Journey to Birán in search of Castro's past 
 By Lydia Bell
Birán is a tiny hamlet in the steamy, jungle-dense, tourism-free side of Cuba where Fidel Castro grew up. Lydia Bell visits his family's finca and his revolutionary HQ in a clapped-out Moskvich blaring Charanga Forever. It is a long and tortuous odyssey but one which is worth every bump in the road…

Lydia Bell is a brilliant award-winning freelance travel and features journalist. See for more information.
Photos by Rolando Puyol, © All rights reserved.

The Castro family finca in Cuba's wild east is now a museum, the Conjunto Histórico Birán, above, celebrating Fidel and his revolution. The clapped-out Moskvich is blaring Charanga Forever, the hottest salsa band in Cuba. Its owner, Yasser, is being paid to drive us to the Sierra Maestra. The blacked-out windows are de rigueur to hide his illegal cargo – the yuma (foreigner, me) and her Cuban husband. We are cutting past the Bay of Nipe, shooting at breakneck speed down straight roads banked by thigh-high sugar cane, the Sierra Cristal hovering on the horizon, when Yasser mentions that Fidel Castro's childhood farm is five kilometres away. I plead with him to make a detour.

Twenty minutes later, past a tiny hamlet called Birán, we arrive at a remote farm overlooked by mountains, set in sun-kissed meadows. There is no one there save a couple of guards who send for a guide for us. We have chanced upon an extraordinary place: the estate where the nine Castro siblings spent their halcyon childhood.

I had no idea Fidel's father was so successful. An immigrant from Spain, Angel Castro married Lina, a Cuban girl 28 years his junior, and bought a farm, which he kept expanding (Fidel ultimately confiscated land from his father: no special treatment there). Angel built a general store, telegraph room, school, hotel and mini cockfighting stadium.

You can visit the house Fidel's parents lived in until their death. Lina's bedroom is dotted with religious statues, her glass-top dresser decorated with clippings of her son in the jungle. There is Angel's old wardrobe with his clothes hanging there, and all the family bric-a-brac. In a country of closed doors, which knows about as much about museum curating as it does about hedge fund management, this is most compelling – perhaps because it was rescued from dilapidation and passionately restored in 1979 by Celia Sánchez, Fidel's friend and rumoured lover, rather than by a bunch of Communist party officials with a lot of agenda and little insight.

I don't know why I should be surprised that austere Fidel spent his formative years here, so far from the bright lights of Havana. Like many Cuban anti-imperialists, including those who fought the Spanish, he was brought up wealthy, amid great poverty, in the east. In Oriente, peasant insurrection and revolutionary passions were always easily ignited.

Today Oriente remains the Cuba of your wildest imagination, a world away from beach loungers, cuba libre cocktails and musicians singing Guantanamera on auto-pilot. It has dense jungles, hidden rivers and unvisited coasts. The weather is steamier and more temperamental; the roads peter out into tracks. The people are darker, their mores and beliefs more African, their manners lackadaisical and Caribbean.

If we feel we've seen a new side to Fidel here, where we are headed is more fearfully revolutionary: the Sierra Maestra, the tallest mountains in Cuba, where the rebels hid while they plotted their revolution (see the Stephen Soderburgh biopic, Che: Part One, for details). Santo Domingo in the Sierra Maestra is the jumping-off point for La Comandancia, Castro's headquarters. We arrive at dusk, aware that it is by the grace of God that Yasser's panting Moskvich made it up these gradients.

Villa Santo Domingo is a collection of cabanas wedged into the side of the road next to a river in the middle of nowhere, overlooked by towering peaks. We cross the river to find a village of wooden shacks and tethered horses, where they seem to husband farmyard animals in miniature: chicks, piglets and kid goats, even puppies. On the path there are two boulders, daubed with one word each – "Fidel" and "Raúl". Not the usual government-ordered murals, just villagers who still have revolutionary fervour in their breasts. We return to the villa to find them spit-roasting a pig.

The next morning we awake to discover that the downside to this apparent idyll is a complete lack of organisation. The only way to get up to the mountain is by taxi. There is a visitor centre, but you are supposed to transport your guide. There are no taxis available till midday.

In typical Cuban style, the guides in the centre are busy: watching a Rambo-style film. In typical Cuban style, our appointed guide is thoroughly miserable to be coming up the mountain with us (when our taxi finally arrives) and doesn't bother hiding it. And in typical Cuban style, he turns out to be charming and amusing, and offers an insight into the failings of the local farming economy.

When Castro had his headquarters here, he chose it for its virgin jungle, obscurity and austerity. A sympathetic local population protected the rebels. We stop at the house of a family who delivered early warning signs of outsiders. Their impossibly isolated home has turkeys, peacocks, chickens and a panoramic view from a terrace with rocking chairs. We eat juicy oranges sliced with a sabre.

Arriving at La Comandancia we see that the dwellings – hospital, radio tent, lookout and small museum, among others – were thatched shacks some distance from each other. At Fidel's hut, a nest of bees has taken residence by the front door. Whether you are a socialist or not, whether you admire what has happened in Cuba since the revolution or not, the romance and idealism of this place is moving. We are alone on this mountain today, walking in Casdtro's footsteps for the second time in two days.

We leave Santo Domingo for Santiago, which, the taxi driver informs us, is the home of the most annoying policemen in Cuba. To avoid them he peels off the motorway at El Cristo, a village in the hills just above Santiago with stunning plantation-style mansions in spectacular states of dilapidation. The closer you get to Santiago, the more overpowering the heat and humidity become.

    Journey to Bir?n in search of Castro's past   Journey to Bir?n in search of Castro's past - II   Next ››
Journey to Birán in search of Castro's past
June 2010
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