The four days we spent in Havana were a true delight, both culturally and historically. Apart from the usual walk on Havana streets and admiring Cuban music and dancers, vintage cars, rum and food, I tried to immerse myself in the Revolution climate.
Old Havana looks majestic with a Hispanic touch and the Capitol. This replica of Roma and US Capitol was built in 1929 as a Senate and House of Representative. It dominates Havana skyline in many ways. Crowds of tourists and locals gather on the steps leading to the House. Inside there is a colossal bronze statue, the largest indoor statue in the world representing Pallas Athena. Behind bronze doors whose panels picture scenes from Cuba’s history, lies a huge gallery called the Hall of Lost Steps. Under the dome, there is a replica of a 28-carat diamond that marks Havana’s centre to measure distances from the capital. Outside the edifice the photographer offered to take photos with the old fashioned camera dating back to 1920’s.
West of Old Havana is the famous Plaza de la Revolucion. The site of Fidel Castro’s major speeches as president, delivered before crowds of, at times, up to a million citizens. The square is surrounded by the city’s most-imposing architecture such as the towering monument to José Martí, leader of Cuban independence.
The Ministry of Inferior building depicts the iconic sculpture of Che Guevara, a popular photo spot. The place was not overcrowded so I quickly spotted a miserable looking elderly sitting on the folded chair. He was not basking or selling anything. The idea of having a picture taken with him sound appealing. He was reluctant but eventually agreed. We exchanged pleasantries and as a small token of my gratitude I handed in 5 pesos to him. To my surprise he strongly opposed and shook his head indicating impending trouble that the gesture of mine would potentially cause to him. I thought nothing of it and walked away. It did not long before the police car appeared and he was escorted to the nearby police post. What resulted from this encounter was him having been arrested for unsolicited or untaxed revenue, the couch driver explained to me. The embarrassment and shame I felt stuck with me for the rest of the touring day.
The next day we decided to venture Havana on rented moped. For 20 pesos a day we hired a vehicle and two helmets. The ride was enthralling. We rode along the coast getting repeatedly splashed by incoming waves. More than that. Getting to town proved difficult enough. We got lost and ended up riding the opposite direction on one way street. Predictably, we were pulled over by the traffic police. What happened next could have easily been a good episode of Monthy Pyton movie. While the police officer wanted to establish our details, me and my friend started to argue about who was at fault. The argument was intense and laud enough for the official to become confused and lost, basically. I handed in my passport. I don’t know what he had seen in it but after he realised I was Polish he just smiled and let us go. My friend was British. If that was of any relevance remains unknown.
Eventually, we reached our destination. We parked our yellow moped and headed to the Museum of Cuban Revolution. The museum is based in the former palace of the late dictator Fulgencio Batista, leader of Cuba in the final years before Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The presidential palace housed Cuba’s leaders from the 1920s until 1959. Castro’s idea was to turn this building into a museum of the revolution and therefore change the course of Cuban history forever. The place contains detailed exhibits depicting the events leading up to Fidel Castro taking control of Cuba. There were historic photos, models of battles, period firearms, tanks, etc. so the true Cuban history fanatic would find something for themselves.
We could admire a life-size wax statue of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and a huge revolutionary mural on the second floor, among other things. Attached to the museum was a fully enclosed in glass, the most famous boat in Cuban history, the Granma, on which, in November 1956, Fidel Castro sailed from exile in Mexico to Cuba, accompanied by Che Guevara and 82 soldiers of the revolution. Other historic artefacts include military vehicles and weaponry from the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, a U-2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban missile crisis, and items from Cuba’s nineteenth-century wars of independence.
Not to be missed the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (the Castle of the Royal Force), one of the main attractions in Old Havana. The castle was built in 1555 by Spanish authorities to defend Havana from invasion from pirates or a rival European power. It now houses a pottery museum, a café, and a small gift shop. It is the main architectural feature of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana Cuba and remains a poignant reminder of Cuba’s rich history. After the Cuban Revolution, it served as government offices and a museum of arms before being converted into a museum of Cuban ceramics. Cuba is definitely a jewel among other Caribbean countries, linking the turbulent times in modern history. When you add, folk music and dance, it should be anyone’s must visit list.
The city of Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location, it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleons returning to Spain.
We hired a taxi to Chorro de Maita. The driver was very helpful driving us through the villages, and even stopping by for a taste of traditional coconut drink offered to us by locals. Such a delight.
Our adventure started as we drove up the Yaguajay Hill, through rough muddy roads. A large brook flowed there. We had a natural vantage point, from where we had an extensive view of the nearby Atlantic coastline. The first archaeologists explored this area in the 1930’s and discovered impressive evidences that indisputably established abundant aboriginal presence in the area. We could see the unearthed burial ground, with nearly two hundred burials, including a Caucasian along with domestic objects used to fish, hunt and cook stored and displayed. The place still vibrates with life.
There is also Taino village preserved in its natural scale, with 38 human sculptures and a fairly accomplished setting of their caneyes (huts roofed with palm leaves), tools, kitchens, utensils and farmlands. Garments and beads recreate the atmosphere of a normal day in an Arawak household. The human sculptures show in detail face profiles and cranial malformations which showed the speed at which people had aged. We were also entertained by tribal dancers chaired by a lovely lady whose name I failed to remember.
The area once saw the arrival of Christopher Columbus expedition in 1492. First expedition of this Italian explorer who had set sail in pursuit of discovering America. The claim eventually went to other Italian explorer, cartographer and navigator, Amerigo Vesppuci. How much true is in it, one has to decide for themselves.
