A taste of gaucho culture, Finca La Guabina

If you want to see another side of Cuban life, head to the countryside; if you want to see a different side of the countryside, head to Finca La Guabina. Cuba’s most important horse breeding ranch sits only 10km outside the regional capital of Pinar del Rio, but it feels like you’ve travelled light years from modernity and a couple of hundred years into the past.

The ranch has a variety of beautiful landscapes encompassing mountains, valleys, lakes and pastures. It’s a long way from the nearest road which, coupled with the slow pace of life, brings a sense of calm and tranquility. The exception being sunrise when the dawn chorus of cockerel calls shatter the early morning quiet.

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Other than taking long walks through the surrounding countryside, or hiring a horse and guide to explore on horseback, there is little else to do at Finca La Guabina. Depending upon your disposition this is either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Apart from when they ran out of beer, it was a very good thing.

We stayed for two nights, including Xmas Eve, and had planned to stay for Xmas Day but they didn’t have any availability. This meant we had the prospect of travelling on Xmas Day, but since it’s a pretty low-key event in Cuba that didn’t present much of a problem. In the meantime, we tuned into the rhythm of ranch life.

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Spot the pig! Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Spot the pig! Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

The Finca is home to a couple of hundred horses and numerous cattle, sheep, pigs, rabbits (bred for food), geese, turkeys and chickens. The real attraction are the pedigree Cuban Pinto and Appaloosa horses with their wonderful spotted patterns. In a land where horses still play a significant role in agriculture and transport, Finca La Guabina was (and, for the time-being, still is) a vital breeding farm.

The thousand acres of Finca La Guabina was originally established as a Spanish ranch, and the Cuban Pinto horses may well be descendants of Spanish horses brought over with the Conquistadors in the 16th Century. The current, once luxurious, main house was built in 1956, just in time to be swept up in the revolution and nationalised three years later.

Geese, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Geese, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Sheep, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Sheep, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Pig, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Pig, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Like many government run places, the main house feels a bit down at heel and in need of a few improvements; the service when we arrived was the worst we experienced in Cuba. Things improved a lot during our stay, and with a mojito in hand and views from the first floor balcony, we had a chance to absorb the enviable location before going for a stroll into the countryside.

It’s a truly beautiful place, and we walked for a few hours before coming back in search of food. Lunch was over, dinner was some time away, and they’d run out of beer. Things looked grim. Extensive pleading finally persuaded the woman on reception to rustle up some rum and coke, pan duro and an alarmingly pink chorizo dip (don’t ask).

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

We were hungry and gladly accepted what was on offer, all the while hoping it wasn’t an indication of what dinner might be like…luckily it wasn’t, the food was excellent and, on Xmas Eve, featured a huge pig roast that we shared with a Dutch family. That first night we went to bed anticipating a morning in the saddle with a cowhand as our guide…

Robaina, the world’s finest cigar?

Alejandro Robaina, founder of one of Cuba’s most iconic cigar brands, smoked his first cigar at the tender age of 10 years. He said it made him feel ‘drunk’. Soon he was habitually smoking four or five cigars a day. Legend says he hand rolled each one himself. When he died in 2010, at 91 years of age, his personal legend was secure.

Known as the “godfather” of Cuban cigars, and considered one of the world’s greatest cigar makers, his legacy continues on the family plantation south-west of Pinar del Rio and in the Robaina brand. The plantation was founded in the 1840’s by Alejandro’s grandfather, and has been producing some of the finest tobacco leaves ever since.

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco plants, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco plants, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Alejandro Robaina, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Alejandro Robaina, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The renowned Robaina brand was only founded in 1997, making it only the third international brand to come out of Cuba since the revolution. It might have been different if Alejandro hadn’t fought to prevent the Castro government from turning the family farm into a collective. He argued with Fidel Castro, saying that only family farms had the know-how to grow tobacco. Castro backed down.

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco leaves, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco leaves, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Cigar rolling, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Cigar rolling, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Cigar rolling, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Cigar rolling, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

We stopped at the Robaina plantation en route to the Finca La Gaubina, both are close to Pinar del Rio and both offer a glimpse into unique parts of Cuban culture. For a cigar as famous as the Robaina, the approach to the plantation is remarkably humble. A dirt track leads off the main road, passing tobacco fields and a few small houses before arriving at the farm gate.

