A journey BY bus & air from havana

january 07 - JANUARY 21, 2013,

'When you think of Cuba, you think of old cars chugging up cobble-stoned streets. You think music, 'mojitos,' and cigars. You think revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. You think stunning scenery, tropical beaches, and old colonial cities. But most of all, you think of a genuine and welcoming people! Cuba is unique in the world. It has a vibrancy and passion for life found almost nowhere else we can think of. Travellers to Cuba cannot help but have all senses overwhelmed. It is a beautiful country, with a long and turbulent history and after years of economic and political isolation, it is quickly emerging as one of the hottest travel destinations in the world. This is our most comprehensive journey in Cuba. It showcases the magnificent colonial cities of Havana, Trinidad, and Santiago, and it takes in the rugged rural beauty of the island's interior.' (Gecko's Grassroots Adventures, 2013)

We had talked about going to Cuba for years, and finally decide it ticks all the boxes for a winter holiday that offers fine weather and warm temperatures, not to mention a political history that is somewhat unique. We select a tour from Gecko's, a subsidiary of  the Australian-owned Intrepid group, which covers almost the entire island, and it's very reasonably-priced.  We arrive a few days earlier to wander around and to familiarise ourselves with the city of Havana.

Tour: Complete Cuba, a 15-day small-group tour (Gecko's Grassroots Adventures). 

World Heritage Sites:  Old Havana and its Fortification System, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca Castle-Santiago de Cuba, Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba,  Historic Centre of Camagüey, Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios, Viñales Valley



Our trip starts today in Havana, but with no activities planned, you may arrive at any time. There is a  pre-departure meeting with your English-speaking Cuban tour guide at 7pm this evening. Please check the noticeboard in the foyer of your hotel for the exact time of this meeting and any other messages regarding your tour.  Please bring your passport and travel insurance documents to the briefing.

We had arrived in Havana a couple of days ago and have enjoyed familiarising ourselves with the city. We had booked into the same hotel the tour is using in Havana, which is very central to the Melecon and to the area around the Capitol Building. 

We arrive at the meeting place in our hotel at 7pm, ready to meet our guide, Abel, and our travel companions. We have a nice group of travel companions, and although Tom and I are the oldest in the group. The other passengers are probably wondering why two 'oldies' are here on a 'grassroots' tour. Although this tour includes hotel accommodation, I'm under no illusion that there will be anything fancy being offered, if our windowless room at this hotel is any indication. 

After the formalities are completed, Abel takes us to a local paladar, a family-owned restaurant so we can experience the local food and some entertainment.

Cuba has been virtually closed off from the United States of America since 1959, when strict embargoes were placed upon the small Caribbean nation. Just 144 kilometres from the tip of Florida, these restrictions have essentially placed Cuba in a time warp. Everything, every business, every restaurant is sanctioned by the government, so there are shortages: food, electricity, auto parts, and more.

We arrive at the restaurant, located on the second floor of a dilapidated building. The family welcome us into the busy restaurant and take our orders. For approximately $10, I order fresh lobster tails, whilst the others try the other dishes on the menu. I'm looking forward to exploring Havana with our guide tomorrow.



After breakfast we begin out exploration of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). A common reaction of travellers exploring the city for the first time is to think they are on a Hollywood movie set! Old cars cruise the wide tree-lined boulevards and small alleyways, old men in straw hats puff on enormous Cuban cigars, and lilting Cuban 'son' music fills the air. It's an intoxicating atmosphere and it is not hard to get caught in the rhythm of the city. Havana is a delightful place to explore on foot and is home to many beautiful galleries, museums, churches, and monuments. After a day of exploration, we can highly recommend that you stop in at one of Old Havana's many historic baes and enjoy a delicious and minty mojito cocktail. Try the atmospheric bar, Dos Hermanos, which is tucked away down near the harbour.

We gather in the lobby of the hotel at 9:30 in the morning to embark on a walking tour of Old Havana. Starting at the nearby Museum of the Revolution, the former Presidential Palace that was attacked on March 13, 1957, the imposing building is one of Havana's most beautiful buildings. Because it's currently being refurbished, we are unable to go inside. I have read about the lavish interior and am sorry that we are unable to see it. Next to the museum is the memorial to Granma; a glass enclosure that houses the yacht, which brought Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others to Cuba from Mexico. Purchased from an American, who had named the yacht for his own grandmother, the revolutionaries didn't bother changing its name before setting out from Mexico. It was not plain sailing and after landing in Cuba, the revolutionaries were attacked. Of the eighty-two people who left Mexico, only twenty survived. The story of Castro's journey into Cuba in November 1956, is amazing, yet today, as we stand here listening to the story about his journey, I am more amazed that, at eighty-six years of age, he is still alive albeit frail. The park around the yacht is filled with military curios: tanks, jeeps, the delivery truck used in the 1957 assault on the Palacio Presidencial, and a turbine from a U-2 spy plane allegedly downed during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This is seriously impressive hardware! The daily propaganda newspaper, published in several languages, is called Granma and we buy one from the newspaper seller, who has strategically placed himself near the memorial.

