Monday, October 10, 2011

Our visit to Cuba > Part 2

At the end of August and start of September, Whisky For Everyone went in to a three week hibernation.  This was our longest period of non-blogging since we began nearly three and a half years ago.  The reason was simple - we went on holiday!  Here, we have decided to share a few observations, experiences and photos from our time away.  Part 1 can be found by clicking here, but here we go with Part 2 ...

Something which you cannot help but notice as you travel around Cuba is evidence of the Revolution. Even though this happened in the late 1950s, it is like it happened last year.  You can't get away from it.  There are revolutionary slogans painted everywhere by the government as a constant reminder of it - even in the middle of nowhere there will have been a concrete slab erected and something painted on it.  Images of leader Fidel Castro and especially his right hand man Che Guevara are equally everywhere.  This can be seen in its most celebratory form in the massive Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, where the iconic Guevara adorns the side of an eight floor government building.
Che Guevara - Plaza de la Revolución, Havana
Our next port of call was the town of Trinidad on the southern coast.  This is a Spanish colonial town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built around the sugar cane industry and the neighbouring valley - the Valle de los Ingenios - was once the heart of the Cuban sugar industry.  The town is lovely and photogenic with a relaxed feel.  Here, unlike the rest of Cuba (with the exception of parts of Old Havana), you don't have to work at seeing the 'stunning colonial architecture' that the guide books shout about.  It is laid on a plate for you and the busloads of tourists that arrive everyday. Everywhere else in the country you have to visually peel back 30-40 years of decay and neglect to begin to see the charm.
The church in Trinidad
One highlight of the stay in Trinidad was a train journey into the Valle de los Ingenios.  The valley was once one of the main production areas for sugar cane in Cuba and was home to over 70 sugar mills. Then it fell on hard times, largely due to its location - the imposing Escambray mountains form a natural barrier with the rest of the island.  We took a ride on one of original sugar cane trains, which was a classic old steam locomotive pulling two rickety wooden carriages.  It was all very touristy but it got us out in to more stunning landscape, in a similar way to our horse riding in Viñales. The train was built in 1902 in Philadelphia and it chugged its way slowly through the valley to the small town of Iznaga.  Iznaga was formerly the site of the largest sugar cane plantation in Cuba and the town is dominated by the Torre Iznaga - a 45 metre high tower used for observing the slaves working in the fields.

Train 1590 at Iznaga station
We then moved to the north coast of the island and the tourist haven of Varadero.  This 'town' is a dreadful eyesore of a place with wall-to-wall all-inclusive hotels as far as the eye can see.  However, the reason it is there is because of its fantastic location - it sits on a spit of land which has the Caribbean's longest beach on one side and a lagoon on the other.  It was the one place that we didn't go for culture - we went for gratuitous beach, pool and sunbathing action.  The beach was idyllic, with snow white sand and azure blue sea that lived up to our vision of a Caribbean beach.  After a few days of all-you-can-drink Piña Coladas, we headed back to Havana for the last part of our trip.

This time we stayed in Old Havana, which is a part of the city that has been renovated to its former glory by the Castro Government.  Here you can see the colourful buildings, painted in yellow, green and blue, that you see in the guide books.  However, you don't have to walk far to see the 'real' Havana that the Government are less keen for tourists to see.  The people were friendly enough but the obvious poverty meant that, as before, they wanted to extract any pesos they could from you and weren't scared to use their creativity to do so ...

The Havana Club bar
Whilst in Havana one of the highlights was a visit to the Havana Club rum museum.  This is housed in one of the old company buildings, which sits in the bedraggled dock area of the city.  Here we were taken on a personal guided tour of the museum, having arrived just before a busload of Canadian tourists.  Our tour guide (Yeny) showed us various artifacts from early rum making and gave us a basic history of the sugar plantations, slavery and the birth of the Cuban rum industry.  Without doubt the best part was the explanation of how rum is made, which is something we were unfamiliar with.  Please watch our video below, where Yeny took us through the different stages of production.  It was interesting to find out how the process differs from that of making whisky.  We finished with a couple of shots of rum in the gorgeous wooden Havana Club bar.

So is Cuba the gorgeous time-warp of a place that the guide books portray? Yes, in places. In other places it is a rundown and poor, with the famous architecture and classic cars being patched up and shadows of their former selves.  The landscapes that we traveled through were stunning and idyllic in many locations, especially the serene Valle de Viñales. Are the people the 'friendliest in the world', as our book put it?  No - we met some lovely people especially outside of the main touristy spots, but in the touristy spots it felt that you were running the gauntlet on most occasions as you were constantly pestered and bombarded with questions in the street.  Will we go back again?  Probably not.  Did we enjoy our visit?  Mostly yes, sometimes no. Are we glad that we went?  Definitely yes.

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