Cuba Libre
Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba Havana – 17 – 18th July Left the tourist hell of Playa Del Carmen for my flight from Cancun to Havana (now I know what Aeroflot do with their old planes). I`m not sure there could be two places of such contrast. I was full of excitement, curiosity and trepidation at the thought of visiting Cuba – somewhere I had been desperate to experience for so long, and I felt grateful I had managed to get there before it`s opened up to the US and mass tourism. God forbid it should ever turn into a resort like the one I had just left. I felt inspired to sit and write this, having just returned from my first foray into the Old Town – it`s little wonder that Hemmingway loved this place so much – there`s character seeping from it`s every pore. The first thing that struck me was how dark it was – there are hardly any street lights, which in some way is a pity as you can`t really appreciate the crumbling but historic old buildings, but in other ways, somehow adds to it`s charm. Apparently this is due to the Government`s attempts to save energy – and money no doubt! I walked down dark alleyways, the like of which I would never dream of venturing down in most other cities, feeling perfectly safe asking for directions. They proved a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals, offering glimpses into their homes, with every other street proffering some kind of entertainment, be it someone sitting on their doorstep playing a guitar, or a group of people gathered around a table outside their home, playing chess or dominoes. Strolled back along the Malecon (sea front) which was a hive of activity, packed with people lounging on the sea wall, chatting and playing music. The Cubans may not have much money, but they seemed the most enriched and contented people I had encountered so far on my trip. I had booked one night at a Casa Familiare, basically a guest house – the Cubans have to apply to the Government and pay a fee to let rooms out in their homes, because there are not enough hotels to accommodate the tourist trade at the moment. The place, like most of the others in the city looked like a wreck from the outside, but I was welcomed into the most wonderful 1930`s house, full of original furniture and fittings, by Luis the charming owner`s younger brother. The house was previously owned by the boys’ grandparents, and as they and their father had passed away (I`m promised an introduction to their mother tomorrow), they decided to turn it into a Guest House. They couldn`t have been more accommodating and I immediately felt comfortable in my lovely, spotlessly clean, high ceilinged bedroom (with my own bathroom – luxury!). They served me a wonderful dinner in the dining room, accompanied by the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club on the CD! A perfect and fitting start to my tour of Cuba – I think I`m going to like it here. Woke the next morning to another tasty breakfast with my fellow guests, two girls from Milan (another language I had to remember) and then headed out to another part of the city – the Vedado, home of the historic hotel Palacio, which had hosted such luminaries as Princess Diana, Robert Redford, Mohammed Ali to name but a few. This beautiful 30`s building was wonderfully preserved and I could imagine myself transported back in time to the pre-revolution days. Passed by the Havana branch of Coppelia, the seventies styled ice-cream parlour where people queued night and day for a table, found a wonderful music shop selling CDs and DVDs of Cuban music and it`s derivatives (including my new discovery, Silvio Rodrigues – a kind of Cuban Sting). Bought a couple of Che postcards for my collection. After checking my e-mails at another perfectly restored pre-revolution Hotel, the Hotel Seville, I made my way to the airport to meet my friend Michelle, who was going to join me for the rest of my tour of the island. After a wonderful re-union and a lot of catching up, we checked into the Hotel Tejadillo, (again, a beautiful old colonial building with an inner courtyard) we headed out for dinner to Los Nardos, a restaurant that had been recommended to me by an English guy I had met at the Palacio. He had warned me it was popular, and we had to queue for 40 minutes for a table, but the atmosphere was unique even if the food wasn`t (the reputation of Cuban cuisine was less than impressive – especially for vegetarians). The following days led to an overdose of omelettes, beans and rice, which left me craving a vegetarian lasagne or tandoori! It made me realise how spoilt for choice we are in the UK with such a variety of different types of food on tap. Vinales – 19 – 20th July After a relatively early night as Michelle was quite jet-lagged we met the rest of the group the following morning at their hotel. We were very fortunate as Jorge, our tour leader introduced us to an eclectic but very affable band of fellow travellers from Eastern Australia, Singapore and the UK. We kicked off our road trip, with a stop at the Orchid Farm at Soroa – one of the largest in the world, and located in a stunning setting amongst the palm tree clad hills of the interior. Our destination was Vinales in the western part of Cuba, a village that was as much as a culture shock as Havana had been – literally a “one horse” town of two or three streets with pigs, chickens and horse and carts passing down the street every few minutes. I almost expected the stage