Through the streets we walk, as Abel points to various points of interest. We arrive at the Malecon, where we have a good view of the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, the fortress that guards the entrance of Havana. Through some narrow streets, and not too far from the Cathedral, a pina colada stand beckons us to partake in one of Cuba's favourite drinks. It's probably too early in the morning for drinking rum and pineapple juice, but, what the hell!  Sipping the refreshingly icy drinks, the sticky sweet juice hides the rum flavour, but not the 'punch'. Nearby a trio of musicians play traditional Cuban music. As soon as they see tourists, their tempo changes and they sing probably the only recognisable Cuban song, Guantanamera. We will hear this song many times over the next couple of weeks. Beautiful roving women dressed in Caribbean-style costumes sidle up to Tom, kissing his cheeks and pose for a photo for a fee. 

Cuban people, under Castro's communist regime, earn approximately US$25 per month in wages, regardless of whether they are doctors, teachers, or street sweepers. Each family has a home to live in; they had been permitted to retain their family homes after the revolution. If people don't have a home, the government supplies them with one. There is no homelessness, everyone is educated, has a job, and has free medical cover. But to supplement their income, and to get their hands on some of the more valuable (to them) Cuban Convertible currency (CUC), they set up small businesses - all under the watchful eye of the secret police and the government. There are not a lot of tourists here. Americans may only travel to Cuba if they successfully apply for a special educational permit. We had flown into Havana via Mexico and our passports have not been stamped; instead we have a separate paper in our passports, which must be handed back to border security upon our departure. 

We enter Cathedral Square, located Calle Empedrado, where the Cathedral of San Cristobal is the focal point. The cathedral once held the remains of Christopher Columbus between 1796 and 1898 when they were returned to Seville Cathedral in Spain. The facade is described as Cuban-Baroque, and the use of coral blocks, in which fossilised marine life can be seen in the stone walls and the symbols of sea-life and music in the designs are unique to Cuba. Inside a 'souvenir' store, we purchase pre-paid postcards and send them home. There is no guarantee that they will arrive home before we do. This square, is very beautiful in its raw, dilapidated way. It is how we had expected Cuba to look and we feel privileged to have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in this environment.

Around the corner is the first of the Hemingway sites that we visit in Havana. La Bodeguita del Medio lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito cocktail, which has been prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942. This is probably the most crowded place we've come across so far, and it's impossible to get inside the small bar. However, the walls outside have been covered with handwritten messages by visitors, some famous, most not. Someone points out Robert de Niro's signature, but nobody is confirming its authenticity. 

We continue down O'Reilly Street. Tom is most excited to see something 'Irish' so far from home, but even he isn't prepared for the plaque, written in three languages, Spanish, Gaelic, and English, which says;

Two Island Peoples

in the same sea of struggle and hope

Cuba and Ireland

Wow! That is totally unexpected. Since Abel knows that Tom is Irish, he is happy to show us the plaque and to talk about the connections between Ireland and Cuba. We will find out about another very important connection later in the tour.

O'Reilly Street opens out to the Plaza de Armas. Here is a very busy and active second-hand book market, which we quickly check out and a promise to return one day soon. As we walk down another narrow cobbled street, past a butcher and other stores, we gather in the courtyard of Hostal Valencia, where tables are set for lunch. Here we enjoy similar fare to other restaurants, but the Spanish-style open courtyard is a cool haven from the relentless heat we've experienced this morning. Abel has asked us whether we would like to join him to attend a free concert tonight at 9pm at the Seville Hotel. His friend, a tenor singer, will be performing. Tom and I and pretty much everyone else readily agrees to meet Abel in our lobby after dinner. 

