26 Aug

Si Lady Penelope!

I decided it was time to make my dream a reality and discover the real Cuba as its unique atmosphere may soon be a thing of the past following President Obama’s lifting of a travel ban on US citizens wanting to visit the island.

“Cuba is stuck in a 50s time warp; fabulous American cars, colonial buildings, music on every street corner and an egalitarian society with free health care and education for all”

“Cuba is stuck in a 50s time warp; shabby buildings, poor infra-structure, food shortages, empty shops and people frustrated by lack of opportunity or progress.”

“The Americans are on their way. Go before it is spoilt”     

“It’s already spoilt, you’re too late!”

These are all things I was told when I was thinking about going, so, what is the truth about Cuba?

I went on an eight day accompanied tour, taking in Havana, Viῇales, Las Terrazas, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. With an excellent local guide called Rodolfo, I visited a country that is at the same time beautiful and shabby, frustrating and fascinating, exuberant and bursting with colour, music and life.

It is a country on the edge of change, and nervous about its future.

For some people Cuba is just about the beach resorts, for me it was about exploring the sights in Havana in a classic 50s convertible American Chevrolet, cruising along the Malecon promenade and filling my lungs with the ocean air. Why not pick a fabulous pink car and pretend to be Lady Penelope?!

Joyous, live rhythms and melodies in every bar, on street corners, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants.

Visiting the Partagas cigar factory where they still hand-roll their world famous cigars it almost made me wish I smoked.

Incredibly each morning an announcer still reads the national and international news to all the workers, who are, later treated to a chapter of a classic novel, such as The Count of Monte Cristo. I kid you not.

Cuban music, it's everywhere!

Joyous, live rhythms and melodies in every bar, on street corners, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants. Whether it's sipping Mojitos listening to free music at La Casa de la Musica, Santa Clara, watching the locals of all ages salsa dance; or chilling at Café Taberna Benny Moré, Havana listening to Roberto Faz of the Buena Vista Social Club (yes, the Buena Vista Social Club!). You can't and won't want to escape it.

Don't forget the buildings!

There is amazing eclectic architecture pretty much where ever you look. Colourful, colonial and yet still very much Caribbean. The many preserved and stunning buildings in Old Havana, cheek by jowl with dusty ruins; Art Deco in Miramar; vibrant colonial style Spanish mansions in the cobbled streets of Trinidad - the scenery really is quite amazing.

And then there's Che

Che Guevara. Still feted, still a hero, Che’s iconic image is everywhere. We re-lived the revolution, visiting Santa Clara, the final resting place of Che and site of the last battle of the Cuban revolution. And seeing as I left the family at home for this one, there was someone I could buy a Che red-starred beret for…

Mojitos, Daiquiris, say no more…

So will it change?

Undoubtedly. With Miami only an hour’s flight away, the Americans will certainly be back next year to holiday on Cuban’s beautiful beaches.

Do the Cubans want the Americans back?

Maybe. The Cubans we spoke to were mixed in their attitude. They do want change and progress. They are fiercely proud of their heritage, health care and education system, but think the current system must be wrong where a bell boy earns better money than a qualified doctor. So I’m cautiously optimistic that Cuba will not be rushing to jump into bed too readily with its powerful big neighbour, and will be careful to preserve the good stuff.

But as you may have gathered, comrade, I always was a bit of a romantic dreamer...