Cuba! Get there before everyone else does

The Americans are finally invading Cuba.

More than 50 years after the ill-fated CIA backed attempt to take the island in the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Imperialist Yankees are back on the sun-kissed Caribbean island toting iphones, plimsolls, sunscreen and clutching handfuls of dollars instead of guns.

When Barak Obama finally set foot in Cuba recently, the first sitting US president to do so in 88 years, the last vestiges of Communism that had made visits to the island difficult for our North American cousins symbolically vanished.

And when the Rolling Stones, who had been banned from playing there, ignored the Pope and rocked on up to play a free gig to half a million ecstatic Cubanos in Havana, the previously isolated island  nation finally joined the global party.

cuba travel
Driving in style in downtown Havana

Because President Obama’s visit, which followed the re-establishment of diplomatic missions last year, has become the highpoint in an easing of tensions between the former Cold War foes that will soon see a massive influx of American tourists arriving in his wake.

While a travel embargo still technically remains in place the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba has resulted in recent rule changes that have made it much easier for Americans to legally visit the island.

Obama’s high profile visit will inevitably further fuel the flame of interest in travelling to the island, with search traffic for flights up 500 per cent from last year as more online travel agencies begin to list flights.

Several US airlines have already applied to fly additional routes and it seems to be only a matter of time before regular air travel commences and when it does the country  will change beyond all recognition.

And that is why it is time to get there before everyone else does.

Cuba Stock Hols  Cuba Stock Hols Havana
The old ‘Yank Tanks’ are a feature on Havana’s streets

For while the new thawing of relations  with its US neighbour can only be a good thing for the average  Cuban citizen, with increased tourist dollars and investment, for visitors looking for a different holiday experience, the old crumbling but beautiful Cuba will surely soon vanish behind a modern, bright exterior.

Until recently visits to the grand old colonial city of Havana and Cuba’s historic towns was a unique opportunity to see a country almost stuck in time from the moment when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro finally ousted the American puppet Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Because as soon as the US trade embargoes and travel restrictions kicked  in following Batista’s overthrow, the Cubans aligned themselves more strongly with the Communist world  and by the time of the missile crisis in 1962  the country had become a pariah state, at least as far as America was concerned.

But for most other passport holders searching for a different  travel experience , there remained a unique discovery waiting  over the horizon when international tourism took off in the 1990s.
Everyone has seen the  iconic pictures of old American  Cadillacs parked outside the Capitol Building in Havana that are just  there for the show but in reality many Cubans still use the battered old ‘Yank Tanks’ that were left to rust at the side of the road to get around in.

cuba travel
Che in Revolution Square

Hailing an ancient American 1954 Buick to get us  into the centre of Havana from our hotel in Vedado  one day we were ushered  in beside an entire Cuban  family, from grandmother to babies, and with the odd chicken in someone’s lap.

When the massive car broke down at the side  of the road there was a flurry  of activity as bystanders rushed to the driver’s assistance and with a  belch of  black smoke  we were soon off again.

Motoring  along  the famous Malecón into downtown Havana that summer’s morning  we passed the crumbling facades of glorious Spanish colonial houses, 1950s-stlye American hotels and Soviet-era apartments.

We parked in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the historic colonial heart of the city and just wandered around  to the exotic sounds of its vibrant and exciting  streets.

Old  men played chess under the shade of the trees in the parks while the younger lads played baseball on the streets and hung out on the sea wall of the Malecón where they tried to impress the passing   ladies with their sea diving skills.

As the heat rose we retired to one of the corner bars where  rattling fans whirred above our heads as we supped on dark sweet Cuban coffee.

Neil Fetherston in Cuba for Hols
The man is everywhere in Cuba!

When the sun set over the old harbour  lively Salsa music  blared  from the inside of houses  and bars in the sultry streets.

Glimpsed  in through the  windows of homes nestled in the warren of streets whole generations of families  gathered  in front of a TV  blaring some US soap drama while musicians  entertained the crowds  in the city’s parks and squares.

As night falls over  Havana , the well-heeled tourists make their way to the upmarket hotels such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (National Hotel), the Havana Libre (former Hilton), and Hotel Riviera in Vedado while the backpackers  and other tourists joined in the  raucous celebrations in bars around the old town.

One of the most   famous of course  is the Floridita, a former haunt  of Ernest Hemmingway’s who held court here  in years gone by. It’s a bit touristy  but still fun to just hang  at the corner of the bar where a small plaque signed in his hand quotes: “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita”.