After lunch our tour continues into San Francisco Square, where the ship terminal is located. We pass the Cathedral, which is no longer used as a church before arriving at the Old Square, Plaza Vieja. Here, a churro stall is located; churros are pulled out of the boiling oil, rolled in sugar, cut into lengths with a pair of scissors, and dumped into a paper cone. We happily munch on the pastry delight as we follow Abel. I cannot accurately say how far we've walked today, but we have seen so much and it's still only 2pm. Abel is rounding up the walking tour now and our group disperses in all directions. I have seen an old-fashioned 'manchester' store not far from where we are and I want to see whether I can buy a pillow. The cuban pillows are awful; lumpy and very uncomfortable for our precious heads. The stores along the street are original in every aspect. The large display windows give a hint to the treasures that lie inside the door. Dark-stained timber fixtures and a long glass-topped counter stretches along both sides of this large store. There is a mezzanine floor, where offices and surplus stock would be stores, if there was surplus stock, that is. I am immediately drawn back to a different era when customer service was on a one-to-one basis with the person behind the counter. Today is no exception. Our shopkeeper has excellent English and assists us with the pillows we need, then offers to help me when I ask whether I could buy an electrical adapter with two pins. For some reason, my American adapters all have three pins, which won't fit in the sockets here. Since I have brought it with me today, I show him what the problem is, and which, after about five minutes he rectifies with a pair of pliers. It's a good think we've already advised Abel that we won't be attending this afternoon's Salsa lesson, and we spend the remainder of the afternoon sipping Cuban coffee on the Hotel Inglaterra patio, listening to live music and watching the passing parade. 

Despite feeling totally disorientated, today's walking tour is excellent. We've actually gained a lot in such a few short hours, and Abel, our tour guide is really good. It's been a fantastic day so far.

Just before 9 o'clock this evening, we meet Abel and the others in the lobby and we walk across the road to the Moorish-revival style Hotel Sevilla. Originally constructed in 1908, a ten-floor wing with a rooftop ballroom was added in 1924. We  are led to a bank of lifts and taken to the top-floor ballroom, where large windows on three sides provide a bird-eye view of nighttime Havana. It would be nice to return during the day to view the city from this vantage point. Tables are dotted around the room and as the clocks chimed on the hour, a man stood up from his place at his table and began to sing. Joined by two others, the three Cuban tenors moved through the patrons to stand together and sing as a trio. Abel's friend and his partners could rival the voices of The Three Tenors any day, on any stage, and yet, we are here in Havana listening to them for not cost, because here in Cuba, they have no paying audience and it is difficult for them to secure a concert tour abroad.

As they finish singing the classical songs we know and love, they return to their tables and are seated. Music starts playing and a woman rises from her seat and elegantly meets her partner in the centre of the room, where together they dance the pas-de-deux. And so the evening progresses one artist or group of artists performing for a half-empty ballroom. Russia and Cuba became diplomatic allies after the 1959 revolution until the fall of the Soviet Union when they withdrew. During this time, with the assistance of some of Russia's best teachers, emphasis was placed on the performing arts in the schools as an integral part of the education system. With specialised training, performers are among the most talented in the world, but sadly are now almost forgotten.

I cannot forget to mention that the final performance was by an older gentleman who performed the classics, from Beethoven to Mozart, using one instrument; his mouth. This guy whistled some of the best-known classical music and he was an absolute hit with the meagre audience.

I'm in awe of this country and its people. I am sure that the next fourteen days will provide many unforgettable memories, but they will be hard-pressed to compete with tonight's extraordinary performance.



UNESCO declared Havana a World Heritage site in 1982 and restoration has been going on since that time, with many dilapidated public buildings painstakingly restored to their former glory. Some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture can be found within easy walking distance of the hotel and many of these historic buildings are open to visitors. Highly recommended is a tour of one of Cuba's famous cigar factories, Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, which is located behind one of Havana's most glorious buildings - the Capitolio Nacional. A visit to the Museo de la Revolucion is also highly recommended. This museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, one of the most impressive buildings in Cuba , and provides a complete account of the Cuban Revolution. There are plenty of historic maps and documents, as well as static displays and equipment , describing key events of the revolution. Old military vehicles, including trucks, fighter planes, and boats are located in a covered section at the rear of the main building. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the buildings and museums, it might be time for a change of pace! You won't have to look very far to find and hear the traditional Cuban music in full swing. Seemingly every small bar, hotel, and restaurant around town has a resident group of musicians on hand. Your feet will be tapping, and before long, you'll be up on the dance floor doing the salsa. We've not worked out if there's a correlation between the number of mojitos you consume and your salsa-dancing skills... maybe you can find out for yourself.