We met this local whose name displayed the undisputed recognition most men’s dream – Harlem. This portly guy truly were a jewel during our exploration of the Cuban shores. He offered to take us to the cotton plantation and abandoned rum factory. We could not have been for grateful for his assistance. A generous tip was highly appropriate.
It was founded as San Isidoro de Holguín in 1545, and it is named after its founder Captain García Holguín, a Spanish military officer. Prior to 1976, Holguín was located in the province of Oriente.
The Caribbean Islands draw in thousands of tourists every year. We have also become the prey. Rather willingly, I add. Our trip to Cuba consisted of three major parts. Seven days in Guardavalaca and four days in Havana were enjoyed thoroughly. We were graced with beautiful sunny weather despite that fact that it was February and the doorstep of our house in Europe were covered with thick snow. Not that we expected snowfalls in Cuba but still it was an amazing change of climate, for better. It has been quite a while some details escaped my memory. I recall the passport control at the Cuban airport. We queued up for security check and I remember being asked to move away from the windows facing the airport platform as it breaches security regulations. I thought nothing of it and complied. I was about to start my holiday and would not let anyone to ruin it. A lot was at state. I had already had a perfect plan in my mind. To combine leisure time with exploration.
We were placed in one of those superb holiday resorts by the ocean. Our representative explained to us what excursions were on offered. Unfortunately, there was nothing going to Guantanamo Bay. I offered to pay extra but was met with bursts of laugh. Shame. Anyway, we still had Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Camaguey to pick from. We opted for Santiago de Cuba by bus. What better way of getting up close and personal with local life than hitting the Cuban roads.
The Sol Rio de Luna hotel grounds featured two swimming pools as well as a separate children’s pool, sun loungers and parasols. In addition, guests are offered a sauna to relax as well as a massage service. Water sports were available including boating, wind surfing, catamaran sailing, diving, and water skiing. For fitness fanatics there was also Aerobics classes at the hotel gym, together with table tennis, golf, basketball, beach volleyball on the premises of the club resort. The hotel was surrounded by the large gardens of the maritime park Bahía de Naranjo. The sandy beaches of the Playa Esmeralda lied right beside the holiday complex. The Guardalavaca shopping centre was merely five miles away.
We opted for catamaran sailing, snorkelling, and swimming with dolphins in Bahia de Naranjo Nature Park. The latter was particularly exciting. These intelligent creatures were kept in confined area but treated with acceptable dignity and care. Anyone who was up for it, got kissed by a dolphin, too. Great fun. Catamaran sailing involved unlimited amount of alcoholic drinks and stories about the history of Cuban Revolution for those interested. However, many ended up hammered by the time we reached our destination. I remember we were also entertained by seal performance.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
We embarked of an adventure to Santiago de Cuba with high level of excitement and inquisitiveness. The Heroic City offered a great dose of history about Cuban Revolution. That was definitely my cup of tea although I could have murdered a glass Cuban rum any time of the day. We opted for a bus rather than helicopter. We figured 4 hour ride through dilapidated roads, passing by true villages and eventually being pulled over by the local police was an added perks to the trip. We were driven around the city in a well organised fashion. I cannot recall the sequence of places but remember the marvellous Castillo del Morro, impressive Cementerio Santa Ifigenia with changing guards, Jose Marti Memorial and Emilio Bacardi Graveyard. We could not fail to ignore the Revolution Plaza and the Caspedes Park.
The visit to the graveyard has brought us closer with the history of Cuba. The cemetery was the third one founded in the country and inaugurated in 1868. It is a homage to many martyrs of the last 150 years of revolutionary wars. Besides the cultural and historical values, admiring its art was attractive enough for us in the journey through the Cuban eastside. Neoclassicism, Art Deco and Eclecticism all met in one place together with subtle images of angels and madonas often associated with sadness, pain, compassion and death.
The Mausoleum of the Cuban National Hero Jose Marti is 23 meter in height and made of concrete and quarry marble. In front of the monument there was this everlasting flame, as tribute to the fallen heroes of this country. The changing guards was a remarkable experience of its own right. The marvellous designs of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes´s grave and Don Emilio Bacardi´s tomb, the founder of the oldest museum in Cuba and the famous producer of the Cuban rum added to the importance of this place. There is also the mausoleum of the Martyrs of San Juan de Wilson that pays tribute to the 481 Spaniards killed in an action during the war between Spain and the United States in 1898 to defend Cuba´s sovereignty,
Not too far away from Revolution Plaza there is Moncada Barracks. It was a military barracks, named after General Guillermón Moncada, a hero of the War of Independence. On July 26, 1953, the barracks was the site of an armed attack by a small group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro. This armed attack is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The bullets holes in the front wall are still visible to commemorate this event. The Moncada assault was the first armed action of the Cuban Revolution, which would end in victory in 1959. After the victory of the revolution El Cuartel Moncada was transformed into a school city that it took the name of School “Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio”.
Santiago De Cuba is not all about Revolution, though. Beautiful Cathedral and Caspedes Park offer a bit of soul searching and tranquillity in this once war torn city. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is the alleged burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. It has historically been a place of pilgrimage on the Way of St. James, since the Early Middle Ages. The cathedral is a Romanesque structure with later Gothic and Baroque additions.
After such an exciting day we decided to stroll down the streets in the hope of acquiring some knowledge from the locals. I found a Cuban version of news agents’. The guys could speak English well but sufficient enough to explain why the Revolution was a mile stepping stone in politics of this country. Opinions varied. As everywhere. The evening ended with a lovely cup of Cuban coffee on the rooftop of the lovely restaurant situated in the Caspedes Park.
Santiago de Cuba is the second-largest city in Cuba and the capital city of Santiago de Cuba Province. It lies in the southeastern area of the island, some 870 km (540 mi) southeast of the Cuban capital of Havana.