Map of Cuba with routeWe started our trip in Holguin, a dusty hot city with little to mark it as a tourist spot beyond the fact the airplane drops off here for the package trips to Guardalavaca. Guardalavaca is the crown jewel of Cuba’s tourist industry, supposedly one of the Caribbean’s best beaches, where tourists turn up to booze, beach, and binge on all inclusive gorge sessions laden with lobster, rum, and all about decadence. With that in mind, it is genuine culture shock to realise that there is almost no commercial life in Cuba, Havana excepted I now realise. There are two chains of government run dollar store, each selling the same selection of dangerous Spanish tinned meats, or Vietnamese sweets and snacks, with a tiny selection of each. (Yes, I did get confused enough to buy and then consume tinned meat.) Beyond this there are a few restaurants, ice-cream shops in each town, and what you can buy from people sitting with their front-door open and a sign above it announcing a trade.

Aside from the difficulty finding things to buy – we managed to buy bread, for example, but couldn’t get anything to go in it, so had plain sandwiches for dinner the first night – the dual currency system takes some getting used to. The cubans call both pesos, both are marked with a dollar sign when written though. The CUC, convertible Cuban dollar pegged to the U.S. dollar is worth 24 ordinary pesos. It is well worth getting to grips with though, whilst there are some essentials that you will have to use CUC for – bottled water, accommodation, Pina Colada’s in nice hotel bars – there are also things that work out much, much cheaper with ‘moneda nacional‘, the cuban peso. Prices can be a riddle at first, although mainly because street food, which is in pesos, works out so cheap.

Having had a 47 hour delay in Gatwick airport and nearly getting heat stroke after just a day – it is brutal hot pretty much permanently – we decided to chip over to the beach. We took a taxi to Gibara, which was something of a highlight for me. Our driver regaled us with stories of his seven years fighting with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua and various other impassioned anecdotes. Gibara is where Christopher Columbo (he was insistent on the name) landed he said, then laughed and waving an arm in the air shouted “el gran immigrante”. Then as we swung by murals commemorating local ‘martyrs’ who had died in the war in Angola, we passed a horse-drawn wagon and our driver motioned at the men, one driving another riding shotgun, and nodded sagely, “este es la armada de Fidel.” Then he paused nodded again and looked at us both before reminding us that for fifty years the U.S. has been trying to kill Fidel and end the revolution. It was clearly a proud achievement that they had resisted. Ironically, the blunt, often clumsy, and unceasingly callous attempts of the Americans to end the revolution may well be its greatest source of strength.

Gibara itself was probably the highlight of the trip, but Henry is putting more of that up elsewhere. I would like to mention the grandmother of the family we stayed with. Throughout our stay we have been staying in ‘casa particulares‘, homes where people rent rooms out. They are the cheapest bed for the night and they also do the best food around normally, although the food costs compared to what you get on the street, but that isn’t comparing like for like. Six to ten CUC each usually, it is always more than you can possibly eat and often stunningly good food.

Irma, the grandmother, was something of a star. She spent all day reading papers and was ready to accompany her sharp mind with an equally sharp tongue, luckily we saw eye-to-eye on most things. As soon as I said that I was from London she asked, “do the millionaires run the country?” I said yes, of course, that is democracy and capitalism, although it takes more than a simple million now. From here she set about discussing world politics covering: Libya, Syria, the riots in London, the war in Angola, the cuba five, the role of oil in Middle-Eastern politics and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also some very amusing characterisations of Berlusconi and Sarkozy. That was a fun evening and it felt like being in the company of a revolutionary.

Josh on the malecon

Cunt in a hat enjoying the sunset on the Malecon

From Gibara we travelled by car down to Baracoa. This was quite a drive, taking in everything from the Moa nickel mines – no pictures allowed by orders of Fidel – to some of Cuba’s most renowned nature reserves. The whole journey gives an impression of time compressed. At any moment on the road you can see people strolling with produce slung over a shoulder, oxen-drawn carts, men on horseback, pushbikes, right up through automobiles, be they iconic American roadsters or clunking soviet runabouts. The road itself looks like it barely survived a war and the journey takes at least twice as long as the distance would suggest it should, about 8 hours in the retro gangster wagon we managed to commandeer. Everywhere you go there are the ubiquitous murals, stencilled propaganda from the party. When I asked if the people or the party put them up, our driver chuckled and said that the party puts them up, but the people keep them looking sharp.

To see the towns fade into forest covered mountains dotted with what can only really be described as peasantry, was quite eye-opening. These were the mountains that the great heroes of the revolution say taught them the meaning of the word and these are the people who should have benefited most from it. As school buses roller-coastered past us through the craters and children began filing along the road in their bright, clean, sharp pressed uniforms, it seemed like a fusion of modernity and a way of life as old as man. It certainly gave the impression that if the revolution was working, it was doing so here.

We arrived in Baracoa tired, fried and jarred from the journey, but what a place to arrive in. It is paradisiacal country. Rolling verdant hills spill into crystalline, azure Caribbean sea and the cascading bays that angle against the horizon give every view the encapsulated feel of an amphitheatre. The town itself was small, pleasant and vibrant in places, although relying on tourism it was the first place that bought home to us just how easy it is to spot a tourist and how many people will try and spin you a tale for alms. The highlight of the whistle-stop tour was fish supper with a coconut sauce that had been left to simmer for six hours. For our own vibe we left sooner than might have done otherwise, but this will certainly be on the route next time we swing by, with a stop by the waterfall 4/5km inland from the mouth of the Duarbe river.

