The land of the palm tree Cuba

| November 1, 2007

Latin America Product Manager Vessela Baleva recently travelled to Cuba with Cox & Kings and found that the challenges posed by Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure were more than rewarded by some unforgettable experiences.

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Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
Guantanamera guajira guantanamera...

I am a sincere man
From the land of the palm tree

And before I die I would like
To sing these heartfelt verses.

Most people have probably heard the “Guantanamera“ song without even visiting Cuba, and it echoed in my ears almost as soon as I arrived in the country. It seems to be in the repertoire of almost every music band playing on street corners or in bars, but it only struck me when leaving the country that its verses perfectly summarise my feelings about the land of the royal palm.
Beyond the classic images that Cuba is best known for - the current communist leader Fidel Castro, Havana cigars, rum and vintage American cars - I shall also remember this unique island for the sincerity of its people, the vibrancy of its music and the beauty of its tropical scenery.

Cuba is home to over a hundred species of native palms, most of which are endemic - I could hardly take a photograph without one. They dot the floors of the picturesque valleys, cover the gently rolling hills and the slopes of the mountains, line the white powder sandy beaches and adorn the local town squares. Without doubt the most distinctive and commonly encountered of them all, the true aristocrat of the palm kingdom, is the Royal Palm, with its smooth silver grey trunk - it is central even in the national coat of arms.

Also omnipresent is Cuban music. Played live on the main square of old Havana or the local Troubadour’s house (“Casa de la Trova”), pouring out of bars and cafes or blaring from car stereos, music seems to run naturally through the veins of Cubans. With roots in Spain and West Africa, the variety of Afro-Caribbean and Latin rhythms would satisfy anyone’s taste. From contemporary salsa, lively rumba and cha-cha-cha, romantic bolero, rhythmic son, tamed guajira or Cuban jazz, you would certainly be tempted to buy one of those CDs readily offered for sale.

The cultural heritage and beautiful beaches are the two major draws that bring tourists to Cuba, and I was not disappointed by either. The capital Havana is considered one of the oldest and grandest cities in the Americas and the palaces, mansion and churches of its old quarter (Havana Vieja) rank among the most handsome buildings from the Spanish colonial era.

Though Havana has stayed physically untouched by the devastating wars of independence, it has been seriously affected by the forces of nature and time. Crumbling edifices and worn out facades, trees growing out of rooftops and washing dripping down from balconies, this is a less appealing part of the picture, which still somehow adds to the uniqueness of the place. Whether you choose to stroll around Old Havana’s beautiful squares, visit one of the many colonial mansions now converted into museums, admire the swift and expert skills of the cigar rollers at a tobacco factory or just relax sipping a mojito on the rooftop terrace or peaceful courtyard of your hotel, there is plenty to do for a few days in this dynamic city.

Cuba has many other colonial towns, and each one of them has its own distinctive feature that sets it apart from the rest. I shall remember Trinidad (perhaps my favourite Cuban city, left) for its narrow cobblestone streets (created because the Spanish fleet transporting the riches to the old continent had to bring stones on their inbound journey to balance their empty hulls at sea) and its surrounding sugar mills ruins; Cienfuegos for its French-influenced architecture and sea breezes; Camaguey for its winding streets deliberately built in an irregular pattern to confuse attackers; Santiago de Cuba for its beautiful natural setting between the sea and the mountains; and Baracoa for its quiet charm and relaxed atmosphere away from the tourist trail. And each one of those comes with plenty of history, from the time Columbus first landed to the years of the Revolution.

Cuba is surrounded by around 900 coral islands called keys, and I found some of the most idyllic ones to be situated to the north of the mainland. Even getting to some of those for me was a surreal experience, as it involved driving along causeways that stretch out into the blue ocean - sometimes for nearly 20 miles. Soft powder sands and warm turquoise waters make up these paradise spots, spoiled only by the excessive development of all-inclusive hotels. Luckily there are still places like the tiny Cayo Ensenachos (left) where the recently opened deluxe Royal Hideaway is the only property, and whose extraordinary long white sand beach is still almost deserted.

Apart from the beaches, the delightful Cuban landscape consists of evergreen sugar and tobacco plantations, rolling hills and lush mountains. While the beautiful Viñales valley (left) with its prehistoric limestone hills known as "mogotes" is only a two-hour drive from Havana, to explore the mountainous Sierra Maestra National Park containing the country’s highest peak (Pico Torquino at 1974 m) and travel along the bumpy roads, you need an adventurous soul

Though Cuba is not famous for its wildlife, its 350 varieties of birds will not disappoint. The number of birds I saw during a casual midday walk in the little-known "Granma Desembarkment National Park", protecting some of the last untouched rainforest, was amazing and my hour-long efforts through the unbearable tropical heat over a path scattered with natural jagged rocks (rightfully called in Spanish "dog's teeth”) was rewarded with a sighting of a royal carpenter woodpecker, which is believed to be close to extinction although still existing in Cuba.

Travelling through the country’s interior gave me a glimpse into the real life of everyday Cuba. The occasional old American car, the haggard horse carts, the rusty bicycles, the diverse faces of locals waiting for a lift, the small bohios (typical rural thatched roof huts) and the cheerful kids in their colourful school uniforms were a sufficient compensation for the long road journeys. Passing by places where time seemed to be almost at a complete standstill, I quickly became accustomed to any delay caused by overnight landslides, the slowly marching herd of oxen or the unfavourable mood of the traffic policeman. And I found that this, together with the sometimes bland food and unpredictable power cuts, were all part of the complicated charm of this intriguing country.

Cuba has already celebrated its 50th anniversary from the beginning of the Revolution and, though political slogans throughout the country boldly propagandise “Long Live Fidel -80 years more!”, sooner or later it is bound to change. As dynamic as the Cubans are, any political or economic changes will inevitably bring cultural and social transformations and I feel extremely privileged to have managed to visit this unique destination as it is now.

Cox & Kings offers a number of options to Cuba, including the 10-night private journey Spirit of Cuba and the 10-night group tour Cuban Discovery.

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