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Posted October 19, 2009 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By Mark Harvey | Canwest

A family road trip can be stressful. But a driving holiday in Cuba? That could be a recipe for family breakup. It starts as a compromise between the women of the family who want a sunny break from an Edmonton winter, and my desire to see one of the most intriguing countries in the Western Hemisphere before it changes forever.

We decide to split our two weeks in half: a week in all-inclusive resorts and a week in private B&Bs (called casas particulares in Cuba).

Evora Rodriguez’s casa occupies the top floor of a nine-story building on the edge of historic Old Havana. Before the revolution, this was a prestigious address, with its panoramic view of the harbor entrance and Morro, the old fort that guards it. Today, the building fares better than its neighbors, which are crumbling under assault from the sea and a half-century of neglect. Still, hundreds of buildings are being rebuilt as tourist money pours into this World Heritage Site.

Before leaving home, we’ve contacted private tour guides. It’s a great way to help us understand this city of two million people. Those old, smoke-belching American cars? They’re an essential part of Cuba’s stumbling transportation system. The women on street corners? Like everyone else, they’re waiting for a ride. A hundred shouting men in front of the Capitolio building? Just arguing baseball. One guide is a university language teacher, the other an electrical engineer. Their monthly salaries are less than some Cuban waiters can make on a Saturday night.

We’ve been warned about Soviet-style service, but this is changing in Cuba. Never have I seen a slightly stained tablecloth laid out with such formality and ceremony, and never has a wobbly table been leveled as carefully as the one at Cafeteria Prado 12. Never mind we describe the food as “diesel-fried pork”: the music is stirring and the mojitos potent.

Our car rental begins badly, when a stony-faced clerk tells me we can’t drop off the car at our resort, as we’d been told. The nearest office is in a town 50 kilometers from the resort. Then, 15 minutes after leaving Havana, we’re lost, having foolishly assumed a national highway would have a sign marking the on-ramp. A helpful police officer (there’s one on every corner) leads us 10 kilometers back and onto the Autopista.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant this ambitious freeway was never finished. Its six lanes of blacktop are unblemished by lines, and I drive well below the 100 km/h speed limit, dodging holes, livestock, bicycles and vendors waving five-foot strings of onions. I’m not even flabbergasted when, without warning, oncoming traffic appears on our side of the divided highway because the other side is being tarred.

Cuba’s other main highway, the Carretera Central, is a two-lane road built in the 1930s.

After 300 kilometers, my grip on the wheel loosens and I relax, until it dawns on me that, once again, we are lost.

We ask a man by the roadside for directions. Not only does he know the way to the town of Trinidad, he lives there. And since we can legally carry one more passenger, we feel obliged to take him. A nice man, he occasionally reaches over to give the horn a friendly toot when I’m not honking enough. (In Cuba, honking is expected whenever you’re passing cars, slow-moving motorbikes or horse carts.)

We come down from the Sierra del Escambray toward the ocean. After we decline his inevitable offers, we part somewhat coolly, and plunge into the extremely narrow, ancient cobble-stoned streets of Trinidad and conclude that, for the third time today, we’re lost. But luck is shining on us.

We’re only one street from our destination, the 200-year-old home of Julio and Rosa Munoz. The colonial walled house is large and airy. Julio is a photographer and speaks English. His is one of the best private homes in the town.

With more than 300 casas particulares in Trinidad and only a handful of hotels, it’s virtually impossible not to mix with Cubans. Lonely Planet calls it “Varadero in reverse.” It’s easy to see why Trinidad is one of the country’s biggest tourist destinations with its “living museum” feel and its beautiful setting between the mountains and the Caribbean. Trinidad also probably has the country’s highest concentration of hustlers – after Old Havana – although they do take “no” for an answer.

The drive north takes us through small, dusty villages and past plantations and organic farms. We reflect on how, after Communism, hurricanes, and the U.S. embargo, the Cubans remain so friendly and courteous. I almost cease to be shocked when people wave at us.

The dreaded problem of how to get to our hotel after dropping off the car turns out to be no problem at all, when the cheery clerk happily agrees, for a generous tip, to lock up the shop and drive us the 50 kilometers.

Cayo Santa Maria is a small island at the end of a 48-kilometer causeway poking into the turquoise Atlantic Ocean. The causeway took almost 10 years to complete, and since it was finished in the late ’90s, the building of resorts has not stopped.

The five-star Melia las Dunas is one of the newest, and is immensely popular with people from Quebec and Ontario, who wander the grounds and spectacular beaches, sipping from Timmy’s mugs and Bubba Kegs.

The Cuban government is churning out thousands of eager-to-please workers trained to serve vacationers from another world. Just don’t expect the food to be a world apart: I politely finish half an elegantly presented soup that tastes like warm barbecue sauce. Still, we find ourselves oddly satisfied when strange concoctions are served with such formality and courtesy.

Four days into our stay at las Dunas, all the girls can talk about is getting back to Havana. Despite the crumbling buildings, the smells and the noise, they’ve fallen in love with the charming people of this living historical and political museum.

It’s unlikely to stay unchanged for long. Half the passengers on the Air Canada flight to Havana were Americans, undoubtedly getting a jump on their new government’s pledge to loosen the embargo sooner rather than later.

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