2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

12 things to know about Cuba

Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations in the world right now. Its strangely alluring Communist chic, all that is left of an ideology that once vied to be the dominant force of the 20th Century. The “see it before it changes” rush is in full flow and the tourist infrastructure is barely able to keep pace. Ironically, all those people visiting before the US embargo ends are speeding up the pace of change.

I don’t think a month in Cuba makes me an expert but, bearing in mind the changes taking place, what would I tell someone who’s planning to visit this fascinating country?

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

1. Cuba, Last Chance to See. Judging by the number of tourists (over 3 million last year), and the businesses and property developers tripping over each other to get their hands on property and land, Cuba’s isolated existence is ending with a bang. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but change is likely to be rapid, widespread and leave plenty of casualties in its wake. Like any endangered species, this is your Last Chance to See the real Cuba. Whatever that means.

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

Ploughing, Valle de Silencio, Vinales

2. Cuba is full of tourists. They should have a sign at Havana airport that reads: Cuba Is Full. At least that’s how it felt over Xmas and New Year. Our casa owner in Havana said that, on New Year’s Eve, a young Brit arrived on his doorstep in tears. He’d spent hours walking the streets looking for somewhere to stay. He was offered the sofa. The tourist juggernaut is unlikely to end any time soon, so plan ahead.

3. Tipping is a lifeline for many people. Most Cubans are on government salaries, and the Cuban government pays lousy wages. A speech therapist we talked to earned $30 per month. He couldn’t support his family so he quit to become a taxi driver earning more than that in a day driving tourists. That’s the reality for most Cubans. Tipping is not just a way of showing your appreciation, it’s a vital source of income.

Playing chess, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Playing chess, Havana Vieja, Cuba

4. Sex tourism is thriving in Havana. The Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 destroyed Cuba’s economy, plunging many into poverty. The US embargo has kept Cubans in poverty. This has affected all areas of life, including efforts to end the sex trade. You don’t have to look far to spot sex tourists, visiting to exploit the steady stream of women and girls trying to support themselves and their families. It happens most places, but that doesn’t make the exploitation of poverty any less depressing.

Musicians, Trinidad, Cuba

Musicians, Trinidad, Cuba

5. Where’s the wildlife? Cuba has some of the most extraordinary marine ecosystems in the world, but on land things are very different. When a 4-kilogram tree rat counts as your largest wild land mammal things have reached a pretty low point. I was hoping for monkeys, sloths and other creatures we’d seen in Central America, but everything has been driven to ‘extinction’.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

6. Stay in Casas Particulares. Cuba’s gap in accommodation is being plugged by entrepreneurial home owners who rent out rooms. This is the best way to get a feel for Cuban life and also puts $s into the hands of people who need them. Our stay was greatly enriched by meeting the families of the casas where we stayed. They’re great sources of local knowledge, will book a room in your next destination and organise transport.

Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba

7. Eat in your Casa Particular. Food in Cuba is far better than we’d been led to believe, and without a doubt the best food we had was in casas particulares. Who can argue with fresh lobster, fish, shrimp, chicken or pork accompanied by rice, beans, plantain, salad, bread, soup and fruit for €10? Just remember to take your own spicy sauce, it’s almost impossible to find.

8. Take a mosquito net. I hate mosquitos. I’m sure they play an important role in some ecosystem or other, but I for one wouldn’t be unhappy to see the end of them. There are very few mosquito-borne diseases in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have mosquitos. Not a single place we stayed had nets, so if you don’t like being bitten take your own. Insecticide sprays are non-existent.

Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

9. Transport. Invention being the offspring of necessity, Cuba has some of the most inventive forms of transport known to humankind. My advice is to use whatever’s available. Bullock cart anyone? Cuba also has the ViaAzul bus. Cheap and reliable, you’ll be hostage to the whims of the driver. Expect stops to buy cheese, pick up friends and chat with relatives. Taxis are affordable and don’t stop to discuss the price of chickens.

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

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

10. Jineteros aren’t so bad. Jineteros, a Cuban word for hustlers, seemed to be everywhere in Havana Vieja. We spent an afternoon in Bar Bilbao on Calle O’Reilly, watching a constant stream of jineteros trying to get tourists into the bar so they could ‘befriend’ them and remove some of their excess cash. It’s annoying, but rarely threatening. In the end, people are just trying to make a living in difficult circumstances. Elsewhere in Cuba we hardly came across any hard sell.

