THREE soldiers, clad in the drab green fatigues of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, led me from the dazzle of Cuba's daylight into the gloom of their barracks. The commanding officer looked stern: 'Un trago', he prescribed solemnly.

A bottle of rum was produced. Un trago means 'a taste', but he decanted a generous tumblerful of rough cane spirit and offered it with a grin. No one merely sips rum in a Cuban barracks, so I gulped down the high-octane contents. Then I gulped painfully for air to try to ease the pain. The label read 'refined'; the sensation as raw alcohol scalded my throat caused an and undignified little yelp.

My mistake had been to stop the car for the troops in the first place. The foreigner in Cuba is forgiven almost any transgression, including refusing to give lifts to a bunch of soldiers anxious to get back to base. But I feared - needlessly - that their Russian-made Kalashnikovs might be trained on the rear of my Mexican-built Nissan. So I shuddered to a halt and three armed teenagers climbed in.

I was in a hurry; the relationship between uneven Cuban roads and the unbalanced suspension of my rental car had deteriorated sharply in the past couple of days, and I was making slow progress lurching from one pot-hole to the next. But you try telling a back-seat-full of gunmen your plans do not include a pause to share a bottle of rum. The unscheduled stop was made worthwhile, however, by the high humour with which the troops discussed everything from bicycles to baseball.

My destination was the corner of Cuba occupied by an alien power. The Caribbean's socialist idyll is ruptured by a 42 square mile chunk of land and sea - the American navy base at Guantanamo Bay, in the far south east of the island. As the film A Few Good Men shows, US marines train on the territory of a foe.

Because of the Americans' disdain for any foreign name containing more than two syllables, Guantanamo is simplified to 'Gitmo'. The 99-year lease on Gitmo Bay was signed in 1934, when Cuban-American relations were rather warmer and the Cosa Nostra rather than Communism held sway in Havana. The annual rent for the US toehold in Cuba, a piece of prime military real estate, is just dollars 2,000. Every year Washington sends payment, and every year since coming to power in 1959, Fidel Castro has filed the cheque in a drawer. He has collected dollars 68,000 so far.

Perhaps the woeful state of the economy might persuade the Cuban president to cash the cheques. The collapse of Communism elsewhere in the world meant everything from Polish vodka to Russian oil started to dry up. With fuel supplies more than halved over the past two years, getting from one end of Cuba to the other is a challenge.

My journey to the American base began with a series of small and frustrating steps around Cuba's capital. It proved impossible to find any tourist office dispensing maps and advice. At least the quest for enlightenment involved exploring an utterly charming city. Communism has not tainted the gently crumbling grandeur of Havana, and economic stringency has actually increased its loveliness. Instead of the motorised cacophony of other Latin American capitals, the sounds of Havana are strictly human - the animated ambience of the two million citizens living their lives on perfectly preserved plazas. Shady courtyards and ornate balconies are set among handsome pastel-painted streetscapes, heavy with style and atmosphere. Many visitors are content to spend their time in the city and on its nearby beaches. They have a point; but I wanted to head east.

According to the timetable, the night train to Guantanamo departs most evenings from Havana's elegant old station. With the generosity encountered everywhere in Cuba, Westerners are bundled to the front of the scrum around the entrance, and are shown to the foreigners' reservation office. A charming official invites the prospective traveller to draw up a chair and discuss the state of the railways. It seems that a ticket for tomorrow's departure could be procured, but the train may not run. Because of the wrong kind of politicians in Moscow and Minsk, fuel supplies to haul the 'express' have not arrived.

Feeling like a prisoner in the last remaining capital of Communism, I had no choice but to claim touristic immunity. So I booked a seat on a special tourist flight to the island of Cayo Largo. This narrow strip of sand dangles temptingly into the Caribbean 50 miles below Cuba's south coast. The authorities are busily developing it as a tropical utopia. Big, blank hotels of the style which was once popular on the Costa Brava are scattered along the shore. The Cuban is persona non grata here and the national currency, the peso, is useless in this dollar-only enclave.

