It was one of those jaw-dropping moments that travel is supposed to be about: sunrise over a flat calm Nile, the water as pink as the sky above it. Staying at the excellent Red Chilli’s Murchison Falls Rest Camp, we were conveniently situated for the earliest ferry crossing. A queue had quickly formed behind us, but our driver was pleased with himself for being first to board the rudimentary, flat bed vessel. We were too busy gazing at the water to care.
However, that morning’s game drive hadn’t lived up to expectations. Save for a bunch of Rothschild’s giraffe, a scattering of Jackson’s hartebeest, the ubiquitous kob and a few distant hippo, we’d been unlucky. Game sightings hadn’t been as prolific as I’d experienced in other East African nations such as Tanzania and big game were conspicuous by their absence. It was looking increasingly likely that we’d be returning to Kampala a little disappointed, the sunrise proving the highlight of the day. Even our ranger seemed to have lost interest after his initial animated commentary.
Suddenly, we pulled over on the dirt track and looked across at a vehicle careering off road across the park. My first thought was that our ranger was about to give them a serve for off-roading, but as they drew closer, we could see that they were uniformed personnel working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It turned out that one of a pair of elderly giraffes under a nearby tree had caught his hind leg in a snare.
Sadly, the threat from local poaching, despite efforts to tackle the problem, remains a significant one. The Uganda Conservation Foundation reported that bushmeat poaching, primarily through the setting of snares, continues to pose a significant threat to wildlife in the park:
“In April 2011, 40 rangers did a three day patrol of the Delta to Pakuba area of Murchison Falls, the region most densely populated by animals and a tourism hotspot. Over three days 1154 snares were recovered and destroyed. On February 12, 2013, rangers did a six- hour search in the small part of the Delta and discovered 285 wire snares. Large scale clearance of existing snares and gin traps is ongoing. One large scale sweep by rangers was done in March 2014 that resulted in the recovery of 42 wire snares and 6 metal traps. During the same patrol a warthog was found dead, trapped by a metal snare.”
Our MFNP guide told us that there was a particular problem in this part of the park as the nearby water provided the perfect excuse for poachers to masquerade as fishermen. Though warthog and antelope are the intended targets, other animals are caught in the traps. Fighting back is difficult. The park’s considerable size, coupled with budgetary constraints that hinder ranger employment and low salaries for those in post, combine to form a powerful set of obstacles. This is compounded by the park’s proximity to the DRC which facilitates illegal cross-border arms traffic. Marine rangers regularly patrol the riverbanks to enforce the law but the UWA faces an uphill battle.
Initiatives such as the Michigan State University “Snares to Wares” aim to offer locals an alternative source of income, but such projects are a drop in a very large ocean. Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor reported on the issue in January 2016, explaining just how tempting it can be for those living in abject poverty to slip into poaching:
“The scarcity of sustainable livelihoods is also blamed; poverty drives people to make a living from illegal means. For instance, a hippo carcass is worth about Shs1.5m and a kilogramme of buffalo meat costs Shs15,000 on the black market.”
Visitor numbers are down: according to statistics from the organisation Global Conservation, visitor numbers are down to about 50,000 annually (2017 figures), compared to 70,000 a decade ago. The greater the impact of poaching on wildlife numbers, the more likely it will be that visitor numbers will continue to fall as tourists relocate to other countries where wildlife is more abundant. Without revenue generated from park entrance fees, currently worth about $2 million, the outlook becomes even more bleak.
Animals trapped in snares bleed to death if not discovered. “Our” giraffe was one of the lucky ones. The UWA ranger asked if our guide would assist her team in darting the giraffe and removing the snare; when safe, we would be able leave the safari vehicle to watch. The vet prepared the dart and the team set off in pursuit. It took a while to get an unobstructed shot, the giraffe spooked by the presence of humans at such close quarters. Finally, the sedative took hold and the giraffe fell to the floor.
What happened next was almost a blur as events progressed at lightning speed. One ranger covered the giraffe’s head and held down its neck. The snare was cut with wire cutters and the ranger documented each step of the rescue with her camera. It took just a couple of minutes before the elderly creature began to come round, but getting to its feet proved considerably more difficult for the weakened animal.
It was heartbreaking to watch. Time and time again, the animal fought to raise itself, lifting its neck but then crashing down to the ground with a horrifying thud. After the buzz of the rescue, our spirits fell. It was a horrible feeling to be powerless to help. What if the giraffe couldn’t get up? But back in the vehicle, our driver was getting impatient. The ferry left on the hour and we were supposed to be on it. Reluctantly, we clambered back inside our vehicle, craning our necks to see if the giraffe would right itself, and dealing with the enduring disappointment of its repeated, failures as we grew ever more distant.