It seemed very low-key, almost artisanal. We were greeted by a farm worker, who took us to a drying barn where a small group of people was waiting for a guided tour. Only when our guide – a farm worker who had taught himself to speak English and French, and was working on German – started to give us the numbers that the scope of the operation become clear.

Cuba produces around 100 million cigars a year. Robaina alone produces 5 million of those, but a disproportionate number of their cigars are of the very highest quality. During the peak season some 500 hundred men and women roll the leaves into cigars. A skilled roller can turn out around 120 cigars each day.

The tobacco crop was still in the fields and the barn was empty but for a few rows of leaves. In a corner though was one of the farm workers rolling cigars. He’d been rolling them for over thirty years – let’s just say he knew his way around a tobacco leaf. In just a couple of minutes he presented me with a cigar. I still have it in a plastic bag in my refrigerator, apparently the best place for it in a non-humid country.

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco plants, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Tobacco plants, Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

The Robaina cigar plantation, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Afterwards we walked through the farm to the family house, checking out photos of Alejandro Robaina meeting world leaders, pop stars, the great and the good of the cigar aficionado world.  We then went to see the tobacco growing under cheesecloth. This is the cream of the crop, growing to over 2 metres in height. The leaves mature at different speeds and are removed at intervals from the bottom up.

They don’t sell cigars on the farm, but if you want to buy a world class cigar just walk down the lane to a house where a variety of cigars are on offer. It’s a bit hard sell but when in Cuba…we left with a Double Corona called Don Alejandro, named after the great man himself.

A day at the beach, Cayo Jutias

Cuba and beaches go hand-in-hand. Exquisite stretches of fine white sand grace every tourist brochure about the country. Most of those beaches are home to large resorts full of Canadians and Europeans fleeing winter, but an hour’s drive north of Viñales is an altogether more low-key and tranquil stretch of sand: Cayo Jutias.

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

The glorious 3km of beaches on Cayo Jutias can’t be described as ‘undiscovered’, but the drive, on winding roads through rolling hills and along a 9km causeway, to reach this blissful mangrove-covered key gives it an isolated feel. There were only a handful of tourists and Cubans the day we visited, the sun shone and the water was perfect. Plunging into the sea provides great relief from Cuba’s humidity.

Most people stay on the beach near the only buildings along this coast: a palm leaf-covered bar and restaurant. You can walk down the beach and through the mangroves to discover the many small, empty beaches that are dotted along the coast. Although, if you’re walking through the mangroves, it’s worth remembering that they’re home to plenty of biting insects. A lesson learned the hard way.

There’s no accommodation anywhere on the key, explaining its relative tranquility and making a day trip the only option. It’s well worth the journey. The white sand, bleached mangroves and glorious azure waters make Cayo Jutias a picturesque place. There are loungers for rent, a dive shop providing snorkelling and diving trips to the nearby reef, and you can take a boat out to a small islet just off the coast.

Like most people we drove from Viñales. There are plenty of taxistas willing to take you for a standard fee, wait for you at the beach and drive you home again. We had a 1950s Chevrolet to add a touch of nostalgia to the trip. The journey was fascinating, leaving the Valle de Viñales we drove over forested hills and passed through several villages, including Minas de Matahambre, a former copper mining town.

Lighthouse on Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Lighthouse on Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Everywhere you go in Cuba there are people by the side of the road (often waving money) trying to travel. There seems to be a transport crisis in most parts of the country, and it feels weird to have empty seats in your taxi while so many people need a lift. We gave a lift to a woman who turned out to work at the restaurant on the beach. We were rewarded with a free drink and lots of conversation.

Cayo Jutias is clearly going to become more popular as tourism booms in the country. For the time-being it remains sleepy and relaxed, fully deserving its reputation as an independent traveller’s alternative to the all-inclusive resorts elsewhere in Cuba. I just hope its growing popularity doesn’t attract the developers. It would be a terrible shame if the mangroves were replaced by concrete.

