eсor Castro and the Cuban dream...fat cigars and even fatter cars...rum, Romantico and the only way to go to Varadero...beach that is...back to the future and lost in the fifties we lived, The Real Cuban Dream!
At the customs desk while entering Cuba, via La Habana, the customs agent began with the usual barrage of questions.
"You speak Spanish?"
"Because I'm a photographer and I travel a lot?"
"Why do you have so many stamps in your passport?"
"Because I'm a photographer and I travel a lot!"
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm a photographer, I travel a lot?"
Her lack of hearing had caused me to answer like an automaton! Oh well, at least I didn't have to pay anything at that desk, or so that's what the sign I read said. I was in Cuba to travel around with Franz Olry, a man quickly becoming a legend in the young sport of kiteboarding, and take some of the first kiteboarding photos in Cuba. I was more than a little excited to see what Franz had checked out already. He had been in Cuba for a few days, supposedly scouting out some good locales...Like I say...Supposedly.
I picked up my luggage and cruised out to the passenger pickup where Franz and his entourage of extended family (his girlfriend is Cuban) were waiting for me. After quick greetings and introductions we headed out to the car, a 1956 funky, red, Buick-something-or-other. The symbol of American post-war opulence still surviving in one of the last truly Marxist states. The irony of it all still makes me chuckle; in a country where most people can't afford to fill up one of these cars with gas, these behemoths still live on. Some of the cars are modified to a certain degree; the one we were in was fixed to run off either gas or kerosene...Kerosene?
As we settled into the long drive from Habana to Perico..."Perico?" I asked, not being familiar with the town after all my perusals of Cuba's coastal towns.
"Uh yeah," Franz said "Perico is kind of in the middle of Cuba."
"So you're going kiting on some lakes then?"
"I don't know, maybe hunh!"
"Que?" I was perplexed.
"Ahh, don't worry we'll go to the coast, it's only about an hour and a bits drive either way!" he answered.
"Oh, is that all!?"
Visions of getting completely skunked popped into my head...Oh well, at least I figured I could get some cool photos of the cars.
Roughly fours hours after leaving La Habana we arrived in Perico, a sleepy little hamlet almost dead in the center of Cuba.ЙAt least I could still get photos of the cars, I thought again. Since it was Sunday night, the last night of the disco for the week, we showered, changed and headed out right away. Party we did!
I woke up the next morning as if in a dream. I felt as though I had been thrown back in time, to somewhere in the late fifties...the hairstyles, cars, barber shops, and fashions were all of a fifties sensibility. A little coffee and oranges woke me up enough to remind myself that I was just in Cuba.
While not actually in the fifties, Cuba certainly is surreal. Life seems to have slowed down so much that it still feels as though you're living in another time—a strange kind of Rip Van Winkle effect on the entire country. When Franz and I went for a walk around the town it was hard to feel like we had any chance of blending in. We were a bit more like two kids from the future running around in the past, much like Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future. Our flashy surfer-wear didn't quite blend in with the straw hats and faded blue Guajiro style of the locals. I decided to ask Franz again if we were going to go kiting at all while in Cuba.
"Yeah, I think we should, hunh...Maybe tomorrow we'll go to Varadero...It's nice here in Perico, eh, I like it!"
While it certainly was nice there I was afraid that if I stayed too long I'd be pomading my hair and smoking fat cigars before long. Luckily we did go to Varadero the next day.
As we drove to Varadero we passed by endless fields of cane, orange trees and rice, those being some of the staples of the Cuban economy. For what seemed like hours on the road, our old cruiser lumbered along while our host family, including the mother and boyfriend, and sister and boyfriend of Franz's girlfriend, and I, listened to endless amounts of the local favorite music...Romantico.
The name says it all really, as this type of music has nothing to do with the sweet melodies of the Buena Vista Social Club and is somewhat more akin to listening to a distant cousin of Julio Iglesias trying to sing his songs. When we arrived I felt more than just a little relieved. The Romantico music was finally replaced with the soothing sounds of the Atlantic Ocean waves breaking upon the golden sands of Varadero beach. As luck would have it the winds were steadily filling in.
While Varadero beach itself wasn't quite windy enough, the lagoon side of Varadero was already pumping a perfect 15 knots and it was only 10:30 am. So, we opted to do a little shooting/sailing on the lagoon side, then head over to the open ocean later on in the afternoon.
Almost immediately after hitting the water, Franz busted into a huge one-foot grab, floating above the trees as a group of Cuban school kids watched from the shore. It was, most likely, their first time ever seeing a kiter and who better to introduce them to the fantastic new sport than Franz. For the next couple of hours he put on a show for the Cubans by throwing out all kinds of loops, grabs and one-footers imaginable.
