COMPLETE CUBA

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

DAY ONE: HAVANA

MONDAY, JANUARY 7, 2013

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.

Hotel: Hotel Caribbean -  Paseo del Prado 164 e/Colón y Refugio, Old Havana, 10400 

We had arrived in Havana a couple of days ago and have enjoyed familiarising ourselves with the city. Booking into the same hotel the tour is using in Havana, we are delighted to find that it's very central to the Malecon and to the area around the Capitol Building. We are now looking forward to starting our tour of Cuba at 7pm in the foyer of our hotel. Meeting our guide, Abel and our fellow travellers, we are ready to learn what we can about not only Havana, but the rest of Cuba as well. This tour with Gecko's is the most comprehensive of the tours on offer and will take us across the island from centre to east and west in fifteen days. Our travel companions are a mixed bunch, and despite Gecko's being an Australian tour company, we have a good range of age groups and nationalities. Tom and I are the oldest couple, but this doesn't bother me because I like the dynamic of a younger group of people. Many Gecko's tours include camping, but this one, fortunately, includes only hotel accommodation, which I'm sure, will be anything but fancy, if our windowless Havana room at Hotel Caribbean 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 and to get to know our companions.

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 welcomes us into the busy restaurant and takes 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.

DAY TWO: HAVANA

TUESDAY, JANUARY 8, 2013

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 this morning to embark on a walking tour of Old Havana. Our starting point is at the nearby Museum of the Revolution, the former Presidential Palace that had been attacked on March 13, 1957 and is today 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 that 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 to something more 'revolutionary' before setting out from Mexico. It was not plain sailing for them 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, or Morro Castle, the fortress that guards the entrance of Havana. A short distance away and through some narrow streets, 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 tourist-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, kiss 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. However, 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 at the moment. Americans may only travel to Cuba if they successfully apply for a special educational permit, and there is a smattering of Canadian, Australian, and European tourists. We had flown into Havana via Mexico and our passports have not been stamped; instead we have a separate paper in our passports that must be handed back to border security upon our departure. 

We enter Cathedral Square and locate Calle Empedrado, where the Cathedral of San Cristobal is the focal point. This cathedral once held the remains of Christopher Columbus between 1796 and 1898 before they had been 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 (and inside) 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 promise to return to 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. It even has one of those whizz-bang contraptions for moving the money from the counter to the cashier above in the mezzanine floor, which also stores surplus stock and administration offices. 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, and whilst I watch our money and the receipt begin its journey in a small white capsule from shop floor to cash office via a set of ancient wires and rails, he fills us in on his perspective of life in Havana.

It's a good thing 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 (and crystal beer) on the front patio of Hotel Inglaterra, listening to live music and watching the passing parade. 

Despite feeling totally disoriented after walking through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, today's 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 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's-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 chime on the hour, a diner stands up from his place at a table and begins to sing. Joined by two others, the three Cuban tenors weave through the tables to the top of a small set of steps located in the centre of the large ballroom space, standing together and singing 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 no 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. Classical 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 Russia withdrew from Cuba. During this time, with the assistance of some of Russia's best teachers, emphasis was placed on the performing arts in schools as an integral part of the education system. With specialised training, Cuban 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, the MC, who performed the classics, from Beethoven to Mozart, using one instrument; his mouth. This guy whistled some of the best-known classical music that I know, 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.

DAY THREE: HAVANA

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 9, 2013

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.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Old Havana and its fortifications (1982) - Havana was founded in 1519 by Spanish colonists, growing to become one of the Caribbean's primary shipbuilding centers by the 17th century. The old city was built in the Baroque and Neoclassical styles. Historical landmarks in Old Havana include La Cabaña, the Cathedral of Havana and the Great Theatre of Havana.

Our bus is waiting outside the hotel for us and our first stop is at the El Capitolio, 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.

Ahead of us is an eastern-style gateway. Chinatown. We are surprised because so far, we haven't seen any Asian people in Havana. This is one of Havana's most iconic sites; the history of which is recounted with much mirth because this is the only Chinatown in the world that does not have a Chinese population. Havana is totally devoid of Chinese people. No Chinese restaurants or traders. The only relic that proves that Chinatown once existed is this gateway. After the Revolution, when all businesses had been absorbed by the government, the Chinese community packed up their things and left Cuba. They had left a communist regime in China and were not prepared to live under the same circumstances in another country. 

I suppose it's 5 o'clock somewhere! Although it's still mid-morning here in Havana, it's of no consequence 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 turns 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 taste too many samples and take 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 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 planted in the spaces left by collapsed buildings. We're interested to see these communal gardens and had been on the lookout for them. Seeing one close to Revolution Square, we decide to take a short walk over to see it. 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'  Just our luck! We take some photos, but apart from an elderly man weeding the lines of vegetables, there is no sign of life or the military.

We resume our bus tour, reaching the coastline and the dilapidated nightclubs, which were once popular with American gamblers and the mob. This is 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 and embassies. 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 Havana, 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 go through them. After years of neglect, the hotel had been used to accommodate visiting diplomats, but after the collapse of the USSR, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Russians, the Cuban government reopened Cuba to tourism. 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 Hotel 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 certain locations in the hotel. 

This is 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. 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.

DAY FOUR: HAVANA - SANTIAGO DE CUBA

THURSDAY, JANUARY 10, 2013

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 refit 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 off with Abel 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. A year after the revolution, the building was converted to the museum and school by Castro and the repaired bullet holes had been once again opened as an authentic 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 some 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 inside. 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 that 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 buy them another beer before we leave them.  

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. But we do.

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 to 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 instrument, 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 he 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!  

DAY FIVE: SANTIAGO DE CUBA/CASTILLO DEL MORRO, SANTA IFIGENIA CEMETERY

FRIDAY, JANUARY 11, 2013,

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) (1997)  - The large fort was built to defend the important port of Santiago de Cuba. The design of the fortification was based on Italian and Renaissance architecture. The complex of magazines, bastions, and batteries is one of the most complete and well-preserved Spanish-American defense fortifications.

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, 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 UNESCO World Heritage site, Castillo del Morro; small traders sell 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. He was also 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. 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. By this time, 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 or 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 who 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 de Cuba rum factory, which was the original Bacardi distillery, and which produces the same recipe under its 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 the Caribbean, the Spanish, revolution, and communism is a fascinating story, which is told from the perspective of almost every place we visit. Each place we visit and each person we meet has a unique view of the cruel years of the Batista regime 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 to be 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   https://insightcuba.com/blog/2019/07/31/our-lady-charity-story-cubas-patron-saint)

I love the legends surrounding places like this, and it is often humbling to see how a statue such as this has become important over time. This is a symbol of Cuban identity both here and in other parts of the world and the inscription in the church translates to:  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.

We walk around the corner to a family home, a long table is set up in the front garden. The family come out to greet us. Whilst the wife returns to the house, the husband welcomes us to his home. Unlike last night's busy home-cum restaurant, tonight's experience is more like a family dinner and less like a restaurant. The intimate setting and balmy evening is a perfect combination as fresh papaya is brought to the table. Traditional Cuban fare includes pork, chicken, and fish accompanied by root vegetables, plantain bananas, rice, and beans. It is beautifully cooked and served with the love that can only be extended by family members. For a short time, we feel like members of the extended family. As the meal comes to an end, we are compelled to grind our own coffee in the traditional 'rural' way. The coffee is filtered through a stocking before being poured into tin cups. On closer inspection, I realise that the cups are olive tins, their lids carefully cut, and folded to fashion a crude handle. This is how inventive the Cubans are! They have nothing fancy yet they generously share the little they have. As our dinner comes to an end, the family joins us and poses for photos. Tonight's meal has been the best we've had so far.

