Cuba

Sunday 24 January

We arrive in Havana 11/2 hrs late, take ages to collect people & luggage, then eventually set out in the big coach (there are 23 of us) for Vinales. We arrive at Hotel la Ermita around 11pm, dog tired as it is 5am our time, have a bite to eat in the small restaurant & then bed.

Monday 25

Wake up to grey & lowering sky & a fabulous view from our splendid vantage point on the summit of a hill. The hotel is very attractive old colonial style built in 2 storey blocks around the pool, each with its own veranda, but the rooms are slightly shabby & in need of redecoration. A huge tree frog leaps out from behind the loo when I switch the light on, & then proceeds to turn the evil eye on me from its vantage point under the eaves.

After breakfast, which I eat out on the restaurant terrace, I get a man to poke the frog with a sharp stick – but I know it will do no good & he/she will return. We eventually set out for our walk around 10, accompanied by Julia, Liber, our delightful Cuban guide who will accompany us for the whole trip, & Floyd, the guide provided by Vinales National Park. Floyd is divine, with a wicked sense of humour, a wonderful wide smile & an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora, fauna & geology of his beautiful park.

The scenery is green & lush with strange blunt cone shaped limestone ‘ mogotes’, rising from the flat valley floor, & formed 160 million years ago in the Jurassic period. We walk through fertile agricultural land where tobacco, sweet potatoes (gorgeous purple shoots of glossy new leaves), sugarcane, tomatoes, pineapples & oranges grow, all in small plots or fields.

There are many small wooden houses where families live & tend their crops & animals – a flock of chickens, ducks & geese, a pig or 2, a goat, a pair of oxen (perhaps shared by several farmers), & horses. The houses are painted in shades of aquamarine, blue, yellow & pink, & all have a beautiful pair of wooden rocking chairs on the veranda. When we see into the interiors we see how poor & bare their rooms are – little furniture or possessions, all single storey, no running water or power.

Everywhere is clean & neat & no litter desecrates the scenery – it is the same all over Cuba, whether town or country, & so different from India, Morocco, Syria, & UK.

After a while the heavens open & we are drenched, so a stop at the home of a smallholder is hugely welcome. We tramp the rich mud of the fields which is sticking to our boots & trousers onto his covered patio where we arrange ourselves around a long table & are brought huge platters of cut fruit – pineapple, grapefruit, melon & sweet oranges – upon which to gorge ourselves. Il padrone then gets out a stack of dried tobacco leaves & demonstrates how to make a true Cuban cigar. He rolls the leaves, then selects a different type in which to wrap it, then glues it together with a mixture of honey, lemon juice & rum. It is then lit & passed around like a joint for a toke if desired– it is very mild & pleasant. After some cigar purchases, we stroll on thru rain less torrential & meet a man with a basket of guavas which we buy & eat – very delicious.

Next to a makeshift shelter in the middle of a field nowhere near habitation, where 2 men await our pleasure & make cocktails of rum, honey & coconut water (served in the coconut shell & drunk with a straw) or in a grapefruit in the same manner.

Walk on in brightening weather through the greenery & fields of crops, past the odd amazing vintage US car (for which the peasant farmers can no longer afford the petrol), wonderful motorcycle & sidecar (for which they just about can), many ponies & traps, usually 2 wheeled, & the odd horse rider.

Everyone we meet is very friendly & welcoming. We arrive in Vinales around 2 & go to a café for a snack lunch where service is muddled & slow & not entirely successful.

But a band comes to play salsa & we are happy. Vinales is very much a 1 horse town, its main street flanked by 1 or 2 storey buildings, all terraced & porticoed, supported by faux Greek columns holding up the terracotta tiled roofs. All very charming.

After lunch we go to Jardin Botanico de Caridad – now owned by 2 elderly sisters, but planted over 100 years ago by their father. It is packed full of all kinds of trees, fruits, shrubs & flowers, many with medicinal properties. We are shown around by a guide, & I spot the first of many emerald humming birds I shall see this holiday. It is a magical place.

Back at the hotel the wind gets up, batters the windows & shutters, whistles & gurns. What’s more it is cold. After supper we steel ourselves (a very tiny few of us) to watch a traditional folk dance performed by 2 guys & a drum by the pool. It is bitter, & the fire eating seems appropriate.