History is everything  in Cuba and the people we met were proud of their troubled past. While some cheeky young Cubans  stroked their chins  in the manner of an old man scratching  his beard  to  imitate Fidel,  the old boys of  Havana relished the glory  days of  1959 when they finally ousted the  hated  Batista  from  power.

Neil Fetherston in Cuba for Hols
Revolution Square

 

This historic occasion is commemorated in Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) where  you can pose in front of a massive steel memorial of Che, the man who would become the  poster boy for revolution, and whose image has adorned students’ bedsits and tee-shirts  for generations.

Near the Museum of the Revolution, in a large glass enclosure, is the Granma, the  famous  yacht which took Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico while inside the palatial museum itself  the walls are still pecked  with bullet holes where an attempt was made on Batista’s life.

But Cubans have been celebrating a new revolution since 2008 when restrictions on the economy eased, and now thousands of ordinary people have abandoned their state jobs and started private businesses.

Eating in Havana had always been a bit of challenge  as you had a choice  of one of the state-run restaurants  better described as a shabby cantina where service was at best resentful  or a roadside shack offering peso snacks. The best bet was always in one of the casas particulares, one of the  private homes where you ate with the family, but now locally operated and well run eateries are opening  on every street corner.

Neil Fetherston in Cuba for Hols
Love these old cars!

There were also no mobiles phones until a few years ago and although this restriction was later lifted Cuba’s population remains largely cut off from unfettered access to the Internet. The only advertising  you ever saw in  Havana  or in the countryside  were huge billboards depicting images of the Cuban leaders alongside Che’s revolutionary slogan  ’Hasta la Victoria Siempre’ (Forever Onwards Towards Victory).

But it feels now that it won’t be too long before some of the biggest corporations will soon have their own billboards enticing  the masses to join their ranks.

A three-hour drive outside Havana is the  famous resort town of Veradero. Boasting more than 20km of soft, white sandy beaches it was popular as early as the 1870s, when for years it was considered an elite bolt hole for the rich  and famous.

Its star slipped after the Cuban Revolution as many mansions were expropriated from their rich owners. But  international tourism in the 1990s attracted foreign investment and now  many of the hotels are operated or co-owned by overseas businesses  in the 4-star and 5-star segment.

Increasingly popular  as a honeymoons destination, Varadero now receives more than one million tourists every year and while European and Canadian accents dominate on the beaches and in the bars, the number of American  tourists visiting Varadero is steadily increasing as their government’s restrictions that made it difficult for US citizens to visit Cuba fade.

cuba
Maybe some aspects of Cuban life won’t change!

Most visitors to Cuba happily indulge in  a Havana/Varadero package deal that gives them the best of  both worlds. You can comfortably fit in both over the course of a 10-night holiday but for those seeking a little bit more of the ‘real’ Cuba outside the tourist hot spots there is a friendly and engaging country to discover.

Renting a car is relatively  straight  forward  in Havana but it can be eye- watering expensive  too with petrol  considered a   real commodity. So filling up the  tank will set you back but there is no  better or easier way to see  the country.

Some of the finest colonial towns in the Americas are to be found inland with the crown jewels  being Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba and for  history  buffs, Playa Girón,  better known to history as the Bay of Pigs.

A quiet, little back water town now, Giron is a pleasant  place to while away  a couple  of days where snorkelling  and scuba divining is the local mainstay  of the economy . Of course the location’s  role in the fight against imperialism is well documented  and the roads along which  the revolutionaries  marched to  combat  the landings are lined with the graves of those who died in battle.

A fascinating museum tells the story and contains artefacts from the fighting such as  planes and tanks.

cuba travel
Hemmingway

Take a walk along the rutted cobblestones of Trinidad, a  UNESCO heritage designated town, after a sudden shower  lifts the humidity from the air and admire the pastel coloured houses, the colonial churches and ornate parks.

Afro-Caribbean beats fill the streets of Santiago de Cuba, where its Haitian influence adds to the city’s eclectic Spanish and African  cultural mix. From here you can take a trip over to Cayo Granma, a tiny island with wooden houses perched on stilts in the water.

In the opposite direction, leaving Havana will take the adventurer  up into the epic Vinales  region  with its towering cliffs and deep caves while further  along the route lies the Maria La Gordo.

Here the turquoise waters and fine sand rivals anything  that Vaerdero has to offer  except  on a much smaller scale. Lying  listlessly on a hammock at one of the very last outposts  on the  Cuban shore it feels like it could be at the end of the world.

And perhaps it was a fitting place  to reflect  that for Cuba, for good or for bad, it really  is the end of a world.

 

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