By Cheryl Simchowitzc
Havana – I have been fascinated with Cuba since I was a teenager when I had a serious flirtation with the ideals of communism and revolution.
I was the proud owner of a Che Guevera poster, sourced in London by a friend. Although not Cuban by birth, Che to me embodied the spirit of the Cuban revolution.
I was interested in the Cuban peoples’ struggle against colonialism, slavery and post colonial oppression and corruption. In the 60s during the Cold War between East and West, I was terrified along with the rest of the world, when I heard President Kennedy’s ultimatum to Presidents Castro and Khrushchev to abandon planned nuclear missile sites on Cuba, or face a war.
My love for Latin American music also began back then. I danced to songs like Guantanamera (the girl from Guantanamo), composed by Joseito Fernandez.
Last year, because of my work commitments, I missed one of my favourite Cuban musicians, the Buena Vista Social Club at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. I was so disappointed I decided visit Cuba in December and hear the group live in Havana.
Because travelling alone is both uneconomical and lonely, I opted to join a 14-day comprehensive road trip offered by Exodus, a British travel company. The tour was expensive because of the weak rand and travel to Cuba required two expensive long-haul international flights.
Weather-wise, December is a good time, but prices are high and places are busy because it is high season. Most northern hemisphere inhabitants are on the move, seeking sunnier and warmer climates.
I flew into Paris from Joburg and then onto Havana, a 22-hour journey. I joined the tour group the next day and we set off early in a comfortable bus from Havana heading east en route to Baracoa. Our route would include stops at Santa Clara, Holguin, Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, Sierra Maestra, Camaguey, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos – and back to Havana.
It was smallish group, which makes for a degree of flexibility and intimacy. We had a mix of nationalities, a high percentage of British travellers and a varied age range. The younger members livened up the group. Some members had joined for just sun and rum, others wanted that – as well as the chance to immerse themselves in the culture, dance, music, history and heritage.
Cuba is a photographer’s dream. Parts of the old towns in all the cities we visited had amazing old buildings, churches, town squares and cobbled streets. One had a sense of being a time traveller and stepping into the past. Because of the severe economic situation over several decades Cubans for the most part still use horses, donkeys and drive 1950 and 60s “Yank Tanks”. Some of these old cars now serve as taxis for tourists.
Amid this were some stark Soviet blocks of offices and apartment.
Most Cubans take a pride in their environment, so I saw very little litter. There were people asking for hand-outs and commodities that they could not get such as toiletries and items of clothing. The coupon system is used and there are stores where each family exchange coupons for goods on a monthly quota basis.
Getting to Baracoa was long trip on hellish roads but worth it. It is the oldest town in Cuba, founded in 1511 and surrounded by tropical forest.
The historic centre is not colonial but a mixture of styles. From the 18th century fortress on the hill one has excellent views of the town and the flat topped mountain El Yunque (the anvil) stands vigil over the surrounding area. This is a popular trekking area for visitors.
The slopes of the mountain have been declared a biosphere reserve by Unesco and are home to botanical rarities, including one of the oldest plant species in the world, Podocarpus.
From Baracoa we headed to Santiago de Cuba which has been described as the most musical and passionate city of Cuba. We visited the barracks that Fidel and his men attacked at the start of the revolution on July 26, 1956, then explored the old city on foot. The foot-weary among us stopped for drinks on the terrace of Hotel Casa Granda, which was described in Graham Greene’s novel, Our Man In Havana.
At sunset we visited the Castillo de Seboruco. This 18th century fortress is perched on a hill with superlative views. One could imagine swash-buckling pirates such as English-man Henry Morgan attacking the turrets.
Revolution combat sites, as well as museums for heroes of the revolution are naturally the main attractions for visitors. For me one of the highlights was an 8km hike in the Sierra Maestra to the hide-out of Castro during the uprising against Batista in the 1950s. From here Radio Rebele made broadcasts to comrades.
I also found the museum honouring the fallen heroes of the Bay of Pigs very moving. On April 17, 1961, returning Cuban exiles supported by the CIA led a failed attack in this area, to recapture Cuba from Castro. The battle cry Freedom or Death was used for the first time by the revolutionaries. It later became their mantra.
Che Guevara’s statue and mausoleum outside Santa Clara is impressive too. The memorial contains 38 stone niches dedicated to the men killed in the failed uprising in Bolivia. Remains of only 17 men including Che were exhumed in 1997 and returned to Cuba.
On our journey back to Havana we spent some time in two very beautiful old towns Trinidad and Camaguey.
Both are Unesco world heritage sites. Trinidad is one of the best preserved colonial towns. It has a strong African feel since from 1600s to 1800s the city was a major centre for slaves and sugar. Its once grandeur and wealth live on in the decayed old buildings.
Also too, the music of this region has an earthy African beat and wildness. Every town visited had an active, vibrant musical element. Regardless of age, we all ended up swaying, bopping, and twirling along to the beat. It was positively infectious.
Camaguey, like Trinidad can only be appreciated by walking slowly through the town. Because the citizens feared pirate attacks, the lanes here are as labyrinthine as a Moroccan medina. There is a vibrant artistic community and it is worth browsing the studios and markets.
We spent overnight at Cienfuegos, known as ‘pearl of the south’ in the colonial era. It has one of the most beautiful bays in the Caribbean Sea. It has a well preserved historic centre with beautiful buildings in a geometric layout, which is typical of neo-classicism.
Everywhere we went, the Cuban people old and young were generally friendly, helpful and curious. The Cubans I met made an effort to engage even if they could not speak English. Some were content; others longed to escape Cuba and head to America or Spain.
The last two days of the tour were spent back in Havana. We stayed in the iconic Nacional Hotel which was built in the 1930 as a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. It is a national monument and one of Havana’s postcard sights. There is a long list of famous guests from statesmen to mobsters.
The hotel is well position on the Malecon, a seafront promenade which stretches for 7 km along the city’s historic quarter.
We did a half day walking tour of the old Havana which was declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 1983. It is the largest colonial centre in Latin America and an architectural feast, characterised by Hispanic- Andalusian styled design.
Our last evening was spent listening to the Buena Vista Social Club in downtown old Havana. It was a magical music experience. The club was alive with energy and excitement as the oldies and newer members in the band performed some of their most popular songs.
Before flying out on the final day, we celebrated together as a group with a lunch and mojiotos at Ernest Hemingway’s favourite restaurant, La Bodeguito Del Medio. This was a fitting end to a memorable tour. – Sunday Tribune