A trip to the beaches of Varadero, Cuba may be what you’re dreaming of. But perhaps, after some time in the sun, you might want more — to see the ‘real’ Cuba, outside of the all-inclusive resort strip.
My husband and I recently spent two weeks on the tropical island. We admired the fabulous Varadero beaches, but what we enjoyed most were the tours that gave us a view of life for the ordinary Cuban, particularly in rural areas. If you plan tours carefully, you can see quite a bit of the countryside and get an idea of just what agriculture is like.
It’s possible, if you ask at the resort, to find a car and driver/translator to take you around. But if you don’t want to attempt that, then consider taking some of the tours available. There were two agents on call in our resort — offering somewhat similar tours at about the same prices, perhaps just on different days. Check out both to see which fits you best.
We took three different tours, a day trip to Havana; the Guama Sugar and Steam trip; and the Three Cities/Rambo tour which spent the night in the mountains, not far from the city of Trinidad. We saw many types of agriculture and got an idea of the problems the industry faces there.
In many ways, you think you’ve gone back 50 or 100 years when you see people working manually in the fields. What machinery we did see was usually very old. Horses pulling small carts loaded with produce were most frequent, while teams of oxen pulling outdated plows worked here and there.
The collective farm was for many years the only type of agriculture in Cuba, but changes in production are now coming. Our guide informed us that Fidel Castro has admitted that the co-operative system has not been successful, and new types of production are now allowed. Various types of co-operatives still exist, the guide said. On some, the farmers work for a salary but also get part of the profit. On others, they work for wages only. However, private ownership is now permitted, with the maximum amount of land a farmer can own privately being 67 hectares. (The term ‘private’ is not used; instead these farms are labelled as ‘small’ and the national average size is closer to 15 hectares.)
The failure in agriculture is evident as one passes. Areas that once produced sugar cane now lie fallow, overrun by weeds and tall bushes. This is due particularly to the loss of Cuba’s main market, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Chimneys and the ruins of sugar factories are evidence of this collapse. (Production dropped by about 95 per cent, though it has recovered somewhat since.) Production is also hampered by the lack of quality machinery. We saw some canes being harvested by hand, using horse-drawn carts. In others, old-looking machinery and very old trucks were used. We stopped at one former sugar factory, where ancient steam engines are still used to carry tourists through the fields, and workers demonstrate a primitive way to squeeze juice from the canes, making a sweet drink.
Another crop that suffered badly was coffee. At one time Cuba sent people to Vietnam to teach them how to grow coffee. Now Cuba imports coffee from Vietnam for domestic use, and exports its own, higher-quality coffee beans. We visited a coffee-growing region in the mountainous region north of Trinidad de Cuba. On the slopes and in the valleys, farmers clear undergrowth and smaller trees, leaving the taller ones and banana plants to provide shade for coffee plants.
Tobacco is another important crop. It is grown in four main regions to produce different types of fibres used in making the famous Cuban cigars, which require five leaves per cigar. We drove past tobacco growing under nets in several places.
Rice and beans are the main food staples of many Cubans, but not enough rice is produced for their needs, with imports coming from Vietnam and elsewhere. We did see rice paddies in several places. In one spot flooded paddies had been recently planted.
Small, subsistence-type farms were particularly evident in the mountainous regions, with vegetable plots and sometimes a few banana plants, or a little corn. Small roadside stands offered goods to passersby. Small farms usually seemed to have a few loose chickens and pigs, one or two scrawny cattle, and perhaps a single horse, feeding along the highway, tethered by a rope. Where there were cattle in larger numbers, nearer the cities, they were more often dairy cows. We saw goats in significant numbers, but not many sheep. “Cuba is too hot for sheep,” our guide told us, “except for a variety which has much thinner wool.”
Citrus fruits are one crop that was still grown on larger collective plantations. We passed through the largest Cuban orange plantation, 40 square kilometres in size. Most of the orange crop was finished for the season, though we saw fruit hanging from trees in a few places. Some fields had newly planted orange trees; others had half-grown trees, while still others had trees that were obviously past their best and would need replacing.
Bananas are an interesting crop. The plants are tall — up to four metres or so — a height they reach in just a few months. Each plant then produces a single large cluster of bananas, after which the plant is finished and must be replaced. This is different from mango plants which can be cut back after production, and then will regrow. The mangos were not in season, but we did see a few small ones growing. Other crops we saw included guava, pineapples, papayas, grapefruit and sisal. We also visited a crocodile ‘farm’ and drove past what was termed a ‘shrimp farm.’
Overall, we learned a lot about farming from the guides and from what we saw. According to one guide, the Cuban government is really trying to revive agriculture, and to recruit students to study it, but so far improvements are slow in coming. With tourism the big money industry, it may be a while before much improvement occurs.