How Cuba will change, and is changing, with the loosening of Fidel Castro’s grip and a new openness towards the island from its giant American neighbour, is a source of great interest and anxiety to residents and returning visitors alike. I have been to Cuba before, to Havana and the centre of the island. Now I’m back to explore its eastern provinces, the coasts and coves largely unknown to the outside world and the mountains I’ve heard tales about, where the revolution first took hold. I am excited, but wary.
On my first sweet, humid night on the island I take a stroll around Parque de las Flores, a dimly lit square in the city of Holguín in the south-east. Four young musicians in stetsons who have finished their set in a bar stand smoking on a corner, cowboy silhouettes with guitars slung over their shoulders. The benches are lined with people talking and flirting.
Dancing and flirting are just about the only things everyone in Cuba can afford, and they are both immensely popular.
The next morning I am driven by my new friend and guide, Henry Garmendia, through bright sheaves of different greens, past palms, banana trees and pasture to Villa Maguana, a beach hotel in Guantánamo province. Cuba’s east, the historical region of Oriente – now divided into the districts of Holguín, Guantánamo, Santiago, Granma and Las Tunas – through which I will travel, has changed little since the revolution. I pass horse-drawn carts and farmers working with simple tools in an area of poverty and low expectations, but also of solidarity and strong family ties. That night I am collected from my beach-front hotel by Victor, a tall kindly man who ferries me on his motorbike to his home, half-a-mile away through the hot and moonless night, where he entertains visitors with home-cooked meals. Victor’s family makes food and watches TV in the kitchen. Pigs grunt outside. Out comes a feast of banana chips, grilled dorade and fresh lobster, accompanied by rum and passion fruit. It feels good to be here, so well looked after and welcome, somewhere so far from home and yet wonderfully familial.
Under heavy morning skies I hike in Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. Forested hills reveal Cuban parrots, royal palms and mariposa flowers, which girls wear in their hair, and are said to have been used to smuggle messages rolled up tight in the stem during the revolution. In the canopy the tocororo calls; the plumage of the national bird is the blue, white and red of Cuba’s flag. At a stall we drink from coconuts, the taste milky-metallic and nourishing. Hot rain falls and it turns cool, but not cool enough. At the end of the sticky walk I swim, sighing with pleasure and gratitude, in a little river with a waterfall.
The first real jewel among my new Cuban discoveries comes in the little city of Baracoa. Dominated by angular green mountains, which isolated it from the rest of the island until the 1960s when a new road was built, it is a dreamy town that might have fallen out of the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel – steamy, floral and self- sufficient. I watch exuberant children play in the street, where passing drivers wave and ask after their parents. They will grow up as other Cubans have since the revolution: knowing their neighbours, mixing across generations, given to music and dancing from infancy, educated by an entire society.
Over the next two days I take trips up the Yumurí and Duaba rivers in rowing boats, lulled by the humid sky and the plash of oars. On the Yumurí I join a family on a sandbank picnicking in a canyon; on the Duaba, a wider river, I come to a thatched bar. One day, I suspect, there will be hundreds of visitors here, lounging, eating, drinking, fishing. If you go now the only people you will see are women washing clothes on the bank, near where the river meets the sea. These are delightful trips, but nothing can beat the city of Baracoa at night, when the music plays.
There’s always a casa de la trova near the town centre in Cuba, often just off the main square. They tend to be large rooms with a bar at the back and chairs facing a small stage occupied by a single musician or as many who can squeeze onto it. Open windows release the music onto the streets, which become turbulent with dancers and bystanders. Cuban trovadores are singer-songwriters, their craft based on guitar and voice, but casas now host groups playing congas, trumpets, cowbells, claves and more, and with backing singers. The pleasure of being part of a performance is immense. The wooden room rings and thrums with interlocking rhythms.
My next stop is Santiago de Cuba, a heroic city of the revolution west of Baracoa. ‘Thank you Santiago!’ cry murals of the Castro brothers. The people of Oriente province are still poor, but better served than they were when, as impoverished sugarcane cutters, many threw down their tools and went into the mountains to join the revolutionaries. It was here in 1959 that Castro made his first triumphant entry into a Cuban city and here, among the older generation, his philosophy of Cuban Socialism still enjoys committed support.
Palatial buildings near the docks are the legacy of the Bacardi family, though you won’t find their rum on the island now, only state-owned Havana Club, which is banned in the USA. The historic city centre is a jostle of spectacular Spanish-style buildings, and great renovations are underway. Santiago is built over the undulations of low hills overlooking the sea. I find a large neighbourhood band practising for a fiesta. They have pinned their music to the shuttered windows of a pharmacy and are rehearsing with tremendous verve and volume as people gather around. This gleeful scene is entirely unstaged; there is no money in it. It’s culture for culture’s sake. There are no other foreigners in sight.
But Santiago won’t be peripheral to visitors’ itineraries for long. International hotel chains with money are snapping up operating contracts here, as in Havana. You can smell the cash in the fresh paintwork.
On a rooftop bar with panoramic views, a young lawyer expresses the frustrations of his generation. He, his dentist sister and doctor partner have a combined wage of £100 a month. To be allowed to leave Cuba would require the kind of income only obtainable by marrying a foreigner, and marriages of convenience are popular. If non-natives wish to buy Cuban property they need a Cuban name on the deeds.
