Holly Thomson leaves rainy old Britain behind to explore vibrant Cuba
When choosing a destination to holiday, Cuba may seem like an odd choice. For those fond of history, Cuba will be well remembered for the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis and its tumultuous history with the USA. Those interested in politics may be intrigued by the country’s ties to communism and a way of life unlike our own. Others may know Cuba for its lucrative rum and cigar trade but maybe only a few would associate Cuba as a holiday destination.
I also had these varied assumptions of the country before I set foot on its soil. I had learnt about the Cuban Missile Crisis at school, its politics at university and as a result of student life, also became fond of the rum Cuba supplied as well!
As I boarded my flight to this secretive country, weighed down with presumptions about what I would encounter, I wasn’t quite prepared to be greeted with warm hospitality, rich and vibrant culture and a zest for life which I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
Over the course of two weeks I travelled across Cuba, from Havana to Trinidad, and broadened my ideas of the world from within this small, secretive and secluded nation.
My journey across this Caribbean island started in Havana. I stayed in a guest house a stone’s throw away from Old Havana and spent four days in the capital.
The city has expanded, with the outskirts of the old centre becoming more and more high rise, adapting to the demands of the 21st century. Whilst this part of the city may seem cold and lifeless, the larger and more tempting Old Havana certainly doesn’t lack life and warmth.
A short stroll through the market streets and squares will reveal colourful and varied store fronts, selling everything from original artwork to cigar cases. Alongside these tourist shops are produce stores, filled with the tempting colours and aroma of tropical fruit.
In the rooftops and balconies above the streets sprawl bars and restaurants, often with live bands, the collision of these different sounds coming together to create a vibrant celebration of life.
Amongst the expansive choice of bars that line and atop Old Havana’s streets there are a few with history sealed within the walls. One of these is El Floridita, which was a favourite of the Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway. Story has it that the famous author would finish the day with a Daiquiri here. The atmosphere is always vibrant with large crowds coming each day to try the famous Hemingway Daiquiri. Although this bar does get busy and is perhaps not best suited for your everyday local, it is a great spot to end your day amongst the hustle and bustle of the shopping district.
Old Havana is also home to many traditional squares often inspired by Spanish and European architecture. Admire the cathedrals and other historical buildings and take the time to notice the difference in architecture from one property to the next. I was amazed at how one property could so closely resemble a spanish courthouse and the next a French villa!
Of course, one of the famous images of Cuba and a must do whilst in Havana is to take a trip in a classic car. Although the country is slowly beginning to import more modern cars, the absence of wide-spread trade with other countries has meant that many parts of Cuban life have lagged behind the rest of the world. Many cars used by locals date back to the 1950s, as new parts are a lot easier to obtain than a new car.
Make sure to research a fair price and enjoy a friendly barter with the many Havanans offering classic car tours. On our trip our guide took us through the streets of Old Havana as well as along the beachfront and into the more modern portions of the city where history is still found. The famous Plaza de la Revolución was our mid-way point on our tour where you can witness the huge steel memorials of the two most celebrated heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
The capital is certainly the hub of history and nightlife in Cuba but I was most surprised by the variety on offer only a few hours away from the city.
Our first stop after Havana was in Vinales, a small town nestled within a countryside of sloping green fields and dramatic limestone cliffs. This town and province are most famous for their tobacco growing and we were lucky enough to visit a tobacco farm and learn the art of cigar rolling from the experts themselves.
This is a popular attraction in the area and even as someone who has no interest in smoking, the process and craft was fascinating to learn about and watch. My biggest take away was that nicotine is most prevalent in the stem of the tobacco plant, therefore it can be removed to create a virtually nicotine free cigar. After watching the demonstration we were given the opportunity to purchase cigars directly from the farm itself which is much preferred as not only do you get a better price, but also the benefit of supporting a small local business.
During our evenings in Vinales we were invited to join the locals for salsa in the square. This entailed dressing in our best flowing dresses and hitting the make-shift dance floor whilst the local band played lively Latin music. The local townsmen were keen to show off their moves and give us impromptu dance lessons in the process. I was put through my paces by a local salsa teacher who after dancing with me for quite some time declared that I needed more work and I should attend his dance class the next day.
Cubans love to dance and this was clear to see as all of the locals took to the dance floor to show us how Salsa should really look. I was mesmerised by their flawless moves and impressive synchronisation with their dance partners. I was also impressed by the amount of rum that can be consumed on a typical salsa evening! Events like this are a common occurrence around all of Cuba. Please do join in if you stumble past a square filled with dancing and music. I was warmed by the local’s hospitality and enthusiasm in introducing us to a fundamental part of their culture.
Our final stop on our trip was Trinidad. On the journey to this cultural heart of the country we spent several nights in various beach side towns where we were treated to the warm and clear waters of the Caribbean. Do make sure to also make this part of your trip to Cuba, the beach resorts are untouched and a real getaway.
Trinidad is the cultural hub of Cuba and for good reason. Originally home to the sugar industry in the country, the town has since left its industrial past behind and embraced tourism. Due to the city no longer being seen as a major town for industry in the region, very few new buildings have been erected, allowing the charm and colours of the traditional buildings to shine. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Plaza Mayor which is like stepping back in time.
Amongst these buildings are art museums, restaurants and places of worship. In the evening the stairs off to the right of the plaza come alive with dancing and music leading to more magical salsa and rumba nights.
In the day, walking the streets is enough to simply soak up the culture and feel of this amazing city, but the outskirts of Trinidad are filled with goodies too. I chose to take a horse ride to a waterfall nestled in the neighbouring Escambray Mountains. On the way, along a rocky path, we were offered sugar cane juice and other refreshments. When we got to the waterfall we were able to swim, all while surrounded by tropical jungle – a far cry from the colourful buildings we had left behind only a few miles away.
Back in Trinidad we also discovered more about the way of life for Cubans all over the country. Every other evening or so I would make my way to a local park, which was always full of people and life. Although from the outside this may seem idyllic, the parks are so busy as for many they are the only source of internet. A wifi card can be purchased from a shop on the edge of the park and with this you will get an hour of internet on one device. The parks were lined with tourists and locals alike, all trying to update their friends and social media with what they had been up to in recent days.
With only an hour of internet, accessible only in a park, you may be wondering how Cubans manage to watch movies, TV shows and access other media. The Cubans are nothing but resourceful and use their community spirit to make sure everyone has access to what they want or need. Although shops are available to buy basic clothing, Cubans often opt to shop out of their neighbours’ spare bedrooms, trading clothes or selling items purchased on recent trips to Mexico.
Life may seem constricted and oppressed from an outsider’s perspective but after spending some time on this mysterious island what was apparent to me was how community spirit and camaraderie can make anything possible. Cubans are proud of their country, its industry, politics and people. They are well educated and are not ignorant of their place in the world. However, whilst they listen to our stories of fast-paced lifestyles they remain content with their lot in life.
Cuba was more than I expected, a breath of fresh air and full of surprises. The country has attractions aplenty and makes for a fantastic trip with a fabulous mix of adventure and relaxation. With the country only set to become more modernised in the future, there is no better time to see Cuba than now or in the near future.
- To plan and book your holiday to Cuba call or WhatsApp RB Collection on 01543 258631 or email email@example.com. Book before February 28, 2021 and mention J’aime Magazine to receive a free Cuba guide book with personal hints and tips added in rbcollection.com/cuba