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

The Valley of Silence

Cuba is a country where chickens roam free and, at night, nest in the trees as they’ve done for thousands of years. The Valle de Silencio is a place where there are lots of chickens in trees. It’s also one of the most beautiful and enigmatic places we visited in Cuba. A sunset walk through the countryside with a knowledgeable guide – who was moonlighting from his job as a radio journalist – was a highlight of our time in Viñales.

It’s not like there’s a lot of noise or traffic in Viñales, but walking into the Valle de Silencio is like entering a different, quieter world. How long that will last in the face of ever increasing tourism is anyone’s guess, but Viñales’ Silent Valley will live long in the memory.

Flowers, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Flowers, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

We took a 1950s Ford into the countryside, stopping at the entrance of a dirt road that led past a couple of wooden houses. It’s a cliché, but the Valle de Silencio seems frozen in time. We hadn’t gone too far before passing a field with two horses sheltering under a tree in the corner, and a farmer ploughing with two oxen. A sight that you might have seen any time in the last few hundred years.

This is tobacco country, with 70 percent of Cuba’s tobacco crop grown in this province. On our three hour walk we saw plenty of wooden huts with palm thatch roofs, where the tobacco leaves hang to dry for two months. The leaves are then fermented for another month or two, before going into a warehouse to age for anything from one to five years. Cigars require a lot of commitment.

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

New Year's Eve dummy, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

New Year’s Eve dummy, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Tobacco drying hut, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Tobacco drying hut, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Plough, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Plough, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

House, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

House, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Our walk would end at a small farm where we’d get the chance to have a home-grown, hand-rolled, eco-friendly rustic cigar. This is also a chance for the farmer to earn a little extra money. The government takes a whopping 90 percent of the tobacco crop, leaving 10 percent for personal use or to sell to tourists. It was good to get the low-down on what it took to get the tobacco from seedling to cigar in my hand.

Our walk took us down red earth roads, spotting the occasional horse, pig or cow; men with machetes walked past; and colourful houses were dotted here and there. All the while the landscape was spectacularly illuminated by the soft, magnificent light of the descending sun. This is a landscape to rival any in the world.

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Sugarcane press, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Sugarcane press, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Pig, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Pig, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

We finally arrived at a small farm on a hill overlooking the valley, as the sun set we were given a virtuoso demonstration of cigar rolling by one of the farmers. I know there’s a lot of skill involved, and all the tobacco leaves have to be rolled in the correct order, but he made it seem ridiculously easy. As darkness consumed the views of the Valle de Silencio, we made our way to the waiting 1950s Ford and back to Viñales.

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Cigar rolling, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Back in time in the Valle de Viñales

I dare you to look at a panoramic photo of the Valle de Viñales and not want to hop on a plane to see it for yourself. The UNESCO World Heritage listed valley is extraordinarily beautiful, retaining a sense of timelessness that defies its status as one of the most visited destinations in Cuba. It’s the sort of place where you plan to spend a couple of days and stay for a week.

Valle de Vinales, Cuba

Valle de Vinales, Cuba

The village of Viñales is a magnet for independent travellers seeking peace, quiet and the outdoors. This might seem contradictory, but tourism is low-key and it’s a laid-back place with an endless supply of rocking chairs and mojitos. The village still retains many colonial-era one storey houses, most of which are painted in bright colours and have been converted into casas particulares.

Church, Viñales, Cuba

Church, Viñales, Cuba

New Year mannequin, Viñales, Cuba

New Year mannequin, Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Part of the Sierra de los Organos, the valley is dotted with mogotes – the sugarloaf-shaped limestone outcrops covered in greenery that give it its distinctive appearance. It’s an iconic landscape best known for producing Cuba’s (and therefore the World’s) finest cigar tobacco. In the winter the valley floor is covered with fields full of the large green leaves of nicotiana tabacum.

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Ox cart, Viñales, Cuba

Ox cart, Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

The real delight of the Valle de Viñales, and a key selling point for Cuban tobacco, is that farming methods remain very traditional. No pesticides here, and you’re far more likely to see bullock carts and horse-drawn transport than tractors. Fields are still ploughed using oxen. The wooden huts with palm leaf roofs where the tobacco leaves go to dry, would have been as familiar a sight in the 19th Century as they are today.

