No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to Fusterlandia or “Fuster” as the locals say. Fusterlandia is the dream realized of Jose Fuster. Located in the Jaimanitas neighborhood of Havana, Fusterlandia is a Cuban mash-up of Gaudi, Picasso, and Brancusi with dose of magical realism thrown in for good measure. It’s completely crazy, completely beautiful, and completely wonderful.
Fuster moved to Jaimanitas 30 years ago. His house, at the time, was a tiny wood-framed structure he transformed into an experiential fantasy via ceramic tiles and some very clever construction. Slowly over three decades he incorporated his neighbors’ houses and the surrounding streets into his fantasy. Today, Fusterlandia is a place where one could never tire of living as there is always something to new see and to feel.
Fuster has, like the song says, a true alma libre. (Hint: press play.)
While Fuster’s depiction of the revolutionaries on the Granma is tranquil, the actual 1956 voyage from Mexico was not. Led by Castro, 82 men intending to overthrow the Batista regime crammed on a vessel built for 12. The journey did not go as planned. A mile off the Cuban shore, stuck on a sandbar, the fighters abandoned the Granma and headed for the hills. Sixty men were killed by Batista forces while Castro and Che Guevara hid in the mountains. Not about to be forgotten, Castro used the media to his advantage by arranging an interview with NYT reporter, Herbert Matthews. The rag-tag army presented itself to Matthews as a lean, mean fighting machine and Castro its fearless leader. The ruse worked. Matthews wrote a flattering profile of the revolutionary hero and his effort. Cuba and the US (well, some in the US) fell in love with Castro.
Once again, I find myself in the tourist’s conundrum of Cuba: fun and profound.
NOTE – Getting to Fusterlandia: Make sure you say, “Jaimanitas” and “Fuster” (not Fusterlandia) to your taxi driver. Cubans don’t call it Fusterlandia. It is about 25 minutes from central Havana and taxis in Jaimanitas are not easy to come by. If possible, arrange to have the same driver collect you.
We did not do this and had hard time getting a taxi back. We jumped in the first taxi we saw, without agreeing FIRST on a price back to the city center and ended paying quite a bit more than we should have.
NOTE – Taxis: Make sure you have small bills as Cuban taxi drivers do not make change for touristas. If you agree on a fare that is 8 CUC and you only have 10 CUC, guess what? The driver will not have 2 CUC to give you. SO, if you are stickler about that kind of thing have plenty of 1 and 2 CUC notes, otherwise be prepared to round up!
Because we only had a week, I used Frommer’s recommended 7-day itinerary to organize our trip. Trinidad was our next stop about 3 hours by car from Havana. Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage site known for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. While I believe I took some of my best photos ever in Trinidad, I found the place underwhelming. Maybe because it was SO HOT and full of tourists, like us, wandering around asking themselves, “why did we come here?”.
NOTE – The Cuban Sun: Bring a small umbrella or parasol to shield you from the sun. It’s too hot to wear a hat and an umbrella provides most welcome solar protection (all the Cubanas use them).
If I were to return here, I would focus on the natural beauty of the area. Trinidad, located at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, has some great day hikes leading to cooling waterfalls and swimming holes. We did the hike to Javira Waterfall in Parque el Cubano. It was the perfect antidote to the penetrating Cuban sun.
I have not jumped into a body of water off anything higher than a pool ledge since I was teenager. Nice to know I can still do it!
Of course, Andy and Matt make it look easy. Ahhh…the joys of being twenty-something.
After day of hiking, swimming, and sweating, we were ready for a cocktail and some internet access. Unlike the rest of the world, Wifi connectivity in Cuba is not ubiquitous. The WWW can only be entered via a “tarjeta de navegacion” or nauta card. A nauta card costs 2 CUC for 1 hour of internet time and you must be near a Wifi hotspot. As a tourist most hotels allow you to purchase nauta cards and use their Wifi. If you are a Cuban then you must find a Wifi hotspot to use your card. Whenever you see large groups of people standing together, mesmerized by their screens, you have encountered a Cuban Wifi hotspot. (Remember, Cuba did not have cellular phones until 2008. Another modernization on the part of Raul Castro.)
If you are a tourist not seeking an authentic Cuban Wifi experience, then the place to go in Trinidad is the Iberostar Grand Hotel. Beautifully appointed in a Moorish-Spanish style with a splash of continental flare, Matt asked as we entered the lobby of the Iberostar, “why couldn’t we have stayed here?” My thoughts exactly. Like auntie, like nephew.
Although Trinidad was not the colonial gem we had hoped, it did have a nightclub in a cave. For the most part, I have aged-out of nightclubs (too late, too loud, too young) but I could not pass up the opportunity to dance to Cuban reggeaton in a cave.
Disco Ayala did not disappoint. And dance I did.
The Beach (finally):
After 5 days of fun and profundity, it was time for relaxation on Cayo Santa Maria, one of Cuba’s world famous beaches. I read that Cuban beaches are some of the most beautiful and I can happily confirm that is true. The water is so pure! I did not wear sunscreen when I went swimming because I did not want to be the first American tourista to cloud Cuba’s blue topaz seas. I took a long walk on the beach. There was no trash! Fantastic snorkeling was a short swim away.
Our hotel, the Melia Buenavista, was fabulous. Brand new. 105 rooms. Adults only. And it was “todo inclusivo” meaning all our food and beverages were included in the cost. Our perfect beach retreat was also reasonably priced. 🙂
NOTE – Cash Only Cuba: Cash is the only way Americans can travel in Cuba as US debit and credit cards are not accepted. Change US currency into euros or pounds before you go. We did not and there is a 10% service charge for exchanging USD not applied to euros or pounds. Contrary to a pervasive and popular myth, Cubans don’t love USD. If you want to use dollars to pay for your accommodations your host or hotel will add the 10% fee to your bill. If you do bring USD make sure it’s in small bills ($20s, $10s, $5). We only brought $100s and this made paying in dollars (when we wanted to) difficult. Finally, budget carefully and bring more money that you think you will need. It’s stressful to worry about running out of cash. Who needs that while drinking daiquiris on the beach!
After 7 days of Cuban adventure, Andy, Matt, and I boarded the 6am flight from Havana to Mexico City. While I was sad to say good-bye to my twenty-something travel buddies, I was elated to have taken one of my dream trips with them. Thank you for a wonderful time, Matt and Andy. It’s nice to know there’s a little twenty-something still left in me.