Our night is not over yet; we say goodbye to our family and return to our hotel, where we pile into waiting classic cars and take off through the streets of Santiago de Cuba to the Tropicana night club. For our entrance fee of CUC30, we are presented with a 750ml bottle of Havana rum, and a can of local cola. We quickly find seats facing the stage. Based on the original Las Vegas-style floorshow in Havana, the Tropicana here is half the price and twice the show - apparently. We are mesmerised by the quality of the dancers and singers. The elaborate costumes, especially the headdresses, are wonderful, but upon a closer look, it is easy to see that these have seen better days; yet another example of Cuba's ability to compromise and 'make-do' where nothing else is available. Colourful and vibrant, we simply didn't want the show to end, but like all good things in life, it did, but not before the cast joins us in a conga line that weaves in and out of the auditorium.  

Tonight, our tour leader, Abel, has shown us yet another dimension to this absolutely fascinating country.

DAY SIX: SANTIAGO DE CUBA/BACONAO PARK/ COFFEE PLANTATION

SATURDAY, JANUARY 12, 2013,

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

UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere Reserve: Baconao , Cafetal La Isabelica, Jardin Botanico (1887)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Archaeological Landscape of  the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba (2000) - During the 19th and early 20th centuries, eastern Cuba was primarily involved with coffee cultivation. The remnants of the plantations display the techniques used in the difficult terrain, as well as the economic and social significance of the plantation system in Cuba and the Caribbean.

After a full day's sightseeing and last night's exciting show, we have a relatively late start this morning. At precisely 9:30 am, our jeeps arrive at the hotel and we we pile into the back of them without any thought of our personal safety, the luxury of seatbelts, or comfort for that matter.

We leave the city behind us and within a very short time are racing along dirt roads, dodging uprooted trees and other debris on the surface. Potholes. Lots of them; each one reverberating through our bodies as the jeeps travel up the winding mountainous roads to Parque Baconao.

Our first stop is Gran Piedra, the Big Rock. It is an exceptionally large rock and we take the 459 stone steps to the summit, which at 1,234 metres above sea level, promises a magnificent view of Guantanamo Bay. I'm disappointed because a fog has descended and obliterates the long-range view. But we cannot control the weather! However, what I can see from our vantage point is the total devastation of the environment by Hurricane Sandy. Whole trees are uprooted - as far as the eye can see. We had been promised lush tropical rainforest, but we are met with the shocking panorama of a broken environment. Despite this, there are signs of regrowth; tiny green shoots are already appearing on the trees. Sadly, we are all too aware of farmhouses below still roofless after the superstorm.

This area is perfect for growing coffee and we arrive at Cafetal La Isabelica, the first coffee plantation in the southeast of Cuba. Built by French immigrants fleeing Haiti during a slave uprising in the 19th century, the two-storey mansion and drying platforms are impressive. Presumably the landowner wished to retain his slaves, hence his move to Cuba, where slavery was still legal. Our local guide leads us through the UNESCO World Heritage site, providing us with a comprehensive overview of the coffee industry in Cuba. After last night's coffee-grinding, brewing, and tasting, I am very interested in the growing, picking, and roasting processes. The end of the tour is celebrated with a cup of the local brew, which is much appreciated after the long morning.

At then end of the tour, we say goodbye to our local guide and return to our jeeps, stopping a short time later at a botanical garden. Privately-owned, Jardin Botanico now occupies the site of an old coffee plantation. Terraces cut into the sides of the mountain are filled with thousands of plants, including forty-two varieties of bird of paradise, which are almost ready to flower. An anthurium garden includes more varieties than I've ever seen before, and I am especially interested in the thousands of native orchids and bromeliads, which not only grow in clumps on the grounds, but cling to tree branches. This garden is magnificent, and the owner, who has brought us on this journey of botanical discovery is so proud of his personal paradise. His knowledge of plants is extraordinary and his extensive collection of these tropical specimens is sublime. In amongst this beautiful collection, I am surprised to see native Australian flowering bottlebrush trees. 

Today's excursion into the UNESCO World Heritage site today is wonderful, and I'm very glad that we've had this opportunity to visit this special part of the southeastern region of Cuba.  Santiago de Cuba and its surrounding regional area has so much to offer the tourist and although I'm not sorry we are moving on tomorrow, I could have spent a few more days here. 

DAY SEVEN: SANTIAGO DE CUBA- CAMAGUEY

SUNDAY, JANUARY 13, 2013,

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, with its twisting streets and alleyways, and a notable gesture of the city is the proliferation of huge earthenware water pots known as 'tinajones'. We see these all over the city and they were originally used to store water in times of drought. 

UNESCO World Heritage Site:  Historic Centre of Camaguey (2008) - Camagüey is among the first seven villages founded by the Spanish in Cuba, first settled in 1528. The irregular organization of the city is distinct from the typical, orderly construction of most other Spanish settlements. This maze-like style was influenced by medieval European ideas and traditional construction methods of early immigrant masons and construction workers.

We leave Santiago de Cuba fairly early, as our next destination is seven hours away. This will give me a good opportunity to gaze out of the window of the bus and enjoy the Cuban landscape. About an hour into our journey, and as we are about to cross from Santiago de Cuba to Granma province, our bus is stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier enters the bus and asks Abel to evacuate. We are not going to argue with the military, so we file off the bus one by one, wondering what was going on. It becomes clear almost immediately. Due to the cholera outbreak in the province after Hurricane Sandy, all people leaving the zone must have their hands washed in chlorinated water and soap to prevent spreading the bacterial disease outside this area. Here, we see a proactive and simple method of controlling cholera. 

At intervals along the road, there are stalls selling local fruit, such as pineapples, oranges, bananas, and coconuts. We stop to buy a 'string' of mandarins. Ten pieces of fresh fruit are threaded on a string as there are no bags to put them in. I am in awe of the ingenuity of people who have so little, yet can think up ways of overcoming their challenges in everyday life.

As we continue along the road, we pass an assortment of vehicles; horses and carts, clapped-out tractors with trailers filled with people, trucks left from the soviet era, and plenty of bicycles. We drive through towns in which no motor vehicles can be seen. When the Russians left Cuba, so did the oil, which, until 1991 had been sold on as income for the county. Once the oil reserves dried up, many couldn't afford to fill the tanks of their vehicles, thus a return to human and animal powered vehicles. Despite the obvious poverty that all people experience, the Cubans are well-dressed and appear to be well-fed.

At lunch time we stop at a country restaurant, ordering sandwiches and hot chips, whilst a local group of musicians entertain us until we need to continue our journey.

We are lulled into half-dozing with bellies full when a loud 'Bang' interrupts our reverie. Abel and the driver get off the bus and check the tyres, which are all intact. But our suspension is stuffed - really stuffed. We are unable to travel any further and we are sort of in the middle of nowhere. A frantic call to report the breakdown provides us with the information that we will be stranded here for some hours before a replacement would be available. This is, of course, a good time to get to know our fellow strandees! It's too hot to remain in the bus, so we assemble on the side of the road, watching the various modes of transport passing; drivers staring quizzically at the twelve tourists standing on the side of the road next to their disabled bus.

