Cuba on the cusp: Two spots to explore its past and future

In light of the death of former president Fidel Castro in November and the tentative first steps of normalized relations with the United States, Cuba remains committed to honouring its storied past as it prepares for dramatic change in the years to come.

What this means for tourists is that it’s getting increasingly easier to dig deeper into Cuban culture, whether dipping into the Caribbean island’s rich history at the Castro family compound, or peeking at what’s possible in a visit to a quiet fishing village as local artists create Cuba’s next great creative centre.

Fidel Castro's jersey in family compound

Fidel Castro’s baseball jersey hangs in the family compound. • Photo by Andrea Janus

The Castro Compound
Despite not wanting his likeness used to sell products after his death, Fidel Castro’s face can be spotted everywhere around the island touting the revolution. And even his childhood home has been turned into a museum for visitors who wish to see the birthplace, quite literally, of the Cuba we know today.

The Castro family compound is just off a dusty farm road outside Biran, a village of 4,000 in the eastern province of Holguin, 90 minutes north of Santiago de Cuba. The home is palatial by Cuban standards. Sunlight and pleasant breezes flood into the three-bedroom house turned museum via large open windows that offer views of the surrounding lush green meadows

Tour guides mill throughout the compound’s buildings ready to answer questions, but I was lucky to meet Antonio Lopez, who has served as the property’s caretaker for nearly three decades. He guided me through the schoolhouse where Fidel and his brother (and current president) Raul learned to read and write; the room where the brothers were born; and the house that Fidel’s father Angel built for him in the hope that he would one day return to work as a lawyer in the family business (he didn’t, of course). Much of the family’s furniture remains in the home, including a wardrobe in which Fidel’s baseball jersey hangs proudly.

Outside, Lopez gives a starfruit tree a shake and handfuls of the bright yellow fruit tumble to the ground. As he passes them out to visitors, he says Fidel used to gobble them up, believing they gave him energy.

The compound is a tourist destination for thousands of Cubans every year, and according to Lopez, they visit only because of a bunch of Canadians did so first. One day in 2001, a group of Quebecers showed up at the property and demanded to be let in for a tour. Their visit gave Raul the idea to donate the property to the government to be converted into a museum.

The home has no website, but tours can be booked through a resort or hotel any day of the week, including holidays. Admission for non-Cubans is 10 convertible Cuban pesos (CUCs), or $13, and it’s another 10 CUCs to take pictures.

Miguel Flores Studio Bar

Artist Miguel Flores shows off his studio/bar in Gibara. • Photo by Andrea Janus

A fishing village may seem like an unlikely place for an artistic renaissance to take hold, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Gibara, a coastal town of 71,000 people an hour west of Guardalavaca.

The village, ravaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008, is being revived as an artists’ hub, and its transformation started with a decision in 2003 by the late Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas to launch a film festival here, the location of one of this early films, instead of Havana or another urban centre. Movie buffs looking for something off the beaten festival path should plan a visit for April, when Solas’s Cine Pobre (Spanish for “low-budget”) Film Festival takes over the town’s lone cinema. The event also includes theatre performances, concerts and literature readings.

Fine art abounds, too. Studios and galleries hide behind thick wooden doors that open to visitors with a short knock — no appointment required. Artist and activist Miguel Fernandez Flores has a small studio and soon-to-be-bar, La Bodega de Miguel Flores, where he shows off his “protest art,” which decries everything from terrorism to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. And fans of celebrated Cuban painter Cosme Proenza, whose work can be found hanging in the Vatican, will soon be able to view his paintings in Gibara at a private home belonging to friends of the artist.

Ahead of the town’s 200th birthday earlier this year, on Jan. 16, all levels of government poured money into the city to rejuvenate cultural landmarks, such as the Museum of Colonial Art and the Museum of Natural History, making this old village a true artists’ enclave.

Two new boutique hotels featuring eye-poppingly bright facades, stunning stained-glass windows and dark hardwood accents will make the art crowd feel as though they have stepped into a colonial painting. The Hotel Ordono, originally built in 1927 and restored three years ago, has a rooftop terrace with a view of the bay — perfect for a pre-movie drink. (Double rooms go for for 130 CUCs ($170) a night.) Closer to the water is Hotel Arsenita, which opened in May 2016, a 12-room stunner where a double room goes for 115 CUCs ($150). Ask for a room with a private terrace overlooking the town square, a perfect spot for a morning coffee.

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