In Search of Che! … exploring Cuba
To say that I’d always wanted to go to Cuba but only managed it at the age of 65 sounds faintly ridiculous. I was a teenager in the 60s and was both fascinated and intrigued in equal parts by the passion, fervour and adventure (as I saw it) in this mysterious island. Fifty years later and after several sleepless nights, I was on my way. I’d read a lot about Cuba before I went, so I thought that I knew what to expect, although nothing really prepared me for the surreal experience of actually being there.
Cuba began at José Martí airport with a fairly long wait for luggage in struggling air conditioning. Eventually we climbed on board Cox & Kings’ air-conditioned bus with our friendly guides and off we went into the dimly lit city. How wonderful not to be bombarded by advertising billboards but instead to be assailed by public information hoardings and not all of them political, although Hasta La Victoria Siempre was immediate.
The faded splendour of the Hotel Sevilla was perfect. There was a bar open to the sky and an array of photographs of former guests, mainly Mafiosi. There were musicians and vibrant dancers in the Spanish colonial colonnaded reception area. After a good night’s sleep and a lukewarm shower, I enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and Cuban coffee. It was here I discovered rice pudding for breakfast.
La Bodeguita del Medio, Old City of Cuba © Eleni Oraia
Our guide took us for a walking tour of the old city to show us the main sights and have our first Mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, a place once favoured by Hemingway. I’d forgotten that Cubans are still restricted by government rationing and a visit to a local government shop allowed us to see the monthly allowance of every Cubano – no one starves but there’s not a huge array either, though maybe having cigars and rum softens the lack of some things.
Mural of Che, Revolution Square © Eleni Oraia
Murals of Che and the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere. No one forgets who created the Cuba of today (Fidel’s face is only conspicuous by its absence). The Malecón, the renowned promenade road, is an impressive 7-km stretch from Old Havana to Centro and a ‘must-do’, especially in a red Chevrolet Bel-Air, which was our car. The driver asked if we wanted music and when I said “yes” we were suddenly living the cliché as he put on Guantanamera. I’m not usually this type of tourist but the Cuba of my imagination persuaded me that some things just had to be done – this was most definitely one of them. Along the Malecón were buildings in a state of crumbling decay and deterioration. The seaward-facing apartments seemed dilapidated to the point of collapse in some places, but you could still see the spectacular beauty that used to be, before world affairs got a grip. I could only admire the tenacity of the men who were painting some of the more restored buildings while swinging around on ropes, wielding a roller.
Chevrolet Bel-Air, Old Havana © Eleni Oraia
Although we travelled around and visited quite a few famous places and tourist haunts, the two which stood out for me were Trinidad de Cuba and Santa Clara.
The journey to Trinidad took most of the day as we had left Havana and travelled to Viñales for a couple of days. On this drive we passed numerous junctions where locals gathered in hope of a lift, the transport system being not too reliable. The road to the Bay of Pigs was quiet and unassuming apart from the road markers with positive revolutionary slogans, belying the chaos and death that it had seen 55 years previously in the failed US-backed invasion. We stopped by the sea and I dipped my toe in.
Bay of Pigs © Eleni Oraia
From its cobbled streets to its magnificent buildings, Trinidad was a photo opportunity round every corner. We stayed in a selection of casas – private homes with beautiful interiors and vintage furniture. Near the Plaza Mayor is La Casa de la Musica, an alfresco area of tiered steps, with cafes and crowds of people, both locals and tourists, dancing – unmissable.
Trinidad © Eleni Oraia
Santa Clara brought me nearer to Che. The mausoleum is now his resting place with an adjacent museum displaying some of his personal possessions. Che’s memorial is surrounded by 16 of his fellow comrades in a dimly lit room with an eternal flame and a small bubbling water feature. No photos are allowed and only a few people are allowed in together so it never becomes a shoulder-to-shoulder experience; it’s almost like being in church. It contrasts sharply with the concrete, Soviet-style plaza above it where a bronze statue of Che towers over everything and can be seen from every approach.
If you could bottle memories and pull out the cork to relive them again, these would be mine:
- Walking in Havana at night with a torch (dim street lights), but feeling very safe.
- Buying peanuts from an old man on the Paseo who had hand wrapped each little paper cone.
- The quiet calm in Che’s mausoleum.
- A cheerful musician who proudly told me that he was 85 before playing his double bass with a trio outside Santa Clara.
- Seeing our guide buying something dripping and mysterious from a man on a bike at a petrol station and, on enquiring, finding out that it was a tree rat (vegetarian rodent) for his tea.
Government Ration Shop, Cuba © Eleni Oraia
I feel that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this wonderful country but I’ve realised one important thing: if you are thinking of visiting Cuba, go soon and be a voyeur because now Fidel has died, things may change even more rapidly.
I’ve read that Cuba has always been changing and has never stood still but maybe the Big Bang is about to happen and people are flooding in to see it before “the wheels come off”.
Is this the end of a socialist revolutionary state? Whatever it is, it is definitely worth going.
Discover Cuba with Cox & Kings on a group tour or tailor-made holiday.