Back in the 1950s, Cuba was one of the biggest sugar producers and exporters in the world. They also produced plenty of tropical fruits, rice and cassava. Then along came Fidel, Che and Raul to change all that.
Farming was nationalised and cooperatives run by workers’ committees with centralised decisons about inputs, crops and markets. The country still produced plenty of sugar but it existed by trading it for oil with the Soviet Union at the equivalent of five times the world price. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were left with nothing.
For a while, they survived by trading doctors to Venezuela and Brazil for oil, but that can only work for so long, especially given the state of the Venezuelan socialist economy. But they do have plenty of well trained doctors and other professionals who earn less than $50 a month. All of our tour guides were highly trained university graduates but their own government doesn’t trust them.
Our tour guide wasn’t allowed onto a boat to go snorkelling 300 metres from shore. Too many have kept going in the past. In the beautiful Havana harbour, there are almost no private vessels for the same reason.
So that is where they stand. Centralised control. No private ownership of land (unless you are friends with the regime). Fertiliser, chemical and water inputs in the hands of the Agriculture Ministry, with no money to buy them and no entrepeneurs to put it all together.
But this society may be about to go through some tremendous changes as the US trade and travel embargos are slowly lifted. We wanted to get in early to experience the authentic Cuba, and despite its problems, it was everything we expected and more.
The people are incredibly warm and friendly and cities like Havana, Trinidad, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba are still rooted in the 1950s with the cars either genuine American antiques or Russian rust buckets. Out in the countryside, the horses and carts outnumber the cars, although the beautiful countryside is often spoilt by masses of boxthorn-type woody weeds.
The American tourists are starting to arrive of course, but at the moment they don’t have too many hotels to accommodate them. And for a while, they are likely to be concentrated in Havana and the beach resorts, so there is still time to experience this incredible country.
From the communist utopia of Cuba, we transferred to the socialist Nirvana of Venezuela. If anyone needs proof of the failure of socialism, they need look no further than this country which has been one of the biggest oil exporters in the world for 50 years, yet their people cannot buy toilet paper (or most other things) in their shops.
But they can buy petrol at the governemnt-subsidised price of 0.02 cents per litre. That’s right, a full tank costs a couple of cents.
The government also has price and production controls on lots of other products – and there’s the problem. It has just distorted the market and created windfall profits for corrupt officials and black market operators. Nowhere has Maggie Thatcher’s warning that socialists always run out of other people’s money been more true.
But it is an amazing country of beuty and contrast. We visited the highest waterfall in the world (Angel Falls) although we had to work hard to get there. And our arrival flight would not have passed Australian aviation regulations after a close fly-by of some massive rock walls and a low level (one metre?) pass over the lagoon.
From the magnificent Tepui landscape of eastern Venezuela, we flew across to the Llanos (flatlands) where the emphasis was on the wildlife which was in an abundance. We stayed at a farm/wildlife refuge called El Cedral, which used to be a five star resort but where you can now choose between the one star rooms (no hot water) or those with no stars (no water at all).
But the animals made up for any discomfort. Capybaras everywhere along with iguanas, caiman, crocodiles, giant anteaters, howler monkeys and anacondas. And one of the biggest varieties and concentrations of birds in the world.
One thing we noticed though, as we drove through these enormous, highly fertile plains was there was not much farming going on – not even many cattle in most cases. This probably has something to do with the government price controls over corn and beef (and others) which makes it uneconomic to produce unless it is on one of the subsidised government farms.
After a long drive across the plains, we went up into the clouds surrounding the hills and mountains of the northern extent of the Andes range around Merida. The landscape here is reminiscent of the Swiss alps.
Venezuela, along with Cuba, has an abundance of natural resources with plenty of fertile soil and lots of water. Along with Cuba, it also imports most of its food. This is mismanagement on a grand scale.
Speaking of mismanagement, there is no airport in the world to compete with Caracas. Despite its faults, Venezuela is a wonderful country to visit, but they didn’t want to let us go. It was a pretty much all day affair to get out of Caracas to the final stop on our journey – Panama.
Panama City is the modern logistics hub of Central America and the country has built its wealth on a big ditch dug through the country over 100 years ago. We had a close-up look at the ditch as well as a helicopter flyover of the larger new canal being constructed nearby.
Depart Australia the morning of July 11; Arrive Mexico City (via Los Angeles), July 11. Transfer to our hotel for a light meal and a well-earned rest.
This morning we enjoy a guided tour of Mexico City. When the Aztec war god commanded his people to build their capital wherever they saw an eagle roosted on a cactus gripping a snake in its beak, he really didn’t think that very bird would be sighted in the middle of a huge swamp. But six centuries and 20 million inhabitants later, Mexico City is now one of the largest and most populous cities the world has ever known.