About thirty minutes later, a local intercity bus pulls up. Abel, our driver, and the driver of the functional bus put their heads together and have an animated discussion. Abel makes a few phone calls, heads are counted, seats are counted, and the passengers alight, collect our luggage and stow it in the new bus. They have, it seems agreed to take us to the city of Camaguey. We collect our own personal belongings from inside the bus and get onto the replacement one. The locals are already seated.

I'm quite surprised to see that the locals have spread themselves along the window seats, one passenger on each row of seats, enforcing us each to sit next to one of the locals. These men, because all the passengers on the bus are men, are on their way to Havana after they drop us off in Camaguey. It feels a little uncomfortable at first, but I realise after a couple of minutes that these guys would be unlikely to have the opportunity to sit next to a foreigner very often, and perhaps are taking advantage of the situation. My companion flashes a smile and says a friendly 'hola!' before turning and staring out the window before dozing off. I guess they are returning to Havana to work after the weekend. Before long, we are all lulled into the rhythm of the momentum of the bus, traditional son music is playing through the loudspeaker. Abel walks down the aisle and checks that we are all okay. Then out of nowhere, the traditional music is replaced with The Village People, and the strains of YMCA belt down the bus as our local passengers awake from their reverie to join in. And so it goes, for the remainder of the journey. I am sure the driver has a cassette player and as the Best of the 1970s disco music is replaced with the Bee Gees Greatest Hits, we are very much aware that this gesture is to make us feel at home. I really love these people.

We arrive in Camaguey in the early evening and our new friends from the bus deliver our suitcases to the hotel lobby and bid us goodbye. We quickly settle into our rooms and prepare to take a biki-taxi tour through the streets of Camaguey. I realise that something is missing; my small backpack is still on the bus. I've never left anything behind before, but I suppose with the confusion upon our arrival, it simply got left behind. Apart from my iPad, there is a very illegal GPS inside it. I don't know why I hadn't moved it into my suitcase. Abel makes some calls and says it's on its way to Havana.

Despite arriving a little later than expected, our brave and strong bike riders go hell-for-leather through the somewhat deserted streets of this very beautiful city. Our driver manages to remain at the head of the line of taxis. There are designated stops, where we must get off the seats and listen to Abel relate the history of this remarkable town.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Camaguey is famous for its neo-classical and colonial architecture. This inland city had not been built to a grid system like other cities, but the labyrinth-like street design had been planned to protect the inhabitants from the regular raids and attacks by pirates. We arrive in a small square; life-sized sculptures of people doing ordinary things like reading a paper and 

ladies gossiping in a huddle. These are the works of Martha Jiminez, who has an open gallery on the square. We spend some time marvelling at some of her works. Next door to the gallery is a small family restaurant, where I have an animated conversation with a waiter about Australian lamb. He seemed to need to know whether our sheep were grass or grain fed. All of this conversations is in the form of wild hand gesticulation and broken English with a few words pulled out of the handy dictionary from my hand bag, and fortunately not in the backpack. I marvel at the ability of people to ask questions and to extend their knowledge. This is a very nice moment for me, but perhaps a very important one for him. 

As the sun dips below the skyline, we ride to Parque Agramonte, which is dominated by a monument of Ignacio Agramonte, a Cuban hero from the Spanish Independence war. The palm trees that line the path had been planted in memory of a group of nationalists, who had been executed in the square in 1851.

This is a lovely, clean city, but unfortunately we are only here for a short time and will resume our journey tomorrow. Since we don't have a very early start in the morning, I want to take a walk through the streets during the daytime.

Abel says that my backpack will be returned tomorrow morning. 

DAY EIGHT: CAMAGUEY - TRINIDAD

MONDAY, JANUARY 14, 2013,

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.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Trinidad and the Valley of the Ingenios (1998) - The city of Trinidad was founded in the early 16th century. In 1518, Hernán Cortés began his expedition to conquer Mexico from the port at Trinidad. The city prospered throughout the colonial period in large part due to the success of the local sugar industry. The adjacent Valley de los Ingenios was the origin of the Cuban sugar industry, which emerged in the 18th century. It is home to numerous cane sugar mills, as well as cattle ranches and tobacco plantations.

At breakfast, Abel presents me with my backpack, which has made its way back from Havana overnight. He asks me to open it and inspect that the contents are still there, which I do, and yes, it's all there, although someone has rifled through it! I don't tell Abel that though, as the Cuban people are honest, if not a little curious. I have a giggle when I realise that the GPS, which was at the bottom of the bag is now at the top and is switched on. Obviously someone's curiosity got the better of them.

We have just over an hour to explore the town on our own before resuming our journey.

We'd had a fairly comprehensive tour yesterday evening, so it's good to explore by foot, and we immediately head for Plaza de la Soledad, which is dominated by the Catholic Church and a very nice cafe. Once called Plaza del Gallo (Rooster Square), an iron rooster sculpture adorns one wall. It's nice to be able to sit in the sun on the terrace of the cafe and sip local coffee, whilst chatting to the couple at the next table. But all good things must come to an end because we want to explore the retail street before we return to the bus.

There are plenty of people out and about this morning as we walk down the street admiring the shop fronts; their displays unchanged since 1959, I'm sure. More than a time warp, Cuba has appeared to have adopted Soviet-style retail practices. There are many people working behind the large wooden counters. There is no self-service. You point to the item you want and you're given a receipt for the goods. Taking the receipt to the cashier, you are given your goods. When you reach the door, the receipt and the purchase is checked by security at the door. The number of people permitted inside the store is strictly controlled by security. As we are let out of the store, one person is permitted to enter. Along the street, queues of people wait patiently for their turn to enter their chosen store and we do feel like sticky-beaks, having taken up the place of a local person, just so we can have a look. However, I feel that the experience is valuable for us.

Our suitcases are neatly packed into the replacement bus and we continue our journey across Cuba. It's going to be another fairly long journey today, but I'm glad we've had the later start this morning, as we've had time to mix with the locals.

Here, in the central region of Cuba, sugar cane is planted as far as the eye can see. The tall canes with their bright green spear-shaped leaves sway in the breeze. Every now and then a fruit stall appears and eventually we stop to buy fruit. Strings of onions and shallots are slung over a post whilst the round-shaped stall has a variety of fruits and nuts for sale. Abel returns with a half bunch of bananas to share.

Not too far away from Trinidad, we stop at Valle de los Ingenios; three interconnected fertile valleys, which were the centre of sugar production from the late 18th to late 19th centuries. At its peak, there were over fifty sugar mills in operation, with over 30,000 slaves working in the fields and in the mills. The native Cubans, through contact with diseases brought by European settlers and through their poor treatment as slaves, were virtually wiped out. The Spanish plantation owners imported Africans to work as slaves in the sugar cane fields and in the mills. When slavery was abolished by the Spanish in 1820, the practice of importing slaves became more difficult. But it was not until the Wars of Independence in the 19th century that many of the sugar mills were abandoned or became run down. We stop at the plantation of Manaca Iznaga, where the owner's house, a tower and some of the original slave quarters still stand, albeit in bad repair. From the top of the tower is a magnificent view across the valley. Initially built as a watch tower to observe the slaves at work and to ensure they didn't escape, it also held a bell, which was used to advise the slaves of start and finishing time each day.

