"We learnt Russian in school, the Russians were here among us. It was normal, they were friends. I remember Tania, a very pretty girl ... and then we woke up one morning and the Soviet Union was gone ... we have a phrase in Cuba: 'We were sucking at the teat of a cow'." Edelso Alvarez, a teacher-turned-tourist guide, was describing an end to the "golden years" when Cuba was an outpost of the Evil Empire moored threateningly in the Caribbean just 90 miles off Florida.
"Everyone thought there was going to be destruction; it was going to be finished," he recalled. Indeed, once Cuba was cut adrift from the Soviet Union, the US took the opportunity to tighten its trade embargo in the hope that Fidel Castro's government would finally crumble and Cubans would be chomping on Big Macs by Christmas. "But it didn't happen," Edelso continued, some surprise and satisfaction evident in his voice. "People didn't want the US to come in and take everything and ... all the good that Fidel and the revolutionaries did – to be for nothing."
Faced with a catastrophic cut in its GDP, Cuba's avowedly Marxist-Leninist command economics at the very least required some reinterpretation. Cue the "special period", a time of huge austerity. Tourism provided an alternative source of foreign exchange and, along with limited minority foreign investment and stoic self-reliance, saved Cuba.
For visitors today, exploring Old Havana requires an appreciation of double standards. Grand façades of the opulent public buildings front proudly on to the wide boulevard of Paseo del Prado. However, the Neo-Classical Capitolio Nacional, resembling Washington's Capitol building and the elaborate Neo-Baroque Palacio del Centro Gallego, home to the Cuban National Ballet, sit close by a hotchpotch of creaking, dilapidated apartments.
Along with three-wheel taxis and pedal rickshaws, Havana's traffic sees shiny, jelly-moulded Korean cars jostle with shark-finned 1950s American Packards and Buicks.
The global High Street has not reached Cuba. Here, the most instantly recognisable brand is one of revolution, with celebrated images of Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Slogans that shout "Defend Socialism!", "Our Nation or Death!", "Socialism or Death!" rally a country in peril, or in the case of Guevara's "Love that is sane, is not love", kindle a reckless romance.
West of Havana at Las Terrazas, a model agricultural community occupies a scattering of neat, white, prefabricated bungalows and numbered barrack-like blocks. In common with many parts of Cuba, the surrounding hills of Sierra del Rosario were denuded by avaricious 19th-century Spanish and French coffee growers, eager for timber and plantation land. After the revolution, a government-funded reforestation project, assisted by idealistic "international brigades" of young socialist volunteers, replanted with a well-meaning but cavalier mix of native and non-native species.
Led by park guide Daniel Torres, our group of 10 walkers set out on a short-but-steep ascent of Loma El Taburete, a diminutive terraced peak in Sierra del Rosario. The ascent through mature woodland was swift and accompanied by burbling calls from colourful Cuban trogons, cooing pigeons and occasional gasps for breath in the stifling humidity. Amid the undergrowth, Daniel pointed out efficacious plants: "From the embargo time, we've rediscovered natural medicine. The old farmers, they knew and we are learning."
At the summit we found teaks, carobs and mahoganies thinned to a few feathery Caribbean pines. We were also challenged by a lone sentry. Realising the limited threat we posed, he exchanged news of the lowlands with Daniel before retiring to his shady radio hut.
Save for blue tourist buses, the highway east to the town of Trinidad and the Sierra del Escambray seemed almost devoid of traffic. "See this guy in the green jacket?" said Edelso, pointing out of the window to a patient queue of hopeful Cubans. "It's his job to make government cars stop and pick up hitch-hikers." Since the advent of Hugo Chavez's oil, paid for in-kind by some 40,000 Cuban doctors and security advisers sent to Venezuela, fuel supplies have steadily improved.
Close to Trinidad, our next goal was to hike in the Guanayara region of Sierra del Escambray's Parque Topes de Collantes. For this, we were joined by Yanet, another park guide. Travelling from the main road to the park headquarters, the steep switchbacks were of little consequence to our ex-army truck transport. "It's a Zil," said Yanet. "Very strong and six-wheel-drive. A Russian body with a Chinese heart. The old engines were too thirsty so we replaced them with Chinese ones."
When we finally stretched our legs it was to follow a well-marked path leading steeply into dense forest. For the first few minutes my views were limited to the footfalls of the person in front, then a sharp bend coincided with a clearing. Across treetops we could see the blue finger of the Embalse Hanabanilla reservoir, some 20km distant.
The path then dived once more into the forest of palms, figs, plane trees and Caribbean pines. It was almost secretive – and, indeed, the sense of subterfuge was hardly surprising. After Castro's military success, counter-revolutionary forces took up positions in the Sierra del Escambray and launched a five-year insurgency against the new communist government.
Emerging from the forest, we followed a ridge of close-cropped grass, disturbing the never-ending lunch of sheep and goats. Across the shallow valley, a campesino's simple cottage and animal pens basked quietly in the sunshine.
As we walked, I asked Yanet and Edelso about the origins and aims of the insurgents. Gleaning facts about the "bandidos" proved pretty heavy going. Yanet and Edelso described them as "very bad men" and "Batista's lieutenants", referring to Fulgencio, the deposed dictator. They asserted that after the failed 1961 CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion, the bandidos' fate – to be captured, imprisoned and executed – was deserved. (The facts are more complicated. Many fighters were former Batista soldiers, some were peasants unhappy with land reform, but several insurgent leaders were former revolutionaries disillusioned by Castro's embrace of communism.)
Back in Trinidad, I explored the cobbled streets of the old town, dodging rickshaws and endlessly disappointing the earnest attentions of souvenir sellers and cigar touts. I found a shady spot beyond the fray to consult my guidebook, where a local called Carlos invited me to join him in conversation to practise his English. "I want to see Rome," he said. "To see England. Have you been to Sherwood Forest? And what about Camelot? The history, it must be incredible!"
I agreed that Robin Hood was a good story but gently suggested that his search for Camelot would most likely be in vain. In turn, I asked what would happen when Fidel died, when the revolutionary generation was no more. He looked thoughtful.
"For sure change is coming. Nobody knows what it will mean or when it will happen. What I want for the future is more freedom. Freedom is information, freedom to decide myself."
We stood up and shook hands. "One last thing," he said, still looking puzzled. "Are you sure about Camelot? It doesn't exist? Really?"
Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) has a new 10-day "Cuba Uncovered" walking tour from £2,868pp, including Air France flights from Heathrow to Havana via Paris, transfers, accommodation, most meals and a guide. The next departures are on 20 February, 13 March and 17 April. The only non-stop scheduled flights to Cuba are on Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick to Havana, but there is a wide range of charters on such airlines as Thomson and Thomas Cook.
Holidaymakers to Cuba require a £15 single-entry Tourist Card, valid for up to 30 days. It must be obtained before departure from your tour operator or direct from the Cuban Consulate, 167 High Holborn, London WC1V 6PA (020 7240 2488; cubadiplomatica.cu).
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