Cuba: it's now or never

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Sun, sea and socialism – experience the revolutionary fervour of the Caribbean's largest island before its unique appeal fades

I felt it beneath my feet. A tiny grumble: an echo of something much bigger, far away. It passed quickly, though, and I wouldn't have given it another thought. It was a truck, perhaps, grinding past in the green valley below and carrying a cargo of sugar cane, tobacco, livestock – or people, swaying in the back. There are plenty of big trucks in Cuba and most have seen better days, belching black smoke and engine noise in equal quantities. But the caretaker of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre – she was an old lady, wrinkled, with a deep tan – glanced around at me, her hands fluttering. "Temblor," she said. A tremor.

The graceful shrine at El Cobre lies 20km north-west of Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city, on an isolated hill encircled by higher peaks. A visit here brings you 100km due south of the tourist enclave of Guardalavaca on the north coast: almost the full width of Cuba. Eleven days ago, as the earthquake devastated Haiti, a faint tectonic ripple was also felt across Cuba's deep, dry south. A tsunami alert was issued and coastal attractions were closed.

Cuba escaped with barely a wobble. Yet this is a country well used to being at the mercy of external forces. Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma wrought enormous damage in 2008, shattering buildings and constricting the island's already meagre food supplies for months. And then, of course, there's the delicate matter of being a communist country just 140km from Key West at the southern tip of Florida.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cuba's relations with the US have ranged from deep mistrust to outright hostility. From the CIA-sponsored "Bay of Pigs" fiasco, to the Missile Crisis of 1962, to the current US economic embargo (condemned each year by the UN to no avail) and the festering sore of the American base at Guantánamo Bay, two utterly opposing world views have been locked in battle. Until now, nobody's blinked.

But when Barack Obama said in the run-up to his election to the US presidency that "my policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: libertad", it seemed that an accommodation might be possible. Perhaps the "Trading with the Enemy" rules that have effectively barred US tourists from visiting Cuba would finally be relaxed. Perhaps with Fidel Castro, the architect of the revolution, stepping down in favour of his brother Raúl, there might be room for face-saving compromise with the US: better human rights for Cubans, democratic reforms.

Travel restrictions to the island for Cuban-Americans have been eased, but nothing else has happened yet – and President Obama's recent inclusion of Cuba on a list of terrorist states doesn't seem to have much libertad about it. But European tour operators have sensed a selling point: go to Cuba now, runs the mantra, before the Americans come and it changes for ever.

Of course, tourism in Cuba has already changed, and it's we Europeans (and Canadians, Mexicans and Brazilians) who have changed it. Back in the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet bloc removed Cuba's main sponsor, alternative forms of income had to be found. Instead of exporting sugar to the USSR, Cuba would import tourists to its stunning shores of powder-white sands and dazzling azure seas. Now two million visit every year to spend the Cuban convertible peso (introduced in an attempt to insulate the local currency from the force of the dollar, and abbreviated to CUC). Many are lured out of the specially created tourists zones such Guardalavaca and Varadero on the north coast and into a Cuba that offers something rather different from palm trees, spa treatments and 24-hour room service.

Not that there's anything wrong with palm trees and room service. I was staying at the Paradisus Rio De Oro at Playa Esmeralda in Guardalavaca, a vast collection of pink and yellow villa-style rooms and apartments arranged behind a beautiful curve of beach. The luxurious central hub has everything you'd expect: a swooping swimming pool, a slew of restaurants (Japanese, Mediterranean and à la carte), nightly cabaret, trickling fountains and a huge bar where guests down mojitos until the small hours. There's a spa here, too, offering a range of treatments in three wooden huts that face the ocean. If that's not exclusive enough, the "Royal Service" rooms – which opened last month and lie further up the hillside – have their own concierge, three tiny private beaches tucked among the trees and a three-tiered swimming pool. This is a world of balconies and pillars, marble flooring and luxury bathrooms, with a very grown-up ambience (children can't stay here). It's also a wonderful place to relax. But it's a bubble within a bubble. It's not Cuba.

Cayo Saetía isn't Cuba either, but that doesn't mean you should eschew the opportunity to go there. Organised excursions from the Paradisus include boat rides out into the Atlantic, or swimming with dolphins. However, the catamaran trip out to this green-clad island, which lies an hour east of Guardalavaca at the vast blue sweep of Nipe Bay, is one of the highlights.

