Surf Simply has evolved to become as much about travel and photography, as surfing. So when coaches, Will Forster and Jessie Carnes saw no swell on the charts for their upcoming trip to Cuba, they were unperturbed. Instead of boards, they simply packed a quiver of lenses and brought back this beautiful portrait of the island’s unique and colorful culture.
“In January last year Surfer Magazine ran an article titled, ‘The Reality of Surfing in Cuba‘, and with two weeks off from coaching Surf Simply Head Coach, Jessie Carnes and I decided it was time to discover Havana, and the history that surrounds the Spanish city. Sadly no swell was predicted, so we settled into a surf free holiday, and instead found a Cuba that percolated warmth, and energy.
Our experience started thusly.
For most countries it is similar to anywhere else, you pick up a visa and get your passport stamped but as you may have heard Cuban relations with the USA have been somewhat delicate. So, our first hurdle was to get grits eating, Tim McGraw singing, Tennessee born Jessie across the border. The US Embassy states, ’Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute’ – however with all bureaucracy comes grey areas, and loop holes.
Lets just say our visit falls within one of 12 categories outlined by the US Gov., and as it turns out, your trip probably would too: Family visits, journalistic activity, educational activities, religious activities to name a few. An itinerary to reflect your category, plus travel insurance and the visa issued by the airline, and you’re in. We had a slight hiccup going through immigration, in that our travel insurance wasn’t printed, only a document on my phone; this was not acceptable. But with immigration agents swamped with passengers we were given the benefit of the doubt and waved through. In arrivals we started by withdrawing the appropriately named CUC$ (pronounced kook) at an ATM, $1USD to the CUC$.
We rented an AirBnB in Old Havana; the bustling tourist area that had the energy and charm of classical Europe – music, dancing and street venders, the marriage of Spanish and Caribbean cultures. Five floors above the bustle, we nestled into our casa.
The trip highlight was the Partagas Cigar Factory tour. Workers are expected to make hundreds of the countries famous export. Floors were full of working desks where individuals would wet, pack and roll cigars collectively making thousands per day. Staff members received five cigars per week as part of their salary, which many tried to sell to the wandering tourists…thanks Miguel, they were exquisite. (On a side note…and before you say it, no we didn’t question how long they may have been in his tight synthetic trouser pockets in 90* heat, nor did we pay too much attention to the Trip Advisor ‘Don’t buy from the staff’ review, it was an experience, we couldn’t say no).
Our days took us to the Havana Club factory, where the history (and a taste of 7 year old rum) was laid out by an enthusiastic rum connoisseur. To wash the city dust off for a day, we taxied to Playa Santa Maria, part of the Playas de Este; a classically Caribbean beach in the shadow of soviet era tower blocks dressed up as hotels, some how being both obscure and beautiful.
A visit to the Museum of the Cuban Revolution taught us about the fight and struggle both under the Batista dictatorship, and that from Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro. The Museum is within the Presidential Palace, which became the first target of attack during the uprising; gun shot holes still speckle its exterior. Vehicles and belongings of those leading the revolution are displayed here, as well as evidence of the USA’s surveillance over Cuba, including a reconnaissance aircraft gunned down by cuban forces during the Cuban Missile Crises.
Its rare for Cubans to talk with tourists about modern Cuba. It’s clear money is hard to come by, and opportunity may be controlled by the state. The ladies who looked after our accommodation, you are kind and wonderful and exactly who you would want to represent a population. Regardless of it’s history of political turmoil, the people of Cuba overflow with compassion, love and humility.”