Cuba 2014

A balcony in Havana.

I arrived in Havana with advice from countless friends ringing in my ears. Everyone, or so it seems, has been to Cuba before me - and they were all determined to give me advice.

For Cuba is well-known on the tourist trail now. Even so, I was determined to find out as much as I could for myself.

I found Havana to be a city of contradictions. From the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja to the wide boulevards of Vedado; from the air-conditioned international hotels to the government shops with empty shelves; from the scammers who lurk outside hotels to the generosity of strangers to anyone who is lost.

I think this picture typifies Havana. You can see the lovely old stonework, evidence that this used to be an affluent city. But if a balcony falls off, then it stays off.

Looking through archways in Havana.

Except on the tourist trail. For parts of the city have been restored and are truly beautiful. Old stonework has been re-sculpted. Walls are painted in fresh, sunny colours. Lush green plants stand in corridors. In the gardens, deep red hibiscus attract hummingbirds. Here is a corridor in an old colonial mansion in Habana Vieja - the oldest part of the city. Much of the area has been renovated with UNESCO money. Street cafes spill onto the plazas. Small market is crammed into passageways. Street musicians keep toes tapping.

An old building on the Malacon.

However, round any corner, down roads where tourists are unlikely to tread, homes are still crumbling. Wires hang off walls, tangled like knitting. Mildew leaves corridors dark and dank. Curtains replace fallen walls.

And it's not only local accommodation that has yet to enjoy a renovation. This is most striking in the lovely old buildings along the Malacón - the road that runs along the coast. This is one of the few buildings that is not hidden behind a metal fence - to protect passing pedestrians from falling masonry. But these buildings must once have been majestic.

I headed east from Havana, taking a long bus ride to Camaguey. I'd been warned that the poverty is more evident in the east, but much of central Camaguey has been restored. Maybe homes on the outskirts are falling down, but the centre of the city felt bustling and optimistic.

Plaza San Jaun de Dios.

Builders were still at work when I was there; roads were closed without warning or signed diversions while scaffolding was erected or walls were steam-cleaned.

But it's worth it. This is the lovely Plaza San Juan de Dios. I picked a moment between tour groups take this picture, for this is a standard tour-stop. When they arrive people stand by their stalls; beggars look suitably haggard. But when the tourists are gone everyone retreats into the shade and the plaza goes blissfully quiet.

An old car.

A word about those bicycles. For Cuba is known, not for bicycles, but for its old cars. I can't get excited about cars. But here, as I'm sure there will be people dropping by who are, is a picture of an old car. I've no idea what make it is - but if anyone wants to contact me and let me know, then I'll amend this!

Less than ten per cent of Cubans own cars. Most get around by bicycle - or by pony cart. There are pony cart taxis, pony carts with delivery trailers, pony carts to bring people into market.

A pony cart.

That bag, at the back end of the pony, is to catch its poo. This serves two purposes - it saves the roads being ankle-deep in it, and is used to fertilise the fields. (You always wanted to know this, didn't you?)

The statue of Che Guevara in Santa Clara.

From Camaguey I headed east, to Sancti Spiritus and then to Santa Clara.

Visitors come to Santa Clara to pay homage to Che Guevara. This is where he held up a government train, and thus opened the corridor for the Revolutionaries to make it to Havana.

Let's be clear: Che Guevara is not a god. Though you could be forgiven for thinking he is, given the devotion given to his memory here. And especially in Santa Clara, where this enormous monument stands on gateway to the town. The visitor has no choice but to look up to see the statue, while Che is still looking to the horizon and pastures new.

From Santa Clara I went south to Trinidad. (Yes, there is a town called Trinidad in Cuba. There is also an island called Trinidad in the Caribbean. That's cleared that up.)

View across the rooftops of Trinidad.

I loved Trinidad. I'm not sure how Cuban it is - the lovely cobbled streets and painted buildings, little shops where tourists linger, market traders selling maracas and embroidered shirts. It is a town that understands tourists.

This picture is taken from a tower, across the rooftops.

But the most magical thing about Trinidad is the music. And, as I've no video of it (I was too busy tapping my toes and swaying my shoulders to even think about taking a video), you'll just have to imagine it.

Mural de la Prehistoria.

Bongos keep the rhythm. Guitars twang. Trumpets and saxophones keep the tune. Singers dance and sway. This is not thoughtful, reflective, cerebral music. It's earthy and physical and wonderful. So maybe you can see why I was too busy enjoying a little shimmy to think about filming!

I dragged myself away from Trinidad, and went, via Cienfuegos, to Viñales. The village itself is nestled in a beautiful valley, explored on foot, or on horseback, or on the hop-on hop-off bus (when it's working).

There are views across green fields, and caves in the mountains. And there is this mural: The Mural de la Prehistoria. It depicts evolution, from snails to dinosaurs, to sea monsters and then men and women. Well, that's the idea. The Cubans are hugely proud of it - and its dimensions alone make it impressive. Does it really depict evolution? I'll leave that for you to judge.