Traveling between Urban and Rural Environments in Cuba

Traveling through urban and rural landscapes is an important part of getting the Cuban experience. Although as a student at the University of Havana you spend more time immersed in urban life, one has many opportunities as an IFSA student to catch a glimpse of that other world that exists “en provincia” or outside of Havana as they say in Havananese.

In order to get an overview of what Cuba outside Havana is like a good place to start is well… in Havana. In the sprawling capital of Cuba, life is erratic and fast-paced as there is always a lot to do. Havana has been at the center of Cuba’s developing tourist economy with a rising skyline filled to the brim with new hotels.

The IFSA Conference challenges you to explore one theme in depth, using an interactive workshop style to engage around the primary aspects of the topic. Conference days are varied, with short Ed Talks highlighting one perspective, and Lightning Rounds offering you the opportunity to choose between several sessions. Through it all, we connect, collaborate, and contribute to learn with and from you.

Meals have also seen contention in Havana as people begin to consume more of the “fast food” sold at privately owned paladares and cafeterias to meet their needs over traditional home cooking. This has led to an obesity problem but has also introduced Cubans to a greater variety of foods as restaurants specialized in cooking Italian, Chinese and even Iranian food have begun popping up around Havana.

On the first overnight trip organized by IFSA, we went to what can be described as the opposite Havana. La Picadora, a farming community not even labeled on maps.me tucked away in the province of Sancti Spiritus, is as far from urban life one could get, but even here the influence of the new tourist economy is felt. La Picadora once grew sugarcane in order to maintain itself but with the decline of that industry in the 90s, La Picadora began looking towards agro-tourism as an alternative. In a way, the rural lifestyle has become a commodity in Cuba’s new tourist economy, an escape from urban life and the pressures it brings.

And Playa Giron, best known for being the landing site for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, attracts tourism due to its historical relevance and proximity to scuba diving sites but remains a sleepy town with a close knit community. Its small squat houses differ from the fancy buildings in Havana’s Vedado but Playa Giron retains an air of tranquility that can’t be found in the city.

Despite living without many conveniences of modern technology, life runs at a slower pace outside the city. The amount of free time people in rural Cuba have, even with the burden of farm work, is quite remarkable. For some this lifestyle may seem idyllic but it has its detractors. Diago, our taxi driver, commented that living in the countryside might be nice for a time but boredom would eventually drive him crazy. An understandable opinion, the shuttered buildings on a Saturday night in Mayajigua, a small town near La Picadora, contrast with the glimmering cinemas and nightclubs along calle 23 in Havana.

Not all outside Havana is countryside, Cuba does have a number of small cities, each with its own character. Cuba’s provincial cities stand between the urban and the rural enjoying some comforts of urban life but keeping with a more relaxed lifestyle.

During the IFSA organized spring break road trip to Santiago, in eastern Cuba, we got a limited view of this side of Cuba. Starting with Trinidad, a city that has become popular with tourists due to its old colonial architecture and live music but is still not as crowded as Havana Vieja.

This is only an overview of the different human environments you might encounter in Cuba but there are many more places worth visiting. A semester seems like a long time but it goes by fast so take every chance you get to travel!

Alan Hamill is an International Studies major at University of Texas at Austin and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de La Habana in Havana, Cuba in spring 2019. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.

Article by Alan Hamill

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