Cuba is a country that looms large in the imagination. Since the Cuban Revolution deposed the repressive and corrupt Batista regime in 1958, and turned the island nation into a Communist outpost on the doorstep of the United States, this small country has punched well above its weight on the international stage – a stage trodden by some of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic characters and dramatic events.
This is the country of romantic revolutionary Che Guevara, the Jesus Christ of Communism; the indomitable Fidel Castro; the Bay of Pigs; and the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of which took place before I was born, but which still define Cuba for anyone who has a passing interest in the world.
Cuba’s been thumbing its nose at its superpower neighbour for over half a century, for which it has had to endure el bloqueo, the vindictive collective punishment of Cuba and its people by the United States. The trade embargo has caused enormous hardship for Cubans, who’ve gone without many necessities, including medical drugs and equipment, for decades.
El bloqueo has also bequeathed modern Cuba some of it’s most iconic sights: the crumbling architecture of Havana Vieja; the 1950s US cars that grace every newspaper feature about the country; and a landscape populated by horse-drawn transport, ox-drawn ploughs and few motorised vehicles.
All of this is changing, and quickly. The small steps towards détente with the United States that President Obama has initiated is game changing. You can feel it in the air and in the attitude of Cubans, who seem cautiously optimistic while remaining realistic. “If the Republicans get in things will go back to how they were before”, was a refrain we heard more than once.
Whether it’s politics, history or music, Cuba seems like a known quantity. Yet after spending four weeks there it still feels intangible. Like trying to grasp mercury. Visiting at a time when tourist numbers threaten to swamp the limited infrastructure didn’t help. On more than one occasion we changed our plans because we couldn’t find anywhere to stay.
Cuba’s ‘must see before it changes’ Communist chic made it one of the travel destinations of 2015; this year will see visitor numbers increase dramatically. Over the December holidays half of Europe seemed to be visiting. A trend fuelled by the ever-so-slightly patronising attitude of, “see it before the Americans arrive and there’s a McDonalds on every corner”.
Our journey around Cuba was wonderful but not without its challenges. We stayed in casas particulares, the homes of people who rent rooms. We’d planned to do this, it’s the easiest way to meet ‘ordinary’ Cubans and get a sense of life away from hotels and tourist sites. Not that there was an option, I don’t think there was a single available hotel room in the country.
We’d naively thought we’d travel by bus and hire cars in the places we planned to stay. Getting a seat on Via Azul buses was tricky due to the sheer number of people travelling. There didn’t seem to be a single car left for hire in the country.
We travelled mainly by taxi, normally driven by a friend of the owner of the casa particular we were staying in. This itself was an experience, we variously travelled in 1950s US cars, 1980s Russian-made Ladas and more modern Japanese imports. We also travelled by bus, minivan, horse and cart, bicycle taxi, Cocotaxi auto rickshaws and on horseback.
Our journey took us from vibrant Havana to the beautiful landscapes of Vinales, north coast beaches and a horse ranch near Pinar del Rio; the fabulous coastal city of Cienfuegos and colonial Trinidad; we stopped in sleepy Sancti Spiritus and maze-like Camagüey en route to the fantastic beaches of Playa Santa Lucia.
Our trip finished with a visit to Santa Clara, where Che Guevara fought a decisive battle to topple the Batista regime and secure victory for the Cuban Revolution. We spent a couple more days in Havana before reluctantly returning to the freezing cold of northern Europe – it was 30 degrees with 80 percent humidity in Havana.
Hasta la victoria, siempre! Just make sure to visit before everything changes…