11. Cubans like a drink. When in Rome go to a bunga bunga party. When in Cuba drink rum. There are other kinds of alcohol but rum is ubiquitous and very cheap. What else is there to do with all that sugar cane? Havana Club is common, but at New Year the drink of choice seemed to be Ron Mulata. At less than €1 for a bottle it would be impolite to say ‘no’. Not many people did. Also try Ron Cubay and Ron Santiago De Cuba.

Man walking pig, Trinidad, Cuba

Man walking pig, Trinidad, Cuba

12. Manage expectations. Cuba is like nowhere else. It’s a country that comes with a weight of expectation that can weigh a visitor down. It’s also a country going through a seismic shift. Accept things won’t always go smoothly. The casa room you booked will have been given away. When you order a cheese and ham sandwich expect to eat the set lunch because there’s no cheese, ham or bread (it happened). Do as Cubans do, drink rum and get on with it.

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

A farewell to Havana, Cuba

You could spend weeks in Havana and still not find the time to see or experience half of it. It’s easy to understand why people come to Cuba just to visit the city. It’s a place that imposes a lazy pace of life on you whether you like it or not. Best to embrace the rhythm of the city, have that 10am glass of rum with your casa owner and see where the day takes you.

Cuban flag, Museo de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Cuban flag, Museo de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

We had three days in Havana when we first arrived and quickly realised that we’d want to have more time in Cuba’s greatest city. Coming back for another couple of days at the end of our trip a different Havana greeted us. Thanks to its economic isolation, most of Cuba is very sleepy and Havana suddenly felt like a big, bustling city.

Most of our time in Havana was spent wandering the streets, popping into cafes and bars to cool down and listen to music, trying to get a feel for the city. We were staying in a casa particular just behind the Malecon, Havana’s iconic waterfront, in the Havana Centro area of the city. A perfect location for exploration.

Havana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro, Havana, Cuba

Havana Centro is yet to feel much benefit from the tourist boom or government investment. It’s a dilapidated area of crumbling buildings, piles of rubbish grace street corners and the smell of broken sewers fills the air. Yet it’s the most fascinating area of Havana we visited. The busy compact streets are full of life, day and night. It’s a more authentic, less glamorous version of Havana Vieja.

Built in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to accommodate the city’s growing population, Havana Centro is separated from Havana Vieja by the glorious Prado, or the Paseo de Marti to give it its official name. This was one of our favourite streets, home to ever-changing scenes of daily life overshadowed by beautiful buildings.

You can walk from the waterfront all the way up the Prado to the Capitolio Nacional. Styled on Washington DC’s Capitol, it was built slightly larger just to make a point. It sits next to the meringue-like Gran Teatro de Havana, and is close to Parque Central where a clutch of high-end hotels offer wifi, good drinks and live music. The terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra was the obvious choice for a piña colada and people-watching.

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Parque Central, Havana, Cuba

Parque Central, Havana, Cuba

Gran Teatro, Havana, Cuba

Gran Teatro, Havana, Cuba

Gran Teatro, Havana, Cuba

Gran Teatro, Havana, Cuba

Behind the Capitol is a part of Havana Centro mostly ignored by foreigners. We strolled for hours, finally giving in to the heat and taking a bicycle taxi to the weirdly sterile Plaza de la Revolución. After the cramped streets of Havana Centro this vast open space feels like you’ve entered a different universe, almost like it doesn’t belong to Havana.

This is the seat of the Cuban Government and home to the Communist Party. It’s also where Fidel Castro addressed up to a million people on important dates associated with the Revolution. There isn’t a scrap of shade and Castro would bore the pants off people for hours on end. My idea of hell. More recently, Pope Francis addressed a huge crowd here. Also my idea of hell, but a sign of changing times.

The Plaza de la Revolución is instantly recognisable by the large steel memorials to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos, The Hero of Yaguajay, is less well-known than Che Guevara (have you ever seen a t-shirt with Cienfuegos on it?), but he played a key role in defeating Batista’s government. He died in 1959 shortly after the triumph of the Revolution.

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

The plaza is a sort of No Man’s Land dislocated from the rest of the city. As we pondered our options a Coco Taxi pulled up, the urge to take a ride in Havana’s most absurd form of transport was irresistable. Coco Taxis have a less than enviable safety record, but they are a lot of fun. We whizzed down to the Malecon and then walked all the way back to Havana Centro as the sun set. It was a fabulous ‘goodbye’ to Cuba.

