Beauty and a feast in Cuba

Steve McKenna
Trinidad's Playa Ancon beach / Picture: Steve McKenna

As soon as the waiter shuffles off with our order, I turn to my friend Steve and say: "Don't expect too much for that price."

Both of us have gone for lobster. At six Cuban convertible pesos ($6.38) a piece, it was impossible to resist.

"It'll probably be tiny," I add, sceptically. "And I'm sure it won't taste that great."

About 15 minutes later, as we listen to salsa beats pulsate through this earthy restaurant in the cobbled backstreets of Trinidad, our meals appear.

My initial reaction is one of shock. The lobsters are spilling off the plates. Fearing it's a case of quantity over quality, I apprehensively take my first bite.

It's wonderful: succulent and oozing flavour, better, undoubtedly, than the last ($50) lobster I had in Australia.

A greasy-handed Steve is feasting away. Eventually he looks up. And he has a smile on his face that says: Six bucks! Six bucks!

I tell him we'll probably never have a better-value lobster than this. And, on this score, I'm pretty confident. Though I wouldn't bet on it.

Tasty bargain meals like this are popping up across Cuba, a country that's rarely seen as a gourmet dining destination. Since the Government relaxed rules on Cubans launching their own private businesses in 2011, a flurry of restaurants (known as paladares) have opened in Havana and beyond.

Trinidad has a high concentration of them - and the competition has been good for punters keen on a fine feed after exploring one of Cuba's most beautiful colonial cities.

Surrounded by lush green mountains to the north, and the Caribbean Sea to the south, Trinidad is a delight; its wonky old streets lined with gorgeous churches, mansions and civic buildings - many built with the proceeds of the area's 18th and 19th century sugar boom.

Lovely by day, Trinidad is enjoyable after dark, too. Full from our lobsters, we join the crowds at Casa de la Musica, a classic alfresco affair at the top of a sweeping staircase, where locals and tourists mingle, often in passionate, salsa- fuelled embraces.

Cuba libres in hand, we admire the hip-swinging Cubans (and a few brave tourists) dancing the night away.

While this, the largest Caribbean island, is evolving from the rigid communism of the Fidel Castro era into a more fluid capitalistic system, under his brother, Raul, some glorious things show no sign of changing.

Like drinking from rum-tinged coconuts by the beach, for example. The next day we take a 15-minute taxi ride from Trinidad to Playa Ancon, which comes straight out of a holiday brochure. This long, sandy cove is washed by bluey-emerald sea dotted with tiny, reef-edged islands ripe for snorkelling and diving off.

We laze, sunbathe and sip from said coconuts before watching the huge, fiery sun burn into the Caribbean.

For us, Trinidad is much more satisfying than Varadero. Despite more than 20km of beaches and the country's greatest cluster of all-inclusive hotels (attracting package holiday-makers, largely from Canada and Europe), Cuba's main tourist resort (on the country's north coast) lacks the character we find in abundance in Trinidad.

Another highlight of our Cuban travels is Vinales, a three-hour bus ride from Havana in Pinar del Rio province, Cuba's coffee-growing heartland. When we arrive we're swamped by dozens of people, waving placards and flyers. They're "casa particular" owners (folk who rent out spare rooms to tourists). Luckily, we'd already booked ahead.

The commotion is a blip - albeit one that recurs whenever buses roll in.

Edged by verdant, limestone hill- strewn landscapes that evoke tropical Asia - Krabi in Thailand and Guilin in China, say - Vinales is a sleepy, pastoral delight, perfect for gentle countryside strolls (or horse rides) and for relaxing in the wooden rocking chairs of casa verandas.

After dark, at the town's cultural centre, we enjoy a soulful performance from Flavours of Cuba. All six band members (guitarist, maraca player, trumpeter, drummer, keyboarder and singer) have a different shade of skin, from black to white. Cuba, in our eyes, seems to be one the world's most harmoniously multiracial countries.

Another memorable outer-Havana experience is Santa Clara. It was here that Che Guevara led a ragtag army to a famous victory that sparked the downfall of Fulgencio Batista's US-backed dictatorship - and the rise of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.

Although Che, the Argentina- born revolutionary, was killed by militias in Bolivia in 1967, and buried in a secret location, his remains were discovered, exhumed and transferred to Santa Clara 30 years later.

Guevara's mausoleum lies next to a museum that traces his evolution from studious doctor to anti- imperialist guerilla, and rests below an enormous bronze statue of himself and other plinths etched with quotes, including a letter to his old comrade Fidel.

They face the Soviet-style Plaza de la Revolucion - a huge public square that draws a regular flow of tour buses which drop passengers off for a few hours before transferring them to their next pit stop.

As we're travelling independently and have time to kill before catching our regular bus back to Havana, we hop in a battered green Buick and head to downtown Santa Clara.

Slumped in the worn leather back seat, Steve and I watch, with a mixture of amazement and concern, as the elderly driver strains to keep the car on the road, lurching past a horse-drawn cart carrying half-a-dozen schoolchildren, and rattling alongside a sun-beaten pavement scattered with slow-moving pedestrians.

To head straight, the driver must jam the Buick's large steering wheel firmly to the right. Thankfully, it's only a five-minute ride and the grinning Cuban drops us off unscathed, the inviting Parque Vidal, Santa Clara's leafy, gazebo- studded main square, footsteps away. Cue an afternoon of lazy strolling, people-watching, sipping coffee and eating ice-cream.

Santa Clara is a breath of fresh - though hot and sticky - air. There are scant foreign visitors and, as a result, none of the brash, pesky touts and hustlers who prowl the popular tourist destinations (not least the increasingly polished streets of Old Havana).

Apart from a few cries of "Taxi amigo, taxi" we're left alone, free to circle Parque Vidal, loaf on its benches and observe the Cubans going about their business. There's much chatter, laughter and flirtatious behaviour - and that's just from the pensioners.

Sitting in the shade, Steve and I reflect on our fortnight's travels around a Caribbean island that have stirred a cocktail of emotions.

A magnet for those seeking sun, sea, sand and salsa (as well as vintage Cadillacs, cigars and rum), Cuba is more absorbing than ever as it slaloms a slippery slope between communism and capitalism.

FACT FILE

For an overview of Cuban tourism, see www.cubaweb.cu/en.

Most of Cuba's towns and cities are linked by the Viazul bus network. See viazul.com/index.php for timetables.

For a glimpse of casa particular options across Cuba, see mycasaparticular.com.