By Rachel Lankester.
I was lucky enough to spend last Christmas in Cuba. And now I just can’t stop raving about it! Here are my top reasons to visit Cuba and why you need to go soon. (With a fabulous photo gallery at the bottom.)
Top reasons to visit Cuba
- Havana is the Paris or London of the Caribbean – seriously. I haven’t travelled much in the region so I can’t with all honesty tell you that such a place doesn’t yet exist. But I don’t think it does. Havana already has the arts and music to match its European cousins. It has incredible architectural diversity with baroque, colonial and art deco influences from many different cultures and eras. It was also once the most heavily fortified city in the Americas. Once the Cuban government fully implements the restoration work in Havana that they have already started with great aplomb (visit Plaza Vieja), the city will be even more incomparable than it currently is.
- It’s going to change very quickly. Cuba’s clock stopped effectively in 1960, when the US implemented a trade embargo meaning both imports and exports became extraordinarily difficult and expensive. This followed the communist revolution of 1959 and the nationalisation of many American-owned businesses in Cuba. Since then Cuba effectively lived inside a bubble. A porous bubble but a bubble nonetheless. That US embargo still exists today and Hugo Chavez is still the ‘best friend of Cuba’ for stepping in with oil imports after the Soviet Union collapsed and their support dried up. But now that Cubans can travel freely, the US and Cuba are finally talking again and trade links look possible (direct flights have already started), it won’t be long before big changes happen. Go before McDonalds gets there!
- Go just to see and ride around in the wonderful 1950s dinosaur automobiles that plough the streets. These are a joy to see, even if their exhausts are far more polluting than newer vehicles. (I managed to justify their on-going existence by remembering that the production process for new cars has a higher carbon footprint than just running an old car into the ground.) The laws in place since the revolution prevented the sale or purchase of cars, so if you owned a car you kept it running. No matter what. If it needed a new steering wheel you found a new steering wheel, if it needed new lights you found them. If your car needed to run on cooking oil, you made it run on cooking oil. Nowhere in the world can you see the vast collection of antique cars that are everyday vehicles in Cuba and it’s a delight to experience their beauty and style.
- This country is absolutely beautiful and home to nine world heritage sites. We travelled to three of those, Old Havana, Viñales (below) and Trinidad – each completely different and truly amazing. Even the dereliction of certain areas of Havana has its own beauty (and Cubans manage to live in any building no matter that it might look as though it’s about to be condemned). Take a look at our photo gallery below and you’ll see what a gorgeous place it is.
- The music scene is fantastic. Communist countries have historically had a tendency to be good at sport and the arts. Kids were trained from a very young age and had time to get in those 10,000 hours to excellence before they even hit adulthood. But no country has done it for jazz, salsa music and dance like Cuba. Music and dance lives and breathes in every Cuban, but the ones who study it full time are out of this world. It’s not surprising to learn that UK Royal Ballet Principal Guest Artist, Carlos Acosta, hails from Cuba. Rhythm is in the Cuban blood and the level of masterful musicianship, sometimes just in a local bar, has to be heard to be believed.
- If you like history and would like to see how one world David stood up to the world’s biggest Goliath, it’s fascinating to see how Cuba both survived and flourished since it was cut off by the US. The Americans sponsored an invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The new people’s hero, Fidel Castro, had warned of the devil to the north and what did the devil try and do? Invade. Using those very Cubans against whom the majority of the population had turned during the revolution. The invaders handed legitimacy to Castro on a plate. In the small museum at the Playa Girón, the photographs and personal belongings of the 156 martyrs who fought and helped win against the American CIA agents and their Cuban-American flunkies are a powerful display of what can be achieved with willpower and determination. (And yes I did buy into the local propaganda – very hard not to.) If Che Guevara is a hero for you, even better. His image is plastered everywhere. When he was executed in Bolivia in 1967, he became the martyr who could never do any wrong. Luckily he was rather a dashing charismatic figure too. Check out the Museum of the Revolution in Havana to follow all his revolutionary exploits.
- If you’re a fan of rum and cocktails you’ll love Cuba. The Bacardi family may have made rum an international tipple, but the Cubans made it prolific like nothing else. If you need to have a totalitarian regime, what better way to keep people happy than with a liberal supply of domestically produced delicious rum? It makes money and keeps folk happy. To get the full rum experience in Havana and a little bit of Ernest Hemmingway thrown in, visit La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito and La Floridita for a daiquiri (there are now also sister versions of these famous watering holes in Trinidad). Then go round the corner and get the same for half the price somewhere else. If you visit Trinidad try the yummy local canchánchara which is great for colds!
- The vitality of Cuba is infectious and its people are warm and friendly. I suspect it’s a combination of the music, sunshine and the rum but it really does feel like a happy place. It may be a totalitarian regime, but at least on the surface, the people don’t feel oppressed. There’s no digital generation in Cuba. People don’t have computers and only the very savvy can get access to the internet in the big cities like Havana. So what do kids do after school? They play or chat outside. Football is played on every street corner. In the evening parents sit out on the street if it’s not time to watch the latest soap opera with the front door wide open and neighbours coming and going. It’s usual for adult children to live at home. Windows have no glass, only shutters and metal grilles. Community is close. Every home has a ghetto blaster, and salsa and Cuban son are the music of choice. Even toddlers are wriggling their hips to the beat after supper on the street. Stay in a casa particular, the local equivalent of a B&B and just feel the energy! It’s intoxicating.
You can read more about Rachel’s impressions and what she thinks the world can learn from Cuba on The Huffington Post.
You may also like our other Travel features.
Rachel Lankester is the founder and editor of the Mutton Club. She has a background in corporate communications and sustainability, and has found her passion helping women feel good about life at any stage and particularly midlife. She’s rather introverted but still has an awful lot she wants to communicate to the world!