As someone brought up on the adventures of Jacques Cousteau my trip to Cuba would not be complete without swimming with the fishes. Not in the Meyer Lansky gangster sense, more flippers, goggles and mask. Managed a good swim in very shallow warm and very clear water, identifying about 10 different species of fish including some young barracuda. A curious looking tropical flatfish gazed up at me and I realised it was occupying the same ecological niche as it’s more drab North Atlantic relatives. Camouflage abilities of these creatures never fails to impress.
By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16833576
Walking back from the swim we were met by Antonio a gardener driving a golf buggy who was distributing freshly cut coconuts to passing guests. He asks where we are from and we explain about Scotland.’What about the currency?’he asks. Good question and it would have taken a while to explain about Scottish banknotes not being accepted at UK airports etc,. Hotel staff in Cuba will often accept tips in UK coins.On leaving the Hotel I swapped a £20 note for a bag of coins enabling a hotel porter to get access to some convertible cash.
Cuba uses two currencies — the Cuban convertible peso, known as a CUC, and the Cuban peso, known as the CUP. Visitors need the CUC, which is 1:1 with the U.S. dollar. If travelling direct from the UK, £ sterling gets you the best rate at the moment
We learned of a day excursion to the next nearest city of Santiago De Cuba and left early in the morning. The Cuban dawn pictured above was spectacular and we had a quick breakfast at a cafe/bar in the complex which stays open 24 hours a day with the other guests up early for excursions. The 3 hours on a bus was broken up by a visit to a small holding to see how Cubans lived in the countryside and also to be offered some breakfast of small sweet bananas, fruit juices and a kind of coconut and cane sugar macaroon. You could see how resilient people were. Evidence of repairing cars and the equipment to maintain cars was everywhere and self sufficiency in food production was clearly a big factor in people’s daily lives. ( Note to self- must build my own bay for pigs before Brexit)
Arriving in Santiago De Cuba on the islands south-east Caribbean coast it was another baking hot day. First stop was the Plaza de la Revolution. Revolution Square is placed strategically at the junction of two sweeping avenues and is anchored by an eye-catching statue of dedicated city hero (and native son), Antonio Maceo, on top of his horse and surrounded by 23 raised machetes. These refer to the first revolution in Cuba which saw Cuban land owners offer freedom to slaves in the sugar cane fields if they fought with them against the Spanish for political freedom for all Cubans. Technically it was a war of independence between 1895-98 and was the last of 3 such wars.The final three months of the conflict escalated to become the Spanish–American War, with United States forces being deployed in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands against Spain. Incidentally for anyone who likes to drink rum, the ancestors of the Bacardi company were very active during this struggle with one of them Emilio Bacardi being imprisoned by the Spanish before being released. The family came from Barcelona originally but became supporters of Cuban independence.
Revolution Square also honours the later Cuban revolution which leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara began in 1953 and overthrew the Batista government in 1959, replacing that government with a revolutionary socialist state.
Santiago De Cuba also has one of the oldest cathedrals in Latin and Central America built in 1526. Directly opposite the cathedral is the government building with the balcony on which Fidel Castro made his first speech after the rebel forces took power in Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago De Cuba is Castro’s own part of Cuba and fittingly he is buried in a national graveyard among other ‘heroes’ of Cuba. The biggest and most ostentatious tomb however is that of José Marti and Emilio Bacardi and other heroes of the independence struggle against the Spanish. There is a 24 hour guard and a ceremonial ‘changing of the guard’ at intervals throughout the day. In 30 degree heat it was very impressive. Less ostentatious by comparison is the tomb of Fidel Castro himself which tourists are allowed to file by in an orderly line. It is a simple large rock boulder from the mountain area where he came from and where he fought the initial stages of the Cuban revolution. It reads simply ‘ Fidel’ .
Close to the grave of Fidel is a monument to Cubans who fell during the war to liberate Angola in Africa. When Nelson Mandela visited Cuba in 1991 he said….
“We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”
Not just armed forces but doctors , nurses, teachers, and construction workers went to Africa, while almost 30,000 Africans studied in Cuba on full scholarships funded by the Cuban government. There is an excellent blog on this period of history by Piero Gleijeses
That Cuban link with Africa persists today with health professionals assisting with medical training in hospitals in Kenya.
All in all the excursion made up for the disappointment of missing Havana.It was really interesting and we rounded the day off having a Mojito on the roof of the hotel overlooking the cathedral square before boarding the bus back to our own hotel.
Please note: the last blog in this series had an error in the spelling of Holguin, the name of the area of Cuba where I have written about. The predictive spelling feature seemed to go to ‘Holquin’ by default. My apologies.