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Catching a tan in Cuba


My excitement about visiting Cuba is barely containable even after a ten hour flight.

Peering out the plane window, my face pressed against the cool glass, I can see a land of red and green strewn with shack like structures and palm trees that poke out from the ground like cocktail sticks illuminated against a backdrop of an orange sunset glowing in a purple sky.

I’m barely off the plane before I have already begun to imagine myself drinking Havana Club rum wearing a straw hat watching the world go by from an open air bar.

At the Jose Marti International Airport, piles of bubble wrapped luggage rattle through the carousel, including one shaped like a car tyre.

Has Christmas come early? Or is it really so impossible for Cubans to get hold of car parts and even basic clothing that those who can afford it are bringing back goods from abroad?

Leaving the airport I immediately spot the Chevrolets and Mustangs alongside more modern makes of Fords and Citroens, a symbol of a capitalist world Cuba has fought so hard to avoid, a world that is now slowly starting to catch up with them.

The rules governing trade have already begun to relax along with a slow stream of Americans being allowed into the country on holiday.

But the problem of how to deal with American tourism is one still being carefully considered by Cubans.

Professor Jorge Mario Sanchez, from the University of Havana, described the possible effect of opening up the borders as a “tsunami effect” with millions of Americans arriving in Cuba, with an infrastructure unable to provide enough hotels to stay in let alone enough mojitos.

He said: “It has been predicted that there could be a full plane of holiday makers here in Cuba every 11 seconds and we simply can not accommodate them.

“It is a bit like a love story between the ant and the elephant, they have to be careful that when they go to bed together one doesn’t get squashed!”

One thing that will hit you almost immediately when walking around Havana, and something which marks the city out from almost every other capital in the world is that there is not a single scrap of advertising, apart from socialist propaganda.

While most capital cities are sprawling with posters, billboards, logos and slogans, in Havana the cities crumbling but charming architecture enjoys centre stage.

Shops are discreet affairs tucked into business complexes or come in the form of small scale trading from the living rooms of Cubans keen to make a living under a government that has previously never promoted financial gain from personal enterprise.

There is no shortage of places to go and see in Havana, from car museums, rum museums to book markets, the place is every curious tourist’s dream.

I stopped for lunch in the La Bodeguita Del Medio, a once popular haunt of Ernest Hemingway during his travels in the 50s.

The restaurant and bar is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary and serves traditional Cuban cuisine, which is often a basic yet enjoyable affair of rice, beans and meat.

If you have just one night only to spend in Havana start off with a mojito in the famous, Hotel National de Cuba, built in the 1930s this decadent hotel oozes glamour and for eight decades has been the playhouse of the rich and famous.

Then continue the 1930s theme by heading to Club Tropicana, where dancers wearing elaborate costumes gyrate their way across a brightly lit stage while waiters will launch an attack on your sobriety with a never-ending flow of champagne and Cuba Libre.

The atmosphere is electric and before I know it a man with what appears to be a pineapple attached to his head and nothing but a leopard print thong to preserve his modesty swoops down on me like an exotic bird of prey, pulling me to my feet.

Flashing brilliant white death he swings me around until my head spins.

We take a taxi back to our hotel, the Quinta Avenida Habana, in a battered Russian car from the 1970s with at least a million miles on the clock.

The driver puts the key in the ignition and the key breaks in half.

“What is the Russian word for shit?” he asks in frustration.

“Moskvitch” my Cuban guide replies with a knowing look.

The car seems to grunt in indignation and slowly starts chugging along the road.

We drive alongside the malecon, a 4 mile stretch of sea wall built as a flood defence in stages throughout the 20th century and now thought to be the longest in the world.

Known as Cuba’s “great balcony”, the entire population of the city play out life’s moments, teenagers hanging out in groups, young lovers cuddle up to watch the sun go down while old men gather to gossip.

There can’t be anything more life-affirming than the cities populace gathering by the sea in the moonlight to discuss the day’s dramas and iron out each others problems.

