It’s 5am and I’m piss-drunk. I’ve just got into a taxi after hitting an after-party to a music festival that I’ve travelled all the way across Cuba for, with a nervous Malaysian guy that I’m sharing a ride with. We’re driving through the streets of Santiago and I give my phone to the taxi driver with GPS directions to my casa (Cuban hotel I’m staying at), but get out of the cab to help my friend find directions to his place. The taxi driver then bolts off – I find myself with no phone, no address to my casa, or any Spanish to speak of to help me get home. I’m only three weeks into my travels across the world and one of my biggest fears comes into realisation. What the fuck am I doing?
Cuba is a place I always wanted to visit but had obvious apprehensions for – it’s not really on the backpacker trail (that is, there are no proper hostels to meet people) it’s expensive to travel to, and it’s hard to travel in when you barely have a basic grasp of Spanish to speak.
Despite all this, and the challenge I knew it would give me, I decided to go. Why?
I was sitting in Tribu hostel after being invited to go to Cuba by two Dutch girls I had been chilling with on Holbox Island and someone overhears me talking about my doubts on whether to go. “Oh, are you going to Cuba for the festival?” she asks. “Festival?” “Yeah, there’s an electronic music festival next week in Cuba”. I immediately grab my laptop to find out more.
After hearing the U.S. embargo being lifted very recently, I always had thought that if I didn’t visit Cuba now, I would never see it as I always heard it was – a true time-machine into the past. The first cruise ship full of 2,000 American tourists was heading there on the 1st May 2016 and it was now coming up to the end of April. Everything was happening so fast and it felt like it was truly a historic time for the country.
After some research, I found out that Manana Music Festival was the first of it’s kind – artists from all over the world were coming together to play with local musicians, fusing historical and traditional Afro-Cuban folkloric music with contemporary electronica.
It sounded incredible but I had a number of things riding against me:
- tickets were pretty expensive at £130 each, and could potentially sell out anytime soon
- the festival was on the other side of Cuba (Santiago) to where we were flying into
- I’d been told that all buses arranged by the festival going to Santiago were full
- I had no accommodation arranged and weren’t sure if there would be anything available
- the girls I was travelling with didn’t want to go (so I felt I also had to find other people to travel with)
In the end, I kept thinking if I didn’t even attempt to try to make it to that festival, I would have ended up regretting it forever – that I let the fear of something not working out along the way stop me from even attempting to try. I book my ticket to Cuba.
It was Friday and the festival was starting on Wednesday. I gave myself until Sunday to try and find someone to go to the festival with.
Classic American Cars of Havana [Download image for VR]
The view from one of our casas we stayed at in Havana [Download image for VR]
In our first taxi after arriving in Hanava [Download image for VR]
On the Malecón [Download image for VR]
El Capitolio – Parliament Building [Download image for VR]
Riding around Havana on tour [Download image for VR]
We’re walking around Havana trying to find a bank to change some of the money we had (we were advised not to do it at the airport as you always get ripped off).
The first bank we visit had just had a power-cut so we’re told to go down the road to the next bank. Because of this there was a massive line and for some reason, all the Cuban locals were being allowed into the bank first while we’re waiting at the front of the queue for over an hour not being let in, and because me and the girls I’m travelling with don’t know much Spanish between us we have no idea what was going on.
The queue at the bank in Havana Central
I then see my first gringo near the front of the queue (this always makes me happy) and speaking Spanish so I ask her what’s going on. She also has no idea but we end up striking a conversation and I find out that she’s German but used to live in England to study. As the conversation continues, I find out she also went to a university in the same city that I was studying in. At the same time. And stayed in the same halls.
Waiting at the bank the next day on a more successful visit [Download image for VR]
We eventually make it into the bank and I ask her where she’s heading to next. “Santiago.” Erm… what? Could it be possible? “Are you going to the music festival in Santiago?” I ask. “Yeah, are you?”
Stunned. The first person I speak to in Cuba and they’re heading to the festival.
