Those who know the island urge “go before it is spoilt”. What is it about our fascination with failed states that have kept their people in poverty and fear? It is a sort of voyage voyeurism. What indeed will happen after the bullying Castro brothers depart? Possibly more of the same. Such power is self-perpetuating. For the same reasons Zimbabwe won’t see much of a change after Mugabe. But then Zimbabwe does not have Key West 70 kilometres away.
That said, the sheer joyous generosity of the Cubans, under their beautiful skies, will be difficult to change. They have had to be resilient and resourceful in spite of a dependency on remittance money. Beyond salsa and mojitos, the grandeur of their now shabby buildings and fine townscapes is evident. The surprise comes in the countryside. Here, mountain and plain might have been painted by Edward Lear. The elegance of the colonial towns is not just reflected in the town houses of the sugar barons but the buildings that demonstrate a respect for culture and human scale. Fine memorial sculpture is not reserved for the interesting cemeteries but it is the street furniture too. It is easy to get a sense of the sheer quality of their contemporary art and music making.
We booked late and therefore were not privy to a cheap option on Virgin but flew Air France via Paris; this was also the reason that our first four nights were in different towns. Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, before two days bone fishing with a fly rod in the sea at Cayo Coco before returning to the capital.
The drive to Santa Clara took over four hours, the taxi was late and the driver brought along his girlfriend. I don’t blame her. Transport between the towns is scarce. Occasional trains, the odd bus and sinister-looking covered lorries which act as privatised buses crammed to their canvas roofs with customers. The roads are otherwise empty. Yes, the famed, wonderful fifties cars and motorbikes with side cars abound, but for locals on an average of €23 a month, petrol even when subsidised from Venezuela, is impossible. The oil comes in to be refined in Cuba in exchange for their doctors, engineers and teachers.
Raul Castro has permitted some individuals to lease land. They call it privatized but the government still own it. Sugar cane, Brahmin cattle, goats, horses and mangos seem the main crops in central Cuba. Our Habana guide could not believe reports of the gleaming cattle. Meat is on ration as are sanitary towels.
Santa Clara had seen fierce fighting in 1958 between Batista’s forces and those of Che Guevara. The lady who let us into the Cultural Institute was 11 when it happened. – These civilized buildings seem a common feature in the towns based on sugar bonanza in the 1880s grand staircase and gilded neo baroque.
Dance classes for the new Carlos Acostas were happening in every corner of the building. The church was arising from ruin with a new vault and a service going on in a side chapel. Horse buses (max weight 500 kilos) a common feature.
The memorial to Che was just outside the town. Rather good. The exhibit was dreary, his Parker pen and doctor’s white coat, guns, etc. Our hotel was near. It comprised lodges, groupie with poor food. It had some lovely hens scratching around the gardens. Eggs are rationed too. However, the fashion show by the pool in the evening was sheer delight. Beautiful models showing the fine mix of races that makes up Cubans. The clothes too, made and designed in Santa Clara were irresistible. I met the designer, Nedel Aguilaro Alba The harmony seems complete among Spanish, Creole and Negro.
Cienfuegos was less poor and on the sea. Its squares and public spaces filled with beautifully carved busts of local benefactors, as was Santa Clara. The same refined white marble sculpture is in the Cementerio de Reina. Its church has a bramantesque dome, a stunning theatre, good art galleries and another Cultural centre for dance and music, good little museums in old town houses belonging to past plantation owners.
There must have been European agents to these families supplying Czech glass, their own Cuban mahogany furniture, French glass and heaps of English Spode. What an elegant and civilized life for sugar barons. What a grim life for the slaves who until the 1880s still worked the plantations. Everything is small scale including the naval base in pink gothick. All museum entrances seem to be 2 CUC (tourist peso).
The hotel had a lovely pool overlooking the sea and we ate in a paladar, Ache nearby. There were other places in town, including Bouyon 1825, which looked charming. The vast concrete hotel has been built in the grounds of the extraordinary Arabian Villa Valle with alabaster staircase.
It now has a roof bar and you can eat there. The great villas faced the sea and echoed those of 20th Habana.
Leaving Cienfuegos a reminder of the source of the wealth is seen in the Valle de los Ingenios. And the tower belonging to the Iznaga family for watching their slaves.
Near, are the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1919 by a local landowner. In the spirit of enquiry and agricultural improvement now run down but worth a visit.
There were no guidebooks. Call ahead to book a guide Cienfuegos 545115.
Trinidad was as stunning as expected and exotic. The church faces down into the little town, with enticing alleys leading off the main square.
The square is a formal garden surrounded by plantation town houses. Ceramic urns made in the still functioning pottery decorate the allees. It did not look so different from the 1830s painting in the Museo de Belles Artes in Habana. Rich and grand living, yet modest too. In the former town houses are museums of Romantism, Architecture and Contemporary Art. Interesting cross beams carved like an Arabian interior in geometric forms.
Our hotel like a pioneers camp in the 50s but its grimness was relieved by Mike the porter who took us in a taxi to one of the best restaurants in the town, where Darling sang to us (her father was a teacher of geography and fascinated by the Australian River). The owner, a sommelier, the symbol of his trade tattooed onto his arm, brought us home via Mike’s house so we could confirm the meal’s quality. His family were playing dominoes in the street. The embroidery here is wonderful, both drawn work in linen and cotton is being handmade everywhere by the women.