The following morning, we set off again for our last game drive. As we waited for our vehicle to disembark, we caught sight of the ranger from the day before. She had good news. Eventually, with the help of a sling and a lot of heaving from the team, it staggered to its feet and headed off to join its mate in the bush.
For once, it was a happy ending. But for many, the story is heartbreaking one. I hope that the UWA secures the funding it needs from the impoverished Ugandan government in order to win what seems to be an almost impossible fight.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.
I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.
Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.
Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.
As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.
Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.
Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.
I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.
The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.
Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.
After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.
In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.
You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:
During my trip to Uganda I stayed at the three backpacker hostels in Kampala. Each was very different, so if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in the capital, my reviews might help you decide which is best for you.
Red Chilli Hideaway
The clue’s in the name with this one – it’s tucked away at the end of one of the roads leading south from Kampala’s city centre. It’s as much a resort as it is a hostel, with a sizeable swimming pool as well as two bars. Day guests can pay for the use of its facilities, but it retains a backpacker vibe nonetheless. Staff are helpful and efficient.
The location is both Red Chilli’s biggest plus and its worst drawback. Because it’s so far out of the centre – around 10km from downtown – it’s inconvenient if you intend to visit the city’s sights. Traffic is horrendous, so that 10km journey can easily take an hour or more of frustrating stop-start driving, more in rush hour. If you’re coming into the city on a tourist shuttle such as Pineapple Express, note that drop off will be at the Oasis Mall, still a considerable distance from Red Chilli.
That said, if you’re looking for a place to unwind as part of your Ugandan or East African trip, it’s the perfect spot. Security’s excellent – all cars entering the compound are checked thoroughly, with mirrors used to check the underside of the vehicle. Guards on the gate are also a reassuring presence in this relatively remote location. The views across the valley to the surrounding countryside further distance you from the hubbub of the city and it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Sunrises are spectacular and well worth rising early for.
The multiple accommodation blocks contain a range of room types, from dorms to private ensuites. The latter are roomy and are equipped with fans and showers that actually deliver hot water. I slept well, cocooned from the noise of those socialising in the bar. The room was basic but clean.
Red Chilli Hideaway is the sister property to Red Chilli Rest Camp up at Murchison Falls. I took the three day budget safari, which costs $320pp in shared tents and about $80 extra if you upgrade to a self contained banda. It was well organised and well thought out, and though the distance travelled was considerable, the two included game drives and boat trip made the package excellent value for money as well. The safari price includes a free dorm bed the evening before – it’s definitely a good idea to stay in order to avoid a ridiculously early start just to reach Red Chilli itself.
Would I stay there again?
Yes, if I was looking for a place to stay put rather than get around.
Cost of a single room with ensuite bathroom $45 with a discount for booking the safari – I paid $33 (note that prices have recently risen)
If you’re looking for a sociable backpackers then this is the pick of the bunch, but I also found it to be the noisiest of the three. Located on busy Acacia Avenue, there’s a constant buzz of traffic as well as considerable noise from the immediate vicinity – bells ringing when people asked to be let in and chatter for instance. My single room was tiny, the bed taking up the whole of the window side of the room, making it difficult to access the window. There was a small hole in the glass, so even with the window shut, it wasn’t remotely soundproof, though mesh and a mosquito net ensured I wasn’t bothered by the bugs.
The showers and toilets were in a room a few doors down the corridor. They were clean and the water was hot. I rented a towel for 4000 shillings (a little less than £1). However, there was no door to the bathroom itself and (unlike the rest of the rooms in my section) my room had mesh above the door rather than a solid wall. The noise from flushing toilets and running water was therefore bothersome. I managed about three hours sleep which wasn’t ideal.
Where Bushpig scored highly was in its food. There was an outdoor bar with tables. An extensive menu sold really tasty food at reasonable prices and it was a popular place to entertain friends as the number of visiting diners indicated. Staff were approachable and helpful. The manager went out of his way to get me connected to the WiFi when my devices were being uncooperative and it proved to be the speediest once I was online. Also, the reception staff helped me figure out the location of the relocated Post Bus service as well as sort me out with a reliable taxi.
Would I stay there again?
Probably not, on account of the noise, though it was a temptingly convenient location. However, I would definitely visit for the food and atmosphere in the bar garden.
Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $25, which represented the best value of the places I stayed
Occupying a site in a quiet side street close to Acacia Mall, this backpackers had the most convenient location. It was the smallest of the three and felt the most basic. My single room was directly off the main dining room, which could have presented a noise issue had there been more guests, but in fact I got a good night’s rest. Staff were efficient, and my driver for the late night airport transfer was waiting for me outside Entebbe Airport. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were especially bothered if I was enjoying myself and came across as a bit bored by the whole customer service thing.
The shower room was very basic. The cubicles were fairly clean but the windows and walls were grubby and there wasn’t much space to hang clothes or a towel while you showered. The water was almost cold, adding to the monastic feel. Though it was dearer than Bushpig, the room was larger, but the facilities were definitely a lot more rundown and in need of modernisation. I only ate breakfast here, and that too was basic. There was a lounge and several traditional hostel noticeboards where you could post requests for shared rides and the like.
I did like the garden area, which was a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink with plenty of shade. You could qualify for a free beer if you went litter picking in the vicinity of the backpackers. Just outside the gate, Uber bodas (motorcycle taxis) congregated and I had no difficulty organising an Uber car and driver when I needed to go into the centre of the city a short distance away.
Would I stay there again?
Possibly. Despite it being the most basic, it functioned well and its proximity to the Acacia Mall and a number of cafes and restaurants helped.
Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $34, a little steep given the quality but admittedly reflecting that it was significantly larger than the room at Bushpig.
Moldova celebrates its National Wine Day over the first weekend in October. If you want to sample wines from the country’s many wineries without putting in the legwork, this is your chance. Representatives from the major labels come to the capital Chișinău and set up beside Cathedral Park. The organisers even offer a wine tasting passport with tour guide to provide key background information should you wish to know a little more about what you’re drinking.
From the UK, there are pretty much two direct options: Air Moldova from Stansted and Wizz Air from Luton. (I also found an airline called FlyOne, but it didn’t seem to be operating flights at this time of year.) When I booked, the Wizz Air option was significantly cheaper but did have the disadvantage of flying overnight on the outbound leg. If you’re going to do this one, hope that your hotel will allow you to check in early or prepare to take an afternoon nap. That’s of course if like me you’ve reached the age where staying up all night is no longer a good thing.
There’s a convenient trolley bus which departs from right outside the arrivals terminal door. It takes about half an hour to get into the city centre and costs just 2 lei, about 10p. Look for the number 30 and pay the conductor on the bus. If you need to find change, there are exchange facilities that open early in the morning landside; I bought a cup of coffee which gave me somewhere warm to wait for the bus and the right money to buy a ticket. It was a little disconcerting when the bus stopped and the driver got out; I’d forgotten that trolley buses are a lot of effort when the wires don’t extend the length of the route. What was good, though, was that the buses ran from very early in the morning until late at night, even on Sunday.
Getting a room
I opted for the almost brand new City Center Hostel. It was located just across the road from Cathedral Park and around the corner from the bus stop. My room had twin bunks and for single occupancy cost just £27 for the night. The shared bathrooms were down the hall but were spotless. If you can’t bring yourself to stay in a hostel, next door is the conveniently located Bristol Central Park Hotel and opposite is the Radisson Blu. Both I’m sure are very nice but would set you back a whole lot more.
Getting your culture fix
I’d read that there was a parade and early signs were promising. There were plenty of people in national costume and in front of the big sound stage, rehearsals were still in full swing just minutes before the action was supposed to kick off. I was able to get close enough to see the dancers, which was fortunate as once the formal proceedings began, some rather surly security personnel did a very good job of keeping everyone right back out of the way. The view was further obstructed by press photographers and cameramen. There were no programmes in English, but this lady had brought her own from the local newspaper – no help to me, alas:
Though I did manage to see some of the winery representatives presenting their baskets of grapes, this part of the proceedings was something of a let down. However, later, once all the dignitaries had said their piece, the bands came on and the dancing started – fun to watch and even more fun to join in. The event’s free too, which was even better.
With a tasting passport costing just 200 lei (£10), it’s hard to resist the chance to try as many of the wines on offer as you can. I made my way to one of the information kiosks (they’re located at either end of the main drag) and grabbed a place for one of the English speaking tours.
Our guide was as hipster as they come, but explained the different characteristics of the wine well at first. As the afternoon wore on, he became progressively more tipsy (like the rest of us) and at one point dropped a bottle of wine on the floor in front of him.
