Cuba: Forget politics and it's paradise
EVERYTHING Cuba is famous for – mojitos, heels, cigars – conjures a sense of party so no wonder hedonist / writer Ernest Hemingway loved it. And as I quickly discovered on a recent trip, the Cubans loved him. The writer lived in a villa near Havana for 21 years and the Cubans are obviously still enormously fond of him.
We drank in one of Hemingway's favourite bars, which was near our hotel, and as I supped my third mojito, while listening to great live salsa music, I could understand why the writer loved it so much: the weather is pleasant, the cocktails are delicious, and the people, despite all the troubles that beset them, want to party. Part of the reason for this party atmosphere is the good weather which means people can have fun out in the open.
Hemingway's favourite bar was called the Floridita, and the place is a shrine to his memory. The bar has changed very little since he drank here with such luminaries as Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper. His drink was a daiquiri – a cocktail of lime juice, a dash of maraschino, double rum, no sugar, over crushed ice. On average, he would drink 12 of them at a sitting. Hemingway referred to alcohol as his "best friend and severest critic".
The next day, we headed several miles out of the city and visited Hemingway's former home, Look-out Farm, which is off a lively main road lined with pretty rough-looking bars.
Look-out Farm is looked after with great care, with everything being left in the same place, as much as possible, as the day when the Hemingways left. The walls are lined with the stuffed heads of animals which the writer shot on game-hunting trips in Africa.
In the bathroom, the famous man's health and weight chart is still extant, with his pencilled notations such as '17 days off diet, 5 drinking, 203lb.'
Cuba, as most of us will know, is a Communist dictatorship and, travelling in the country, I often thought how fortunate I was to be living in a democracy. However, I also thought about the ills of capitalism, such as the mafia and gambling, and I sincerely hoped that if Communism ever collapses in Cuba, it won't be followed thereafter by the bad aspects of capitalism.
Its 11 million people make Cuba the most populated island-nation in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492 and claimed the place for Spain. The country remained a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War ended in 1898. In January 1959, the murderous dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted by the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro. By 1965, Cuba had become a single-party Communist state.
Our vacation involved several days walking and several days sightseeing. Most mornings, we were up at 6.30 and were on the road by 8. 'The road' could entail a long coach journey, touring a city or extremely sweaty hillwalking (Cuba has a very high humidity).
We drove all over the beautiful island, which is much bigger than many people imagine. Its length from west to east is in fact about the length of Britain, and over the two weeks we covered a huge swathe of the island, crisscrossing hither and thither, exploring from the northwest to the southeast.
On our second day, we drove for a few hours southeast towards the Bay of Pigs. Cowboys were a frequent sight on the roads and often looked picturesque trotting along on their attractive steeds while wearing 10-gallon hats and accompanied by a dog or two. Horses and carts were frequently in evidence too.
At the Bay of Pigs we enjoyed a lovely swim in the warm Caribbean. The Bay of Pigs is famous for being the site of a failed attempt in 1961 by counter-revolutionaries (backed by the US) to seize power from Castro and the Communists.
The island has a huge number of gorgeous, sandy beaches. The weather is warm year-round, which makes swimming a real pleasure. There's a sense of paradise.
Near our Bay of Pigs swimspot, we saw our first humming bird. These tiny and exquisitely coloured creatures are very common in Cuba and seem to have flown into the world straight from a fairy story. Their wings beat at an astonishingly swift rate and they are seen sipping the nectar from flowers or darting swiftly between flowers and branches like some sort of pixie creature.
On our fourth day, we pulled into Trinidad, which is an elegant and beguiling city on the southern coast. Near Trinidad we visited a valley which looked beautiful from our vehicle. Possibly it wasn't quite so beautiful for the 30,000 slaves who were used to work in sugar cane production in the 50 sugar cane mills that once stood here.
During a trek in the Sierra Maestra Mountains in the south-east, we visited the hut which was Fidel Castro's hideout during his guerrilla war against Batista. We did several day-walks in Cuba, predominantly along forest trails with occasional glimpses of the montane landscape. There was a rich bird and insect life here while the vegetation was usually impenetrable, and off-trail you'd need a machete to make any headway. The guides pointed out to us the various uses that some of the plants could be put to.
In the Sierra Maestra, we experienced three days of tough, humid walking which brought us to the top of Pico Turquino, which at nearly 1,940 metres is the highest peak in Cuba. On Turquino's summit there was a large bust of Jose Marti dragged up here on May 21 1953 by the famous revolutionary Celia Sanchez and others.
Marti was a Cuban 19th-Century revolutionary and there are statues and busts of him all over the country. Like Che Guevara, Marti was an unusual mixture of the intellectual and man of action. He once said that, "Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy". By that standard, contemporary Cuba isn't yet a free country but it's certainly a pleasure to visit.
Derek travelled on Explore's 15-day Revolutionary Trails tour of Cuba. With departures in July and November 2013, the tour costs from €1,360. It includes 10 nights' hotel, two nights' camping and two nights' cabin accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis; 11 other meals; transport and the services of a tour leader, driver and some local guides. Flights are not included but can be arranged through Explore. For further information, or to book, visit www.explore.co.uk or call 1890 747 747.