I ask for her details but she has no phone (whhhhhhyyyy…) and even so, my sim doesn’t work and there is no Wi-Fi in Cuba aside from in designated public parks, so we make plans to meet up the next day at her casa so we can try and find a bus or another way of getting to Santiago.
The next day, me and the girls grab a taxi to try and find my new German saviour’s casa. We can’t find it. Fuck. Doesn’t matter I think, we arranged to meet that night at a club so I’ll see her there, and I’ll just go to the public Internet square to buy my ticket to the festival before it sells out. I go check. It’s sold out. Double fuck.
One of the public Internet squares in Havana that they have dotted all around Cuba to access Wi-Fi (Internet access is unavailable elsewhere) [Download image for VR]
I feel defeated – maybe this was a sign? That I wouldn’t be able to find a bus. That all the accommodation to stay at when I got there would have been booked up. That something else would have gone wrong along the way…
It’s Monday and we’re walking around Cienfuegos after talking a 3 hour bus journey east of Havana. I’ve settled with the idea of the festival not happening and the girls are planning their next day’s activities. On the cards – a trip to a botanical garden followed by a boat trip to see flamingos (the girls have an unhealthy obsession with flamingos).
In Cienfuegos [Download image for VR]
It’s hitting midnight and the festival will be starting in 48 hours. I’m still another 16 hours from Santiago, and with no idea how to get there but I’m starting to feel that maybe I gave up too easily. Maybe all these setbacks weren’t a sign that I shouldn’t go, but a challenge that I didn’t even try to overcome. I tell the girls my thoughts and they amazingly walk me around the town helping me arrange a 6am taxi the next morning to get to Trinidad and try to catch an 8am bus to Santiago so I can get there for Wednesday evening – just enough time to make the evening of the first day of the festival.
6am arrives and my taxi doesn’t turn up. I still don’t know if there will be any bus tickets available to go to Santiago if I do somehow get to Trinidad on time, but I head towards the bus station anyway asking random taxi drivers if they can get me to Trinidad for 30 kook (the tourist currency in Cuba that’s tied to the dollar). I find one. I get to the bus station 10 minutes before the bus leaves. Somehow, everything seems to be working out.
My next challenge was trying to figure out a way to get into the festival without a ticket, and also to try and find accommodation when I’ll be arriving at 8pm in the evening.
I get chatting to a Swiss guy on the bus. He’s travelling with friends to a town close to Santiago and I tell him the story of me trying to get to the festival. We end up chatting practically the entire 12 hour journey there, and as he was feeling a bit ill and his mates were heading to Santiago the next day anyway, he decides to head straight to Santiago to help get me into the festival (he speaks fluent Spanish) as well as arrange to stay at a casa together to cut costs.
We arrive at the festival site and almost immediately find a Cuban guy willing to sell us a ticket after bargaining him down from 150 kook to 70 kook – half the price of what I would have paid online.
After dropping off our stuff at a casa we found close to the festival venue, we go back to the festival site and head inside. I couldn’t believe I had made it. I was slowly starting to realise that things always seem to have a way of working out when you are travelling.
Santiago and the Manana Music Festival
The festival was by far the best part of my time in Cuba. Not knowing any of the artists in the line-up going in and purely going for the experience of it all, I found the music to be incredible, ranging from performances from people playing traditional Cuban music to huge dub sets, reggae, salsa, electronica and more.
Manana Music Festival – Outside the venue [Download image for VR]
There were so many amazing and touching moments – for example, on the second day of the festival there was a massive storm so the outside stage was closed. All the acts were moved into the main auditorium where at one point during a dance performance, the generator flooded and the electricity cut out. With the support from the audience and everyone pulling their phones out to light the stage with their flashes, the performance continued and everyone cheered with encouragement until the power was restored.
Manana Music Festival – In the Auditorium [Download image for VR]
At a number of times throughout the weekend, a traditional Cuban 15+ piece band would start playing outside the main club area of the venue dancing up and down the street, and then move their way into the club before the DJ puts on a booming house beat that somehow melds perfectly with the traditional live instrumentation, and then invites individual band members onto the mic to play their trumpets, drums and more, all while the Cuban locals are dancing with the cosmopolitan crowd.
