Cuba’s not the easiest of countries to navigate. Simon Calder wrote in 1998 that you were 60 times more likely to crash on Cubana, the national airline than British Airways, and friend Pat is anxious to say the least. We've used BA to get to the Caribbean, but our internal flights are with Cubana. This is the biggest island in the Caribbean and it’s too large to drive across comfortably. Copious amounts of alcohol have to be supplied when Pat actually gets to see the ancient looking prop planes. They're all but duck taped together.
Travel by car isn’t much less stressful. Most of the transport is 1950s, due to the U.S. trade embargoes (wonderfully atmospheric – it will be such a shame if new cars and parts finally become available) and all the cars are owned by the Cuban government. We have to hire a car and driver. Very few of the Cubans speak English and my Spanish is limited, so we have to trust that instructions have been passed on properly and we’re going in the right direction. Many of the roads are still unpaved. It's not a promising start.
Cuba is an archipelago of islands. The main island, also called Cuba, is the largest island in the Caribbean. When viewed from the air it resembles a crocodile, so it is also referred in Spanish as “El Crocodilo” or “El Caima.” It's surrounded by four smaller archipelagos. This is the second-most populous country in the Caribbean after Haiti, with over 11 million inhabitants.
Cuba was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, when it was occupied by the United States. It gained nominal independence as a de facto United States protectorate in 1902. Cuba struggled along, eventually, as a fragile republic until a coup in 1952, when Fulgencio Batista became the dictator. This oppressive and corrupt regime was ousted by the (eventual) communist movement, lead by Fidel Castro. Since 1965, the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. There have been strong links with the Soviet Union. These almost led to nuclear war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Trade with the USA is still banned, as a consequence, as is most travel between the two countries, though diplomatic relations were restored a few years ago.
Voting in Cuba is legally mandatory. The literacy rate in Cuba is one of the highest in the world. And, Cuba has been involved in a, perhaps surprisingly, broad range of military and humanitarian activities throughout both Africa and Asia. People travel there for health treatments, which are well developed. However, this remains a poor country and a single-party authoritarian regime where political opposition is not allowed. Reporters Without Borders has said that Cuba as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom.
Havana, the capital of Cuba, is three cities in one: historic UNESCO listed Old Havana, affluent modern Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. We spend most of our time in the old town, with its narrow sixteenth century streets, Spanish squares, pastel houses, churches, imposing cathedral and mid twentieth century vibe. The fascinating Museum of the Revolution is also here, with its tanks and aeroplanes. They’ve even got Che Guevara’s blood stained clothes.
The people are friendly, in Spanish anyway, the men especially so. Except when I’m grabbed by the neck, down a side street. The robber’s taken my silver chain and left me with long scratch marks. I’m a little shaken - I thought I had worn my ‘cheap jewellery’. The bars are lively, the musica is intoxicating, the hotel basic (groaning plumbing with spitting pipes) and the food pretty awful. Must-sees are La Bodeguita del Medio (home of the mojito) and the strangely cramped and barred establishment, La Floridita (cradle of the daiquiri) where Ernest Hemingway spent his time writing “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” – and drinking.
A storm follows us on the road to Trinidad. There are corrugated roofs spiralling through the air and the water is rising on the road ahead. Then the car grinds to a halt. The driver seems perplexed, but eventually signs that we've run out of gasolene. It's not even a simple as fetching some in a container. There are few stations and besides, he doesn't have a can. After four hours, another car arrives to take us to Trinidad. Fortunately, it's stopped raining by then.
When we finally arrive, it’s a colonial gem with cobbles, bells and churches . They could have filmed the Good, the Bad and the Ugly here. Sugar cane is the second major crop in the country and Trinidad is the centre of this industry. We take a train ride through the Valle des Ingenios, to view the toy sugar mills in the cane fields. Now we're on the set of Gone with the Wind. Round faced mamas with spotted headscarves are dragging sacks and manning market stalls around the photogenic Tower of Izuaga. It's history is less appealing. It was built in 1751 to use as a watchtower to control the slaves. Sauntering on the beach, we're attracting quite a lot of male attention. They know enough English to shout out what they deem to be compliments, but it's persistent and eventually tiresome.
A twelve hour coach trip to Santiago (de Cuba). There's a water feature on board, the driver wants to be taught English (naturally) and the air conditioning is so cold that I'm concerned we're now going to end up like the carcasses in The Long Good Friday. And I'm travel sick of course. Santiago is the second largest city and very industrial. There is a smoke-belching harbour with an oil refinery, cement works and power station. It's also the original home of Bacardi. Bacardi rum hasn’t been manufactured here since the revolution, but there are plenty of other makes available. (Coco-cola is also banned by the way.)
Sightseeing here (again pursued by unwanted admirers) includes the El Morro Fortress, with its sea views and cannons, and a boat trip round minuscule Cayo Granma (great name), with its stilted red-roofed houses. We have an atmospheric hotel with a long veranda to sit on (drinking cocktails) and admire the gorgeous illuminated cathedral. 'Bella, bella', shouts the cook as he shuffles by.
Another bus, another full sick bag. Baracoa is the oldest settlement in the country, (this is where Columbus landed the first time he came) and it shows. It's lush, but crumbling. Nevertheless, our hotel has a fantastic setting, with a pool in an old fortress and stunning views over two bays and Anvil mountain. The drawback of course is the walk back down to town and back up. It's carnival time and the streets are crowded and humming with Afro Caribbean rhythms; the boys here are extraordinarily persistent. Hiss, hiss, 'Chica, Chica. Come and dance.' Pat insists that we retreat.
A flight (this is where Pat requires considerable soothing) back to Santiago and then another to Viñales. Viñales is the heart of the tobacco growing industry and wonderfully scenic. Green sponges of limestone hills rise majestically from cinnamon coloured soil, especially beautiful viewed first thing in the morning, with the mist swirling. It's a pastoral idyll, except that nowhere is exempt from cigar selling and ‘cigar factory tours’. Cuban cigars are promoted as the finest cigars in the world and we are educated in the different types available - and, sadly, offered a chance to roll one. Our driver, Paco, hurtles around, blowing kisses into the back seat, all the while.
Our final port of call is the island of Cayo Levisa. We travel by speedboat from Palma Rubia, to an isolated hotel on strips of sugary white sand, where the driftwood is artistically draped. The waiters, Louis and Reineldo attempt to teach me to salsa in the humidarium, where they keep the cigars, it’s too hot to dance outside. They’ve got a crafty bottle or two hidden away in there too.
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