Blog Archives: Cuba and the Caribbean


Steppes Beyond | Cuba

Despite a bubbling undercurrent waiting to burst, Cuba remains in a socialist timewarp which cannot last much longer. If you want to see a country locked in the last vestiges of socialism now is the time to go.

Below is a copy of my presentation on Cuba at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Discover this complex destination, get in touch with us now to start your adventure.

Havana – Devoid of Cuban Cliches

Havana was a shock. Coming from a tranquil Cotswold village it was doubly so. I was rudely awakened by a loud noise that in my jet-lagged stupor I feared to be the rumbling of revolutionary tanks once again rolling into the city. The reality was more prosaic – the noise was the thunderous roar of antiquated buses ferrying commuters to work. It was the first of many shocks but thankfully the others were less startling.

In spite of my rude awakening I loved Havana. It beguiles and intrigues like no other city, even if it is one of the most difficult places to explore without bumping into a cliché or tourist, my second shock of the morning. Whilst traipsing around the old town, I was surprised by the number of groups of tourists.

Yet it is easy to see why the tourists come – Havana has one of the coolest, most easily identifiable images of any travel destination: the iconic 1950s cars, the revolutionary bombast of its billboards and the ramshackle charm of the old town. Havana really does live up to its postcard image of rusting balustrades, crumbling colonial houses and exfoliating pastel buildings – Old Havana boasts more colonial buildings than any other city in the New World.

Usually groups of tourists are an anathema to me but Havana’s charms enthralled me to such an extent that I swallowed my traveller’s pride and even signed up to the mandatory stop at a cigar factory. In spite of the brusque and uninterested manner of our young Cuban guide and his American English (a betrayal that revealed that he would rather be somewhere else), I was rather impressed by the tour. Not so much for the disinterested commentary or the building – although I loved the old worn wooden stairs and banisters and the faded hand written signs showing one the way out in an emergency – but in discovering more about the cigar-making process, in particular how they are rolled. I was transported from selection of the tobacco leaves to rolling (the most skilled process in which the 260 workers had to roll 110 cigars a day) to the boxing of the cigars.

Rolling was the most interesting of the processes, the deftness and skill were impressive. Alas they were not rolled on the thighs of a Cuban mulatta but despite this loss of flavour, it was aesthetically pleasing to watch. There was a tactile and sensual pleasure to the process that led to desire. Such craving along with the ubiquitous posters and postcards of Che Guevara puffing on a huge Havana are a seductive combination. So much so that it is easy to see how even tea-total, non-smoking right-wing tourists leave clutching a bottle of Havana Club, a pack of Monte Cohibas and a Che T-shirt.

The other places I enjoyed visiting were the paladares, the uniquely Cuban, privately owned restaurants set up in the homes of ordinary families. The fact that these private enterprises are allowed to exist are symptomatic of the schizoid mix of Cuba. They are allowed yet Fidel has on numerous occasions railed against the riches they have brought for a select few. However given that the likes of Sting and Queen Sophia of Spain have eaten in them they have become a feature of Havana and too famous to close. I revelled in the quirky charm and atmosphere of La Guarida in particular. It was not just the excitement of eating forbidden fruit.

It was certainly a more pleasurable experience than the Tropicana Show. A show of elaborately colourful headdresses, gawdy costumes, booming sound, it was visual and extravagant and appealed to the lowest common denominator of the blue rinse brigade. If you are into bare buttocks then you will be in for a Brucey bonus.

Thankfully the bright glare of tackiness was dulled by the half bottle of rum included in the exorbitant ticket price. Yet despite such pain relief I couldn’t help but feel a little sad and deflated by the show. Saddened by the type of tourist that we are exporting to Cuba, embarrassed by the thought that the Cubans think we enjoy this desperate throwback to the whirl of Cuba in its hedonistic heyday and deflated because Havana is bursting with culture.

Despite its relative isolation over the past 50 years, Havana punches way above its weight in all the arts and, is one of the most important cultural centres in Latin America. If the country’s art scene is hot, its music world has been ablaze for years; there are dozens of shows of every type of music on every night in Havana. As a tourist, however, it can be hard to escape the salsa bands playing in the bars of Old Havana and the national cultural institutions that dominate the state-published listings.

