Lying south of the tropic of Cancer, Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean Islands and enjoying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Caribbean on the other, writes Terry Willey.
It’s history is formidable and it was first inhabited pre-Columbian times and was later conquered by the Spanish who ruled the Country for four centuries until the Island gained independence in 1899, thereafter coming under the control of the USA with the help of dictators Machado and Batista. Revolution followed headed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who defeated Batista on the January 1, 1959, which effectively was a turning point for the country.
This changed the politics for Cuba with major results and the Island finally emerged from decades of isolation. It is this very political isolation that prevented a tourist flood and with the Americans still unable to visit the Island represented an element of intrigue and fascination for my family and I to explore.
The capital of Havana would for most people represent the natural destination but having researched the country more fully it seemed a more exciting prospect to travel to the far south and in an area where cars and particularly old Cadillac’s were replaced by horses and carts.
Our flight from London first took us to Havana for a ‘drop off’ and then onwards to Holguin over 400 miles to the south. I recall that during the flight between the two destinations a Cornish cream tea was delivered on board to perhaps remind us that what was to follow was to be far from English!
Holguin was an interesting airport and clear to observe that it was controlled by the Cuban Military. I learnt to my peril that a small error in completing my immigration card was to cost me 50 dollars for a duplicate! Our planned stay was to be in Guardalavaca some 35 miles to the east of Holguin. As we travelled through the countryside it was clear to see that it was rugged, unspoilt, quite hilly and with a definite feeling of remoteness.
The hotel was very isolated but very extravagant and had been funded by the Spanish covering several hundreds of acres including their own horse riding stables. It did not take us long to appreciate that Cuba offered the most warm and friendly of people who were very keen to please with a real desire to learn more about England. To my dismay it became obvious that travel away from home for Cubans proved almost impossible owing to Government restrictions on travel. During our time we were able to visit a Cuban home and family who invited us to share in a meal which proved to be a most enlightening experience, but moreover their dependence upon Government assistance with food and other day to day requisites were clear to observe.
One evening we were able to share the celebrations of a young man, being the son of a local farmer, whom we met near the beach and was to celebrate his 21st birthday. My sons and I were invited to join him in celebrating this special birthday at a local bar. He arrived at our hotel in his horse and cart to collect us which he had beautifully cleaned up and lined with rugs and a portable cassette player together with a lantern for our return journey home.
As we passed through the countryside, which seemed endless to reach our destination in the local village we were entertained by the music of Madonna which somehow still echo’s in my ears. Needless to say his name was Fidel and he was dressed very smartly for the occasion with a cowboy hat, smart shirt, jacket, trousers complete with boots and spurs.
To our amazement the local bar in the district of Chorro De Maita was little more than a large tin shed. It was packed with locals inside sat at various tables listening to guitar music and enjoying bottles of rum either neat or mixed with coca cola and plenty of cigars. My two sons gasped when I offered to pay for Fidel and all his friends for the entire evenings drinks which included the sharing of several spit-roast chickens and bottles of rum for over twenty people which lasted into the early hours. To my great relief the entire bill was a mere 80 dollars!
With us all somewhat worse for wear, except the horse who seemed to know his way home, the celebrations finally concluded by us being dropped off at our hotel shortly after 3am. We did not see Fidel again but the evenings experience with him and his friends had left us with a great insight into the local life.
During our two week stay we were able to experience horse riding, swimming with the dolphins in the open sea and an unlimited supply of fresh fish and particularly lobster which appeared to be plentiful.
My first visit to Cuba had left me with a vision of an Island full of colour and vibrancy with wonderful rhythmic music and people who seemed to get the best out of life despite the severe political and economic difficulties that have taken place. There was no question of my intent to return and next time to Havana.