrique de Arte, a club in Vedado that featured art galleries, live music, and interesting culture events. I had been told by many people I had to check it out, including by Cubans. I arrived before the doors were supposed to open, and despite the rain showers there was a line wrapping around the block to get in.
I liked their system of payment. As you walk in you receive a card that gets filled out by the bar staff or food vendors. You hand the card to a cashier as you’re leaving at the end of the night to pay for everything all at once. If you lose your card, you pay something like $30, which depending on how much you drank, might be a deal.
I ran into some friends I made in Viñales and spend the night watching a fashion show, looking at the galleries and listening to some awesome jazz in a room that makes you forget you’re in Cuba, although I’d guess 50% of the patrons of the club are Cuban. Definitely worth going to on your trip!
The madre de casa particular called a taxi driver friend to take me to the airport and a small Russian made car arrived on the curb. I arrived at the airport several hours early, hoping to not have the same holdup I did at the Santa Cruz airport. I was let through security and immigration without issue. With two relatively quick flights I was back in Denver.
I loved my time in Cuba, despite cutting it short by two days. Travel was quite easy, the landscape beautiful, but really the best part was the people. They are so incredibly hospitable and laid back, an amazing combination. I worried going in that the people would (rightfully so) have a negative opinion of America, but everytime I answered the question, “Que pais?” “Estados Unidos” was received with a huge smile and the response “I love America!” There were more American flags worn casually on clothes than anything I’ve seen outside of a NASCAR race. I wondered to myself if they knew the extent to which the American American embargo on Cuba caused much of their country’s poverty. But they remain an beautiful, happy, fun loving people, welcoming strangers into their lives and wanting to share whatever they can. I cannot wait to go back!
When travel to Cuba was opened up early last year I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I know there were workarounds, but I hadn’t had the draw to take me to our neighboring island yet. I took off at the end of November, my only plan to do a portrait series around Havana and the small, western city of Viñales. I tend to jump around when I travel, and I really wanted to concentrate on fewer areas this time. It didn’t hurt that Viñales has stellar climbing.
People want to know about your experiences in Cuba. The thing I tell everyone that asks, the Cuban people are amazing. They made my trip incredible.
Rodney, a tattoo artist who lives near the skate park, acts as an older
brother to a lot of the young kids that skate at the park.
One of the things that surprised me about Cuba was the diversity – there were people of every color of the spectrum, from Caucasian with blue eyes to very dark African. It was pretty amazing seeing no discernible difference in how they treated each other.
Raul is a climbing guide in Viñales, and he not only showed me the best climbing but also brought me into his tight-knit group of friends. Traveling alone can be…lonely, but the people you meet along the way always make it worth it.
I might get into more details about my trip later, but overall it was an awesome trip. It was easy to get to and easy to get around; the people are so welcoming, hospitable and friendly; and the country is incredibly beautiful. I definitely want to make it back as soon as possible!