Castro has done much for the country. There is a pride to Cubans that they did not have before. They have self respect. Havana is safe. Girls wait at traffic lights to catch lifts – transport is difficult buses being, at best, infrequent – an innocence in stark contrast to other cities around the world.

But such benefits have come at a cost. That cost is stagnation and poverty that has been greatly exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, who accounted for 80% of Cuba’s trade. Radical change was needed: in 1992 the US$ was legalised and foreign investment encouraged to the extent that there are now some 900 joint ventures. But such foreign investment is limited and strictly controlled thus many have to rely on money remitted from Cuban nationals, friends and family, living abroad as their main source of income.

There is not abject poverty but rather a lack of choice. Not just in terms of freedom of speech but also in the goods that we take for granted on a daily basis – there are few supermarkets and even fewer items on their bare shelves.

The average salary is US$20 a month although this is for the whole country and the figure is low due to the meagre earnings in the countryside. In Havana it is difficult to survive on under US$100 per month. It might not sound like much – it is not too much – but it is worth remembering that Cubans do receive free education and housing and pay a nominal amount for rates. The only private ownership of cars is ones that were owned pre revolution; hence the amount of old cars. There is no housing market, there is a Cuban intranet but access to the internet is restricted, rations exist – five pounds of rice, five pounds of sugar and a couple of pounds of beans being the monthly allowance (It sounds like a skewed amount of sugar but it is hugely popular amongst Cubans and can’t be all bad as the average life expectancy is over seventy-five).

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, being about half the size of the UK, and I felt that I had to go beyond the city to look at the countryside, even if only for a day. I was struck by the emptiness. The sunbleached road was deserted apart from the occasional car and the very occasional cluster of people awaiting a lift. Such is the control that permeates throughout society that a yellow suited man or woman has to organise them and record who is going to where. Everything is controlled – taxis, which all belong to the government, have to record each fare they take.

If Havana lacked signs of the late twentieth century, the countryside was devoid of modernity. Bucolic scenes of horses and cowboy hats, oxen and carts, battered old trucks laden with sugar cane spoke of a bygone era. No machinery, no electricity pylons, nothing to betray the date.

Back in Havana I sat on the rooftop terrace of my hotel watching the sun set over the city. As I savoured the refreshing mintiness of a mojito – another Cuban cliché – I reflected that a mojito, mint coupled with sugar and rum, is a bittersweet metaphor of Cuba. Bitterness is in the control and the lack of choice the sweetness is in the culture, music and people. I had enjoyed the charms, the stereotypes, the quirks but for me the real pleasure came in understanding a little better a way of life that is so very alien to ours. And like my mojito I wanted more.

Grenada

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An unforgettable day started with a kayaking expedition in glass bottomed canoes to Grenada’s underwater sculpture park where it’s possible to snorkel over and kick down to an ethereal world where rings of life-size statues hold hands, recumbent figures are scattered around the seabed and a lone typist sits at his desk considering, perhaps, how to word letters of redundancy while mocked by colourful circling Angel Fish.

After a resoundingly undignified scramble back into the canoe, John-Paul, Joseph and I paddled back past chomped-out bays and under the cloud shrouded peaks of Grenada’s moody interior to a colourful “stuck-on” beach bar for a rejuvenating Ting. I then set off into said moody interior to meet the legendary guide, Telford Bedeau.

Telfor is 73, 74 in October. He greets me with a warm smile and makes sure that I’m wearing suitable footwear for the half hour hike through the Grand Etang Narional Park to the Seven Sisters Waterfall, while sporting himself a pair of frayed and “seen better days” jellies. I’m already in awe of this slight man who is well known and given nothing but respect by every islander I have met.

Telfor’s pal in the bar where we meet calls him back to give him a walking stick – in hind sight, I’m sure that this is just a ploy to make me more comfortable accepting the oversize hiking pole that Telfor insists that I walk with. It’s a highly satisfying walk through beautiful forest and across a river to a stunning waterfall. He tells me about the medicinal properties of plants, we eat ripe mangos, I learn a lot about the forest and we have the falls to ourselves. He is also the most sprightly agile and athletic 73 year old I have ever met. I try not to wheeze too loudly as I deliberately lag behind out of respect…..