Tuesday 26

Today dawns clear & bright, but still cold & windy. My frog still watches from under the eaves, never moving, never blinking, & I now realise her baby lives under the rim of the loo, which rather upsets my personal toilet. I cannot frighten it out by flushing, banging the lid, or even pooing! What to do? Whenever I get a man in it completely disappears, only to pop out again as soon as man is gone. Must live with it, as indeed I did in Goa – a story for the annals.

We set off at 9 this morning & already it is warming up to be a beautiful day. The landscape is similar to yesterday, & we are accompanied by the ubiquitous big black turkey vultures with their bright red crops & beaks, which are to be seen everywhere on the island. First stop is an information centre & mirador with wonderful panoramic views across the Vinales valley. Next is an espresso stop, a delicious surprise, as the coffee in the hotel is execrable.

Then on passed Mogote Dos Hermanas, rising from the flat valley floor, until we arrive at the Mural de la Prehistoria, commissioned by Fidel in the early 1960s, & painted by local farmers. It crudely depicts evolution from molluscs to man, is impressive only for its size, & desecrates a large wall of the mogote – no one knows why it was painted, but probably just as a tourist attraction. Job done then. Here we drink incredibly rich & calorific pina coladas, with or without rum, then pile onto the bus to be taken to lunch.

This is a large & very efficient operation, only for tourists, where we are quickly fed large amounts of decent food accompanied by a live band Next stop is the caves – we climb steep steps through tropical vegetation to enter a warm & humid passage into the rock face. The rock formations are stunning – very textured & fluid, forming meringue like peaks; it is all rather Gaudi-esque, a fantastic gothic cathedral to & by nature.

We walk downwards into the rock until we reach a subterranean river where we all pile into boats to be taken to see more weird & wonderful formations & identify crocodile, shark, male profile etc. After a little retail therapy (Cuban crafts) it’s back to Vinales where we visit the very dilapidated & fairly unattractive church, then Jane, Kate & I are shown round Casa de la Cultura, dating from 1832 & showing its age rather, but lovely & interesting & being used for extra curricular music/arts activities for the children of the town. The only shop has frighteningly little in it to buy.

We walk back to the hotel in time for a salsa lesson by the pool, conducted by the 2 guys from last night. This turns out to be hilarious with levels of concentration high & expertise low (pupils all women). I somehow manage to end up as demonstration model with both the young Cuban instructors (I think because of my diminutive size; one of the boys is very diminutive in stature too) – performance not brilliant but didn’t disgrace self too badly, which a relief. Another very cold & windy night.

Friday 29

Wake to the sound of wind buffeting the hotel in massive gusts, as if a huge steam engine is working itself up to full power, overlaid by the crash of the waves breaking on the rocks below. It is grey & leaden skied again, but thankfully sunrise is much earlier here- 6.30 as opposed to 7.30 in Vinales.

We set off at 9 in open army trucks with wooden benches running lengthwise. We pick up a local guide, Pinot, who speaks no English, so Liber translates. After a short drive past the chocolate factories (1 established by Che & 1 by Fidel – equality of kudos) we disembark at the edge of a lush tropical forest with ‘blade’ (ref to odd shape) mountains in near distance.

It is still muggy & leaden skied, & we start slowly, stopping first to inspect a government ‘racion’ shop (all staples such as rice, flour & beans supplied only on production of ration card which everyone has), & then to watch primary school kids, in their pristine uniforms, playing baseball outside their neat little school in the woods. We walk on through lush green vegetation with rich red mud underfoot. We climb narrow paths, clinging on to knobbly roots where possible, slipping & sliding & falling into quagmires continuously.

We stop often for Pinot to point out plants, trees & birds. We see coffee, cocoa, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts & other exotic things in profusion. Pinot shows us how cocoa beans are fermented, dried & then sent to the factory for processing. The beans, inside the big purple husk, look like garlic cloves covered in a silky white slime which is sweet to the taste, whilst the bean itself has the flavour of an unroasted peanut. Nothing like chocolate. How did our forebears discover what to do?

After a fairly arduous climb in a heavy shower we stop to shelter under a covered area next to an abandoned school, where we eat the most delicious sweet tangerines which Liber & Pinot pick for us. From time to time we pass typical Cuban houses, neat & clean, with their few colourful chickens & a pig or 2. Further up into the forest we make another stop at a smallholder’s home for more refreshments. All 25 of us pile into their small enclosure, seats are produced, quantities of sweet juicy oranges are cut (we feel deprived if we don’t get our 21 portions a day.

