Thank heavens for Vitamin R! Cuba’s liquid gold (rum) soon transformed 18 shy strangers into firm friends. Who could remain aloof when we were immediately whisked along to strut our (fairly rusty) stuff at a samba evening and we were soon making a beeline for the excellent music and dancing to be found at the “Casa de las Trovas” in each town.
This trip is for you if you like to leave your normal comfort zone behind. Some might dread the challenging all day treks to the haciendas, but the scenery was stunning and the sense of achievement priceless. Kicking back in a rocking chair, watching humming birds drift around the grapefruit tree – total paradise. You do need to take a fairly relaxed attitude to personal space and privacy - “washing” being mainly thanks to dips in mountain lakes and sleeping under the stars revealing exactly who snored the loudest! What bliss though to revert to childhood, safe in the knowledge that our every whim was catered for by Luis, - a worthy finalist in the 2010 Explore Tour Guides Awards. The food was astounding (a hog roast rustled up in the middle of the mountains) and the Vitamin R in constant supply. We were free to be dirty, weary and just a little tipsy – on this basis great friendships are made.
As the largest and possibly most beautiful island in the Caribbean, Cuba really does offer something for everyone. History buffs enjoyed the Bay of Pigs (quite a smelly backwater swamp), the romantic mountain Commandatura de la Plata hideaway from revolutionary days and the inescapable photos of Che (all the more noticeable as advertising is banned). Nature lovers were spoilt for choice, with stunning flora and fauna, but Cuba is mainly for fun lovers, with the crazy 50’s automobiles, the locals’ passion for music and dancing and a lovely, lazy day on a Caribbean beach to round off a perfect trip. We covered quite some miles in our swish air conditioned bus, but any complaints (“not cheese and ham sarnies again”) were soon muted as we whizzed past the locals, queuing endlessly for lifts in this socialist paradise. Tourists are cosseted in a parallel universe, with dual currency and limited opportunity for interaction (don’t you wish you had paid more attention to school Spanish lessons?) However, when we did get chatting, there was no stopping them. Generations on from the glorious revolution, young people are desperate for greater opportunities and a wider world view (currently, most cannot travel and internet access is severely restricted). Most food is still rationed and a lack of material wealth is also quite evident.
PLEASE take stacks of western shower gel and other small toiletries, as these were hugely appreciated. Also, if you have any old hiking boots and gear, do be prepared to leave these behind, as they will find a very welcome home. On a selfish note, take plenty of snacks and sweets for the bus trips, as a change from the inevitable cheese and ham sarnies.
If you want to have your eyes opened, your senses refreshed and your value system challenged, then this is the trip for you. For passion, pride and sheer exuberance, you can’t beat Cuba and its vibrant people. (CL -March 13th 2010)