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13th April 2011
The first thing we noticed on arrival in La Habana , Cuba, was the helpful happy people, no traffic congestion and the number of shiny 1950´s American cars. The longer we were there, the more back to the fifties it felt; back when consumerism wasn´t all pervading, when children played in the streets, when you could walk around safely. Black fishnet stockings are still kicking on in Cuba too.
There are two currencies in Cuba, Convertible Pesos (CuC) – essentially US$, and Cuban Pesos (Moneda Nacional, MN) at 24 to the CuC. Cubans are paid in MN. Pretty much anything a tourist would want is priced in CuCs, but MN can get you some real bargains – ice cream 4c, individual pizza 30c, not bad either. How about a novel for 70c or a bunch of red roses under $1?
The architecture of Habana Vieja is a fantastic jumble of art deco, colonial, baroque, gothic, neo classical, Gaudi-esque and Soviet era concrete apartment blocks. Some buildings have been painstakingly restored while others crumble slowly away. The Malecón, stretching 8 kilometres around Habana Bay is a good place for sun set watching. We stayed in the 400 year old Convento de Santa Clara and enjoyed an evening mojito or two in one of the open air plazas. Habana – file it under World´s Greatest Cities.
13th April 2011
We left Habana by bus on the National Highway, all 8 lanes almost deserted. Another surprise – locals put their baggage overhead on the bus, we have never seen that in South or Central America; it would be stolen. After an all night trip we arrived in Cuba´s second largest and most Caribbean city, Santiago de Cuba . Music, dominated by the drum beat of Africa, was everywhere with groups performing day and night in parks and bars for a few coins. We enjoyed a folkloric performance of traditional Afro-Cuban music and dance, a strange mix of Catholicism complete with Virgin, and voodooism.
The best accommodation is in Casas Particulares (rooms in a private home), a good way to meet local people and to stay in some real colonial classics. They are good value at $20 to $30 per night. Glad not to be on an organised tour, we entered the “system” – each owner knows someone with a Casa in every town and sets up the next one for you. You are picked up at the bus station too thus avoiding the legion of jineteros (hustlers) waiting for the buses. We started at Casa Nenita in Santiago, built in 1850.
Cuban coffee is drunk strong and sweet. They have been growing coffee since the early 1800´s, introduced by the French escaping from revolting slaves in Haiti. On one of the old plantations, Cafatel la Isabelica, the mansion and coffee drying platforms are World Heritage. We hired a taxi to take us there. But … that day there was no petrol so we couldn´t go.
At the entrance to the Santiago bay, a large Spanish fort, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, sits high on the cliff. Below is the picturesque island of Cayo Granma where traditional fishermen live in wooden houses with rusty tin roofs. We took the local ferry over and lunched on the catch of the day.
13th April 2011
Baracoa , Cuba´s oldest town, was settled in 1511 but remained isolated from the rest of the country for 450 years until a road was constructed. Near the church is the wooden cross Columbus erected in 1492. We arrived just in time for the 500 year celebrations; a really good excuse to party. The heat brought everyone out in the evenings and the sound of music drew us to a live band in the street outside a small bar. Dance and music is in the soul of Cubans – the singing bus driver, the dancing waiter, the little old lady on her walker swaying to the beat, even the tiny children have the moves. Another mojito and we would have been dancing!
Enroute the bus stopped at Guantanamo, not far from the famous (some would say infamous) US Naval Base of Guantanamo Bay. A Guantanamera is a woman from Guantanamo and that legendary song tells of a woman that the writer loved.
Typically seafood is cooked in a delicious coconut sauce. We had the most mouth-watering meal of Caribbean style prawns at our Casa Isabel Castro. As well as excellent chocolate, Baracoa produces a super sweet treat called Cucuruchu consisting of coconut, honey, guava, mango and a few other ingredients served in a cone of palm leaves.
13th April 2011
Camagüey  has World Heritage status for its peculiar maze of twisting, narrow streets designed to fool pirates in days of old, now confusing today´s tourists. In stark contrast to the typical Spanish Colonial grid layout, in Camagüey no “square” is square, or even rectangular. Established in 1514, the colonial city is Cuba´s third largest and known as the city of tinajones (clay pots) for the large earthenware pots once used to store water. It is a city of many churches with its very own saint.
Carolina and Reyes warmly welcomed us into their Casa, filled with plants and knick knacks. Staying in a Casa is like visiting a distant aunt; everyone is a little reserved at first, but soon you are all chatting and laughing and you stagger off to bed full of delicious home cooked food, here typically Cuban – salad, black beans, rice and chicken. Cubans don’t drink much wine but we did see a bottle of Australian Jacobs Creek Chardonnay 2001 (yes 2001, not 2010) for $15 in a government store.
