Thursday, October 22nd 2015
Tuesday, September 8th 2015
Monday, August 24th 2015
While the word Cuba conjures many things for many people, admittedly its beaches aren’t often amongst the beautiful immediately recalled images of crumbling houses and incredible cars, so strongly associated with this inimitable country. Seduced by photos found online of pristine sands and azure blue waters, and in search of a picture perfect setting for our third and final editorial of the trip, our initial explorations (a short drive from the city of Havana) proved nothing like we’d expected, or hoped for - but - as was the case with so many moments in this crazy country, they gave way to a grander adventure, infinitely more interesting and beautiful than any original plan.
Setting off location scouting initially (by vintage car) to the nearest beach of Varadero, took a little longer than expected, or than our research suggested (as was emerging to be the theme of the trip!). Dressed in breezy broderie anglaise we were led through the tiniest of towns and stretches of unbelievably photogenic streets, passing by and mesmerised by individual houses, some so incredible we asked our (eternally patient) driver to please stop, reverse, and go back.
However while the closest beaches offer an easy day trip from Havana, we found Varadero (a 2 hour drive or so by car) to be a little touristy for our liking. Dotted with international hotels, lounges and umbrellas lining the shore, their presence makes the expanses of admittedly beautiful beach feel slightly unremarkable. Living where we live back home, our perceptions of ‘beautiful beaches’ are admittedly slightly skewed, and for a quick trip, you will absolutely find that holiday checklist of white sand and postcard worthy waters…but for our editorial location, and desire to unearth something a little wilder, beaches that felt a little more untouched and unexpected, Varadero proved not the place for us.
Following some quick research we made our way later that week to Maria La Gorda, a 4 hour journey almost as magical as the destination itself, where we discovered a kind of rural, tropic infused beauty, wildly different from Havana, although just as surreal. Our pick both for an editorial & holiday location, this 4 hour drive inland & across the island revealed glimpses into the lives of others bursting with unexpected beauty, a sensory feast for the eyes flashing by the window for anyone paying attention along the way…“time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life”. Validating further what Cuba had been teaching us since we arrived, we came to understand with a deeper conviction that the experiences you don’t prepare for stir your soul the deepest.
Passing through fields of corn crops and giant banana palms, horse drawn buggies and wooden trucks, their trays piled high with men (on the agricultural equivalent of a daily commute) we drank in the lush landscape dotted with tiny pastel houses, or groupings of petite roadside cottages...each a unique dusky tint, their modest neighbouring boundaries marked by rows of cactus. We contemplated the house proud owners who despite their poverty tended to thoughtfully planted gardens, keeping front steps immaculately swept, the fastidious tidiness in stark visual contrast to the peeling paint and humble state of the dwellings themselves.
We observed dozens of giant barns dotting green paddocks, each incongruously painted the exact same shade of chalky peach trimmed with bright turquoise shutters and doors (later learning from our driver that these are in fact schools). We continued on through stretches of pasture populated with undulating palms, their pale bulbous trunks and swaying sculpturing beauty most arresting when growing en masse, or planted as we sometimes observed, in a linear fashion, lining driveways stretching hundreds of metres to a majestic residence, long since abandoned but rendered (in our eyes) that much more beautiful for the dilapidated state of bygone grandeur.
At Maria La Gorda, our favoured (& final) beach destination, these same palms dot the bright white sands throwing dreamy, cast-away island shadows framing an expanse of water that sparkles with the kind of pale blue clarity that appears suspiciously photoshopped when captured through the lens. The kind of destination that were you not to experience it with your own eyes, you might wonder whether it’s just a bit too perfect to really exist. The water temperature itself our biggest surprise, as warm almost as a bath! While not the same kind of refreshing shock of oceans we’re akin to in the southern hemisphere, we discovered the warm waters of Cuba to be particularly perfect for midnight swims under a bright crescent moon.
In keeping with our love of low-fi on this trip, the simplicity of the low lying architecture at smaller, more regional outposts we found to be a more authentic beachside experience perhaps than the global consistency of larger hotels closer to Havana. Also, these farther destinations offered a less crowded and more beautiful backdrop, a feeling of discovery at stretches of sand scattered so sparsely with people. In such a setting, we appreciated the humble menu of fresh fish, simple salad and sparkling water - musing that a little like when camping, you notice after a few days spent outdoors enjoying life’s uncomplicated pleasures that the simplest meals seem to taste the most delicious.
For anyone whose perfect honeymoon (or holiday) entails dropping off the grid for several days, swimming, snorkelling and sunning themselves beneath coconut palms, you will find the gentle existence of Cuba’s far flung beaches to be everything you need, and the most beautiful reminder of everything that you don't.