Cuba – First impressions, Lasting culture

Having only experienced Havana from the passenger seat of two taxis, Baracoa was the first real stop on this Cuban adventure.

It is an ideal town to get into the Latin spirit, surrounded by farmland growing coconuts, coffee, chocolate, bananas, mangos and many more exotic fruits on three sides and the sea on the other. Exploring the narrow but seldom quiet streets provides a great introduction to Cuban culture. There is always something happening regardless of the time of day.

Lush forests and plantations along the rivers near the Cuban town of Baracoa on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Getting out of town

Predictably the best times to wander through the town is morning and evening, the heat of the afternoon is usually too uncomfortable and savvy Cubans keep out of the sun.

The morning appears to be when most locals go about their business, meeting friends, buying meat or fish and vegetables for dinner. These are often sold at the side of the street or off the floor, piles of mixed chillies, mangos, garlic, sugar beet and of course bananas. Although there is a supermarket and some large shops in the town centre, the smaller ‘casa’shops are much more interesting and attractive.

Local cubans  outside a building in Baracoa in Cuban on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Everyday streets of Baracoa

These are usually little more than a stall, a wooden hatch from which the local butcher will carve off select cuts of pork or chicken to order. A few metres away a small crowd chooses vegetables to accompany the evening meal from another hole in the wall. Several homes down the street a family is selling off spare household goods from their doorway, the Cuban version of a garage sale.

A butchers shop selling meat on the streets of Baracoa, Cuba on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

The local butcher

On weekends a ramshackle market springs up along the seafront, mountains of unripened bananas, mangos and sugar beet are sifted by expert hands seeking the best choices. Trussed-up chickens squawk loudly with indignation while similarly bound small pigs sleep serenely, oblivious to their fate.

In the attractive small squares which punctuate the streets artisans sell intricately carved wooden items. Amongst blossoming trees, benches and statuettes it is possible to purchase domino boxes, mojito ‘muddlers’, jewellry, maracas, other instruments or small busts of the heroes of the Revolution especially Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

The weekend market in Baracoa selling pigs, sugar beet and more on Mallory on Trael adventure photography

Where else would you buy a pig?

Reminders of Cuba’s glorious revolution are everywhere, slogans and murals adorn already colourful buildings and the iconic image of Che Guevara is constantly looking down over his adoring people.

Classic cars known as cacharros weave their way through horse drawn carts, countless bici-taxis, bustling pedestrians, kids playing football and occasionally the odd chicken or pig. During the hottest part of the day people lie in doorways to keep cool and at all times men congregate to play chess or dominoes at tables out in the street

The streets sway to the rhythm of salsa and a percussive beat is never far away. It is common to find oneself being drawn by an ‘invisible’ cord, following a hypnotic rhythm to its source. This usually turns out to be a band or a couple of musicians having an impromptu ‘jam’ where donations are always welcome.

On one occasion after following a particularly powerful beat I came across a small group of people crowding around a doorway from which the music was emanating. Packed into a room no larger than an average sized bathroom were 6 musicians and all their equipment. Practicing, possibly for a gig that evening the sound of drums, keyboards and several guitars being accompanied by a female vocalist were blasting out from huge amplifiers squeezed into the tiny room. The crowd steadily grew in size, swaying in time with the beat whilst attempting to find a good vantage point to catch a glimpse of the performers.

Muscians performing at a barbecue near Baracoa, Cuba on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Jamming in the woods

The town really puts on its dancing shoes after the sun goes down. A party appears around every corner and bands perform in bars often less than 100 metres apart competing for supremacy of decibels and passion. A Latin-American battle of the bands is performed on the Baracoa streets into the early hours of the morning most days of the week.

Beautiful women sway their hips sexily to the rhythms of salsa and mambo aiming to entice a male ‘escort’ for the evening. Once the bait is taken the movements become even more seductive to drive the hook firmly home. For the price of a couple of drinks the gentleman will have her undivided attention for the evening, including some ‘bump and grind’ on the dance floor and the envious banter from friends. It sounds like a win-win situation.

Classic car by the riverside near Baracoa in Cuba on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Taking the family to the river in style

Any tourists wishing to take things a little further however should be aware that there are plenty in Cuba that practice the ‘oldest profession’. Most are just amateurs whom when presented with an opportunity to make some extra cash will happily take it.

The bands also attract the characters of the town, who maybe after one cerveza or caipirinha too many attempt to show-off their moves, competing with each other for prime dance real estate. One even dresses up like Spiderman; they aren’t any bother however and provide additional entertainment, most people merely laugh at their antics.

Playing chess in downtown Baracoa, Cuba on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Chess is serious for the Cubans

The town is on Cuban time, so despite the bustling streets there’s never any need to rush. Late nights are easily followed by an equally late start or just relaxing on a nearby beach. Time enough later for slwoly exploring Baracoa which is the best way to discover the bars, maybe finding a cool salsa beat down a backstreet.

As first impressions go Baracoa is a great introduction to Cuba which  whetted my appetite, discovering more of the culture of the island was going to be fun.

