Now is the time to visit this great country. Now that it has reached true prominence. Fashion stylists have already picked it for its current status of ‘focus of the world’: a focus that is now shining upon this uniquely troubled, special and intriguing island with its most dramatic of capitals.

Words & Photography: Adam Jacot de Boinod

Now is the time to visit this great country. Now that it has reached true prominence. Fashion stylists have already picked it for its current status of ‘focus of the world’: a focus that is now shining upon this uniquely troubled, special and intriguing island with its most dramatic of capitals.

Words & Photography: Adam Jacot de Boinod

Surely the best place to judge the readiness of Cuba to embrace any stampede of tourism is inside the control room of the annual tourism trade show for the world’s travel press. So I present my press card as I am booked in with them on a trip across the island. It’s all charm and chaos in equal measure! The intermittent WiFi allows some of the world’s press to switch off but leaves others frustrating with their deadlines. All bustle with the heady mix of the compelling viewing of business representatives getting temperamental to no effect in front of fazed and ineffectual Cuban administrators.

Cuba, they are only too keen to tell me, broke her own records last year with several million visitors; the main tourist spots outside of Havana being Matanzas, Villa Clara, Trinidad, Jardines del Rey, and Holguín. People flock to the island typically for the sun and sand, and for the cigars, the salsa and the old colourful cars. But they may well be newcomers to the real consequences of socialism.

Some tourists may suffer the lack of both products on offer in the shops and of any modernity in technology. My hotel bookshop, for instance, stocked nothing but copies of Fidel Castro’s life and works, and other Communist bibles. But hopefully tourists will recognise that it’s about so much more than creature comforts. There’s the spirit of the country, the charm of the people and the music running through their bones! This lack of efficiency can only partly be excused by the Caribbean sun and any attempts at manual work in the midday heat. It’s more that the entire sense of time has been frozen since 1959 when the revolution took hold of the island. While they are clearly highly articulate and intelligent, there’s simply no initiative on view or enterprise on offer. The State has stripped away any self-reliance, any desire to challenge. So Cuba is in one massive time lapse. A museum to Communism.

Cuba is nonetheless one of the world’s most sustainable countries, based on its own human welfare index (life expectancy, literacy and GDP) and an ecological footprint (the amount of land needed to fulfil a person’s food and energy needs). Luckily it’s also a blissful and providential land so food is plentiful for all. I had pineapple nearly every meal (or else guava, papaya and mango) and the waters are full of the very fish Hemingway was so keen to catch.

In time I reached Havana. Almost cinematic. Certainly scenic. Beautiful old cars acting as taxis, from the 1950s, hoot and crank around the city, customised and often with the doors and side-mirrors held together practically with sellotape. The city has a strong resemblance to Naples with her laundry lines and systematic chaos, bustle and deprivation. All steamy. All frenzy. Very Tennessee Williams. Better at night and sundown for me than by daylight. For it’s then that semi-clad figures emerge from the balconies (that drip with rusty electric wiring) to express themselves, brandishing food, cigars and drink. The fading, peeling Art Nouveau buildings, with their intricate iron grills match the roads in their state of disrepair with deep potholes which means, as the taxi driver jokes, “You sometimes get a massage for free in this car!”

All this is preferable to the freshly repainted touristic area currently backed by an UNESCO initiative, where the streets are very carefully manicured and the sweeping water-fronted Malecón, the famous promenade, looks exceptionally clean. There is an industrious air about the locals. Calle Obispo runs from Parque Central to the Malecón and is a good indicator of how the old town is doing. The stink has apparently gone so maybe there have been renovations to the sewer system too.

As I make my way along Calle Obispo I’m startled by the subtle changes. I pop in to the famous Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway enjoyed his mojitos. Many authors and musicians have passed through these doors including the great Gabriel García Márquez. At Cristóbal Cathedral, old ladies still wear white turbans and long lace dresses as they sell knitted dolls. I stop off in Nao, one of the new breed of self-owned ‘paladares’. These are restaurants set in local homes. Although there are only six tables set, it’s cosy and the menu offers a wide range of delicacies including the likes of octopus and rabbit. Then there’s the newly opened Casa Miglis serving an interesting fusion of Cuban and Swedish cuisine, with dishes such as shrimp skagen (on toast) and saffron seafood casserole. While El Figaro offers stroganoff, ceviche and gazpacho as well as tuna tartare, baby-eel salad or suckling pig. All housed in an 18th-century colonial building, a bastion of Cuba’s former sophistication.

