Away from Cuba's beach resorts, there are some fascinating destinations linked to the country's Communist revolution which give an insight into the island's remarkable history
Cuba’s 50 years of Communism against a backdrop of palm trees and sunshine has made it a favourite for politicos and history buffs alike.
In the 1950s, a handful of guerrillas led by Fidel Castro mounted a campaign to depose the corrupt, US-backed, government of Fulgencio Batista and took control of the Caribbean island.
Many of the revolution’s landmarks remain among Cuba’s top tourist destinations. Visiting gives an insight into the passions and solidarity which have sustained the Cubans over the last five decades.
Travelling around independently is do-able if you have the time, patience and resolve to cope with the vagaries of public transport. However we joined the Adventure Company’s (www.adventurecompany.co.uk) excellent two-week Salsa Cubana tour along the island.
Some of the sights – Santa Clara and the Bay of Pigs - can be done as day trips from the resorts around Varadero.
The best starting point for your introduction to Cuban history is Havana’s Museo de la ‘La Revolucíon, which occupies the grand former presidential palace on Refugio No1.
It documents the uprising with newspaper cuttings, artefacts, weapons and clothing - with everything from Fidel Castro’s trousers to a fridge-sized radio transmitter. Outside, a display of vehicles includes warplanes, peasants’ armoured farm trucks and the yacht, Granma, which Castro, Che Guevara and 80 rebels used to reach Cuba from exile in Mexico in 1956.
Staying at the ornate Armadores de Santander Hotel overlooking the dockside of Old Havana, the legacy of the revolution is apparent – the American trade embargo means the giant port is eerily quiet.
Five decades of blockade has left Cuba as a virtual time capsule. It’s most obviously shown by the colourful vintage America Fords, Chevrolets, and Soviet era Ladas – all somehow kept moving despite a lack of spare parts. They cruise along the long Havana waterfront sounding like Wellington bombers ready for take off.
Other not-to-be-missed sights for revolution-watchers in Havana include the Plaza de la Revolucíon, the vast square which has echoed many of Fidel Castro’s famous speeches of epic length.
And there’s the Hotel Habana Libre which was requisitioned by Castro’s victorious soldiers. And back in Vieja Habana, the relaxed Plaza de Armas is like an outdoor library - the best place to pick up political biographies, textbooks, collated speeches and postcards of your favourite communist thinkers.
The Bay of Pigs
Three hours from Havana is the Bay of Pigs – where an American-backed attempt by Cuban landowning exiles to overthrow the revolution in 1961 ended in failure in the swamps of the Caribbean coast. Small memorials along the roadside bear testament to the fighting when they came ashore.
The museum at Playa Girón where the landing took place details the movements of both sides plotted out on wall maps. The trophies of war – shot down exile planes - are displayed in the museum grounds.
Che Guevara’s image is as iconic Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley’s. The revolutionary hero adorns countless student bedsits around the world - and just about any free surface area in Cuba. Santa Clara in Villa Clara province, five hours' train ride from Havana, is the adopted home of the Argentinean-born medic-turned freedom fighter.
He was killed in Bolivia in 1967 but his remains were returned here in 1997 and a giant statue now stands above his museum and mausoleum. While the eternal flame could be seen, the museum was unexpectedly and disappointingly closed for ‘refurbishment’ when we arrived.
Santa Clara’s square still shows signs of the fighting during the revolution – look out for the bullet holes which still scar the top of a hotel.
The town saw the turning point of the uprising in 1958 when 18 rebels, led by Che Guevara, de-railed a train with 350 of Batista’s soldiers on board. The train carriages still stand scattered alongside the existing railway line. On display are captured weapons and the bulldozer and crowbar used to re-route the railway. The episode derailed the regime of Batista, cutting the main communication line through the country. He fled the country at the end of the year.
The heartland of the revolution was the Sierra Maestra mountains. This stunning national park stretches along the south eastern coast of the island.
The basic cabin accommodation of Hotel Villa Santa Domingo is the best base for an early morning walk into the Parque Natacionale. The night before, the house musicians will serenade you with romantic ballads and wistful campfire songs of revolution – with a rattling ass’ jaw bone as a rather unique percussion accompaniment.
A four-wheel drive is the only effective means of getting up the 40 degree slopes to the national park car park. Once there, a 3km trek along the rough mountain paths takes you to Fidel Castro’s mountain headquarters - Comandancia la Plata. Within the towering forest-clad mountains, it proved impenetrable for the Batista forces and was the perfect hideaway for the for 300 rebel soldiers to spread out to the rest of the island.
Alongside a cookhouse, carpenters, hospital and radio station, the centrepiece is Castro’s house. There’s not much more than a bed given by a local farmer and a fridge complete with bullet hole. The trap door underneath was ready for any enforced getaways.
The canopy of the cloud forest provided protection from spotter aircraft and also makes for a shady walk where you can also enjoy some Cuba’s amazing natural biodiversity out the heat of the Caribbean sunshine.
Santiago de Cuba
After the fresh mountain air, Santiago de Cuba, has a hot, big-city feel to it. It was here in Cuba’s second city that Castro proclaimed the revolution’s success in 1959. Six years earlier he had led an ill-fated raid on the Monaca Barracks in the centre of the city.
The yellow building with ‘replaced’ bullet holes around the entrance is now a school and a museum. The sparse interrogation chambers show gruesome images of the torture meted out to the captured rebels. Despite wearing army uniforms, they had given themselves away by wearing everyday footwear.
Castro went on to deliver his ‘history will absolve me’ speech at his trial – which added to the momentum towards revolution.
The Hotel Las Americas is a convenient base for the city's sights, with the hotel buffet a pretty good alternative to even the tourist restaurants.
A place apart
Whatever your political views, travelling around Cuba is certainly eye-opening - not least seeing the country's achievements in health and education. It’s certainly a place apart in the Caribbean - it may well change in years to come, which makes it all the more fascinating to see the pieces making up Cuba’s unique living history.