2007- Cuba

Guardalavaca and Havana - 26th September – 10th October 2007

Wednesday 26th September

We spent Tuesday night at Nathan and Amalia’s near Gatwick having travelled from Wiltshire the previous evening. 

On Wednesday morning we caught a bus to Gatwick South Terminal arriving there in good time for our 1.30 p.m. flight.

We arrived at Holguin Airport at about 6.45 and arrived at the Hotel Brisas, Guardalavaca at about 8.00 p.m.  They were 8 people on the same Jules Verne package – i.e. 10 days in Guardalavaca and 3 days in Havana.


Thursday 27th September

We had a meeting for part of the morning to arrange tours and then went to the hotel beach before lunch.  Spanish lessons were on offer and we decided to go to these to learn some of the basics.  Our tutor was a young mother called Katy (Car tee) but we were her only students!  Nevertheless it was great fun.

We then returned to the beach but soon heavy rain arrived as is the pattern for mid-afternoon each day in this, the wet season.

The meals and drinks are all inclusive and the range is quite wide but not particularly exciting.


Friday 28th September

In the morning we went for a walk with Pauline and Andy from Berkshire and Edith from Maidstone (who is French) to a small flea market aimed at the tourist.  We went via three fairly upmarket local shops again not for locals.

We returned along the beach which was very attractive and tropical.

In the evening we had a meal at the Hotel’s Seafood Restaurant which had to be booked.  The food was excellent and the waiters included a professional magician and a professional musician who entertained us on this and our subsequent visit the following Monday (only one booking being allowed per week).


Saturday 29th September

We left at 8.30 a.m. with the same folk we had walked with for a two day trip to Santiago da Cuba which involved a road journey of three to four hours.  On the way, we stopped at the family estate of Fidel Castro’s parents – the place where he was born.  The family was obviously very wealthy as there were many buildings and there had been a very large area of land – it is still impressive.  The whole estate became nationalised following the revolution of 1959 but one of Castro’s 6 siblings, a sister, did not agree with this and she went to the U.S. never to return.

We had lunch in a beautiful setting on a cliff by the 17th century Fort Morro near Santiago da Cuba.  We explored a fair bit of the fort before taking the ring road (built for the Pope’s visit in 1998) and going to our rather poor and run down hotel.

After our dinner, at about 8.00 p.m., we headed into the centre of town and saw the Cathedral Square before going to the Tropicana Show.  This was a very fast moving song and dance extravaganza with brightly coloured and elaborate costumes.  The dancers and the band worked very loud for the hour and a half show and nobody seemed put out by it being 30 minutes late starting – apart from Henrico our Guide.

During the day we learned much from Henrico about life in Cuba.  He spoke of many people now expressing orally their dissatisfaction and professing the need for change.

The country has a very high literacy rate with much emphasis on education and also on health.  However, the Government adopts the usual communist approach of trying to shelter its people from the outside world where life is invariably much better.  Consequently, the media is State controlled and external television channels generally not available other than in hotels, as is also the case with foreign newspapers.  Henrico was keen to have any secondhand magazines and newspapers.  Cubans are not permitted to travel abroad unless they work for example in the arts.  They are able to travel freely in Cuba however but there is a resentment of their lack of freedom generally.  People are put in prison for criticising the Government.  Our guide, Henrico, was in some awe of the British licence to speak openly against their government as he had seen on television comments in Parliament against Tony Blair. Mobile phones are not available for the general public.

There is trade with certain European countries and with Venezuela and Canada but the general impression one gets is of a country that is running down.  Roads and buildings are in decay.  There are few modern cars, the majority being American and of a vintage prior to 1959.  These are a colourful and quaint memento of another era but are scarcely practical.  Much public transport comprises lorries with bench seats in the back somewhat similar to our old army lorries.  There are a few new Chinese buses.


Sunday 30th September

On Sunday morning we returned to Santiago and saw from a hotel roof top café the elegant buildings of the city centre.  In practice many of these had become scruffy and decayed, amongst them the Museum of Carnival which we visited a little later.  We stopped in the back of the cathedral for a moment or two as the service began but were much more encouraged by the lively worship coming from a Baptist Church that we walked past a little later.  As a group, we all worked upstairs and saw that the church was crowded.  The position regarding religion was not clear to us but Castro had invited the Pope to visit in 1998 and over a million people had been present to hear him.  Not bad out of a population of 11 million spread over a country similar in size to the UK.