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Viñales holds a special place in the national psyche, a place Cuban’s talk about wistfully while encouraging you to visit. After a few days in the valley it’s easy to see why. Tradition is everywhere, but the farming community here is also a vibrant cultural mix of indigenous people, Spanish colonialists and African slaves, brought here to work the tobacco fields. It even has its own musical style.

There’s a tourist circuit in the valley, and even a hop-on-hop-off bus taking you to various sights. These seemed a bit underwhelming so we decided to do our own thing. We did visit one of the largest cave systems in the Americas though. Other than that, we went on walks through this picturesque valley, plodding along observing traditional life while moving at a traditional snail’s pace.

Let sleeping dogs lie, Viñales, Cuba

Let sleeping dogs lie, Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

A striking feature of Viñales is that the village has numerous independent bars, cafes and restaurants. We ate mostly in our fabulous casa particular, but the options for eating and drinking in the village are in contrast to much of the rest of Cuba. Ordering valedictory piña coladas on bar a terrace, our drinks came accompanied by a bottle of rum. Just add to taste, we were told.

Now that’s laid back tourism.

Coffee, slavery and forbidden love, Antiguo Cafetal Angerona

Walking around the colonial-era coffee plantation of Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, I asked our guide if the plantation had many visitors.  It was a popular destination for tourists he assured us. Later, signing the visitors’ book, I couldn’t help but notice that the last visitor had been five days earlier. Just one person, from Germany. Time moves at a different speed in the Cuban countryside.

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Even with a Cuban driver we’d had to ask directions to Antiguo Cafetal Angerona on three separate occasions. Finally, we found the dirt track that led to the ruins of a formerly luxurious hacienda. For the previous hour we’d seen little but horse drawn traffic, the occasional bicycle and a couple of tractors. It felt like we’d stepped back in time.

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Arriving just below the imposing ruins of the hacienda, we spotted some men sat outside a nearby building. We wandered over to say ‘hello’. It was 10am and a nearly empty bottle of rum sat on the table between them. The oldest of the group offered to show us around. He was knowledgeable and charming, but you could smell the rum from five feet away.

Founded in 1813 by German immigrant Cornelio Sauchay, this was one of the first coffee plantations in Cuba. Like most of the colonial economy of the island it was a slave plantation. As we walked towards some ruins that were being slowly devoured by tropical fauna, our guide pointed to the former slave quarters and a bell tower that doubled as a watchtower for escaping slaves.

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Four hundred and fifty slaves – men, women and children – lived and worked on the plantation, cultivating around three-quarters of a million coffee plants. By the mid-19th Century it had become the second largest plantation in Cuba. It’s an atmospheric place, the decay of the buildings set perfectly against the lush greenery. In this setting, it’s hard to imagine the human misery that made it all possible.

We passed by a deep well and huge water cisterns used for irrigation. The plantation was like a small town with its own factories producing bricks for the buildings and clothes for the slaves. The plantation feels isolated today, in the 19th Century it must have been like another universe. Self sufficiency would have been vital for the survival of the estate.

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

In one of those ironic twists of fate, Cornelio Sauchay fell in love with a black woman from Haiti, Ursula Lambert. In an age when this was forbidden, the plantation’s isolation provided the perfect cover for them to live together. It’s claimed Ursula’s influence ensured the slaves of Antiguo Cafetal Angerona had a marginally better existence than slaves elsewhere in Cuba.

They lived in small houses in family groups, had their own kitchens, and didn’t have to work at night or in the searing heat of the afternoon sun. There was even a ‘hospital’ that treated slaves who were sick or injured. A small flicker of enlightenment maybe, but the slaves were locked up at night and the watchtower was built to prevent escape.

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

Antiguo Cafetal Angerona, Cuba

In an even more remarkable twist of fate, it seems that although Ursula left the plantation without any money when Sauchay died, she became a successful businesswoman. She died wealthy on Cuba Street in Havana Vieja, the (presumably) proud owner of twenty slaves. Weird thing history.