The Cuban newspaper was full of the visit to La Habana by the former US President Jimmy Carter and his meeting with former Cuban President Fidel Castro. We hope this will be the first step in a better relationship between the two governments.
13th April 2011
Santa Clara  is where Che Guevara led the attack which derailed a government train carrying soldiers and weapons in the last days of 1958, thus securing the Revolución. His remains lie in a mausoleum nearby. We have now completed the Che trilogy, from his childhood home in Argentina to the place where he died in Bolivia to his final grave in Cuba.
We have been travelling on the modern comfortable and punctual Viazul buses, a good way to see rural Cuba. For some reason only two places can be reserved from on the bus from Camagüey to Santa Clara and they were taken. We got to the station early to be first for a seat. There are invisible queues for many things in Cuba. When you arrive you find out who is the last person in line (¿Quien es el ultimo?), then you go wait somewhere comfortable. Someone will soon let you know if you try to go out of turn!
Hitch hiking is organised in Cuba. There are places to wait on the outskirts of each town (punto de transporte alternativo). Here men in yellow overalls organise the queues and stop vehicles (government cars have to give rides apparently). It might be a long wait though; we saw frustrated looking people waving fistfuls of pesos as cars sped by.
13th April 2011
Spanish colonial architecture is well preserved in the 19th century sugar boom town of Trinidad , on Cuba´s south coast. It is the most beautiful town in Cuba with its cobbled streets and colourful houses, frozen in the 1850s. Guayabera shirts originated here. These were loose cotton work shirts so called because the men used to come home with their 4 pockets stuffed with guavas, but have now replaced military fatigues as official national dress.
After a delicious criollo fish dinner at the museum-like Paladar Sol y Son we were entertained by the lovely harmonies of the Trinisur Quartet. Our 61 year old waiter joined in whenever he walked past them. He went outside and bought in a young woman (who was just walking by) for a dance too. Next evening we found a jazz band playing outside the church.
Although not much sugar is grown in the Valle de Los Ingenios (sugar mill valley) these days, it has World Heritage status for its ruined mills and estates. From a 50 meter tall watch tower at Manaca Iznaga, the master was able to keep an eye on the slaves in the sugar fields. Today there is fine view down the valley from the top.
13th April 2011
Cienfuegos , known as the Pearl of the South, was originally founded by French colonials from Bordeaux and Louisiana in 1819, and sits on a large bay. At the mouth of the bay is the Castillo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angles de Jagua, a Spanish fort in remarkably well preserved condition that predates the town by 100 years. We reached it by a small ferry boat after a 30 minute taxi ride.
Walking from the historic centre of Cienfuegos along the Malecón towards Punta Gorda, we came to the Cienfuegos Club, an elegant 100 year old turreted building which was formerly a rich man´s Yacht Club. Restored to better than new condition, it has a beautiful terrace and a good restaurant overlooking the bay. We stopped in for a mojito and dinner of garlic prawns. Surprisingly, only a handful of people were there to enjoy the sunset. Further along is the Palacio de Valle, looking like an Arabian Nights castle, plus other pre-revolutionary mansions and palaces.
13th April 2011
The little village of Viñales  is tucked away in a tranquil green valley of tobacco and vegetable farms with their charming farm houses. Cigar smoking farmers sit outside on rocking chairs. They don´t use machinery (or chemicals) on their farms, every square inch is not cultivated, and the whole area has a beautiful uneven and old fashioned look. The valley has World Heritage status for its huge rocky outcrops (mogotes) and its traditional farms. The fruits and vegetables taste wonderful. There are extensive caves in the mogotes, some over 50 kilometres long. We were able to explore a small one by foot and boat.
After a pleasant morning riding horses in the valley we stopped at one of the farms to see the tobacco leaves drying in sheds and watched while a campesino rolled a cigar whilst explaining the process of growing tobacco, picking, drying and fermenting the different leaves. In the country, a mixture of rum, lemon juice, honey and water is sprayed on the leaves to help the process (the same ingredients used in a mojito minus the fresh mint). The smell of fresh cigars almost made us take up smoking!
We´ve eaten some fantastic meals and quite a few lobsters having now spent almost 3 weeks travelling the length of Cuba by public bus and staying in private houses. In that time we saw relatively few police and even fewer military (none armed), yet felt perfectly safe. This is not the Cuba we expected and a stark contrast to other Latin American countries.