A to Z of Adventure Travel: H is for Havana

6 03 2009

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Many people think of Cuba as nothing more than a land of beaches, all-you-can-eat buffets and swim-up bars…however, Cuba is also one of the most interesting and rewarding destinations in the Americas and Havana one of the greatest cities in the world.

 

Established more than 400 years ago by King Philip II of Spain and officially dubbed the “Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies,” Havana is every bit as important today culturally as it was then politically. Whether spending just a day as part of a beach holiday or longer while exploring the entire country, the Cuban capital is guaranteed to captivate and ensure that you wish you’d devoted more time. Havana is a city of diverse ideologies and eras.

 

The colonial core is grand and ornate with fortresses, cathedrals, parks and balconied buildings often tantalising with faded glory. Along the Malecón seawall, glorious old houses face the ocean across a wide avenue buzzing with couples on evening strolls, teenagers diving dangerously into the heaving surf or fishermen hauling in their catches. The houses are a patchwork of restoration and dilapidation as the government use tourist money to attempt to return them to their former beauty. While some hearken pristinely to the days of gas lamps and ball gowns, their neighbours are open to the elements and laundry can be spied hanging from bare ceiling beams beneath hurricane-damaged roofs.

 

In the Plaza de la Revolucion, the iconic outline of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara stares down from the Ministry of the Interior building onto the famous square in which millions of Cubans have gathered to hear the speeches of Fidel Castro or to greet the nation’s heroes. The image is one of the most recognisable in the world and one of the most photographed spots in the country, but visitors are warned not to cross the road for a closer look as the Ministry guards outside the antenna-bristling edifice are reputedly fond of shooting first and stamping postcards afterwards!havana-4mw1

 

For those with a literary interest, there’s El Floridita: a cozy bar which was amongst Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts. Propping up the bar in the corner is a life-size statue of the scribe so real that you can imagine tourists who’ve indulged in too many of the establishment’s legendary daiquiris spending hours in one-way conversations with Papa.

 

Although Hemingway may be long gone, Havana’s traffic has changed little since he was its most famous resident even if the city’s famously photogenic cars are more likely to be powered by Lada engines than the original power-plants that rolled off the production lines of Detroit 50 years ago.

 

For all the tourist attractions in Havana however, perhaps the most attractive and addictive pastime for a traveller is to simply wander away from the hubbub of tour groups and motor-coaches and explore the city’s narrow side streets. Grab a bite to eat in a small café or from a street vendor, sit and people watch, or drink in the varied architecture, mismatched colours and historic freezes. Stroll through the markets either for souvenirs or memories or relax in one of the parks and enjoy the weather.

 

Eventually, the Havana of today will disappear and a living time capsule will be lost. The spray-painted revolutionary slogans and party graffiti will likely disappear. Neglected buildings will either fall down, or be restored to opulent splendour. The antique cars will be replaced with new imports and the quirky stores will be replaced by international outlets.  This may not happen this year or this decade, but Havana needs to be visited today while its character remains as strong as its culture and its history as alive as the Malecón on a Saturday night.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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Missed It By That Much…

4 09 2008

Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for 13 years – from Table Mountain, Cape Town.

They say that timing is everything, which is probably why I have trouble keeping a beat and generally fall over when dancing…and why I missed seeing Nelson Mandela in person by just a single day.

 

I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda to find South African flags hanging from the lights, workers busily sweeping the streets, and posters and banners welcoming the legendary South African president to Uganda. Sadly, his arrival was just one day after I was due to be driving west for an appointment in Zaire with a family of mountain gorillas. Alas, my trekking permit was already set and there was no way for me to hang around long enough to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

 

Nelson Mandela’s name had been well known to me for as long as I could remember, although for much of my life the only photos I had seen of him had been small, grainy, old black & white pictures taken before his imprisonment. It was only when I watched live on television as he walked free from Victor Verster Prison in 1990 that he sprang from the newspapers and became a real flesh & blood person. As he progressed from being an almost mythical figurehead for the anti-Apartheid movement to a remarkable and articulate leader renowned not only for his efforts to end injustice and restore the most basic of rights but also for his compassion, forgiveness and desire for reconciliation, so he progressed for me into a genuine hero – a mantle he has maintained ever since.

 

I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa while he was still president. Although I unfortunately did not see him during my stay, I feel privileged to have been in his country at such an important time in its history. Likewise, I am still very grateful that I visited Russia shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at a time when the country was still trying to find its feet and its new identity. And that I travelled through Malawi just weeks after its first ever democratic election when everyone was still celebrating their global suffrage.

 

Equally, I shall always be glad that I visited Cuba when Fidel Castro was still president. I will never forget flicking on the television one evening to find live coverage of one of Castro’s legendary speeches. Although I couldn’t speak Spanish, I watched it for a few minutes before changing the channel to find something else…and failing, as he was on every channel. Several hours later, I tried again, but he was still on and still going strong.

 

Every country has a leader, but the names and deeds of only a relative few survive the test of time and carve their places in history. Although my travels don’t revolve around revolutions or stake out state visits, I do pay attention to current events when travelling and take an interest in the political and social situations wherever I go. It not only allows those that I meet to know that I have a genuine interest in their country but it also adds an extra dimension to my own experiences.

 

Although I will always regret missing Mandela by a day – and missing the homecoming of the King of Buganda a few days later in the western Ugandan city of Fort Portal! – I do seek comfort in the knowledge that I did at least miss Chris de Burgh’s visit to Swakopmund, Namibia!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan