The Caribbean island nation of Cuba has been a hotbed of revolution for nearly 500 years. And now with the passing of the controversial hero, Fidel Castro, it is poised for yet another. Roderick Eime settles in with a mojito and a Cohiba to explore the new Cuba.
With the world tumbling headlong into a multinational homogeneity quicker than you can say “would you like fries with that?”, it's refreshing to see Cuba retain a staunch individuality that goes against the tide of global blandness.
But for how much longer?
“We have a wonderful heritage in our architecture and culture,” says Pedro Vazquez, a noted Cuban architect and urban designer, “but the lack of ownership means little or nothing has been done to maintain it.”
Vazquez is referring to the urban sprawl of civic and residential structures all over Havana that portray a confusing mixture of proud colonial revival and sad neglect.
Most buildings in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed 'old town' are preserved and maintained by the state and host many thousands of tourists on a regular basis, but not far away are signs of a frail, teetering metropolis.
As an unabashed car nerd, my attention is immediately drawn to the mobile motor museum continuously on the move around the streets of Havana.
I'm told tens of thousands of pre-1960 US-made cars still rattle and belch around the roads, kept alive by hybrid engine transplants and lashings of body filler.
The ancient valley of Tobacco
To the west of Havana is the province of Pinar del Río, famous for its tobacco production.
Here we meet Benito, whose family have been here in the Vinales Valley for five generations, producing the valuable crop first cultivated here by the Spanish in the 16th century.
Modern tobacco is derived from the wild 'cohibo' weed used by the long gone Arawak Indian 'belique' (shamans) during ceremonies.
From that rough, leafy plant sprung a most valuable primary product that has become a major contributor to the Cuban economy, alongside coffee and sugar.
We're shown the art of hand rolling the cigar into its familiar, leafy tube.
Leaves from the mature plant are selected at different times and for different purposes and 'cured' in a thatched barn, identical to those used by the early Spaniards.
Leaves are hung on horizontal wooden poles for weeks to dry and cure.
Getting to Cuba
Travel to Cuba can be a bit confusing with constantly changing regulations, so it is this writer's strong recommendation to consult an experienced agent and join a tour or cruise, such as Peregrine Adventures small group 'Cuban Panorama', which combines land excursions with small ship cruising to explore some of the lesser-visited locations.
Alternatively, big ship fans can get aboard the 2000-passenger MSC Opera, which operates year round from Havana.
Words and images: Roderick Eime with travography.com
- The writer travelled in Cuba as a guest of Peregrine Adventures: www.peregrineadventures.com || www.msccruises.com.au