Pity the Americans. They can’t visit Cuba (not yet anyway.) This alligator shaped island, with 14 provinces and a population of over 11 million is the largest in the Caribbean Sea and filled with colour and culture. Sure, there’s a dramatic and poignant edge here, but the first and most striking element is the charm, grace and friendliness of Cubans. And there is little begging as one would expect in a country where circumstances are limited. What one does expect and gets are the headline quotes from Raul Castro in the daily papers. “We’ll work so that you can have a nice home again,” shouts the bold print referring to the unfortunate occurrences of various hurricanes that have pummeled parts of the island in a short period. “Trust in the Revolution, as we trust in you”. So goes the rhetoric but visitors, on a whole don’t head to this southern destination to be political, but instead to enjoy the several ‘S’s…sun, surf, sand and salsa all served up in great abundance.
Even on the flight , there were several repeat travelers who have been revisiting Cuba for years. Retired business man, Bill , a “Snowbird from Ontario Canada, has come twice a year for 20 years. He suggests I try to lift one of his pieces of luggage. Even with all my weight lifting exercise, I can barely budge this heavy bag. “I bring flashlights, rechargeable batteries, aspirins, toothbrushes, clothing and shoes every time I come,” he tells me with pride. He even brings his own beach umbrella. “There aren’t enough to go around on the beach so it’s easy to take one and then leave it.”
There isn’t much luxury for the locals but in lieu this is a country with no taxes, free medical care, free schooling (compulsory from 6 years to 15 years old) and food coupons. However, the latter doesn’t seem to last for the month and some of the shops I went to had several empty shelves. But since my last visit about 5 years ago, the changes are apparent. There’s more scaffolding and repairs to the crumbling once stately buildings now being renovated and there’s a buoyancy that didn’t exist before. Perhaps when the US embargo is removed this destination may triple their 2 million annual visitors. Canadians top the list with over 1/3 of that percentage followed by South Americans and Europeans
The renowned sand and sea of Cuba
It’s a country of cultures – Aboriginal Taino and Ciboney people, Spanish colonials, African slaves, a veritable melting pot of nations. The name Cuba comes from Taino language and is translated to ‘where fertile land is abundant’. In this tropical climate, although prone to hurricanes, the land delivers. Also nickel mining, tobacco, coffee and sugar help the economy.
In Havana late nights are play times as streets’ central boulevards are filled with domino players while at the water’s wall along the main street Avenida del Puerto, it becomes the gathering spot for the youths as they snuggle, smooch and just have fun as the waves create a rhythm, a counterpoint to music tumbling out of open windows.
Tourists however, are more mundane and head to the immense open air arena where the sexy gyrations, dancing and musical show at the Tropicana with its extraordinary lighting facility, the 1000 chairs around tables are filled to capacity each night and where the performers seem to be sculpted out of ebony and marble. The evening show is so typical Cuban and reminiscent of the days of the sequined and fruited turbaned Carmen Miranda. Costumes are meager and have strategically placed small patches of glitz, the head gear gigantic. It’s Cirque de Soliel meets the Ed Sullivan show so frozen in time is this extravaganza.
Havana is also known for the plethora of pastel painted cars from the 50s over which Hollywood would salivate, although colourful and precious, they guzzle gas and often need new parts which aren’t always available. Other options for transportation are new buses which have replaced ‘camels’ as they were known. Those attached, compartments that looked so strange. Also horse drawn carriages and the Coco cabs are the alternatives to the ordinary taxis. It’s amusing to see the white knuckles and forced smiles of the foreign passengers as the knowing Coco kamikaze drivers are bemused and speed through the bumpy and often narrow streets.
Cuba can either be a hardship or pure delight. Sure the mohitos and daiquiris (legend has it that it was created for Ernest Hemingway at the El Florita Bar) can help with some of the aspects of the ubiquitous package tours where often the tourists do nothing but get smashed because free drinks are part of the bundle. Or they can have the good sense and fortune of heading to various historic cities and towns.