Manana Music Festival – In the main club area [Download image for VR]
This is what I travelled all this way to experience.
I spent a total of almost a week in Santiago, recovering from the festival and using it as a stop-off after making my way further west into Cuba before heading back towards Havana to catch my flight later that week. I did manage to visit a couple of cool places in the interim though.
The rooftop bar/restaurant at Hotel Casa Granda where I spent most of my hungover moments [Download image for VR]
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fort [Download image for VR]
After recovering from the festival in Santiago, I had around 8 days to play around with before I had to make my way back to Havana, so I headed further east to a small coastal town called Baracoa where most of the festival staff and friends I’d made there were heading.
Collectivo (taxi) journey from Santiago to Baracoa through the mountains and across unfinished roads [Download image for VR]
Black sand beach (check the abandoned stadium behind me which I ended up climbing the stairs of) [Download image for VR]
…turns out it wasn’t abandoned at all – there were loads of football being played by the locals [Download image for VR]
After days of drinking, eating shit food and not doing much of anything, I checked out Tripadvisor to find some of the best activities to do and find one to trek up a mountain. This one was called El Yunque and stood at 1,886ft high. We had to cross a river to get to it, and was taken up by a local guide and his awesome dog that followed us all the way there and back.
The river we had just crossed to reach the bottom of El Yunque [Download image for VR]
Stop-off half-way at a fruit stand [Download image for VR]
The summit [Download image for VR]
My final stop before heading back to Havana to meet up with the girls to catch our flight back to Cancun together was at Trinidad. I spent one day/night checking out the town, renting a bicycle to get to Ancon Beach, and ended the night at a nightclub in a cave. Like, an actual cave.
Up Plaza Mayor, a bell tower in the middle of Trinidad [Download image for VR]
On Ancón Beach (Playa Ancón) [Download image for VR]
Seafood restaurant on the way back from Ancón Beach [Download image for VR]
Cycling back into town [Download image for VR]
How I made it back home that night
Cuba was a massive challenge for me – I threw myself in the deep-end right at the start of my trip and set myself a challenge of reaching the other side of Cuba for Manana Festival without knowing any Spanish, without any travel plans on how to get there, without a ticket, without any accommodation sorted… and yet, everything worked itself out.
Time almost felt like it stopped for me when that taxi drove off with my phone and I had no idea how to get back – like a sudden realisation that I was way out of my depth here. But like everything else on this trip, it all seemed to work out.
I started by wondering around aimlessly and asked a local where I could find the bus station as this was the only landmark I could remember when arriving into Santiago. When I got there, my next step was to ask someone where the festival grounds were for Manana Festival, as I knew my casa was close-by to here and I would try working my way home from there.
And then someone hands me a business card to a casa – I figure he’s just trying to get me to rent a room at his place but then I look it. Then look again.
I couldn’t believe it. This was the EXACT casa that I was staying at. How was this possible?
I talk to the guy who handed me the card and in broken English find out that he is a relative of the person’s place I’m staying at. I’m not sure if he recognised me from when we arrived in Santiago the night before or whether it was pure coincidence, but I hug the guy the hardest I’ve ever done and jump in a taxi to drive me straight back to my front door.
When I reflect on that situation that I stupidly put myself in, I don’t look back at that moment with fear – I look back with optimism. When you’re in a situation like that, you can either panic/freak out, or work out a way of solving your problem – and despite all the odds, I somehow was able to get myself home. Like on the rest of my journey through Cuba – despite all my fears, my doubts, my apprehensions of coming here and getting to that festival – everything worked out. Just like it always seems to.
I’m slowly learning for myself how fear of the unknown can stop you from doing some of the most amazing things, from visiting some of the most amazing of places – but if you’re able to overcome it, you can have some of the most amazing experiences.