Cuba

It wasn’t the metre-long luminously green lizard eyeing us from a long branch next to the track.  It wasn’t the massive jungle palm fronds, not even the 70 metre high waterfall at walk’s end deep in the fabled Escambray Mountains of Cuba.

No, what really got me excited was when our politically correct guide took us deep into a limestone cave and announced, “…you are standing where Comrade Che Guevara hid out in the 1950s to escape the wrath of the dictator Bautista.”

Memories of the Che poster on the bedroom walls of a teenage ‘wanna-be revolutionary’ girlfriend flooded back from my late ‘60s consciousness.  The handsome bearded warrior of a million girls’ dreams had stood right here in this cave, issuing orders and doing all sorts of other neat uprising-type stuff.

Later rebels also took advantage of this cave’s sheltering remoteness.  In hushed tones, our guide explained that “banditos” (meaning the conservative CIA-backed Cubans who refused to flee to Miami in 1959) had set up a rebel command post here in the Escambray jungle and directed hit-run raids against Fidel Castro’s forces until 1966, when they were all arrested or shot. 

If rebellion and violence aren’t your cup of espresso,  just appreciate this walk in Topes de Collantes National Park for its scenic wonders, like Salto de Caburni, a towering waterfall that doubles as a cold bush shower on a sauna-like day, or the lovely mirror-still lake a kilometre downstream. 

Nearby, the town of Trinidad is not the Cuba of the Buena Vista Social Club. Here, ox-carts haul tobacco to market and laughing children in neatly pressed school uniforms race through cobblestone streets.

Pastel colours dominate the streetscapes of this perfectly preserved Spanish colonial village, a cultural World Heritage site where nothing much has changed for the last 150 years.

Trinidad was founded in 1514, but despite this early start it remained a backwater until the late 18th century.

Smugglers brought slaves and gold from British-controlled Jamaica, but all this changed in the early 19th century when a slave revolt in Haiti caused French planters to flee to Trinidad, where they re-established their mini-empires.

The most impressive of all Trinidad’s many museums is Museo Histórico Municipal and the views from its belltower sum up the town’s charm to perfection.

In the hazy distance lie the peaks of the Escambrays, just to remind you that this ageless village possesses a recent rebellious past.

Some of Cuba’s finest beaches are just outside Trinidad.  A curved bay, pure white sand shaded by lordly palm trees and calm bath-temperature water all combine to make Ancon Beach one of the most delectable bits of coastline in the Caribbean.  And unlike so many beaches on nearby capitalist islands, there’s free and open access to all Cuban shorelines.

The quintessential socialist, Che would have liked that.