“El Granma! El Granma!”
From the second-floor, rooftop terrace of our casa particulare (homestay accommodation), we watch as the old man slowly negotiates the narrow street below in his quest to sell the morning newspaper.
A coche caballo (a horse-drawn carriage and local taxi service) clip-clops past in the opposite direction and, even at this early hour, the distant sound of music can be heard. Trumpet, piano, guitar, maracas. Cienfuegos, the self-proclaimed ‘jewel of the south’, is waking up to another laid-back Cuban day.
It isn’t April (rather January, mid-winter in the tropics and peak tourist season), and Castro isn’t seen in the alley way (apart from the ubiquitous images of him in shop windows and billboards), but we are, nonetheless, in the sun in Cuba, oh oh oh!
With the easing of trade and travel restrictions in recent years, Cuba has surged in popularity as a holiday destination. Indeed, with the expectation of an imminent deluge of multinational companies and chicken nuggets, there feels a sense of urgency about visiting ‘before the Americans arrive’.
For Cuba is unique. It’s the land that time forgot, or at least was made to forget. After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and the world gave Cuba the economic cold shoulder, the country was effectively exiled into a padlocked time capsule. While the rest of the world played Flappy Bird on their smart phones, inside Cuba the infrastructure decayed, the 1950s Chevrolets kept driving, and the socialist ideology remained steadfast. Now the lock has been opened and the 21st century is starting to pour in.
Cuba’s crumbling capital, Havana, or more accurately San Cristóbal de la Habana, was founded on its present site by the Spanish in 1519, and was the starting point of our gran aventura Cubana.
La Habana is a city unlike any other: grand colonial plazas juxtaposed with derelict Soviet-era apartment blocks, the broad sweep of the Malecón esplanade humming with ancient pink Dodges and throngs of Habaneros, exhaust fumes and rumba beats and horse dung and tourist tat and humidity.
The old town, Habana Vieja, is a fascinating place in which to get lost, a mesmerising tangle of pot-holed streets and leafy parks, eclectic buildings and street football. The beautiful cathedral (Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana), a lopsided baroque limestone masterpiece dominating a pretty square, has aptly been described as ‘music set in stone’. Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest square, is a shady oasis and a great place to browse the second-hand book market or stop for a mojito (it’s never too early!).
The rehabilitation of Habana Vieja is the result of an innovative conservation and community development project, Habaguanex, which uses tourist money to restore the derelict colonial buildings to their former glory, as well as provide much-needed services for city dwellers. Their work is evident in the rejuvenated grandeur of Plaza Vieja and the wonderful Calle Mercaderes, a cobbled pedestrian strip of shops and restaurants.
For the history buff, Havana offers a bewildering number of museums, ranging from the Museo de Navegación (housed in one of the oldest forts in the Americas, the squat Castillo de la Real Fuerza), to one dedicated exclusively to cigars. But the standout, and indeed a must-see, is the Museo de la Revolución, located in the lavish former Presidential Palace. You can almost hear the gunfire as you wander past dusty cabinets containing photographs, maps and artefacts from Cuba’s cataclysmic revolution, including one of Che Guevara’s iconic berets.
Havana provides a beguiling orientation to the country but, in many ways, the real Cuba — a traditional agrarian society of small towns, isolated villages and farms — lies beyond the capital.
Our first destination is Cienfuegos, three hours southwest and historically the only French-colonised corner of Cuba. Although it is still gracias, not merci, when buying a coffee, the Gallic influence enduringly manifests in the town’s 19th-century, French, neoclassical architecture. Amazingly, there’s even a mini Arc de Triumph. Set on a stunning natural bay, and with a refreshing absence of tourists, Cienfuegos is a peaceful haven after the freneticism of Havana.
“Guantanamera, Guajira Guantanamera / Guantanamera, Guajira Guantanamera.” The rhythm of the salsa band playing Cuba’s favourite song suffuses through the Casa de la Musica like a double shot of Havana Club rum. It waxes and wanes in intensity, a crescendo of percussion and horns receding back to the sparseness of a tinkling piano, before igniting again with drums and voice: part-jam, part-performance, all-consuming. We are in the town of Trinidad, a perfectly preserved Spanish-colonial settlement fabled for its pastel-coloured streetscapes, cobbled lanes, and vibrant music and arts scene.
Trinidad is particularly beautiful in late afternoon light: climb the tower of the Museo de Historia Municipal for picturesque views of the crimpled Sierra del Escambray, flanking the town like the sheets on an unmade bed. And, when the cultural immersion and maracas reach saturation point, the town is also an easy bike ride (or 1957 lime-green Buick taxi ride) away from one of the most scenic beaches in the country, Playa Ancon.