Today the coffee plants are long gone and the fertile red earth is now given over to towering fields of sugar cane. Somehow that seems to add to the atmosphere of the place. We walked back to the car, meeting a few farm workers on their way home who were keen to have a chat. Then it was back to the Carretera Central de Cuba and onwards to the magnificent Vale de Viñales.

Old Havana’s Spanish Forts

Traces of Spanish colonialism are easy to find scattered across the Caribbean and Latin America. Some of the greatest cities of the New World were built to project the power of Spain: Panama Viejo, Cartagena, Lima, Buenos Aires and, perhaps most important of all, Havana Vieja. The wealth of these cities was coveted by many and jealously guarded by Spain.

The massive complex of fortifications the Spanish built to protect Havana, first from pirates and later from competing European nations, is breathtaking in its scope and size. These are magnificent places, full of the history of a fascinating period. They’re also an indication of the value placed on Havana, where Spanish treasure ships congregated before risking the Atlantic crossing.

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

In Havana Vieja, sitting on one corner of the Plaza de Armas, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza feels like it’s part of the city. In reality, construction began in 1558, making it one of the oldest fortifications in the Americas. Surrounded by a moat it has impressive ‘spiked’ corners.

The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta sits a short distance away on the western side of the harbour entrance, and was part of the defensive walls of the old city. Today it plays host to a few cannons, and has views of fishermen trying to catch their supper in the aquamarine waters it guards.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Opposite, on the eastern side of the harbour entrance, is the 18th Century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, one of the largest fortifications in the Americas (second only to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena). Nearby is the picturesque Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, complete with lighthouse.

Spain believed Castillo Morro to be impregnable, which proved too tempting for the British during the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 63) – a European war fought globally thanks to the expansion of European empires. The conflict raged across Europe, Canada, the United States, West Africa, India, the Philippines and the Caribbean.

The Spanish allied themselves with France against Britain and Prussia, three of which had a powerful interest in attacking each others’ colonies. Spain’s Empire was plundered by the British in the Caribbean, while the French and British fought for control of North America, West African and India.

In 1762 a British fleet of fifty ships and twenty thousand men sailed into view off Havana. After a failed seaborne attack, the British took to land and marched on the rear of Castillo Morro. Setting up camp on high ground above the castle they spent the next forty-four days lobbing bombs at the Spanish. When the castle fell the British turned their attention to Havana.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

For nine months the British controlled Havana and Cuba. But the British, fresh from victory over France in Canada, preferred to protect their North American colonies than to keep Cuba. The end of the Seven Years’ War saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory if ever there was one.

Dominating the skyline to the east, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña was constructed after the harsh lessons of the Seven Years’ War. It’s full of magnificent old Spanish cannons, inscribed with royal insignia and the place and date of their forging. It has spectacular views over Havana. 700 metres long and 10 hectares in size, it was meant to deter all-comers. No one was foolhardy enough to attack it.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

After the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara set up his headquarters in the fort and here he summarily tried and executed opponents of the Revolution. When people fondly remember the romantic revolutionary, whose iconic image adorns millions of t-shirts, the extrajudicial killings for which he was responsible are mostly forgotten. Such is history.

Havana’s city of the dead, Cementerio de Colón

Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is so large there are cycling tours around it, a city within a city with streets signs to help you find your way. Its vast size is filled with beautiful chapels, mausoleums and graves that, architecturally, are on a par with La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Which really is saying something.

Given that it’s home to dead people – as many as 2.5 million dead people in its 140 year history – its remarkably well maintained compared to the rest of Havana, where actual living people live.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

I find cemeteries fascinating, and I’ve visited an unhealthy number in my travels, so I can say with some confidence that Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is one of the finest on the planet. A reflection of the wealth of Cuba’s past and the grandeur of the well-heeled Vadado area of the city where it’s located.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Catholic cemeteries in Latin America are frequently home to legends, those who have died (often in horrible circumstances) but who perform miracles from beyond the grave. In our old home of Sucre, Bolivia, there was a woman called Margarita who was murdered and decapitated by her husband. Once buried, word got around that she was performing miracles and the faithful visited her grave to ask favours.

