The process was not uncommon. In fact, it had happened in a very similar fashion in nearly every town we had spent the night. You would ride in around sunset and start asking around for a ‘casa particular’. (Casa peticulars are basically Cuba’s version of Airbnb, pre-internet.) The first person you’d talk to would typically either know someone who had a room that would fit the team, or would walk you around and through the entire village, town, or city until they found you a room you could stay in.
On this particular night, we had ventured down a side road into a town that was not on the map. Tall, jungle-clad limestone cliffs encircled the village in a wild mystique. Our helper walked us across the entire town until we ended up around the side of a modest, concrete-sided home. He began shouting into the bathroom window of the house and held a conversation with what we could only assume to be the homeowner for about five or ten minutes until a face appeared, fresh out of the shower.
Through extremely elementary Spanish, we understood there were caves nearby, and the owner of the home was a caving guide. When he asked if we were interested in going to check them out, there didn’t seem to be much of a question.
Now I’m no caving expert, nor is my Spanish strong enough to be able to ask the right questions before entering what he called the second largest cave in Latin America (highly debatable), but there was something about the process that simply threw up a few warning signs.
Maybe it was the man carrying only a draw string backpack leading us away from our newly found home for the night, or perhaps it was the baseball field we rode through to arrive at a house in the outfield they insisted we leave our bicycles at, or perhaps it was the thin log bridge and pastures we walked through to get to the cave entrance. It could have been the small, camping style, extremely dim headlamps (not the big, bright caving ones that are used in more professional caving settings) they pulled out as we entered the cave, or the cycling shoes, bibs, and jerseys we were now wearing as caving attire.
Our experiences with almost every Cuban stranger, community, or family told us that despite all the red flags, these guys could be trusted. It was yet another example of the most honest, authentic, and genuinely hospitable interaction you could imagine.
Cooper Lambla is the Brand Development Coordinator at the U.S. National Whitewater Center and curator of EXPLORE.
Everyone takes something different away from any experience. For me, the three best parts of Cuba are the people, architecture, and cars. Across the board, we experienced some of the most welcoming and charming people I have ever encountered. There is a warmth and happiness that I have not experienced elsewhere. We were embraced enthusiastically everywhere we went. They are proud of their country, and they want you to see and experience it. They are also the most resourceful people I have ever seen. The U.S. embargo has caused significant hardship in access to many day to day items, but they have developed a culture that knows how to reuse and maintain everything. This has created an ethos that values what they have and not what they want. The focus is on sharing what one has and seeing your brother as one you help. In turn, he is committed to helping you.
The entire island looks like it was frozen in time since Castro took over in 1959. This is not an overstatement. The buildings reflect the assortment of styles from the various colonial influences ranging from the Moorish and Baroque, to the Soviet influenced periods. These are beautiful buildings creating beautiful cities and towns. There is a sadness felt as a result of the crumbling and decay, but the increasing private ownership allowed is prompting more investment in the restoration and upkeep. The outside often belies amazing interiors that offer 14 foot tall hardwood doors, intricate tile work, and detailed ceilings. Everywhere we rode, the buildings and the infrastructure was simply breathtaking (think Charleston, SC, but thousands of times more extensive).
Lastly, the cars. Oh the cars. You will get tendinitis if you try to point out every vintage vehicle you see. The minute we walked out of the airport in Santiago, we saw lines of old Chevys, Pontiacs, Plymouths , and every type of car made during Detroit’s glory years. There are Ladas from the USSR. There really are as many old classics as you are lead to believe. They have very few stock components, and most have bondo and bailing wire holding them together. The best part is everyone in Cuba knows how to fix their cars. They have to because they break down in the middle of the road all the time. In true Cuba spirit, everyone jumps out to help, and it is very common to see two or three people disappearing into the hood of a broken down classic in the middle of the road.
Jeff Wise is the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. National Whitewater Center