The 90-minute drive from Trinidad to Santa Clara, en route back to Havana, is an unexpected and captivating microcosm of contemporary Cuba. An old man pushing a bicycle up a hill, a drift of piglets rooting through a mound of garbage, immaculately uniformed children playing in a village school yard, a turkey vulture on a power pole with wings outstretched. We spy a farmer in a wide-brimmed straw hat ploughing his field with a bullock dray as a team of workers scythe the roadside verge nearby. Coffee trees and sugar cane, a faded billboard with a picture of Che Guevara and the words “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (“Until victory, always!”), a queue of people patiently waiting outside a store, a mini-peloton of Lycra-clad cyclists, a peeling church spire, the ubiquitous red, white and blue Cuban flag painted onto the side of a shop, a couple walking arm in arm…
But if Cuba is famous for one thing, it is cigars (well, okay, if you exclude rum, and salsa music, and nuclear-weapon showdowns, and revolutionaries). And the epicentre of the Cuban tobacco growing industry is the beautiful Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed area three hours’ drive west of Havana. It is a genuinely spectacular place, a verdant cleft in the Sierra de los Órganos of jagged limestone karsts, parcels of tobacco crops and thatched, wooden drying houses.
From the small and comparatively sleepy town of Viñales, we pedal a motley collection of mountain bikes to one of the local tobacco farms where, after deflecting a marriage proposal by the owner for his daughter and my highly embarrassed son, we watched Dago, a desiccated old guajiro (farmer) in a battered straw sombrero, skilfully roll a prized Cuban cigar. After coughing through the obligatory few puffs of gratitude, we cycle home, the surrounding cliffs glowing orange in the gorgeous evening light.
Cuba may well be described as a country of great resilience, surviving its dilapidated but still standing buildings, its battered economy and preserving its vibrant culture through its spirited and incomparably warm people. We left with the impression of a content, cohesive community, thriving under adversity. Drinking rum and dancing to the rhythm of the Buena Vista Social Club.
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- Money: There are two currencies. The so-called CUP (peso Cubano) for locals and the CUC (peso convertible) for foreigners. You cannot easily buy Cuban currency anywhere other than Cuba. Credit cards are mostly for paying hotel bills or getting access to cash. Cash is king: Canadian dollars and Euros are the best foreign currencies to bring, but US dollars attract a 10% surcharge when converted.
- Accommodation: Even the many-starred hotels are not necessarily up to international standards. A taste of the real Cuba can be had at any one of the hundreds of casas particulares – registered B&Bs found everywhere – and many have a strong online presence.
- Communications: Australian phones won’t work and internet (at five-star hotels, post offices, by purchasing cards for one-hour use) is dial-up but can be expensive. If addicted to your smartphone for information, download a travel guide that doesn’t require an internet connection, such as Havana Good Time by transplanted American Conner Gorry (an up-to-the-minute guide to how Cuba works with a Havanan-centricity).
- Transport (Havana): Those 1950s cars? You can rent them with a driver to take you around but many criss-cross Havana as fixed-route collective taxis. Locals can tell you the basic routes. You pay money, cram in with all the other passengers, and tap the driver on the shoulder roughly when you want to get out. Buses are crowded but extremely cheap.
- Medicine: Cuba’s health system is considered by many to be one of the revolution’s finest achievements. An apparent cure for vitiligo and a claimed lung cancer vaccine are just a couple of the more fascinating things about Cuba’s innovations, and a possible future for Cuba as a health tourism destination is not unimaginable.
- Eating: There’s more to Cuban food than black beans and rice (congri) but virtually any Cuban meal will be served with it at the paladares (privately owned restaurants). Traditional Cuban food skews towards the hearty: lots of stewed pork, lamb or beef with congri, although lobster is ubiquitous, cheap and usually boiled until it’s the consistency of rubber. The privatisation of eateries has meant there’s lots of choice, a lot of it pretty upmarket and, if you get tired of Cuban classics such as ropa vieja (old clothes), there are other interesting oddities (lobster pizzas in a Chinese restaurant, anyone?).
- Drinking/smoking: While Havana Club may be the rum brand you’ve heard of, Santiago de Cuba is what the locals drink, and it’s dangerously cheap. Cigars are not so cheap but don’t buy them from touts on the street (as they'll likely disintegrate).
- Music and dancing: When you think of Cuba, you think of music. Contrary to popular belief, the streets are not awash with salsa – that was the music style popular in the 1950s before the revolution. The modern sound of Cuba is timba. Music is omnipresent. Go to some of the major dance halls to hear the real-deal contemporary stuff and, for the more adventurous, visit the Palacio de la Rumba in Centro for authentic sights and sounds.
- Great City Sights: Habana Vieja, the world heritage-listed old town, has been beautifully restored and is a picture-perfect view of a colonial time gone by. It’s the stuff you always see in the travelogues. Spend a day there, see the sights, dodge the touts. Once you’ve crossed Vieja off your list, look further afield. Walk along the seafront Malecón, check out the crumbling but inescapably authentic Centro and, to its west, the more patrician Vedado, home to some of the finest colonial art deco architecture in the world, and even Miramar beyond that. Across the bay on a ferry from Habana Vieja is Regla, perhaps the most avowedly non-touristy section of the town and centre to the Santería religion, an unlikely mixture of pagan African and Catholic religious imagery.