Varadero Resort Town
Varadero is a resort town on the north coast of Cuba and one of its better-known towns. Everything is resort, à la carte dinner, young women in bikinis and tourist traps. The town, built on a small strip of land just a few kilometers wide, has, as its main economic motor, the maintenance and entertainment of vacationers who stay in four- or five-star hotels. Employment, investment, city development and infrastructure all revolves around a white sandy beach perfectly maintained the length of about 20 kilometres.
For this reason, when you leave your all-inclusive hotel and visit the city of Varadero, you see a relatively rich, heaven-like version of a Cuban city. The roads are well-maintained and the city park – Parque Josone – is superb with its artificial lakes.
It’s for this very reason that you must leave Varadero and see the real Cuba.
And the best way to explore Cuba is on a motorcycle.
City of Matanzas
Just a few kilometers away from Varadero is the city of Matanzas. This place is already noisier, more human than the former. We already see signs of Cuban daily life: pink or sky blue cement houses dotted with cracks and bits of faded mortar; scattered electrical wires supported by wooden poles.
The mechanic, hands full of waste oil, interrupts his work on a 50s Chevrolet to help us refuel. It’s time to leave: another hundred miles to go before reaching the city.
Once Matanzas behind us, we see the highway, the Via Blanca, spread before us like a landing strip. The bitumen is sometimes perfectly smooth, sometimes bumpy and uncertain. Passing cars are almost all old American cars from the 50s maintained by the owner and handed down from generation to generation. There also are a few spent Ladas or relatively new Nissans.
After a few miles, to our left, the Yumuri valley. Huge palm trees, greenery, lakes – and it’s at this very moment that the idea of the motorcycle trip makes sense to us.
The feeling of freedom, the hot and salty wind hitting our faces, the beauty of the landscape, one side, Yumuri; the other, the Gulf of Mexico – it’s absolutely euphoric. The view from Puente Bacunayagua is superb. Everywhere on the road, we pass more and more small houses, children playing and chickens pecking by the side of the road. The chickens aren’t nervous!
Approaching Havana, we’re crossing small suburbs. These towns are obviously poor, but what is striking is that the level of poverty increases gradually as we approach the capital.
At the beginning, the most common houses are small cabanas made of wood and palm leaves, however a radical transformation happens once we arrive in Habana del Este. Crumbling concrete structures stand side by side, gray with only a few small remaining pieces of pink or green paint. The houses do not seem to be larger than a single square room and fences are maintained with materials taken from scrap yards.
At the south of the Bay of Havana, roundabouts are numerous and represent a challenge for even the better senses of orientation. We simply stop on the side of the road with a map in hand, and a motorist stops to give us directions.
We’re driving all the way around the bay, alongside industries, scrap yards and the port of Havana. The Nico Lopez oil refinery is easy to identify with its tall fire-spitting chimney. A trace of black smoke dissipates just south of the city.
In Regla, at sunset, everyone is on the street. People wander aimlessly, smoking cigarettes, talking amongst themselves. Most men are shirtless. The streets are sometimes paved, sometimes dotted with huge holes, sometimes just gravel. The concrete houses all seem deserted. Everything is gray, save for what remains of yellow paint on the walls of the few corner shops.
In the city of Havana
Once arrived in town, we need to get rid of our bikes and go Havana on foot, and the best place to do that is the Capitol. Once parked, we plunge immediately into the bustle of the big city.
Although the majority of the city was built following the guides or neo-baroque art deco architecture, the Capitol is a great neo-classical building. Ironically, the Capitol of Havana is very similar to the Capitol in Washington.
In front of the building, there are several passersby. The sun has already set. The amount of tourists is relatively low. We’re asked on every street corner: “¿Quépaís? Where are you from?”
An alleged medical student invites us to follow him to a free concert organized by the faculty. He’s an obvious scammer, but as far as scammers go, he’s still friendly.
(This is part 1 of a 2 part article)