Gordon’s government would be proud of us), & then joy of joys La senora makes the most delicious strong sweet coffee & serves us all in relays of demitasses & tiny glasses.

The pony, who must be their only means of transport as the house is only accessible by the narrow, steep & slippery path, watches us inscrutably throughout. The smallholder’s band together into small communes of 4 or 5 families in order to better cultivate this difficult but wonderfully prolific land.

We walk for 8 kilometres through the sticky mud & switchback terrain, mostly avoiding the rain to everyone’s relief, until we reach the trucks which have come to take us to a late lunch. It is 3pm & we are starving, so very pleased to arrive at El Rancho – a large circular area covered by a beautifully constructed thatched palm roof, & situated in a wide river valley. We are expected, & a huge hollowed out piece of bamboo holds a lovely homemade veggie soup for us. It is ladled into smaller lengths of bamboo which do service for bowls – very eco aware. This is followed by plantain chips, fresh fruit & coffee. A band is playing the while, & a little salsa performed. Back to hotel for a well deserved rest.

Tuesday 2nd

We have an hour or so walking round town after breakfast – it is vibrant & somewhat en fete as it is hosting an international symposium on something, what? at present, so bands are playing(naturally) & street seating is being constructed. The historic centre is a mass of twisty streets, built thus to confound invaders, & a lovely mix of old colonial, art nouveau & deco in a palette of pastel shades with a definite Spanish/Moorish influence. We visit 3 large churches, all lovely except for the truly appalling statuary.

They are painted in subtle tones with frescoed arches, art nouveau motifs, dark wood vaulted ceilings with geometrically carved horizontal beams & beautiful stained glass windows in muted colours.

Back on the coach we traverse more of the cattle land, see cowboys with lassoes coiled on their saddles, & lots of traps, carts, surries & even landaus. By the time we reach Sancti Spiritus (a quite protracted journey) the landscape is greener & more agricultural again. We have a delightful lunch in a state run restaurant where food pretty good, service excellent, ditto the band whose female vocalist is particularly memorable.

A postprandial stroll ends with a visit to an old fashioned apothecary, fitted in dark wood with ranks of pretty blue & white china jars, & selling only natural remedies.

It is now only a short drive to Trinidad, & on the approach we stop at an old sugar plantation to climb a rather tall tower up many flights of rickety open wooden steps to a magnificent 360* view at top. It was built as a folly to impress the neighbours, but was used by the overseer to watch the slaves.

We now go straight to our hotel which is situated on a hill overlooking the town & out to sea. It is big, sprawling & touristy, & we are housed in 1 storey terraced rooms – mine is close to the pool & noisy. The bar terrace has fantastic views of the sun setting over the sea; the food is poor but in copious quantities except for fruit which unusually is in scant supply; the after dinner entertainment is crass, vulgar & insulting. Quite right, not my sort of place.

Wednesday 3

We set off in big ex army trucks after breakfast with a new local guide who says ‘just call me Rambo’ – so we do. He is lovely with a wicked sense of humour & as excellent a guide as his predecessors – brilliant at bird calls & constantly spotting interesting flora & fauna to show us. The trucks are real bone shakers, even on the urban road through the outskirts of Trinidad (very poor & all distressed picturesqueness) & into Sierra del Escambray, the 2nd highest range of mountains in Cuba. We have fabulous views of green cloaked mountains & sea behind us as we ascend, & some horticulture as well as poor grazing for cattle & ponies, until we reach our destination of Topes de Collantes.

We start at the information centre & walk to a coffee farm where we drink the Most Delicious Coffee Ever, before embarking on the walk proper, up & down through lush tropical vegetation – Royal Palm, white Mariposa (national tree & flower of Cuba), lots of ginger lilies in many colours, many birds, including the emerald humming bird (nat. bird of Cuba), & so many other trees, flowers, bromeliads, birds & pods, no earthly chance of remembering them.

We come to delicious cool green rock pools where we have to shed our boots & cling to a cable fixed to the rock face whilst judiciously edging our feet along the slippery stone ledge, in order to gain the top pool in an open cave with lovely hanging rock formations. The water is freezing, but Jane, Nick & Kate bravely take the plunge & swim in their undies with nowt but a hanky to dry on. We carry on walking up steep inclines & down again until we reach El Rancho for lunch, which is Shangri-la.

