When we knocked on Yamile’s door holding a piece of paper with her address highlighted in yellow she smiled and threw her hands in the air, ‘¡Mucho turismo! ¡Muchos turistas!’
The small town of Viñales – a village really, surrounded by huge limestone rock formations and tobacco plantations – isn’t the quiet idyll it once was. Almost every house is now a homestay, and it was their busiest year yet.
We must have looked hopeless because she pulled up two bright blue rocking chairs and told us to sit. Inside, we could hear her making phone calls. Eventually, she came back out to the porch. ‘I’ve found you somewhere’, she told us. ‘But you’ll have to move each night.’
The town might have been busy, but the countryside was idyllic. We hired bikes and cycled along empty roads, passed by an occasional horse and cart or an old man on his own bike, rusted and clunky. We rode horses in the valley and coughed our way through cigars while watching the sunset, chickens scratching at our feet.
On our last night, we stayed at Casa El Campesino (Home Of The Peasant), a small farm right on the edge of town with a sign on the gate that read: HAY PERRO MUERTE! (There is a dog. Death!). For dinner, we ate food from the farm, salty manioc fries, black bean soup, sweet fried plantains and buttery lobster.
We spent a month in Cuba, one of the most interesting and unique places I’ve visited. I went with a clear idea of what it would be like, the crumbling colourful buildings of Havana, the classic cars, old women smoking cigars with flowers in their hair. But as we travelled east across the island, that image faded.
In Santa Clara, a city right in the middle of the country, the site of the last battle of the revolution, we went to an exhibition about Cuban punk music. As tall men with mohawks and girls in baggy t-shirts chatted, glasses of dark rum in their hands, we sat at a table at the back, in what seemed to be a storage area, and drank the cheapest coffee of our trip – espressos for 10p.
We discovered that Santa Clara is the home of punk music in Cuba. What began as an underground protest movement in the ‘80s, heavily policed by the government, is now an accepted part of youth culture and it was the start of Ciudad Metal, the country’s biggest rock festival. That night, as we packed our bags for another long bus journey, the walls of our room shook as music played all over the city.
In Santiago de Cuba, we listened to son, the Afro-Cuban music that inspired salsa, in a crowded trova house and ate peso pizza on roughly cut pieces of cardboard. There were hustlers on every corner, and the pollution gave me a headache. Families sat out on their front steps and men pulled wooden carts of fresh fruit, the smell of pineapple lingering on the streets behind them.
We got used to waiting, to never quite knowing what was going on, trying to piece things together like a puzzle. On one journey our driver drove into a tree branch, and the bus got stuck at an angle in a ditch. We slid out of a gap in the door one by one, each hoping not to make it topple, while the driver stood talking to someone across the street. Eventually, a tractor dragged the bus back on to the road. It always seemed to work out somehow. And of course most of our journeys were great, a tropical slideshow of palm trees, children playing and mountains out the window.
My favourite place was Baracoa, a small town on the eastern tip of the island. It was covered in hand-painted signs, revolutionary slogans and murals. It felt more relaxed; there were hardly any cars, the buildings were shabbier. The food was different too, the fish came with spicy coconut sauce, and they made their own chocolate. No one paid any attention to us. We were free to explore, and we wandered around the outskirts of town, to the black sand beach and the old baseball stadium, feeling just like anyone else.