I sit on a bench in a tiny park, and the colour, music and exuberance of old Havana engulf me.
An intoxicating blend of Spanish guitars and African drumbeats drifts from a nearby bar, where an elderly couple is performing an afternoon salsa. Workmen repairing a stone fountain add strange syncopated rhythms with their chisels. In the shade of a tree, an old man chats to his caged birds, a smouldering cigar dangling from his lips.
Three barefoot boys in tattered shorts kick a dented can over the cobbles, splashing through puddles from last night’s rain. A scrawny street-sweeper hobbles by, licking her ice cream. Bare-chested men exchange jokes as they push barrows of rubble. A grizzled, toothless man approaches me and holds out his hand. I give him a few tiny coins.
An intoxicating blend of Spanish guitars and African drumbeats drifts from a nearby bar, where an elderly couple is performing an afternoon salsa.
As I look up, a woman leans from an ornate, rusty balcony to hang out washing, and waves down at me. Beneath her, the peeling stucco façade of the once-grand house is criss-crossed with wooden scaffolding. The old town contains incredible architecture, with colonial buildings from the 16th century onwards - many crumbling and decrepit, but others newly rescued and restored, partly as a result of UNESCO World Heritage funds. Open portals lead to vibrant art galleries and cool, leafy courtyards.
On a corner, the house where Simón Bolívar once lived now contains exhibits illustrating his life - amusing ceramic vignettes depict him being born, being breast-fed, and later having sex in a hammock, as well as liberating Latin America from colonial hegemony.
Bolívar died aged 47, disillusioned at his failure to form a unified Latin American republic - but today ‘El Libertador’ is revered as a saint. Britons have nobody like Bolívar to look up to. *Cubans are lucky, with several giants to worship - not light-weight media celebrities, but principled, visionary reformers.
Fidel Castro is one of them. There are few photographs of him, and no statues, but for most Cubans, Castro is a living legend who has maintained his communist ideals despite the collapse of communism elsewhere, and despite crippling sanctions and embargoes from the ‘enemy’ to the north. The Cubans I speak to all share El Presidente’s patriotism and his distrust of democracy, and are intensely proud of Cuba’s egalitarianism, education and health care. Nobody mentions civil liberties, human rights or freedom of expression.
I wander on through a series of beautiful 16th-century squares, cordoned from traffic with huge cannonballs. In the exquisite Plaza Vieja, a group of tiny children appear with two teachers, and start their PE lesson - the boys in a circle, doing press-ups and star-jumps, the girls running in and out of the bollards. At a flower stall, a yellow motor-scooter coco-taxi judders to a halt, and an elderly passenger clambers from under the coconut-shaped canopy to buy gladioli and fragrant white mariposa (butterfly) flowers.
Habaneros play music, laugh and dance at every opportunity, but times are hard. The average wage is £7 a month - food is scarce, and housing is in crisis. The Cubans I speak to hope that tourism and foreign investment will help to alleviate poverty, but admit that the tourist peso, worth twenty times the local peso, is itself creating class divisions between those with access to it, and those without.
Despite this, Cubans remain as enthralled as ever by their most famous hero. I remember my own Che Guevara poster, pinned to my bedroom wall 35 years ago, but nothing prepares me for El Commandante’s iconic importance in Cuba. Che was an Argentinian doctor, who spent only 6 years here, but his face and his slogans appear on hundreds of Havana billboards.
I stop for a mojito in a café where ten exuberant musicians are performing on guitar, 6-stringed tres, double bass, flute, bongos, and maracas. The musicians are all men - machismo rules here - but their skins are of every shade from black to white, and they are all smiling. Their music is fantastic - long sets with false endings, rap sections, solo instrumental interludes - and the sense of fun is infectious.
Havana’s Museum of the Revolution includes a life-size diorama of Che Guevara in battle, and displays his Kalashnikov and his famous beret. Images of Che, alive and dead, are accompanied by precious relics - a lock of hair, wisps of his beard, and remnants of the socks and jersey he was wearing when he was killed. The links with religious iconography are startling. Outside, like a shrine, stands a replica of the boat which brought Che, Castro and 81 other rebels to Cuba in 1956.
Later, I visit Che’s impressive, but deserted, mausoleum in Santa Clara. Beneath a vast bronze statue is a gallery of photographs and memorabilia, including his white doctor‘s coat, and another beret. In the crypt, Che’s body, retrieved from Bolivia in 1997, is interred with the remains of other rebels. Fresh flowers adorn every grave, and an eternal flame, lit by Castro, burns in an eerie grotto.
Che is a folk hero, but every Cuban I speak to mentions another, even greater national totem, a man whose name I barely knew. José Martí’s memorial, the tallest building in Cuba, dominates Havana’s Revolution Square. His statue, with moustache and thick swirling hair, appears in every Cuban town. Like Bolívar, he was a visionary, passionately determined to free Latin America from foreign colonialism. Like Che, he fought for Cuban independence, but spent little of his life in Cuba.
José Martí, everyone I speak to agrees, is Cuba’s true hero. He devoted his life, by peaceful means, to the cause of Cuban independence, writing essays and articles in New York, Mexico and Spain. Suddenly, I notice his face and his name everywhere.
I leave Havana after dark. A hot wind is blowing, and the dimly lit town seems impossibly exotic and romantic. The silhouette of the 16th-century Castilla de San Salvador de la Punta looms mysteriously. Waves splash against the Malecón seawall, where couples sit kissing and cuddling.
Decrepit Dodges and Cadillacs lurch up La Rampa, past coco-taxis, motorbikes with sidecars, and wobbly rickshaws. From the inky expanses of Revolution Square, the vast outline of Che Guevara’s handsome face watches over the floodlit marble statue of José Martí.
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Real Latin America Experts
Kathryn Rhodes - Travel Consultant
Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.
Chris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Consultant
Anglo-Peruvian Chris grew up in Lima and spent much of his adult life in between London and Cusco as a tour leader, before settling permanently in our Sales team.
Sophie Barber - Travel Consultant
Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia.
Hannah Donaldson - Travel Consultant
Having spent part of her childhood in Colombia and worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, Hannah's ties to Latin America run deep. Hannah is an invaluable part of our Group Tours team.
Jim Ashworth - Travel Consultant
Jim first caught the Latin American travel bug in 2001 when he decided at the last minute to join a friend travelling around Central America – he hasn't looked back since.
Evie Oswald - Travel Consultant
It’s hard to believe that Evie has had time to cram so much in to her life so far. Having lived as a child in the Americas and Europe she found herself immediately attracted to Latin America.