Our bus is waiting outside the hotel for us and our first stop is at the El Capitilio, the National Capitol building.  Although its design is often compared to the  Capitol building in Washington DC, it is not a replica, or so they say!

'It is similar to that in Washington D.C, but a meter higher, a metre wider, and a metre longer, as well as much richer in detail.'  

These are the words the tour guides are told to say. Completed in 1929, it served as the nation's centre of government until 1959, when Congress was abolished and abandoned. The building had fallen into disrepair, but it is now under refurbishment, and is closed to the public.

Our next stop is at a nearby food market. Fruits and vegetables, none of which are in huge supply, are arranged in the expansive market hall. Everything is organic; no sprays or pesticides have been used since the Soviet withdrawal, and although the oranges look pitted and mangy, their flavour is sweet and juicy. Packets of beans and spices are also for sale here. Exchanging some of our tourist CUCs into Cuban pesos, we buy bananas before returning to the bus.

I suppose it's 5 o'clock somewhere, although it's still mid-morning here in Havana as we pull up at the Legendario rum distillery. Our local guide is fabulous as he demonstrates the various steps in distilling rum. This small boutique distillery has some very nice, smooth rums, and we purchase a ten-year old bottle of their finest. Not interested in the cigars, we order coffee, instead and watch in fascination as the barista first turn off the lights, plunging us in darkness before setting our rum-filled coffee alight from height. The performance is almost as good as the coffee.

Abel hustles us out of there before we tasted too many samples and took us directly to Plaza de la Revolución, the location where political rallies take place and Fidel Castro addresses more than a million Cubans on important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year. Pope John Paul II, during his 1998 first visit by a Pope, held a large mass here. The square is dominated by the Josef Marti Memorial; a huge tower and statue. Around the edges are ugly, 1950s utilitarian buildings. Mounted on the facades on two of the buildings, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are immortalised by huge sculptures.

A few months before coming to Cuba, we had seen a segment on Monty Don's Around the World in Eighty Gardens, in which he had visited urban gardens, which are planted in the space left by collapsed buildings. We hadn't seen any within the old part of Havana to date, although we'd see many collapsed buildings. But a few days ago, when we took the hop-on-hop-off bus, we had seen one very close to Revolution Square, so we decide to take a short walk over to see it. As we've seen this morning, fruit and vegetables are in short supply, so we are interested in the concept of communal gardens used to supplement what is available.

Behind a chicken-wire fence rows of cabbages and other vegetables are planted in raised garden beds. On the fence is a sign that says 

'Do not enter. Military Zone'  We take some photos, but apart from an elderly man weeding the lines of vegetables, there is no sign of the military.

We resume our bus tour, reaching the coastline and the dilapidated nightclubs, which were once popular with American gamblers and the mob, the Vedado section of the city. Vedado means 'forbidden' and before the suburbs had been created, it was forbidden to cut down trees to build on the land. Calling the area Vedado is like snubbing one's nose at the rules, a joke. It is interesting to view the mansions once built for and lived in by the country's millionaires, and now occupied by Government officials. Lunch today is eaten at a local restaurant, reminiscent of our own Coles cafeteria. Driving through Havana is like being in a time warp. From the 1950s-style 'futuristic' bus stops to the classic cars, Havana proves to be far more than we expect.

After lunch, we delve into 20th century history of Cuba in the form of one of the most famous hotels in Cuba, Hotel Nacional.

Opened in 1930, it had been a magnet for American entertainers, gamblers, and even the mob. After the revolution, Castro banned gambling. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, anti-aircraft guns were set up on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797, and an extensive series of tunnels were built under the hotel. The tunnels are open to the public on guided tours, but we haven't got time today to take the tour through them. After years of neglect, the hotel had been used to accommodate visiting diplomats, but after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Russians, the Cuban government reopened Cuba to tourists. We spend a delightful hour with a local guide, who takes us through the lobby and showrooms, regaling us with stories of the many entertainers, who had performed here. Based on two Greek crosses, the hotel's design provides most of the rooms a view of the ocean. I'm sorry we didn't try to book a room here in this hotel for our first couple of nights before the tour. Next time!

We have the remainder of the day free and we return to 'our' spot on the terrace of the Inglaterra, drinking coffee and listening to live Cuban music. The internet is available from over the road at the Parc Centrale, but it's flaky and can only be accessed in a small number of locations around the city. 

This is essentially our very last night in Havana, as we are leaving the city soon after the tour ends. We have one last thing to do.

