Colourful 50s 'Yank Tank' taxis in Havana

CARIBBEAN MAGIC - CUBA

THERE is nowhere quite like Cuba. The island pulsates with energy – in its Old World Spanish traditions, its music, its dance and its outdoor adventure. JOY DODDS reports.


While neighbours Jamaica and the Bahamas buzz with Western hype grafted onto a Caribbean base, Cuba remains very much as it did at the time of the 1959 revolution when Fidel Castro’s revolution established a Soviet-style society. Today this endures, epitomised by 1950s ‘Yank tank’ cars, buildings with once-vibrant colours, cracked shutters and wrought iron - and a lack of technology, including WiFi.

However Cuba’s crumbling walls of its colonial past have a grandeur and beauty of their own. Lacking the Western consumer trappings of other capitals, Havana exudes character. Like those old-fashioned cars that cruise its streets, it is a city of survivors, artists, musicians - and colour.

Cuba’s political isolation has prevented its being overrun by tourists making exploring the island full of new experiences. Another bonus is that the locals are incredibly warm and generous despite their relative poverty.

The island, the largest in the Caribbean, is jam-packed with interest, from Havana’s vibrancy to the more ancient history and architecture of Santiago de Cuba, with its art and lively dance beat, at the southern tip. In between, around Cuba’s shoreline, are magical beaches, bays and secluded coral reefs.

There are off-shore islands like Cayo Coco – the setting of Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ – and mountain ranges, such as the Sierra Maestra.

Cuba is rich in culture, music, art – all enhanced by local delicacies. It’s fascinating to sit in a café sipping a rum-based mojito or a Cuban coffee with the ever-present samba music pulsating as you watch the colourful locals enjoy life à la Cuba.

Music is everywhere, from street performances in the Plaza de la Catedral in the old quarter of Havana to reggae and dancing in discos and jazz clubs such as the famous La Zorra y El Cuervo and Tropicana Nightclub.

Art proliferates across the island, nowhere better than Havana’s fabulous collection of Cuban art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Other museums commemorate the revolution and characters such as Ernest Hemingway.

Cuba is renowned for its spectacular sand beaches and subtropical climate, making it a mecca for water sports. Among the most famous are Varadero Beach, Pilar of Ernest Hemingway fame, Jardines del Rey archipelago and Ancón, a snorkeling paradise. More than 3400 km of coral reefs are home to sea turtles, rays and other marine life. Scuba divers can enjoy caves, tunnels, cliffs and shipwrecks at prime spots off the coast and windsurfing and kayaking is popular at Sirena, on Cayo Largo islet.

Ecotourism is alive and well in the Sierra Maestra mountain range which runs through the island. Near Santiago de Cuba is the famous Gran Piedra (the Grand Stone), a natural watchtower, with breathtaking views of the southeastern coast, the resorts and beaches in Baconao Park and the city in the distance. The 450-step access walkway is not only an adventure but a treasure trove of flora and fauna – rare orchid and fern varieties as well as rare wildlife including the tocororo, Cuba’s national bird. There is overnight accommodation at the Gran Piedra Hotel in cabins and bungalows.

Cuba’s physical activity options are endless – swimming, diving and snorkelling in crystal clear waters; hiking and cycling; rock climbing in the Vinales Valley, a karst terrain with primitive rock art caves in Pinar del Rio – and let’s not forget dancing and discoing.

Perhaps the most satisfying activity in Cuba is observing the locals in this unique old-fashioned environment, where the iconic image of Che Guevara stares out from billboards and hand-rolled Cuban Cohiba cigars are de rigueur.

Experience Cuba before the inevitable rapprochment with the USA opens the door to hordes of developers and destroys its unique character.

VIBRANT CITIES:

HAVANA, the largest city in the Caribbean, is culturally rich, its colonial past on show in forts, cathedrals, slave owners’ mansions and museums. Cobblestoned Vieja Habana (Old Havana) is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site, with the Presidential Palace and Cathedral Square major landmarks. The Malecon embankment which snakes along the seafront is where locals come out to play. Cuba’s culture is celebrated with exuberance and its love of music and dance spills out in clubs, cabarets and impromptu salsas. Dance companies and theatre thrive, as do art galleries such as the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Havana’s coastline offers 15 km of beaches such as Playas del Este, and unspoiled coral reefs, perfect for swimming, sailing and scuba diving.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA exudes soul. Cuba’s second-largest city, at the southern tip of Cuba, is proud of its heroes, plazas and vibrant musical tradition. Its distinctly Caribbean spirit transmits to its music, art and architecture, and celebrated in its exuberant festivals – including the Festival del Caribe and the renowned Carnaval. In the French Quarter, Tivoli, top Cuban musicians perform at Casa de las Tradiciones. Architectural influences range from imposing El Morro castle and ramparts which have majestically stood above the harbour since 1693 to the exquisite colonial residences of Parque Céspedes in the historic quarter, and the basilica to Cuba’s patron saint from El Cobre.

Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum, founded by the famous rum distiller in 1899, features exhibits relating to the 19th century independence struggle from colonial Spain. In a different category, the Museo del Carnaval demonstrates how Santiago de Cuba lets down its hair during its famous celebrations during July. East of Santiago is Baconao Biosphere Reserve with its coffee plantations, while the highest peaks of the Sierra Maestra mountains rise to the west. Crashing surf along the region’s mountain-lined shore makes for a spectacular drive.

TRINIDAD is ‘the museum city of Cuba’, a window to the past with its colonial mansions, palaces, plazas, sugar mill ruins and slave barracks. Soak up the rich Spanish colonial architecture strolling through the picturesque cobblestone streets. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, its most striking buildings and museums are situated around Plaza Mayor, testifying to the Spanish wealth. When the sugar trade moved to Cienfuegos, Trinidad became a living relic. Trinidad’s picturesque location, between mountains and the Caribbean coastline, offers natural attractions including Sierra del Escambray, beaches like Ancón and Guardalavaca and fishing spot, Embalse Zaza.

CASTRO HOT SPOTS

Bay of Pigs (Bahai de Cochinos) and Giron Beach - where the CIA-led attack was defeated in April 1961.

Sierra Maestra Mts – Visit Castro’s guerrilla headquarters and Presido Modelo where he and other rebels were incarcerated

Santa Clara - Che Guevara’s victory memorial/mausoleum in Central Cuba.

Moncada Barracks, Santiago, when the revolution was born. At Siboney Beach is the farmhouse from where Castro and his men left to stage the attack.

TOURIST NOTES:

Cuba has a dual economy, with US dollars and Cuban pesos. Tourists must pay for accommodation and transport in dollars, and pesos for incidentals. It is fairly safe for tourists apart from petty but begging is widespread.

Avoid Cuba in July/August when it is stiflingly hot, and beware of hurricanes in September/October. If you can tolerate the heat, visit during one of the myriad cultural festivals Cuba hosts, the best including Carnaval and Festival de Caribe in Santiago de Cuba in July.

Access Cuba from Mexico, in fact anywhere but the United States. Domestic flights and ferry rides are typical means of internal travel, as are Viazul buses and cheap taxis.

STAY: Hotel Saratoga in central Havana. Neoclassical with good amenities and views. hotel-saratoga.com

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