Below the tower, many ladies hold out the most exquisitely-embroidered table linen. All items are for sale and I'm happy to buy a few white cloths to bring home. This is really the first time we've seen true handcrafted items for sale.

We settle into our hotel, Las Cuevas, which is located on a hill just on the outskirts of the town. We don't have time to loll around the pool though, as we meet Abel and set off for a walking tour on the original cobbled streets of Trinidad. Together with the pastel-coloured houses, the streets date back to the 1600s and both the city of Trinidad and the Valle de los Ingenios are UNESCO historical sites.

Founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, a Spanish conquistador, Trinidad was an important centre for trade in sugar and slaves. The large, palatial buildings in Plaza Mayor had once been the mansions of sugar barons. They are now mostly used as public buildings and museums. In fact, the whole town is a museum.

As dusk falls, and the streets gradually become empty of people, Abel leads us through a maze of narrow streets, stopping at a local tavern for dinner. The walls are adorned with objects relating to the Spanish occupation and of slavery; the iron implements are scary to look at. We enjoy a wonderful dinner with our travel companions before we take the fifteen minute walk back to our hotel just in time to watch a cultural show. I cannot think of a better way to end the day.

Abel informs us that although we are remaining in Trinidad for another two nights, we must change hotels tomorrow.

DAY NINE: TRINIDAD

TUESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2013,

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.

We can relax a little this morning, as we opt not to go swimming with some of the others. Trinidad is an interesting city and I would like to wander around, and even maybe try to find some wifi cards so I can email those at home. Our hotel, Las Cuevas, is very nice and we take advantage of the outdoor setting and its location on a hill to explore the grounds and to take photos. It's hard to believe that a short 50 metre walk will bring us into the city. The hotel's garden setting is pretty and the trees provide shade for the many birds and reptiles we see. We pass St Anne's, an old colonial church on the way into the city; its rendered red brick facade has survived the test of time. Trinidad is a very clean city and as we pass a garbage truck; a tractor with its attached trailer, we watch as young people throw their bags of rubbish into the trailer as it slowly drives past.

It must be market day as temporary stalls and wheelbarrows filled with fresh produce are located by the side of the cobbled streets; tomatoes, papaya, pineapples, and various meats are for sale. As we make our way down into what we believe to be the centre of the town, the market stalls are filled with secondhand hardware, shoes, hats, and other goods. Like Havana, the buildings are painted in a variety of pastel colours, and we only need to turn a corner from the busy market to find unmade roads and few people.

The tablecloth sellers have a whole street in which to show their magnificent work, and very soon we are trying to buy a three-metre cloth for our table at home. Very soon, the whole market joins in with the search for our desired cloth and before long, we have two perfect ones, complete with napkins, and for a very reasonable price - so reasonable, we also purchase various table runners as well. 

The story behind the Trinidad linens is quite unique. In 1518, when Cortes passed through Trinidad recruiting mercenaries for his all-conquering expedition of Mexico, he emptied Trinidad of its menfolk. In order to keep the economy going and whilst waiting and hoping for their partners to return, the women developed an industry in hand embroidered linen. The original designs that symbolise Trinidad are still in use today. Since linen is expensive, the drawn threads from the work is not discarded, instead used to embroider the hems. There are many examples of this fine work in the markets and in the living rooms of homes, which have been converted into tiny stores.

Wandering and shopping is very thirsty work, so we relax in the foyer of the Iberostar Grand Hotel, with a couple of Crystal beers.

There is something really special about Trinidad, which, so far, I haven't experienced in other parts of Cuba. There is a real sense of gentility; the riches of the sugar barons are reflected not only in the buildings and the elaborate decorations on those buildings, but also in the fine furnishings within. This was once a very rich city and tomorrow we will explore the museums and the colonial buildings around Plaza Major, which date from 18th and 19th centuries.

For now, however, we need to return to our hotel to meet the rest of our group and to move to our new hotel, Ma Dolores, which is located a little way out of the city. It's a shame we've had to move, but Cuba has a shortage of accommodation at the moment. Hotel Ma Dolores includes dinner and a cultural show, a depiction of the simple life of rural Cuba.

DAY TEN: TRINIDAD

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2013,

Hotel Ma Dolores - Carretera de Cienfuegos Km 1.5, Trinidad 62600, Cuba

Disco Ayala - Hotel las Cuevas

Plaza Major

I've decided that I really like Trinidad, and whilst our travel companions go hiking, we return to the city centre and the Plaza Mayor. We want to explore the colonial buildings surrounding the square, starting with the Palacio Cantero, now the Municipal History Museum. Built in 1828 by one of the richest men in Trinidad, Palacio Cantero is one of the most impressive houses in the city. The spacious entrance hall opens into galleries filled with treasures from Europe, including some magnificent pieces of Sevres, Meissen, and Limoges. Unbelievably, these old and perfectly intact pieces sit precariously on tables and, I believe, are in mortal danger of being damaged. The staff are more interested in asking tourists for soap and pens than discussing the contents of this sugar-baron's home. This is a beautiful mansion and the typical central courtyard is a tranquil space away from the noise of the busy street. The adjoining tower includes a rickety staircase to the top. At first I baulk at climbing up the steps, but eventually decide that the view is probably worth the risk. We are presented with a magnificent 360 degree vista from mountain to coast. I can pick out landmarks, such as the cathedral on Plaza Mayor, St. Anne's Church ruins, the linen markets, and even look into the backyards of houses. With no high-rise buildings, I can see almost forever. 

Lunch is the next thing on our agenda, and we try to work out way onto the roof of a restaurant we can see from our vantage point on the tower. It is surprisingly easy to find, and from our rooftop table, we wave to tourists on top of the tower, which we have just left. 

Plaza Mayor is probably one of the nicest main squares we've visited in Cuba and is the historic centre of the town. The buildings surrounding the plaza, including Palacio Cantero, date from the 18th and 19th centuries when trade in sugar from the nearby Valle de los Ingenios and slavery brought great riches to the area. The small square has gardens on a raised platform, with paths dividing it in quarters. The resulting four small garden beds are bordered with white wrought-iron fences. Cobbled streets mark the perimeter of the square, separating it from the surrounding buildings. Wrought iron fences, lamp posts, and painted urns provide frivolous decoration to this pretty space. Whilst many of the structures in Cuba are dilapidated, Trinidad typically has preserved many of its historic buildings, generating an air of gentility and well-being. We wander around the square, visiting the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is closed, so we are unable to enter it. Opposite is the Palacio Brunet, which was once a family mansion and is now a museum of sorts. The view of the square from the second floor balcony is very nice and it's not hard to imagine rich families of the era relaxing on their balconies whilst watching the world go by. 

We are attracted by the sounds of music and follow it to a steep set of stairs. A stage is set up for live bands and bars provide nourishment in the form of beer and hot chips. And here we stay until the sun sets behind us. Music, dancing, beer, and people watching. The atmosphere here is electric. We don't have to dance. We can sit at a tiny table, absorb the vibrant music, and watch the dancers, somehow blending in with the landscape, but observing the action at the same time. This is pure magic.

