Prior to flying to Havana, we visited a giant theme park near Cancun called Xcaret. This was the only place on the whole trip where I could take advantage of being a Travel Agent and get a discount. So for my $49.00 saving, here’s a plug! Xcaret was originally a Mayan Temple on the water’s edge like Tulum, with some excellent water holes (or Cenotes) and some developer turned up with a few bulldozers and turned it into a fully blown theme park. Anywhere else this could be considered an environmental tragedy but hey there’s heaps of minor Mayan Temples floating around, and it has created hundreds if not thousands of jobs!! They have done an amazing job, and although I was ready to be really cynical, I think the place is a must see! We spent the day floating down underground rivers, lazing on beaches, Nikki swam with the dolphins, we saw cowboys on horses, flamingos, toucans, butterflies, turtles, and jaguars all in a beautiful natural jungle setting. Nikki’s experience with the dolphins was amazing and the money that she spent, which would have sent a Guatemalan child to university was worth it for the split second she was propelled in the air by two dolphins!
Whilst we were sitting in Cancun’s departure lounge, I was working on Nikki’s growing anxiety about anything Cuban by reciting the world’s top 100 airlines by safety that had Qantas at number 1 and Cubana at 100 and then talking about the Russian aircraft industry’s array of aircraft built in the sixties. To her delight, Cubana had chartered a small Brazilian propeller aircraft from Air Caribe for the occasion and it seemed to work OK, the macabre side of me was disappointed!
Landing at Jose Marti International Airport, my heart was thumping, I was so excited – finally I was in Cuba and within minutes I saw the first of many iconic images of Che Guevara painted on a wall just outside the airport. Our journey into town saw us pass many famous places from history – The Plaza de Revolucion, The Malecon, Hotel National and of course Castille de Morro (Halle Berry dived off it in a recent Bond movie).
Our hotel was a real surprise; I’d worked on the location – so I knew it was only a block behind the main square in the heart of the old town. What I didn’t realise was it’s beauty and the quality of our rooms. The building was a 16th Century house that was recently restored, it was basically a courtyard with a restaurant downstairs and 5 rooms upstairs looking down into the open courtyard – they were huge with 30 foot ceilings and doors that when opened looked down on the stage in the restaurant.
On arrival Michelle was feeling a bit crook so we left her in bed and had a quick walk around the old town. Havana Vieja is the most beautiful part of any city I have ever seen, it was a very quiet night and only a handful of people were wandering the cobblestone streets. The old city covers about 15 x 15 blocks, 30% of which has been restored – the rest of it is under restoration or falling apart. We only covered a few of the streets to get our bearings and strolled along Calle Obispo which is “the” street that connects the old and the new and is also home to some of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen, all wearing short skirts and crop tops (Now I know what Billy Joel meant when he wrote – “I can always find my Cuban skies in Rosalinda’s eyes” )
Sheridan thought she was in a doll shop, I knew I was in heaven and Nikki was holding Trevor’s hand very tightly! Later it was explained to us that these girls were average girls with low paying day jobs that were just trying to earn some hard currency. (Every Cuban earns around US$20 a month irrespective of their qualification – doctor, lawyer, bus driver etc).
On the way back we heard some really loud music emanating from the direction of our hotel and soon discovered a floorshow in the restaurant, about 10 musicians complete with flamenco dancers were playing some amazing tunes. Michelle, with no chance of sleeping had listened to the whole show and was raving about it, so we immediately booked a table for the following night. For the next four nights we conceded that your room shaking to the sounds of Cuban music until midnight was going to be part of the total package – I’m just glad we weren’t in Bavaria!
We couldn’t wait to hit the streets; I’d carefully planned three days worth of sightseeing and Havana was waiting. Havana is a huge city with a population of roughly 2 million that has three key areas worth visiting – Veija (16th – 17th Century), Centro (19th Century) and Vedado (20th Century). We started the day by walking the old city, then as it started to get really hot we were conned into taking a horse and carriage ride for 3 hours that covered the highlights of the other districts. I say conned but not really as everyone in Cuba is out to make a buck, you pay for everything but you certainly get value for money. Our guide who was a retired merchant seaman took us to the places that he thought we should see, most of which were on my list – some that weren’t, but he provided an excellent insight into the city. Sitting in the back of a carriage allowed us to take everything in at a slow pace, you could look in people’s doorways, smell the cooking and suck in all the fumes that those amazing 1950’s Chevys with Lada engines emit!
We posed for photo’s in front of the sculpture of Che Guevara on the wall of the Ministerio del Interior, we stood in the square where today (May 1st) Fidel will address the nation and 1 million will gather to hear him speak, my hat flew off on The Malecon as we passed the Hotel National from which The Mafia controlled Cuba for all those years, we drank Guarapos across the road from where another Cuban drink – the Daiquiri was invented! Every moment of the day was magical, ending with Trev and I sampling many Cuba Libre’s and Mojito’s whilst Sheridan was doing her best at impersonating the Flamenco dancers on stage. Finally encouraged by her efforts they dragged us both on stage and I did my best to disguise the fact that all my formal Latin dance training came from watching Shakira videos. Sheridan, the smart arse, took it all in her stride and impressed the whole audience who gave her a rousing ovation!!