However, we sit down at the falls and the astonishing world around us melts away as Telfor starts to tell me all about his history and story. His liest memories are of an island without airports where the sound of a low-flying aircraft sent the population into panic that Hitler was flying in. Telfor walks – he spent a year in the early sixties in London working on the railways and exploring London on foot until he came to the conclusion that he would much rather be hiking through the lush green landscapes of Grenada. After walking the length and breadth of the country he built a boat and rowed around the island on his 50th birthday. He did it again at 60.

I cannot begin to list here the insights he gave me to an island that he is so obviously deeply in love with and I really do not want to make a circus of his experiences but Telfor delights in sharing both his island and his life.

If you wish to peel back the fruit and get to the spicy heart of Grenada, this warm, gentle and understated man is an ideal companion. Book him now before he decides to row around the island again or take his village on one of his “charabang” treats to a local fete or jump up.

Old-School Caribbean

Have just stepped off a Liat flight from St Lucia via Barbados to Grenada. Other flights are delayed and so we hang around on the tarmac waiting for other passengers to arrive in a tin-can sauna in the midday sun. “Hey darlin’ put the cool air on” – the stewardess pushes the airplane door open a little further – “that too cool for you??” cabin collapses into laughter followed by general chit-chat now the ice has been broken.

I’ve been meaning to visit St Lucia for 15 years now and am delighted to confirm that the wait has not been in vain. The Pitons are hugely impressive, as expected, rainforest and bird life fascinating as anticipated, history, culture and villages all vibrant and engaging as detailed in any guidebook but what can prepare you for a people as welcoming, smart and witty as these islanders? I’ve been lucky because I meet a huge amount of people as part of my job but the Caribbean is a place where no introductions are necessary and every other person is more than willing to air a view and trade a joke.

Both St Lucia and Grenada are old-school Caribbean islands. Politeness and a keen sense of comedy and the absurd will make you a lot of friends.

I spent my last night in St Lucia with a hotel manager who has “lived” and, like most St Lucians, is not backwards in coming forward with his experiences and views. Almost missed my flight through late night discussions over Chairman’s rum discussions about life the world and everything but certainly worth the fuzzy headed dash to get to my tin can sauna.

Have just met up with old friends in Grenada and dined in a remote Atlantic coast lodge where the manager/chef just happens to have trained under the Roux brothers……only in the Caribbean.

By all means secrete yourself away in a fantastic Caribbean hideaway but if you want a little company, just step out your door and allow yourself to be engaged in some of the most colourful and imaginative conversations that you could ever wish for.

Rainforest hike with a 72 year old “living legend” blog to follow soon.

St Lucia – Honeymooners with ambition

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Little Johnnie no mates here, enjoying the spectacular hotel rooms that are really designed for athletic Honeymooners with ambition…..

Just a day and a half into a Caribbean trip to the phenomenally friendly and astonishingly beautiful Caribbean Windward island of St Lucia and I’m hooked – line, sinker and whatever other gear they are choosing to use to reel me in with.

Have so far spent my time in and around the charming southern town of Soufriere – colourful gingerbread houses, a colonial French Catholic Church, a lot of St Lucians Liming and chilled out dogs that refuse to get out of the way of traffic. All within a huge volcanic caldera that squeezes out its super-heated water and sulphurous gases in the “drive-in volcano” just outside of town, where you can slaver yourself in volcanic mud, if that is your wont.

Culture? In abundance. St Lucia changed hands 14 times between British and French colonial powers and while English is the official language, most St Lucians speak English, French and Creole (Kweyol?), a language that has no written heritage. Throw into the mix the African influence and post-slavery influx of indentured labourers from the Middle East and Asia and you have a society that is not necessarily multi-racial (“we’re all St Lucians now”) but fuses traditions, particularly when it comes to food………..which is extraordinary!

Anyway – I need to sign off before my muscles completely seize up. I chose to hike up the taller of the two Pitons today. My 21 year old guide leapt from rock to rock like an agile mountain goat while I lumbered behind. The Pitons, iconic landmarks that are synonymous with St Lucia, are hugely impressive volcanic mountains and are a Unesco Heritage site. The ascent of Gross Piton is challenging but can be made by anyone who is moderately fit; Petit Piton requires ropes, stamina and an unhealthy dose of gung-ho! I’ve concluded that the best way to appreciate the Pitons is from the comfort of a hotel with a view and my-o-my, Soufriere has some exceptional places to stay.