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Malecon at sunset, Havana, Cuba

Cars, cars, cars…a Cuban icon

Think Cuba, chances are cigars and cars will come to mind. It might be cliché, but both are true. Cuba’s been called a ‘Jurassic Park for cars’, and there’s truth in that. Classic American cars grace every piece of tourist literature and travel story about Cuba, but I didn’t actually believe there’d be so many 1950s, 60s and 70s cars driving around. They are everywhere and in all sorts of conditions.

In Havana, some of the best preserved and renovated cars chauffeur tourists along the Malecón and into Havana Vieja. Elsewhere in Havana, and every other town in Cuba, there are old American cars that have been patched up, rebuilt and fitted with specially adapted Lada engines imported from Russia. I doubt there’s a classic car left that isn’t made up of several different cars.

Classic American car, Havana, Cuba

Classic American car, Havana, Cuba

Classic American car, Havana, Cuba

Classic American car, Havana, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

We ended up taking classic cars on several different trips. You get a little thrill every time you step inside one, but it would be hard to describe the majority of these workhorses as comfortable. Most have mismatched seats long bereft of functional springs, windows that don’t work and little in the way of suspension. It’s not unusual to see them by the side of the road awaiting repair.

Five hours squeezed with two other people into the front seat of a 1970s Dodge was enough to convince me to never do it again.

In a country where cars and car ownership are rare, people take great pride in their vehicles, and have used enormous ingenuity to keep them on the road. In many ways, they’re an ironic yet iconic symbol of Cuba’s defiance in the face of hostility from the United States.

Given the difficulty of buying new parts, it’s a miracle that so many cars continue to be roadworthy. A casa owner we stayed with said he’d travelled 80km to a small town to find spare parts for his car engine; when he got there he wasn’t able to strike a deal with the owner and went away empty-handed. A daily occurrence in Cuba.

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

For sentimental reasons we were looking for a 1958 Studebaker. Try as we might though, we couldn’t find one anywhere. We searched and asked wherever we went, but although we found Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks and Dodges from the 1950s, and American ‘muscle cars’ from the 1960s and 70s, a 1958 Studebaker wasn’t to be found anywhere on the island.

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Classic American car, Cuba

Amidst the many classic American cars, Ladas, motorbikes, cycles and various horse-drawn transport, we did see a handful of Japanese, Korean, French and German cars, none especially new. Once the US embargo ends they’ll be more cars, lots more, clogging up Cuba’s highways.

Most of all there’ll be a new batch of American cars on the streets. In another one of those ironies in which Cuba seems to specialise, it’s likely that Cuba’s classic American cars will be heading the other way, back to the United States as vintage collectables.

Santa Clara and the making of the myth of Che Guevara

Santa Clara is awash with revolutionary sights and folklore. It was here, following a three-day battle, that the Cuban Revolution went from being a guerrilla movement to becoming Cuba’s government. For the last 57 years, the town has been the lodestone of the revolution; and, for all that time, it has nurtured the myth of Che Guevara as idealist turned military genius.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

If the memorial to Che’s most famous role in the conflict is anything to go by, military genius means bulldozing a railway line to derail a train. True, the train was filled with heavily armed government troops who had been sent from Havana to crush the revolution; also true, the odds of the ragtag band of revolutionaries winning the battle were pretty remote.

On paper the attack on Santa Clara should have only ended one way: a resounding victory for the government.

The bulldozer Che Guevara used to derail the train, Santa Clara, Cuba

The bulldozer Che Guevara used to derail the train, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

The forces commanded by Guevara numbered no more than 300 men. Government troops in the city numbered around 2,500, and an armoured train had been dispatched with 400 reinforcements and lots of supplies. It should have been a bloodbath for the rebels. Instead, on the second day of the battle, the train was derailed and attacked with Molotov cocktails.

The majority of the soldiers on the train quickly surrendered and Guevara’s troops found themselves in possession of lots of new weaponry. The ease with which the train was captured led Batista to claim the officers had done a deal with Guevara. If true, this would undermine the foundation upon which the Che myth is based.

