Last week, Yoel and I embarked on an adventure of a lifetime– traveling to Oriente Cuba. Neither of us had traveled beyond what I call the “tourist golden road” of Trinidad / Santa Clara. And what I found there changed many perspectives I have of the place we call home.
Often when people suffer from “culture shock” it’s because they went to another country. Imagine experiencing that in your own country.
That was Oriente.
So let me explain some observations I took away from traveling cross country and seeing our island beyond what we thought we would ever see.
1. Oriente Cuba is more beautiful than what I Thought
To be honest, much of the landscape between Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba is flat. Nothing much to see in terms of beautiful picturesque island-scapes. But let me tell you, once you get to Santiago de Cuba and from what appears out of nowhere giant mountains pressed up next to the sea it will take your breath away.
2. We don’t understand now why Oriente, Cuba lacks tourism
Oriente, in particular, Santiago de Cuba, is a tourist dream. Its a beautiful city pressed along the ocean with many activities both beach and nature around. The city itself is impressive, CLEAN, and filled with restaurants bars and shops.
In the 3 days we were there, we both noticed that everything was always on the menu. We never heard the dreaded “no, no temenos eso (no we don’t have that today)” as we often hear in Havana.
Infrasture wise, the streets were lit, the streets without potholes, and signs everywhere telling people where attractions were.
It just left us incredibly impressed. Were we still in Cuba? How did Havana, with its trash lack of resources and broken infrastructure become Cuba’s tourist destination?
But why does Santiago have better and more things? That leads me to the 3rd observation
3. If Someone Important lives there, its nice.
It didn’t take long to realize that the reason Santiago de Cuba looks like a mini-Europe is because the most important family is from and still currently lives in Santiago.
Outside of main cities like Santiago or Camaguey (camaguey was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, therefore maintained much nicer) infrastructure needs, lack of opportunity, general poverty was pretty noticeable.
Granma is cited as the poorest provience in Cuba and we definitely noticed it. Which takes me to observation #4
4. Theres millions of people in Cuba who do nothing all day.
At every place we stayed at (Santa Clara, Santi Spiritu, Cienfugos, Camaguey, Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba), there were mass amounts of people who do nothing all day. This isn’t that new to us as we see it everyday on the street corner in Pinar del Rio, but seeing it across the nation is pretty astonishing.
At one point Yoel and I asked a bunch of 20-30year olds if they knew where the woman who was supposed to be working at the gas station (Cupet) was. They said “probably at home, theres nothing to do here.”
I asked them if they had jobs and they all answered what most Cubans answer “inventando” or “inventing”. In Cuba, inventando is doing odd jobs here and there to make ends meat. They are not hired directly but rather just find little things to do maybe 3 times a week to make a bit of money.
I couldn’t help but think that if entrepreneurs were supported, uplifted, and encouraged in Cuba many of those same boys could be employed by new jobs.
As well with the drunks.
5. Cuba’s alcohol problem stretches across Oriente Cuba
I couldn’t tell you how many times we came across drunks during our travels. They seemed to be everywhere. Again, something we are used to in Pinar but we never really thought beyond to the entire nation.
In Cuba, there is AA but the culture to get sobered is not promoted nor enforced in society as much as you see in others.
The problem got to be personal when Yoel and I fought over him giving a drunk a dollar when we was peddling – an action I cannot participate in.
6. Pinar del Rio is the worst provience capitol in Cuba
We stopped in every single provience capitol with the exception of Guantanamo and it’s a fact- Pinar del Rio is the worst one.
In Cuba, the rumor of Pinar del Rio being the worst provience always existed since before and after the revolution.
Despite its huge tourism coming for Vinales and Maria la Gorda, Pinar del Rio (the provience capitol city) lacks major infastrucutre, attractions, culture and general cleanliness.
Let me give you an example: Every provience has plaza’s, a shopping center (bouvelard), several museums and art galleries. Pinar del Rio has 0 plazas, 0 shopping center, 2 museums (one of which is in repair for years), and 1 private art gallery. That’s it.
Pinar del Rio’s roads are in horrible shape inside the city and its buildings in dire need of repair.
We constantly compared Oriente Cuba to our own city and we couldn’t help feel sad and shameful that Pinar continues to be the what we think, the worst one.
7. Not every Cuban can travel to Oriente Cuba and we know it
The economy and the tight wallets get in the way of many Cubans traveling inside their own country. They are so desperate to leave to see the world they forget to see their own.
We traveled across Cuba in motorcycle and it was the best and most economical way to see Cuba on our own terms.
The entire time we felt blessed we were able to have an opportunity that most never get in a lifetime. And we cant wait to do it overagain… Maybe this time…WITH YOU!