HAVANA TIMES — Last week, I spent a number of days in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province, a place renowned for its fish and tobacco – and its baseball team. A friend had invited me to her home in the south-laying town of Cortes, located in Sandino, the westernmost municipality on the island.
Reaching Cortes from Pinar del Rio isn’t an easy task. The two are separated by about 120 kilometers of the province’s central highway and 19 additional kilometers (counted from the La Catalina intersection). Luckily, some friends took us to the said intersection, where we caught a cab that charged 15 Cuban pesos per passenger.
According to Cuba’s online encyclopedia EcuRed, Cortes is one of the eight People’s Councils of the Sandino municipality. It has a population of 2,789, distributed among the towns of Santa Barbara, San Uvaldo and La Grifa (as well as the town where the name comes from).
My experiences are limited to this last town. The data I collected comes from oral testimonies and observations made there.
The town’s main industries are fishing and agriculture. It has a coastal beach area and an earth-colored terrain that extends across the entire area.
Approximately 700 people live in the town of Cortes. Houses made of wood and guano (palm leaf) predominate and there isn’t a single building with more than one story. There are only two paved streets. The rest are sandy paths.
Some houses have fresh water wells, where people draw water using electric pumps. The quiet is broken only by the murmurs of the locals when an outsider arrives, or when a fellow townsperson breaks one of the norms or traditions of the place.
The town has a ration store, a small hard-currency shop, a hard-currency kiosk, three doctor’s offices and a medical establishment not unlike a polyclinic, a Cuban pesos cafeteria and a small police station.
There is an ambulance that takes people who have suffered accidents or in serious condition to the Sandino hospital.
There isn’t much to look for in Cortes, save for a means to get away from the bustle of the city. The town’s only charm is its closeness to nature, which expresses itself in an abundance of coastal insects and flora.
The inhabitants are kind and rambunctious. The services offered around town are different from those in Havana, in the sense that clerks are more professional and kinder.
As in all small towns, the locals lead simple lives removed from the trappings of technology. They move about in horse-driven coaches and on horseback. There is no shortage of boats and boat-makers. The main attraction for the locals is the beach (a place that has been overgrown by gulfweed in recent times).
Some say it wasn’t like that before, that the authorities took the time to clean up the beach.
People in the town wear long-sleeved shirts and socks (even when wearing flip-flops) to avoid mosquito bites and because of the sandy ground. They also wear palm leaf hats to shield themselves from the sun.