During the 1970s, Cayo Saetía was developed as a game reserve for high-ups in the communist party to take pot shots at exotic animals. Now it's a dilapidated wildlife park containing a smart 12-room hotel, as well as a few antelope, deer and ostrich.

After snorkelling along the coastal reef and eating lunch in a tiny thatched restaurant next to an exquisite beach, I took a CUC9 (£6.40) hour-long safari round the interior in an ancient Russian 4x4. Soon I'd seen my fair share of wildlife imports, including wild horses, a tame ostrich and a penned-in crocodile (although all of the island's 13 zebras seemed to have defected). Rather more impressive, though, was the forested landscape and the sweeping views out along the coast: all low hills and tall palm trees.

It's a peculiar place to spend the day, but Cuba is full of examples of this sort of make-do and mend. From Guardalavaca I headed south in the company of Liuba Guedes, once a Marxist-Leninist philosophy student and now a tour guide. "We have special things here," she said. "Different from other countries. We are underdeveloped but we are developing fast."

You can't travel around Cuba without being both fascinated and appalled at how other people are getting from A to B. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the public transport infrastructure here has been in disarray. Cuba is a big country – 1,250km long, and larger than all the other Caribbean islands put together – so solutions have had to be found. Horses trot past, pulling huge loads; trucks are used as buses, with schoolchildren crammed on the back; dilapidated motorbikes act as taxis, as do bicycles; and tractors, too, carry passengers. Hitch-hiking is not only legal, it is actively encouraged, with amarillos – officials wearing mustard-coloured uniforms - flagging down anything that moves and organising lifts for locals queuing at the side of the road.

As we drove through the city of Holguín, "the city of squares", Liuba pointed out the key sites. These, for her, were not confined to churches or colonial architecture. Throughout our journey she also proudly drew my attention to technical colleges and universities, hospitals and doctors' surgeries, sports grounds and music schools. The buildings themselves were nothing much to look at, tending to be concrete blocks or crumbling ancient shells. But together they embody the good side of life under the Castro regime: free education and health care, along with artistic and sporting achievements way above Cuba's weight.

The flipside to all this is a desperately low standard of living, a ban on international travel for all but a favoured few, and a kind of political Neighbourhood Watch in the shape of local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. It's an uncomfortable existence to observe from the back of an air-conditioned people-carrier, freshly imported from Korea.

Bayamo, my next stop, was founded in 1513, the second settlement to be built by the Spanish (after Baracoa at the island's eastern tip). Surrounded by fields of sugar cane and bananas, it's focused around the beautiful Parque Céspedes, where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the "father of the nation", first proclaimed Cuban independence in 1868.

A small museum on the square commemorates the great man. Here, I met Miguel Muñoz López, who was pleased that I was one of the 2,000 or so foreign tourists that visit the site each year. "I assure you as a human being," said Miguel, "that if you want to experience the real Cuba you have to come to places such as Bayamo to talk to real Cubans."

Real or not, Bayamo's residents are proud of their position in Cuban history: they burnt their town to the ground in 1869 rather than have it reoccupied by the Spanish. It was also here that the Cuban national anthem was first sung; a monument to this fact lies in the centre of the square. "Hasten, brave ones, to battle!" runs the last line. It feels a bit more peaceful nowadays: no one hastens anywhere.

I wandered down the main pedestrianised shopping street of El Bulevar past the art school (where the street lights have been adapted to resemble tubes of paint) and on to the Museo de Cera, a small waxwork museum where celebrated Cubans such as singer Benny Moré and guitarist Compay Segundo stand in eerie stasis. Finally, near the imposing San Salvador church, I ate a lunch of shredded beef, beans and rice in La Bodega, a pretty restaurant with a terrace overlooking the tangled, tropical valley of the Río Bayamo.

It's all a sharp contrast to the hectic bustle of central Santiago de Cuba. Here I took a taxi-bike from the austere, Stalinist memorial at Revolution Square – vast shards symbolising the machetes used as weapons during the quest for independence – and made for the old town, a compressed grid of beautiful colonial streets. Like Bayamo's, the main square here is called Parque Céspedes, and it was here that Fidel Castro first proclaimed the revolution, on 2 January 1959. The city's cathedral rises grandly behind and nearby lies the Balcó*de Velázquez, a stately platform overlooking the harbour.

