My wife and I have just returned from 15 days exploring the Caribbean island of Cuba, and what a fabulous trip it was.
All photos copyright Alan Pewsey
Cuba has had a turbulent history over the last 500 years or so with the involvement in the slave trade and the English, French and Spanish all claiming sovereignty at one time or another. Add into this the well documented fall out with near neighbours the Americans over the last 60 years, and the current embargo following the rise of Fidel Castro and communism, and you have a melting pot of cultural influences that have formed a uniquely colourful and culturally rich country to visit.
Havana old town
The Explore Classic Cuba small group tour began with soaking up the atmosphere on a guided tour of old Havana that highlighted some of the sights and points of interest including the revolution square and various Hemmingway haunts such as La Bodeguita del Melia, allegedly the home of his favourite Mojito.
The city is a mix of restored and crumbling buildings that are a magnet for keen photographers. The famous 1950s American cars add to the attraction with the lines of Cadillac’s, Plymouth’s, Buick’s and Pomtiac’s at every taxi rank. The cars are all over the island and not just a spectacle for tourists, although the cars give old town Havana an edge when added to its mix of architecture, music and colour.
It’s a fabulous city and the sort of place you could spend hours just exploring the streets with no plan, just going where your mood takes you and following the sights and sounds.
World Heritage Vinales
Leaving Havana the tour headed west towards UNESCO World Heritage Vinales. A farming area in the hills of west Cuba known for its tobacco plantations, a key ingredient in the famous Cuban Cigars. Farming is simple, mainly powered by horse drawn carriages and cattle driven ploughs which often seem to find themselves on to the deserted Cuban motorways! A visit to a farm and a cigar rolling demonstration by a 74 year old lady who had been smoking and rolling cigars since she was 10 followed before a visit to Cueva del Indio the largest cave system in the country on the way back to Havana.
A night back at the 1930s Hotel Nacional, famous for hosting the famous, including the Mafia, before heading towards the Bay of Pigs and Trinidad the following day. The hotel is a little bit tatty around the edges these days, but still manages to maintain the atmosphere of somewhere quite special.
Bay of Pigs
The Playa Giron ( Bay of Pigs) and Fish Cove (La Cueva de Los Peces) by the Carribean Sea, was a lovely spot to stop for lunch and swim on a day where the temperature was in the low 30 degrees C. The cove itself is a 70m deep sinkhole 100m in from the coast itself. Crystal clear waters and the surrounding vegetation gives the cove a sort of magical feel. Although as this is a popular tourist spot and stop off for tour buses. Even if the cove doesn’t appeal, the Caribbean Sea on the opposite side of the World is offers swimming in turquoise coloured water surrounded by inquisitive tropical fish.
Next we headed to the small Bay of Pigs museum to learn about the CIA sponsored invasion by Cuban exiles to try and overthrow Castro and the communists in 1961. Following Castro and his rebels overthrow of the American backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista the CIA launched an ‘invasion’ with 1400 American trained Cuban exiles However the invasion was heavily outnumbered by Castro’s troops and they surrounded in less than 24 hours.
Dropped off at our Casa Particulaire (Cuban B&B), we made ourselves at home before heading out to explore the UNSECO World Heritage town of Trinidad
Trinidad is a beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets developed by French settlers fleeing a slave revolt in Haiti in the early 19th century, and contains many relics from its sugar cane producing hayday.
Although a mecca for tour groups and independent tourists, (empty by European hotspot standards), it still has a unique charm of a time gone by, and doesn’t battle with the motor vehicle as many Cubans can’t afford to own or run one. Instead the locals go about their business in old cars or by horse and cart.
Fidel’s mountain HQ hideout
After a fabulous relaxing few days exploring Trinidad and dancing at open air live salsa music venues, it was time to move on. Trinidad to Bayamo is a 460 km marathon and even though our Explore coach driver made a few stops along the way at Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey among other places, it is a very loooong and tiring day. Bayamo is just a stop over on the Explore tour to allow a visit to the revolutionary headquarters of La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s hidden mountain HQ in the Sierra Maestra. Fidel and his guerilla fighters hid there after the failed revolutionary Mancada Barracks attack in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. A 6:30 am start to avoid the worst heat of the day to walk the 6 km round trip through the forest covered mountains to the hideout.
