13 Dec 2017
A loosening of the screws since Raul Castro took office is inciting the dawn of a new era in a country where the crumbling legacy of the heady pre-Revolution days still remains. Think psychedelic Che Guevara murals and antediluvian American Buicks, Hemingway’s old haunts, museums to the exploits of the revolutionaries, the Tropicana Night Club, which still somehow echoes to the sound of Nat King Cole, the hotels run by ‘Long Legs Diamond’ and other Yankee king pins, the events of the Bay of Pigs and an altogether distinct and refreshing lack of billboard hoardings.
Cuba is bursting at the seams with ‘ooh-ahh’ sights. UNESCO-Listed Havana with its baroque cathedral, many forts and Old Town, the Port city of Cienfuegos, UNESCO-Listed Trinidad with its preserved squares, Viñales Valley - home to unique flora and fauna and where the world’s finest tobacco is grown. Grab a tan at Varadero - Cuba’s fashionable Caribbean resort and try and get hold of a 3 Peso note depicting the revolutionary Che. Treat yourselves to a smorgasbord of sights, a relaxed pace and toasty warm, Caribbean weather.
Harking back to the Conquistadorial era, Havana’s streets (a cross between Paris and Buenos Aires) are lined with crumbling baroque edifices clad with ostentatious ornamentation in varying states of disrepair. Jostling for space are architectural visions in the Mid-Century Modern vein that wouldn’t seem out of place in Palm Springs. Think avant-garde swim pools and the type of décor you might see in a Gidget movie. Oh, and streets filled with Chevy Bel Aires and other pre-1959 marques. All a beautiful big time warp.
The Viñales Valley in the Pinar del Rio province is encircled by mountains and its landscape pocked with dramatic rocky outcrops known as mogotes. Traditional techniques are still in use for agricultural production, notably tobacco. Cigar chewing farmers can be spotted driving their oxen through fields of tobacco. To learn about the tobacco process, just outside Viñales on the road to Los Jazmines are tobacco plantations aplenty. Fully operating secaderos (drying houses) in which tobacco leaves are cured from February to March are on show to visitors. Loose cigars are available at lowered prices, and boxed quantities of fine brands such as Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba can be purchased at many hotels at prices greatly lower than in the West.
Cuba’s UNESCO-listed so-called Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South) has long seduced travellers with its elegance, French spirit and colourful Caribbean panache. Cienfuegos is just a bit Parisian. Draped across a natural bay, Cienfuegos sits enviably on its shores. Founded in 1819, Cienfuegos is split into two distinct parts – a colonnaded central zone with its elegant Prado and Parque Marti; and Punta Gorda, a slender slice of land lined with a bevy of eclectic early 20th century piles. At the far end is a Palacio de Valle, an outrageously ornate turreted and stuccoed structure, destined at the hands of Dictator Fulgencio Batista to have become an exclusive casino, but as the hammer of the Cuban Revolution fell, the card tables were never touched by the deft hands of croupiers.
Situated in the province of Sancti Spiritus below the Escambray Mountains and not far from Playa Ancon, Trinidad is a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town built on the sweetness of huge sugar fortunes amassed in the neighbouring Valle de los Ingenios during the 19th century. Some 70 historic sugar cane mills remain in situ. Together, they have been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. The Plaza Mayor of Trinidad is a plaza and stunning open-air museum of Spanish Colonial architecture, replete with mansions with wooden louvred windows and wrought iron grilles that line cobbled streets populated with bread sellers, cyclists and edifices such as Santisima Trinidad Cathedral and Convento de San Francisco.
Right in the geographic heart of Cuba, Santa Clara also sits at the heart of the Cuban Revolution. It was here that Argentine guerrilla Ernest ‘Che’ Guevara and Castro’s troops liberated Santa Clara in the last revolutionary battle in December 1958, marking the end of the dictatorial regime, with Fulgencio Batista fleeing Cuba less than 12 hours later. In reverence to Guevara, Santa Clara – a university city of burgeoning trends and insatiable creativity is home to a simple mausoleum and contained museum which houses the remains of Che Guevara and sixteen of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during the Bolivia campaign. There is also a reconstruction of Guevara derailing the train during the Battle of Santa Clara.
Santiago de Cuba
Cultural capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is actually situated closer to Haiti than Havana, but it was here that Fidel Castro used the city to launch his embryonic nationalist Revolution. Don Facundo Bacardi threw open his first-ever rum factory here, and almost every Cuban music genre from salsa to son first emanated from somewhere in Santiago’s soulful streets. Wedged between the Sierra Maestra Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Santiago de Cuba’s casco historico (historic centre) beckons visitors.
Cuba is on the cusp of change. When the inevitable rapprochement with the USA occurs and the doors open to the ‘blond-haired-blue-eyed-would-you-care-for-fries-on-the-side’ ideal, it is feared the streetscape and beyond will inexorably change forever. Go before the stars, the stripes and the greenback arrives.
See Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s mausoleum at Santa Clara.
Do buy yourself some Cuban street art. Just around the corner from the Parque Centrale in Vieux Habana is a lively street art market.
Stay a while at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. Purported birthplace of the Mojito cocktail, writer Ernest Hemingway sank rather a few drinks here.
Eat moros y cristianos – a typically Cuban dish of black beans and white rice steeped in a rich stock.
Drink anything containing rum! A chilled mojito springs to mind.