There are numerous reasons for the radio silence – one being a super busy time at work but also (the far more agreeable reason!) being that I went to explore Cuba for three weeks in June. I’ve always had a curiosity about the country, but since talks have been increasing recently between Castro and Obama, the inevitable itch to go increased as I envisaged the golden arch of McDonalds on every street corner, the ubiquitous Starbucks, the hordes of gap year students and people on ‘Spring break’…yes I booked my ticket pronto. We were told that from December boats from Miami will become a regular thing.
So where to start about this magical country stuck in a wonderful time warp that escapes definition and modernisation? We arrived in Havana to a hot, sweaty humidity which made your clothes cling like sticky backed plastic to anything and everything. You get used to this, just as you get used to the tantrum-like thunderstorms that hit at roughly 3pm every day and lasted for an hour or so before returning temperatures to a more humanly manageable heat.
Illusions created by guidebooks, Lonely Planet articles and Instagram feeds do not do the country justice and one of my biggest regrets was not taking a ‘proper’ SLR camera with me. The vintage cars – they’re not novelty, they’re not ‘for show’ or simply to take tourists from A to B at a ridiculously overpriced fee (although this can be arranged), they are everywhere. Since car parts cannot be imported, these Chevrolets, Cadillacs and VW Beetles are everywhere. They’re gloriously colourful, like a retro prop coincidentally appearing in the landscape of every picture you take. They don’t have seat belts and they’re what my Dad would define as a ‘jallopee”, or a rollerskate as my travel companion defined it. They’re empty tins on wheels that precariously curve throughout the city blasting out salsa music and adding charm to every street scene you capture.
Havana, it would be fair to define as a pretty gritty city, seemingly on the cusp of acknowledging the full force of the tourism it can expect to blossom in the coming years. Easily walkable, it came alive at night from 10pm and escaping the sounds of Salsa and Reggaeton from every bar, home and car is absolutely impossible. It’s everywhere – this astounded me. The young people don’t go out to drink or get drunk, they go out to dance – to Salsa. They gather in the squares at night, in the live music bars, in the clubs – purely to dance with each other. They are not shy nor body conscious, they will sooner pick you up, show you the ropes and sit you back down with the gusto that grasps a nation born with snakehips and killer rhythm. Tourists could be spotted awkwardly clutching mojitos at the sidelines with sunburn wishing they could shake their bum like a rattlesnack. If only….
Taking me swiftly onto the food. I’ll start with the coffee. My God it was sweet, strong and always black. Sipped by locals first thing in the morning, often delivered with an accompanying sugar cane to stir, the rocket fuel is a national homegrown staple that I more than enjoyed with fresh fruit each morning. The rest of the food was a real fusion of African, Caribbean and Spanish influence. The seafood was incredible, freshly sourced and they’re renowned for their lobster. (One of the 3 smells of Cuba we were told, alongside coffee and shredded pork).
We stayed in an incredible Casa Vitrales (the name given to people who offer rooms in their home, perhaps our equivalent of our B&B’s), in the Old Town for four nights before heading to Vinales. This was then followed by Cienfuegos, up to the Cayo Santa Maria then down to Trinidad before returning to Havana to fly home. We booked very little in advance and the people were incredibly accommodating in helping us find whatever we needed, and being a Communist country has made them very resourceful in everything they do. This applies to the way in which they farm their land, re-use and re-purpose unwanted things and make sure that every visitor to their country has a great time!
Trinidad is worth a mention for sure, it’s the second most visited place in Cuba after Havana and became the beating heart of the sugar and tobacco trade in the 1800s. Far more relaxed than Havana, the main square was the main draw after sun down and the many generations of locals would gather to relax and listen to the live musicians. We stayed once again in a lovely Casa called Casa Miriam. Miriam the owner, and Linda were some of the most generous and kind hosts we met. They booked us promptly in for Salsa lessons, ensured our hands were never without a mojito and even tried to educate us in some Spanish – by no means an easy task I can assure you.
I have become aware of a flurry of people in a similar rush to see Cuba before it changes and it jars with the feelings of the locals because they wish to welcome tourism, a revitalised economy and a better connected country with the happenings of the outside world. There is a genuine warmth from people to make sure visitors really enjoy themselves. And that could be relaxing with you under a tree with a cold drink as the sun goes down, dancing the night away (granted, with tourists with two left feet), sharing stories or making sure you visit the landmarks that have made their country what it is today. That national pride surfaces in every conversation and I will always be glad I took a trip before any of the changes begin.