Cuba. A living museum.
It’s no use just looking at photos of Cuba. You have to see it, smell it, feel it, hear it and taste it.
Cuba is alive. It throbs with rhythm and energy. You can almost see and hear the plants grow. You think you can reach up and pick one of the cotton-wool clouds from the unpolluted sky.
As soon as I stepped off the plane and out into the almost-permanent sunshine, my metabolism sighed with relief, and wound down.
The island is a museum surrounded by sea. (Well, two seas actually. The Atlantic and the Caribbean.) Large areas have been declared World Heritage Sites.
The town of Trinidad dates from 1514, and Havana from1519. Trinidad was connected to pirates and smuggling. It was difficult to catch anyone in the winding streets.
We visited a ceramics factory and shop. He is one of the richest men in the town. He even has the Internet, which is rare outside hotels.
Outside, women desperately hold up their hand-embroidered cloths. All the tourists march straight past them.
While my friends walked around the pottery, I spoke to the women outside. One of them, Mayra, took me to see her work. She rents the ground floor of a nearby house for 1 peso a week. She proudly showed me her sewing. She works long hours for a pittance. I bought a table runner for 5 pesos. It was a real bargain for me!
I dragged one of the group along and talked him in to buying a table-cloth for his mother. Mayra will be able to live off that for several weeks.
The rest of the party were still in the pottery, and I ended up in another of the women’s houses. I asked them why they didn’t stand with prices on their work as they would sell much more. They didn’t have pens or paper. I spent the next half an hour writing price labels for them on my paper.
Two years later, a few months ago, I returned to Trinidad,. We got off the coaches outside the ceramics shop, and there was Mayra standing there, between two coaches! She screamed and hugged me, loudly introducing me to everyone as her English friend. Then she dragged me across the road to her house and loaded me with presents. She gave me her address, which was neatly written and lying beside her embroidery, awaiting my return for two years!
Havana. Oh Havana, I love you! I shouldn’t, but I do.
It’s noisy, shabby, a bit mucky, and oh, so alive! I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the walls pulsing in and out with heartbeats.
Absolutely everywhere teems with activity. Even sitting watching the world go by is an activity in Havana.
All the front doors are ajar and we stared shamelessly as we walked past. Nobody minded. They waved or nodded and called, ‘Buenas.’
Groups play everywhere, inside and outside. They play for their own enjoyment. The tourists and audience are an added bonus.
Street lighting is dim, giving everywhere a surreal aura at night. Pavements have huge cracks and crevices in them.
Old American cars are parked with their bonnets up as the owners struggle to improvise and repair the recycled parts.
Huge mansions, split into apartments, display the trappings of their hedonistic past; an expensive chandelier, a wall carving, a wooden cornice, wrought iron balconies.
Some of them are held up with flimsy props. I wouldn’t want to risk living there, looking at some of the cracks and sagging!
El Malecon, Havana’s seafront, has been battered by years of hurricanes and lack of materials to repair it. But now the crumbling houses are gradually being renovated and brought to life again. It’s taking a long time as there’s a lot of work to do on them and the money keeps running out. But they’re getting there.
A statue of the Cuban National hero, Jose Marti, known as ‘I Accuse’ stands clutching a child and pointing an arm with outstretched finger at the American Embassy.
Ferdinand Vll of Spain stands outside the Museum, proudly holding a proclamation at waist height, his calf muscles bulging. But seen from the back, it cheekily looks as though he’s holding something completely different! I won’t go into details.
The Parque Morro-Cabana is a huge fort with several interesting museums there, including the Arms Museum. It stands on 10 hectares of land. It is being restored, but the costs are very high. The pigment and other materials come from Italy.
Hidden at the end is a bar/restaurant in an ancient part of the building. It’s worth climbing up the steep steps for. This is where the staff eat and drink. The prices are very cheap and the décor’s interesting.
There are five Biosphere Reserves in Cuba. Their theme is Man, History, Nature. They are carefully balanced so that visitors help, not harm, the environment.
What a complete contrast from Havana! The only sound in the wonderful green forests is the 130 species of birds.
In Las Terrazas, we were privileged to be serenaded by the Tocororo, the Cuban National bird. ’Tocororo’ is the noise it makes. Even the Cubans don’t see them very often.
Around 126 slaves per plantation worked in 70 coffee plantations here. But they seemed to run away quite often. Then there were two big hurricanes, followed by the Brazilians’ beans overtaking the Cuba market. And the plantations ceased trade.
The Spanish stripped the mountain of wood and exported it to Europe. But over 900 miles of trees have now been replanted on the terraces.
Las Terrazas village was built for the workers to give them better living conditions.
The houses and blocks of flats are clustered around a huge lake and over the hillside. They are white with red roofs and blue blinds. It looks ideallic.
Amongst them, The Moka Hotel isn’t the grandest hotel I’ve ever seen, but I think it’s in one of the most memorable situations. A carob tree grows through the roof in the Reception area. In the rooms, you can sit in the bath and gaze out at miles of undisturbed greenery. An artist’s or writer’s paradise.
Downstairs is the Café de Maria. It extends from her house. The views are so relaxing.
Go down below the hotel and find the small perfumery. He dries local plants and flowers and produces absolutely gorgeous perfume. He even decorates the bottles. They only cost a few pesos each. I’d have bought more than I did, but he didn’t have any made up.
We paddled in the cool rivulets of the San Juan River, listened to the waterfalls, and felt at one with nature.
The Pinar del Rio area houses the Orchids of Soroa, with over 700 species of orchids. It’s a steep climb on a hot day to see them all.
Tobacco was one of Cuba’s most important industries. At the end of 2012, they launched the Tobacco Trail. Tourists will be able to stay in tobacco farms or hotels, and follow the tobacco trade, visiting local towns. The history and the traditions of the tobacco trade are being preserved. It’s called Planting to Preserving to Picking.
Signs of Hemingway are everywhere. The small fishing village of Cojimar is practically a shrine to his memory. In his favourite lunchtime restaurant, La Terraza, his table is permanently laid up and roped off. The view out of the window is so beautiful that no wonder he loved it!
Enjoy a Hemingway Cocktail; 1xMaraschino, 2xWhite Rum, lemon juice and crushed ice and view his photos all over the walls.
If you want to get a taste of the local culture, instead of booking into a hotel, you can stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ in towns like Guanabo. All the houses are Government registered. You can eat and mix with the family. The beach is usually just round the corner. Prices are very reasonable.
It’s worth learning some Spanish before you go there. The Cubans love to talk to you.
They enjoy a safe way of life. Although they lack some basic material goods, everything that they own is bought and paid for.
Pack everything that you need as shops are few and far between, and not well-stocked.
Take a few gifts to give away to any new friends; bars of soap, ballpoint pens, pain killers, spare pairs of glasses, dictionaries, books. They’re all in short supply, and you can use them as tips.
But I’d gladly sacrifice my soap and pens for the kind of life that they live!
Cuba Tourist Board
167 High Holborn, Holborn, London WC1V 6PA