There can’t be many more anxiety inducing situations on this planet than standing in a customs line. In Cuba. Unable to speak Spanish. Hoping you have all the right paperwork. After planning the trip two days prior.
All of this added to the fact that just a mere two months prior to this, the first American commercial flights had landed in the country in five decades.
And adding on to that, American travelers still have to prove they're visiting Cuba for one of 12 sanctioned purposes.
So things were still new to everyone involved.
But, alas, this is where I found myself in October of this year, along with a friend of mine. My state-sanctioned purpose was journalistic. Coleman, my friend, his was a little more up in the air.
We made a bumpy landing in Camagüey around three in the afternoon and were greeted by an air-conditionless airport and some skeptical customs officials.
After what I am positive was the shortest, most terrifying interrogation in the history of mankind, we were free to go.
Our taxi got us to our Airbnb rather quickly. The airport was just outside the city center on the more industrial side of town. We passed huge abandoned warehouses and factories. “Sugar,” the driver said plainly.
Our home for the next two days would be pink. A one-story, two-bedroom located in the heart of the city, just blocks from the main square.
Nilda, a professor at one of the local universities, was the matriarch of the house. She met us with a soft smile and a hug, and then let us put our things down before handing out a couple of beers and beginning to give us a brief history lesson of the city, completely in Spanish — which, again, neither my friend nor I speak. The books she pulled out and her pointing helped, though.
Camagüey is situated in the center of Cuba and, as the country’s third largest city, is quite metropolitan, especially by Cuban standards.
The city streets and boulevards crisscross and zigzag. They are lined corner to corner and stacked top to bottom with small homes and shops, most buildings not more than a few stories high.
The most prominent structures in the city are the churches. Camagüey is known for them. There, steeples rise high above the surrounding buildings, ornately designed with intricate molding and brightly lit.
The city is also known for it’s beautiful women, according to Nilda. She wasn’t wrong.
The cars are an attraction all their own. The curves, the chrome; shiny, brightly colored pre-revolution era stallions. Built to stand the test of time, which, so far, they have.
The '57 Chevys share the tight streets with horse-drawn carriages and people on bikes and motorcycles, some peddling papayas, others Wifi cards.
Walkability is paramount for most in Camagüey it seems. The tightly knit buildings make the streets seem like hallways. With most of the homes keeping their doors open, they are more like rooms you can see right into.
The locals sit outside their homes, on the steps speaking to, or at the very least acknowledging, those that pass. There is a great community atmosphere, that (even as an outsider, a dreaded tourist) you can feel and want to be a part of.
After only 42 or so hours in Camagüey, we made our way to a small resort in Playa Santa Lucia, just to say we checked out the coast as well. The sand was white and very fine, and the sunset we caught on our last day there rivaled any I've ever seen with ultrasaturated purples and oranges and yellows and blues.
But even in that moment, I could not stop thinking about Camagüey.
Playa Santa Lucia was relaxing and accomodating.
Camagüey was authentic and captivating.
The short trip has left me wanting more answers from Cuba, more culture. And I intend on returning to look for them both.