Royal palms, the symbol of Cuba, line streets and can be seen throughout the countryside in forest- like foliage. At the centrally located city of Santa Clara, a 3 hours drive from Havana, the hero Ernesto Che Guevara’s memorial is prominent. Over 6 metres high and weighing 20 tones, the bronze sculpture stands are flanked by a stone mural and a huge tablet engraved with a letter from Che. The memorial is a coveted attraction. Underneath, is the brick and dark wood dimly lit mausoleum which is pleasantly cool. Candles burns near Che’s remains and walls have medallions of other revolutionaries who worked with the revered hero who helped toppled Francisco Batista’s government in 1958… “Please no talking and take off your hat,” I was told by an officious guard after having to check my camera before entering.
Across the wide street, children are climbing trees, another flying a huge kite and a couple trying to hide their enthusiasm for each other from prying eyes…most unsuccessfully.
Just a kilometer away is the centre of Santa Clara (founded in1687). The main attraction is the Colonial style architecture of the is Plaza Mayor known also as Parque Vidal. The bandstand is central and it’s here that the Teatro de la Caridad and other important edifices are located.
After driving on the 12 kilometre ( 7 miles) causeway to Caya Santa Maria (Cayo means island) the fourth biggest island in Cuba was originally a farming area. It’s now the location of over a dozen hotels and the elegant Royal Hideaway Occidental Hotel. Here you can discover the many reasons to return to this all-inclusive property. With powder- like white sandy beaches, diving, snorkeling, sailing and good service, it’s impressive to learn that one of the only female hotel general managers is a woman. Iranian born Agnes Youkhanna Yousif, who has lived and worked in Canada and North Africa now oversees this 5 star hotel that lives up to its rating…a rare thing indeed.
One of the typical 50s cars on the streets of Havana
Since everything was imported from the former Soviet Union, until in 1993, when the USSR broke down, the Cuban government decided to build hotels on this island and change from sugar production to tourism. At that time, Cuba wasn’t economically prepared to build hotels that were 100% Cuban and had to share with countries such as Spain. Each causeway throughout the country, has several small bridges which allow the water to flow and not to become stagnant and fish to swim to the sea.
Trinidad is not only another Caribbean island but , one of the historic cities in Cuba that shouldn’t be missed and it’s just over 330 KM ( approx. 200 miles) south east of Havana. Considered the best example of Colonial towns in this part of the world and judging by the tourist buses, a major attraction the original cobblestone roads, pastel painted 18thand 19th century houses and serious looking mansions are exactly as one would expect in Cuba. And like most other Spanish and Cuban cities or towns, there’s a city square and several street markets featuring crochet and wood work and many art galleries some with non gimmicky and rather good canvases and of course, paintings of the 50 cars which are not quite paint by numbers but the artists certainly have the technique down pat.
Trinidad’s signature filigree wrought iron bars which decorate the windows may look as though they are holding some of the locals hostage but in fact it’s a great alternative to non existing air conditioning. However, women standing inside peering out at the streaming crowds seemed bemused and suddenly I’m struck by the similarity of Amsterdam. However, these often religious women are not for sale but the coincidence is just too difficult to obliterate and, I must admit, brought a smile to my face. Trinidad may just need a few hours to visit but it’s a lifetime memory. One can see that there was once great wealth which was created in the mid 1700s by the sugar industry. But with various uprisings and world competition, by 1860 the sweet taste had disappeared. But turning this negative aspect in to a positive frame, because nothing has been altered or destroyed, Trinidad was made an UNESCO World Heritage site.
Perhaps one of the great days of my stay was a visit to a sugar mill from the 1900s in Patria. After visiting the now non working sugar factory with all the original equipment and machinery, the ride on an old steam engine took us through the fields of sugar cane, even offering us slices to taste during the far too short ride. Between the hoots and bells, this old train chugged along for about 10 minutes before depositing us at Rancho Palma, an outdoor restaurant in the middle of a forest. Roosters clucked around our ankles as we headed to the buffet with local food.rice, black beans, fish, roast pork, vegetables and fruit and cheese. The latter eaten with a smooth mango marmalade.
Cuba is a conundrum wrapped in a series of dramatic textures with the beat of salsa, cha cha cha and jazz and neatly tied with a cool rum filled daiquiri. It’s a country neither shaken nor stirred but well blended.