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Cuba is unlike anywhere else we’ve visited. It’s a place that provokes strong feelings and before we even arrived we encountered a huge amount of fervent pro or anti Cuba propaganda. We didn’t know quite what to expect and even now it’s hard to make sense of this bewildering country.
What we do know is that we don’t fall into either camp—Cuba isn’t perfect and it isn’t evil either, but it is unique. We felt like we’d almost stepped back in time with the classic cars from the 50s, bare shops like something from the Wild West, a lack of advertising, unreliable ATMs, and the most limited internet of any country we’ve visited. Some of these things seemed like disadvantages at first but they turned out to allow us to escape from the hectic world of non stop bombardment of information.
Here are our highlights from our two weeks in Cuba.
On the drive from the airport to Havana we spotted our first one with glee—there really are classic cars in Cuba! And they are everywhere—1950s Buicks, Chevys and Plymouths in varying states are used as everyday vehicles, as taxis and private cars. You can follow Cuba’s history in its cars from the pre-revolution American cars through the Soviet Ladas to more recent Asian and European modern vehicles. We never got tired of the beautiful classics and it added to Cuba’s magical feeling.
Havana is decaying, colourful, vibrant and gorgeous. We stayed in Habana Vieja and spent most of our time there wandering the streets and feeling like we were on a film set amongst the vintage cars and lively street scenes. Washing dangles from balconies on buildings still elegant despite their peeling paint; vendors sell fruit from carts on the back of their bicycles; cycle rickshaws and even horse carts are a common way to navigate the narrow roads; and everyone is out on the street—kids playing baseball, old men smoking cigars in doorways, and women chatting on street corners.
Music & Salsa Dancing
In Cuba you really do hear music everywhere, with the sounds of live bands emerging from many bars and restaurants. The bands we saw were excellent and the locals who inevitably got up to salsa to them were just as good. We watched them spinning around the dance floor enviously so decided to take our first few salsa classes in Vinales. It was hard work mentally and physically but a lot of fun and although we still aren’t ready to hit the dance floor we are keen to take more lessons.
Unfortunately Chavez died while we were in Cuba and as the Venezuelan president was a good friend of the country Cuba went into mourning and music was banned. The streets were eerily quiet and it was a shame we couldn’t see any more music on our last four nights.
The art scene is just as vibrant as the music scene. In Havana especially there are many little artist workshops and galleries that you can pop into and see artists at work and buy direct from them. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes also has a stunning collection of Cuban art and had surprisingly few visitors.
In Cuba you have the choice of staying in expensive government run hotels which tend to have bad food and disinterested staff, or casas particulares, where you stay in a Cuban home. Families are allowed to rent out two rooms in their homes and it is strictly regulated so they all have a good standard of cleanliness and almost always your own bathroom with hot water, A/C, and fridge, and cost around $20-30 a night per room. Families usually provide breakfast and dinner for an extra fee and these home cooked meals are the best you’ll find in Cuba.
The best thing about the experience is the families who are warm, welcoming and happy to help you with anything you need—giving advice, arranging activities, and booking your next casa with one of their friends. It’s a great way to get to know the people and learn more about Cuba.
Viñales is a chilled out village of colourful little houses with rocking chairs on the verandahs. It’s surrounded by some of the most impressive scenery in Cuba with bulbous limestone rock formations called mogotes emerging from the tobacco fields and red earth farmland. The landscape is lush and green for a reason as we discovered during our four days of torrential rain which prevented us from doing the hikes, horse rides and motorbike trips to beaches that we’d planned. We still managed to fit in some salsa lessons and enjoy views of the countryside when the sun finally emerged.
UNESCO World Heritage site Trinidad is a picture-perfect Spanish colonial town with cobblestone streets and brightly coloured one storey houses with terracotta roofs which from above reminded me of a tropical Tuscany. It’s also only a short drive from the Caribbean Sea at lovely Playa Ancon.
Initially Cuba takes a bit more planning than other countries (we’ll share our tips in another post) but once we were there travelling around felt stress free. I think this was due to a lack of choice, which may seem like a bad thing but actually made things easier. We booked our first casa online and then followed our host’s suggestions of their friends and family members to stay with in other towns. They booked it for us and our next host would be waiting for us at the bus station—we didn’t have to do any research online or hunt around when we got to a new place, we just went with the flow.
We heard restaurants were mostly awful (and not very vegetarian friendly) so we avoided them and just ate whatever our casas served us for breakfast and dinner—no decisions necessary. Shops are pretty empty and while this was at times annoying—like when we couldn’t find large bottles of water or snacks for a bus trip—the lack of available stuff somehow added to the feeling of ease.
After Cuba we were looking forward to Mexico City for access to treats but when we arrived in the mega metropolis we were overwhelmed by the traffic, the amount of stuff available, the advertising, and all the choices we had to make. Add in the return to the internet and things instantly felt more stressful. Cuba felt like a dream, a magical land that we couldn’t quite believe we’d just been in. After an initial high of indulging in the city’s pleasures we missed the simplicity of Cuba.
Our time in Cuba wasn’t perfect—the jineteros or hustlers in Havana were annoying, the food got very boring quickly, the rain in Viñales was depressing, and we both got sick for a day (it felt more like a rejection of Cuban food than anything serious), but our highlights made up for it and it’s a country we’d love to return to.