Fishing in the clear waters of the Caribbean in Baracoa, Cuba on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Cuban fisherman in the Caribbean

I travelled on a small group excursion with Intrepid Travel on their ‘Best of Cuba’ itinerary but all opinions formed were carefully considered over a mojito on my own.

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25 Responses to “Cuba – First impressions, Lasting culture”

  1. Antoinette | love.antoinette August 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Great post and photos! Truly captures the people, culture, and the ambience. As an American citizen, I’m still trying to figure out how to get to Cuba without paying an arm and a leg for the tours they offer these days. There’s GOT to be some way! Cuba’s been on my radar wwaaayyy tooo long, since I was still in high school!

    • Iain September 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      I am so pleased you liked it Antoinette, I do hope you figure out a sway to visit soon, there are a few options though Mexico is a good choice.

  2. George Hamilton July 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Oh you’ve wetted by appetite. Wish I were there now.

    • Iain July 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      I hope you get to visit there soon then George, wonderful and fascinating destination.

  3. Jeremy Branham July 17, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Great intro to Cuba. Not something we get to experience much as Americans. As a sports fan, I would love to experience a baseball game there! :)

    • Iain July 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      Thanks Jeremy, loved it there though as a fan of sports was glad the baseball season was over ;)

  4. Bret @ Green Global Travel July 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    Man, I’m so excited for you that you got to explore Cuba! Hoping to do it in 2013 ourselves. Love the colors in these photos, especially the purple in the chess shot. Can’t wait to see/read more!

  5. Jess | GlobetrotterGirls July 15, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Am fascinated by your trip and can’t wait to find out more. Dani wants to go to Cuba so bad….she might just convince me soon! :)

  6. Jennifer July 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    So excited to read about your trip to Cuba. My dad went years ago and his tales have long made me want to go. For now I’ll have to live vicariously through you.

  7. Turtle July 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    You’ve really painted the scene. It sounds like an amazing place – and I love the sound of everything being so ‘local’.
    I’m glad your research even stretched to the ‘amateurs’ in the oldest profession… :)

  8. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries July 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    Mmmm chess!

    I think Cuba is one of those hidden places that too many people avoid due to the whole trade embargo B.S., but the reality is that it’s a culture that is rich with friendly people, food and more. Good shots, great overview, and I highly recommend more people take in this Latin country.

  9. JoAnna July 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Wow! i love the color of these photos. I’d like to get to Cuba before the American embargo is lifted.

  10. Cole @ Four Jandals July 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    Beautiful photos! We would love to visit Cuba sometime in the future. Just have to fit it into the schedule :)

    • Iain July 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks Cole I hope you make it someday soon it is a wonderful destination, still authentic and a dream for photogs

  11. Laurence July 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Interesting – that first photo I would never had pegged as Cuba! For some reason it’s not a place I’ve ever associated with lush looking river gorges :) Looks like a fabulous place!

  12. Rena Papatheofilou July 11, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I love Cuba and Baracoa is an amazing place, cut off from the rest of the world. Are you going to Trinidad? It’s my favourite place, I went there to learn Spanish and fell in love with the people, so much so, I help set them up a website to promote their casa and the various cultural activities you can take up there. Enjoy and send my love to Cuba.

  13. Sinan July 11, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Great article and great pictures. I have been in Havana almost 5 years ago and it was my dream to be there. Although I was coming from Turkey and I had felt more familiarity than a Westerner, Cuban life had amazed me with all its singularity. It can be realized that a life without smart phones, tablet PCs, all that technology and modernity, was possible and that was what amazed me most among all other magic of Cuba. I hope that Cuban spirit is still alive.

  14. bbrian017 July 11, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    It just amazes me how so dependent we have come on mass distribution of food and other essentials. Reading your post reminds me of how much I have become the generation PC. Buying food from street corners etc.. is really amazing in my opinion.

  15. Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey July 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    Okay. Dancing Spider Man in Baraco just became the one-millionth reason I want to visit Cuba. If the rest of your trip is this evocative and laid back I can’t wait!

    • Iain July 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

      Amazing trip to a fantastic destination Karen, I hope you enjoy the other posts as much.

  16. Ryan at Travel and Graphs July 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    I would love to go to any place that takes it’s chess seriously!

  17. Mike Hinshaw July 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Ian,
    Thanks for sharing you pics from Cuba. Two questions. In the “musicians in the woods” the white pail in the middle looks like an old time ice cream maker. Do you know if it is? Secondly what is the stadium in the last picture? Is it a baseball stadium? Thanks and keep sharing your stories and pics. We love them!!!

  18. Lee Goins July 10, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Awesome article, I’ve always loved the bright colors.

    Besides a PassPort and camera, is there anything special one would need for a trip to Cuba??

    I’ve always wanted to go, but I suppose the unknown has kept me away.

    Lee

    • Iain July 13, 2012 at 2:43 am #

      I don’t think anything special is required Lee, maybe an open mind and a lack of preconceptions, I hope you go, it is a wonderful authentic destination, but as many suspect may change soon.

  19. Natasha von Geldern July 10, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Great article and wonderful photos! My favourite is the chess players – what a brilliant purple. I loved Cuba when I was there in 2008, the culture, the landscape, the music.

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Cuba – First impressions, Lasting culture