On Calle Heredia, I stopped at the Casa de la Trova, a beautiful colonial building containing the local songwriting house, where bursts of terrifyingly accomplished guitar-playing blasted out into the street. I then made my way back to the long flight of stairs known as the Padre Pico steps and headed into Tivolí, Santiago's old French quarter. Here the grace of the city centre was replaced by a creeping decay: rotting balconies, dismayed concrete, bored-looking men on street corners. A girl called Daniella offered to show me her friend's restaurant, then suggested something a bit more intimate. I politely declined the opportunity.

Beyond the city, I travelled to the World Heritage Site of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, a 17th-century fort which rises – grand and grey – from the coast overlooking the mouth of Santiago's harbour. The views from the battlements are dramatic: Jamaica hides due south, out over the sparkling Caribbean Sea; the coast is rippled with bays and coves; and behind lies the beautiful Sierra Maestra, the mountain range that once provided sanctuary for Castro and his guerrillas while they battled their way the capital.

Havana's La Bodeguita del Medio was one of Ernest Hemingway's erstwhile haunts, and now trades on his name by claiming the best mojitos in town. Photographs of celebrity drinkers line the walls, and there's a tradition here that you have to sign the walls when you visit. It was an appropriately tourist-oriented place to discuss the possibility of an annual arrival of three million Americans with Alessandro Vazquez, the resort team leader for TUI (the group that owns First Choice and Thomson).

"I think the Americans will come here, but it won't happen overnight," he said. "The problem is the Cuban infrastructure: the country will have to go through a five- to 10-year expansion at areas such as Guardalavaca and Varadero." But, he felt, Cuba was politically robust enough to cope: "We will remain the least Westernised country in the Caribbean."

It's for precisely that reason that the Cuban capital is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. There's no Starbucks here, the golden arches of McDonald's are notable only by their absence. The trade embargo means that virtually anything American dates from before the Revolution: those iconic cars have been carefully nurtured by their owners to survive until the 21st century.

However, the last time American tourists were here in any great numbers – in the 1940s and 1950s – they certainly changed things. The most decadent expression of this lies in the slab-sided Hotel Nacional and the Vedado district to the west of central Havana. Here the Mafia built casinos and attempted to construct an image of a Floridian suburb in a regimented grid pattern. Years of neglect have now transformed what was an ornate and wealthy area into an atmospheric maze of crumbling side streets and cracked and peeling buildings. It's a truly atmospheric place in which to wander.

Meanwhile, Habana Vieja (the old town) is exquisite, a World Heritage Site that is being beautifully restored to its former glory, using money levied on the hotels in the centre of town (all of which are at least partially owned by the government, often in conjunction with European hotel groups). Here graceful squares such as the Plaza de Armas blend softly into tree-lined streets; exquisite colonial architecture rears up around every corner; old men play dominoes. At every restaurant, you hear live music – salsa, mambo, chachachá.

Along with all private property in the country, the Cuban state has appropriated many of the city's public buildings for its own ends. The Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator deposed by Castro, is now the Museum of the Revolution, its beautiful interior partially obscured by a transfixing series of displays and memorabilia, all high on polemic. And the vast Capitolio building – a replica of the Capitol in Washington DC – is now the National Library.

The Saratoga Hotel, where I stayed, has undergone an charming restoration job of its own: the rooms are plain but beautifully presented, with dark wood furnishings, and there's a roof-top pool with views as far as the Straits of Florida.

The economic downturn has been a gift for the Cuban authorities: "Crisis Mundial Capitalista" shriek the vast billboards that line the roads, with an arrow indicating that the only way is down for all selfish, market-based economies. (Other boards celebrate the 51st year of the Revolution in equally strident terms; waiting for a round number is clearly a bit bourgeois.) However, tourist numbers to Cuba have declined since the beginning of the worldwide recession, and Cuba needs tourism to fund its isolated economy.

Whether or not those tourists will be American is yet to be seen, but when you ask around there doesn't seem to be too much concern about their arrival. Tour guide Juan José Pérez Garciá just smiled when I wondered how things would change: "I think it will be a positive thing, not only in an economic sense: the US will see what the reality is here. But tourists have been coming to Cuba for years and so far we have preserved our identity. Why not with the Americans?"

First time in Cuba: Three memories

1972 by Neil Taylor

When I first visited Cuba in 1972, there were no problems getting into the country: as the British government had not got around to imposing visas on Cubans, Havana did not bother either. The problem was getting out. Cuba was then, as now, very interested in who was leaving its shores. So pioneering holidaymakers needed an exit visa. For that, you had to reckon on spending at least a morning queuing in a smoky office in some distant corner of Vedado, the modern quarter of Havana.