In the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón the legend of La Milagrosa brings a steady stream of the desperate to the grave of Amelia Goyri, who died in childbirth at the age of 23. It’s said that Amelia’s husband refused to accept the death of his wife and newborn son; he visited the grave every day and knocked three times to wake them up.

Rumours soon started circulating that La Milagrosa would grant wishes. Today, mainly women visit the tomb to ask for protection for their children or for a healthy pregnancy, while those who cannot conceive ask for a miracle. There’s a donations box on the tomb, it’s anyones guess who the money goes to but maybe it’s used to pay for the flowers that surround the grave – the only one with lots of flowers.

La Milagrosa, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

La Milagrosa, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

La Milagrosa, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

La Milagrosa, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Hundreds of Cuba’s most notable citizens are buried in the cemetery: artists, writers, sculptors, musicians (including members of the Buena Vista Social Club), baseball stars, Cuban presidents and Spanish nobility can all be found here. There’s at least one world chess champion and one US Congressman. Constante Ribalaigua, drinking buddy of Earnest Hemingway and inventor of the daiquiri, is also here.

Eduardo Chibas, a Cuban politician and anti corruption campaigner who famously committed suicide during a live radio broadcast in 1951, resides here. This act of defiance might have been forgotten but for a startling event at his funeral. As he was buried, a young Fidel Castro leapt onto his grave to denounce the government. It was an early public appearance for the future leader of the Revolution.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Catalina Laso, reputedly the most beautiful woman in 1930s Cuba, is buried here in a massive mausoleum. Already married, she fell in love with another man and they were forced to flee to Paris for 20 years before finally returning. When she died her husband had Catalina embalmed and came to visit her every day. Apparently, he was buried standing next to her, from where he could gaze upon her for all eternity.

There are quite a lot of communal graves for societies of firefighters, sailors, the Asturian Society, dockworkers and brewery workers. There is a communal mausoleum for Veterans of the Revolution. There is even a communal grave of the American Legion, where US soldiers who died in the 1898 war against Spain are buried. Intriguingly, one of three plaques on that memorial is dedicated to the Confederacy.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana, Cuba

The cemetery is full of stories like these, and even fuller of wonderful architecture. It’s a tranquil place to explore and I could have spent hours wandering around. It was really hot though and not everyone in our group (of two) is as keen on cemeteries as me. We left the dead behind and headed off to find a cooling daiquiri to honour Constante Ribalaigua.

Wandering the streets of Old Havana

Havana’s extraordinary history is reflected in the crumbling grandeur of Havana Vieja, the city’s Old Town. The current city was founded in 1519, making it one of the oldest European cities in the Americas. Two earlier attempts saw the city relocated twice before being built on the deep natural harbour of La Habana Bay. Seen from the air, the sweep of the bay is majestic.

View over Havana Vieja, Cuba

View over Havana Vieja, Cuba

As the Spanish conquest of the Americas gathered pace, and vast shipments of gold and silver began to make their way back to Madrid, Havana’s location on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico made it the most important port in Spain’s empire. Treasure ships would gather in Havana before running the pirate gauntlet when sailing to Europe.

Coconut stall, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Coconut stall, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Playing chess, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Playing chess, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Butchers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Butchers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Lowering a basket, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Lowering a basket, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Cakes, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Cakes, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Throughout the city you can see massive fortifications built to protect Havana and, over the entrance to the harbour, are the impressive fortifications of Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. These kept pirates at bay but didn’t stop the British capturing Havana in 1762 (swapped for Spanish-controlled Florida a year later).

Everywhere we went in Havana was fascinating, whether the dilapidated but fiercely energetic Havana Centro where we stayed, or the more upmarket and ‘middle-class’ Vedado. But Havana’s Vieja area is special.

Renovations to parts of the 16th Century heart of Cuba’s enigmatic capital, have returned some of the city’s most historic buildings to their former glory. This has been a labour of love for Havana’s official historian who oversees restoration efforts – especially given the shortage of cash for such a massive undertaking. The result really did remind me of Cartagena in Colombia.

