GET READY TO EXPLORE CUBA
Beyond Castro and Che
If you want to see white sand beaches, American classic cars, historical sites along with some lively culture you need to visit Cuba this year.
It is not every day that one plans for a vacation in Cuba. Steeped in mystery and shrouded in history, the country remains an enigma and sends mixed signals for holidaymakers. Geo-political issues apart, if one ventures outside routine tourist spots, Cuba qualifies as a destination, amazingly different.
Reaching Cuba is simple if one is not flying in from mainland US. Havana, their main hub for international flights, is well connected with major European cities and very well connected within the Caribbean. Once immigration is cleared, and sniffer dogs done with, one is transported to a world you thought no longer existed.
The first thing that strikes you are the cars. Metal relics of the 50s nudge past, as if they came just out of batch production from Detroit. Sparklingly clean, colourful, regal retrofitted cars imported from the US before the embargo. Locally known as coches Americanos or máquinas, they are a hit, with the tourists for going around.
Travelling in them is an experience, as the driver more often than not, fills you with local stories and eulogises how developed Cuba is in the fields of medicine, boxing, and possibly of everything in the world.
Havana, as a city, is historic and myriad in its spectrum. The economically backward quarters are colourful as well. The historic buildings even though dilapidated are resplendent in their grandeur. Spanish colonial buildings stand strong, evoking reminiscence of an era bygone. Old Havana is a vibrant mix of the old and the new. A specimen of splendid baroque architecture, Cathedral de San Cristóbal, and the neighbourhood of Habana Vieja, is an eclectic mingle of variant architectural styles. The nightlife is abundant and ranges from the esoteric to the erotic.
Local bars belt out Spanish numbers on their ageing Westinghouse radios. A popular tourist spot, Plaza Vieja hosts the La Bodeguita Del Medio, the favourite watering hole of Ernest Hemmingway for drowning his Mojitos.
Not far rests the El Floridita, credited for inventing the Daiquiri, where one can order a Papa Hemmingway Daiquiri and raise a toast to his statue.
Take out a couple of days or slightly more for Havana. Waltz through its lively squares, and enrich yourself by trying to blend in with the literati. Visit the amazing museums for a slice of history, speak to the populace about
the revolutionaries, chat up the senior citizens for the history of the Spanish conquistadors, and soak up the city strolling along the Malecon, the picturesque seafacing promenade.
From visiting their beverage distillery, through taking tours of the premium cigar factories, trying out the sensuality of the salsa to visiting the art décor neighbourhoods for a slice of Afro-Cuban culture, there is no dearth of activities. Moreover, one is never alone. Giant murals, billboards, mosaics, and other artistic portrayals of Fidel and Che give company, to all across the Havana.
However, it is not the city alone that draws the visitors. The beaches in Cuba are a big draw for all visitors. Strewn all over the island, they provide for a lot of inward tourism and their revenue in general. The beaches of Varadero and Cayo Coco are well known, and tourists come in for an ideal retreat with an agenda of doing nothing.
Cuban beaches may not come with the bells and whistles that the ones in Caribbean usually come with, nor are they hyper marketed like Cancun in the Yucatan, but they have their own undeniable charm and the coral reefs are fascinating. Choose your beach. Lose yourself in it. The world can wait.
But what is Cuba without a discourse on Fidel and Che? If you are in Cuba, can Che be far behind? The memorial of Che stands at Santa Clara, a small town about a 3-hour drive from Havana. With an early start, an excellent day trip can be designed, with an early return.
A colossal 22-foot bronze statue of Che with his gun stands guard. On the pedestal is etched his motto. Hasta La Victoria Siempre. (Until the Eternal Victory). The memorial was built to entomb the exhumed remains of Che and his comrades who were killed in Bolivia. An eternal flame was lighted by Fidel Castro in his memory. The memorial also houses a small museum, where many artefacts connected with Che are on display.
Cameras are allowed inside, and one needs to just walk around the exhibits, and visualise his life and wonder at the marvel of an individual, who singlehandedly influenced the world at large.
Through a small souvenir shop, one exits the museum, and herein the irony shouts out loud and clear. Not much of his books are sold. Not much of his doctrines, which are printed in easy to read booklets gets picked up. But what gets sold are accessories with his picture printed. Not only in this small shop, but all over Cuba. T-shirts, lighters, coffee cups, mobile cases, you name it, they can fish it out.
Irrespective of his ideology, the aura of Che has migrated to a bestseller souvenir material, and so shall he stay there, possibly till the end of time. A holiday in Cuba, even if it is a weeklong, is unmistakably unique and absolutely fulfilling.
It is a fact that Cuba is not geographically close to Oman. Even though on the same latitude, but about eight longitudes apart. Travel does take some time.
The easiest way connection from Muscat is with Turkish Airlines. It is an overnight, 6 hours to flight to Istanbul, and passengers are hosted for an entire day with free food and accommodation, with an Istanbul day tour thrown in as well.
Next day pre dawn Turkish Airlines flies them direct to Havana, which is a 13-hour flight. Swiss Air does a Muscat Havana trip as well, direct through London, with an overall flying time of 27 hours. The advantage with Turkish Airlines is even if a day is wasted, a free Istanbul tour is the saviour. However, whatever be the distance, a trip to Cuba would be worth a lifetime for the memories.
Havana as a city is historic and myriad in its spectrum. The economically backward quarters are colourful as well. The historic buildings even though dilapidated, are resplendent in their grandeur. Spanish colonial buildings stand strong, evoking reminiscence of an era bygone.