Forget the acquired wisdom of a room having 4 walls. A couple of hotels here provide 3 walls, a four poster bed, a private infinity pool and a Piton view to die for.

If I recover from post-Piton-pain, I will blog again.

Watch out for more of John’s blog or contact the team for expert advice on planning a holiday to St Lucia, call 01285 880 980.

Great Houses of Havana – A Century of Cuban Style

An exciting new book has just been published that is a must-have addition to the book shelves or coffee tables of any fan of Cuba.

Architect and author, Hermes Mallea, opens the doors to some of Havana’s most impressive mansions in this new work that focuses on important homes built in the city between 1860 and 1960. Pre-revolutionary Havana witnessed the construction of some extraordinary private residences and public works projects. Great Houses of Havana traces the development of Cuban homes from Spanish Colonial to the assimilation of fashionable European and North American design trends.

The book features Mallea’s collection of vintage Cuban photography, up to date interior images and individual accounts of intimate scenes and personal moments in the life of the featured houses. The result is a fascinating social history and tantalising glimpse of the incredible architecture and interior design behind some of Havana’s most historic (and flamboyant) gated mansions.

To read more and for further information on the Great Houses of Havana.

Steppes Travel arrange tailor-made holidays to Havana and throughout Cuba. We organise specialist guides and offer architectural walking tours of the city.

John in Jamaica – Shaken & Stirred

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I’m sat at Ian Fleming’s desk in Goldeneye, his Jamaican home that is now a luxury boutique bolt-hole, hoping that the same muse which inspired the creation of James Bond will assist me with my Steppes Travel “On Location” blog. I’ve a back-up glass of finest Jamaican rum in case inspiration runs dry.

The last couple of weeks have been a romping adventure and series of surprises, driving the generally good but sporadically pot-holed and bone-rattling back roads of Jamaica. The Caribbean’s third largest island, has welcomed me with warmth, humour and some very, very comfortable and interesting lodging. Not “I could be anywhere compounds” divorced from the country you’re in, but an eclectic selection of hotels, some quite funky with creative design twists and decorated by local artists, others with a historic interest but all distinctly Jamaican.

Flying into Montego Bay, you have a bird’s eye view of the beaches that are the start and finish of many a visitor’s trip but I allow myself to be diverted by an island of huge variety and interest. Turning our backs on Montego Bay, my driver, Leroy, and I are soon passing through the town of Lucea. The famous town hall clock is one of the oldest in the West Indies, manufactured in England and intended for St Lucia but delivered to, admired and subsequently kept by the residents of Lucea. St Lucia – Lucea, easy mistake to make…….

Negril is renowned for its sunsets and at The Caves, the big decision is where to deposit yourself in order to enjoy the show. The other big decision is whether you will be brave enough to leap from one of the higher jumping platforms that are built into the cliffs – quick route to the crystal clear waters that teem with fish and tickle the toes of this cliff-top property. It has been known for the highest platform to play on a guest’s mind to the extent that bags are dropped at the departing taxi and with a mad dash, a scream and a leap this mental block is erased and a soggy transfer to the airport is guaranteed! There’s a tradition of cliff-jumping in Negril and if you don’t want to put yourself in the picture, head for Rick’s Cafe in town to watch the aeronautics of local jumpers from a dry seat, with a cold Red Stripe.

An unexpected highlight was hand-feeding hummingbirds at Rocklands Estate. I’d never seen a hummingbird fold its wings, let alone perch on my finger while feeding.

Treasure Beach and the south-west corner of the island, offers a slice of laid-back rural Jamaica. It took me 3-4 days to stop “running” and synchronise my pace with Leroy, for whom every familiar face (and there were a lot of them) represented an opportunity to “lime” and every small town a chance to stop for a patty or some jerk chicken. We were even stopped by bored roadside motorbike cops and a potential fine becomes a heated discussion followed by a cigarette, followed by a heartily enjoyed joke and then a fond (un-ticketed) farewell.

Jakes is a bohemian and highly individual coastal property. The bungalows all have names (Seapuss, Cockles, Octopussy, Abalone….) and are highly imaginative in their vividly coloured decor. My room opened onto wooden decking and faced straight out to sea. One of my favourite moments here was spent with open louvered doors, a bottle of rum and Jimmy Cliff (singing the Harder they Come on my in-room sound system). Later in the bar, I spoke with Jason, Jake’s charismatic manager, to discover that it was his father who directed this iconic Jamaican film.

