Conde Nast says Eastern Cuba is far more exciting than Havana

Posted: 23-Nov-16 11:55

Writing for Conde Nast Traveller’s December 2016 UK issue, multi award-winning British journalist and author, Horatio Clare recently journeyed into Cuba’s less trodden eastern region, stopping at each of its five provinces and delving deep into their culture, nature and people. Drawing stark contrasts against cosmopolitan Havana, he advises visitors to explore beyond the capital to get to the heart of Cuba’s multi-layered society and be charmed in unique, unexpected ways.

Conde Nast says Eastern Cuba is far more exciting than Havana

Affirming there’s so much more in Cuba to be seen, felt and breathed beyond rich and intoxicating Havana, Horatio Clare travels to Cuba’s less explored eastern region to declare it a far more exciting destination than its popular western rival, especially because it remains largely untapped by tourism and thus retains much more of its original soul intact, virtually untouched by time and man.

Where Havana is the loud, sultry extrovert, "Oriente" (as Cubans call the easternmost part of the country) is the more laidback (although at times louder, if Santiago’s famous Carnival is anything to go by) secretive, unchanged, and yes, poorer, needier relative. Yet, what its residents may lack in material goods, they exceedingly compensate in good-natured charm and an unshakable attitude to be candidly helpful, honest and open without reservations.As Horatio puts it:

“There's an antique innocence to the country that most of the rest of the world has left behind. The perennial cry - 'Go to Cuba now, before it changes!' - is nonsense. The country is in the slow midst of great change. It needs us, but not to help it become more like the rest of the world. In society, family and openness of heart and spirit, Cuba has more to teach than to learn.”

Going back to Horatio’s discovery of Cuba’s wild, lush "Oriente", he starts retelling his experience lapping up the eastern province of Holguin, where Fidel Castro was born 90 years ago in a village called Biran (which you can visit today and see Castro’s family home on a guided tour). He writes of spending his first night on the island by enjoying a leisurely stroll along "Parque de las Flores", a centric square where he spots people engaging in lively chatter and flirting. He illustrates the scene with the following statement:

“Dancing and flirting are just about the only things everyone in Cuba can afford, and they are both immensely popular.”

After sleeping the night away in Holguin’s Caballeriza Hotel, a recently refurbished, well-preserved colonial relic with plenty of charm and character, Horatio is picked up by a local guide who drives him to his next destination – Villa Maguana, a beachfront hotel in the city of Guantanamo. His evening there is spent in the company of a Cuban family who prepare a homely feast for him at their rural abode, w. His meal consists of freshly-caught lobster and grilled dorado (also known as mahi-mahi or dolphinfish), accompanied by crispy plantain chips, rum and "maracuya" (passion fruit). Of his mingling with the locals in a cosy ambience, the author says:

“It feels good to be here, so well looked after and welcome, somewhere so far from home and yet wonderfully familial.”

Before leaving the neighbouring provinces of Holguin and Guantanamo, Horatio makes time to hop to Cayo Saetia, a picture of which he includes in his article, and also squeezes in a visit to the UNESCO-protected biological reserve of Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, where he talks of forested hills, the fluttering of Cuban parrots, spotting the rare and protected national bird – the tocoro, whose plumage bears the colours of the Cuban flag and cooling down with a coconut drink and a swim in a small river flanked by a waterfall.

But what really moves him and takes his breath away is the small and wondrous city of Baracoa. Recently damaged by Hurricane Matthew, we’re not sure of whether he visited prior or after the unfortunate natural disaster, but my guess is that he did it before as he doesn’t speak of damages and describes it thus:

“[Baracoa] is a dreamy town that might have fallen out of the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel - steamy, floral and self- sufficient.”

He further describes passing children who play in the street with drivers stopping by to ask about their families and thinking that they will grow up as many other children have since the revolution, “knowing their neighbours, mixing across generations, given to music and dancing from infancy, educated by an entire society.

If they call Havana time-warped, Baracoa (and most of Oriente for that matter) is an actual time capsule, home to entire towns and villages that have changed far less than the capital and which, in the wake of tourism, have remained distanced and somewhat neglected, although this is slowly, very slowly, starting to change; as Horation finds in the city of Santiago, where refurbishment works across the city serve as evidence of foreign money being poured to boost local tourism.

During his time passing through Las Tunas, Granma, Holguin, Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba he visits the ubiquitous "Casas de la Trova", explaining every Cuban city has one right at its very heart, often found overlooking the main square. He recalls how open windows allow music filter through the streets where passers-by indulge in the reverie by dancing along to the tunes and where the author describes the pleasure of being part of the performance as “immense”.

Wrapping up his Cuban experience in the island’s most overlooked region, Horatio explains how Santiago de Cuba is at the midst of a revival, with fresh paintwork being a clear sign of more tourists to come in the near future as the city works to expand and improve its limited tourism infrastructure. For the time being though, you can still witness impromptu street "fiestas" in Santiago, one of which he himself witnesses:

“This gleeful scene is entirely unstaged; there is no money in it. It's culture for culture's sake. There are no other foreigners in sight.”

In the company of an experienced local, the author goes diving off Santiago’s coast to inspect a magnificent shipwreck, he ventures into the mighty Sierra Maestra mountains, where the rebels of Castro-led revolution hid and planned their attacks and he speaks to locals about the present and times gone by.

Stopping in Havana before catching his onward flight back home, he encounters an Irishman who now passes as a habanero after living in the island for a long time. Exchanging their views, on “Havana, the beautifiul, the pulsing, the seductive” as he calls it, he quotes the words of the Irishman:

“Before the revolution, the city was as glamorous as Manhattan. Car companies and fashion houses used to launch new products here before New York. Some of the richest men in the Americas were Cuban sugar kings. And, of course, it's always been a sexy place.”

Before penning his last views on intriguing, inviting Cuba, Horatio reminds visitors:

“The challenge for the traveller is to catch a glimpse behind the veils of a place, to see its ghosts and time currents which make the present inhabitants who they are.”

With that, we too urge you to see and experience Cuba’s beating heartland, the one that beats beyond the manicured brochures and must-see sights, the one that silently beckons far from its attractive capital. 


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