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Havana rum old time... It is the Caribbean island lost in time. TONY COLLINS visits Cuba where the past, present and future rub shoulders to woo tourists.


VIVA la Revolucion! Talk of revolution in Cuba today inevitably refers to the overthrow of the former republic in 1959 that made legends of Che Guevara and long-serving president Fidel Castro.

But the revolution seemingly taking place throughout the Communist country now is the ongoing restoration of many of the Spanish colonial buildings that help make Cuba such a unique tourist destination.

Much of the restoration work, which began around 20 years ago, is centred on Old Havana, the historic part of Cuba's capital city which was rightly declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

Cuba, now governed by Castro's brother Raul, who succeeded Fidel in 2008, is actually well served by UNESCO World Heritage sites, incredibly boasting nine in total.

But, despite such a glowing claim, the Caribbean island situated between Mexico and Florida is struggling to attract signifi-cantly more than two million tourists a year.

The renovation programme is largely designed to boost those tourism figures so the holiday trade surpasses sugar as Cuba's No.1 industry.

But a country, where state-approved hitch-hiking appears to be the most commonly used form of transport, is being held back by the ongoing US trade embargo that began in the wake of the revolution.

Cuba claims that it has cost the country around $975 billion over the last 50 years. The embargo has left Cuba in short supply of most essential commodities, from raw materials to paint and medicines.

But what it does have in abundance is an almost timeless charm, not only from its colonial heritage with buildings dating back to the 18th century, but the huge number of classic 1950s American automobiles left behind when their owners fled Cuba after the revolution.

So how do you fully appreciate a country that successfully combines its historical past, and images of vintage cars and cigars, with gorgeous Caribbean sunshine and beaches, but has remained largely hidden for more than half a century? Revolutionary The answer was a Cuban Splendours tour, combined with a relaxing stay at a luxury beach resort, offered by Cosmos Holidays. Almost inevitably, given Cuba's revolutionary past, we began our visit to the Caribbean's largest island with a stay at the Habana Libre Hotel in Havana.

Once the most luxurious hotel in the city after opening as the Havana Hilton in 1958, its place in Cuba's history was sealed a year later when Fidel Castro and some of his comrades settled there temporarily after their postrevolutionary arrival in the capital in January 1959.

While the building would appear to have lost some of its lustre since then, the history more than compensates and, in any event, Havana is awash with splendid architecture across the city. These include the imposing Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in 1930 and once home to gangsters and film stars alike, while the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolutionary Square) adds gloss to dull government buildings, with huge murals of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro above victory slogans.

But it is in Old Havana where most of these fabulous structures can be found, starting at the distinctive El Capitolio building, which was modelled after the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Venture further into Old Havana and visitors are treated to narrow, colourful streets, wellpreserved 16th century fortresses, and spacious squares such as the Plaza de Armas.

The latter houses second-hand book stalls largely devoted to Cuba's revolutions, both in 1959 and the victorious fight for independence from Spanish rule that finally ended in 1902.

After three nights in Havana, during which we visited a couple of bars frequented by US author and long-term Cuban resident Ernest Hemingway, it was time to see what else Cuba has to offer.

Our first location was the picturesque Vinales Valley, the second of our UNESCO World Heritage sites, where acres of lush tobacco and sugar fields are dotted with strange-looking limestone hills, or 'mogotes'. The visit to the beautiful Pinar del Rio province - one of 15 throughout Cuba - also included a boat trip on an underground river within the Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indians).

Then there was the opportunity to see Cuba's famous cigars still being made by hand in the traditional way.

But if you are only encouraged to visit Cuba by the prospect of seeing beautiful young women rolling cigars on their thighs, then think again.

It's a myth! The factory produces around 5,000 cigars a day, with the Cohiba and Monte Cristo brands - favoured by Castro and Guevara respectively - still proving hugely popular.

The same is undoubtedly true of Fidel and Che themselves, with no shortage of roadside billboards extolling pro-revolutionary slogans wherever you go, while Guevara's image also appears on everything from berets and T-shirts, and fans to fridge magnets.

A more enduring legacy is the Las Terrazas community, founded by the government in the 1970s to provide a decent standard of living for the poor local inhabitants - a perfect example of the Communist ideal at work, with housing, a primary school, and daycare all provided for the 1,000-strong population.

A further overnight stop in Havana gave us the opportunity to view a bronze statue of John Lennon, unveiled in the year 2000 by Castro, who regarded the former Beatle as a fellow 'dreamer'.

The familiar spectacles were removed from the sculpture so often that an old man appears with a pair whenever a visitor turns up!

From there, it was time to explore the west of Cuba.

We were based in Cienfuegos, another World Heritage site, which was founded by the French in 1819 and still retains much of its colonial architecture, as well as the customary Che Guevara slogan stating that the people still believe in his ideas.

Away from the attractive port city, we took an exhilarating speedboat ride across 'Treasure Lake' to Villa Guama, a reconstructed Taino Indian village complete with authentic huts and life-sized sculptures of the early inhabitants involved in everyday activities.

A similar excursion involved a visit to a crocodile-breeding farm designed to keep the reptiles safe from poachers. With a population of only around 11 million, nowhere in Cuba appears crowded, particularly the roads connecting the various parts of the island.

The vast majority of Cubans are unable to afford a car, while buses often take the form of converted lorries with people standing in the back.

Local people wait at the roadside, hoping for a lift, often taking advantage of the shade provided beneath bridges.

This is where you will find the 'yellow men', paid by the government to check if official vehicles, identified by a blue number plate, have any spare room to take hitch-hikers.

Any government-registered vehicle which doesn't stop, whether a taxi or truck, will be reported and asked to explain why they kept going.

We felt privileged to be taken around in a taxi, courtesy of Cubatur.

One such taxi trip brought us to the wonderful 'timewarp' town of Trinidad, founded in 1514 by the conquering Spanish, and which seems barely changed since then.

The cobblestone streets, created out of the ballast in the Spanish ships that sailed here, has helped Trinidad also to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The confusing layout was apparently designed to make life difficult for looting pirates, but fortunately our guide was able to lead us to La Canchanchara, a bar named after a local drink said to have been consumed by many of the million African slaves brought to Cuba to work in the sugar plantations.

Like most of the cocktails to be found in Cuba, it is rumbased, including the Mojito favoured by Hemingway. And rum still plays an important part in Cuba today, with 70 per cent of the spirit exported to more than a hundred countries.

Although not on the official tourist trail, the route back towards Havana brings you close to the infamous Bay of Pigs where a US-backed invasion force of around 1,500 mercenaries and Cuban exiles landed in April 1961.

They were defeated after just 72 hours, leaving the US government to pay massive compensation to get the captured invaders back.

After such a hectic, although hugely enjoyable, tour it was time for a rest, which brought us to the wonderful five-diamond Paradius Varadero beach resort, situated on the 20 kilmometre-long Varadero peninsula on Cuba's north coast. The pristine, white sandy beaches and Caribbean sun are as appealing today as when Varadeo became a millionaires' playground for wealthy Americans in the 1930s.

The fabulous facilities range from a spa and gym, and extensive watersports to archery and salsa dancing, but when you've got a sunbed or hammock facing out to the ocean, what more do you really need? FACTFILE Cosmos features the seven-night Cuban Splendours tour, combined with seven nights on an all-inclusive basis at the five-diamond rated Hotel Paradisus in Varadero from pounds 1,639 per person, inclusive of flights from Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic and transfers. For further information, or to book online, visit website or call 0844 573 4261.


TIMEWARP: Cuba's beguiling blend of the old and the new is increasingly popular with tourists
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jan 15, 2012
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