Henrico took us into one or two shops including a department/ hardware store and a small tobacconist.  Hardly any Cuban people were buying anything.  Our impression was that prices were not far from those in England but the very limited range of goods appeared old fashioned or cheap and nasty – or all of these.

We moved on to the cemetery for a changing of Guard at the tomb of Jose Marti who is described as the founding father of Cuba but also as a philosopher.  We noted the marching of the soldiers with the goose step – again so typical of totalitarian regimes.

After visiting Revolution Square we toured round a formerly wealthy part of the city where the buildings have now been confiscated and are used as offices, embassies etc.  We stopped at one of these for a really special and memorable lunch.  The food was good but the whole experience was different and special.  So far as we could see we were the only guests and we occupied a small private room where we were entertained by twin sisters who were professional singers.

The long road back to Guardalavaca showed us more of the countryside, housing and people as well as a cathedral where we made a short stop.

The houses in rural areas seem to be mainly wooden with horizontal slat shutters but no glass in the windows.  They are roofed with palm leaves.  More recent buildings follow the simple single storey style but are in breeze block with flat roofs, corrugated iron or pantiles.  There was a complete absence of working agricultural machinery in the fields although a number of tractors were pulling carts on the roads.  The country seems to have a mainly agricultural economy with its main exports being coffee, sugar and cigars.

We arrived back at our hotel at around 5.00 p.m.


Monday 1st October

In the morning we went for an official walk organised by the hotel.  This proved to be led by Martina who had previously been tutor in Spanish on Friday.  She had a good command of English and proved very friendly if somewhat formidable in our original encounter.  She is 35 years of age and living with her boyfriend at his parents whilst they save money to build a house.  She took us to the local village of Guardalavaca.  This comprised blocks of flats built to an extremely basic standard in probably the 1980s to house the workers for the hotels in the area which had been built on land occupied by some of the residents.  As well is visiting a flat of three rooms we were shown several shops and local cafe.  Food is rationed but additional supplies can be bought at a much higher price.  The locals had their own currency which is the Cuban peso and cannot be used for electrical items, shoes and certain other goods, nor can it be used by visitors.  For these purposes the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) must be used.  This has valued 25 times higher than the Cuban peso.

The rest of the day was spent more at rest with time on the beach and reading.  We continued our Spanish lessons.

In the evening we paid a second visit to the seafood restaurant on the basis that we were allowed one such visit each week.  The food was very good on both occasions and the staff friendly and helpful.  This time our waiter was a violinist.


Tuesday 2nd October

Another day at the hotel.  In the evening we went to the Italian restaurant in the hotel.  Again this provided a very nice meal although we did notice the big hole in the ceiling where water had at some stage brought it down.


Wednesday 3rd October

The day was spent in a visit to Holguín, an hour’s journey by road.  On the way we took a train journey through beautiful Cuban scenery.  By the time we reached Holguin, after a lunch stop nearby, Jill was feeling particularly unwell, possibly following the previous evening’s meal.  It was a real trial to walk around one or two of the shops and the two major squares before visiting a café where traditional Cuban music was being played live. 

Adrian was to suffer a similar medical fate but less severe and it was only after we had been home a couple of days that we both felt we were completely over this.


Thursday 4th October

Following our getting to know Martina, she had offered that her boyfriend, who was a chef in the seafood restaurant at the hotel, should cook space special Cuban meal.  There was no payment needed for this, but "a tip would be appreciated".  Between the seven of us we put up 50 CUC.  That should help with the house!

We decided, with Edith, a French lady married to a Scottish man who worked in Kuwait, to take a taxi to a nearby early Indian settlement.  This included a Museum showing an excavated graveyard and a reconstructed village showing what life might have been like prior to the Spanish invasion.


Friday 5th October

Edith and we took a taxi to Gibara.  The taxi driver was excellent as he spoke very good English and was keen to show us some of the local life.  This included a visit to a local village where his mother-in-law lives.  The village had been connected the previous evening to electricity for the first time.  Apparently there are many such villages still awaiting electricity.  There had been an all-night celebration and dancing was going on when we arrived at nine o'clock.  Children seem to be off school and was a pig roast.  We visited the house which was an extremely simple affair but was being extended with bricks and tiles.  The government had given residents a fridge, cooker, blender and one of two other electrical items for which payment had to be made over two years.  The family were extremely excited.  Pride of place was given to a television which was covered up to prevent the influence of evil spirits.  As previously, we were made very welcome.

Much of the hour's journey to the town was over unmade roads.  The town itself was not really a major tourist attraction, but our presence soon attracted women and trying to sell speeds and necklaces.  We stopped at a former large Spanish house that was still furnished in the 18th-century style and gave some insight into the life of the very wealthy.