Most people visit Cayo Largo on day trips from resorts all over Cuba. For pounds 60 you get a flight from the mainland, a morning on the beach, a lobster lunch and what is trailed to be 'a drive past the hotels'. Cayo Largo's air terminal doubles as the island's discotheque: every evening, the check-in area becomes a dance floor heaving with pink-fleshed boppers. I had a ticket back to Havana, but intended to switch to a flight going rather closer to my destination of Guantanamo. A particularly unhealthy looking specimen in the corner of the airfield was heading for Las Tunas, a good 400 miles east of the Cuban capital. I had no ticket for this journey, but in Cuba a pocketful of dollars is a good substitute for almost anything.

Fifty dollars bought a noisy, yet somehow sensual, flight over a country enjoying the flaming glory of a Caribbean sunset. We droned down on to a runway somewhere in eastern Cuba. Guantanamo Bay suddenly seemed within reach. I asked an official for directions to the bus into town. He wanted to call a taxi, but I was keen to travel with the locals. So: where was the bus? He pointed wearily outside the terminal to an already overloaded horse and cart.

At the hotel it was dinner time - unfortunately. The two most valuable words of Spanish you can learn in Cuba are 'no hay'. This is not a reference to the horse's supper; it simply means 'there is none'. It applies to more than half the items on an average menu, and often to entire enterprises: many coffee shops have no coffee.

Westerners are churlish to complain that all they get is chicken, beans and rice. Many Cubans these days have to make do without the chicken and beans. No one starves in Castro's Cuba, but Communism made no promises about the quality of the food.

Guantanamo was still 200 miles down the Central Highway, so I made an early start the next day. I need not have bothered. Las Tunas bus station won the best-terminal-in-Cuba award in 1985, but in 1993 it is empty. I try to talk circumspectly about the possibility of a bus: 'no hay', the staff shrugged, managing, miraculously, to keep themselves busy behind the ticket counters.

All the prospective travellers were to be found a mile away on the edge of the highway. Two hundred hopefuls were gathered by the roadside, but not a single thumb was extended at the passing traffic. Socialist hitch-hiking is strictly democratic: each state-owned vehicle is ordered to stop by an inspector, wearing a mustard-coloured uniform with entertainingly flared trousers. In more prosperous times, his job was to scrutinise the mechanical condition of cars and lorries, but he now just assesses how much space each vehicle has, and commands it to take the next five or 50 people on his list. A set of steps, requisitioned from the national airline, is pushed against the side of a lorry. People climb in clutching ragged bundles, grumpy children and emaciated animals.

When my number came up, I won a place in the back of a Romanian truck. It wheezed painfully uphill and ejected its human cargo 10 miles east of Las Tunas. I was transferred to a 1956 Pontiac, a huge hulk of chrome and rust which rumbled through the fields of sugar cane. The next ride was in a horse and cart, 10 of us being hauled through the countryside in the same manner as the cane-cutters of a century ago; the roads were probably better then. The final lift was in a lorry with not even standing room, packed with Cubans, chickens and a distressingly incontinent pig. I rebuked the pig, and checked my watch; the last 40 miles had taken six hours. I checked my wallet, and rented a car.

Tourists are exempt from having to stop for hitch-hikers, but it would be immoral to ignore them. In three days I picked up 79 hitchers. The first stop along the road to Gitmo Bay revealed the full horror of mass tourism. Germans are packed into chartered aircraft in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt and sent 4,000 miles to a country which could be anywhere in the Caribbean. They are bussed from the airport straight to the resort of Guardalavaca, and are left roasting in the sun for a fortnight.

I left the blight on the beach behind and headed for the Sierra Maestra. The revolution began amid this string of majestic peaks; Fidel, Che and their companeros fought their way out of the range and into the hearts of the people. As the car began to climb, the trio of soldiers playfully waved their AK47s and persuaded me to stop.

