Cuba wasn' part of original grand plan but after reading some blogs Deborah picked up on the suggestion that it is best to see Cuba before the upcoming "American invasion". So we decided to pick up a good travel deal in Canada and headed off to the Cuban sun for 2 weeks.
The beaches near Varedero are absolutely beautiful. After being on the move for so long we really enjoyed hanging out in the resort and lying on the beach. Although normally I would prefer a mountain bike ride in my spare time, in this place you can't really beat sitting in the water sipping on a "Cuba Libre" or Piña Colada"!
I didn't know a lot about Cuba before we went. I guess I thought about the cigars, the rum, old cars, communism and the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. It is all true, these characteristics are in your face everywhere from the moment you get there. But there is a lot more here, the history goes back a long time to the times of Christopher Columbus, African slave traders and the Pirates of the Caribbean. My God, we even past the place where Piet Heijn sank the Spanish Silver Fleet! ( for the Dutchies that was a big deal). The prevalence of this history really hit home to me when I saw they use genuine old canons in the streets of the bigger cities as street decorations, there are soo many of them around.
The old cars are every where too! Of course there are a lot of old Russian cars and some modern cars as well but the old sixties American classics really do steal the show. It's amazing how the Cubans have managed to keep these things on the road since the trade with the USA stopped after the revolution in 1960. Turns out that in many of the cars the original American petrol engines where replaced with Russian/Cuban Diesel engines over time but they certainly still look the part.
When you get off the resort into the back streets of Varedero, Trinidad and Havana as well as the country side it is clear the county is very poor. The infrastructure of roads, rail roads, telecommunications, schools, hospitals, etc is all in a poor state. Since the trade with the Russians stopped in 1990 when the old USSR fell apart, the country has had very little income so maintenance in these areas has been very limited ever since.
Listening to the guide during one of our day trips it seems the communist era between 1960 and 1990 with support of the Russians was very good for the Cuban people. After many years of crap dished out by the U.S. mafia (we drove past Al Capone's holiday home) and the Cuban dictatorship of General Baptista, Fidel Castro changed the country around quickly and introduced equality, free milk, eggs and basic food for all children to the age of 7, free health care and free education all the way through to university. Most of this is still in place today! No wonder Fidel Castro is still pretty popular as is his brother Raul, the current leader. But most prominent national hero is Che Guevara who trained and led the rebel army. His face is plastered over many walls, flags and t-shirts. We briefly visited his Mausoleum in Santa Clara.
Despite the poverty, the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Havana are colourful, noisy and upbeat. As I said before there is a lot of history. With influences from the Spanish, French, Dutch, Africans and Americans.
The people are equally colourful with racial and cultural influences from the same areas. The best way to enjoy the place is simply to walk the streets or enjoy one of the small eating places in old Havana.
The streets only clear out for the huge thunderstorms that come in fast and furious in the afternoon and clear up again just as fast. This tropical climate forms the tropical dense bush that covers the Topes de Collates mountains in the central South where we went for a hike and a swim.
I really enjoyed Cuba. I am not sure whether the "American invasion" will really make that much of a difference. There are many resorts with Canadians, Germans, Dutch and other tourist here already that I think the tourism part will probably grow but not necessary change. Cubans working in hotels and on tours like tips but they aren't really that service oriented because of the old communist culture of "take it or leave it". Tourist prices are also already relatively high and climbing because the prices are set by the government and seem to be based more on western standards than the actual local Cuban economy, which is how the government makes pretty much all its money from tourism.
Opening the trade with the USA will no doubt make a great difference to the infrastructure of the country which is clearly needed to keep providing care for its people and let them participate in the global economy (and Facebook ) But hopefully the rich USA tourists won't buy up the cars which have pretty much become a national symbol.