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Adios, Old Cuba

March 22, 2016

Nigel in Cuba

Cuba: it’s still all there – the classic cars, the political posters, the music, the crumbling colonial buildings, the absence of advertising – but it won’t be for long. I would advise booking that trip now, rather than leaving it another year or two.

Last month President Obama visited the island following his December 17 deal with Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother, who took over in 2008), lifting some of the 50-year-old embargoes and putting a US ambassador back in Havana

At the moment, Americans are still somewhat restricted from visiting Cuba, and the ones who are there tend to have arrived via a third country such as Mexico. But in another year or so there will be a massive surge of ‘Yankee’ tourists. Tourism is now Cuba’s main source of income, so they will be welcomed, just like the three million other visitors who went there in 2015. So the message is: get there before McDonald’s and Starbucks, if you like your holidays unhomogenised.

For now, the old Cuba still survives: quirky, exciting, with a tattered, fading beauty – and long queues outside banks to change foreign money into the permitted ‘CUCs’, or tourist dollars, due to an almost total lack of cash machines.

In fact, there is an almost total lack of all the highspeed stuff we have so quickly become used to: wifi, convenience stores, lattes. And it is not as if the Cubans are sentimentally hanging on to the old. They can’t wait for this new chapter to begin. They are welcoming it openly. As a tourist, you will be treated with great warmth.

Originally, Cuban wealth came from the slave trade: Cuba was, in 1886, the last country to renounce slavery. Its other two main exports have been tobacco and sugar. Hopefully, with tourism, they have picked an industry that will not go so drastically out of favour.

When the Russians pulled out in the early 1990s, it left the Cubans impoverished, and then followed what was described as the ‘Special Period’ – rather like a state of emergency – when there was no food in the shops, no petrol, no jobs.

They are only now emerging from this devastation, which explains their enthusiasm for holidaymakers. And Cuba really does have a lot to offer, including a unique history and wildlife, beaches, and tropical forest.

Nowadays there is an official shortlist of permitted private businesses, which includes letting out rooms in your own home and turning your front room into a restaurant, as long as you employ at least one member of your family there. This means that in some towns, such as the beautiful Vinales, every house on every street has paying guests sitting out on the veranda, and many of the larger older buildings serve food.

Forget what it says in the guidebooks about it being hard to find a restaurant – many of these thriving businesses have been going for less than a year. In Vinales, for example, Tapas J3 was humming like a Soho cafe, and the grilled lobsters were flying off the flame griddle.

The guidebooks have not caught up with the speed of what is happening in Cuba. Vinales is, by the way, also worth a visit for its astonishing scenery – jungly ‘mogote’ mountains that stand alone in the vast plain like sleeping elephants – and for its horseriding tours and handrolled cigars.

Cuban Street

This is definitely the place to buy your cigars, and enjoy sampling them in an old barn with Miguel, a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike, as he lazily handrolls a few perfect Monte Cristos.

Of course there are the beach resorts as well. We stayed in a staterun hotel on one of the ‘Cayos’; islands joined by a 30mile causeway on the Atlantic coast. The sea is blue, the rum is good, the palm trees are tall, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit herded here. Besides, there is so much more of interest to see in the rest of the island.

On the southern, Caribbean coast, Playa Giron, in the Bay of Pigs, is the best place for scubadiving. I went snorkelling and, apart from the lovely yellowygreen coral, saw the hull of one of the landing craft of the failed 1961 American invasion that was thwarted by Fidel.

There is a Bay of Pigs museum in this small seaside stretch, which has old uniforms, photos and weapons – and a short, scratchy, blackandwhite film of the ‘heroic revolutionaries’ who fought off the ‘Yankee’ invasion.

There’s more of this type of thing in the centre of the island at the huge Che Guevara memorial and museum near the town of Santa Clara, where the decisive battle of the 1959 Revolution was fought.

We are so used to that one, iconic photograph of Che that we were surprised to find how many other excellent pictures there are of him, hanging about in his jungle hideout, smoking his cigars, better looking than even George Clooney.

Near Santa Clara is Trinidad, an old colonial town, originally the centre of the sugargrowing region. It is here that you get the strongest impression that you are in a Latin American country, not on a Caribbean island.

Hot, cloudy skies loom over magnificent Hispanic colonial architecture and palm trees. The streets are full of activity and here, unlike some other Latin and Central American towns I could think of, the visitor feels safe. There is no sensation of threat. Indeed, on all the main roads there are hitchhikers of all ages: old ladies, young girls.

The years of isolation seem to have created a society in which people genuinely look out for each other.

Cars that have broken down by the side of the road, or just run out of petrol – which is frequent with gas stations being so far apart – invariably have other vehicles drawn up alongside whose drivers have merely stopped to help.

I have saved the main attraction until last: Havana. The big American classic cars are still there, running on diesel. They are there the moment you get off the plane, and you will be breathing their fumes until you leave. These are classic models from the 1950s and 1960s which are miraculously still on the road.

In Cuba, everyone must be a mechanic. In fact, on the TV channel in the hotel were a string of Cuban pop videos, all of which seemed to feature fat men in overalls, with oily rags, fixing engines. But American Chevys and Dodges are not the only classic cars in Havana.

There are also less ostentatious Ladas and other Muskovy brands, also belching diesel fumes. In fact the streets are like a sort of Classic Car Cold War reenactment.

Cuban Cigar Maker

On our first evening in Havana we visited the Sociedad Cultural de Rosalia Castro, which sounds grand and political, but is in fact the extraordinary, recycled palace where musicians from the city’s famous Buena Vista Social Club of the 1940s still play. Yes, many of the original guys, still playing: one singer was a 95 year old woman whose voice was a bit on the wavy side.

After playing a few numbers, the old guys retired to the dressing room and a younger, more energetic lot took over and played on into the night. When I say younger, I mean singers in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The building is typical: four or five storeys high, with wide stone stairways and crumbling walls. In the central atrium are several open archways which lead off to massive open hallways lit with neon, where whole families now live.

A building like this, which in colonial times would have housed one family and servants, is now home to perhaps seven or eight households, as well as some kind of business.

The trip we were on included a driver and guide at all times, which was great because it meant we saw so much more than we would have under our own steam, although there were a few days off for relaxing. Almost all of our guides and drivers had other jobs as professors and doctors, even sportsmen.

Now the whole island is gearing itself towards the outside world, it seems the most gainful employment to be had is introducing foreigners to this wonderful country, for so long cut off from the rest of the Western world.