When we decided to go to Cuba last February I wanted to experience more than just the beach resorts where tourism has replaced sugar as the main source of national revenue. So we chose a "Natural History of Cuba" trip that took us the full length of the island, from the major cities to the villages and back roads of rural Cuba, into caves, and along remote hiking trails through uninhabited parkland.
Organized through Capilano College, our trip was run by Great Expeditions and lead by Syd Cannings, a B.C. naturalist and author with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and plants.He was joined by Jose Luis, a young, multi-lingual Cuban who was studying nuclear physics in Moscow when the Soviet economy collapsed and he returned to work as a "Cubatur" guide. Articulate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic he provided thoughtful commentary on political and social issues as well as Cuban history.
Unlike our previous flights to Central and South America, getting to Cuba was a breeze. Forbidden by American law from landing in the United States our five-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Varadero avoided the usual tedious delays in Dallas or Miami. Jose met us at the airport and led us to the modern, European-built bus that would be our main transport for the next two weeks. We were introduced to Francisco and Emilio, our two drivers and headed west to Pinar del Rio.
On that first drive through the villages and fields of western Cuba I was struck by several things: the verdant beauty of the landscape, the obvious decay of the industrial and domestic infrastructure, and the apparent well-being of the people. Fertile fields of tobacco, corn, and sugarcane are surrounded by low hills covered with luxuriant tropical forest. The countryside is dotted with small picturesque villages and farmsteads shaded by Royal Palms, Cuba's stately emblematic tree.
But a closer look reveals that almost everything is either wearing out or unfinished, abandoned years ago in mid-construction. From the smallest house, its roof patched with a piece of tin held down by a rock, to the hulking boarded-up sugar refineries, once the source of Cuba's wealth, to the 1950's cars that miraculously keep running, almost everything needs repair. Like a post-apocalyptic society living without the resources to renew itself, Cuba survives by fixing, patching, scavenging, and innovating. Yet the people seem to carry on without any obvious sign of despair. We saw none of the begging, homelessness, or abject poverty that are so common in many other Latin American countries.
One exception to Cuba's run-down infrastructure is the tourist industry. Our private, 40-passenger, air-conditioned bus was equipped with a washroom, a fridge full of bottled water and a state-of-the-art PA system - and there were only 18 of us.