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che t-shirt anyone? Guevara memorabilia, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che t-shirt anyone? Guevara memorabilia, Santa Clara, Cuba

The fighting continued inside the city – bullet holes still pockmark the Hotel Santa Clara Libre where snipers were positioned on the roof. Stiff resistance came from police headquarters, but once that fell to Guevara the town was his. It was New Year’s Eve 1958, and when Batista heard that Santa Clara had fallen he fled the country.

The next morning the nearby army garrison surrendered. Santa Clara, and Cuba, was now under the control of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces. Che Guevara moved on to Havana which was ‘liberated’ two days later.

Wall painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Wall painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Celebrating the Cuban Revolution, Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Cuban Revolution, Santa Clara, Cuba

Statue of Che Guevara, Santa Clara, Cuba

Scary statue of Che Guevara, Santa Clara, Cuba

Hotel Santa Clara Libre still with bullet holes from the battle, Santa Clara, Cuba

Hotel Santa Clara Libre still with bullet holes from the battle, Santa Clara, Cuba

Painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Paintings of Che Guevara, Cuba

Guevara, his place in the revolution assured, led the round-up, trial and execution of many Batista regime loyalists. The trials, which almost always ended in a death sentence, have left a bloody stain on Guevara’s legacy. He went on to take up high positions in the Castro government, but his relationship with Fidel and others was already deteriorating.

In 1965 he was dispatched to Congo to foment revolution in post-colonial Africa. The whole sorry affair was a complete disaster. Frustrated by failure, Guevara’s Cuban troops were almost wiped out by a force of South African mercenaries. Tail between his legs, he returned to Cuba and shortly afterwards found himself in Bolivia trying to overthrow the government.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

This too was a total disaster. He and his Cuban followers quickly found themselves in an impossible position. Quite where the idea of him being a military genius comes from is a mystery. It was here in the poorest country in Latin America that Guevara was captured, executed and buried in an unmarked grave. His remains were found in Vallegrande in 1995 and repatriated to Cuba in 1997.

To celebrate this, and to perpetuate the myth of Guevara, a mausoleum and memorial were constructed in Santa Clara. The monument is topped with a giant bronze statue. Underneath is a museum (no bags, phones or cameras allowed) that essentially deifies Guevara, communist-style. Stalin would have been proud.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che Guevara number plates, Cuba

Che Guevara number plates, Cuba

Che Guevara versus Assassins Creed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che Guevara versus Assassins Creed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Guevara’s cult-like status is everywhere in Cuba, but its epicentre is in Santa Clara. Fifty years after his death, he is still one of the most recognisable people in the world, and still revered by many. Yet, it’s fair to ask whether the myth flatters to deceive? After all, Alberto Korda’s famous photo hides a grim reality: he was a ruthless and unbending ideologue, capable of torture and murder. Is that really suitable for a t-shirt?

Viva La Revolución! Celebrating victory in Santa Clara

Santa Clara holds a special place in the mythology of the Cuban Revolution. It was here at the end of December 1958 that two columns of Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries – one commanded by Che Guevara, the other by Camilo Cienfuegos – fought what would prove to be the final and decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution. It also cemented Guevara’s reputation as a guerrilla leader and military strategist.

The swift defeat of government forces in Santa Clara convinced President Batista that the war was lost. He fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic less than twelve hours after the city had capitulated. It was 1st January 1959, and within two days the city of Cienfuegos had fallen and Castro’s forces entered Havana without a shot being fired.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

While this was happening, Fidel Castro was far away in the south attacking Santiago de Cuba. Once it was confirmed that Batista had fled and his government had fallen, Santiago capitulated and Castro was able to undertake a ‘victory parade’, driving in a convoy through Cuba to reach Havana.

Castro’s victory parade is celebrated each year by a reenactment that leaves Santiago and visits numerous places en route to Havana. We weren’t aware of it before we arrived, but this revolutionary travelling circus was scheduled to descend upon Santa Clara the morning after we arrived.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

We’d arrived late in the evening after taking the ViaAzul bus from Playa Santa Lucia. This itself was a stroke of luck. This bus service wasn’t listed in any guidebooks and, again, we had Rafael, our casa owner from Camaguey, to thank for providing us with the information. The bus left at 11am and arrived in Santa Clara a gruelling ten hours later. I was very happy we weren’t going all the way to Havana.

