Last month, I had the pleasure of designing and leading a trip to Cuba for The Inland Ocean Coalition to explore Cuba’s culture, arts and nature.
The group quickly embraced the same charms that keep me coming back: Cuba’s beauty–ranging from bucolic countryside to colorful colonial towns to pulsing Havana; friendly gregarious people; lively arts scene; rich biodiversity; remarkable safety; excellent food; intriguing history; and unique, complex political and social system. Understanding what it’s like to live in Communist Cuba is fascinating and very much like peeling the layers of an onion.
(photos © Susan Bruce)
Oh yes, and then there are those cars! We saw first-hand how minimal development and conservation efforts have resulted in a stunning array of nature on land and in the sea. We enjoyed exchanges and behind-the-scenes access thanks to Havana-based Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, colleagues and research scientists from the NOAA Sister Marine Sanctuary in Guanahacabibes, and local guides. And saw how Cuba, like virtually all countries, suffers from plastic pollution. In general, however, we were impressed by how clean Cuba is.
After a warm welcome at the Santa Clara Airport, a spectacular drive through the Escambray Mountains, bathed in stunning late-afternoon light, took us to Trinidad and our simple, clean and bright casas (apartments/rooms in private homes) tucked in narrow cobblestone streets. Doors stood open and people spilled into the street–a game of dominoes on one corner, an old man strumming a guitar in the square, horse-and-carts carrying loads of vegetables, kids playing hopscotch.
We enjoyed the local specialty canchanchara (rum, honey and lemon juice over ice) before dining en plein air underneath a massive ceiba tree over 500 years old. Ciebas are revered in Cuba. Whereas Trinidad, founded in 1514, is one of the best-preserved Spanish colonial towns in the world, nearby Cienfuegos reflects a more delicate French heritage. Both are deservedly UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We enjoyed waterfalls, nature hikes and coffee plantations in the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve near Trinidad. While birding at Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, the largest wetlands and protected area in all of the Caribbean, we saw many endemic species including the lovely tocororo, or Cuban trogon, Cuba’s national bird due to its color scheme being the same as Cuba’s flag.
After more than a year of planning, it was a thrill to arrive at the Guanahacabibes Marine Sanctuary. We enjoyed learning and collaborating with the staff, followed by a couple of days diving the clear waters full of healthy corals and marine life off Maria la Gorda.
We topped our trip off with a few days in the vibrant capital, La Habana, or Havana. We visited museums (such as the fantastic Fine Arts Museum and Fabrica del Arte), Morro Castle across Havana Bay, the fun and funky Fusterlandia neighborhood covered in Gaudiesque tiles and design and discovered the charming old part of Havana.