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Published: June 21st 2017
Geo: 23.1168, -82.3886
Cuba is something different - the poorest country we have visited in terms of its infrastructure and development in the last 100 years, enhanced by a wonderful climate and setting in the Carribean sea.
But before this adventure we were able to relax on the Yucatan coast of Mexico, back in the small town of Akumal where we'd stayed before in some proper hot beach weather, swimming in a lagoon ( an inlet from the sea) with shoals of tropical fish, just like an aquarium and visiting the attractive Mayan ruins of Tulum on the coast before swimming on the best beach ever, white coral sand shaded with coconut palms, with gentle seas lapping the shallow shore and wonderful warm water. Helen and I were in our element and also enjoyed exploring the Coral Reef that runs all down this coast( the second biggest in the world after Oz), and snorkelling with Turtles.
A short flight ( under 2hrs), over the narrow sea crossing and mainly flying over West Cuba, brought us to Havana and a 30 min taxi ride to our hotel in the old city to be greeted by live music in the hotel foyer - the first
of many groups we saw singing hits from the shows with exaggerated emotions - nothing subtle about their performances. That night we ate in the hotel restaurant and found ourselves at the front, under the noses of more performers, this time singing Opera in a highly rehearsed manner, at full volume. An enthusiastic response on our part was required. After several searches for decent food, we began to decide on our evening entertainment more by the music, which Cubans are good at, than food which was decidedly mediocre. Our final night in Havana was at Buena Vista Social Club venue where other than 2 young, very supple dancers,the performers were middle aged and one old guy might have been part of the original crew and was now having difficulty with his tap dance and bongos. They played the old Cuban favourites, which were heard at almost every Salsa venue, with a big band and lots of amplification. It was particularly interesting to find out that the touristy audience, which we had assumed might be largely European like ourselves, was from all around the world - many from South America, only one other English, Scottish and Irish couple.
The highlight of our
2 weekends in Havana was the hired American Cadillac - in good condition, unlike some, very blue and shiny chrome. We were driven around by its owner who explained that he kept the his car on the road with the help of his brother in Miami who sourced him spare parts when needed. We decided that by earning £150 a day ( £30 per hr) driving tourists around he was earning more than anyone else we met. We heard that Doctors and teachers earned little more than a dollar a day so if they can they supplement their income by working with tourists - the only source of economic development in Cuba now that the Sugar Cane industry has finished.
We drove through the spreading Havana new town, but there seems to be little development during and since the years of the American embargo since the 1960's. The old town, however, has been a UNESCO heritage sight since 1988 and is slowly repairing its many old buildings. This seemed to involve lots of digging up of streets, left with huge gaping holes, dust and dirt. Some of the old squares and refurbished hotels are beginning to show the splendour of what
the old Colonial City once looked like.
Our 6 year old hire car just about survived our 200 mile round trip to Vinales and Trinidad, with a somewhat inconvenient puncture on our return journey, when a local chap helped to change the tyre and cycled ahead of us to show us the way to the motorway. Road signs, as in Mexico, are almost non existent, so journeys always involved lots of enquiries from locals in bad Spanish. Once a passenger fixer jumped out on the bumpy motorway in front of the car, travelling at speed, and insisted we take a passenger to the next town, Shared rides and 'hitch hiking' have become the norm since the USSR collapsed and Cuba lost its funding in the 90's, resulting in years of austerity, poverty and food rationing. Lots of the transport, out of Havana, is not motorised - lots of bicycles, horses, horse and carts, horse drawn 'omnibuses', just like England in 18th Century.
We enjoyed Vinales, where they grow lots of Tobacco and want to tell tourists all about the process and sell cigars. Helen and I rode horses through the countryside, while Peter and Steven walked. It was fascinating to see how
the Cuban rural poor lived and farmed with Oxen, horse and hand plough, no tractor in sight. (not quite true - we saw a few tractors, but none of them working in a field)
Trinidad was a lovely old Colonial town with cobbled streets and lots of music every night, almost entirely given over to tourists.
I'm left thinking that Cuba, though beautiful, is rather sad - a socialist experiment that is continuing to cause enormous suffering for its people, who regardless of their skills and qualifications can't earn a decent living except from the tourist dollar, which certainly doesn't seem to be distributed to all.
(That was Liz speaking - the suffering is likely to have been brought about more by the USA blockade than the 'socialist experiment' - says Peter)
Peter and I returned home via Mexico City - reminded of how difficult 3rd world cities are with a huge building programme of new sky scrapers, business development,traffic chaos, exhaust fumes, all the messy issues that at least bring developing prosperity to their people.
Now back home, with a new boiler to get our central heating working again and to keep us warm, to reflect on our time in the sun!
haven't mentioned the train ride from Trinidad through the valley where the sugar cane was grown. We haven't mentioned the extraordinary motorway through Cuba - up to 4 lanes each way, and no traffic! We've shown you photos of swimming pools - but they were almost all freezing cold! The tremendous thunderstorm that greeted us as we arrived back in Mexico City. We haven't told you about our historic hotel in Havana - where Graham Greene set 'Our Man in Havana' and where Al Capone booked the whole 6th floor for a mafia get together!
Looking forward to seeing friends and family again.
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