Any kind of ‘long haul’ travel is uncomfortable in some way and although it is not an everyday occurrence I find that if you prepare yourself mentally it can be less daunting. I kind of ‘zone out’ and go into an almost trance like state but usually cannot sleep. In flight movies can kill some time and so can reading or playing a game. We forget however that most apps require an internet connection and you will regret not having downloaded some traveller friendly apps that do not use data. Being without the internet becomes part of the trauma of travelling and arriving in Cuba I found that with everything being state run so was internet access, but more about that later.
A Cuban internet scratch card. 1 Peso for 1 hour for use at internet hotspots.
Touch down was at Holquin airport in south east Cuba and the walk from the airplane across the tarmac was like being blasted by an intense wave of heat and humidity after the almost cold air conditioned interior of the plane’s cabin. We had completed a customs declaration during the flight which was to be handed in crossing the gate.It was as you might expect asking people to declare goods that they would otherwise be charging tariffs on but in among there was a nod back to the days of the Mafia in terms of rigorous questions about drugs and pornography, two issues the state in Cuba seem to take very seriously.Indeed waiting for the luggage carousel to disgorge our bags there were friendly springer spaniel sniffer dogs doing the rounds led by camouflage suited customs guards. The bags duly came and going out to the transfer bus back into the heat revealed more of the country side and the vast area of greenery surrounding the airport.
First glimpse of Cuban transport was a Lada not a Cadillac or a Buick.
First glimpses of Cubans at work waiting for taxi fares via arrivals from London, Manchester, Miami,Fort Lauderdale and Havana. The concept of Cuba as a small island of the coast of the USA was being mulled over in my brain and I was slowly realising that this island was a lot larger than I had thought. At 1250 kms from end to end some 780 miles getting from Holquin to Havana in fact I would learn later that it would take 9 hours 36 minutes by road which was about one more hour than the flight to get here. Holquin is the region of Cuba famous for being the landfall of Christopher Columbus in 1492 at Bariay now a national park.
Columbus’ true achievement, says Eric Williams in his book From Columbus To Castro: The History of the Caribbean, “lies in the fact that his planned voyage was successful and that he was able in over a decade to come and go, between Europe and the Caribbean, as if he was travelling up and down the Mediterranean.”
After ten rough weeks at sea with the three vessels; the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, he sighted the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. After taking possession of the island in the name of the King and Queen of Spain, he named it San Salvador. He continued on until Cuba and Hispaniola before returning to Spain.
…..and I thought a long haul flight was rough?
The journey from the airport to our hotel was fascinating. Mango trees, swathes of bananas growing by the road side and of course what seemed like mile upon mile of sugar cane. Small farms no bigger than crofts in between huge industrial scale sugar cane fields with chickens and goats and sheep spotted through the greenery.No really visible or obtrusive fencing to demarcate property but I was struck by the use of cactus to make natural fences to keep livestock off the roads.
Amidst the old cars and rusting trucks there was also a rusting MIG jet fighter nestled close to some wooden huts with chickens scratching around on the ground beside it. A true Cold War relic slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. Not so the classic cars. Plenty of evidence of cars being reworked and resold and put to good use. Almost every small holding we saw had a ‘work in progress’ close by.
We also passed by billboards with that image of Che again and in the hotel lobby there was a band of Cuban musicians playing old classic songs I remembered from Buena Vista Social Club.
Welcome to Cuba, it was real and not a dream anymore, but we were not going to Havana anytime soon. A quick revision to the plans was in order.
The hotel itself was one of the big state run resorts, they all are.This one had over 900 rooms spread over a huge area and some really beautiful gardens.
The lobby was huge and was the location for music , bars and a coffee house.At night the birds from round about came in to roost in the rafters and be serenaded to sleep by the music. They deserved it after serenading us all day I thought. I saw one woman get bird droppings in her hair and wondered if in amongst all this splendour and beauty she would let such a little thing annoy her. Would she write one of those really negative Trip Advisor reviews blaming the hotel for Mother Nature?
Maybe she would just be more careful where she sat next time and sit back and enjoy the music.
Lyrics in English ( There are at least 3 versions of the lyrics, this is one of them.)
Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera *
Guantanamera, guajira, guantanamera
Sunset from the beach- Atlantic Ocean north east Cuba coast