El Floridita is an historic restaurant and bar in the older part of Havana, not too far from Hotel Inglaterra. Famous for being one of Hemingway's hangouts, a life-size bronze statue of the writer is near the bar. Ordering a mojito and a daiquiri, we follow a waiter into the dark, heavily-brocaded restaurant, where we enjoy a beautiful meal. The final bill, equivalent to $50 is a pleasant surprise. We have an early start tomorrow, as we move away from Havana to explore the rest of Cuba.



This morning we leave Havana and fly to Santiago de Cuba, in the far east of the country. Santiago holds a special place in the hearts of Cubans, as it was here that the first seeds of the Cuban Revolution were sown. The nearby rugged mountains of the Sierra Maestra were home to Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries during this turbulent period. For music lovers, Santiago is often a highlight of the trip, as  many of the traditional forms of Cuban music were developed here over the centuries and the local musicians consider themselves the custodians of all things musical. Not surprisingly, a small but thriving musical instrument manufacturing industry can be found here. Music and nightlife go hand in hand and the bars and clubs of Santiago are legendary. After a walking tour of the city with our guide, we have free time to explore the delights of the city. Santiago has many incredible public buildings, museums, and churches to explore and our leader will be on hand to show us around.

Our 4am start finds me bleary-eyed as we are delivered to the airport ahead of our flight to Holguin, 150 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba. From the window of the bus, I can now witness the true result of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast of Cuba on October 25, 2012. Despite the sunny conditions today, nothing can hide the utter devastation left by the storm. When 200 km/hr winds blew through here, it left a pathway of destruction in its wake. Whole communities of roofless homes are still occupied by people. Abel says that when the people can find enough material or money to fix their houses, the community will get together to help each other out. In other words, there is no government disaster fund to fix homes or to assist with decimated crops. The scenery should have been lush, tropical, with banana and sugar cane plantations, but instead it's a scene of desolation, copses of untouched trees stand tall in otherwise flattened fields. How does a small group of trees survive when a whole plantation is snapped off at ground level? Here, in the country, I realise that oxen do the work of tractors, whilst horse and carts provide transportation. Trucks are used as commuter transport as people stand upright in the tray of a vehicle retrofit for the purpose of human cargo. 

When the Russians withdrew from Cuba, the lack of spare parts and fuel rendered Soviet tractors useless, so the Cuban people reverted to more traditional methods of farming. 

Arriving in Santiago de Cuba at lunch time, we have some time to settle into our hotel and to grab a quick bite to eat before setting of with Abel and the group for a walking tour of the city. Our first stop is the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel Castro had staged the first unsuccessful attack on Batista's regime on July 26, 1953. This attack is recognised as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Not only is this historic building a museum, but it's a school. Some children are sitting in a classroom just inside the doors, whilst others are playing soccer on the grounds at the front of the building. 

As we wait to enter the building, soldiers approach with armed with bottles of soapy water and a grubby scrap of a towel. There has been an outbreak of cholera in the city, and indeed in other parts of Cuba, but the largest outbreak is in this region. One of the passengers, a doctor from Melbourne, says that soap and water is the best strategy for stopping the disease. We all must comply with washing our hands before entering the building. After viewing the museum exhibits and popping our heads into the schoolroom to say 'hello' to the children, our attention is drawn to the pockmarks in the facade of the building. After the failed coup, the damage had been repaired very quickly by the military. After the revolution, the building was converted to the museum and school in 1960 by Castro, when the repaired bullet holes had been once again opened as a lifelike exhibit.

Our walking tour commences from Moncada Barracks and finishes at the City Hall. From our starting point we walk through the maze of streets. I wonder whether we will be able to find our way back to the hotel. Despite the recent hurricane, the city is clean and the buildings are neat and appear newly painted. There are a lot of tourists here today and we seem to be walking in the same direction towards Cespedes Park, where musicians and other entertainers rove around the square. This is a vibrant place, but most importantly, the balcony of the Town Hall is the location of Fidel Castro's Proclamation of Victory of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, just six years after his failed coup. I can also see damage from the recent hurricane; on the cathedral towers and a roofless building nearby.

The Hotel Casa Granda faces the square and we decide to have a beer. We don't go to the rooftop bar, but sit inside the ground floor restaurant.  