The four main plazas in Havana Vieja are surrounded by magnificent Spanish colonial buildings, and linked by busy streets crammed with ornate houses with iron balconies, boutique hotels, shops and restaurants with tables on the streets. It’s a compact area of tightly packed streets that can easily absorb several days of wandering without ever feeling you’ve seen it all.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Timeless scenes are played out day-and-night in these fascinating streets. Neighbours chatting, fruit and vegetable carts on street corners, hole-in-the-wall rum shops, pan duro y pan fresco sold from bicycles, bits of pig hanging from hooks, money lowered in baskets from balconies to buy things from street vendors, chess games in doorways and domestic life glimpsed through un-shuttered windows.

Rum hole, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Rum hole, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza Vieja, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza Vieja, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Daily life in Havana Vieja is pure theatre, the sights and sounds of the streets are a delight to experience. More than its history, more than its architecture, this is what makes Havana special and makes people fall in love with the city. It’s this way of life that people worry is threatened by the impending influx of tourists and money; but I suspect Cubans and Cuban culture are more durable than that.

Havana, a city of surprises

Havana is like no other place on earth. The crumbling facades and graceful neglect of its formerly elegant buildings, the sight of 1950s American cars on its streets and the magnificent sweep of the Malecón at sunset, all feel familiar from a thousand photos and travel stories. It’s almost impossible to arrive in this city without the baggage of overblown expectation and a head full of cliché.

Habana street, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Habana street, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana doesn’t disappoint though and we cut short our trip elsewhere in Cuba to have two more days in this extraordinary place. Things are changing fast in Cuba and you can almost feel this once great city waking from its 50-year slumber; it’s only a matter of time before it reclaims its spot on the world stage.

Exhausted from a long flight and disoriented by the heat and humidity after leaving the northern European winter behind, we went for dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Malecón. After a short stroll along this legendary waterfront we were back in our casa particular in Havana Centro for an early night.

Street performers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Street performers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary flags, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary flags, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Tourist souvenirs, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Tourist souvenirs, Havana Vieja, Cuba

The thumping music woke us around midnight. Somewhere amidst the dilapidated, tightly packed streets of Havana Centro a party had just erupted. This is a city where life is lived on the streets and people have a (very) high tolerance for noise. The salsa was still filling the night air at 2am. I fell back to sleep imagining the rum infused fun we were missing.

The next day we got up early, the cool of the morning beckoning us onto the roof terrace. We watched the comings and goings in the surrounding streets and neighbouring rooftops, Havana Centro coming to life. After breakfast in the casa we headed out to see the Malecón in daylight, walking along the waterfront towards Havana’s old colonial heart, Havana Vieja.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit cart, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit cart, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Centrally clustered and facing the imposing Fort of San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana Vieja was one of the greatest cities in the New World, the key to Spain’s empire in the Americas. It’s one of the most atmospheric places I’ve visited. At once familiar yet utterly different to Panama City’s Casco Viejo and Colombia’s Cartagena. Both of which offer a glimpse into one possible future for Havana.

It would be easy to describe Old Havana as a living museum but there’s just too much life for that. Parts of the old town have been painstakingly renovated under the guidance of Havana’s official historian, other parts are all crumbling plaster and faded grandeur. The joy of Havana Vieja’s narrow streets and airy plazas is just wandering and absorbing the sights and sounds.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary poster, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary poster, Havana Vieja, Cuba

This is the most touristed part of Havana and a hotbed of jintero activity. Hustlers and con-artists – jinteros will try to befriend you and then take advantage of you. It happens everywhere but in these narrow streets it seems magnified. It’s irritating but not as much as restaurants that overcharge or give you the wrong change – another speciality of Old Havana.

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Paintings, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Paintings, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana Vieja, Cuba

We started our ramblings through Havana Vieja in the Plaza de la Catedral, a baroque square dating from the 18th Century. This is the place to get – for a small fee – your photos of cigar-smoking ladies wearing traditional costume, and is the perfect starting point for an exploration of Havana Old Town…