Three hours on via delightful Sancti Spiritus. This is worth a stop for a visit to the church and the colonial museum and lunch. They are restoring the gardens in the main square and we ate behind the now familiar grilled windows without glass. We drove north and over the remarkable causeway started in 1988 to the fan of islands off the coast. The Caribbean is barely tidal, here we were to bone fish. New fly rod and flies, sun proof clothes and the wrong foot wear. I had longed to do this for years imagining myself the Bond Girl in bikini. Nothing could have been further in reality. It was difficult for the untrained eye to see the fish coming. One poor cast and they were off. Barracudas and Cowfish were also around as we waded up to the thigh in the warm water for five hours eating our picnic on the hoof. Sitting was not an option. Bond Girl’s casting was not up to scratch so I went bird watching the next day across the Hemingway Bridge onto the next island. It is worth it and there is a professional guide to book ahead, Paulino Lopez.
As for our fishing guides, they were vital, one Julio Cesar is the head waiter in the hotel’s Oriental restaurant, quite the best of 4 there in the Spanish-run hotel. One of our drivers said that the Cayos are not really Cuba. But it is really, everyone is out to help you. Castro has been clever with the islands. There is another huge complex going up. It is really Cuba’s Sharm El Sheikh. Buildings are height restricted and not allowed on the shoreline. Even utility wires are underground. There are the remains of one old aerodrome. I fondly imagined Hemingway arriving.
In our hotel we were given hospital type wristbands for ‘free’ drinks and meals. The hotel was huge and full of Canadian youth – for once they were not Brits behaving badly. The throbbing music started at 10 a.m. We moved rooms to the quiet area with lovely sea views. Everywhere in Cuba is clean and here the beaches were spotless – fine white sand and safe sea.
We flew back to the buzz of Habana via a domestic flight to a tiny aerodrome to the west of the city and we drove into the old town via Miramar, past the socialist Realism of the Soviet Embassy through the elegance of Vedado and the great Malecon promenade skirting the sea to the Nacional Hotel, the haunt of Hemingway. It is worth taking a taxi to his house although you can only look through the windows. But drink fresh cane and pineapple juice while you are there and think about the visits of Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth. We stayed at the Sevilla next to the Museo Belles Artes and the relic of Castro’s landing craft, Granma (this was guarded). There are bookshops and stalls galore. A bibliophile’s paradise.
Habana is glamour and slum, shoulder to shoulder, along with noise, music and hustlers. If you want to have peace, go to the cemetery ‘to look not to stay’ as the man at the desk said. Or to the green park on the edge of China Town – all the Chinese left in 1960 when Castro nationalised their businesses. The old town is late Baroque with fortress architecture to repel the pirates; Vedado has the same fine villa architecture as Cienfuegos. The middle years of the 20th century added the brutalism of the Russian Embassy, lots of quickie concrete flats and the Revolution Square column started under Batista and finished by Castro. Down the middle of this huge space is a double yellow line over which only tourists may go. One émigré drove his car there and set it on fire so that Castro would not get his hands on it.
I recommend all forms of transport here although just gently ambling or drinking and watching the world go by. As the guidebooks tell you of two-tier cash the CUC and the CUP (local peso). The local currency is 24 CUP to 1 CUC and you can spend it in the markets. Cuba is a must and the Cubans won’t change. Their living standards can only improve and their fine buildings will be restored – visitors can only salute that.
Habana – Hotel Sevilla Calle Trocadero in the Old Town
Very good Mojitos the huge roof garden restaurant is worth a visit but it is empty. Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is set there. No one seems to have read Greene here, they obsess about Hemingway.
We ate in Casa de la Moneda Cubana near the Cathedral so lovely walk back to the hotel. Also at 21.00 the curfew gun goes off near the restaurant which is colourful.
Our best meal was El Balcon de Obispo in Obispo 415 and Aguacate.
Best cocktail was in the El Floridita Calle Obispo blessed by the former regular Ernest Hemingway. The Hotel Nacional is well worth a visit too.
Sta Clara – Los Caneyes out of town but taxis are easy, Taino style thatched cabins.Better to eat out of the hotel. Lots of large groups.
Cienfuegos – Hotel Jagua in the gardens of the Villa Valle. Lovely pool. East out.
Trinidad – Hotel Las Cuevas – with a bit of imagination this could be much more attractive. Eat out in Vista Gourmet. Good music and food and wine. Much better to find a small private pension in town to stay. There were many.
Cayo Coco – Hotel Tryp Cayo Coco Ask for a quiet room and a sea view.
Havana Town Guide – Julio César Acosta Valle
Fishing Guides – Julio Cesar and Jordan Rodrigues through the hotel.
Cuban Fly Fishers – Michael Mirecki E. firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Guide – Paulino Lopez email: email@example.com
Bird Book – Aves de Cuba por Orlando H Carrido and Arturo Kirkconnell. This must be found in English but more fun to find in one of the many good book shops in Habana.
Bookings made through Havanatour – the government-run tourist agency