We are about to be scammed! At a table nearby, two women, sharing a beer, move over and sit at our table. One has excellent English, the other has little. Middle-aged, the English-speaker explains that they are here in the bar to celebrate her friend's birthday with a beer. Wary as we are of scammers, these two ladies provide no threat and in fact, are probably going to give us far more than they receive. Here, we have a wonderful opportunity to talk to some locals about their life in Santiago, Hurricane Sandy and it affects on them, and also an insight into some places we should visit. For scammers, they are not at all greedy, insisting that we only buy one beer for them to share. We order sandwiches, chips and beers and for the next hour, we are given a wonderful insight into life in this city of Cuba. Without rancour or putting the government down, they talk about the hardships faced by the people who lost their homes as a result of the hurricane. From our terrace table, we can see the damage done to the cathedral towers; the crosses have been severely damaged, and a roof, which is missing from the building next door. They have a keen sense of humour and even show us some of the Cuban pesos, which the locals use. They didn't ask for money, but we make sure they have enough to eat and before we leave them, buy them another beer.  

I hope I can remember the way back to the hotel. We don't have an internet connection, and the streets surrounding the square wind this way and that.

Dinner tonight is at a paladar; a restaurant in the backyard of a private home. The yard has several tables set up for guests and although the menu is similar to those in Havana, I am pleased to see the lobster tails are included. Although privately-run restaurants have always existed in Cuba, they were illegal until 1993 when the government recognised the need for more restaurants for accommodate the influx of tourists. Although they are strictly controlled by the government, the paladars provide an experience that places us somewhere between a family dinner and a restaurant meal. 

Sometime during the excellent meal, an oldish man enters with a guitar. Sitting on a seat in the garden, he picks a few tunes on his old guitar, many of which we recognise. I mention to Abel that we would like to listen to traditional Cuban music, especially son, which is synonymous with this region of Cuba. I understand why the Cubans want to please the tourists by including popular music, but since we are here to immerse ourselves into the local culture, it's important for us to also listen to folk music. Abel encourages him to sing some of his own songs, which Abel translates for us. By 10 o'clock, we are starting to fade somewhat. The early start and much sightseeing has given us a long but a very exciting and interesting day. I'm really loving this tour!  



Hotel Las Americas,  Avenida de las Americas y General Cebreco, 90100 Santiago de Cuba, 

UNESCO World Heritage Site: de San Pedro de la Roca (also known as Castillo del Morro

We climb aboard the minibus, which is waiting for us at the hotel, and within a few minutes, the city is left behind us as the bus weaves along the winding roads to the base of a small mountain. We stop briefly for photographs. We are at the entrance of the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and the fortress, which was completed in 1700, is above us. Zooming in on the beach opposite us, I see a few houses facing our direction. They are a patchwork of building materials; perhaps added as money or materials are available. A  little further on is a cluster of waterfront shacks, each one with a 'million-dollar' view. Returning to the bus, we enjoy the views around us as the little van chugs up the hill to a designated carpark.

There is a short walk to the entrance of the Castillo del Morro; small traders selling trinkets and souvenirs from stalls, whilst a number of custom-built shops are wearing the tell-tale signs of having borne the brunt of the winds of Hurricane Sandy. 

Designed in 1600 as a defence against pirates, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca was constructed on a series of terraces on the steep sides of the promontory. It had been constructed in parts; the main citadel taking sixty-two years to complete.  Still in its original state, only the floorboards had been replaced as recently as 1961. Our local guide regales us with stories of pirates, smugglers, invasions, and surprise attacks. The citadel had been damaged, partly destroyed by attacks and earthquakes, and rebuilt accordingly. When the threat of invasion diminished, part of the citadel was converted into a prison for political prisoners, although the remaining part of the fortress was still used as a military base. As well as the incredibly interesting history of this fortress, the views from each of the levels are magnificent on this bright sunny day. We say goodbye to our local guide and join Abel at the bus for the next stop.

Jose Marti was a Cuban poet, philosopher, essayist, journalist, translator, professor, and publisher, who is considered a Cuban national hero because of his role in the liberation of his country, and he was an important figure in Latin American literature. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol of Cuba's bid for independence from the Spanish Empire in the 19th century. (Source: Wikipedia - Jose Marti. Last edited, July 6, 2020). We arrive at the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia just in time to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the entrance of Marti's tomb, which occurs every half-hour between the hours of 8am and 5pm each day. After watching the solemn military ceremony, we are able to view Marti's flag-covered tomb from above. Also of interest in the cemetery, is the Bacardi Mausoleum. This contains the bones of the family of the Bacardi empire prior to their escape to Puerto Rico before the revolution. Our local guide leads us to several prominent mausoleums here in the cemetery whilst explaining the burial procedure for Cuban people. Upon death, the body is buried in a simple pine box in a grave stacked with other coffins. It remains in this location for approximately three years, when the flesh has decayed and all that is left are bones. When the time is right, or when the family can afford the small concrete of marble box for the second burial, they arrange to have the original coffin exhumed. It is opened and the bones are removed. Inside the small box, talcum powder is sprinkled on the bottom and a white pillowcase is placed on top of the powder. Cemetery staff proceed to expertly place the bones in the box, ensuring they all fit snugly before placing the lid on the top. The small box is then placed in one of the mausoleums in the cemetery, where it will reside in perpetuity.