A taxi whisked us through pouring rain from the bus station to our casa close to Santa Clara’s main square, Parque Vidal. Tired and hungry, we were glad we’d asked if we could have dinner at the casa. The food was excellent and, after some beer had been found, we chatted with our young hosts and then headed to bed for an early night.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

The next day the rain had been replaced by sunshine and we headed out to explore Santa Clara proper. Our first port of call was Parque Vidal, where the peculiar sight of throngs of schoolchildren were noisily gathering. We asked a teacher what was going on, and found out about the imminent arrival of the reenactment of Fidel Castro’s victory parade.

We didn’t have long to wait, soon a police car entered the square with its lights flashing, next came several army vehicles and trucks filled with banner waving school children and soldiers. They drove three times around the square, horns blaring and the small crowd cheering. It was fascinating but, to be honest, a bit underwhelming.

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

If the only people who show up for one of the most important days in the revolutionary calendar are school children, a few adults and a handful of tourists, the revolution’s in trouble. The whole thing had the feeling of being antiquated even though the Castro government is still in power. Give it a year or two and, I suspect, there won’t be a parade anymore. Certainly not one with actual veterans.

After all that excitement we went for a walk around the town to see what else Santa Clara had to offer. While it lacks the charm of other cities we visited, and was definitely less clean than most, the streets had more life and energy. All of which is probably thanks to the large number of university students that live in the city.

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

We strolled the streets for a while, and then headed off to visit two memorials to the revolution that are also dedicated to its most famous son, Che Guevara…

Playa los Cocos, a Cuban idyll

Imagine a golden crescent of sand, sparkling azure waters and a brightly painted Cuban village nestling amidst palm trees on the edge of the ocean. Throw in a couple of thatched-roofed beach bars and a scattering of people lounging on the sand, and you will be imagining what Playa los Cocos and the village of La Boca looks like. A Cuban paradise by the sea.

Rafael, our charming and resourceful casa owner in Camaguey, had told us not to leave Cayo Santa Lucia without spending at least one day at Playa los Cocos; and not to leave Playa los Cocos before we’d drunk rum and eaten grilled fish caught by the villagers of La Boca on the beach. It seemed like a challenge of which we were capable.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

La Boca and Playa los Cocos stand at the top of Cayo Santa Lucia, about 10km away from the hotel resorts on Playa Santa Lucia. Even though the development on Playa Santa Lucia is pretty low key (especially compared to other Cuban resorts), the contrast with Playa los Cocos couldn’t be more pronounced.

Two wooden shacks serving food and drinks are the only buildings on the beach, beyond this there is no tourist development whatsoever. Only a potholed dirt road connects Playa los Cocos to the rest of the world. I imagine that will change in coming years, but hopefully the salt flats behind the beach, where dozens of flamingos live, might prevent the developers from destroying this atmospheric spot.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

We took a taxi to the beach early in the morning, and arranged for the driver to collect us later. When we arrived there was nobody around, so we strolled along the beach away from the village. The shore quickly became rocky, but we found a small beach amidst the rocks that we claimed as our own for a couple of hours. No people, and only the sound of the wind and sea for company. Blissful.

Eventually we were joined by a Cuban couple and their young daughter. Hunger was getting the better of us, so we shuffled off back to the main beach to see if the bars had opened. They had and a couple of dozen people, Cubans and tourists, had arrived on the beach. We had a delicious lunch of fish and prawns washed down with cold beer at the El Bucanero restaurant, and then hired a couple of loungers for the rest of the day.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

I’m not very good at sitting on the beach, so after a while I took off to go and explore the village of La Boca and the coast further around the headland. The village is small, dirt roads and weather-beaten wooden houses give it a ramshackle and careworn feeling. People are friendly though, and I was invited into one house by a man who was keen to show me a whalebone from a whale that had washed ashore.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Walking further down the deserted coast was fantastic. A sailing boat passed close to the coast, some fishermen floated in inflated tire inner tubes, and a few seabirds wheeled overhead. I took swim from a small patch of sand and bobbed around for a while before heading back to the main beach. It was idyllic.

Beach time on Playa Santa Lucia

We were beginning to despair of finding a patch of golden sand, for which Cuba is rightly famous, to call our own. We’d planned to go to the beach near Cienfuegos, and again near Trinidad, but there were so many tourists in Cuba that we literally couldn’t find anywhere to stay. We’d been travelling for three weeks and had spent one day at the beach. Something had gone badly wrong.

