Cuba trip the perfect adventure
THE three-hour flight from Canada to Havana, Cuba, is descending and outside the sun has slipped behind the horizon revealing the first bright stars of the night. A beautiful night to start any adventure.
But in the cabin, sweating and wild-eyed, I stare at an immigration card and try to imagine the hell I'm heading towards.
The whole damn thing is in Spanish (a language that despite hours spent in classes, I can take to the dance but can't yet hit the floor for fear of humiliation) and all I can imagine is ending up in some rundown Cuban jail, fending of giant cockroaches and madness because I accidently ticked the occupation box as 'spy' instead of 'tourist'.
My sense of horror grows on the pitch-black roads leading from the José Martí Airport into the heart of Cuba's capital.
Either someone forget to tell the Cuban people well lit highways were a pre-cursor for proper road safety or the local drivers are a bunch of mad cowboys, riding blind down a maze of dark streets and alleys.
I fear my driver is of the latter persuasion. So is his wife, riding shotgun up front, nonchalantly reading a magazine as a I, sliding from side to side in the back (no seatbelts either), pray to every god I can recall.
On miraculously reaching the hotel in Old Havana, I find my room, lock the door and seriously question my decision-making abilities.
Havana is swinging by the time the sun rises over the city.
Locals and tourists swarm the cobblestone streets slicing the beautiful but decaying architecture.
The air is alive with music and the never-ending reek of cigar smoke.
Salsa dancers shake and twirl in restaurants guarding the pavement while decades old Buicks, Chevvies and Pontiacs block small lanes with their noisy crawl, enticing howls from local taxi drivers eager for the next fare.
And everywhere, the painted eyes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the old revolution fighters, watch from graffitied walls.
The city is loud, chaotic and exciting, but is just a mere hint of what is behind the curtain of a country still cloaked in mystery and intrigue.
The biggest island of the great Caribbean network, Cuba floats off the Mexican coast, soaking in the warm sea that take its name from the great chain of islands beginning near the United States coast and finishing down by the South American shoreline.
Green, rugged mountains swarm the stunning coastline and imprison a flat, rural interior. The days are as hot as they are sunny, but the air never seems to be dragged down by the wet mugginess usually associated with tropical paradises.
Poor but rich in happiness, the locals, a mix of Spanish invaders and indigenous populace, make ends meet in an economy strangled by a US trade embargo, an existing punishment for the island's desire to fall in step with the heartbeat of socialism.
However, the best way to make a dollar these days is off the burgeoning tourist trade, and with the old fears of communism, Russians and nuclear warfare beginning to fade, business is beginning to boom.
Havana is the most accessible way to start any Cuban adventure. The city offers its own unique experience before opening the road to adventures beyond.
Down by the city's port, the ghosts of Old Havana beautifully haunt the modern traveller. Museums, galleries, theatres, forts, bars and monuments (there are endless sites dedicated to writer Ernest Hemingway's stay on the island) offer more than one glimpse into Cuba's colonial history.
If that isn't enough, let the old streets lead you through a maze of European-inspired buildings, beautiful and stunning, more so as time continues to drag them down.
I spend four days wandering the old town before I discover Havana's other half.
Centro Havana is the city's take on the modern capital.
The main business district, restaurants and nightclubs laze around the feet of skyscrapers. But however modernized, the new Havana cannot escape the rum, smoke and music that were born long ago down in Old Havana.
Travelling around Cuba can be problematic. A string of non-direct routes, timetable changes and lack of availability can send even the hardened globetrotter into a cloud of madness.
I was burnt with my attempts to reach the southern tip of the island by air (quickly filled, once-a-week flights are a priceless treasure), so instead I hit the road, hitching a bus ride across the plains and out towards the coastal town of Trinidad.
Trinidad reeks of the sea. You can taste it, smell it on the breeze and feel it in the heat.
But don't be fooled, the ocean may be king, but the surrounding hinterland and the old town itself - world heritage listed in 1988 - offer more than enough for those who can shun the Caribbean's charm.
Dotted with old churches, museums and surrounded by a vast mountain landscape of walking tracks, waterfalls and horse trails, Trinidad is the tourist mecca of Cuba.
The lazy mornings burst with an avalanche of day trippers, weighed down by cameras and guides. But once the dust has settled and the tourist stalkers pack up their wares, the afternoon streets are left to the local children and those wanting to explore, not just visit.
And there are gems to be found. Down by the main plaza, off one of the back streets, is the birthplace of the Canchánchara. A mixture of honey, lemon juice and rum - sweet, sour and heat - the cocktail is the perfect companion to farewell the sun setting over the city and out below the waves.
Bidding goodbye to the sun-drenched coast was a hard sell, but a hotel bellhop was adamant I head inland to the Pinar del Río region, and more importantly, it's crowning jewel - the valley of Viñales.
The road into Viñales is a stairway to the heavens - literally.
The steep ascent offers spectacular views of the countryside, but one slip of a tyre and it would be weeks before the carnage could be salvaged from those deep ravines and grieving next of kin be notified.
But once you reach the summit, the fear of death at every corner slips into an astonished sense of wonder, for high on this inland plateau exists a mountain range so out of place, you would almost think you have been transported to the other side of the world.
Standing alone like sentries at post, or huddled together imposing over houses, roads and rivers, the sheer, the breathtaking, cliff faces gouging the region are the long-lost cousins of the craggy, rotting-teeth mountain landscape biting into South-East Asia.
In fact, Viñales and places such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia have more than the mountains in common.
The warm air demands more than one cold beer, jungles of palms swarm everywhere and tropical storms roll in every afternoon, like clockwork, to wash away the heat of the day.
The only missing link is the ocean, 180 kilometres away and some 300 metres below, not to be found lapping at the mountain's feet.
The town itself is not a major metropolis. The main road, a couple of hundred metres of houses, local shops and restaurants, couldn't be mistaken for a bar-hopping, night-time extravaganza.
Rather, this is the place to unwind, relax and spend your days combing the mountains, markets, cigar plantations and caves.
The invitations to underground caverns are a major drawcard for the area.
The Cuevo del Indio (Cave of the Indians) and Cuevo de José Miguel (Cave of José Miguel) are the most accessible cave networks, but with the help of local knowledge, the more adventurous are sure to find hidden labyrinths which offer a greater challenge.
It's 5am in the morning and I'm heading back to Havana's airport.
The taxi driver and I are making light work in conversing, mostly in Spanish to my surprise, and outside the roads are still dead dark. But unlike my late night arrival, there is no fear on these lightless roads.
Cuba has always been a journey I wanted to undertake; a place shrouded in so much shadow, it stood as a beacon of adventure.
And though it remain a mystery, even to those who have tread across its plains, mountains, beaches and cities, it now resides as a living memory of spectacular wonder and excitement - a perfect destination of choice.