We take a cab back to our hotel, and plan to return much later this evening for a special outing. Although we've seen a couple of the people from the tour around town, we've been happy to spend our day wandering under our own steam today. Given it's been a fairly tight itinerary so far, the days in Trinidad have not only provided a break from the tour, but have presented the opportunity to explore this wonderful city alone.

We call for a cab to collect us at 11pm from our hotel. I hand the driver the name of our destination, which is written on a page in my notebook. He nods and we take off into the dark night. Despite the late hour, I feel very safe as the car takes us through unfamiliar streets before I recognise St. Anne's ruins. We turn down a dark, narrow, unmade road. There is no sign of a nightclub down here. In the dark, I can barely make out a quarry and as the driver turns into a darkened and deserted building site, I begin to worry - slightly. The cab driver, so very friendly and helpful, has driven us to a deserted area, and heaven knows what his intentions are. Parking at the far corner of the site, which is surrounded by a wire fence, he stops the vehicle and jumps out, opens my door and beckons me to get out of the car. I am more than a little concerned now. Despite the situation in which we find ourselves, the driver is still very polite and genial AND no weapon has been produced. We stand next to the car, side by side.

What next?

The driver asks Tom for his name before telling us to come with him. We follow, wildly whispering how we could subdue the driver if he tries something on us. But the reality is that we are not equipped to fight off anyone and we actually have little idea of where we are, although I do suspect that Las Cuevas Hotel is close by.

Right at the corner of the wire fence, there is a tiny opening. The driver slips through and holds a wire flap aside as we follow him through the gap. We file past a pile of boulders, round a corner and in front of us is an iron gate made to fit a cave opening. He points to the sign. Ayala. This is our destination.

With an air of relief, we stand in a queue of people waiting to enter when the gate eventually opens. Pointing to his watch, the cab driver indicates that we need to tell him when to collect us. I write Tom's name on a sheet of paper from my notebook and 1 o'clock. He refuses payment for the fare. 'Later', he says. As he disappears into the blanket of darkness, we look at each other and wonder whether anyone would believe this story if we told them. Perhaps it was a little risky since we hadn't even told our tour guide where we are going, but so far, so good.

 

The gate opens and we move ahead to the ticket booth, where we pay 3CUC to enter the nightclub. We are given tokens to exchange for a beer each, which I calculate to be worth about the same price as the admittance fee. As we enter the antechamber, I realise that despite steps having been cut from the rock, the cave itself is in its natural form. The antechamber is like a huge foyer, which leads to another set of rough steps leading down to a subterranean room where the nightclub is warming up. A disco ball is hanging like a stalactite from a wire in the centre of the curved roof, scattering coloured dots of light around the room. We find a table on a ledge overlooking the dance floor. Inside a natural niche, the bar has been set up, whilst a narrow ledge high on the opposite side houses the DJ and his equipment. Blaring from speakers is non-stop music. When we had heard about this nightclub, we didn't quite know what to expect, but what we didn't anticipate was that we would know every song being played: Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Saturday Night Fever, and more. Below, Cubans and tourists dance to the beats of American 1970s disco music and we love it. There is a surreal sense that we are part of something so unique and so far out of the normal experience of a tourist that I'm not sure that I can believe that this wondrous place really exists. But it does, as every now and then I feel a drip of water hit me on the head, which brings me back to reality. I cannot see whether there is a stalactite above me, but it adds to the amazing experience of being in this place. 

Long before we want to, and with ears ringing from the loud music inside the natural cavern, we retrace our steps back to the entrance, thanking our hosts as we step outside into the fresh air.

Tom hears his name being called. The taxi driver is waiting for us in the same spot he left us. We follow him to his cab, no longer worried about either his honesty or his integrity, and slip into the back seat of the ancient vehicle.

'Is good?' he says. We make effusive noises as the car's wheels spin in the gravel and we exit the dark parking area. Safely delivered to our hotel, and the driver paid and tipped, we return to our room.

I'm glad we both have a sense of adventure. It is very obvious that we are the oldest people on this tour; the others range in age from 18 to about 35, but despite this, we do like to challenge ourselves and sometimes our curiosity gets the better of us. We had probably felt a little unsure of ourselves for a short while during our trip to the disco tonight, but perhaps our innate instinct that Cuba is a relatively safe place set our minds at ease. Whatever the case may be, our night can go down in the Frawley record books as being one of the best ever.

DAY ELEVEN: TRINIDAD - SANTA CLARA

THURSDAY, JANUARY 17, 2013,

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.

Accommodation: Hotel Los Caneyes: Av. de los Eucaliptos and Circunvalacion, Santa Clara 50100 Cuba

It is a little bit sad leaving Trinidad this morning, as we've really fallen in love with city. There is a feeling that we've got more to see, but we must move on. It's busy on the road as buses, tractors, horse-drawn carts, and vegetable vendors compete for space. It's scenes like this; the old and the modern blending together, which will forever remind us of Cuba.

We arrive in Santa Clara just after lunch, pulling up at the Monument and Mausoleum of Che Guevara. Taking six years to build, the complex had been inaugurated on December 28, 1988, by Raul Castro. Conceived by architects and sculptors, the complex was built with volunteer labour from 500,000 local residents over 400,000 hours. Many aspects of Guevara's life are chronicled in the museum.

Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter? Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend. His unerasable mark is now in history and his luminous gaze of a prophet has become a symbol for all the poor of this world. (Fidel Castro)

As we get off the bus, Alex, an Irish historian murmurs to Tom that Guevara's mother had been born in Galway, Ireland. Alex is from Galway himself. Tom's excitement is so great, he announces that we're going to visit Argentina, Guevara's birthplace, next year! We enter the museum, where a good collection of Guevara's photographs from childhood to his career as a medical student through to his guerrilla days are displayed along with many other personal relics. The photographs by Cuban photographer, Korda, are especially poignant. One of Korda's photographs is the inspiration for the most famous stylised images of Guevara. We move from the museum to the mausoleum, where the remains of Che Guevara and twenty-nine of his fellow revolutionaries, killed in 1967 during Guevara's attempt to incite an uprising in Bolivia, are housed. We are not permitted to bring cameras into the museum or the mausoleum, but gather them before exploring the square. 

I think Tom is secretly proud that he shares Irish heritage with a Cuban hero, and it's not diminished one bit, even after I remind him that Guevara could actually be classed as a terrorist. 

Our bus drives us into the centre of the city of Santa Clara, a beautiful city filled with the colonial buildings painted in pastel colours, which we've come to expect in Cuba. We walk to Parque Videl, the main square, which covers an entire block. The square is crowded with mostly school children when we arrive. They are facing the beautiful neoclassical library as speakers address the children. They disperse soon after, and Abel translates the posters still displayed after the speakers leave.

la revolución no podra ser jamas aplastada, su obra sera eterna - Fidel, which translates to; 

The revolution can never be crushed, its work will be eternal.