We were bemoaning our fate to Rafael, our casa owner in Camaguey, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. This is typical of Cuban hospitality. It took a day and numerous phone calls, but when we came back one afternoon he triumphantly declared success. He’d found a place for us to stay at the Playa Santa Lucia.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

There are two sides to Playa Santa Lucia: one, with all-inclusive resort hotels that were last in fashion when the Soviets were still exporting Ladas to Cuba; the other, south of the ‘strip’ with a few houses, bars and tiendas scattered amongst palm trees. It was here, amongst the palms, that Rafael found a motel for us. It had a swimming pool, an al fresco bar and restaurant, and was a short walk to the beach. It cost €30 per night.

It was clear from the moment we set foot on the beach that we were staying in a Cuban area. It was the weekend and families were eating, drinking and swimming on this southerly stretch of beach with no facilities beyond some thatched umbrellas. A lot of rum was being consumed and a lot of fun was being had. The water was crystal clear and sublimely warm. We dived in and realised what we’d been missing.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Relaxing in the warm azure waters, it felt like we were washing off the dust of the many Cuban towns we’d visited and the many kilometres of road we’d travelled. It was glorious. The beach here stretches for 20km and we walked towards the resort hotels through the surf, watching fishermen at work in the shallows.

It was clear when we left the public beach and entered the resort beachfront. Suddenly there were people wearing wristbands, and people checking them, loungers by the dozen and Canadian English replaced Cuban Spanish as the lingua franca. We were searching for lunch but none of the hotels took our fancy. Instead, we found a small restaurant just off the beach and ordered up some cold beers and grilled fish.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

After a long lunch we wandered further along the beach before retracing our steps along several kilometres of beach towards our motel. Passing the strip of resort hotels, we stumbled upon a wedding on the beach, which was drawing a crowd of unofficial onlookers. As we stood there the groom took the microphone and burst into song at the altar. They do weddings differently in Cuba.

As we walked, dark forbidding clouds started to gather and for a moment it looked like we might get caught in a thunderstorm. Luckily the rain held off just long enough for us to get back to the motel. The rain was warm and didn’t last long.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

That night we sat out by the pool, drank mojitos, ate fried chicken and (bizarrely) cabbage, and pondered the transformation that the Cuba we’d come to know over the last three weeks had just undergone. Being by the beach was like being in a different country.

Camaguey cemetery and the legend of Dolores Rondón

Like all good Latin American cemeteries, Camaguey’s is home to a legend surrounding a tragic young woman. Dolores Rondón was the beautiful mulata daughter of a poor Catalán immigrant. Through marriage to a Spanish military officer she transcended her humble origins and joined Camaguey’s high society.

She travelled, went to balls and attended high society events. Then tragedy struck. Her husband died and she was left adrift in a world in which she was an interloper. She fell into poverty. Destitute, she made her way back to the Camaguey streets from which she came, and died of smallpox in a local hospital.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

The twist in the tale? There’s always a twist in the tale…after returning anonymously and without financial resources, it was her rejected former suitor – a humble barber – who found her in the hospital and who paid for her funeral. Legend has it that it was he who inscribed the biting epithet on her gravestone.

The epithet* has become a memorial to her life and a lodestone to those who seek meaning in graveyards. It asks us mortals to consider where ‘true greatness lies’, before going on to admonish us for the ‘pride and vanity of wealth and power’. Ironic really, her grave sits in a cemetery that seems dedicated to projecting the wealth and power of Camaguey’s most prominent citizens.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Like Havana’s larger Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Camaguey cemetery and the attached Iglesia del Santo Cristo is an impressive place. Graceful marble statues rise up into the air, exquisitely carved details giving a hint of the craftsmanship (and money) that has gone into their creation.

True it’s not as grand or quite so beautiful as other Cuban cemeteries which might explain why, in an UNESCO World Heritage listed town, it isn’t a national monument. Despite that, it’s still an atmospheric place.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

The old part of the cemetery is quite beautiful, with large tombs and wide avenues; but over to one side is a newer part to the cemetery. This is much more cramped, and there are far more tombs that are far more humble. It’s clearly the more used part of the cemetery; there were fresh flowers and, on a child’s grave, a cake being slowly devoured by ants.

