"Raul Castro ran the bar."
My guide said. I arched my eyebrows in surprise.
"He was the economist."
She confirmed, quickly, sensing my puzzlement, as we peered into the Dove Bar, the watering hole which served the workers at the Castro family farm in Cuba's jungly far east.
Few travellers have heard about the farm where Cuba's Revolution leaders Fidel and Raul Castro were born. It's a remote plot close to the Sierra Cristal National Park in the east of the island, 500 miles from Havana, and doesn't get a huge amount of press.
But, to understand the Castro brothers who have ruled Cuba for nearly 60 years, a visit to their birthplace - now a museum - in eastern Cuba offers an up close look at the lives of this secretive family. As the first anniversary of Fidel Castro's death approaches, I went to visit the brothers' birthplace in Biran, bumping along in a sidecar attached to a 1963 Ural motorbike.
Sugar and trees support Fidel's family farm
In flat sugarcane land just before the foothills of the Cristal mountains lies the small village of Biran. In 1916, Fidel's father, Angel Castro Argiz, an immigrant from Galicia in Spain, bought Finca Manacas. With the help of a loan, he set about building up a large community and hiring Haitian immigrants who lived nearby to work the land.
Angel Castro Argiz fathered 12 children in total when he wasn't building up 57 structures across his 11 million hectare plot. He grew wealthy farming sugar and fruits, and employing 200 staff, in an area of 20th century poverty ridden Cuba.
His farm grew to include a hotel for visitors, a bar (the "Paloma" run by Raul), a post office, a billiards' room, butchers, medical post, restaurant, slaughter house, business post, cockfighting stadium, the brothers' maternal grandmother's house, and a school - where a young Fidel, and Raul Castro took their first lessons.
Angel Castro's business was so successful the family even owned a train carriage that would transport them to Santiago de Cuba - 58 miles south along the railway track, and now the home of Fidel's tomb in the city's cemetery.
From the school house to the main house
The guided tour first took me past the graves of the Castro brothers' siblings and parents, a small, modest mausoleum guarded by a marble angel. Angel died in 1956 aged 80, and the Castros' mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez died at 60 in 1963. Just beyond is the roomy, spruced up school room; Fidel's desk is marked on the front row, and the walls of the grey clapboard room are lined with rare family photographs of the young Castros.
You can just about imagine a precocious Fidel raising his hand in the front row. Beyond the graves and the school room are the main buildings set in a grove of Royal Palms and mango trees surrounded by grazing goats. The first main house, built in 1916, actually burnt down in 1954 when Fidel's father left a Cuban cigar burning. What you now see is a reconstruction.
Rare family details
I had visited Biran once before, but I didn't recall my guide delivering so much personal detail about the family. My guide, Maritza, told me about Angel Castro's first wife Lydia Maria Castro Agota, as well as his second wife, Lina, mother of Fidel and Raul. But it was the added extras that were intriguing too: Lina was diabetic, Maritza said, which explained why all seven of her children weighed more than 10lbs (Fidel weighed 12lbs at birth), a common scenario with diabetic mothers.
There's an intimacy on offer here at Biran that I don't feel is experienced at most official sites in Cuba. Maritza showed me the cradle in which Fidel was born, the bedroom he shared with his siblings, as well as another childhood bedroom with his clothes hanging in the wardrobe. His mother Lina's bedroom is also preserved with images and icons of the Virgin Mary, and Christ. (This is the only room visitors can't photograph.) Lina's living room also features two small busts of Fidel - a very rare sight in Cuba - as the communist leader banned effigies of himself on the island.
Many walls of the home are hung with vintage images and I peered at a fascinating collection of portraits offering incredible insight into this ruling family. Many of these photos aren't on view elsewhere in Cuba, or even available to see in published books. The ones that caught my eye were a photo of Fidel at 17 posing with a gun and a hunting dog; Fidel in his Sunday best at 3 years' old; his parents dressed up at home in their finest; and portraits of a smart Lina in a hat clutching a fan.
What the guides don't tell you is that this place, like all farms in Cuba, was seized by Castro's rebel government. He reserved no special treatment for his family. If you're exploring eastern Cuba on holiday, swing by in a sidecar, classic car, or a hire car, to learn more about Fidel and Raul's rural roots.
Note: Biran is open Tuesday to Saturday 9-3pm, Sunday 9am-noon. The entrance fee (CUC$10 for adults, and CUC$5 for children) includes a guide. Despite the notice advertising an additional CUC$10 charge for photography and videos, they are no longer charging an additional CUC$10 for this.)