Bird song and beautiful scenery abounded and the fresh air was a welcome change after the coach journey of the day before. Many of the buildings have been restored and maintained as they would have been when Fidel was in residence. There is even a large 1950s fridge in Fidel’s hut, carried by one the guerilla fighters with a bullet hole in the side from a close shave with Government troops. The fridge was used to store medical supplies for the injured apparently.
Santiago de Cuba
That night our trip continued to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city and our large and anonymous hotel (Melia Santiago de Cuba). Although the hotel was modern, it didn’t seem to have much luck in delivering hot water to the rooms whilst we were there although the outdoor pool was warm and very welcome indeed. If I was to visit the area again I would find an alternative smaller hotel or Casa Particulaire.
A group evening meal at La Fondita de Compay Ramon, a small family run restaurant that serves delicious authentic creole food, was very good indeed. The following day we explored the city including the Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Fidel’s ashes are interned, Mancada Barracks (including bullet holes from the 1953 attack) and the Casa Granda Hotel which has a connection to the writer Graham Greene.
After a 2 day break it was time to get in the coach again and head back west to the town of Sancti Spiritus. We stayed in the stunning colonial, small and very friendly 16 room Hostel del Rijo, (a welcome change from our previous hotel), and explored the delightful small town, one of the oldest Cuban European settlements.
Unlike its near neighbour Trinidad, the town’s primary focus is not tourism and because of that has a very natural feel about it as the locals just get on with their daily lives.
Next morning we left Sancti Spiritus and headed north to enjoy some all inclusive R & R on the beach at Cayo Ensenachos. The beach is part of a minor archipelagos off the north coast of Cuba linked to the mainland via a 48 km causeway. On arrival it was all a little bit of a culture shock. A top end ‘beach resort’ complex that was filled with Canadian’s. Apparently the Cuban beach resorts are a winter destination for Canadian’s to escape their sub-zero temperatures at home – and who can blame them. For us it was a nice break but after 3 days I had had enough of walking past empty beach loungers ‘reserved’ with towels, and was glad to escape back to the sights and sounds of Havana via the Che Guevara Mausoleum at Santa Clara.
In many ways Che seems to be celebrated more than Fidel across Cuba, highlighted perfectly by Che’s mausoleum complex compared to Fidel’s comparatively modest grave. I find this quite surprising as Che seemed to me to be a mercenary who left Cuba behind – including his wife and child – once the revolution was won to fight in conflicts across Africa and South America.
From Havana we left on a day trip to explore Las Terrazas Community in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. Formed in 1971 the project is considered the first ‘Eco Museum’ of Cuba and holds a UNESCO Conservation Prize. It’s a fabulous area nestled in the surrounding forest and was one of the favourite areas we visited in Cuba.
The area includes farms including former coffee plantations, and is centred around a small town clustered around a lake that promotes arts and crafts and has a wondereful relaxed feel.
Would we go back?
We enjoyed our brief time in Cuba. Highlights for us were old Havana, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Las Terrazas. 60 years of communism and the American embargo has left Cuba in a timewrap which has undoubtedly stunted the country’s economic growth. The upside of the embargo is that Cuba is fabulously unique in the World as it is free and unspoilt by global brands such as Coca Cola, Starbucks, KFC and MacDonalds. Long may that continue!
The people are fabulous and the mix of American, European and African cultures has given Cuba a wonderful sight and sound vibrance that bursts music and colour around every corner. The rural areas especially are poor in monetary terms, compared to the majority of the USA and Europe, relying on horse and cart for transport, but rich in community spirit where you work together for the common good.
Our Explore Worldwide ‘Classic Cuba’ tour, although tiring at times, gave us a fabulous quick overview of the country. Our Cuban guide (Ernesto from Explore partner Havanatur) was knowledgeable, organised, and looked after us brilliantly. Would I go back? Yes absolutely. I would love to spend more time in Havana and also visit the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata which is rich in flaura and forna and supposed to be stunning.
So thank you Cuba for the memories and hopefully we will meet again one day.