On a recent visit to Cuba, JILL BOTTRALL finds it possesses a power to take you back to relive the 1950s and '60s.
VISITING Cuba is like taking a sentimental journey to an unknown land that is oddly familiar.
It's a world populated by 11.5 million vibrant and diverse people living a life half preserved in mid-20th-century aspic, grappling with 21st-century realities.
Its capital, Havana, recently celebrated its 500th anniversary. It's paved with cobblestone streets full of history, treasures, pink Chevrolets, wild street art, cats and dogs, bars and cafes, town squares, music and mojitos!
Life is lived large on the streets, in the open, out loud and in full blazing colour.
It's inexpensive, it's safe, it's always warm and it's endlessly friendly. But it's important to know that locals are on a constant quest to please you and make money. Tipping makes their world go round.
The people may be irrepressible, have free health care and free education and use a socialised public transport system, but after decades of a US trade embargo and a decline in the Russian economy, the Cuban economy has been struggling.
But under former president Raul Castro and his successor Miguel az-Canel, Cuba is learning to adapt to a new era by finding new markets and growing industries.
Tourism has flourished and faltered over many years but its recent resurgence has thrown a lifeline to a group of young entrepreneurs, encouraged by the government, to build businesses, innovate and lift standards so that tourism and, most importantly, the rate of return visits thrive.
Sub-standard food and accommodation were once dragging tourism backwards. Today it's possible to enjoy first-class food and rum cocktails in funky establishments for the equivalent price of a burger and Coke.
Under another reform aimed at the tourism industry, many of the most elegant art deco and art nouveau piles left to crumble after the 1950s revolution are being resurrected and rebuilt to reflect their former glory. Only rather than the Mafia-run casinos and nightclubs they once were, they are now five-star hotels, restaurants, museums and more.
The most outstanding restoration is the former Congress building, now the gold-leaf-domed Capitolio de Cuba. This lavish and expensive edifice stands in deep contrast to Cuba's impoverished provinces. The largely subsistence farming economy sustains millions of its people and bartering and bargaining for goods and services remain an essential form of exchange. The farmlands are dotted with tiny farmhouses surrounded by chickens, cows, goats, horses and crops. Every family seems to have a produce stall at the end of the driveway.
Using a local agent, Cuba Travel Network, I took a 10-day round trip with two Aussie friends from Havana heading south-west across farmlands and mountains to Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio before going south-east to the sparkling Bay of Pigs, across to the beautiful city of Cienfuegos and on to old Trinidad, where time stopped in about 1950. From there we headed slightly inland to Santa Clara, where the Cuban revolution was fought and won. We finished the tour in another time-locked masterpiece of streetscapes, Remedios, in Villa Clara.
It was a comfortable journey in an air-conditioned minibus driven by Joaquin, a man of few words and great presence who resembled Henry VIII and had also married eight times. He was ably partnered by Raidel Flores, our splendid personal guide who, fluent in German, was misappropriated to our little group because someone had mixed up Australian for Austrian. But he knew enough English to keep us enchanted with his knowledge of, and narratives about, Cuban life and history. He also had his secret places. On one magical afternoon we trekked through a rainforest to a clearing that revealed a crystal pool fed by a small mountain waterfall. We swam there for hours alone. We became completely lost in time.
Raidel and Joaquin represent a new strength in Cuban tourism. At no point while driving on the highways, through tiny streets, into deep valleys, across busy cities or into places of special significance did we feel unsafe, unwelcome or unfed. Their job was to ensure we were informed, inspired and intoxicated by the beauty of their country. We rewarded their devotion to our every need with rum and big Cohiba cigars, bought direct from a master cigar maker on a tobacco farm we visited on tour.
Back in old Havana we rented a serviced apartment for five days and met up with one of Cuba's new young entrepreneurs - a restaurateur with the glorious name of Julio Cesar. This tall, rangy, athletic man has charmed his burgeoning customer base with an inventive array of exotic rum and gin cocktails and exquisite food that keeps appearing out of a tiny upstairs kitchen at 304 O'Reilly Street. We returned nearly every day. For three of us, with two courses (including lobster) and three cocktails each and a fun night of conversations with Julio, the total bill never exceeded $65. (Instagram address: oreilly304ginbarrestaurant).
We left both the restaurant, and then Cuba, knowing we would return. Again. My friends and I first visited Havana in 2016 so this was our second visit. There is still more to see, more history to live and learn, more food to consume, and we're pretty sure Julio will have more cocktails to taste. Cuba has always been a work in progress. Our fascination with it has only just begun.
The writer travelled at her own expense