Cuba: More than just mojitos and music

By Gavin Hines

Gavin Hines drinks rum with people who have little but share much.

Well-preserved cars from the 1950s are a feature of Havana streets, where Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro remains a significant figure. Photo / Bloomberg
Well-preserved cars from the 1950s are a feature of Havana streets, where Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro remains a significant figure. Photo / Bloomberg

The lobby of our hotel has a picture hanging up of Fidel Castro shaking hands with the late Formula One driver Juan Manuel Fangio.

The former world champion was staying at this very hotel in Havana - The Lincoln - when he was kidnapped by Castro's rebels in 1958.

It was nothing personal. Fangio was merely a political pawn in the dawning of Castro's revolution and was treated well by his captors.

So much so that when the pair met years later, they greeted each other like old friends.

Most of Havana's hotels have similar tales to tell about Che Guevara, Castro or the revolution or about Ernest Hemingway.

The late American writer was famed for staggering through Havana's streets, and it's easy to see why when you sip a mojito in one of the city's many watering holes - they're not frugal with the rum here.

Hemingway's' regular haunt was La Bodeguita Del Medio, which is still open today. Unfortunately their most famous patron has turned this tiny joint into something of a tourist attraction and you can expect to pay well over the odds to wet your whistle here.

Like most bars in Cuba, La Bodeguita moves to the rhythm of the music, which is played by live bands from midday until midnight.

It's the Cuba they promise you in the travel brochures, but appearances can be deceptive - there's a lot more to this complicated island than mojitos and music.

Like Havana's seafront, the Malecon, most of Cuba looks tired and weary - the cracks of Castro's communist regime are showing.

The beautiful colonial buildings which cling desperately to the Malecon are a shadow of their former glory. Peeling and crumbling, they look as though they want to fall into the sea to be put out of their misery.

In contrast, the antiquated American cars that chug around the streets are bright and usually well cared for.

The 1962 US trade embargo might have left Cuban motorists trapped in the 50s but, ironically, their resourcefulness means that there are probably more of these beautiful classics running around Cuba than there are in the US.

Yet for every 1950s Cadillac there is a street full of Russian Ladas. The battered vehicles serve as a tangible reminder of Cuban foreign policy during the Cold War, when Castro jumped into bed with the Soviet Union.

Although these ancient cars add a certain romance to motoring, they aren't particularly reliable and neither is Cuba's public transport, which means hitchhiking is a way of life for many Cubans.

It's also one of the best ways to see this beautiful island and meet its wonderful people, as my girlfriend and I found on our Cuban adventure.

Hitchhiking, and giving lifts to hitchhikers when we hired a car, gave us an insight into the real Cuba and often made journeys easier.

Lost in the middle of the countryside one night, we had all but given up finding the town of Trinidad, until we spotted a hitchhiker in the headlights.

His name was Eduardo and he was a fisherman from Trinidad looking for a lift home - our luck was in.

Eduardo had been visiting relatives in the country and was relieved we had stopped for him.

"I've been standing there for three hours," he sighed. "I was close to giving up and trying again tomorrow."

Like most of the hitchhikers we picked up, Eduardo was warm and friendly and more than made up for Cuba's lack of signposts. His English was good because although the Government had made it as hard and expensive as possible for him to leave Cuba, he had visited England.

"If it hadn't been for my wife I wouldn't have come back," he said. "We don't have freedom in Cuba, the Government control us. They want to know what we're doing."

As if to prove the point, minutes later we were pulled over by the police. However, the cigar-smoking officer wasn't interested in my documents, he wanted to see our passenger's.

"See what I mean," whispered Eduardo, as the officer inspected his identification. "They don't want me talking to you."

As a token of gratitude, Eduardo insisted on finding us a "beautiful casa particular" to stay in when we arrived in Trinidad. These are like a bed and breakfast, where you stay in a room in someone's house.

True to his word, the casa Eduardo took us to was gorgeous. Its colonial architecture, rustic appearance and cobbled street setting certainly kept up appearances in the town, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

As with most towns, Trinidad has plenty of casas particulares and there are three things you can expect when you stay in one - reasonable prices, good food and exceptional hospitality.

Like hitchhiking, staying in casas particulares gives you the chance to get to know real Cuban people. The hosts are helpful, warm and welcoming, in fact on several occasions we stayed up chatting and drinking rum with them until the small hours of the morning.

The stories they have from living on this curious island are fascinating, and it doesn't take long for them to open up and share them with you.

In a casa in Vinales, which we visited before Trinidad, we heard how our host's house had been raided by Batista's troops as they searched for the young rebels Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who had planned parts of the revolution in the nearby hills.

Casa owners will also direct you to local beauty spots, where the tour buses don't go, and they will always have a friend who owns a casa in the next town.

While the island's resorts offer picture-postcard vistas, all-inclusive prices and faux Cuban entertainment, that's just the Cuba Castro may have wanted you to see.

Real Cuba is charismatic, colourful and contradictory. It's an education, eye-opening and a place where those who often have so little, seem to offer so much.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: It's complicated. Air New Zealand flies to Los Angeles, from there code-share partner United goes to Mexico City. Cubana de Aviacion flies from Mexico into Havana.

Further information: cubatravelservice.com; cubatraveltips.com

- AAP

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