Some of the wines were too dry for my taste but I did enjoy the Cricova sparkling wines. I’m no connoisseur – the sweeter and fizzier the wine, the more I like it. Fortunately, the passport contained an extra token for “your favourite” wine so I had a second glass. It was a pity there are such stringent regulations at airports these days as I’d have liked to buy some to bring back.
By the way, if you are going to visit one of the wineries outside Chișinău, I’d recommend Mileștii Mici. Its huge underground vault can hold almost 2 million bottles of wine and its subterranean rooms and passageways extend for around 120 miles. They run organised tours so there’s no need to worry about getting lost down there forever.
Fortunately, there was plenty of opportunity to taste the local food as well, which helped to soak up a little of the alcohol I’d consumed. Adjacent to the wine stands are the food stalls. Many sold similar fare: succulent pork, tasty sausage, cabbage and potatoes. A lot of the stalls sold by weight; you indicated roughly how much they should pile on your plate and they told you how much you owed them. I had a heaped plate for about 75 lei, which worked out to under £4, and it was delicious. Communal tables mean it’s easy to make friends while you eat.
Getting to see more of the city
As I was visiting Transnistria, my time in Chișinău was limited. I did get to see the city’s smallest statue. Representing the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, it took a while to locate, not least because someone I asked for directions Googled it and found an old article which said it was yet to be installed. It’s on the railings lining the lake in Valea Morilor Park – persevere and you’ll find it.
I also had a wander around an open air museum outside the city centre on the airport road; there was a wedding taking place so I didn’t have the chance to go in the wooden church. I finished up at the Ciuflea Monastery. Despite being close to the main road, it was remarkably peaceful.
This week, I read in the news that the King of Swaziland has decreed that the country’s name will henceforth be known as eSwatini. He’s been referring to it as such for many years but this pronouncement, carefully timed to conicide with the kingdom’s 50th anniversary of independence makes it official.
The name means “land of the Swazis” and you’re probably thinking that it’s not so far removed from “Swaziland”. The king would beg to differ. Allegedly he’s fed up with people confusing his tiny landlocked country with another, larger landlocked country: Switzerland. And the country didn’t change its name on independence, so better late than never, you might say. Regardless, as eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, the name will stay, though it has angered some in the country who say the king should have better things to focus on – like their beleagured economy for instance.
It brought to mind the announcement from the Czech Republic a couple of years ago that they’d prefer we shortened the country’s name to Czechia. The Czech Republic form would stay, but to make advertising easier, Czechia should be used if people wanted a catchier moniker. But too many people think it sounds like troubled Chechnya and the name isn’t sticking. Hungary tried something similar a few years earlier, in 2012, officially becoming Hungary after being the Hungarian Republic. I’d been calling it by the wrong name all those years.
Cape Verde officially altered the English version of its name to the Republic of Cabo Verde in 2013, though if you book a holiday to the islands, most UK agents still refer to it as Cape Verde. Changing your name is one thing. Getting others to follow suit is another thing entirely.
Often, the act of changing a country’s name comes with independence as part of a wider declaration that the country is now in charge of its own affairs. Until 1825, Bolivia was Upper Peru, Dahomey became Benin in 1975 and Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984. Sri Lanka had been Ceylon until 1972 while Siam became Thailand in 1939 – and save for a short period in the 1940s it’s been Thailand ever since. I could go on.
Splits and mergers are another common reason for name changes. The island of Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganika to form Tanzania on independence in 1961. Malaya and Singapore combined with Sabah and Sarawak to become Malaysia in 1963. However, thanks to a memorable ad campaign, it will always be Malaysia Truly Asia to me. In the splits camp, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, spawning Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro.
Sometimes the changes can happen so often that people can’t keep pace. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. It was the Congo Free State in 1884, then Belgian Congo in 1908; the Republic of the Congo in 1960 before adding Democratic in 1964. Then in 1971, it became Zaire under Mobutu before reverting to the Democratic Republic of the Congo once more in 1997. And just to make matters more confusing still, the country next door now calls itself Republic of the Congo.
Now the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has thrown his hat into the ring as well. He suggests that the suffix -stan doesn’t have the best connotations when it comes to attracting investment, thanks to some politically troubled neighbours. He proposes perhaps Kazak Yeli or “country of the Kazakhs”. The country’s ethnic diversity doesn’t make this an easy switch. Only time will tell how that one pans out.
The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look. Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.
We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.
Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.
The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.
Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.
Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.
The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.
Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.
This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it. It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.
Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at:
The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.