10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should)

Cuba is one of those places everyone knows something about. And, most of the times, this something is wrong. Coming from an ex-Soviet country myself, I felt like I knew it all as well. Cold War between the West and the East, ideological battle of capitalism and socialism, Fidel, classic American cars, deficit, Cuba Libre. However, Cuba surprised me, more than once. Here are some key facts: I have collected them from the Museum of Revolution in Havana and Julia’s Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” (to counterbalance the official view of the Revolution and a rare sympathetic American reality check).  The tales of Juan Carlos, our Cuban guide, spice up the facts and build a bridge between imagination and reality.

1. Cuba does not equal Fidel. For everyone Cuba means Fidel, and Fidel means Cuba. Even now, after his death, Fidel Castro remains a symbol of Cuban Revolution and the main force that has shaped up the life of 11 million Cuban people for the last 64 years. However, there are surprisingly few public images of Fidel around the country, and when there is one, it is usually to illustrate some motivational revolutionary quote. Che is, on the contrary, all over the place. My first guess was that that’s because Che is so much better looking, – but in reality, Fidel avoided self-canonization on purpose. Unlike pretty much any other powerful political leader before or after him, he was aiming at building a state which would function irrespectively of him and, eventually, without him. He was controlling every aspect of Cuban life during his period of political power from 1976 to 2008 and, de facto, even afterwards until he died. Yet Fidel’s dream was to have Cuba owned by its people and independent of anyone’s will, including his own.

2. Che Guevara, whose portrait has been going viral on all sorts of media for more than half a century, is not even Cuban. Technically speaking, he was proclaimed “a Cuban citizen by birth” in February 1959 for his instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution. However, Che, whose real name, by the way, was Ernesto, was born in Argentinian city Rosario (now a randomly bought Starbucks mug from there suddenly has a meaning!). A chronic asthmatic and a doctor by education, Che was introduced to Fidel by his brother Raoul in Mexico, where Fidel was regaining his forces after his first unsuccessful revolutionary attempt (and Che, the first blogger of his time, was just chilling on his romantic exploratory route through Latin America, which he later documented in a book). According to the legend (or Juan Carlos, in this case), Fidel and Che talked for the entire night, Fidel going strong with his revolutionary view, and at the dawn Che famously said “I am in!”. And in he was.

3. No one will ever know whether Fidel was a true Communist at heart, but it is a fact that with the U.S. around the corner he effectively had no choice. I found a great quote in the book of Sweig. It dates back to 1823 and pretty much sums up the U.S. take on the Cuban policy (and, in fact, the merely existence of the Cuban policy).

“There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, can not choose but to fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature can not cast her off from its bosom”.

As pronounced (proudly, I suppose) by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the U.S. and at the time the Secretary of State, in 1823.

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Cuba-Mexico 2017: Latam Love Affair

After our epic trip of 2016 to Brazil and Argentina, we were supposed to change continents and for 2017 pick something more to the East. That was the promise I gave to Louveteau who sacrificed his (booked) trip to Australia to stay and set out the nets to catch me when me met. We were toying with the idea of Thailand, or Beijing, or Hong Kong… But here is the thing with Latin America: you leave your heart to it the moment you set your foot in there. And after not seeing it for a year (which is, if you think about it, is a terribly long time to spend without a heart!), you just have to go back.

So we did. Luckily for me, Louveteau was harbouring some politics-inspired dreams to visit the last 100% Soviet country in the world. As for me, anything Latin would do (though I preferred Peru, drooling over the pictures of Machu Picchu). We did not know much about Cuba then but overwhelming sentiment of friends who went there circled around the conditions of hotels and casa particulares. With my birthday around the corner (and our general tendency to combine several countries in one visit and to explore them on steroids), we have added the neighbouring part of Mexico as the second leg of the trip. It promised gorgeous beaches, more civilized hotels and some down time to enjoy it all. (To be completely honest – Louveteau, I hope you are not reading this part, – I chose Yucatan partly because it was promising a few, but not many, architectural monuments, to free up some time for the sun and the beach, which I LOVE and Louveteau, well, not so much.)

Why Cuba, Why Now?

Cuba is unique. It is the only place on Earth, which is completely isolated from time and globalization, and which is also a home to some of the world’s finest art – especially architecture. The gorgeous silhouette of Havana matches in its elegance and sophistication the best streets of Paris, London and St Petersburg. Only that Havana has not been renovated for the last half century, and all this architectural luxury slowly but inevitably sinks in the past.

Cuba will never be like it is now, and there are two main reasons for that. Now, with Fidel gone, and Raoul rounding up his second, and final, Presidential term in 2018, things are bound to change. With Raoul, the members of the government loyal to the ideals of the Revolution – many casting these ideals side by side with the Castro brothers, – will likely go as well. Maybe not all of them, but many, it is hard to dispute with age. At the same time, maybe, just maybe, the heritage of the President Obama, who did a lot to bridge Cuba and the U.S., will continue to develop and open the borders to more American tourists and to more American companies. And once done, it is only a matter of time for Cuba to become another cosmopolitan city with Starbucks on every corner, shopping malls, hotel chains and Chinese taxi cars, all properly air-conditioned. Just like its neighbour across the Gulf of Mexico. So go now: time will never run backwards again.

Also, make sure to check out my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should).

The Itinerary

That’s what our 2+ weeks looked like: Paris -> Havana -> Cienfuegos -> Trinidad -> Havana -> Vinales -> Havana -> Cancun -> Chichen-Itza -> Cancun -> Tulum -> Akumal -> Coba -> Cancun -> Havana -> Paris 

By the way: which map view do you prefer, this one or that from the last year (you can click to change the scale on both of them)? Do you find them useful in following my adventures and building up your travel routes?

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Me at the Hotel National of Havana, contemplating over the map of Cuba

Now, in a good not-so-old tradition of 2016, it is time to share some brief, very brief impressions about every of the key destinations of this trip. 

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