coach to go riding by. Our host that evening was a wonderful lady called Mirta who cooked up our best meals in Cuba by far. She was such a welcoming hostess with a great smile and sense of humour despite the language barrier and I think made our stay in Vinales one of the highlights of the trip. The only “venue” in the village hosted a cabaret evening each night consisting of a live band and exotically costumed salsa dancers. I must admit, despite the Mojitos, the novelty had worn a bit thin by the second night and Michelle and I sneaked back to the house to watch a DVD! Our day in Vinales was spent visiting the local cave and taking a boat trip on the underground river, which I must admit felt a little like a Disney ride, and being invited into the home of the local tobacco farmer, who turned out to be a bit of a guru! Fascinating stuff though. Trinidad –21st – 22nd July Onward to Trinidad, the perfectly preserved Colonial coastal town which was once the centre of the Cuban Slave trade. We decided that the cobbled streets (made with stones originally used as ballast on the ships that crossed the Atlantic) were not the easiest to walk down (I knew there was a reason I`d rejected the heels when packing!), but they did make for some very pretty photos. The nightlife here was an interesting mixture of African and Cuban and we spent a happy evening sitting on the steps in front of the Cathedral listening and watching the locals strut their stuff. The following day, we trekked through the national park to the local waterfall (Michelle kept us entertained on the way by falling fully clothed into the river!). The waterfall was refreshing, if packed with tourists, and worked off some of the filling (if heavy) Cuban cuisine we had been sampling. A much needed relax in the turquoise waters of the nearby Caribbean beach was book-ended by a marvellous taxi ride in a 1956 Chevrolet (all we were missing was some Chuck Berry on the radio!). He even managed to fit all 6 of us in! Cienfuegos and Santa Clara – 23nd July The following morning we set off for Santa Clara, a key city in the history of the revolution, and home to the Che Guevara Memorial. A stop for lunch at Cienfuegos gave a brief glimpse of this French influenced Colonial town. Paris, it wasn`t but it had a certain charm – and more shops than I`d seen anywhere up until now and an interesting street market. Even the citizens had a definite eye for fashion and style. At the unusual, European style mansion, originally build by sugar magna te Jose Ferrer, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a local girl celebrating her “Fifteen”. This is a kind of coming out ceremony that all Cuban girls have in their honour to celebrate their coming of age – she looked stunning in her white lacy dress. Not sure what our equivalent would be – “first tattoo” perhaps??? On arriving on the outskirts of Santa Clara we discovered that this weekend is a public holiday to celebrate the anniversary of an important rebel victory and the huge Plaza de la Revolution was being prepared for the visit of Raul Castro. Disappointingly, this meant that the Che Guevara Museum was also closed as a security precaution. We did get to see the Mausoleum which houses Che`s body and his huge bronze statue, along with the memorial garden for the rebel troops. The town itself was unmemorable apart from the spot containing the original carriages, where Che`s men derailed a train carrying Batista`s troops and supplies – which eventually toppled his regime. Back to Havana 24 – 25th July The next morning we set off early for another key site in the Revolution, The Bay of Pigs (where US backed Cuban exile forces were humiliated by Castro`s people). Just outside, the oddly named town of Australia was home to the building used as Castro`s headquarters during the attacks, and is now a museum containing the US plane (disguised as Cuban) which was shot down, along with other interesting memorabilia. The Bay itself was now a very popular beach resort for the locals. I wondered what it would be like there now, if the battle had gone the other way! We arrived back into Havana just before the heavens opened, and it was rather nice sitting in our hotel room listening to the thunder and the rain pouring down inside the courtyard. We arranged to meet the rest of the group for our farewell dinner and felt very colonial, sitting at the hotel bar drinking what the bartender described as “the best Mohitos in town” – they were certainly the most expensive we`d had so far! The rain had eased off by the time we walked to the restaurant and after an interesting dinner spent discussing the viability of forming our own tour operator offering Music and Salsa holidays to Cuba, we exchanged contact details and promised to keep in touch. The following morning we both woke with a touch of Castro`s Revenge and were a bit nervous about going on the walking tour, but a couple of Imodium tablets later, we decided to chance it. The old town of Havana is in the process of being renovated by the Government and the lovely old buildings were gradually being restored to their original splendour. To my horror however, I noticed that one of the stores about to open in the Plaza Vieja was Benetton (aargh!). Part of me still liked the run down, crumbling part of the city I had experienced on the first night – it somehow felt more authentic and natural. I just hope that it isn`t eventually turned into a picture perfect tourist haven completely