There are two reasons for this process; there isn't enough space for regular burials of individual people and the tropical climate. Our last stop in the cemetery is at the marble headstone of Compay Segundo, one of the older members of the Buena Vista Social Club, who died at the age of 95 in 2008.  

Facundo Bacardí Massó was a Spanish wine merchant emigrated to Cuba in 1830. Experimenting on methods to refine the the 'rough' rum produced in Cuba, he found that filtering it through charcoal to remove impurities added to its flavour. Purchasing a distillery in Santiago de Cuba, they found fruit bats in the rafters, which became the inspiration for the Bacardi logo. At the time that the previous Cuban leader, Fulgencio Batista, was in power, the company had opened foreign branches and moved the ownership of its trademarks, assets and proprietary formulas out of the country to the Bahamas. They had also built distilleries in Puerto Rico and Mexico. This helped the company survive after the communist government confiscated all Bacardí assets in the country without any compensation. We arrive at the Santiago di Cuba factory, which was the original Bacardi distillery, and which produces the same recipe under it's own name. After sampling a few drops, we agree on a seven-year-old rum, which is both smooth and very easy to swallow - even at 11am. The whole history of Cuba is fascinating and the interwoven stories of Caribbean, Spanish, revolution, and communism is a fascinating story, which is told from the perspective of almost every place we visit. Each place we visit, each person we meet has a unique view of cruel years of Batista and how the Revolution had saved their country. Much of it may be propaganda, but who are we to comment? Clutching our bottle of rum, we return to the bus and we are taken to the village of El Cobre, some twelve kilometres from Santiago de Cuba, to visit the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity.

'The legend of Our Lady of Charity or Nuestra Señora de la Caridad stretches back to the early 1600s. Around that time, two Indigenous Cubans and a ten-year-old African slave went to collect salt in the Bay of Nipe. While at sea, a violent storm overtook their small boat. Stuck under a downpour with waves crashing aboard, the group prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary carried by the young slave.

At that moment, the skies opened, the storm cleared, and the group spotted a single, white bird floating on distant waves. But as they drew closer, they discovered the bird was a statue fixed to a board that read, “Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.  

Believing it was a literal sign of Mary’s protection the group rushed it back to their village, where a local official ordered a small chapel built in the village of Barajagua. But soon after, the statue disappeared from the chapel. Distraught, locals formed a search party that night – only to discover the statue back in its original location the following morning. This happened three more times before the villagers decided to move the image to the nearby town of El Cobre.

But once again, the statue disappeared. It was soon discovered by a young girl in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. On that hill, locals erected a church now known as the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity.' (Source: InsightCuba20

I love the legends surrounding places like this, and it is often humbling to see how a statue such as this has become over time, a symbol of Cuban identity both here and in other parts of the world.  She unites both those at home and abroad, across lines of race and class. Wherever Cuban immigrants settled, they brought with them their devotion to la Cachita. We spend some time in the church, seeking out the statue which tells the story of Our Lady of Charity and also admire a statue of Pope John Paul II, who visited here in 1998.

We have one last place to visit before returning to our hotel for a small rest this afternoon. Dedicated to Antonio Maceo, who led the Cuban War of Independence in 1895, we admire the huge monument to this war hero. Maceo was an influential political strategist and military planner, and José Martí is among Cuban leaders who were inspired by Maceo. The monument includes him astride a rearing horse, whilst the shards in front of the statue denote the strength of the Cuban people.

Believe it or not, we can still fit in a few more exciting activities this evening.

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Heading into the lush interior of Cuba, it's a long drive to Camaguey, which is situated about halfway between Havana and Santiago. The surrounding countryside is marked with cattle farms as well as citrus orchards and sugar plantations. Camaguey itself always manages to surprise, wtih its twisting streets and alleyways, and a notable gesture of teh city is the proliferation of huge eathernware water pots known as 'tinajones'. We see these all over the city and they were originally used to store water in times of drought. 