Sunset in the streets of Santiago de Cuba

Sunset in Santiago.

Moving on, the bus to Santiago was another stare out the window and feel happy and insignificant as a speck on this beautiful rock journey. Santiago itself was a groovy place. Noisy, smoggy, hot as hell, and intense all hours, but definitely groovy. We caught a bit of culture, but that’s the sort of thing you need to see yourself. Best of all, cultured soul that I am, we hit the trail with cuban cocktails and haven’t looked back since. Sipping Pina Coladas in the shade above the Plaza Cespedes was a treat unconditionally recommended, although the bar also dished up the finest Daquiri we have downed so far. Make your own call on that one.

After Santiago we trundled up to Bayamo for their Saturday night street party of some repute. The party, famed for its spit-roast hogs, was a really chilled out affair. It seemed as if the whole town turned up, youngest to oldest, and everyone got along doing their thing. The chess players were out early and went until the night ended – after baseball I guess this must be the national sport – and local bands played along the streets and in the towns main square to an audience that must have spanned eighty years.

Things were slightly spoilt by being pulled over by the cops, or rather some form of military immigration control, wanting to see our passports and visa. Having left them both safely locked up in our hotel, we got a taste of the small men with rules and no humour routine. Still, good to know that the police are a bunch of cunts anywhere you go and that no one should ever be given a rank and told it is important. Having been told how lucky we were to meet nice people who would let us off with 30 minutes of filling in forms, rather than 30 days in the hole, apparently our signed depositions were delivered to Fidel himself and the revolution moved on stronger for it all. At least that’s what I tried to tell our new friends.

After five days with the coast out of site, we decided to head to la Boca, the small fishing village outside of Trinidad rather than stay in the town itself. This was one of the best decisions we made all trip. La Boca was lovely, a rocking chairs and hammocks looking out over the ocean and 10 feet to the water sort of deal. La Boca, literally the mouth, is where the river hits sea and cool currents from the mountain feed into the warm Caribbean waters. By day the bay buzzed with people going to-and-fro with the fresh catch and by night the ocean melted into the black of the hills and was lit only by the specks of light from the small row boats still trawling.

Trinidad itself was underwhelming by comparison. Aside from failing to live up to a lot of unjustified hype, Trinidad also suffers by virtue of its reputation. It seems as if the whole town, which feels a bit like a theme world, is reliant on tourist trade. This comes with an assortment of nagging catcalls, from just plain bumming change, right through the restaurant? casa? cigars? taxi?routine. It does not stop. To make it all grate a little more, outside of the people trying to work you over for some sort of payday, the rest of the locals don’t seem too pleased to have had their town turned into a walking tour for bright-pale goons in high waist shorts and velcro sandals with a years wages worth of Nikon draped about their neck. I can understand that, but it left us caught between two reactions, neither of which we felt were really for us.

A view from Hotel La Union in Cienfuegos Cuba

Cocktail bar view, smashing Pina Coladas.

Skipping out of Trinidad we headed up to Cienfuegos, another one of Cuba’s listed wonders, but one that still bubbles. I really liked Cienfuegos, it clearly must have had a chunk of American money in it before the revolution, you can see that in the buildings, but it did it with a twist of Caribbean cool. Again, this is another city where, without trying to paint a picture of pretty sunsets and gorgeous architecture I can’t label correctly, the cocktail bar stands out. A good bartender to. He had the UN debates on Palestinian statehood on a live feed. It is interesting to talk to the people here about a subject like that because they have no illusions about how the world works. To borrow a phrase, it looks different from the other end of the club, all noble sentiments aside of course. So, roof terrace bar, La Union Hotel, as good a spot as any to beat the heat. Of an evening, a stroll down La Malecon, the town’s lovers lane jutting out into the Ocean, is also a treat. Good place this.

From here we took the short-hop up to Santa Clara to pay our respects to Che. I bought a selection of his speeches with us and read them before we got here, I would recommend it. He was a man with a brilliant mind and a refusal to compromise, it was a noble stand to take. You don’t get a great deal of that out of the museum or tomb, or not as much as you might, it is rather more iconic; but to see his statue jagging into the blue sky, still unbent and in his pomp is a great feeling.

Che Guevara Statue

Che's monument.

It is something of a shame, and an irony, that well clothed children come down to the field opposite Che’s grave to fly their kites. It would of course be brilliant, a stunning tribute, if they weren’t there to beg tourists for money they do not really seem to need. Now, I am sure that for a kid it just seems worth a punt for a bag of sweets, but it does feel wrong, the begging. It is both indicative of an attitude that tourists should be hit-up and should pay-up as their role in the system, but also the almost reflexive willingness it has bred to make people bend over backwards for that money. Often, even when there is a sale on offer, it amounts to little more than begging. I can’t see that Che had that in mind for his new man. What’s doubly sad, having done so, people seem to hate you if you still won’t buy, as if you are to blame for them having lowered themselves to it. It all seems especially contradictory given the fact that it rarely seems out of need, but rather out of want. You get the feeling that the Cubans see the west as luxurious paradise, assuming that we are all rich, and expect you to share that, but it just isn’t true. They then wind up scowling at a person they haven’t taken the time to know, for some fictional chunk of gold they might have had. Tourism as an economic staple often comes out as a complicated situation that they haven’t quite reconciled themselves to yet, but truth be told it can’t help but feel shitty when people so often seem to want your money but would rather you weren’t there. By the time we hit Havana, this feeling was already hitting home.

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