Dispatch from the Road

The Simple Life at Its Best in Cuba

by Luis Cárdenas
Camaguey,

A mechanic at work in Camagüey. All photos by Luis Cárdenas.

Mexico City-based photographer Luis Cárdenas (one of Fathom's 24 Best Travelers on Instagram) recently took a 25-day trip to Cuba. Maybe you caught the #FathomTakeover he did for us on Instagram. Cuba is evolving so fast right now, and Cárdenas wanted to experience and capture it before it changed.

What brought you to Cuba?

I wanted to document daily Cuban life — how they live, how they look, what they eat — before things changed in such a beautiful country. Up until recently, due to the Socialist Revolutionary Movement, led primarily by Fidel and Raúl Castro, along with Che Guevara in the late 1950s, Cuba had been isolated from most of the world, with a fierce political ideology of isolation and self-sustainability affecting the basic rights of its people. This helped make it attractive for travelers eager for a different experience.

But since Fidel abdicated power to his brother Raúl, several of the restrictions imposed on the Cuban people have been gradually eliminated. As Fidel's health continues to deteriorate, Cuba is opening itself to the world, taking steps to eliminate the long-held commercial and economic blockade. Before too long, a new generation of travelers will never get to see the past and present Cuba. This trip was a perfect opportunity to capture Cuba's current situation, one that is expected to disappear in a few years.

What was your itinerary?

It was a road trip, but not in the traditional (and American) sense. Traveling through Cuba can sometimes get very complicated for many reasons — from not being allowed to travel on local public transportation (though I did anyway!) to being held for five hours because of a flat tire (since all the tools in Cuba are still basic, it is impossible to find new parts).

I started in Havana, then I moved to the countryside in the Pinar del Rio province to visit Viñales Valley, home to most of Cuba's tobacco production. From there, I hit the beach at the Bay of Pigs, famous for the Kennedy administration's attempt to topple Fidel's regime, before making a quick stop in the bay city of Cienfuegos and a few days in magical Trinidad.

After Trinidad, the tourist trail ends, and things change a lot for visitors from that point on. This is where you are most likely to see the real Cuba. By “the real Cuba,” I mean hitting fifteen convenience stores in a row without finding water in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city, or paying $5 for 30 minutes of really slow internet at the only internet hotspot in town.

From Trinidad, my next stop was Camagüey in central Cuba, a very nice Colonial town that doesn't see much tourism, then Santiago de Cuba and across the endemic desert of Guantanamo (the only desert in the Caribbean) to the dreamy isolated town Baracoa in the hills of the Sierra Cristal mountains on the Atlantic. Before the Cuban Revolution, the only way to reach Baracoa was by sea, but in the late 1960s, Fidel ordered construction of the Farola road through the mountains to develop Baracoa, fulfilling a promise of the Cuban Revolution.

Any special moments?

There were so many, I do not know where to start, from human experiences to political and natural ones. Cubans are very open to Latinos, and I got very special treatment from the locals, who love Mexicans and are very grateful to us for the support we've given Cuba in the face of US government pressures.

Most of the special moments rely on the Cuban essence and the unique way of life they have as a consequence of the communist system and the lack of products all over the island. Their innovativeness and imagination are unique, and I'm very impressed at how they've managed to do so much with so little. Few, if any, other countries can be as proud of the persistence, happiness, and kindness its people have shown as Cuba should be. It is very easy to engage in conversation with an average or even below average Cuban, since they are very well educated and know a lot about world history.

Any tips for fellow travelers?

During the 25 days I spent in Cuba, I never stayed at hotels but rather in casas particulares — Cuban homes where you're received with open arms. This really helped me live the Cuban way of life and represent it in my work.

Which was your favorite city?

Havana was definitely my favorite, but maybe that was because of the nature of the trip. I was looking for authentic Cuba before it fades. One can imagine that the favorite places would be the idyllic beaches of Cuba, but I found the most beautiful scenes in the old-fashioned, badly built, destroyed, yet beautiful capital. In Havana, and generally in Cuba, everything happens on the streets. If you take a deep walk into the real city (and not Havana Vieja UNESCO which is not Cuba) you'll see, breathe, and feel the real Cuba — from young organized boxing fights to birthday celebrations. La Havana is a never-ending city. I spent seven days there and couldn't get enough. I need to go back.


SEE THE PHOTOS

Scenes of authentic Cuba.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE

Fathom's Cuba Guide