Cuba is a country in motion and I don’t just mean the various modes of transport you’ll find yourself taking. The fact that Cuba is slowly changing is apparent in subtle ways, from the brand new ATM in Trinidad to the Pepsi recently shelved in city supermarkets. The country hasn’t completely opened up, but the door is slowly moving further ajar. We visited Cuba at the height of the tourist season, yet it didn’t feel overrun with tourists. To be honest, I hate to think what it will be like when it is, so my advice is to go as soon as you can. The top five reasons may not surprise you, but they are a few of the things that make Cuba what it is.
For ‘Havana Good Time’
It’s no secret that I am a city girl at heart, and Havana had me at “hola.” Reminiscent of a crumbling Barcelona with an injection of 1950′s HDR, Havana is both charming and exciting. It’s a visual city with a vibe that is nothing but catchy, and the tunes and talented people behind them are infectious.
‘Good food’ does not make this top five, but still, Havana is the place you’ll find it. Check out the paladares to start – they’re private restaurants often set in old mansions. La Guarida was one of the best meals I’ve tasted, and in the quaintest of settings. For rooftop ambience, the affordable lobster at Atelier is a winner, and to see the new wave of Cuban entrepreneurship firsthand, swing by La Pachanga for a decent burger and beer at an unbeatable price.
For the Rum
Rum might not make everyone’s list, but being the Bacardi lover I am, I was in seventh heaven in a country where rum (locally called Ron) is almost cheaper than water. Havana Club is the most popular tipple and although I’ve had a better mojito in Ljubliana, I have not had a more delicious daiquiri than that served at the Museo del Ron Havana Club. The bar here beats famous Hemingway haunt El Floridita hands down in terms of actually being able to reach it,and I actually preferred their daiquiri – sorry Ernest! In Pinar del Rio we stopped to check out the La Occidental Guayabita del Pinar rum distillery. The sweet ‘dulce’ rum made with guavas was so tasty it made its way all around Cuba and back home with me. Worth saving for a special date.
For La Musica
Cuba is a country that appeases your senses without trying. There’s always something to see, the smell of cigars and the taste of rum, but overall it’s the music creating a continuous backing soundtrack that really sets the scene. Almost everywhere you go, any time of day, there is music – and with music comes dancing! Our driver took us to a wonderful little local Casa de la Trova in Sancti Spiritus where we could dance the night away with the locals, learning the steps as we went. Likewise, our time spent at Casa de la Musica in Trinidad, where the open-air square fills with people looking to salsa, remains an evening we won’t forget soon. (Even after all that time we spent with Ron.)
For the Cubans
The people of Cuba made our trip. We were fortunate to have our vastly knowledgeable guide Conrado, who has such a passion for his country. We also spent time with locals, enjoying an impromptu jam session at the beach and staying with local families in casa particulares who appreciated the small gifts we brought with us. And ladies, if you’re looking for a confidence boost, Cuba is your country. “My beautiful flower” and “muy bonita” were regular cries to the girls in our group and said with genuine friendliness. We found the people we met to be open to answering questions, meaning we got a real insight into Cuba, its history, what it is like to live there, and what its people hope for the future. They were equally interested to hear about our lives in other parts of the world, so it made for interesting conversation. Many Cubans also rely on the tourist dollar for income, and you won’t regret spending your holiday money here.
For the Wheels
Yup, I’m talking about the vintage cars, but not just the vintage cars. It’s super fun rolling to the sounds of the motor of an old pink Chevy, and these cars rocked a few of our journeys from A to B, but most surprising were the other ways we travelled. Horseriding in Vinales was stunning, the Coco Cab along the Malecon in Havana was a blast, but power ballads in a Lada with a few of the gang in our group was probably the most memorable ride. Who knew Cuban taxi drivers could love Lionel Richie so much? I have to give a shout-out to our wonderful mini-bus driver here too – Pepino, nicknamed for where he comes from in Pinar del Rio, where cucumbers grown in abundance.
Cuba is a place I had wished to travel to all my life and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Our G trip was a fun group of people of all ages from around the world, and my friend and I enjoyed the extra days we took to experience the beautiful Caribbean waters of the Eastern beach of Guanabo near Havana. Go now – you won’t regret it!