‘Outsiders can invest in businesses here, but not Cubans,’ says the lawyer. ‘You can own one bar. If you own five they will take them from you because they don’t want anyone else having power.’ Entrepreneurs use friends and family as fronts behind which to invest. ‘But Cubans have ideas. We have abilities, we have creativity. All we can do is survive. For some people the Special Period never ended.’
The Special Period, when the USSR collapsed and the lavish funding and contracts the Soviets had supplied to Cuba went with it, saw ‘people eating grass and leaves’, as my friend puts it. I have no proof that this continues – the government provides a basic monthly food ration – but history is alive and dominant in Cuba as it is perhaps nowhere else. It isn’t just in old cars, the lack of advertising and limited internet access, which are obvious. It’s also in shop windows, where consumer goods such as washing machines and Hoovers, which so much of the world takes for granted, are displayed as the latest thing and astronomically priced. In Cuba, the 1950s are not done yet.
On a boat ride from Santiago I come face to face with an earlier time in the form of a great Spanish warship, sunk in the Spanish-American war over Cuba in 1898, waves smashing her rusting guns, which point at the sky.
‘Diving is easy! Just breathe,’ says my instructor, Manuel.
‘Isn’t it more complicated than that?’
The sky is dark, the waves large, the currents powerful, and I have only ever dived once in a calm, shallow sea. Manuel explains how to equalise pressure. He mentions he has been diving for 20 years. We jump into the surge.
Wonder replaces fear below the surface. Manuel tows and guides me, stuffing rocks into my rig to stop me rising. We use the currents to take us on a tour of the iron wreck, a vast home to fish and coral. I learn to be upside down as comfortably as the right way up. The sea’s infinite power, like a sea monster’s flanks panting, seems to carry us gently through the story of the ship’s foundering. I emerge shaky with emotion and thrill. It is also a very Cuban experience: the unprepossessing turning into the sublime, just as my sticky forest hike gave way to a luxuriant cool-river swim; the same way the wooden simplicity of the casa de la trova becomes a theatre of artistry and joy.
The challenge for the traveller is to catch a glimpse behind the veils of a place, to see its ghosts and time currents which make the present inhabitants who they are. In the Sierra Maestra mountains, most of a day’s easy drive from Santiago, I catch sight of it. Three years after defeat in 1953, when an attack on a barracks in Santiago failed disastrously, leading to dead, fled and imprisoned revolutionaries, the Castro brothers returned to Cuba with Che Guevara and a new understanding of guerrilla warfare. They needed a safe base, weapons and popular support.
High in the Sierra Maestra, with a distant view of the Caribbean, they set up camp. You drive along very steep roads to get here – peaks and the jungle jumble below – and then walk contour tracks for three miles to their hideout and headquarters. Which is when the hair begins to stand up on the back of my neck. Among the huts and paths, screened from the sky by hibiscus planted by the revolutionaries for concealment, I can almost see the young men and women in their insurgent green uniforms, and hear their quiet, urgent voices discussing ambushes and battles, logistics, tactics and triumphs. Batista used thousands of troops and aerial bombardment in multiple attempts to defeat and destroy the revolutionaries, but his forces were outmanoeuvred and outfought in these valleys. Inexorably, it must have appeared, the initiative swung towards Castro’s side. Deserting troops and inspired locals came to join his forces. The conviction, morale and military ability of the men and women began to dominate.
And now here I am, where it all happened. Fidel’s hut – bed, bookshelf, writing table, back steps – could be a writer’s retreat until I see his secret trap door and hiding place. How incredible it must have been to be one of his companions. There were so few of them to start with: their self-belief and determination extraordinary. And here in the Sierra Maestra, the scale of Castro’s achievement, which took him from a shack to the world stage, still seems astonishing.
Homeward bound, I fly to Havana the beautiful, the pulsing, the seductive. Havana the rich, once. ‘Before the revolution, the city was as glamorous as Manhattan,’ says Johnny Considine, an Irishman who has chameleoned into a habanero. ‘Car companies and fashion houses used to launch new products here before New York,’ he says. ‘Some of the richest men in the Americas were Cuban sugar kings. And, of course, it’s always been a sexy place.’
The eternal dance between men and women is the power, and in some way the point, of one of Cuba’s many mighty musical forms, the rumba.
My dance lesson takes place in a tiny room in one of Havana’s crumbling mansions, long since divided into multiple dwellings. My tutors are Vladimir Quevedo – tall, slim as a ballet dancer and tremendous fun – and Arianne Jimenez, a dance teacher, guide and spectacular mover. They take me through rumba’s rhythms, challenging me to beat out different tempos to which they dance.
‘It comes from the street; the dancer impersonates different characters: the drunk, the child, the chicken and the rooster,’ Arianne explains. All you need is two sticks, a conga and standing room. How they dance! They become the beat and the characters, Vladimir the cockerel, Arianne the hen. The small space fizzes with energy and movement. Tapping out the rhythm on the claves I feel the joy of being one of the hundreds who, at any given moment of any day or night, are making the music of Havana.
Leaving Cuba, I find myself feeling protective towards its people. There’s an antique innocence to the country that most of the rest of the world has left behind. The perennial cry – ‘Go to Cuba now, before it changes!’ – is nonsense. The country is in the slow midst of great change. It needs us, but not to help it become more like the rest of the world. In society, family and openness of heart and spirit, Cuba has more to teach than to learn.
Black Tomato (+44 20 7426 9888) offers a 10-night tailor-made trip to east Cuba from £3,980 per person, including accommodation on a bed-and-breakfast basis, return flights from London, private transfers, private guided tours and activities such as diving, sailing and trekking
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller December 2016
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