Portals into the past are everywhere in Villa Clara - from a turn-of-the-century steam train chugging through the countryside and an old sugar factory with its innards exposed like a grandfather clock to oxen dragging ploughs across russet fields and horse-and-carts trotting up old Spanish colonial streets.
Right at the heart of the sunshine socialist state, these pockets of time have been largely preserved by sixty years of isolation from modern global homogeny as much as by any deliberate effort by UNESCO and other heritage hoarders, and offer an exciting dose of inter-dimensional time travel.
Twin pillars of local life in north-central Cuba, the towns of Caibarien and Remedios are linked by a delightful vintage railway and make perfect partners for a day trip if you're staying in Villa Clara, Cayo Santa Maria or are simply passing through the province.
I headed out to begin my day at the Sugarcane Agro-Industrial Museum of Caibarien, travelling through a picture of age-old pastoral life worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel set in the tropics. Goats, hens, horses and cows milled about everywhere with no obvious organisation, highways were hemmed in by banana groves, coconut palms, sugar plantations, mango and guava trees, while enormous turkey vultures hung in the air above unkempt plains.
Close to Cuba's cay-strewn north coast, Caibarien is an old fishing community. Its heritage is announced ceremoniously at the town's main roundabout by a giant statue of a crab installed in the 1960s. Aside from catching crabs, many of the townsfolk used to work in the sugar industry, cultivating cane for the local factory to process into sugar, as well as molasses to make Cuba's famous Ron Mulata.
Time has been trapped in a loop at the Agro-Industrial museum, which is preserved just as it was the day it closed with enormous cogs, crushers, barrels and vats housed beneath an enormous corrugated roof. Several of its former staff have been kept on to give demonstrations of the sugar refinement and rum distilling process, while a collection of vintage machinery and engines adds to the museum's interest.
At the entrance booth I was handed a plastic cup of sweet sugar cane juice and a little bottle of white silver dry Ron Mulata de Cuba. A fairly new rum, 40% proof, crisp, clean and launched in 1993, it's one of the most popular on an island that knows an awful lot about rum. It's still distilled in Villa Clara, which has been at the heart of the island's sugar cane industry for centuries, and the 50-year-old distillery of Heriberto Duquesne produces up to three million litres of the stuff a year, employing around 80 people.
Feeling it was slightly too early to try the Ron Mulata, I slipped it into my bag and sipped on the sugar cane juice instead. To the side of the booth a mini sugar cane crusher demonstrated the action of the mill, squeezing the sweet juice from the fibrous canes.
On a platform beneath the factory's canopied roof, a couple of guys were conducting a spectacular show of the brewing process, rolling up empty oak barrels and setting them ablaze. Made from the finest molasses, the rum is matured in 180-litre white oak barrels, gifting the spirit with a deep flavour.
Upstairs more exhibits showcased the museum's heritage while curious visitors crowding round a table where a dextrous Cuban man was rolling cigars from tobacco leaves sourced in the surrounding area.
But the main highlight of the museum is the vintage steam train that now takes passengers up the line to Remedios. Announcing its intention to depart, the driver stoked up the engine and loud hoots rang out across the grounds sending visitors clambering aboard.
Riding the old steam train, I couldn't help but think of Back to the Future II, and as the train picked up speed I was excited to see where this time travelling trip would take me next. We rattled along past russet fields still ploughed by oxen, thick coils of smoke bellowed in our wake, and a hoot of the horn signalled local families to emerge from their colourful homesteads to wave at the passers-by.
Da do ron ron
Disembarking at the lively town of Remedios, 18 kilometres to the south of Caibarien, I found myself in the central square with colonial buildings splashed in bright colours and cobblestones enclosing a small park. The handsome San Juan de los Remedios church stood watch over the square where a Cuban parade was preparing to venture forth, and I nipped into a classy cafe for a cup of tea to perk me up.
With a reputation for throwing spectacular parades and street parties, Remedios is rich in rumba traditions and has one of the oldest parrandas in Cuba so I was thrilled to encounter a lunchtime carnival in the main square where I could party with the professionals. The "parranda" evolved from a musical parade calling people to religious services over Christmas, and the festive period is still the best time of year to experience it. For visitors curious about the town's vibrant heritage, Remedios' Parrandas Museum is a fascinating and colourful stop.
Joining the drummers, brass players and locals in a happy shuffle around the square I felt again the strangely-seductive and completely-inclusive atmosphere of comradery that's present throughout Cuba. I was drawn into the lobby of the Encanto Mascotte Hotel where a special rum - "500 Años Remedios Rum" - was being launched. Inside the gorgeous bright yellow and blue atrium, I took a seat and sampled the new rich and smoky rum, swirling it around a classy brandy glass and sipping while I contemplated Cuban culture in a heady haze.
In some ways these little heritage towns represent the Caribbean of yesteryear, but Cuba is different to everywhere else. Left to bubble without outside interference, Cuban culture has evolved to be powerful, unique and unapologetic too. Whether or not the result of socialism, the spirit of shared human experience is strong - no one is separate, all are part of the whole. The towns are vital and there's an energy and a buzz even in the sleepiest of streets. People will see you and come out just to wave hello, smiles are readily returned, offers to dance are frequent. There can be few more rewarding places to travel.