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Posted August 21, 2005 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By Leyla Boulton | Financial Times

The parallels with the former Soviet Union - where Ralph and I had worked in the 1980s - hit us as soon as we touched down in Havana. It was eerily reminiscent of Moscow’s Sheremetievo airport: an oppressive low ceiling hung over us as we waited in a cigarette smoke-filled queue for over an hour before scowling border guards in khaki uniform let us into the country. “They didn’t tell us about this in the brochure,” complained the muscular man in the Arsenal shirt behind us.

On the bus into town, our guide advised that being flexible would help us to enjoy Cuba. Indeed, after a hellish night, the next morning was like waking up in paradise. Leaving the crumbling Inglaterra Hotel, with decaying 1950s American bathroom fixtures providing clear evidence of the effect of US economic sanctions, we walked underneath a sprawling iron sculpture of a giant spider.

A stroll along Calle Obispo to the Plaza d’Armas took us through the lovingly restored heart of old Havana, in resplendent sunshine, with birdsong and music streaming out of intriguing little courtyards.

Lunch was a taxi ride away to La Guerida - one of the private restaurants that are a sign of modest economic reforms that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We got there after a bizarre hike up the stairwell of a crumbling apartment block. “You looking for the restaurant?” asked the matron scrubbing the floor. “Next floor up.” The price was bizarre too: $84 for four, featuring such triumphs as aubergine caviar and raw tuna alongside undrinkable fruit juice.

Much of old Havana is falling apart because tenants given flats after Fidel Castro’s revolution cannot afford to pay for repairs. For coffee after avisit to the state-of-the-art Fine Arts Museum, we repair across the street to the wood-panelled Cafe Bacardi, hidden away in the striking Bacardi Building - still named after the family that is suing the Cuban government, claiming confiscation of their rum production and Havana Club brand.

At the charmingly rickety Partagas cigar factory, we discover that world-famous Cuban cigars such as Romeo y Julieta and Monte Cristo were named after the literary classics read to employees in the 19th century by supervisors. The raised platform they sat on still stands in the middle of the cigar assembly room. On the day we were there, shouting erupted as the supervisor announced that the lunch hour would be shortened because of recurring problems with the kitchen equipment. Before leaving, we pick up cigars as gifts for friends back home.

Elsewhere however, it is CheGuevara, the late revolutionary and mascot of Castro’s regime, who is sold hardest. While Castro eschews the Gadaffi in-your-face school of publicity, his former comrade is on display on posters, T-shirts, mugs, beach towels, books, hats and postcards.

“Faithful to our principles,” declare street posters, even though the humped “camel” buses cobbled together from truck and bus parts bear witness to the hardship that followed the disappearance of cheap Soviet oil supplies and guaranteed markets for Cuban sugar. In the southern city of Cienfuegos, the next leg of our trip, we saw youths snatch a video camera from a French tourist - not far from a billboard with a message from Fidel: “Cuba si: a tourism of peace, health and security”.

Next morning it is the children’s turn to wake up in paradise. A 20-minute taxi drive through the mango groves outside the city, we meet Iris, the dolphin-trainer, and her proteges, Triton and Luna. The dolphinarium had been mentioned only in a Thomas Cook brochure we read before opting for a tailor-made holiday with an Islington travel agent, who, perhaps for fear of the animal cruelty lobby, had been unable to book the dolphin show from London.

After Max is pulled along in a motorless motorboat, Alexandra swims with the dolphins in a one-to-one session. The truly unforgettable moment comes as Iris tells Alexandra to lie on her tummy in the water and “wait” for the two dolphins. Appearing as if from nowhere, Triton and Luna lift her up on their noses and carry her aloft for 200 metres before gently depositing her back into the water.

In Trinidad, we see fine colonialmansions preserved as museums and young boys playing baseball in bare feet. Our sightseeing over, we arriveat the Sol Cayo Coco hotel for a week at the beach. This joint venture, operated by Spain’s Melia group, has allthe features of an all-inclusive resort including a jolly “animation team” offering everything from salsa lessons to aqua aerobics.

But there is one difference: the central northern islands, or cayos, on which luxury hotels are located are cut off from the rest of Cuba by guards at a tollbooth whose main purpose is to turn away ordinary Cubans lest they hustle tourists and see too much of a lifestyle they can only dream of. Our driver’s lady friend was forced to get out of our minivan before we could drive on.

As in Libya, evening entertainment was provided by nightly television appearances from the country’s leader, although western friends assured us that this was not normal practice in Cuba. Our stay coincided with the anniversary of the failed US invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The 78-year-oldCastro was also incensed by the application for political asylum in the US by Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile who blew up an airline carrying the Cuban fencing team in a terror attack against his regime. Terror was terror, said the ageing revolutionary, and the US, which detains terror suspects at the base it has leased at Guantnamo Bay from Cuba since independence from Spain in 1902, should treat Carriles no differently.

Next year, after running out of socialist outposts, I think we might spend Easter swimming with humpback whales in Tonga - unless North Korea opens up, of course.

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