A seven-day journey through Havana in search of responsible travel opportunities yields inspiring discoveries beyond the government-regulated tourism industry.

By Lauren Matison
February 29, 2016
Credit: Lauren Matison

It’s been like this for the past 56 years, you think the first time you see Havana’s Linea Street: a wide thoroughfare lined with crowded buses, construction trucks and art deco buildings cracking in various shades of sherbet. Old Chevy Bel Airs, Studebakers, and Pontiacs clatter by. The air is hot and thick with exhaust, and yet you could stand there all day, soaking in the hustle-bustle of a bygone era. But the weight of bike-gear donations on your back reminds you that you didn’t come here just to stare at a crumbling, forgotten world.

Sweating in spandex, my husband and I, along with four Cuban cyclists, were bound for a rural village 25 miles west of the city to aid a struggling youth racing club. It was part of a semi-improvised plan to venture off the tourist checklist, take the carriage-and-horseshit-covered road less traveled, and maybe make a difference. A widespread lack of Internet in Cuba made it more difficult than usual for a conscious traveler to know who to trust and what to expect from a country still largely cloaked in mystery and communism.

Credit: Vince Crossley

Cuba lies 90 miles to the south of Florida, though it looks even closer than that on a map, as if it’s meant to be attached to the United States. While President Obama’s recent strides to ease tensions between the two countries has led to the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and boosted American tourism by 77% in 2015, the island couldn’t feel farther from home—and the 21st century. Now is still the best time to go and marvel at the beautiful mess the U.S. embargo has crystallized since 1960, but locals like Marta Nuñez Sarmiento, professor of sociology at the University of Havana, caution that change will happen slowly.

“It’ll take five years to make a new beginning once the embargo is lifted; then we will be able to breathe and build better homes,” said Sarmiento. “Tourism, mining, communications, education, and sports are all owned by the state. Many Cubans feel handcuffed. State-employed doctors make $34 a month while privately operated taxi drivers earn six to 10 times more than those in the public sector.” Sarmiento acknowledged that the cost of living in Cuba is low, and expressed her hope that health care and education remain free no matter what happens next.

Credit: Vince Crossley

Before we left I spoke to American expats and locals like Alejandro Berroa Álvarez, a well-regarded guide from San Cristóbal Agency, who encouraged independent outreach for those travelers wanting to make a deeper, more direct impact. So I spent a lot of time in the beginning of my trip on my own, behind the lens, captivated by a photogenic land of broken dreams. It was easy to get caught up in the surreal privilege of being there, able to roam the pre-Brooklynized neighborhoods and vibrant Baroque-designed plazas where McDonalds and the Gap will surely tarnish what makes Cuba special. Weaving around the narrow streets of Havana, I found Che etched into the sides of buildings, kids playing soccer, stray dogs hovering at my heels, and families sitting on crumbling stoops watching me watch them. At first glance, Cuba is like a live art show, the people part of a moving canvas. Click. Click. Click. Later, after several mornings spent bringing food and toiletries to two homeless men in Parque José Martí, I walked along the Malecón, waves crashing up against the seawall, and realized that if you get swept up in the dilapidated charm, you risk missing out on the big picture.

At Álvarez's suggestion, I travelled to the outskirts of Havana to meet Isis Salcines and get a tour of Vivero Alamar, a 25-acre farm that her father, a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture, started in 1997. Salcines pointed out the long bright green rows of Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, the eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, and spiritual Afro-Cuban plants. She noted that 70% of food in Cuba is organic by default—there isn’t money for chemical sprays, except on potatoes and tobacco. “Havana is slower than the rest of the country when it comes to eating vegetables,” said Salcines, a rare Cuban vegetarian who dreams of having a Whole Foods. “At most state-owned restaurants, you’ll see them as a garnish, a symbolic vegetable on the plate beside a mountain of rice and beans and meat.” Ninety percent of the food harvested at the farm goes to the local community in Alamar, where Salcines works with primary schools once a week to teach students about environmentalism and a healthful diet. The remaining produce gets picked up at the farm by privately owned paladares, the informal restaurants run by many Cubans out of their homes.