Jakes is a social hub of the Treasure Beach community and a place to make friends. It’s also a great base for activities including visiting the Appleton Estate rum distillery, swimming under the YS Falls, various historic Great Houses and river-boat trips to spot manatees and crocodiles. For a pub with a difference, take a boat trip to Pelican Bar, almost a mile out to sea; a shabby shack on stilts built on a shoal and a watering spot for passing fishermen.

Driving through Kingston, I discovered that Leroy was also an aspiring music promoter. While visiting his latest star-in-the-making on a university campus we were drawn by some great ska and reggae music coming from a campus hall, to discover that classic Jamaican band, Toots and the Maytals were having an impromptu jamming session with friends. This country is a must for music lovers and the Bob Marley museum in Kingston is a place of pilgrimage.

The Blue Mountains offered a cool respite after the heat of the coast. Strawberry Hill is an elegant boutique hotel that teeters on a ridge of this famous range, offering tremendous views across distant capital, Kingston, to the Caribbean Sea. The spa here will unravel the most knotted of muscles but I turned my back on holistic therapies for the opportunity to hike and mountain bike in one of the most scenic regions of Jamaica. Trails of varying degrees of challenge follow the contours (or cross them for the more adventurous). You also have the opportunity to visit mountain coffee plantations to find out first hand all about this famous Jamaican export.

The journey across the Blue Mountains from south to north coast is a very scenic drive that deposited me in the delightful town of Port Antonio, where Errol Flynn used to hang out, swashing buckles with his rabble-rousing friends. The highlight here was a little light bamboo rafting followed by a walk with a guide through the Rio Grande valley to investigate the culinary and medicinal use of wild plants. Stopping at a jungle hack/cafe/supermarket, it wasn’t long before we’d caught up on the local gossip and put the world to rights with the Rastafarian owner.

Heading west along the coast, we stopped to visit Firefly, Noel Coward’s Jamaican home. It’s now a museum dedicated to his life and kept as it was when he died in 1973. This is a site of great historical interest, used as a Taino sacred burial ground 1000 years ago by the original inhabitants of Jamaica, by pirate (and later governor of Jamaica) Captain Henry Morgan as a lookout and during the 50s and 60s a place for Coward to entertain the glitterati of the day. Coward’s statue peers out wryly from the gardens over epic coastal views of Port Maria Bay and Cabrita Island.

And so, back to Goldeneye, where beautifully appointed cottages and suites surround a lagoon and line the seafront. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a dreamy couple of days in the Fleming Villa, dining on lobster in his sunken garden, barbecuing on the private beach and watching Bond films in the private cinema (originally his garage). Tomorrow it’s back to Montego Bay airport and then reality but perhaps stopping off for a final daydream at the stunning private beach of Laughing Waters, where Ursula Andress made her unforgettable entrance from the sea in Dr No.

For further information about holidays to Jamaica, please do not hesitate to contact John, our Jamaica specialist 01285 880980.

Stumped for holiday ideas?

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Fire in Babylon, a new documentary film that tells the story of how the West Indies cricket team dominated the international cricketing stage in the late seventies and eighties rolls back the covers this month. England captain Tony Greig’s announcement in ‘76 that he intended “to make them grovel” united a supremely talented West Indies team from a disparate collection of 15 Caribbean islands who swept away the English. Against a background of apartheid in South Africa and a growing civil rights movement in America, the “Windies” made the game their own and following their 5-0 demolition of England in 1984, remained undefeated in any test series for ten years. The film plays out to a fantastic musical soundtrack including contributions from Bob Marley and Toots & the Maytals.

The cricket fanatics at Steppes Travel unashamedly jumped at this opportunity to mix up their passion for cricket and travel and in the process promote our new Caribbean program. Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago will knock you for six. Let us introduce you to a collection of mountainous nations where any flat land will eventually attract a bunch of friends with bat and ball. These are countries with a fascinating historical heritage and wild, beautiful interiors that are crying out to be explored. Not to ignore the occasional perfect palm-fringed crescent of beach.

Don’t be caught out this year. Call us to find out more on 01285 880 980.