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Camaguey Cemetery, Cuba

Cuban independence hero, Ignacio Agramonte, is also buried here…or at least that’s the rumour. It turns out that although there is a mausoleum to Agramonte, he may not reside within. Agramonte was killed in battle and, fearing that Cuban forces would try to retrieve the body, the Spanish brought his body to Camaguey to be cremated.

It’s not really known what happened next, but a  witness claimed the body was never fully burned and the remains were interned in a grave in the cemetery. Two historical conundrums in one cemetery…

Here Dolores Rondón
Ended her life.
Approach, mortal, and consider
Where lies true greatness:
Pride and vanity,
Wealth and power.
All of them come to an end
For only immortaliSed is
The wrong that is saved
And the goodness that is done.

A confusion of streets in Camaguey

Camaguey was built with a confusing street layout, meant to baffle and disorient would-be attackers. Our first indication that they’d succeeded in this aim was when our driver stopped to ask for directions. A short time later he stopped to ask for more directions. The third time, he stopped and offered a woman a lift if she’d guide us to our casa particular. We still ended up on the wrong street.

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Our misadventure seemed trifling compared to the troubles Camaguey endured when it was first founded, as Santa Maria del Puerto Principe, in 1514 on Cuba’s northern coast. A wealthy hub, it was repeatedly attacked by pirates, and faced rebellions from local indigenous tribes.

The town finally moved to its current inland location in 1528. This didn’t stop the pirate attacks, and it had to be rebuilt in 1668 after a particularly destructive raid by Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. It was after this that its haphazard street pattern took place.

Parque Ignacio Agramonte, Camaguey, Cuba

Parque Ignacio Agramonte, Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza San Juan de Dios, Camaguey, Cuba

Some commentators compare Cameguey’s maze of streets to an Arabic medina. These commentators have clearly never been to Fez in Morocco where, without the aid of a guide, you could wander for days without ever finding your way out. There were times when we were a little disoriented, for sure, but unlike Fez we never had to resort to paying someone to lead us to safety.

Camaguey should really be known for its numerous lovely plazas, the premiere example of which is the colonial-era Plaza San Juan de Dios. It’s a picturesque place with some nice restaurants that have tables with umbrellas; it’s perfect for having a mojito and watching children playing football, itinerant musicians playing the nearby bars, and the occasional tour group sweeping through.

Walk through a tangle of narrow streets past the ‘five corners’ and you’ll arrive at another splendid square, Plaza Del Carmen. You approach down a narrow street lined with pastel-coloured houses with a pretty colonial church at the far end. The real delight is a series of humorous statues depicting scenes of daily life in this traditional barrio: women gossip, lovers get intimate and a man reads a paper.

Another favourite was the Plaza de los Trabajadores, with its visually oxymoronic Iglesia de Merced on one corner and a large mural of Che Guevara opposite. Inside the church there was a tour group of pilgrims – an unexpected sight – underscoring Camaguey’s reputation as Cuba’s most Catholic city. At night one corner of the plaza became an informal dance hall. It was a lot of fun.

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Plaza Del Carmen, Camaguey, Cuba

Our guide book said to be aware of street crime in Camaguey, but we walked around the town day and night without ever being hassled or feeling insecure. It’s a peaceful and clean city that belies its status as the country’s third largest. People were helpful and friendly, the worst thing I could say is that after walking up a dozen flights of steps to reach the rooftop bar of the Gran Hotel, it wasn’t open.

We were staying in a lovely casa particular. The owner, Rafael, gave us lots of tips on places to go, and barmen who made the best cocktails. He even found accommodation for us at the Playa Santa Lucia when we moved on from Camaguey. Before that though, we had a lot of exploring to do, wandering the twisted streets and taking in scenes of day-to-day life.

Fruit seller, Camaguey, Cuba

Fruit seller, Camaguey, Cuba

Iglesia de Merced, Plaza de los Trabajadores, Camaguey, Cuba

Iglesia de Merced, Plaza de los Trabajadores, Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

Camaguey, Cuba

This included an alarming number of pig roasts taking place in the street. We were on our way to the cemetery when we first saw a pig being manhandled and hung from a  tree while it was gutted. Not a sight for the squeamish. The pig was unceremoniously skewered on a large pole that entered one orifice and exited another. There is no dignity in death for the pigs of Cuba. It doesn’t make them less tasty though.

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

Pig roast, Camaguey, Cuba

After this little demonstration we went into the hugely attractive Necropolis de Camaguey. It seemed fitting…