Cuba has had a tough time - its fate over the last few hundred years has been so often moulded by forces outside its control. The American embargo basically punished the country for being socialist, despite the fact that socialism in Cuba was largely beneficial for the majority of the population - providing free healthcare, universal education, and massive poverty reduction. (It was left to other regional dictators - unpunished by Big Brother as long as they were right-wing in their political leanings - to indulge in state-sponsored atrocities.)
Then there was the economic destruction of the 1990s caused by the Soviet Union withdrawing its support almost overnight - not because of anything Cuba did, but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
These two disasters left Cuba decades behind in terms of economic development - as seen by the shortages of many consumer goods we take for granted, and the presence not of Toyotas and Nissans on the roads, but of patched 1950s American and 1980s Soviet model cars. Also, the fact horses and bicycles are the main form of transport in many areas.
Further back, things weren't much better for the Cubans. From the late 1400s, there were the rapacious Spanish colonisers who, when they didn't find gold in Cuba, contented themselves with setting up large slave-worked plantations - sugar cane and tobacco, for example. With sugar now produced more cheaply and efficiently in countries like Brazil, that has left a legacy for Cuba of being best-known for two products - cigars and rum.
The trouble is, being reliant on tobacco and alcohol for your export economy isn't a bargain in these health-conscious times. You can't give away cigars to many tourists, and while a lot of people would have a bottle of rum in their drinks cabinet, it certainly wasn't top of mind in our household until I discovered mojitos. (Recipe below - mojitos are totally yummy, if you like that sort of thing.)
The main thing to come out of this economic disaster is tourism. Technology-spoilt visitors love the old cars, the horse-drawn transport, the crumbling picturesque colonial architecture, the small-scale farmers growing crops the way they did 200 years ago, with oxen to plough the fields and horses to get around.
The area around Viñales is a great example of enterprising Cubans taking advantage of tourists' love of all things old-fashioned. The town sits a couple of hours west of Havana, close enough for visitors to be able to take an old American car along a potholed motorway that you share with horse-drawn carts and bicycles, and you find yourself in one of Cuba's main tobacco-growing regions.
Viñales is very picturesque - green and lush and with the sort of ridiculous vertical hump mountains you get in traditional Chinese paintings. The tobacco is dried in thatched sheds, the thatch stretching almost down to the ground. And the best way to visit the area is by horse, which adds a definite sense of adventure.
Our grand day out in the tobacco fields happened almost by accident. We'd set out to walk to a cave swimming hole but quickly realised it was far too far and much too hot, so asked around about alternative transport. There are no roads, we were told, but within half an hour a local guide had arrived with five handsome steeds. Cubans use western saddles, with the useful handle at the front to hold onto if you aren't very experienced, and any self-respecting horseman wears a cowboy hat and spurs. Locals tend to trot everywhere, a relaxed sitting trot that probably takes years of practice to be comfortable, although luckily the horses are quite happy to walk for foreigners. Still it feels very derring-do.
In typical Cuban fashion, the whole horse trek was extremely laid back. Helmet-less and unencumbered by form-filling or bossy leaders, we ambled out through the fields, stopping when we met a tobacco farmer to inspect his drying crop and be given a demonstration of cigar-making, and a chance to try and his product. Being 13 years old was no impediment to having a drag.
I can't say I'm a convert, but it was fun pulling on a hand-made, honey-soaked cigar in a thatched tobacco drying house, with the horses waiting outside. And Geoff makes an excellent Cuban cowboy - complete with cigar.
We eventually got to the cave swimming hole, tied up the horses, and found that the swim was actually underground, among some fine stalagmites and stalactites. The guide switched his torch off and it was eerie swimming in pitch darkness.
By the time we got back to the horses it had started to rain - a torrential tropical downpour which turned the tracks into orange muddy streams and had us soaked through in minutes. There was even a hairy river crossing, with water up to our horses' bellies.
Still, it makes the area wonderfully green.
And now that recipe for mojitos...
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) fresh lime juice
- 2 heaping teaspoons superfine sugar
- 1 cup crushed ice
- 12 fresh mint leaves, plus 5 small sprigs for garnish
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) white rum
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) club soda
- In 10-ounce glass (such as Collins or highball), stir together lime juice and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add 1/4 cup crushed ice. Rub mint leaves over rim of glass, then tear leaves in half and add to glass. Gently stir for 15 seconds, then add rum, remaining crushed ice, and club soda. Gently stir for 5 seconds, then tuck mint sprigs into top of glass and insert tall straw.