Our object the next day was to find out about the three essential ingredients of Cuba, the revolution, rum and cigars. We spent an amazing few hours in the only museum I was really interested in. The Museo de la Revolucion, which is housed in the former Presidential Palace. It features documents, photos and memorabilia presenting in chronological order the Cuban struggle for independence. By the time you get through it all, Fidel and Che are your hero’s, the USA (especially the CIA) are guilty of every crime ever committed in Cuba (and for that matter, the rest of the world) and you want to give up everything material in your life and join the party. It all looks pretty rosy, especially the changes and achievements since the revolution until you start to think it through and remember that it is not the 60’s now, you are not in a time machine (or a Hollywood set) and what you have seen in the museum is the same as what you see in the street. I think this is one of the amazing things you feel in Cuba, it is one of the few places in the world where you really think you are time travelling.
We eventually found a Cigar factory but only the shop was open, so we missed out on touring the factory, which would have been incredible – instead we bought a few Monte Christo’s and Romeo y Juliets and sauntered back via the Capitolio which is identical to the Capitol in Washington but a few centimetres taller. They love sticking it up the Americans, here are a few examples; Ku Cola (Red Can, swirly writing, tastes better), The Cuban Peso is pegged to the US dollar, baseball is the national sport and my favourite discovery. They have a free viewing platform for tourists in the military zone overlooking the American base at Guantanamo Bay – you can look through telescopes right into the base. Apparently it is the only military zone in the world that is open to the public!
The afternoon was spent in the market where it was our turn to go a bit silly, purchasing a couple of paintings, plenty of nick knacks including clay figurines of bright coloured big breasted black women smoking cigars, a cigar box, the mandatory Che T-Shirt and a Fidel Castro figurine! Speaking of good old Fidel, we saw a fantastic documentary where this reporter spent a week with him and was allowed to ask any question he liked it was amazing – we thought most of the questions would have him shot but Fidel was incredibly open and honest and had a seemingly logical answer for everything. His best reply was when he was asked whether Cuba was building Chemical weapons. He said that the cost of 3 chemical weapons would completely wipe out Cuba’s economy. He was also questioned as to why he traded with countries like Iran, he then listed all the countries that won’t trade with Cuba and reminded us that for a nation to survive it must trade and if Iran wants to buy his flu vaccine then he’ll sell it to them. Anyway this went on for a few hours with some great discussion about human rights, freedom of the press etc – try explaining all of this to an inquisitive 7 year old!
The next day was supposed to be a trip to the beach but instead we visited Havana Club for a lesson on how rum was made and took a taxi over to Castile de Morro – a fort that overlooks the town. It was really cool, Sheridan and I were invited into the Port Authority’s offices, learned all about the role of the harbour master, posed for photo’s and even listened into the Key West Coastguard. Remember USA is only 90 miles to the north!! As I looked out on the harbour I remembered that Jimmy Buffet wrote a great song about his father called “False Echo’s” about an incident that occurred on this exact spot in 1921 – anyway that’s one for fans only!
There are probably many moments that I have forgotten, we were constantly on the go in Havana and many impressions hit, were absorbed then you sort of accepted them and moved on. I was surprised at how at ease we all felt, the openness of the people we met, the impression of happiness everywhere, the quality of the food, the ingenuity of the people and how many (good and bad) things come from America. After visiting nearly 60 countries I realise how far Americas influence has reached and whilst the blockade is on Cuba hopefully this little untouched piece of the world will resist Americas influence! I’ll probably start many arguments here but with so many incredibly poor nations in the world in desperate poverty, with millions of homeless and people dying in the streets operating under “democratic” governments something can be said for Cuba. Despite Cuba being one of the poorest nations in the world, everyone has a home, everyone has a job, there is no poverty, it has one of the worlds lowest infant mortality rates, schooling is free right through to doctorate level, medical and aged care facilities are free and you don’t need to vote. They must be doing something right!! Not a great place though if you want to do achieve anything but – cause you aint rewarded for it and be careful what you say too. Then again there are billions of people out there who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. So the argument rages and we need to get to Cancun to see the largest purpose built resort city in the world.
Ok, so who’s been to the Gold Coast or Waikiki? Cool you have, just make the water much bluer and the sand much whiter and you have Cancun. That saved me a lot of typing!! Basically we finished our trip at The Hilton a magnificent 5 star resort on a brilliant beach. We shopped heaps in modern shopping malls and had a big night at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café, which is a fantastic themed restaurant with exploding volcanoes, hula dancers, dancing sharks and massive sized meals. We spent over $200 in the shop alone on coasters, t-shirts, key rings, glasses, hats, books, stickers, mugs etc etc. (I know it’s a sickening obsession).
Actually I lie about the big night, Sheridan vomited her milkshake then fell asleep on her “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. I finally had a jug of “Perfect Margarita” and then brought it all up, Michelle did her best to stay awake knowing that I had looked forward to this night for so long and poor old Nikki and Trev….well they just didn’t quite get it!!
As Jimmy would say……..These changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes; Nothing remains quite the same.