September 2009 Cuba

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Lion and Che

It started like many of the most enduring revolutions do, by accident. An Irish tour operator was reading his paper one day and saw a line about Aeroflot using Shannon as a stopover en route to Havana.

He did what people used to do in the days before Powerpoint presentations and strategic analysis co-ordinates. He picked up the phone. He told Aeroflot he could fill some of the empty seats if the price was right. And Irish people discovered the Caribbean.

The Caribbean has become a much more accessible place since then. The direct flights lasted form 1975 to 1978 and again from 1980 to 1992. Many eighties honeymoons were spent there. The direct flights are gone, but Cuba is still writ large in the Irish imagination.

The Island That Dared, is how Dearbhla Murphy called it, and we like their spirited stand against the big bully neighbours. About 7,000 of us go there each year to pause at the Alejandro O’Reilly plaque in Havana and some to stay in the O’Ferrall hotel.

The country that survived Nicolau’s concentration camps has survived fifty years of Yankee hissy-fit.

The Island That Dared has had a rough ride over the fifty years since it packed the Mafiosi off to Miami.

The signs are that Obama will lift the siege and Cuba will once more be able to rejoin the party – on its own terms. And not, as Obama’s predecessor had hoped, on the terms of the Miami Mafiosa.

All will change. And in the meantime it is a place with a deadline to visit.

The Caribbean started here for Irish visitors.

What we don’t realise is that the Caribbean started here for everyone.

Cuba invented the Caribbean.

Our hosts at FITCUBA, the International Tourism Fair of Cuba were determined to remind us of this. All the Caribbean has white sand and palm trees, and Cuba has spent the last two decades offering the best of these.

Honeymooners like their lazy river, your all inclusive rum with a view, and your day trip into old Havana and the peculiarities of the system, infuriating at times, soothing at others, will make it a very different style of holiday.

But beyond that, while other Caribbean countries have white sand beaches and little else, Cuba has history, culture and heritage oozing from its mojito tray. It has an amazing array of UNESCO heritage cities, Santa Clara, with its Che Guevara Monument, Remedios. Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Bayamo, beautiful Trinidad. Coca Cola culture never made it to Cuba. The bulldozers didn’t tuck into the 16th century Spanish colonial architecture to create shambolic white apartments and Toyota and Louis Vuitton showrooms.

These hotels are to be taken slowly and leisurely, not at the breakneck speed that Cuba Tourism subjected us travel writers to, but that is one price of the job.

Enormous fortresses greeted those long ago visitors arriving by sea, and columns, balconies, arches and balustrades. Some of these cities are laid out in mathematical symmetry; others are labyrinthine.

In Camaguey the city streets resemble a maze designed to confuse attackers and make it difficult for pirates to escape.

Trinidad, Cuba’s museum-city, was founded in 1514. Matanzas is known as “the Athens of Cuba” and “the city of bridges.” Bayamo has 500 years of history dripping from every street corner. Cienfuegos, a late arrival in 1819, is known as “the pearl of the south” and proudly shows off its Parque Marti Terry theatre.

At Baracoa, they display the Parra Cross, the only surviving cross of the 29 that Christopher Columbus brought to the New World in their museum. At Sancti Spiritus they have the oldest church in Cuba. This is history back to Shane O’Neill’s time.

In the late evening we guests at FITCUBA are paraded on horse traps through Santiago de Cuba town centre. It was from here, a magnificent town crowned by Castillo del Morro, that Hernán Cortés set out in 1518 on the expedition that culminated in the conquest of Mexico.

There are bands which spring spontaneously into action as we pass. The streets are clean, and on rooftops there are lively parties as we pass. Down on the Plaza de la Revolucion there are more dancers. More mojitos.

Each day starts late and gets later as we lose an hour in every stop to hear the music and drink mojitos. We land in one hotel at 2.30am with a scheduled 7am start and everyone is cranky.

Except me, because lying on my back in the Caribbean, with the waves washing over me and the balmy full moon in the bright sky above, you instantly forget that I spent nine of the previous 14 hours on a sweaty bus.

Cuba is like that, so beautiful you forget the flaws. You leave the country in awe of the way they have endured America’s blockade, the equivalent of the economic war that we sustained in the thirties, for five decades.

Removing the economy-shattering US embargo is going to take longer, but the first effect will be the arrival of between one and three million Americans. The talk in Havana is what will happen when the Americans start coming to Cuba.

Good news? For the Cubans yes, for the rest of us no.

Prices will go up. The Cuban infrastructure can barely cope as it is. They have lovely hotels with iffy service. There are exceptions, the 23 hotels of the Sol Melia hotel group are great and there is a new spa resort opening up in the Cayas. But a visitor has to make allowances for all the small breakdowns in the system.

They invented the Caribbean after all.

 

n There are two currencies – Cuban Pesos and Cuban Convertible Pesos otherwise known as CUCs. We will only use CUCs. The CUC exchange rate usually is in line with the dollar rate. Cuban Pesos are worth very little compared to CUCs.

n Always check your change to make sure you get CUCs back and not pesos.

n Please ensure you only change money in Banks and Casas de Cambio (CADECAs) – Do not, under any circumstances, change money in the streets.

n It is best to take Euro as cash.

n Credit cards carry an 11pc extra charge and any cards from American banks (including Virgin’s credit card) may not work! Dollars carry a 20pc extra charge for currency exchange.

n It is best to carry all computer items including wires, MP3 players etc etc in your hand luggage.

n Tipping is very much appreciated and is the norm (even if the service is a bit sketchy!) – approx 10pc is fine.

n Taxis are very cheap but ensure the meter is running if there is one… OR agree the price before getting in.

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