Cuba, located in the West Indies, is a conundrum wrapped in a series of dramatic textures with the beat of salsa, jazz and son and neatly tied with a cool rum-filled daiquiri. It’s a country neither shaken nor stirred but well blended.

There’s the spin that all Cubans want to leave for the streets of gold of Florida.

Key West is just 170 km away. But there’s another reality – many Cuban citizens don’t mind a hoot what other countries have or possess. No taxes, free hospitalization, free medicine, free schooling, free housing and ration coupons for food, is what Castro has given this country and to many of the 11 million, one of the islands Christopher Columbus landed on in 1492, is a fine place to live. The beat goes on and on and on. And there isn’t a street where the music isn’t blaring out of apartments or on the street. Music is everywhere.

Reality checks again. I did pass many stores where the shelves with rationed foods were often empty, not all medicines are available and there are Communist propaganda posters and monuments everywhere. But the flip side is there are the very high scholastic standards, world class ballet actively supported by the government. One evening I managed to get a ticket to see a brilliant performance by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, in the once majestic Gran Teatro de La Habana. (A note on the loos. During intermission there was a queue, just like most theatres, but it was eerily quiet. Nothing worked. There are no handles on the toilets and be sure to bring your own paper).

A major irony is that out of the approximately 2 million tourists each year, almost half are Canadians but the only currency of any use, while I was there, but I’m told has recently changed, is the American dollar or the Convertible which converts only into US funds and American citizens are prohibited from entering this island..

Cuba seems stopped in a time capsule. Colourful is an understatement to describe the car scene of Havana. Still working vehicles from the fifties are painted hot pink, vivid green and traffic light red, all with long fins and masses of chrome trimming. Hollywood eat your heart out. What they wouldn’t do to get their hands on a few of those vintage vehicles for feature films? However, these gas guzzling cars are pricey possessions since filling up is a major expense in a country where fuel is extremely expensive and wages pathetically low. And then there are the black unfiltered emissions which would drive an ecologist crazy.

Mystifying is the first impression when you see the pink ‘Camels’ – public buses with two strange humps and an indentation- being pulled by a truck. Of course, one could always opt for a ‘Coco’, an egg shaped two seat, three wheeled car that looks as though it was bought at Toys “R” Us.

Behind the lush green squares with ever present royal palms in Vieja (the old city) where one may see the national bird with colourations of red, white and blue (colours of the Cuban flag), there are the crumbling masses of housing and sidewalks that make you keep your head facing the ground so as not to disappear into one of the street pot holes. The centrepiece of most of these grand squares is a statue of Jose Marti, a national hero. Lines of laundry hanging from just about every window and doorway may seem exotic for a photo op, but is a manifestation of the lack of many electrical and essential appliances.

The major criticism from the few Cubans who were bold enough to say anything negative was that public transportation, unemployment, housing and the price of gas were serious problems.

However, the conundrum continues. Five star resorts, are being erected, with a flick of a Cohiba cigar’s ash, along the white sandy beaches away from the frenzy of Havana. The Sol Melia (Hotels) Division Cuba, in many cases, has Canadian money invested or manages these properties. One ultra special showcase is the all- inclusive Paradisus Rio de Oro in Holguin located in the Bahia de Naranjo nature reserve on beautiful white sandy beaches. Often hotel ratings are dubious-to say the least- but here the five star is warranted.

Lobbies for me, are like a preface to a book. It’s a show and tell. The lush vegetation, a decorative lagoon pool filled with water lilies and green reeds, nude sculptures reclining on large rocks, real birds flying through the gazebo area while fake, whimsical flamingoes decorate the man-made lagoon background for the whoosh of blenders making Papa Hemingway’s daiquiris, (a drink the bearded author is said to have created at Havana’s bar, El Floridita. The Mojito is a pretty nifty drink, too) grabs the tourists and there never seems to be an empty seat in the bar. Large cobble stone paths surrounded by a lot of indigenous greenery, lead the way to the 300 rooms in buildings of 8 balcony suites each.

These also are a conduit to the curved pool, exercise facilities, shuffle board, ping pong and scuba equipment area.

The sandy beach, long but narrow, is where you’ll listen to nature’s ‘music’ as the ocean’s waves hit the perfectly white sandy beach while sitting in the lotus position taking a 9AM yoga class. The ocean here, also boasts of one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. With all the humidity, the hair salon a must to visit.

As a friend pointed out, you can’t learn to move the way the Cubans do because our bones aren’t made the same way. They shake, they gyrate and they are passionate about everything and music is right up there. The beat goes on everywhere and its infectious rhythm seems to make the guests smile.

Among the 11 restaurants are La Laguna, an open-sided buffet/grill near the pool and perfect for lunch, Tsuru, an a la carte Japanese restaurant and El Bohio known for their Creole food. Between these and the many bars, there’s enough to occupy your evenings before the 9.30PM entertainment with talented performers.

Paradisus Rio de Oro is also the perfect destination for romance where you can huddle in the small gazebos around the pool, even pull down the tied draping or spend time on the wicker sofas along the marble alley near the lobby which seems to be a favoured spot for reading. Then there’s the option of taking a walk through the wooded area.

For those with deep pockets and an inclination towards romance, two isolated Garden Villas come with their own chef, swimming pool, private garden, butler and satin sheets.

Cubanacan, a tour company, has desks in most Sol Melia Hotels and will assist with day or overnight tours to off-shore islands, ecological excursions, nearby cities and open air markets.

A popular tourist attraction is getting married. The hotel will arrange for a judge’s service for a fee (there are only civil marriages in Cuba). The hotel will supply a coordinator for the details, will act as a witness if required, provide bouquet of flowers for the bride and boutonniere for the groom, live music during the ceremony, two bottles of cava for a toast, a wedding cake, photos, bottle of champagne in the room on that special evening, romantic dinner in an a la carte restaurant, also the availability of a horse drawn carriage tour around the large property.(see note below) The waves sweep over the sea wall. I really wanted to walk on the beach. I didn’t.

So much to do, so little time.

In Havana I stayed at Sol Melia Habana Libre

Piso 24 Oficina 2403

Calle 23 at L

Tel 53 7 832 2900

Email reserva@rlibre.tryp.cma.net

Paradisus Rio De Oro

Playa Esmeralda

Holguin Cuba

Tel 53 24 30090

Email: paradisus.rio.de.oro@solmeliacuba.com

Medical services 24 hours a day.

Deep Sea Fishing is 4 km away.

Facilities for physically disabled

Scuba Diving School has short courses.

Credit cards accepted. VISA and MASTERCARD

However, credit cards issued by the USA or their subsidiary Bank Offices of the World are not accepted.

If you marry …Spouses who have never been married do not need to present any document but if divorced must have certificate. If widowed, deceased certificate and these documents must be translated into Spanish and legalized by the Cuban Consulate in the country of origin.

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