VILLA CLARA, Cuba. – “A year ago, there were many tourists in Caibarien. They strolled along the beach and photographed the fishermen. Sometimes, they would take the largest catch to their hostel for 10 or 20 CUCs, depending on the size and the type of fish. Tourists love fish,” states Andres, the old man who collects empty bottles along the length of the beach all the way down to the seawall. He does the collecting in the afternoons, after the few recreational establishments in the area open to the public.
Prior to that, Andres collected cans in order to sell them as raw material. The bottles are heavier, but they pay him better for them since they will be filled with tomato sauce. “Today there are no cans because no one drinks beer or refreshments outside, because here is no refreshments or beer,” he stresses. Andres, like the local fishermen and the hostel owners greatly miss the tourists that strolled along Villa Blanca.
Caibarien, like Placetas and Camajuani, has always been recognized by Villa Clara residents as a prosperous municipality, a community of entrepreneurs and well-off people who spend a good portion of their money in building sumptuous façades to their homes. It’s geographic location, north of the province, made possible numerous escapes by sea in the late eighties and early nineties. The people of Caibarien have lived for decades from the sea, from émigrés, and from international tourism.
“I was present when people started building their row boats inside their homes so the police wouldn’t catch them. Then at night, they would drag them down to the shore; entire families fled Cuba in them. I saw many people leave, only to return wealthy to Caibarien, and invest in houses and paladares, the small, home-based restaurants. They wouldn’t go to the (Villa Clara) Keys, they would come here instead, to spend their money here,” remembers Andres. “Now one is not allowed to build row boats with pointy bows, because that type of bow breaks the waves and makes the boat lighter. The authorities fear that more people will leave the country. Some fishermen build them that way, their rowing gets easier and lighter, but they keep them hidden because they are illegal.”
When there were only a few hotels in The Keys, many residents of Caibarien indebted themselves and invested thousands of pesos to prepare one or two rooms in their homes to turn them into hostels, in summertime as well as during high tourism season, which coincides with Cuba’s winter season. Those were the days when almost all homes nearest to the beach offered “bed and breakfast” accommodations to foreigners who wished to go fishing, rent small boats, and mingle with the locals in search for a folkloric experience.
At the same time that makeshift neighborhoods began propping up and large residences were built in Santa Maria Key, Caibarien began inevitably to corrode, due to abandonment and indifference. What had been the gateway to the Jardines de la Reina Keys, began to look like a shabby door. The buses that take tourists to the northern Villa Clara keys rarely go into Caibarien. Before they reach the iconic crab that represents Villa Blanca, they make a right turn and disappear unto a road that takes them straight into the embankment that leads to Santa Maria.
“Before, the buses came into Caibarien one after the other, and the tourists got off to take a stroll around town. Some of them spent a few days at the hotels, and then would make their way here,” remembers Isabel Gomez, the former owner of a hostel which has been converted to a picnic area until summer arrives. “Then the bus drivers started taking shortcuts. They say it was to save time, but the truth is that the center of town had gone to waste and perhaps they didn’t want the tourists to see such an ugly place. The salted sea air destroys the buildings, but the worst of all evils is the lack of maintenance.”
From the scattered selling points along Caibarien’s main street, self-employed workers sell local crackers for 25 pesos, and cigarettes –from the monthly family allotments- that are sold again. People in town get around on imported motorbikes, or cuddle their Chihuahuas in their front porch. A generator running on a lithium battery, a good-looking house and a small-breed dog serve to certify a certain degree of solvency –status- in this north-coast town.
Closer to the ocean, the two-level mansions contrast with the dilapidated wooden shacks, where imported clothes find an outlet. In some of these shops, one could find shampoo, shower gel, sun-blocking creams, or small soaps along with sheets and towels taken from the hotels. Many folks in Caibarien also made a living from contraband.
“Before the pandemic, tourists brought wonderful walking canes with them, and often left them to us. Where they come from, they are probably not that expensive. Some of them came for spiritual consultations, or to film Santeria rituals and ceremonies,” according to Alberto, a local fisherman bent on attaching bait to his fishing hook – shredded fish- to start the evening’s round. What he manages to catch he will sell to the local paladares, considering the weight and the quality of the fish. “Tourists were the solution for this town, for the paladares themselves. Cubans never buy the expensive dishes. Besides, at present, people who worked under contract in The Keys have lost their jobs, and they’ve had to fend for themselves in other tasks.”
A lack of tourism activity has ruined Caibarien, now a withered town filled will dull buildings. It would seem like the town has rusted in eight months, and night falls on formerly joyous and prolific streets that are now quiet and empty. Only during daytime is there a long line of people in front of the sole, hard-currency market, ironically named “31 y pa’lante” after the old slogan from the 1980s. For most residents of Caibarien, the embankment is far away, as far away as its hotels, those beach resorts that guarantee survival at Villa Blanca.