After a brief glimpse of the Yankee Imperialists at Miami airport we transferred to the equally Yankee destination of Cancun, Mexico (horrid - plastic fantastic full of US holiday makers complaining that everything's in Spanish) then boarded our Cubana flight to Havana. Our plane was made in the 1980s and smelt of old shoes. The interior has been spruced up with some emulsion paint - a trick we later saw used on many car exteriors too. Needs must and all that.
Havana is very accessible and easy to navigate. There are people desperate to sell you anything - cigars, tours, food, company- but they're easy enough to get rid of and it doesn't feel like a stressful capital at all. We spent most of our time in the old city brushing up on history at the Revolution museum, learning the difference between the Castro brothers and enjoying the vast amount of anti-West sentiment. There's so much it starts to feel like a Communist theme park where the rides are tatty old Ladas transporting you from the Viva Cuba zone to the Anti-Imperialist Yankee cretin zone, with a short stop at the Ernest Hemingway bar (any bar he ever allegedly drank in which means a subsequent price hike of 300%).
For all we enjoyed Havana it did feel touristy so we were glad to get a bus east to Playa Giron, famous for the Bay of Pigs invasion, to see what real Cuba looks like. Our first casa owner had phoned ahead and booked us into her friends casa here (no street name as there is only one street, just ask for Casa Mario and Esmerelda) so we listened to Mario's advice for the area and hit the beach where the battle started.
The tiny museum reinforced the David and Goliath-esque message - tiny little Cuba overthrew the Yankee invaders, took them captive and billed the USA $52m worth of damages. OK, in this telling David had been fully equipped for the task by the USSR, but still it's the only time, apparently, that the US have paid out to such demands in order to get their citizens back and Cuba is still very pleased about it.
The next day we went snorkelling to see a US ship sunk in the battle. Much fuss is made about this sight but having swam out to it (losing 2 earrings and my snorkel mask to a freak wave in the process) it's safe to say Belize's Blue Hole is under no threat of losing it's top spot.
From there to Cienfuegos, the Paris of Cuba. The moniker is based on it having a French architect and a small arch called the Arch de Triumphe but the similarity begins and ends there. A bit run down, steaming hot and at least 5 bicitaxis per visitor we felt like we'd seen the delights in one afternoon. Mention should be given to Cuba's waterfall in it's national park here.
Our hosts (wonderfully kind, friendly people but had only been out of their city twice hence perceived the rest of Cuba to hold dangers on a par with a Brazilian favela) could not enthuse enough about it so off we went.
Perhaps it was because we'd recently seen Iguazu but we weren't massively impressed by the single drop waterfall (we're laughing at how crap it is rather than with awe. A fellow visitor from Ireland pointed out the waterfall in Galway is twice the size). Or the 12 minute 'hike' to get to it. Our taxi driver was astounded we were back in the carpark so quickly and insisted we had another look at it from a different spot. Like the sunken boat snorkelling, it's a case of celebrating what you've got but we quickly realised that Cuba wasn't going to stand out for its geographical highlights.
Onto to Trinidad next with its beautiful old cobbled streets, ramshackle colourful houses and a much stronger African influence than we'd seen so far.
People here are laid back to the point of sloth. It's so hot by day no-one moves much but at nighttime the plazas fill with dancers, smokers, drinkers and gossipers. Music is everywhere and the locals have no issue with tourists joining in their soirées. There's not much to see or do in Trinidad except have some rum and absorb the surroundings. Which we did, for 4 days.
Feast to famine, we went to Camaguay next. Cuba's boom town where people are considerably wealthier (not sure how), better dressed and conservative. Boring little town really. We got the bus down to Santiago the next morning.
We'd heard mixed reviews of Santiago de Cuba - closer to Haiti than Havana, traffic pollution abound, and humidity like we'd never experienced, some people hate it, others enjoy it's difference to the more polished touristy bits of the island. We liked it but one day was sufficient to walk ourselves around the sights. We had a young Aussie with us for this city and in retrospect he may have regretted saying he didn't know much about the political history of Cuba. Nothing 2 hours in (yet another) Revolution Museum wouldn't fix. Some of the bloodiest battles took place in and around Santiago so we found it fascinating to complete the history lessons in the place where the rebels won. Not so sure about Harley but he was too polite to moan.
The longest single bus journey you can do in Cuba is 13 hours so we felt obliged to do it. Overnight we travelled to Varadero- home of the country's best beaches but also for the strip of mega-hotels European package holidayers head for.
The beaches are stunning - 23km of white sand, warm, bright blue water and very little in the way of seaweed or life, but the formulaic tourist trappings are boring and with knowledge of the average salary and living conditions it didn't sit comfortably with us to stick around for long.
Back to Havana to complete our loop of the island. We had a final night in the old city listening to music, drinking rum and pondering yet again the pro's and cons of communism then caught a different (unless they'd just painted it black since the flight out) but equally smelly plane back to Mexico.