losing it`s uniqueness. Fancying a change from the (I have to say) fairly heavy and repetitive Cuban food we`d been served over the past few days, we had a great lunch in a Lebanese restaurant we noticed on the tour. As a veggie, I felt that diet was fairly limited – and we still didn`t really understand why the food on offer didn`t include more fresh vegetables (such as avocados, tomatoes and greens) which should have been fairly easy to grow in this climate. There comes a limit to how much rice, eggs and beans can be washed down with the Mohitos! It made us appreciate the variety and quality of food that is available to us in Britain (God, I`m really beginning to miss Sainsbury’s). After a spot of haggling with the taxi driver, we negotiated a rate equivalent to half a day`s wages (around £25) to drive us to our “luxury” all inclusive about an hour away, on the north coast in Jibacoa. Jibacoa – 25 – 28th July Originally booked as a relaxing end to Michelle`s stay in Cuba and a chance to catch up on 5 months of gossip and news, Breezes wasn`t quite as good as other all inclusive resorts I`d visited in the Caribbean. The service was average, and although they had two other a la carte restaurants to supplement the buffet, both proved harder than The Ivy to get a reservation for! After speaking to the Client Services lady and using my “I`m a travel agent” tactic, we did get a table on our last night at Martino`s Italian Restaurant, which was OK but infinitely better than the buffet. The beach was beautiful, and although a public beach, the armed (yes real guns and bullets) were there trying to discourage anyone walking along to the next hotel. They were quite charming though, and it was reassuring being watched out for by someone called Jesus (who`s uncle apparently was Che`s best mate – yeah!). The internet connection however was about as up-to-date as the cars, so I had to wean myself off my daily fix for a few days (hence the lateness of these last two blogs). My complaints fell on deaf ears and we had to laugh when we discovered the miserable and totally unhelpful receptionist had the unfortunate title of “Yuselise” on her name tag! We topped up the tans and the drinks were free, so it was bearable for a couple of days and I was really sad to say goodbye to Michelle at the airport to catch our respective flights back to Gatwick and Cancun (sorry Michelle – think you pulled the short straw there!) Views of Cuba: I was intrigued to know more about the politics and views of the real Cuban people and I found it fascinating that the Cubans we conversed with spoke freely and we felt, honestly about their lives and their country. The only complaint seemed to be about lack of choice and variety in the shops, and a slight feeling of being told what to do by their government (join the club!). The tobacco farmer we met seemed perfectly happy with his simple but honest way of life and left us all feeling very humble and empowered with his heartfelt advice to respect people (especially women), teach the youngsters from an early age to lead good lives, appreciate the things that you have – and to smoke 20 home rolled cigars a day (not too sure about the last one!). He looked extremely well on it though for 69 years of age! Our lovely guide Jorge, who was a relatively wealthy young man for Cuban standards, vehemently claimed not to be a communist, but still clearly loved his country and hated the Americans. He was always up for a good discussion over dinner, and we learnt a lot about the background to the Revolution and the lives of normal Cubans since then. The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Cuba is that the only advertisements are propaganda – no billboards or shops that look anything like our shops. This seems very strange after coming from the States or even Mexico. The lack of commercialism is quite refreshing. We learnt that the Cubans boast a 98% turn out in the elections, one of the best education systems in the world with every child receiving a free education up to degree level, and produce some of the best doctors (and are altruistic enough to send some to Africa to help out there) – they even trade their medical expertise with other South American allies such as Venezuela in return for raw materials. The Cubans are made up of many different races, so you see people of all shapes, sizes and colours and there appears to be absolutely no racism or classism (there no wealthy Cubans). It certainly makes you wonder about the merits of their system over ours and I felt quite envious. No-one starves – everyone receives a ration book allowing them to buy their basic food requirements for next to nothing, and we never saw anyone looking scruffy or badly dressed. However, human nature dictates that this is never enough and partly down to the influence of American TV, th e black market is thriving. Tourists are seen as an easy target, and while not as bad as in some other countries I have visited, there is a certain amount of hassling and exploitation. Taxi prices are astronomical but the government takes a large cut which it feeds back into the economy. No-one complained about MPs expenses either! I can`t imagine a less corrupt government. Viva Fidel! Lastly, just want to say how much I appreciate all your comments on the blog – it`s always comforting to have some contact with everyone, and nice to know that some of you are still keeping up with it!


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