By Terry Willey
For some reason Cuba is viewed as one of the less attractive Caribbean Islands but the reality is that it has much to offer and lots to explore, although many locations on the Island have been hardly discovered by tourists.
Lying south of the Tropic of Cancer, Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean Islands, with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Caribbean on the other. Its history is formidable, having been first inhabited in pre-Columbian times and later conquered by the Spanish, who ruled the country for four centuries until the Island gained independence in 1899.
Thereafter it came 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 First of January 1959, effectively marking a turning point for the country. It 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 facing restrictions to visit the Island it created an intriguing destination to explore.
The capital city of Havana would be the obvious destination for most people, but having researched the country more fully, we felt it would be a more exciting prospect to travel initially to the far south, and to an area where cars – and particularly old Cadillacs – were replaced by horses and carts.
Our flight from London 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 at the time it was controlled by the Cuban Military. I learnt 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 Guadalajara, 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 distinct remoteness.
The hotel was rather isolated but very extravagant. Having been funded by the Spanish, it covered several hundreds of acres including its 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, and 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 stay 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, revealing their dependence upon Government assistance with food and other day-to-day requisites. I was allowed to film and interview some staff at the hotel – strictly keeping the subjects non political – but there was an obvious desire to learn about life in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
A local farmer whom we met near the beach 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 furnished with a portable cassette player together with a lantern for our return journey home. I will always retain a vision of this polite young man, typically named Fidel, dressed in a cowboy hat and attire but particularly his boots complete with spurs! His English was very good, and he explained that he had been taught it at school, as well as Spanish.
As we passed through the countryside to reach our destination in the local village, we were entertained by the music of Madonna which somehow still echoes in my ears. His chosen bar was in the village district of Choro De Maita and was little more than a large tin shed full of large folding tables containing food and drinks. It was packed with locals who sat listening to guitar music and enjoying bottles of rum, either neat or mixed with Coca Cola, and smoking plenty of cigars. My sons gasped when I offered to pay for Fidel’s birthday celebrations and all his friends for the entire evening’s drinks, which included the sharing of several spit-roasted chickens and bottles of rum for over 20 friends lasting into the early hours.
However, to my great surprise I still had change from 200 dollars and with us all somewhat worse for wear – except, thankfully, for Fidel’s horse who seemed to know his way home – we were dropped off at our hotel shortly after 3am. We said our fond farewells to Fidel and did not see him again, but the evening’s experience with him and his friends had left us with a great insight into the local life.
During our two weeks stay we were able to experience horse riding, swimming with the dolphins in the open sea and an unlimited supply of fresh fish, steak and particularly lobster which appeared to be plentiful. The vast array of unspoilt beaches and rolling countryside had given us a taste of the real Cuba. There was an endless desire among the Cubans to work hard and embrace visitors and engage in conversation wherever possible.
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 in spite of the severe political and economic difficulties they had experienced. There was no question that we intended to return – and to encourage others to do the same!