After a couple of hours of this, we decided to take a break, grab some food, then head over to the ocean side for some killer wave-riding action. During lunch Franz actually discovered he had a few fans in Cuba. A vacationing Cuban, who now resides in Canada, noticed Franz and had him sign his latest Kite mag with Sr. Olry on the back cover. He also suggested a good place for us to go kite. So, we finished eating and headed over to the open ocean side of Varadero beach.
The first thing you notice when you hit Varadero is how clear the water is, being an almost metallic shade of bluey-green. Then you notice that the sand is so fine you feel as though you are walking on a beach of flour. Varadero itself is a long spit that juts out to the east, leaving great ocean waves and slightly off-shore winds on the ocean side as well as creating a funnel effect on it's lagoon side wind. Pumped up, Franz headed out for a few more hours and proceeded to launch rocket airs off the inside break and worked on his wave-riding skills, something Franz is definitely one of the best in the world at. Although the waves were generally only about head-high, Franz was able to do some huge off the lips and deep gouges of the wave face.
After kiting until sunset Franz, the rest of our entourage, and I packed up the big old beast and set about driving back to Perico. The Romantico music was turned on almost as soon as the engine turned over, so I leaned my head out the window, soaking up the countryside of Cuba, trying to tune out the cacophony the sister and mother joining in with the terrible music invading my eardrums. The next day I tried to burn a few of my cooler CDs in hopes that they might make their way into the stereo before the Romantico.
We headed out to Playa Larga and began to see a bit of variation in the Cuban topography. Lagoons, fabulous massive trees resembling the African Baobab and endless expanses of rice patties replaced the cane and orange fields to the north. I excitedly began snapping off countless pictures from my window seat until the clouds became too apparent to allow for any good shots. Doom, I thought! If we hit the coast and it's cloudy and windless it would be quite a waste of a drive.
We drove into Playa Larga and passed some fine examples of fifties resort architecture on our way to the beach. Surprisingly, it didn't seem as though a soul was occupying them. As we ate lunch I sat and stared at the sky and ocean...barely a stitch of wind and clouds everywhere. Both Franz and I were a little glum. However, our fears soon changed after a quick swim in the ocean. Miraculously the clouds cleared and the wind kicked in perfectly. The gods were definitely on our side this time. We spent the next few hours kiting and taking photos as the onshore winds kicked up some nice chops for Franz to loop to his heart's content.
The ride home was much the same as the ride there...only darker and this time I felt satisfied already knowing we had gotten some cool photos. Now I could really relax and take some cool photos of old American cars.
When it finally came time to leave we packed up the car one last time, turned on the Romantico tunes and headed off. During the four hour cruise to Habana I thought of all the contrasts that make up Cuba: the old American cars, the smiling and friendly faces lost in time in all the villages from Perico to Giron, the pleasantly complete absence of racism, the run down beauty of all the towns and the incredible hospitality of all the Cubans, despite making next to nothing. I thought of my prior thoughts on Castro's Cuba; while it may not be my ideal place to live, a few of the problems that plague much of the rest of humanity have been virtually eliminated in Cuba, and for that one must give Castro at least a little credit.
Our adopted family left Franz and I in Habana. We stayed in a hotel and flew out early the following morning. We both sat back and thanked our lucky stars a) for being so fortunate to be brought up with so much and b) for being so lucky to have had such a great Cuban experience!
While kitesurfing magazines aren't necessarily a place for political issues, this might prove helpful to know: With Fidel Castro just celebrating his 75th birthday, the Cuban people are looking at an unsteady future. When Castro dies it is commonly felt that a second revolution could happen on Cuban soils. While many Cubans are pro-socialism and pro-Castro, another group is looking to something more, better relations with foreign powers and a chance at a more prosperous economy...in short, capitalism, to some degree. So, for those wishing to visit Cuba, now is the time to see one of the few Marxist states in existence before the second revolution comes. Whether it will be a bloody or peaceful one, or whether it will improve the lives of Cubans or not, only the future will tell.
Best place for kiting: Varadero beach; this long spit has countless spots on both the ocean and lagoon side to hit the water and has endless potential for the all-round vacation for the whole family.
Best time of year
Like much of the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba doesn't begin to receive regular trade winds until mid-January, which continue straight through until the end of August, by which time the hurricane season begins to push on through until November. A calm period follows the hurricane season until mid-January.
The Mojito. Made famous by Ernest Hemingway, the Mojito is a rum, mint and soda concoction that both refreshes and stimulates the system...best had in La Habana for the true Cuban experience.
Best Cuban Music
Anything by Campay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame.
Best to avoid
Cuban fast food joints. They're really cheap, but you definitely only get what you pay for.