Viva la evolution

SLUMPED in the worn leather back seat of a Buick that has seen better decades, my friend and I watch, with a mixture of amusement and concern, as the elderly driver strains to keep this show on the road. To head straight, he must jam the large steering wheel firmly to the right.

As we lurch past a horse-drawn cart carrying half a dozen schoolchildren and rattle alongside a sun-beaten pavement scattered with slow-moving pedestrians, we debate when this vehicle would last have been deemed roadworthy back home. We guess about 1971.

Thankfully, it's only a five-minute ride and we are dropped 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, eating ice-cream and reflecting on our fortnight's travels around this Caribbean island.

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.

We'd spent the penultimate morning of our trip on Santa Clara's outskirts, mired in the legend of the man who had shadowed us throughout our journey.

From bustling cities to colonial towns, somnolent villages to idyllic beaches, it had been hard to escape the intense, bearded stare of Che Guevara. Guevara's mausoleum in Santa Clara 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 public square that draws a regular flow of tour buses.

As we're travelling independently and have time to kill before catching our regular bus back to Havana, we hopped in the battered green Buick and headed to downtown Santa Clara. It's a breath of fresh - though hot and sticky - air. There are scant foreign visitors and, as a result, none of the touts and hustlers that prowl the popular tourist destinations.

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

We also frivolously spend our remaining Cuban pesos (CUPs). For most of our trip, we'd used Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) - a currency created especially for tourists. Accommodation, transport, dining, souvenirs and other "luxuries" (such as rum and chocolate) are paid in the CUC, which is pegged close to the US dollar and is 24 times more valuable than the CUP, the currency in which most Cubans receive their salaries. Across Cuba, some places accept only CUCs, others solely CUPs.

In central Santa Clara, we struggle to find a CUC joint. Skipping from CUP cafe to restaurant to ice-cream stalls, we spend the equivalent of 40¢.

Feeling flush, and a little guilty, we leave heaps more in tips. And we wonder what Che would make of the dual currency, a system that, to us, creates a divide between the CUC-haves and have-nots and sticks two fingers up at the egalitarian ideals of the revolution.

The pure socialism envisaged by Guevara has long evaporated. Already strangled by the US trade embargo (52 years old this year), the Cuban economy was almost crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the country entering an era of hardships and shortages known as "the Special Period". It's emerging from it, slowly but doggedly, in experimental fashion. Neglected when the subsidies from Moscow were pouring in, tourism has overtaken sugar as Cuba's main revenue earner, while private enterprise is being widely embraced, sparked by the government's decision to lay off a million state workers and a target to have half of working-age Cubans in private employment by 2015.

In the past year, the number of officially registered self-employed - known in Cuba as "cuentapropistas" - has doubled and thousands of others wheel and deal unlicensed.

The changes are seen, and felt, most vividly in the capital. An entrepreneurial zeal fuels both Habana Vieja (Old Havana), a zone of polished colonial streets, squares, markets, bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and hotels, catering largely for tourists, and the city's earthy, residential neighbourhoods.

Exploring these vibrant streets is far more intriguing than ticking off the regular signposted sights, which include pretty churches, art galleries, museums and the old haunts of Ernest Hemingway.

South of Parque Central, in Habana Centro, once-grand Parisian-style apartment buildings, scarred by peeling stucco, cracked windows and crumbling balustraded balconies, provide a shabbily photogenic backdrop to a hive of commercial activity.

Roaming fruit and veg vendors, jewellery merchants and CD salesmen trade and shout on streets lined with hole-in-the-wall pizzerias, espresso and soft-drink stands, paladares (humble family-run eateries), music bars, craft shops and mechanics' garages.

Shoe shiners nudge figures frantically collecting, and crushing, cans for recycling. Vest-wearing blokes, manning bicycle taxis or fume-belching lime-green, sky-blue, tango-orange and gaudy pink Chevys, Cadillacs and Buicks stalk every corner, while blue-and-white stickers adorn countless buildings.

This is the symbol for casa particulares (ostensibly spare rooms in Cuban family homes).

We stay in them throughout Cuba, charmed by the old-school decor and hospitality, fussed over by gregarious Cubans, who rustle up eggy, fruity breakfasts and meaty dinners of banquet-sized proportions.

Despite the country's reputation for repressing free speech, we find our hosts frank and open about the successes and failures of the revolution and their hopes and fears for the future.

Cubans haven't suddenly turned into a nation of puritanical toilers.

From dawn until midnight, you'll still see men, women and children lingering on streets spiked with the smells of home cooking and the sounds of salsa, son, jazz and marimba drifting from open windows and doorways. They talk, chuckle, joke, argue, sing, dance, eye each other lustily and play chess, checkers, dominoes, backgammon and baseball.

In Cuba, it seems, a lack of disposable income and state-of-the-art material goods is no impediment to fun.

After all the walking - we cover 50-plus kilometres in five days, including several strolls up and down the sea-hugging Malecon - we're glad to swap Havana for somewhere cuter and more laid-back. Arriving in Vinales, a three-hour bus ride away in Pinar del Rio province, Cuba's coffee-growing heartland, we're swamped by dozens of casa owners waving placards and flyers. Luckily, we'd already booked. The commotion is a blip - albeit one that recurs when buses roll in.

Surrounded 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 verandahs. Despite more than 20 kilometres of Caribbean beaches, Varadero doesn't grip us. Cuba's main tourist resort, it has the country's greatest cluster of all-inclusive hotels, attracting the most package-holiday visitors, largely from Canada and Europe.

But it lacks the character we find in abundance in Trinidad, a colonial jewel on the opposite (south) coast.

Surrounded by scenic green mountains, its wonky, cobbled streets are flush with stunning churches, mansions and civic buildings. A 15-minute taxi ride away, Playa Ancon is straight out of a holiday brochure, a long, sandy cove washed by blue-emerald sea dotted with tiny, reef-edged islands ripe for snorkelling and diving.

We laze, sunbathe and drink from rum-tinged coconuts before watching the huge, fiery sun burn into the Caribbean. Later, back in Trinidad, we snaffle delicious lobster for 6 CUCs, then 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 marvellous, hip-swinging Cubans. As they dance the night away, we agree: while this island will change in the next 10, 20, 30 years, some, glorious, things will surely remain the same.

Trip notes

Getting there

Flight Centre has a return fare from Sydney to Cancun via LA and Houston with Continental for $1479; From Cancun, fly to Havana (1hr) with Cubana Airlines, return fares from about $270;

Getting around

Viazul runs comfortable, airconditioned buses across Cuba;

Staying there

Hotels can be found in most tourist destinations, especially Havana and Varadero. Casa particulares are everywhere. Expect to pay about 25 CUCs ($23.30) to 40 CUCs for a twin/double room and more for extras such as breakfast (5 CUCs).

More information

Five essential tips

1 If you're staying in casa particulares, bring an English-Spanish dictionary. Some hosts' English is rudimentary at best.

2 Cubans are generally friendly but be wary of random "helpful" locals trying to spark up conversations, especially in the tourist centres. Chances are they will be trying to hustle you or sell you something.

3 Internet addicts prepare for detox. Cyber access in Cuba is sparse, slow and pricey (about 8 CUCs an hour).

4 Before taking a taxi or other form of private transport, agree on a fare. Meters aren't used.

5 Exchange a few CUCs for a wad of Cuban pesos. You never know when you'll need them.