A fascinating window on one of the last bastions of communism - to be enjoyed with a touch of luxury
"The most beautiful country human eyes have ever seen” is how Christopher Columbus described Holguin Province when he first made landfall in Cuba back in 1492.
It’s only recently that Holguin has been developed for tourism and it was as we left Holguin Airport that I realised that Cuba was one of the most curious places I had ever visited. Cocooned within the air conditioned comfort of our modern Chinese built coach, the slow journey to the protective bubble of our all inclusive resort mattered little as the real Cuba unfolded outside.
Fifty years of communism and the US trade embargo have forced a ‘make do and mend’ ethic on the Cubans that keeps all kinds of vehicle running way beyond their natural expiry date. On the road our coach jockeyed for position with 60 year old American gas guzzlers (Yank Tanks) and Soviet era Ladas and Moskvitches, cycling schoolchildren dodged aged Cossack motorcycle combos, and pony traps overtook ox carts laden with the produce of small holdings.
We passed fields of almond trees, sugar cane, mangoes and hump-backed zebu cattle. Farmers tilled the fields behind ox ploughs, while small bristly pigs rooted in roadside ditches. Overhead turkey vultures gracefully rode the thermals, but on the ground turkeys stopped the traffic by wandering into its path. Occasionally, a yellow uniformed ‘Amarillo’ was to be seen, stuffing as many people as would fit into the aged Russian truck he'd flagged down, it’s the cheapest way for Cubans to get around the island.
Guard the cow
Legend has it that then name Guardalavaca comes from the cry of “Guard the cow” uttered during pirate attacks. Whether true or not, we found no pirates or cattle, on arrival at the Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort and Spa. The resort is situated within the mangroves of the Bahia de Naranjo National Park and instead of a cutlass we were greeted with a glass of Spanish fizz which went down a treat after our marathon journey from the UK.
The Paradisus Rio de Oro’s landscaped grounds extend from the reception and restaurant block down to a private beach. Here where the dazzling white sands slope gently into the azure waters of the Caribbean all the non-motorised water sports are included in the holiday deal for those with energy to spare. Otherwise cabanas and sun loungers beckoned on the beach and around the pool area for a mojito (just flag down a passing waiter) and relaxing with a good book.
Like most Caribbean all-inclusive resorts the Paradisus Rio de Oro has a buffet dining room with plenty of choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For something a little more special there are four a’ la carte restaurants for the all inclusive diner, offering Cuban, Japanese, Mediterranean and international cuisine. All are of a very high standard as I soon discovered, feasting on freshly griddled lobster and steak every night.
Nightlife centred on the bar. Cocktails were enthusiastically shaken with varying degrees of success, and entertainment varied from opera to karaoke. Some of it, like the acrobatics performed to Rob Zombie’s heavy metal beat, was quite unique. Further entertainment was provided by hefty land crabs scuttling over the dancefloor. Speaking of local wildlife the grounds teamed with exotic butterflies, birds and lizards.
Out and about
The easiest way to get out and see things is by a tourist excursion. Although we booked through out tour operator, all excursions are operated by the government tourist agency with controlled prices.
Our first trip took us to the regional capital Holguin (CUC 49, including lunch) The trip included a ride on a former sugar plantation railway, a visit to a cigar factory and a hour free time in Holguin. Sadly the regular steam locomotive was undergoing maintenance, so an ancient diesel hauled us to our pick up. Cuba’s sugar industry collapsed in the eighties when former Soviet Block markets melted away, but demand for Cuban cigars is still healthy and it was amazing how easy hand-rolling was made to look by the factory workers..
Santaigo de Cuba (CUC 60, including lunch overlooking the harbour) is the island's second largest city and the birth place of the Cuba’s revolution. On July 26 1953 Fidel Castro led an attack on the Moncada Barracks and Moncada’s bullet pocked walls were one of the highlights of our trip, alongside, Revolution Square and the changing of the guard at the monument to the poet and revolutionary philosopher Jose Marti at the Cememterio Santa Ifigenia. There was even enough for time to enjoy a mojito in the faded glory of Santiago’s Hotel Casa Granda.
We booked our trip through Thomson Holidays and opted for a junior deluxe suite (around £1400 for a week including flights). Sleeping up to four people the suite has a flat screen TV and daily restocked mini-bar. The bathroom opens onto a secluded courtyard complete with an open-air shower.