It is idyllic, surrounded by steep slopes & drops covered in abundant flowers, fruits & tangled climbers; a magical spot. After bocadillos queso y jamon etc & fruit, we continue walking until we reach a very dark cave/passage way through the rock which we creep through with the light of some very dim torches, avoiding many sharp rocky obstacles attacking us from all angles, & seeing a 30 legged long bodied beastie, the cave dweller, akin to a centipede, but not.

Rambo continues to show us all the flowers, roots & seeds which are used in herbal cures & medicines, & takes great delight in splitting a henna type pod, & painting our faces with vibrant orange designs (fortunately water soluble). Headley looks particularly fetching with orange lips & cheeks & as if just emerged from La Cage aux Folles.

The trucks have come to meet us, but the journey even more uncomfortable than before as we must travel some kilometres over potholed, unmetalled, steep & winding track before we even gain our initial departure point. As a result by the time we return to the hotel I am feeling drained, exhausted & a bit sick. This is entirely inconvenient as I had arranged to go to a Palador (family run ‘restaurant’) for a lobster & seafood feast with a select few others tonight. But am just not fit for purpose & know that all I want is bed & solitude. I hate being a wimp.

Thursday 4

In the bus back to the Sierra del Escambray & a different part of the national park from yesterday – really pleased to find we have Rambo again to guide us as he thought he might be whipped off to lead some Germans. I am regaled by Nick & Jane with tales of the incredible meal enjoyed last night – lobster & prawns & a groaning board provided by wonderfully hospitable hosts who also supplied live music, dancing etc in their charming historic house. Sick as a dog that I missed it.

We follow a clear stream as it rushes over rocks overhung by trees & more tropical vegetation. It is all very scenic, but not special like yesterday as much more populous – we meet other parties of tourists, (we are travellers, they are tourists), mostly German, & I wonder why it is we’re not supposed to be beastly to the Hun – why ever not? We walk to some lovely pools & a waterfall, which are a bit busy.

Most swim to a cave behind the falls where they see bats & stalactites. I stand high above the water & watch an emerald hummingbird perform just for me, moving ever closer & vibrating its wings at 1000 beats per second (I count, honest) – truly wondrous.

We walk back to a charming farm house, clearly doing well from tourist trade, with its flock of chickens, herb garden, & scrupulously clean but primitive kitchen, where we are given delicious reviving herbal tea in small pottery cups. We return to our starting point for lunch in a big touristy ranch catering for numbers, then back to town where Liber gives us a quick tour of places of interest (truly all places are of interest). Trinidad is so picturesque; all subtle colours, peeling stucco, painted wood & beautiful carved wooden grills over the floor length glassless windows.

Museo Romantico is a treat – the house dates from 1808 & was built for the Brunet family who were mega rich sugar barons. It is a really elegant example of 19th century Cuban architecture perfectly preserved – all the rooms, which are built around a courtyard, have hand painted dados & panels beneath – different designs, usually floral, for each room. The furniture is exquisite & includes a unique china cabinet made of blue Meissen (I don’t actually like this – a bit vulgar), an Austrian inlaid bureau, Bohemian glass chandeliers, French clocks etc.

As we leave the museum we meet the senora from last night’s palador – their house is just next door, so last night’s guests are greeted as long lost family, I am included, & we are welcomed in for coffee which we drink in the courtyard at the centre (both metaphorical & literal) of the house.

It is a lovely old building, the 1st floor sadly having been badly damaged by the terrible hurricane 18 months ago. There is still much damage evident on this part of the island from this event. We wander the streets & lace bedecked market stalls a while, then back to the hotel for a swim.

After supper we wander down into Trinidad to take the air & see what is to be seen – there is music on the main steps; a lovely & sexy female vocalist is holding the crowd, but no dancing as yet. We are all a bit weary so head back up the cobbled streets, peering into the beautiful interiors as we go, & so to bed.

Saturday 6

After breakfast on the roof terrace Julia (now recovered) takes us on a tour of the old city so that we can orient ourselves. Havana is breathtakingly gorgeous with old colonial/Spanish/Moorish/deco & nouveau influences all mixed up together in a really elegant way.