Despite their perhaps counter-revolutionary messages art installations have been put up on the pavement for locals and tourists to contemplate.

One is a barbed wire fence with a flashing red light above a huge tear in the wire, facing out across the ocean, towards the tip of Miami. The implications are obvious.

Havana is without a doubt a city that has seen better days, but it almost revels in its post-glory sheen, the fact the buildings and streets are broken is all part of the cities endearing charm.

My first 24 hours in Cuba have been beyond expectation and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring when I am heading to Cuba’s second biggest city.

And if Havana is the soul of Cuba, then Santa Clara is at its heart.

Santa Clara

Its mid-afternoon in Santa Clara and a young girl only just able to stand is wriggling her hips to the sound of Cuban salsa.

From every corner of revolution square in this historic town, the home of Che Guevara, live music can be heard.

As our tour guide tells us about the economic and cultural importance of this city, out of nowhere a woman appears with a ski-whiff red wig and a pink dress gripping a blue bucket with a look of defiant determination.

Lifting back her head she sings out in a tremendous voice, bellowing a song in Spanish.

The men waiting in horse drawn carriages to take tourists off on a city tour sing along with her with great amusement.

Towards the end of the song the woman begins to provocatively rock her hips from side to side, slowly lifting up her skirt to reveal her underwear, causing the men to fall around in howls of laughter.

After attempting the splits but failing spectacularly, she proceeds to offer her bucket around to her gob-smacked audience in the hope of a financial reward for her eccentric performance.

It is not long before I am dancing myself, perhaps a more reserved kind of dancing than the bucket lady, but I am English after all.

It is impossible not to react to the music which finds you everywhere.
In every clammy bar and dusty street corner, Cubans seem to live and breathe music and dancing and this way of life is contagious.

It becomes clear from the start of my visit to Cuba, that here it is best to always expect the unexpected.

Never more so in the historic city of Santa Clara, founded in 1520, it has a much more authentic feel than Havana away from the majority of tourism.

After wandering around and soaking up the priceless atmosphere in this authentic Cuban town, I stopped off at the cultural centre of El Menjunje to have a cold drink and watch a live band with the locals.

After that it is time to head further north to one of thousands of Cays that surround Cuba.

CAYO SANTA MARIA

“Don’t use internet! Drink Mojito!” is a line many frustrated tourists keen to check their emails or social networking sites may hear from a happy-go-lucky Cuban.

Choosing life, not Facebook, is however a compulsory choice for many as internet coverage and a decent phone reception is sparse and temperamental.

This can be a god-send for many stressed out westerners, forcing them to leave their worries and their mobiles at home for the duration of their holiday.

Out on one of the thousands of tiny islands and cays that surround Cuba, you may as well be a million miles away from your life back home.

And with creamy white sand and crystal clear turquoise water it will be hard to imagine why you would ever want to leave.

I stayed in the Hotel Memories Paraiso, a huge but stylish five star hotel with Uber-friendly staff and air-conditioned rooms.

Our party then left Cayo Santa Maria by catamaran, stopping off to snorkel by the tiny Half Moon Island, which has swarms of rainbow coloured tropical fish and a steam boat wreck from the 1920s to explore, before arriving at our final hotel, Melia Cayo Guillermo.

This was the perfect end to a magical week, a stunning hotel set in lush grounds strewn with hammocks and comfy sofas and a jaw-droppingly beautiful beach which will leave you speechless the first time you see it.

Factbox

I was invited to Cuba as part of the annual FitCuba 2012 Tourism Fair which this year aimed to develop links between the country and Argentina.

For tours of the island, including Cuba’s cays, and catamaran trips and to book discount accommodation contact: www.gaviota-grupo.com.

Virgin Atlantic is currently offering direct flights from London to Cuba, visit www.virgin-atlantic.com

Cubana Airlines offer flights from Paris and Madrid.

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