A guest appearance by a Nissan-driving gringo was just what the comandante ordered. We spent a merry couple of hours talking about anything except the future of Cuba. The antique radiogram in the corner blared out salsa, the music which is the nation's common pulse. Outside, the sun streamed down while the soldiers hooted with laughter at an attempted explanation of cricket. Thirty-four years after the revolution, Cuba still shares the USA's national game of baseball.

A billboard planted on a hillside in the middle of nowhere reminds passing motorists that 'capitalism offends human dignity'. It is well targeted, since only dollar-toting capitalistas in rental cars are likely to pass it.

Gitmo Bay, Cuba's slice of capitalismo, was within reach. The city of Guantanamo guards the upper reaches of the bay, while the Americans are camped a dozen miles south at the mouth. The descent to Guantanamo is disappointing - like dropping down from the Pennines into a scruffy Yorkshire town. It might come as a shock to football supporters to learn that the song Guantanamera originates here - the title means simply 'a woman from Guantanamo'. There's only one Fidel Castro, but his socialist paradise is showing signs of wear. The US blockade and economic regression has hit hard. Carts, rather than cars, clatter through the mud-tracks which pass for city streets.

You need permission to get any closer to the American base. At the Immigration Department, an avuncular jefe examined my passport minutely and perused my motives only in passing. 'Si,' he confirmed, signing the permit with a flourish. He showed me the door and hung on to the ballpoint I had lent him.

The road snakes south from the city past salt pans and the occasional wrecked truck, through the decaying decrepitude at the butt end of a tropical island. Only a succession of checkpoints hints at the proximity of the Americans. Rather than give succour to what it regards as an imperialist trespasser, the unwilling host long ago cut off supplies of water, power and food to the American base. Everything has to be brought in from the USA, and a desalination plant operates full-time to provide the marines with fresh water. A few Cubans work at the base in civilian positions, but their numbers are dwindling. Only those who had jobs before the revolution are allowed to cross the frontier each day. They are all due for long-service certificates and are likely to retire soon.

You can find out this much by talking to the locals, and by watching the film A Few Good Men. The international climate will have to change before foreigners are able to visit the base, but you can see the flickering lights of downtown Gitmo Bay from the port of Caimanera.

The radio tells you more about life on the base. The American Forces Network station FM-102 shows that the USA has imported a slice of suburbia to its corner of Cuba. The broadcasts lace Sinatra and soul music with mundane community announcements which sound bizarre from across the wire. A Jack Nicholson film is showing at the downtown Rialto, the radio reports - but it is not A Few Good Men, in which he brags of having to eat his breakfast '300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me'. I saw no sign of massed ranks of riflemen aiming at the base. Meanwhile, the FM voice of suburbia invited unmarried servicemen to a social at the golf club, promising 'heavy hors d'oeuvres'.

On the Communist side of the fence, there are no hors d'oeuvres of any gauge. What you can enjoy is Cuba's newest hotel. Like an opulent Mediterranean development, the Hotel Caimanera drapes itself gracefully down the hillside to the bayshore. It seems intended to show to the Americans that thirtysomething years of an economic blockade - and the death of Cuba's ideological family - has not impeded the path of progress.

Two problems thwart this confrontation with capitalism. The only currency negotiable in the hotel bar is the US dollar, so ordinary Cubans are unable to drink here. And few casual European visitors, for whom this triumph of tourism infrastructure was built, are inclined to go through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to visit it. Hardly anyone comes to the hotel to enjoy the scenery or peer at the Americans across the Bay. The staff are waiting for something, but no-one seems to know just what. Communism moves in mysterious ways.

Simon Calder is co-author, with Emily Hatchwell, of the Travellers' Survival Kit: Cuba (Vacation Work, pounds 9.95).

(Photographs omitted)