On the way back we want it to stop at the traditional place (Bariay Bay) where it is thought that Columbus landed in 1492 .  This is now a little tourist attraction in its own right and had an entrance fee of eight peso is.  In view of the shortness of time, our driver decided that he could arrange a small tip for the guard that will permit us to go to the restaurant on the site from which we were able to see the coast and the landing place.  Again, the black market at work.

After a walk around the fairly poor town we returned to the hotel for lunch.


Saturday 6th October

Most of the day was spent travelling to Havana with a plane being taken from Holguín.


Sunday 7th October

At 10:15 a.m. we had a meeting with the Kuoni representative and sorted out the trips that people wanted to take.  In the afternoon we had a city tour.


Monday 8th October

Whilst the others in the Kuoni group spent the time in Havana, we went for the day to Vignolles, a limestone valley and hills reminiscent of Guilin in China.  The coach took around two hours to reach the general locality.  We then stopped at another tobacco factory before moving on to some caves.  These included many large stalagmites and stalactites and as well as walking through these, we took a boat on a Lake and underground river.  We then stopped for a very leisurely lunch before moving on to see a painting on the cliff face which had been commissioned by Castro in the early 1960s.  It portrays (very briefly) evolution with some prehistoric monsters and then mankind.  We did not feel it was particularly special.  After a stop for final photograph taking up the Valley, we headed back home just in time to leave again for evening tour.

After a walk around part of the centre of Havana we visited Morro Fort for a slightly bizarre re-enactment by Cuban soldiers of a Spanish military ceremony of firing the 9 p.m. cannon to mark the beginning of the night-time curfew.

We then moved on to a new restaurant for the evening meal accompanied by a group of flamenco dancers who proved extremely loud and exuberant but perhaps not entirely to our taste.

Tuesday 9th October

We had arranged with the others in the Kuoni group to take a tour of Hemingway highlights.  This included his house which overlooks Havana and the hotel where he lived for a couple of years and spent much of his time writing.  The house was filled with books in every room.  We rather took exception to being requested to pay five pesos (£2.75) to use the camera and so declined the offer.  Access to the house itself was not permitted but we looked in through the windows.  One of the room stewards offered us a black market price of two pesos to take a picture of the bathroom!

Our guide was particularly fluent in English and gladly answered questions which still puzzled us.  It seems that it is illegal to buy and sell cars and houses in Cuba.  If you inherit them then you may keep them.  Therefore, apart from the government cars all such vehicles date from before the revolution of 1959.  If the car is written off and the insurers of persuaded to provide another, then this is a new one.  In addition, a car may be awarded to an exceptionally model worker.  Or it may be required as part of his job or as a mark of his position as a manager.  In these latter cases, the vehicle has to be kept at work and he may not take it home.  In addition, transfers of vehicles take place on the black market.  One of our drivers said that he had a 1958 Ford Consul that he sold for 12,000 pesos and then purchased a 1950 Dodge.  The engineering abilities of the Cubans is considerable as they keep these ancient cars running.  Nevertheless, everything is not as it seems, our drivers vehicle had a Lada engine and a Mitsubishi transmission!

We remain a little confused about housing, but it seems that people share with their parents until such time as they concede sufficient money to buy the materials necessary to build a house. Where they get their land from is not clear to us.  They are permitted to exchange houses.

The trip worked well as we returned to the hotel with just under half an hour until we left for the airport and the trip home.

It had been a very enjoyable holiday.  One has to admit that very considerable achievements have been made in education and medicine with Cuba leading most countries in the world in these fields.  In addition, we saw no evidence of the slums that often surround cities in Third World countries.  Nevertheless, housing is generally very basic and poor.  Many of the people in Havana live in crumbling buildings that were once very grand and have yet to be restored.  Other buildings had been restored, but they are then put to use for other purposes in many cases rather than used for housing.

One of our guides quite readily explained that the Cuban economy would not survive but for:

1.       the money that is sent by one million Cubans living in Florida

2.       People having more than one job

3.       The sale and purchase of goods on the black market

It seems that no advertising is permitted.  Indeed, with all businesses being state owned (other than small family businesses) it is perhaps unnecessary.  In place of advertising there are numerous billboards and the equivalent of official graffiti praising the revolution, glory and the heroes and telling us that the revolution marches on.  We are always suspicious of organisations that had to continually tell how wonderful they are in order that people realise this!

Clearly much will have to change over the coming years and one wonders how such changes will take place and whether they will be peaceable.