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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.