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First thing in the morning there is a tour of the old town centre of Camaguey before continuing our drive across the interior to historic Trinidad, arriving late afternoon. Standing on the streets of Trinidad is like stepping back in time. From vantage points above the town we almost expect to see the Spanish galleons anchored offshore, several kilometres away. Set up in 1514, this was the third settlement established in Cuba by the Spaniards. it's no surprise that UNESCO declared Trinidad and the beautiful rolling hills that surround it, a World Heritage site in 1988.

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First thing in the morning there is a tour of the old town centre of Camaguey before continuing our drive across the interior to historic Trinidad, arriving late afternoon. Standing on the streets of Trinidad is like stepping back in time. From vantage points above the town we almost expect to see the Spanish galleons anchored offshore, several kilometres away. Set up in 1514, this was the third settlement established in Cuba by the Spaniards. it's no surprise that UNESCO declared Trinidad and the beautiful rolling hills that surround it, a World Heritage site in 1988. This is quintessential Cuba - cobblestone streets, pastel coloured houses, old chevrolets, ice-cream shops, and gorgeous churches. Locals sit out on doorsteps of their houses in the evening, discussing the events of the day while puffing on giant cigars. For these reasons and more, Trinidad is one of the visited towns in the entire country. The  town is small enough to walk around and is incredibly photogenic and there is plenty to do. Accompanied by our tour guide, it is easy to do our own exploration of the town. Climb the bell tower of the central Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos ( a former convent) for great views over the old rooftops and surrounding hills. There are some great markets here, specialising in beautiful Cuban linen. Tablecloths of all shapes and sizes are delicately embroidered are are a great buy.  We will need to bargain hard though. If in need of a beach fix, it's a short ride in a 'coco' taxi to nearby Playa Ancon - a white sand beach lapped by the warm waters of the Caribbean SEa. Please note that there is a shortage of reliable accommodation in Trinidad and many of the hotels experience constant water and electrical shortages. From time to time it has been necessary for us to stay in the nearby colonial town of Sancti Spiritus (65 kilometres away), which because of its historical significance was declared a national monument in q1964. Should this be the case on our trip, a bus will be provided daily to take us into Trinidad.

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Departing the coast, we head inland to the historic city of Santa Clara. This city was the sight of a major victory for the Cuban revolutionaries. Ernesto Che Guevara led a small band of soldiers in an attack on a heavily-armed train. Although significantly outnumbered, Guevara's forces defeated the government troops. Learning of the defeat, the President Batista fled the country a few days later, thus sealing victory for Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries. Not surprisingly large murals of Che Guevara and inspiring revolutionary slogans are found all over the city! Today, Santa Clara is home to one of Cuba's largest universities. For most visitors though, a visit to the Revolutionary Plaza and imposing Che Guevara Monument is the highlight. The remains of Ch and fellow revolutionaries are interred within the walls of this imposing structure. It is a serene and peaceful place and an important political symbol of freedom for many Cuban people.

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We continue to the town of Vinales, situated in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Green fields of tobacco dot the countryside, but it is the huge rocky knolls that dominate the landscape in a surreal scene. reminiscent of the limestone outcrops found in southern China. It seems half of Cuba has been declared World Heritage sites and this region surrounding Vinales has also been bestowed that title. It's a lush and fertile area with sugar cane fields located next to Cuba's famous tobacco plants. The village has an interesting cultural centre and museum and some great hikes can be enjoyed in the area, which take in stunning views over the wild landscape.

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After two weeks of exploring Cuba's towns, cities, and landscapes, could there be a better way to finish the trip than kicking back on the white sandy beaches of Cayo Levisa - a small coral island off the northern coast? The area is famous for fishing and was once a favourite haunt of renowned game fishermen (literally giant and big game hunter), Ernest Hemingway. We travel to the island by boat on a full day ad we have the opportunity to swim, snorkel, and explore the island - or do nothing at all! Whatever we choose to do, it's a great place to reflect on our time in this unusual country. In the late afternoon we return to our country lodge in SorOa on the mainland, located in the Sierra del Rosario mountains. Soroa is nicknamed the 'rainbow of Cuba' as the area boasts huge trees and colourful orchids. 

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Early this morning we return to the mainland and travel by bus back to Havana, where our trip comes to an end. We can arrange additional accommodation in Havana if you choose to stay on in Cuba a little longer. If you are flying out of Havana today, please do not book to depart until after 3:30 pm.

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