We spend the day guided around Mexico City – highlights include Teotihuacan (meaning “Place of the Gods”) and the awesome Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Free evening.
Today we visit The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) on the outskirts of Mexico City. Australia is one of CIMMYT’s most consistent supporters and several Australian researchers are currently based there. The first of over 100 CIMMYT- related wheat varieties were released in Australia in 1973 – around 90% of Australia’s wheat area is now sown to these varieties. We’ll see what’s in the breeding and biotech pipeline. Return to Mexico City for the evening.
Transfer to the airport early this morning for our short flight direct to Havana and then a domestic connection to Santiago de Cuba, a city commanding a spectacular location on the island’s south central coastline.
Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest and least commercialised island and one of the world’s last bastions of communism. The island’s political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, and the locals are sincerely friendly towards those who do venture in. For nearly four centuries Cuba was the main gateway to the Spanish American empire and the major Cuban cities bear stunning testament to this era. But during the 1950s, Fidel Castro and his small band of revolutionaries, changed all that. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban/Russian missile crisis and political and economic isolation soon followed. Almost in defiance of all this, Cuba is a world-class cultural and artistic hub. And speaking of hubs, if you’re looking for a spare part for that 1953 convertible, you’ve come to the right place.
As with the political structure in Cuba, most observers are awaiting what form of government emerges after Fidel Castro to see which direction the economy will take. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is in a partly submerged valley of the Sierra Maestra mountains. Santiago has been an important port for more than four centuries. Back in the 1950s, Fidel Castro launched his revolution from here. The city has played an instrumental part in the evolution of Cuban literature, music, architecture
and the nation’s social fabric. It is a cosmopolitan mix of Afro-Caribbean culture, situated closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than to Havana.
Today we enjoy a guided tour of Santiago including both the modern and older parts of the city and a tour of the house of Diego Velazquez – the first Spanish ruler. There will be free time this afternoon to do your own exploration of the old town or just relax back at the hotel.
A free morning to relax, shop, do your own sightseeing or maybe even pursue a more adventurous option such as a spot of Caribbean game-fishing. In the afternoon we set off to begin our exploration of the agricultural heartland of Cuba.
Historically, Cuba’s agricultural economy was dominated by sugar and at one stage was one of the world’s largest exporters. But due to persistently low world prices in the 1980s and 1990s, the government has attempted to diversify into other crops. Tobacco (Cuban cigars) and citrus fruits are the most successful with some broadacre crops.
We travel northwest for a few hours to the colonial region of Bayamo. We have a farm visit on our way to the town of Bayamo. This town is where the secret meetings and conspiracies took place leading up to the Independence War between 1868 and 1878. Also, in Bayamo’s main square, the Cuban National Anthem was sung for the first time.
Today we continue northwest along the spine of Cuba and into the Camaguey region. We have a farm visit on the way and meet with local farmers. We then continue onto Camaguey, Cuba’s third largest city, for overnight.
After almost continuous attacks from pirates the original city (founded as Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe around 1515 on the northern coast) was moved inland in 1528. The new city was built with a confusing lay-out of winding and blind alleys – that lead to squares of different sizes. One explanation is that this was done by design, to make the city easier to defend from any raiders.
The symbol of the city is the clay pot or tinajón and clay pots are everywhere. Local legend has it that if you drink water from a girl’s personal tinajón, you will fall in love with the girl and never leave her – maybe the fellas on this tour only need a one-way air ticket?
We continue northwest today through farmlands and onto Trinidad, on Cuba’s southern coastline. Founded in 1514, Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most historically significant cities and is World Heritage listed. It is the best preserved and most visited of the country’s provincial colonial cities. Some say the clocks stopped ticking in 1850 and have yet
to restart. Built on huge sugar fortunes amassed in the adjacent Valle de los Ingenios during the early 19th century, the riches of the town’s pre-War of Independence heyday are still very much in evidence in illustrious colonial-style mansions bedecked with Italian frescoes, Wedgwood china and French chandeliers.
Located on the foothills of the Escambray Mountains overlooking the Caribbean, this beautiful city also commands stunning views.
We have a guided tour of Trinidad this morning before lunch and a free afternoon to do your own exploration of this beautiful location. There are also many local markets showing off the local produce and handicrafts (especially textiles and crochet work).
We board our coach this morning and continue northwest to Havana, Cuba’s capital. We arrive around lunchtime, check into our hotel and begin a city tour of this amazing city. In this historic seaport, classic American cars clatter along streets lined with Spanish architecture – all pulsating with African and Caribbean rhythms. Old Havana’s baroque facades, massive-columned palaces, and lush patios reflect Cuba’s colonial past.
This evening we’ll have dinner at a Cuban dance club so don’t forget to pack your salsa shoes.
More guided touring of old and modern Havana this morning before a free afternoon and evening to do your own exploration of this intriguing World Heritage listed city.