We have some free time to explore the city before we settle into our hotel for the night. I want to check out the same building, the entrance from which the 'propaganda speech' had been delivered just minutes ago. We slip past the microphones and into the large, tiled foyer, where we are greeted by a lady with impeccable English. Once the town hall, the building is now used as a library dedicated to Cuban national hero, Jose Marti. Marti was was an important writer and educator who played an important role in the liberation of his country.  He opposed Spanish colonialism and US expansionism. He believed that Cuba had its own unique culture, which warranted its independence from Spain. There is a small bust of Marti near the door; a vase of fresh flowers and the Cuban flag serve to honour his memory. But the library is far more than a location to house books. The building is in the process of being renovated; the bright, pale yellow exterior paint is testament to the importance of this fine building. The lady asks us to follow her, which we do. Taking a few steps across to a pair of large timber double-doors, she waits until we are standing on either side of her. With a theatrical flick of her wrist, the double-doors open. Inside are rows and rows of cheap plastic chairs facing a grand piano at the far end of the room. My eyes follow the moulded finials above the architraves and the gilt Corinthian capitals on faux columns to the ornate cornices, and finally to the heavily-decorated ceiling; our puny ceiling roses at home are nothing compared to the gilt and painted decorations. This ballroom in another era is probably one of the most beautiful I've had the good fortune to visit. The recent restoration work in here is not only sympathetic to the original style, but has ensured its preservation for the future. In a country where so many magnificent buildings are decaying, it's refreshing to witness the love and care that has been bestowed on this public and historically-important edifice. So proud of this restoration, our impromptu tour guide refuses a donation for the time she spent with us showing us the ballroom. I suggest to her that she put a donation box in the library so that tourists like us can contribute to the ongoing restorations of the building. She escorts us to the door and points us into the direction of a building not far away.

The Museum of Decorative Arts is housed in a Spanish neoclassical mansion; its facade is hidden by a porch made up of arches and ionic columns. We pay the modest admission fee, then decide to pay the extra money for an English-speaking guide. It is worth paying for the guide as we delve into the history of Cuba and the wealth generated by the sugar cane barons. We only take a few steps inside before I return to the reception area and pay the extra fee for taking photos. The original owner of the mansion not only had the wealth, but the inclination to purchase very highly-regarded objets d'art from Europe. Here we see some of the best examples of Sevres porcelain, Limoges, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Gobelin tapestries, and magnificent clocks from The Netherlands, and furniture from North America. As we move from room to room, its difficult to believe that so many European treasures are plopped on tables and mantelpieces. It's almost like as if the owners are expected to return any second. Our excellent local guide is a walking encyclopedia, who has the incredibly rare knack of making history interesting. His earnest and somewhat dramatic personality makes me feel as though I'm living through the stories he's telling.  I could easily have spent a good few hours in this wonderful, yet under-advertised museum, but alas, time keeps marching on and we must join our fellow-travellers soon. At the end of the tour, we emerge into the bright sunshine and walk down to our meeting point. We do have time for coffee before we return to the bus.

Santa Clara is more than just a tribute to Che Guevara. It is a beautiful city with amazing surprises if you are willing to immerse yourself into its rhythm. I'm surprised to find that nobody else on our busload of twelve people has visited the museum, and although I understand that not everyone is interested in the same things, I secretly feel that perhaps they have missed out on something special.

Our hotel, Los Caneyes, is located out of town and our room is one of four built into a yurt-like structure. It's weird, but perfectly adequate. I must say, that despite it being a cheaper tour, our accommodation in general, has been very good. We didn't come to Cuba with high expectations due to the embargoes with the USA, but we've been very pleasantly surprised. We are losing three people tomorrow. One couple is leaving us in Havana, whilst Alex, the Irish historian, is joining a group of monks in the mountains for a retreat of sorts.

A buffet dinner is included with our accommodation tonight, and we enjoy a nice range of traditional Cuban food. The fare is simple, perhaps a little in need of spicy flavour, but it's fresh and plentiful...and those lobster tails...

Entertainment is also included tonight. We wait in anticipation as the stage is set. I'm surprised that there is no provision for a band; no instruments or microphones. Then introductions are made as one by one, models wearing the latest fashion sashay down the centre of the restaurant, turn this way and that, then exit through the glass doors and into the garden. Showcasing beach and resort wear, swimsuits, caftans, and tie-dye garments, we are treated to the best fashion items from the 1970s and possibly very early 1980s at a stretch. I love it!

DAY TWELVE: SANTA CLARA - VINALES

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 2013,

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.

Accommodation: La Ermita: Vinales, Cuba

We have to return to Havana today because the road to our destination must pass through the capital city and we're dropping off two people who had opted for the twelve-day tour. Arriving in Havana at midday, we spend a nice hour hanging around Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas drinking pina coladas and having a quick lunch before taking the opportunity to take any photos we had regretted not taking whilst we were in Havana almost two weeks ago. This is our last opportunity.

Reboarding the bus still buzzing from quickly-swallowed midday favourite rum drinks, we set off on the freeway towards the western side of Cuba. If nothing, this brief stop in Havana has highlighted how much we have yet to see in the city and somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder whether we will plan another visit to Cuba.

Almost two hours into our journey, the bus pulls up at a regular rural bus stop, where we say goodbye to Alex. An historian from Galway, Ireland, Alex works at the university in Vienna translating medieval illuminated manuscripts. He is going to spend the next week or so inside a monastery in the Sierra del Rosario region. Carrying nothing more than his small backpack, Abel escorts Alex to the bus stop where he makes enquiries about the next transport option for Alex. A truck pulls up as Abel returns to the bus and we watch  the locals talk to the truck driver before Alex jumps onboard, standing next to men already riding on the back of the truck. As his transportation lumbers off, Alex waves us goodbye as he embarks on a new life adventure.

At Pinar del Rio, a small rural city in the heart of tobacco and sugar cane crops, we stop at the Francisco Donatien Cigar factory. No cameras are permitted inside the factory, so I have to rely on my memory to recount the experience. As we enter, the smell of tobacco is strong as our local guide discusses the the process once the dried leaves arrive on the premises. We step into the processing room, which is probably unchanged since it was built about one hundred years ago. Wooden partitions divide the workspaces, where the individual cigar makers select the required leaves and deftly roll them into cigars. No machines here, all cigars are hand-rolled. A person collects the finished cigars and tests each one for weight and density. Failed items are returned to the cigar-roller to be rectified. Each person is expected to roll one hundred cigars per day. Surrounding us, on all the walls in the dusty factory are propaganda posters. Apparently the newspaper is read to the workers each morning as they start their shifts. We leave this fascinating production line and enter the area where the finished cigars are sorted, labelled, and packed. All cigars are sorted by colour variation, which are labelled and packed together to ensure consistency of colour, weight, and density before being packed into wooden boxes. Again, we are struck by the skill of a workforce without the luxury of mechanisation. The cigars are not cheap to buy, but each one has been hand-rolled with a skill that is probably dying in other parts of the world. Whilst we are still in Pinar del Rio, we enter a small distillery, where guava rum is made. After suddenly becoming connoisseurs of all kinds of rum, we decide to stick with our favoured Legendario and Santiago de Cuba brands. 

The last leg of our journey today takes us through the magnificent and fertile Vinales Valley, given World Heritage classification by UNESCO for its outstanding karst landscape in which traditional methods of agriculture have survived unchanged for several centuries. The region also preserves a rich tradition in its architecture, its crafts, and its music. In just two weeks, we've visited five out of the eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Cuba. 

Our hotel, La Ermita, sits on top of a hill overlooking the amazing Vinales Valley. We walk a short way away to a small family restaurant in the village of Vinales, where we enjoy the best of fresh produce. 