Every doorway & window invites you to peer in & be amazed. So many Moorish courtyards lined with balconies & hanging plants – I had not really thought of the Moorish influence, but of course the Spanish would have brought it with them. We take coffee in a much more westernised café than anything encountered heretofore, in a charming plaza where all the buildings have been recently renovated using Unesco & government grants.

It seems that at present much Unesco money is being poured into Cuba to try & conserve its wonderful heritage. Do hope it’s not too little too late.

We view the Capitol, a mini replica of the White House & built of course by the beastly Americans but still the seat of government. Adjacent is the theatre, extremely ornate & baroque, where Tosca is playing (a rather disappointingly amateur production we later discover). Then we move on to Batista’s palace (recently renovated & now a museum to The Revolution) which we do not explore, via a broad leafy avenue where artists are selling their work – Jane & I purchase some lovely painted cockerels. We walk to the Malecon (the prom.) & look at the choppy Caribbean & defensive forts on opposing sides of the estuary. By this time Jane, Nick, Kate & I have split off from the rest, & eat lunch in an ethnic shack by the water’s edge – delicious fried prawns & No Tourists.

The afternoon is spent wandering the streets a bit more, & a tour of the wonderful Museo de la Ciudad, which is located on a street whose surface is constructed of wooden blocks, possibly unique? which is one side of Plaza de Armas, a green leafy square where Havana established itself as a city in the mid 16th century.

The Museo is built of dressed stone, & constructed round a courtyard containing a fountain, statuary & tropical vegetation. The first floor rooms are filled (again) with the most sumptuous & expensive artefacts money could buy. The female attendants are keen to inveigle Kate, Jane & I to roped off areas or rooms behind closed doors, so they can make lots of pesos out of us rich travellers. Quite right too.
Back on the streets we see carnival performers on tall stilts making lots of noise & fun in vivid coloured costumes. How they can dance & high kick on club footed stilts is something I will never fathom.

Supper on the roof again, then off to find the nightlife. We split into smaller parties as we are too unwieldy as one, & soon find a lovely bar/café, very 30s but not ‘done up’ with a brilliant band. We drink a cocktail & watch the dancers, but do not join in. We leave just after 11 when the band packs up (why so early?) & make our way to Café de Paris where ‘The Foundation’ whom we met last night (as I recall ‘Build me up Buttercup’ was their only hit) is allegedly performing. He is there but drinking not singing & seems to have forgotten us. We have another cocktail & listen to the band which is only ok in my book, & then amble back to the hotel on the wrong side of midnight.

Sunday 7

Our last day, & after breakfast I set off with Jane & Nick to walk the length of the Malecon. Waves are breaking high over the sea wall in huge white arcs, for although the sun is shining the wind is ferocious.
We walk to a big hotel at what seems to be the end of the road, past old & dilapidated buildings & some ‘new’ ‘60s type developments; all look rather sad. We walk back through the commercial & unreconstructed part of the city, the part the tourists don’t visit. It is all very poor & a bit desolate, we note the dilapidation of the once elegant buildings, & we see the bread queues & imagine how it must be to have to do this every day.

After returning to the Ambos Mundos to do last bits of packing, I at last get to see Hemmingway’s room (it is only opened by a guide) – it is a lovely light & airy double aspect room, though quite small & the bed seems tiny – how did it fit in a large bear like man & his many lovely ladies (separately I trust)? I have a vision of them constantly rolling off onto the floor.

Jane, Nick & I then go off with Julia for our last lunch, which is as special as it could be. We eat delicious prawn & lobster kebabs whilst watching stunning flamenco dancing, right by our table. There are 2 female dancers & 1 male, all of whose footwork is so fast our eyes cannot follow it; their backs are so straight I cannot imagine how they hold themselves so constantly erect – training of course, but it makes me acutely conscious of my own poor posture.

There is also a singer, a drummer & a guitarist, all of whom are superb, & the absorption of all in the music & dance is absolute. What a tremendous way to end our stay in Cuba. We do visit Plaza de la Revolution on our way to the airport, but really there is nothing to say about it apart perhaps that it is predictable & ugly.

Cuba is such a special place with no consumer society, no advertising, no IT; to us it seems an idyllic place in the sun, but life is obviously very hard for the Cubans & many are not happy & want change – & who can blame them really. I dread what will happen when Fidel finally dies & the beastly Americans who have made life so hard for the Cubans finally get back in the door.