This morning we transfer to Havana airport for our direct 3 hour flight to Caracas (Venezuela) and a short connecting flight to Puerto Ordaz, gateway to Canaima National Park and the mighty Angel Falls (the world’s tallest waterfall). Canaima National Park is about the most northern point of the huge Amazon River basin. The Amazon basin drains a 7 million square km area (about the size of Australia) and roughly 40 per cent of the South American continent. We are met at Puerto Ordaz airport and transferred to our hotel.
This morning we return to the airport for a 1 hour flight to Canaima where we transfer to the Canaima Camp and Lagoon with its spectacular views.
Now our adventure really begins! By boat we navigate our way through the waterfalls
of Hacha, Golondrinas, Ucaima and Guadaima to get to the opposite end of the lagoon at Ucaima Port. Here we disembark and walk along a short track to Sapo Falls for a unique and beautiful view from behind the water curtain. We will then continue on to the
spectacular Sapito Falls. We will return via curiara – an indigenous dug-out boat – to Waku Lodge for dinner and an early night. Tomorrow is a big day!
Out of bed early this morning for a small snack before boarding our curiaras, then
land transport, then curiaras again along the Carrao River. After reaching the Well of Happiness and Orquidea Island we will stop to rest and eat a more substantial breakfast. We then continue our journey by boat enjoying the beautiful and pristine landscapes offered by the Churun River before arriving at Mouse Island.
Here we are introduced to the incredible sights and sounds of Angel Falls. This is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, with a height of 979 metres and a plunge of 807 metres. The waterfall drops over the edge of the Auyantepui mountain.
There is an optional walking route for those who want to visit the Laime Viewpoint – another fantastic aspect for Angel Falls. This is a more challenging 2 hour return walk but the Laime viewpoint rewards the energetic hiker with a wonderful view.
After another delicious meal prepared by our guides, we return to Canaima and our lodge and a well-earned and comfortable sleep tonight.
This morning we have an unforgettable photo opportunity “flyover” of Angel Falls as we enjoy our special charter flight over spectacular landscapes to the town of San Fernando de Apure – about 1.5 hours to the west – and in the heart of the Venezuelan Los Llanos (the Spanish term for plains). This is the region of large arable farming projects, many with chequered histories. On arrival in San Fernando we enjoy lunch before boarding our private charter coach and travel west to El Cedral, a working farm.
This area can grow a multitude of crops including cotton, sunflower, soybean, rice and wheat as well as various livestock enterprises. There is also a huge range of wildlife including giant ant-eaters, armadillos, iguanas, blonde and capuchin monkeys, as well as capibaras (the largest rodent in the world) and caimans.
For the early risers you can join in the buffalo milking and help make buffalo cheese. Today we will also inspect some cropping as well as cattle and buffalo production, and of course, meet with some of the local wildlife.
Today we continue west by coach, say goodbye to Los Llanos and enter the Venezuelan Andes. Our destination is the highland and student town of Merida. The city was founded in 1558 and now has a population of more than 250,000 inhabitants. Merida is the home of the University of Los Andes and boasts the highest and longest cable car in the world. Located at an altitude of 1600 metres, the city also has a backdrop of Venezuela’s highest peak – Pico Bolívar at 4981 metres.
Guided city tour this morning before some free time to enjoy lunch and/or shopping at your leisure. We then board our coach and travel to El Vigia on the northern foothills of the Andes. We visit a farm producing vegetables, fruits and commercial flowers before checking into our hotel for dinner and overnight.
This morning we board our charter coach and continue north to the historic and strategic port city of Maracaibo – now Venezuela’s oil capital.
From Maracaibo, we catch a direct 4 pm flight to Panama City (1hr 40m flight). We are met at the airport and transferred to our hotel.
The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is where many worlds coexist. Panama is a regional hub of banking, finance, trade and immigration. The sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers is reminiscent of Miami while the peninsula of Casco Viejo has become a thriving colonial neighborhood where cobblestones link boutique hotels, underground bars and crumbled ruins from pirate days past.
We have a guided tour of the city and the famous Panama Canal and some of its locks – built in 1909, the locks were one of the greatest engineering innovations of the time. Farewell dinner this evening.
Those group members heading home, depart Panama City for a direct flight (7hrs) to Los Angeles and connection home to Australia (15hrs). Arrive home Sunday morning (Aug 2). You also have the option of resting up in LA for the night before your flight home the following evening. We will help you arrange a hotel and transfers.
Those heading to the Galapagos Islands, fly from Panama City to Ecuador (2hrs 20 mins).
For those opting to stay in LA for the night, today is a free day before your flight for home late this evening (arrive home Monday morning, Aug 3).
There’s also plenty of options to fill in your day such as a guided tour of Hollywood, Santa Monica, Rodeo Drive and other iconic LA sights.