TRAVEL / Che Guevara, cheese-graters and me: Cuba is a land of faded political posters and shops selling bizarre, useless items. James Walton warms to the dying embers of Communism

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The Independent Culture
LAST June, summer holiday negotiations with my girlfriend had completely broken down. I was keen to spend some time shaking my head in a doleful fin de siecle manner over the dying embers of Communism somewhere miserable; she (who has a proper job) was holding out for relaxation on a beach somewhere nice. It was deadlock.

Until somebody suggested Cuba - unimpeachable embers with great beaches too. A package of return flight, six nights in Havana and seven in the 'dream resort' of Varadero, would cost pounds 399. This had to be the perfect solution.

As things turned out, it was - though this was not apparent at every stage. The outward journey, for example, was a Palin-esque epic of alternating hope and despair. We set off two days late, were re-routed via Venezuela and spent several hours at Caracas without luggage, onward or return tickets and, at one point, passports. When we got to Havana, 26 hours after leaving London, our pre-booked hotel was full. We and our fellow passengers consoled ourselves through all this, partly with the thought that this made us real travellers and not just tourists, but mainly with tales of even worse journeys the same package organisers had provided over the summer.

My favourite was the one where a Cubana plane had stopped to refuel in Nova Scotia and immediately broken down - the passengers, some on only a week's holiday, then spent two days vacationing on a Canadian air-base. (The operators who sell Cuban package tours say such problems have now been ironed out. None the less, I suspect it will be quite a while before Cuba is considered entirely suitable for those who rate slickness as a crucial holiday component.)

Meanwhile, in Havana, we went in search of those dying embers. They are not hard to find. The petrol shortage, for instance, means that there are few cars about and they are a surreal mix of Trabants and enormous tail-finned monsters from 1950s America. Otherwise, everyone travels by bicycle, often with whole families clinging improbably to one machine. There are plenty of taxis - but only for tourists with dollars.

Then there are the shops, as spectacularly empty as any doleful head- shaker could wish. In fact, with food rationing at the point where no Cuban over seven and under 60 was allowed meat or milk, the only shops even mildly well-stocked were those selling either books (mostly by Lenin), Che Guevara posters or cheese-graters, the superabundance of which was presumably due to the complete absence of cheese. There were of course, some shops which sell everything Cubans could desire - but only to tourists for dollars.

In short, once you're in Cuba, any illusions of being an intrepid traveller disappear. You are, inescapably, A Tourist and, as such, Cuba's only source of hard currency. Tourists also have their own restaurants, with all the meat they can eat freely available, and even their own television channel, pumping into the hotel rooms such revolutionary propaganda as Three Men and a Little Lady. So all the guide books are right - it's really not worth changing much money into pesos. Even the most avid collector of Communist literature, or cheese-graters, will be hard pressed to spend more than 30. (The rate is about 1 peso to the dollar, officially, or 20 to the dollar on the ubiquitous black market.) Still, if you're going to be A Tourist there are a lot worse places to be than Havana, whose endless fascination, as in every great city, lies in the fact that all the various layers of its history are simultaneously visible.

First, there is the decaying but still astonishing Spanish colonial architecture in old Havana, so impressive that the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site. Then there are the totems of the pre-revolutionary American playground phase.

Havana in the Forties and Fifties must have been quite a place (if you weren't Cuban, that is) and in its desperation for dollars the city is now tacitly admitting it. Hence, the re-publicising, re-furbishing and, in some cases, re-opening of the grand hotels, the Nacional, the Havana Libre (formerly the Hilton), the Inglaterra and the Capri, famous from Greene, Hemingway and Godfather II. (The Capri, once the headquarters of the Mafia in Havana, still has a roof-top Italian restaurant.) Once more, the dancing girls are dancing, the waiters taking tips and the prostitutes hanging around the lobbies. For the unreconstructed socialist, this must represent terrible defeat. For the unreconstructed hedonist, it must take some beating. (An American playground with no Americans.) For others it seems extremely odd, and very interesting. Especially as all the Communist murals are as uncompromising as ever.

A typical day in Havana could go something like this. Morning: visit Museum of the Revolution. Pay, in dollars, to see Castro's triumph over American imperialism laid out in all its undoubted heroism. Have photo taken beside tank used to repel Bay of Pigs invasion. Discuss museum over pool-side cocktails at lunch. Afternoon: wander around poor areas of old Havana. Buy black-market cigars from man standing under 'Socialism or Death]' poster. Notice empty food shops. Have large dinner. Evening: go to Club Tropicana. Have breath taken away by unmissable, fabulously over-the-top cabaret recently named the best show in the Americas (which must have annoyed Las Vegas no end). Drink lots of rum and (Panamanian) Coke. Go to bed.

So, while Hemingway fans will want to visit the many related sites throughout Havana (these are all bars; this is cultural tourism at its least cerebral), and music lovers will revel in the richness and diversity of Cuban music in the hotel clubs and cabarets (open-air discos for locals play mainly Madonna and Michael Jackson) there is really no escaping the most common tourist pastime of all - Wondering Just What Is Going On in Cuba. Big Questions follow the most insouciant flaneur everywhere - questions of politics, of ideology and even of fifth-form physics: what does happen when an irresistible force (History) meets an immovable object (Castro)? There is an awful lot of post-war world concentrated on this one island.

And so to the beach. Varadero is the Cuban version of an Identikit holiday resort: warm, blue sea lapping miles of golden coastline, palm trees swaying in the breeze, serviceable hotels and waiters who are really university professors and happy to denounce the regime to you in perfect English. You can hire mopeds (though in my experience these usually break down on country roads in the middle of enormous, deserted sugar plantations), or go scuba diving and sailing.

It is too early to speculate on the eventual consequences of Cuba's tourist drive, though economic salvation is unlikely to be among them. Perhaps, as some fear and others hope, the influx of camera-bearing Westerners will increase local frustration and hasten change. Speaking purely from the tourist's point of view, which may be a selfish and / or voyeuristic one, it would be desperately sad if Cuba ended up just another tourist paradise. For at the moment, the country appears to be like nowhere else on earth - a reason to go as soon as possible.-

Travel notes

GETTING THERE: Cubana Airways flies direct from Stansted to Havana; all seats are chartered to tour operators. Aeroflot return flights start at pounds 380 (book via Unique Tours, 071-355 1969); Trailfinders (071-938 3366) return flights from pounds 550.

TOUR OPERATORS: Journey Latin America (081-747 3108), 2 weeks from pounds 530; VE Tours (071-437 7534), 2 weeks from pounds 499; South American Experience (071-976 5511), 2 weeks from pounds 499; Regent Holidays (0272 211711), 2 weeks from pounds 480.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Cuban Embassy, 167 High Holborn, London WC1V 6PA (071-240 2488), or Cubatours, the state tourist office (071-379 1706).