Traveling through urban and rural landscapes is an important part of getting the Cuban experience. Although as a student at the University of Havana you spend more time immersed in urban life, one has many opportunities as an IFSA student to catch a glimpse of that other world that exists “en provincia” or outside of Havana as they say in Havananese.
In order to get an overview of what Cuba outside Havana is like a good place to start is well… in Havana. In the sprawling capital of Cuba, life is erratic and fast-paced as there is always a lot to do. Havana has been at the center of Cuba’s developing tourist economy with a rising skyline filled to the brim with new hotels.
As result, Havana has dealt with much migration as people leave the countryside for opportunities that exists in the capital. The city’s infrastructure has been struggling to keep up as buses, taking people everywhere between the far flung neighborhoods on the outskirts to Habana Vieja, remain crowded no matter the time or day. Adriana, who moved to the city from Pinar de Rios in western Cuba to study at the University of Havana, commented how housing has also become an issue for the growing city with many recent migrants facing the choice between either living with family members who are already there or living far in the outskirts of the city.
Meals have also seen contention in Havana as people begin to consume more of the “fast food” sold at privately owned paladares and cafeterias to meet their needs over traditional home cooking. This has led to an obesity problem but has also introduced Cubans to a greater variety of foods as restaurants specialized in cooking Italian, Chinese and even Iranian food have begun popping up around Havana.
On the first overnight trip organized by IFSA, we went to what can be described as the opposite Havana. La Picadora, a farming community not even labeled on maps.me tucked away in the province of Sancti Spiritus, is as far from urban life one could get, but even here the influence of the new tourist economy is felt. La Picadora once grew sugarcane in order to maintain itself but with the decline of that industry in the 90s, La Picadora began looking towards agro-tourism as an alternative. In a way, the rural lifestyle has become a commodity in Cuba’s new tourist economy, an escape from urban life and the pressures it brings.
This is a story that’s been repeated in other small towns in Cuba, like Las Terrazas, a planned rural community designed to be ecologically sustainable. Las Terrazas has become since become a model for ecotourism in Cuba as the town is within a natural park.
And Playa Giron, best known for being the landing site for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, attracts tourism due to its historical relevance and proximity to scuba diving sites but remains a sleepy town with a close knit community. Its small squat houses differ from the fancy buildings in Havana’s Vedado but Playa Giron retains an air of tranquility that can’t be found in the city.
Despite living without many conveniences of modern technology, life runs at a slower pace outside the city. The amount of free time people in rural Cuba have, even with the burden of farm work, is quite remarkable. For some this lifestyle may seem idyllic but it has its detractors. Diago, our taxi driver, commented that living in the countryside might be nice for a time but boredom would eventually drive him crazy. An understandable opinion, the shuttered buildings on a Saturday night in Mayajigua, a small town near La Picadora, contrast with the glimmering cinemas and nightclubs along calle 23 in Havana.
Not all outside Havana is countryside, Cuba does have a number of small cities, each with its own character. Cuba’s provincial cities stand between the urban and the rural enjoying some comforts of urban life but keeping with a more relaxed lifestyle.
During the IFSA organized spring break road trip to Santiago, in eastern Cuba, we got a limited view of this side of Cuba. Starting with Trinidad, a city that has become popular with tourists due to its old colonial architecture and live music but is still not as crowded as Havana Vieja.
However beyond Trinidad, one begins to notice a decline in the presence of tourists even in similarly sized cities. Prices for goods, also, begin to get cheaper but there is also a lack in diversity of products. As in Camagüey an inland city dominated by bikes that breaks with usual Spanish colonial style architecture towards one that is closer to French styles.
Or Bayamo, best known for being the city that set off Cuba’s battle for independence against Spain and the birth place of Manuel de Céspedes, one of the heroes of the independence war (who you can see in the city’s wax museum!). Bayamo also has an interesting boulevard, a feature common in mid-sized cities in Cuba that consists of a walkable road with many shops and restaurants. In Bayamo, the boulevard also includes a number of artistic sculptures.
And finally Santa Clara, a city known for hosting both Ché Guevara’s mausoleum and Cuba’s first LGBT accepting nightclub, el Mejunje.
Once in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, you’re back in Cuba’s urban world. However, Santiago is no copy of Havana despite sharing the characteristics that big cities have. Santiago is known as the womb of the revolution which overthrew Bautista in 1959 so it has many historical landmarks from that era. While Santiago’s sloped terrain and colonial architecture make it a great place to snap a sunset.
This is only an overview of the different human environments you might encounter in Cuba but there are many more places worth visiting. A semester seems like a long time but it goes by fast so take every chance you get to travel!
Alan Hamill is an International Studies major at University of Texas at Austin and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de La Habana in Havana, Cuba in spring 2019. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.