The time to go is now
Everyone’s jetting off to Cuba: the Pope, Obama, even the Kardashians. Not one to feel left out, I too recently headed to possibly the Caribbean’s ‘coolest’ island to find out what all the fuss was about. I was keen to catch this unique country still stuck in a time warp before the anticipated mass arrival of American tourists and the inevitable change. I wasn’t disappointed, yes in places it was a little run down but the architecture still oozes character and history. The food might be monotonous but the live music is anything but, it’s fun but frustrating so I’d suggest taking a tour. From rolling tobacco plantations to timeless colonial towns, here are a few of my highlights.
The capital of Cuba, Havana has a proud legacy of history, culture and tradition. It’s a nostalgic world of classic American cars. For anyone who travelled in the US in the 50s, they’ll be all too familiar – Chevrolets, Buicks and Fords, all shiny colours and polished chrome. The cynic in me thought that there might just be one or two scattered around for the ubiquitous photo opportunity but they are literally everywhere, motor enthusiasts need just stand on the pavement and drool whilst romantics can take a taxi ride in a soft top along the Malecon. The Malecon, a long coastal esplanade is a quintessential landmark of this sea-loving city. Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site is a place to wander around and get lost (although you needn’t worry as you’re never far away from the 3 main squares) – the Cathedral Square, Plaza de la Revolucion and Plaza de Armas. Pedestrian only Calle Obispo is also a good point of reference. Pavements are poor but if you do get lost or tired of walking there are plenty of Bici-taxis, big pedal-powered tricycles with a double seat behind the driver or coco (so called because of their coconut shape) taxis to take. The latter, Havana’s answer to Asia’s tuk tuk are great fun and cost less than a regular taxi. Rum enthusiasts will enjoy the Museo del Ron but it should be noted that there are a large number of steps whilst the huge handicraft market near the port also comes highly recommended with quality paintings, crafts and souvenirs. Cigars are of course Cuba’s most prized product but men might also like to pick up a quayabera, a cool, pleated, embroidered cotton tropical shirt, perfect for Cuba’s steamy climate but that also wouldn’t look out of place in Cambridge or Colchester.
Silver Travellers may remember Ricky Ricardo (played by Cuban born Desi Arnaz) in the TV series I Love Lucy. Ricky was a singer and bandleader at Manhattan’s fictional Tropicana nightclub and who doesn’t know Carmen Miranda. Personally I’ll always associate Cuban music with one of heartthrob Antonio Banderas’s first films The Mambo Kings, the story of Cuban brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo who bring their unique sounds to New York. Havana’s Tropicana club (Cuba’s oldest and most famous cabaret) embodies all these. It’s a Havana institution and the largest and most famous Latin dance show in the world. Loud, colourful, outrageous (and that’s just the costumes), it’s a definite must see, even if it involves staying up late for. On the night I went, the show didn’t start until 11:30 pm but free rum is provided to get you in the spirit (literally).
Pinar del Rio
After a night out at Tropicana, it’s time to change the pace a bit and discover the bucolic landscape of rural Cuba. Pinar del Rio is a natural paradise just 174 km from the capital. It’s here that you might want to swap places with one of the locals, whiling away their days on a rocking chair, sipping rum on the porch or perhaps playing dominos. These are some of the nicest people you will ever meet, constantly happy and always willing to help. This is a prime tobacco growing area, with ox driven ploughs and straw hat wearing farmers. It’s Cuba at its most traditional, the pace slow and relaxed with transport by horse and cart. Pinar del Rio is a great places for some challenging day walks to admire the stunning scenery and spectacular views, perhaps best described in Columbus’ legendary description “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”.
Considered to be the city museum of Cuba, Trinidad has retained the magic of its colonial past. Its historic centre with its cobbled streets is a place of majestic buildings turned into museums, and romantic squares. Founded in the 16th century, it is without doubt one of the colonial jewels of both Cuba and South America as a whole. Not only was it one my highlights but a highlight with the tour groups from Saga Holidays and Voyages Jules Verne who I met during my stay. However we did all complain that walking on cobbles does get to be a bit exhausting after a while, good walking shoes are a must and the lack of WiFi is a constant gripe. I’d go preparing not to be connected and if you are, it’s a bonus, after all it’s only a few years ago that we all managed without the internet. Other tips are; take along a few of your favourite snacks for the long journeys and plenty of cash.
Cuba has always been a bucket list country for many travellers but now more so than ever. I’d therefore highly recommend you to immerse yourself in Cuban culture and get in to the Cuban swing before it’s too late.
For general information on Cuba visit www.travel2cuba.co.uk