We visit an island in a state of flux, as power finally passes from the Castro family. Is the Caribbean's most inimitable country once again on the cusp of revolution?
Waking with a start around six, horns from last night still pierce the humid, smoke-tinged air. Not the sound of Havana’s antique fleet, but brass from cavalcades yet to reach their full crescendo.
We were out past three, joining celebrations for the beginning of Labor Day. The Spanish-speaking world calls those smallest of hours after midnight but before sunrise, ‘la madrugada’. The word appears to be put to good use in Cuba.
Has anyone in this old city slept? Not by the sight of the Avenida Paseo, a wide boulevard running from Havana’s famous Malecón waterfront to the Plaza de la Revolution. Passing beneath my window in the Iberostar hotel, it’s already becoming choked with hoardes of Habaneros, ready to make their pilgrimage. It’s the end of an era. Only days earlier Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, brought to an end a six decade long presidential dynasty by stepping aside for his successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel. All eyes are now on a country expectant of change.
Outside, the streets breathe hot and heavy from the night before, much like my lungs, the local fire-water is probably to blame for both. The previous evening had been our first in this city but it’s fair to say we hit the ground running- in fact it was more of a rumba. After catching last orders and the encore of Buena Vista Social Club’s performance at their regular haunt, Legendarios del Guajirito, things really got started when we stumbled into the midnight revellers on Avenida Carlos III, one of the city’s most expansive and bustling thoroughfares.
May Day is a big deal in Communist and Socialist countries – Cuba is no different — but I can’t imagine anywhere celebrating quite like this. The annual holiday means a day off work but apparently an early start nonetheless. Drums clattering once clocks strike twelve, and refusing to let up all day. Chatting to a septuagenarian couple in the midst of merrymaking I asked the husband, Eduardo, if he would sleep at all.
He just laughed. “Not on Labor Day!”
This spectacle may only be annual, but it’s true what you’ve heard, the music just never seems to stop here. And like most things in Cuba, parties are usually of a DIY nature, so it pays to keep an ear to ground.
Bars like O’Reilly 304 or the infamous, rooftop haunt Roma spring up overnight but can disappear just as quickly. I caught up with Alain Dark, local DJ and owner of recently closed Roma, who explained in Spanish that his favourite parties, were always the more clandestine affairs. With internet access still fairly scarce, it’s only available from wifi hotspots dotted around larger cities, promoters gather phone numbers from party-goers to send out invites en masse to the lucky few.
The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a more permanent fixture if you’re looking for a good night out though, spanning exhibitions, live music and everything between, all housed in an old factory.
Though the Habaneros can keep a party going regardless, I find a little Havana Club helps. If you’re on the hunt for mojitos, as you well should be, sundowners on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba are hard to beat- the panoramic sea view is about as good as this seductive city has to offer, too.
Unfortunately I’m only treated to one Havana sunset— the plan to visit the best bits of Cuba’s Villa Clara region during this week long excursion leaving little time for hanging around. The central province is packed with colonial era gems, dotted amongst the jungle scrub and flanked by gorgeous crystalline Caribbean coastline.
From our stunning base on Cayo Santa Maria we did manage a few more blissful evenings, though, the picture-perfect private beach and sea view rooms of Hotel Dhawa made sure of that. The island, one of some 500 in the archipelago, rests just north of Cuba’s mainland and boasts some of the dreamiest waterfronts seen anywhere in the world, as well as lavish hotels to match. If you thought Cuba couldn’t do luxury these cays may come as a surprise.
Perhaps more importantly for the intrepid traveller, this idyllic paradise is connected to the mainland by a 48km causeway, making it the perfect spot to explore more of Cuba’s more hidden delights. The impressive span put to use six million square metres of material in its construction to link Cayo Santa Maria to the rest of the Villa Clara province without disturbing the area’s magnificent coral reefs, part of one of the world’s largest which spans the island.
My first mainland excursion centres on the region’s capital, Santa Clara, and offers an opportunity to delve a little deeper into la revolución. The city’s capture by rebel forces in late December 1958 proved decisive and brought an end to General Batista’s rule, the dictator fleeing the country hours later, making the town a symbolic landmark for Cubans.
In that final battle, Che Guevara masterminded the revolutionaries’ victory by derailing the Tren Blindado, Batista’s armoured train which was filled with soldiers, weapons and ammunition. Some of the carriages have been kept intact and used to create a monument to one of the island’s most momentous hours.
A little further out of town, Che Guevara’s Mausoleum offers a rare insight into the life of Cuba’s most revered, adopted son, complete with baby photos— I’m not sure the macho resistance fighter would’ve approved of these particular snaps, but at least we can all agree on how photogenic the vibrant colours are on every corner in this area.
Another spot poised to welcome visitors to its charming boulevards is Sagua La Grande. The characterful town’s lively square thronged with live music and atmosphere woozy with canchanchara; not a local dance but perhaps the country’s greatest cocktail… controversial I know, but hold the mojito and put down that daquiri until you try one of these.
Honey and lemon combined with ice and a raw rum called aguardiente, literally meaning fire water, mix together to make a sort of ‘cold toddy’ served in an earthenware pot. After four of these I can assure you I was cured of all ailments and inhibitions. Alongside that warmest of welcomes you’ll also find tastefully renovated architecture that still retains beautiful colonial style features, none more so than the Hotel Gran Sagua, built almost a century ago in 1925 and now lovingly restored to its former glory.
Despite its close proximity to the Cayo Santa Maria causeway, the slightly sleepy town of Remedios has seemingly slipped under the radar of tourists making their way to the beach resort. If the place hasn’t been noticed, it couldn’t be for want of trying— you’d think the vividly colourful facades could be seen from space. And that’s before the band turns up.
Not for the first time I found myself front and centre, caught amongst a frenzied, flag waving, percussive parade, while this city is famous for its festive yuletide firework displays my lasting impression is of a place that enjoys year-round celebrations.
A hunt through the backstreets can deliver some seriously rewarding food experiences, too. Not far out of town at El Curujey, a ranch and restaurant, we discovered the national dish ropa vieja, which translates as old clothes, but tastes much better (honest). Spicy, tender shredded beef, roasted pumpkin, rice and beans crowned with fried plantain was undoubtedly the stand out meal of my time on the island.
Wandering Havana’s crumbling streets just before heading for the departure lounge and my return to the UK, reflecting on the past week, one thing seems pretty clear. If ever a country begs for you to open doors, explore nooks and peer in crannies it must be this romantic isle— a place of legend, beauty and unique culture. Difficult, if not impossible, to capture the insatiable spirit of such an incomparable place, but we might just have distilled it within our first few moments in Havana.
Tim visited Cuba as part of the FITCUBA Fair 2018, and was invited by the Cuba Tourist Board. Visit www.travel2cuba.co.uk for more information.
ABTA and ATOL-protected Cuban holiday specialist, Cuba Direct has a world-class team of Cuban travel experts who are dedicated to creating bespoke holiday packages that match each client’s individual requirements.
The “Gran Manzana Kempinski and Royalton Cayo Santa Maria” package from Cuba Direct includes three nights at the elegant Gran Manzana Kempinski in the heart of Cuba’s capital Havana, followed by four nights of luxury and relaxation at the Royalton in Cayo Santa Maria, a paradisiacal island off the coast of Cuba. Based on two people sharing over seven nights and including transfers and representation services, the package costs £1,239 per person. This package does not include international flights. Book here