Iván Chefs Justo is one of these seasonally minded eateries, where Salcines’ husband, Dennis Hernandez, cooks, churning out fresh ceviche, Magret duck breast, and entrées inspired by mushrooms, a rare delicacy in Cuba. Al Carbón, a sister restaurant specializing in charcoal-grilled dishes like suckling pig tacos, just opened down the street near the National Museum of Fine Arts in Old Havana. Following Salcines’ advice, after dinner we strolled five minutes to Bodeguita del Medio, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite mojito haunt, where the drinks are strong, the mint comes from Vivero Alamar, and the nightly live music sends people dancing into the street. Restaurants like Cafe Ajiaco, Moraleja, Paladar Los Mercaderes, and newcomers like El Litoral are trading in imported ingredients and the predictable plate of arroz moro and ropa vieja to join the more cutting-edge, farm-to-table movement. Salcines believes it will only keep growing with the help of tourists who are hungry for an alternative to forgettable meals at government-run restaurants.

Credit: El Litoral

“Paladares are a wonderful way to support private enterprises and inspire sustainability while going off the beaten path,” Álvarez told me while leading a Cuba Explorer trip to Las Terrazas, a pioneering self-sustaining community housed within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. As the bus bumped along through lush terrain, scarcely another vehicle in sight, others chimed in, eager to talk about what responsible travel means in Cuba. Several people spoke of being unprepared for how great an impact their little offerings would have: one traveller had given soccer balls to overjoyed children; another had handed out repurposed sandals to women who couldn’t afford new shoes; and yet another had brought old clothes, pens and pencils, and USB flash drives that she said were received like tiny bars of gold. At the Almacenes de San José market, a woman on my tour bought a painting from an emerging artist named Carlos Barreiro and has been helping him sell his artwork in the States since then.

An hour after leaving Havana, we all got off the bus and blinked twice. Founded as part of a reforestation project in 1968, Las Terrazas is a royal palm dreamscape; an eco-community comprised of 1,200 residents, artist workshops, a craft market, a clinic, some 70 bird species, waterfall-laden swimming holes, and a solitary hotel built around lime trees. We bought art and colorful ceramic mugs at the market, and then followed Álvarez along a narrow dirt path, passing black and white roosters, peacocks, playful huskies, and clotheslines hung with paintings and underwear on our way to visit Lester Campa, a world-renowned artist. In his lakefront studio, Campa exhibits tableaux of towering palm trees and sensuous natural settings. If you’re lucky enough to find an incomplete piece lying around, Campa may offer to finish it for you on the spot.

On our last day, Peter Marshall, a Canadian-turned-Cuban and the owner of cycling tour group CanBiCuba, led the way as we biked out of Havana to meet the youth racing club in Punta Brava. We rode by fields of cows and waved back at drivers in classic cars. At a beach bar made of wood and palm fronds, we sipped a cold Tu Kola and watched perfect sets of waves go to waste without surfers. When we arrived at the club coach’s home, 10 beaming kids in their bike kits put heavy coconuts with colorful straws in our hands and showed us to a table filled with food: banana bread pudding, fried plantains, sandwiches with spicy tomato jam, and bowls of guava and papaya.

While cradling their new (our old) saddles, pedals, and shoes, the boys spoke of life on two wheels, how they train six days a week after school and aspire to become pro cyclists, regardless of the challenges they face. Listening to their stories as they held the recycled gear and grinned the widest grins, it occurred to me just how much this moment meant to the club. The donations and beat-up bicycles allowed them to escape everything else, if only for a little while. The kids hugged farewell and chased after our wheels, which kicked up mud on the fractured concrete alley. I was surprised by having to brush away tears, a salty mix of joy and guilt.

Back in Havana, I sat along the Malecón, washing down my Cuban sandwich from La Chucheria with a splash of Havana Club rum and pineapple and a whiff of exhaust from a pink ‘59 Buick Invicta. A fisherman in a makeshift Styrofoam boat floated through ripples of gold as the sun dipped below the sea. It was a perfect sendoff, but my mind had already left, drifting towards new plans to ship bike supplies to those kids with big dreams in Punta Brava.