The top spot for luxury, and nowhere being more characterful, is the Hotel Nacional. This imposing 1930s structure is truly redolent of Cuba’s glamorous past. I love it! So wonderfully evocative of yesteryear glamour with a wall of fame in its own museum, boasting Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The stylish music hall and cigar-reeking casino (there’s no ban on smoking indoors!) are highly nostalgic and the swimming pool is so retro and in need of repair that it has a cachet of its own. Most memorable are the specific room numbers of the historic guest list. All on the same floor are 218 for Nat King Cole, 214 for Sinatra, 228 for Fred Astaire and 235 for Errol Flynn. The prize restaurant is the ‘Comedor de Aguiar’ with penguin-besuited waiters and sparkling chandeliers. The Cordero lamb dish and the Santa Digna wine are excellent. I recommend a daiquiri in the Churchill Bar.

Here it was, in a salon-styled waiting room, that I picked up a dictionary of Cuban Spanish only to rejoice in its similes and slang.‘Gordo como una buoya’ means fat as a buoy, while ‘orracho como una uva’ is drunk as a grape, and ‘flaco como un güin’ means as thin as a sugarcane flower. Similarly graphic and pertinent in their descriptions are ‘ponchar’ to fail an exam (literally, to get a flat tyre) and ‘paton’ duck feet (said of someone who can’t dance). There are lots of great museums. One of the revolution, one for chocolate, another for rum. The Wilfredo Lam Center is perhaps my favourite with his stunning oil paintings. There are echoes of the sultry sounds of salsa and now there’s a funky new era of urban soul.

I leave Havana the next morning to get a feel of the countryside. I pass small shacks, tumbledown houses with a slap of paint here and there and goats and hens roaming the gardens. The fields vary in size and undulate in most cases as the tractors are saved for the larger centrally-owned farms. It’s common to find tall palm trees standing in the middle of a field.

It is a four-hour bus ride to Cayo Coco among the archipelago of wetlands that make up the Jardines Del Rey. These mangroves are joined to the mainland by a lengthy causeway. There’s a divinely white sandy beach running along the back of my hotel. Every little comfort is included in the hotel package as Pedro and his donkey patrol the beach handing out beers and soft drinks to the hard-pressed sunbathers. Next day I take a trip on a catamaran and wild dolphins swim past as we set sail. The catamaran anchors close to a coral reef and it’s time for snorkelling. This is the Caribbean at its best.

It would be only too easy to have spent a week here but I wanted to see more of the island. The one regret was actually in not finding time to visit Trinidad, a colonial jewel of a town. Anyway, I was en route to Santiago de Cuba and it’s important to remember that Cuba is an extremely long island. On my way I passed through Camaguey, a clean and beautifully preserved city and so different from Havana with more bicycles than old Cadillacs. The winding labyrinth of streets, hide a cornucopia of talented artists exhibiting their work and an abundance of clay pots for which the city is famous. That night I stayed at Santa Lucia and checked in at the lively Brisas resort to embrace the beach once more, savouring the shallow waters at bath temperature.

The journey through the spine of Cuba was fascinating as the locals piled in and out of their ‘cooperative’ cars. Every horse and cart was packed to capacity but all the passengers shared in their good humour. My next stop was Holguín where the local beers Cristal and Bucanero are brewed. The scenery changed the further south I travelled and bumps rose out of the landscape.

The final part of my journey shows up a contrasting mountainous backdrop, before I finally reach Santiago. This, Cuba’s second city, just celebrated its 500th year since the Spanish founded it. The Tropicana cabaret is a wonderful excursion and the dancers come out into the crowd and perform the conga at the end of the show. The Casa de la Musica has a venue here and it’s from here that many of the original Buena Vista Social Club, that got the whole world swaying to Cuban music, hailed. It’s a beautiful city that stands alone and is the original site where Castro declared the socialist state on January 1st 1959.

More to the point or the national psyche are ‘resolver’ (to resolve or to work out) and ‘conseguir’ to get or to manage. And I have to say that I found grasping these concepts a truly enigmatic process. The world’s press had gathered for a week-long invitation to the touristic delights of Cuba. Unfortunately our police car convoy, designed both to ease our way and to keep track on us all, broke down and caused untold delay. I tried to take a snap but was told it was illegal to take photographs of the police. Something to do with the Cold War I had to imagine (as no reason was offered). And then the internal flight from Santiago of nearly a thousand kilometres back to Havana was itself delayed for half a day with the representative standing on a chair reading out the names of the lucky few who could take the next flight. And yet, all along, there were the welcoming drinks, the guitar ensembles, the iced sculptures. Prepare to be harried but never hurried! Charm and chaos in equal measure!