Travel

Long Distance Love Affair Cuba

The Caribbean island nation of Cuba has been a hotbed of revolution for nearly 500 years. And now with the passing of the controversial hero, Fidel Castro, it is poised for yet another. Roderick Eime settles in with a mojito and a Cohiba to explore the new Cuba.

June 17, 2018
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Pacific Island Living

Pacific Island Living

June 17, 2018

With the world tumbling headlong into a multinational homogeneity quicker than you can say “Would you like fries with that?” it’s refreshing to see Cuba retain a staunch individuality that goes against the tide of global blandness. But for how much longer?

Let’s remember that in recent history Cuba came to a virtual standstill in 1960 after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew a corrupt, US mob-backed government, confiscating and nationalising hotels, government services, housing and civil infrastructure.

As a consequence, the new republic immediately fell victim to a long-standing US trade embargo that continues more-or-less to this day. A glimmer of hope was raised with some relaxation of sanctions by the Obama administration, but much of that new freedom was reversed by a protectionist Trump. Right now, Cuba is in a sort of renaissance twilight zone, ready to move forward, but hampered by an unpredictable fog on the road ahead.

Combined with Castro’s curious brand of Latino socialism which all but eliminated private enterprise, the freehold property market and capitalism generally, Cuba found itself in a real-life time capsule. The populace had security of shelter, education, medical care and food, but little or no incentive, nor progressive mechanism beyond that.

Historic Havana

“We have a wonderful heritage in our architecture and culture,” says Pedro Vazquez, a noted Cuban architect and urban designer, “but the lack of ownership means little or nothing has been done to maintain it.”

Vazquez is referring to the urban sprawl of civic and residential structures all over Havana that portray a confusing mixture of proud colonial revival and sad neglect. Most buildings in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ‘old town’ are preserved and maintained by the state and host many thousands of tourists on a regular basis, but not far away are signs of a frail, teetering metropolis. Demolition may be forbidden, but without attention, many ageing structures fall victim to the salt air and elements and simply collapse of their own accord.

As an unabashed car nerd, my attention is immediately drawn to the mobile motor museum continuously on the move around the streets of Havana. I’m told tens of thousands of pre-1960 US-made cars still rattle and belch around the roads, kept alive by hybrid engine transplants and lashings of body filler. Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Dodge, De Soto, Lincoln and even extinct brands like Studebaker, Edsel and Turner can be spotted by the astute car buff.

One excursion on my itinerary is a ride to ‘Finca Vigia’, Ernest Hemingway’s former residence, in a pair of well-maintained Chev Impalas operated by local auto-entrepreneur ‘Nostalgicar’. Keeping these old girls in such neat trim is a non-stop labour of love as well as a healthy budget few Cubans can afford. Most of these thousands of old cars operate as ad hoc taxis, supplementing the shortage of reliable public transport and expensive (for locals) official cabs.

 

The ancient valley of tobacco

To the west of Havana is the province of Pinar del Río, famous for its tobacco production. Here we meet Benito whose family has been here in the Vinales Valley for five generations producing the valuable crop first cultivated here by the Spanish in the 16th century. Modern tobacco is derived from the wild ‘cohibo’ weed used by the long gone Arawak indian ‘belique’ (shamans) during ceremonies. From that rough leafy plant sprung a most valuable primary product that has become a major contributor to the Cuban economy alongside coffee and sugar.

We’re shown the art of hand rolling the cigar into its familiar, leafy tube. Leaves from the mature plant are selected at different times and for different purposes and ‘cured’ in a thatched barn identical to those used by the early Spaniards. Leaves are hung on horizontal wooden poles for weeks to dry and ‘cure’.

For instance, the top leaves, called ‘volado’ (hot), are harvested first and used as a binder for the cigar’s contents. Next, a week or so later, the ‘ligero’ (light) leaves are plucked and used as the wrapper. Finally, the lower leaves or ‘seco’ (dry) ones are gathered and used for the filler. These will dictate the final flavour and aroma of the cigar.