Within a few years, the problem was reversed: exit visas were abolished, with entry ones imposed. If you were lucky, and could afford to spend a day in London, it would usually be issued just before you left. But many intending travellers were unlucky: not because they were banned, but simply because nobody in Havana got around to issuing the requisite authority to the Cuban Embassy in the UK.

Finding a hotel bed was no problem; they were all empty. Food, however, was a concern. As a foreigner you were obliged to eat in expensive dollar restaurants. If you visited locals, you went first to the foreign currency shop to buy all the food. They would provide the coffee, the rum and the conversation.

As you ate and drank, they complained – but only up to a point. Most had memories of life before 1959, which for 95 per cent of the population was far, far worse.

Neil Taylor organised the first package holidays from the UK to Cuba as director of Regent Holidays

1986 by Juliet Barclay

I first came to Cuba in November 1986 to visit a friend working there for Unesco, which had recently conferred World Heritage status on Old Havana. I took one look at the place and fell hopelessly in love with its arches, courtyards, columns and extraordinary history. During research for a book I met Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler, City Historian for the capital, who described to me his brilliant plan for the renaissance of the Centro Histórico.

I've had the luck and honour to have been associated with the project for 20 years during which hundreds of important buildings, artefacts, customs and traditions have been saved, but the peace and quiet of the 1980s has floated away on a sea of salsa and sun-tan lotion. Yet I never cease to be amazed by Cuba's landscapes and cityscapes, and the nation's incredible culture: art, literature, music, architecture and poetry. The latter ranges from the glorious 18th-century Ode to a Pineapple to the piropos used by handsome Habañeros to talk their way into female affections. It used to do a girl's heart good to be acclaimed in the street with such remarks as "God bless the sculptor who made you!"

Even now, Cuban machismo still rules supreme with such gallantries as Estás como los almendrones, de uso pero en buen estado – "You're like a classic car, used but in good condition."

Juliet Barclay is author and translator of a number of books on Cuba, including Havana: Portrait of a City

1990 by Chris Parrott

I arrived in April 1990. Six months earlier, the Berlin Wall had come down. Cuba's best friend, the USSR, was going the same way, as perestroika and glasnost gnawed away at the Revolutionary roots. As Fidel Castro looked about for new friends, his eyes lighted on me.

Well, not me exactly, but the tourism business in Europe. It was no good looking immediately north – the US was no friend. But European governments didn't regard socialism as profanity, and European tour operators would be well disposed to Cuba.

So it was that I found myself (plus a few others) a guest of the Cuban government, flying on Viasa, the late (and unlamented) Venezuelan airline via Caracas.

It was immediately clear that what was on offer was not quite what any of us wanted. Eight of us were ferried about in 54-seater coach. We visited luxury hotels with Muscovite standards of service. Food was edible, but barely eatable – two words come back to me: grease and swimming. What was on offer was Soviet Union-on-sea.

But all around me was what we wanted: the real Cuba. Latin America. Music. Dance. The heritage of Spanish colonialism. We could work with this. Twenty years on, we're gradually making it work. The buses are smaller (made in China), the food's eatable, service is friendly. And Venezuela is still a friend – they trade oil for doctors.

Chris Parrott is director of Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk)

Travel essentials: Cuba

Getting there

* Ben Ross travelled with Thomson (0871 231 5595; thomson.co.uk), which offers twin-centre holidays in Cuba staying one night at the Playa Pesquero in Guadalavaca, three nights at the Saratoga in Havana and 10 nights at the Paradisus Rio de Oro in Guadalavaca from £1,876 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights to Holguí*from Gatwick, a tourist card and transfers. Excursions to Santiago de Cuba (£40 per person), or Cayo Saetia (£59 per person) can be arranged locally or via thomsonexcursions.co.uk. (Note that 4x4 tours at Cayo Saetía are not likely to be covered by your travel insurance.)

* Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic. com) flies twice weekly from Gatwick to Havana. *Cubana (cubana.cu) flies to Havana via Holguí*weekly from Gatwick.

Staying there

* Saratoga Hotel, Havana (00 53 7 868 1000; hotel-saratoga. com). B&B from CUC336 (£240).

More information

Tourist cards are easily available for holidaymakers, price £15-£25. The most up-to-date guidebook is Frommer's Cuba day by day by Claire Boobbyer, published this month (£8.99).

Cuba tourist board: 020-7240 6655; travel2cuba.co.uk

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