Country number: 64
When? April 2002
How? Car, plane, boat
Who? With friend Pat
Havana is three cities in one: historic UNESCO listed Old Havana, affluent modern Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. As expected, I spend most of my 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 Latin music is intoxicating 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.
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 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 (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. So 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.
Vinales is the heart of the tobacco growing industry and wonderfully scenic. Limestone hills rise majestically from cinnamon coloured soil, especially beautiful viewed first thing in the morning with the mist swirling. 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.
Sugar cane is the second major crop and Trinidad is the centre of this industry. We’re driving from Havana, but the car breaks down after an hour or so. Cubans aren’t allowed to own cell phone either (or they weren’t) so we are left baking in the sun, with little explanation, whilst our driver walks to find a phone and summon help. Rescue takes three hours. As far as I can establish, we’ve run out of petrol. When we finally arrive, it’s a colonial gem with cobbles, bells and towers and a hotel with a long veranda to sit on (drinking cocktails) and admire the gorgeous illuminated cathedral.
Baracoa is another contrast, lush and isolated. It’s the oldest settlement in the country, (this is where Columbus landed the first time), while Santiago with its (also UNESCO listed) fort and cannons is the second largest city and 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.)
Our final port of call is the island of Cayo Coco. We travel by speedboat to an isolated hotel on strips of sugary white sand, where the driftwood is artistically draped. The waiters 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. (Things are very different there nowadays. There’s a road bridge –and an airport. And the Americans are coming.)
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.”
Cuba was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was controlled by Spain until 1898. The U.S.A. held temporary control from 1898 to 1902.The Castro Brother came to power in 1959 after the revolution and Cuba has since been a communist state, politically and economically isolated by the United States
Voting in Cuba is legally mandatory.
The literacy rate in Cuba is 99.8%, which is one of the highest in the world.
The average salary in Cuba is just U.S. 20 dollars per month.
To see my photos of Cuba, visit this page.