Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

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The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.

But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.

Our target was the Bay of Pigs (see note 1). The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.

—–

As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.

We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.

We kept on exploring.

Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.

The site was, I dare say, perfect.

To be continued…..

Notes

1. You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).

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12 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, environment, Here is Haiti, Travel to Cuba

12 responses to “Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

  1. Ole

    Hey Conner- Glad you found a tranquil site finally for your campismo. It ain’t easy, a little privacy in Cuba!
    “…where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league”- Pure Poetry! And very evocative.
    “genocidio” does seem more than a little over the top, but dogma knows no limitations as always. I cannot understand why we don’t just cancel the damn thing one monday morning and be done with it. It certainly does not exist as far as Big Ag in the US is concerned. Oh well, one rule for the Pichons, and another for the rest of us, on both sides of the straits.
    Gracias por compartir, y vaya con Dios.

    Ole

    • Reader Ole is right: US Ag is all over the Cuban shizzy. Purdue chickens and White Rose tea bags, plus wheat, corn and soy from the US bread basket filling the cuban ration card (or not, as the case may be!)

      thanks for reading

  2. Ole

    Conner-
    I was intrigued by your tweet where you said you have to obtain an exit permit to leave Cuba. Are you a Resident of Cuba now? That must be a mindblower for sure to have to jump the same hoops as a Cuban to leave. Do you have to travel to the Interests section in Washington for a Permiso to re-enter Cuba, like a Cuban must do?
    Just for kicks I looked into what it takes to be a Foreign resident in Cuba, and it started with $5K CUC deposited in a Cuban Bank, and went downhill from there.
    My condolences for the loss of your American freedoms. Of course technically I was never allowed to travel to Cuba-actually not allowed to spend money there. We always got a letter from a Canadian friend saying he had sponsored us while in Cuba to give to US Customs when we docked in Key West in the Clinton days. It got to be that I could clear in by phone after awhile. Bushie boy brought all that to a screeching halt.
    Ah, but those were the days!
    Ole

    • Ive been a temporary resident for years – this requires an exit permit. The $5k in the bank (and thats 5000 CUC not 5000 USD!) is for permanent residents – which is part of the reason Im still temporary.

      “Loss of american freedoms” is hilarious!! US doesn’t let its citizens to travel to cuba so what freedoms have I lost exactly?! and BTW – my family can’t travel to cuba to visit me or their son and law under current US laws which is definitely the hardest part about living here.

      and yes, things were better under clinton than bush AND Obama. People to people exchanges are being bandied about again in the US halls o’ power. Hopefully sanity will prevail!

  3. Ole

    Well, Conner- you have a somewhat unique position, vis a vis the new US regulations ,what with your residency. I can travel to Cuba now legally(right when I hope to never see the place again after the hermanitas Quinceanero in December) so I cannot see why You, married to a Cuban, cannot travel without restriction as well, except that you are entrapped by the Cuban system. If you were here, you could go as you please because you are married to a Cuban. But you are in Cuba, so it is definitely a different story. How do you like it Now? Dealing with those hard faced MININT gals in uniform, who are Mad at the World for their miserable pay? You must be like a day at the Beach when You show up! They can take their misery out on you.
    If you want to be a Cubana, then I guess you must suffer as well.
    But a Cubana you will never Be. The locals will see to that. Not in a lifetime, regrettably. I feel for you.
    But I am going to give you and your husband an invite for the Party in December at the Hotel Nacional. If I can explain You to Her! She is , after all, a Cubana.

  4. Pingback: Wild Camping in Cuba Part II « Here is Havana

  5. Hi Conner,

    I enjoyed this story, thanks for writing it. I have a curiousity about Cuba but I am also a big camper and backpacker and it was nice to see a piece about it, especially in a place that i have not yet been to.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    Best,
    Craig

    • Hola Craig

      Thanks for the virtual thumbs up! I love to camp and hike too but cuba doesnt make it easy. I wish they would open more self guided trails and proper campgrounds but it seems theyre pursuing a totally different tourism strategy what with golf courses and more resorts. Sigh.

      keep on seekin’!

  6. Yes they should open up more trails and such but i can understand that they are catering to tourists with the golf courses, etc.

    Do you live in Cuba?

    Best,
    Craig

    • yeah, I get that golf is big business and the country can use all the help it can get. the question is – how long will it take for the investment to pay off and will the benefits outweigh the costs?

      • The Seeker

        Right, exactly! When is enough enough and they start putting money and effort into naturaul resources, etc.

        Best,
        Craig

      • Well, like most things in Cuba (and life!) it’s not that black and white. Cuba actually has a decent record on natural resource protection – since 59 it has pursued an agressive reforestation program and resorts and other businesses here have phased out CFCs in an effort to go “green.” Still, the importation of styrofoam (for why?!) and personal responsibility for the environment are serious blots on the record. But it’s a process and evolving. let’s hope in the right direction!

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