Like so many small private farms in the valley, 90 per cent of Benito’s crop is selected for agreed government production under controlled conditions while any remainder is left for him to sell as he wishes. This is typically as ‘cleanskin’ cigars which come without any certified branding but smoke as well any Cohiba or Monte Cristo for a fraction of the price. Yes, I bought a clutch of 10 for not much more than a buck each.

Time capsule: Tinidad de Cuba

Along the southern shore of the island is the World Heritage city of Trinidad de Cuba where the entire central portion of the city has been set aside for preservation.

One of the most visited destinations in Cuba outside of Havana, the narrow cobblestoned streets are usually filled with camera-toting tourists snapping the 500-year-old houses painted in colourful tones. Many are still occupied by residents, while others are boutiques, restaurants, bars and curio shops.

Most of the souvenirs you find throughout Cuba are mass-produced by state factories. The magnets, postcards, carvings and baubles get a bit tiresome after a while, but Trinidad does nurture a small population of original artists like Lazaro Niebla, whose wood relief carvings feature the elders of Cuba in stunning 3D on recycled cedar window shutters. A typical piece takes around two weeks to complete and his work has been exhibited in the USA and commands prices commensurate with their quality. Elsewhere in the city you will stumble upon galleries with original canvas art, also breaking the mould of the ubiquitous stall offerings.

Away from the touristy trail

Even with the government’s all-seeing hand on almost everything, it’s still possible to get away from the tourist trail with one of Intrepid Travel’s ‘Urban Adventures’. These tours are much less formal and easily customised to individual interests. Operating in many major centres around the world, Havana has its own that can get you (safely) into places the whistle-stop coaches cannot, like the revitalised suburb of Lawton, transformed from a trash heap with beautiful street art and murals. The artists’ centre, ‘Muraleando’ displays many works by talented local creators.

 

Staying in Cuba

While the future of mass tourism into Cuba, especially from the USA, is somewhat uncertain at this moment, the country is eager to move forward and for the first time in decades, construction cranes loom over the old city skyline. Many are working on comprehensive restoration projects for hotels like the soon-to-be-opened Sofitel, while the plush Kempinski on Parc Centrale has welcomed guests for several months now. Cuba also has its own state-owned brand, Melia, whose properties are typically modern, new-build ones in key locations like the Melia Cohiba at Vedado in the western suburbs. Directly across the road is the vintage Habana Riviera, built by mobsters in the late ‘50s and largely unchanged. Homestay is also becoming popular and offers a budget alternative. These ‘homes’ are part of a state-organised network.

Getting to Cuba

Travel to Cuba can be a bit confusing with constantly changing regulations, so it is this writer’s strong recommendation to consult an experienced agent and join a tour or cruise like Peregrine Adventures’ small group ‘Cuban Panorama’ which combines land excursions with small ship cruising to explore some of the lesser-visited locations. Alternatively, big ship fans can get aboard the 2000-passenger MSC Opera which operates year round from Havana.•

Cuba timeline

4000BC – Ciboney tribes first inhabit Cuba

1500s – Spanish colony established. Native people die out.

1762 – Britain invades and briefly occupies Havana.

1892 – José Martí founds the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York.

1902 – New independent Republic of Cuba gains nominal US protection after Spanish-American War.

1959 – Fidel Castro leads a socialist revolution, nationalising foreign assets.

1962 – Cuban missile crisis. Soviet ties strengthened.

1991 – Soviet collapse leads to economic hardships and unrest. So-called ‘Special Period’.

2008 – Fidel Castro resigns. Brother Raul succeeds him.

2014 – Trade and immigration restrictions relaxed.

2016 – Fidel Castro dies.

The writer travelled in Cuba as a guest of Peregrine Adventures with support from sister brand, Intrepid Travel.

www.peregrineadventures.com || www.msccruises.com.au

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