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Havana a Good Time

Gangsters, Gambling and Gunshots. All A Thing Of The Past? crack

It’s a sweltering evening and through the darkness, musicians drum an intoxicating Salsa rhythm.

Tall palm trees seemingly swing in time as I sip my glass of seven year-old rum and prepare for a night to remember.

Suddenly the spotlight swings to the two stages, and a flock of girls - the so called Diosas de Carne, Goddesses of the Flesh - descend from trees in time to the music.

The music picks up, lights flash on glittering sequinned and feathered costumes, and the world-famous Club Tropicana kicks off another long Havana night.

Launched in 1939 at the Villa Mina, a sprawling six-acre estate on the outskirts of the city, this floor show inspired copycat cabaret in Paris, Las Vegas and New York, and has drawn countless tourists to Cuba’s capital for nights of decadence, drama and daiquiris.

But the sequins and feathers hide a darker side of the club, whose history is almost inseparable from the Cuba of the popular imagination - gangsters, gambling and gunshots.

The past is rarely far away on this Caribbean island which won independence from Spain in 1902. Apart from the near-constant presence of its revolutionary heroes - Fidel Castro and more photogenic Che Guevara - the island’s chequered history is etched into its heart.

Very little is new in Cuba - from Spanish colonial style townhouses (some undergoing restoration, but more falling down stone by stone), to the classic American cars - Chevrolets, Buicks and Cadillacs. One of the best places to view this irrepressible capital is from the top of the 137m high memorial to the island’s most honoured patriot, Jose Marti.

A slow lift takes you to the top of the obelisk, topped with a statue of the poet, journalist and leader of the 1895 rebellion against Spanish rule.

Like many luxury hotels here, my hotel, the Saratoga was built in the 1930s and decayed. It reopened in 2005 with reproduction 1930s details – floor tiles, a sweeping central Atrium and the aforementioned rooftop pool.

Also worth seeing is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba - the flagship hotel and the hangout of Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and novelist Ernest Hemingway in glitzier times.

While western capitalism is firmly resisted, economic necessity and Raoul Castro’s modernising reforms ensure Cuba welcomes tourists with open arms - particularly since the collapse of the USSR sank demand for its sugar crop. Former plantations are slowly being converted into expansive tourist resorts along a shimmering coastline. But reminders of the tough regime under which Cubans live are plentiful.

One is the dual currency system: tourists use a convertible peso (introduced in 2005 to eradicate the US dollar) worth nearly 25 times more than the non-convertible peso for native Cubans.

Anybody in the tourist industry, with its tipping system, takes home much more than doctors or teachers.
Castro, whose rule was described as “like having a very strict father” by one guide, is a looming presence. More human aspects of revolutionary life are visible in his birthplace outside the tiny village of Biran, about 750km east of Havana.

Havana’s Museum of Revolution, in the former Presidential Palace with a magnificent and largely undamaged mirrored ballroom, explains events of 1959 with visceral artefacts: Kalashnikov rifles carried by Revolutionaries, bloodstained clothes and torture instruments allegedly used by US agents on Castro’s men.

Outside is the yacht which brought Revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, and the remains of a spy plane shot down in the Cold War.

A total absence of billboards takes some getting used to. The only advertising allowed, by Government, tells citizens of their luck in living under progressive economic policies.

Choose your souvenirs carefully. My favourite was Perfumeria Habana 1791 - a vintage-style perfumery where trainees mix a scent using notes including citrus, jasmine, rose, lavender and tobacco (I chose a sandalwood and rose mix) to fill bottles sealed by wax.

If you want cigars, don’t buy a box on street corners, lest they are rolled up banana leaves, and keep receipts for customs officials when you leave.

But Havana is only a part of Cuba’s heritage. For a traditional Caribbean break, we headed for Cayo Saetia, a tiny island off the coast of Guardalavaca.

This nature reserve, once a private government game reserve for party officials, is stocked with zebra, water buffalo, boar, antelope, deer and ostriches.

Ancestors of these beasts roam the island’s plains and dense forests and I take a white-knuckle safari in an ex-military Jeep to see them, before having lunch overlooking the beach. This paradise island has pristine white sand beaches, calm blue seas, lush flora and fauna, and macaws calling from the treetops.

It’s also a fine spot to explore the coral reef encircling Cuba’s eastern HolguÃ_n province - the second biggest in the world. Under the crystal clear waters, it’s like being plunged into an aquarium, as brightly coloured fish dart around the reef.

In Cuba, a sea-change is coming, albeit slowly. Since Fidel Castro handed over to his brother in 2006, the island has opened itself to the West, and President Obama’s election could end the ban on visitors from the US. So why not enjoy this crazy, contradictory country before too many Americans arrive.