Fleur Chavasse, writing for London’s Daily Mail, urges readers to visit Cuba before the expected opening of the island to U. S. travelers destroys its charms.
Our guide Alexander led us down a lush mountain trail en route to an alfresco dip in a freshwater pool – and suddenly stopped. Motioning us all to stand still, he gently started to whistle.
Within seconds, the trees were filled with birds of all shapes and sizes, including tiny bullfinches, warblers, woodpeckers, an emerald-green hummingbird and the Cuban national bird – the green, white and red Trogon.
As we looked around in awe, they all chirruped to each other as our cameras went into overdrive.
Alexander had learnt to imitate their distress call, so they had all flocked to see if a bird was in danger.
The nature walk in Cuba’s southern Topes de Collantes National Park, near Trinidad, was one of many unexpected highlights on our trip to this country, on the brink of change.
For the past 50 years, while the rest of the Caribbean was marketing its sun, sea and sand holidays, Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries ensured Cuba was sealed in a timewarp, cut off from the capitalist world, with foreigners practically banned.
With the collapse of the USSR, Castro’s Communist comrade-inarms and main trading partner, its economy plunged into turmoil.
Despite its socialist credentials, Cuba opened the floodgates to global tourism (although Americans are not yet permitted travel there), and its satin-smooth beaches, rum cocktails and salsa were reinvented for the package tourist market.
Yet, as we were to discover, the Caribbean’s largest island has much more to offer.
After a brief stop in Havana, we flew to Baracoa, on Cuba’s south-eastern tip.
Surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful mountains and countryside, its isolation has so far managed to protect it from some of the more pernicious effects of tourism and offers a friendly glimpse of Cuban life, practically unchanged for the past 60 years.
It also has a lovely hotel, El Castillo, located in the remains of an old Spanish fort high on the hill with a great swimming pool.
Baracoa has an easy, small-town charm, complete with crumbling cathedral and revolutionary murals celebrating 50 years of Castro’s rule. But it’s the awe-inspiring countryside that is the star of the show.
For the more adventurous, there is the dramatic climb up El Yunque, the 1,900 ft flat-topped mountain that dominates the landscape, trekking in the local rainforest or simply enjoying a leisurely river cruise.
With the average wage being the equivalent of about £12.60 a month, ordinary Cubans earn extra money by renting out rooms (casas particulares) and open restaurants (paladares) in their homes. These are a great opportunity to see how Cubans live, and in Baracoa we found some of the best food on the island.
Paladares Casa Tropical and La Colonial both served excellent fish and prawns in coconut milk with rice and salad for about £15, while the eccentric Casa del Chocolate served delicious local chocolate.
Music and dancing play a huge part in Cuban culture – none more so than in the island’s second city, Santiago de Cuba.
Around every corner there seems to be a band striking up, a guitar being strummed or a couple swaying to the salsa beat. The city’s famous Casa de Trova hosts nightly live music sessions.
Elsewhere in Santiago, you can get a feel for the Spanish history of the island at the magnificent 17th-century fort of El Morro where they fire the cannon at 5pm every day to recreate the ancient warning to pirates.
And the Moncada barracks still displays the gunshot marks where Castro and his rebels fired the opening rounds of the revolution in 1953.
With its location so close to both the beach and the mountains, the perfectly preserved colonial city of Trinidad on the south coast is the star of central Cuba.
Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site, and this – plus the pedestrianisation of the town centre – has ensured that its marvellous architecture has remained unspoiled.
In fact, Trinidad, or the beach at Playa Ancon, is an excellent base from which to explore the attractions of this area – and for those with limited-time provides an excellent introduction to Cuba.
The colonial district of Trinidad, with its pictureperfect mansions, cobbled streets and horse-drawn carts, has more a large villagefeel about it, than a prosperous town.
We enjoyed the low-key museums such as the Museo Romantico, which showcases how aristocratic Trinidians lived in colonial times, and popping in and out of bars for mojitos. Another highlight was a two-hour journey in a 1919 steam train to the old sugar refineries on which Trinidad built its wealth in the 18th century.
As befits a colonial town, it boasts the elegant Iberostar Grand Hotel and a host of excellent paladares including Sol y Son and Estela.
A day trip from Trinidad or a stopover in its own right, Cienfuegos was founded by French settlers.
With its stylish houses, bay-side location and spacious squares, it deserves its title ‘Pearl of the South’. This laid-back city, with fewer tourists, has several easy day-trip destinations such as a large botanical gardens, an old Spanish fortress and beaches close by.
We also fitted in a visit to Santa Clara, the city adopted by the poster-boy to students everywhere, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
He was the handsome, brave and principled doctor-turned-guerrilla who fought alongside Castro in the Fifties and was shot by the Bolivian army in 1967.
His victory at the battle of Santa Clara earned him god-like status among its residents, and they pay tribute to him at a museum commemorating his life.
What Che would make of Cuba today is anyone’s guess. But the word is that this is a country to visit now – before the Americans arrive and change it for ever.