DAY THIRTEEN: VINALES

SATURDAY, JANUARY 19, 2013,

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Vinales Valley (1999) -The village of Viñales was founded in 1875 after the expansion of tobacco cultivation in the surrounding valley. The Valley features a karst topographyvernacular architecture, and traditional cultivation methods. 

Just a short distance from our hotel, where pigs and goats wander alongside the narrow strip of bitumen road, is the small township of Vinales. We pass a young man, plaited strips of garlic balanced on his bicycle handlebars on our way to the tiny tourist office, where our local guide is waiting for us. First, though, we need to pay the office 10CUC each for the walking tour, which includes the local guide, Daniel. We walk along the footpath, past small, neat pastel-coloured houses, a bus stop shading a group of people waiting their transportation, and a bakery before turning off and following a narrow dirt track that leads into a farm. 

An A-frame structure built of palm fronds, not unlike that described in the children's fairy tale, The Three Pigs, looms large in the field. Inside, a group of women expertly tie bunches of freshly-picked tobacco together before hanging the bundles on straight, narrow sticks, which extend almost the length of the building. We are told the palm fronds from which the building is constructed serve to allow fresh air to circulate within the shed, and assists with the drying process. There are rows and rows of drying tobacco leaves from the fresh ones near the ground to the brown, dried ones near the top of the shed. There is a typical tobacco smell, blending with the smell of freshly-picked greenery. Outside, we see small frames built of the same straight, narrow branches, on which more tobacco is drying.

Tobacco is hand-harvested; the bottom leaves are picked first. Planted in October, it is harvested just three months later, so we've arrived right in the middle of tobacco harvest time, and the fields are filled with workers. 

Passing a cage containing a couple of possum-like creatures inside, we are told that they are protected tree rats. Despite it being illegal to eat the creatures, I do wonder why they are being held captive inside a small cage. I certainly hope this is not a specialty offered locally in a restaurant. I resolve to eat only chicken or lobster whilst in Vinales.

We follow Daniel across the fields. There are plenty of chickens, many with chicks in tow, scratching around. No coops here, they seem to roam freely. I must admit that I'm really enjoying the walk through the farmlands. We are in no hurry and thus plenty of time to immerse ourselves into the rural scenery. Daniel is fabulous, answering our many questions about Cuban farming practices in this area.

There is a baobab tree that is literally covered in bromeliads, which happily coexist on its branches without causing any harm. From here, I see large mogotes, tall rounded hills that rise from the flat plain of the valley.

Our walking tour continues past shacks, more tobacco drying sheds, grazing cows, and a large paddock filled with tomatoes. I watch as the ripening fruit is picked and left at the end of each row, awaiting collection. These are tomatoes, which, over the past two weeks, have reminded me of the real home-grown tomato flavour of my childhood. A cowboy on a horse appears as we pass the tomato patch, shouting to the picker as he passes by. Oxen, tethered together and pulling a plough operated by a farmer, churn up the rich red soil. White birds follow, collecting worms and seeds from the freshly ploughed earth. We ask Daniel the obvious question about why tractors are not used here. He advises that many of the larger farms had been well-mechanised, mainly using Soviet tractors. When Russia withdrew from Cuba in 1986, and tractors and other machinery began to break down, spare parts became unavailable, and fuel prices increased, the farmers simply returned to their traditional farming practices, which include using oxen for ploughing and for moving heavy goods. It goes without saying that these fields are completely organic; no pesticides are used at all.

By 1999, when UNESCO classified this area as a World Heritage site, it included traditional techniques still in use for agricultural production, particularly of tobacco. I do wonder whether sometime in the future, and when mechanised techniques are reintroduced to Cuban farmers, whether these ones here in the Vinales Valley, must retain these traditional techniques to keep their heritage status. I would be interested in finding out.

At the base of a mogote, we cut through another tobacco farm and enter a drying shed. This one has no freshly-picked tobacco, but plenty of bunches of dried leaves. The farmer not only describes his farm, but his side hobby/personal business, which is rolling his own cigars. Step-by-step, he describes the process of cigar rolling from leaf selection to smoking, lighting his newly-rolled cigar at the end of the demonstration. He has hand-rolled cigars for sale, and they are reasonably-priced compared to the stores. Packed in palm leaves, I feel they are too much of a biosecurity risk to bring them home to Australia, so I refrain from purchasing any. I'm not sure of how these home-businesses work in Cuba, but I do admire the ingenuity of the individuals who strive for a better life. We tip him nonetheless.

We are quite surprised to see our hotel on a hill behind us. Apparently, we haven't walked that far from our accommodation, but the hours we've wandered through the valley have provided us a wonderful overview of this unique place.

Leaving the farm behind us, we cross a small homemade bridge made of two logs placed side-by-side. A handrail is lashed to a convenient tree. Little shacks are located between the jungle-like undergrowth and the ploughed fields. Here, a lone farmer with one ox is taking a break from his backbreaking work. Stripped to the waist, his sinewy muscles and his leathery brown skin indicate that he has worked in the fields for a long time. His face is like a roadmap; each wrinkle represents another hard year's work. Next to the paddock he is ploughing is a pineapple field. Not the straight rows of pineapples like we have in Queensland; these are poking their spiky leaves out of the weeds and undergrowth. Pulling a machete from his belt, this Cuban version of Crocodile Dundee selects a green pineapple from one of the plants and expertly tails it before deftly peeling it with the machete. The top, the spikes sliced off, serves as a handle as he slices the fruit, offering us each a piece from the end of his machete. This green variety of pineapple is ripe; sweet and juicy, and reminds us that lunchtime is not too far away. Wiping his blade on the side of his trousers, he walks to the nearby sugarcane field and selects a long cane, cutting it and peeling the leaves from the stalk and exposing the white sinewy, edible part of the cane. With a flick of his wrist, the cane is twisted. Throwing his head back, drops of the sweet cane juice fall into his open mouth. Of all the demonstrations of farming techniques and cigar rolling we've seen today, this old bloke's theatrics will somehow stay with me for many years to come. And this is the grand finale to our walking tour with Daniel as we make our way along the worn path to the village. It's a surprisingly short distance away. Abel meets us at the tourist office as Daniel says goodbye to us. Next door, a delicious smell of cooking pizza wafts into the small office-cum house. Another small private enterprise from a couple who have fashioned a pizza oven from a 44 gallon drum. Served on small squares of cardboard, we munch our treats as we walk down the street and look for a potential cafe, or at least somewhere we can enjoy a coffee. Our colleagues have dispersed in their own directions explore the busy and friendly town of Vinales. 

DAY FOURTEEN: VINALES - CAYO LEVISA/SOROA

SUNDAY, JANUARY 20, 2013,

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. 

Accommodation: Hotel Horizontes Villa Soroa. Carretera de km. 8 Soroa, Cuba

It's a bit sad as we say goodbye to the western side of Cuba on our last full day in this remarkable country. I'm a bit ambivalent about today's excursion because it involves a beach resort, and I'm not that enthralled. It's a lot cooler this morning and from our hotel on the hill, I can see low-lying fog across the valley. It will turn into a nice day, though, as the sun is shining above the mist. As the bus takes us away from the valley, Abel points out various interesting geographical features, including caves in the sides of the rocky hills.

An hour after leaving the hotel in Vinales, we arrive at the ferry landing; the 10am ferry is waiting for us to board. We make the short, half-hour crossing, skirting the mangroves, where long-legged wading birds peck in the muddy floor for crustaceans and other food. On the horizon, there is a cruise liner and I wonder whether this land of Cuba is being pointed out to its passengers. Not too far away is a sandy atoll; rudimentary shelters stand like soldiers on the white sand. Then we arrive. Whilst most of our companions run towards the sea, I find myself a lounge chair in a shady spot and relax in the idyllic setting. The warm sun cannot penetrate my shady spot, but the glare from the sun on the snow-white sand forces my eyes to shut and I drift off to the sounds of lapping water and the calls of various birds. For someone who isn't too keen on resorts, I'm certainly enjoying the relaxed solitude of this beautiful place.

So lazy do I feel that I force myself out of my reverie and my chaise longue and hoist myself to my feet. It's time to take a walk.

The sand is clear of man-made detritus, so I remove my sandals and walk along the strip of hard sand next to the waterline.

Our location is such that the beach attracts a lot of natural debris; seaweed, portuguese man o' war jellyfish, broken coral, shells, and driftwood. The seaweed looks as though it's been through a shredder and it covers a good part of the beach. There are kayaks and paddle-boats to use, but we are more than happy just to walk the length of the shoreline and absorb some of the sunlight on offer today. After a delicious lunch at the Hotel Cayo Levisa, we resume our afternoon activities, like lying on my lounge chair in the sun until it's time to return to Palma Rubia, the closest port to the island. Just before 5pm, we gather our things and join our group at the jetty to catch the 5 o'clock ferry back. It's been a nice day, but an earlier ferry, if it was available, would have been good.

We are no sooner on the bus, but the rain comes down in torrents. Water hits us in diagonal sheets, and I'm glad that our timing was such that we had already started our journey to our last hotel for this tour.

Our journey to Soroa, which should have taken us ninety minutes, takes well over two-and-a-half hours as the rain has flooded roads and filled in potholes. Not knowing how deep they are, the driver takes his time skirting them. We don't want to damage the bus and potentially hold us up any longer. As a watery sun sets and a curtain of darkness unfolds, it's possible to sneak a peek into the windows of the little rural houses we pass. I'm surprised to see that the Cuban people, generally speaking, own few possessions. The lucky ones with a TV, more often than not, have a group of locals peering at the shows on offer through the glassless windows. Abel says that glass is too expensive, but the shutters are closed each night. I now realise why most homes have decorative bars over their windows.

Our accommodation, Horizontes Villa Soroa, comprises of cute little huts along the top of a hill. Despite the late hour, we meet our travel companions for our final dinner together. Many of us will leave Havana tomorrow afternoon after a wonderful and educational tour of Cuba.

DAY FIFTEEN: SOROA - HAVANA

SUNDAY, JANUARY 20, 2013,

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.

Our suitcases are packed and ready for our afternoon flight to Mexico City. But there is a reason why we had stayed in Soroa overnight. There is something special to see before we start the ninety-minute journey back to Havana, where our tour ends today. 

Boarding the bus, we take the short journey to the Soria Botanical Garden. Developed by Tomas Camacho in 1943 as a memory to his wife and baby daughter, who both died in childbirth, the garden took nine years to build. It includes 700 varieties of orchids, 6,000 ornamentals, and an extensive library on orchids and other exotic plants. When Tomas Camacho returned to the Canary Islands, where he died in 1961, the garden was donated to the Cuban government. Today, it boasts 25,000 orchid species from across the world, including 100 Cuban species and is managed by the University of Pinar del Rio. The modest 4CUC entry fee is well worth the money; this is one of the most amazing gardens I've ever visited. Many of the orchids are in flower; small, large, and in a wonderful array of colours, and we spend a fascinating hour exploring this magnificent tribute to Camacho's beloved wife and daughter. 

What a wonderful finale to a fantastic tour. 

We say goodbye to our travel companions, and to our wonderful tour guide, Abel and transfer to cab, which will take us to the airport for our onward journey to Los Angeles via Panama City and Mexico City.

POSTSCRIPT

Our Cuban adventure far exceeds our expectations in every way. We arrive in Havana a few days before our tour starts, which gives us some time to explore and to familiarise ourselves with the city before embarking on the tour. We have all seen the vision of Cubans desperately trying to join their families in Florida, USA, where there is a large Cuban community, so we are quite interested in learning something of the political climate of Cuba. But we are also here to immerse ourselves in the culture, including the music, art, and physical features whilst learning a little about it's history and the history of the main cities. We had hoped to talk to locals, and take the opportunity to talk to people whenever we are able to do so. Our first encounter, and probably one of our most poignant happens just hours after we arrive in Havana as we wander along the Malecon.

Dressed in all white in the tradition of the Santeria religion, a West African diasporic religion that is blended with Christianity, a lady approaches us and speaks to us at length about the current state of the communist government and its effect on its people. Her story is complex. Well educated and with excellent English, she explains at length the types of restrictions, which are on the Cuban people. They are prisoners in their own country. She is free to leave, since her father had been born in the Dominican Republic, but her son is Cuban and is unable to leave. Since he has mental-health issues and requires care, she cannot leave without her son. All Cubans are provided with accommodation. However, a 'house' for many Cubans, particularly in the cities may be a room in a larger house. The decaying buildings, most of which are in dire disrepair, provide dwellings for many families. The homes may include shared bathrooms and no kitchens. It is true that everyone is provided an education and all their medical needs are covered by the government. All people are provided with employment for which they receive a monthly allowance of the equivalent of US$25 (25 CUC); a doctor receives the same salary as a street sweeper. Our lady explains that the allowance is enough to provide basic provisions such as rice, beans, and small amounts of meat. Fruit and vegetables are too expensive and are hard to get. Many people want to get jobs as tour guides and taxi drivers as they can earn small amounts of extra cash to supplement their income. Since Cuba has a dual currency, pesos for the locals and the convertible peso (CUC) for visitors and government for trading purposes, it adds a further complexity to the Cubans. The locals themselves prefer to be paid in CUC, which is considered a more valuable currency.

The electricity is switched off for up to eighteen hours a day. This lady had been a lecturer at a university and was arrested and jailed several times for speaking out against the government. She talks about secret police; the reason why there is little crime anywhere is Cuba is because everyone is afraid that they will be reported to the police. There is much mistrust between people. We are overwhelmed by this information. Perhaps we don't really need to hear what amounts to a negative view of Cuba so soon. I feel a little uncomfortable as the sun sets and the short twilight is waning. We bid the lady goodbye, slipping some money into her hand. Perhaps we have been scammed. Or perhaps not. I wish I had written down many of the things we had been told, as time and again we notice small things that remind us of our conversation with the lady on the Malecon.

Cuba is a beautiful country - in more ways than one. It's not enough to take everything you hear on face value and by asking pertinent questions from time to time, I feel that we do get as balanced a view of life in Cuba as possible for visiting foreigners in such a short time. Our tour leader, Abel had been lucky enough to visit Canada and Spain, which provided him with a broader outlook and in my opinion, is able to provide us with an honest overview of his country. 

I love Cuba. I love everything about this vibrant and colourful country. 

Would I visit Cuba again? Absolutely!

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