Cuba is a unique and contrasting contradiction of Latin and Caribbean cultures, where rum and cigars are a way of life and salsa music can be heard on every street.
Habana and the surrounds
Our journey began in Havana, or Habana as it is known locally. After arriving with no real idea of what to expect (this being our first venture to this part of the world) the first thing we noticed was the large amounts of people hanging out on the streets - meeting friends, talking, playing and simply passing the time of day. Everything is so colourful, vibrant and full of life. Even the smallest shack of a home is brightly painted pink, blue or yellow.
Our accommodation was in the older part of town, Habana Vieja, a compact grid of high colonial terraces. High above us on greenery filled balconies, laundry stirs in the breeze. On the cobbled streets vintage cars squeeze past, children play and people go about their business.
The majority of tourists are spread between any of the four large squares that have become the focal points of the old city. Interspersed with colourful homes are shops, cathedrals, musicians and restaurants. Much effort has been made to renovate these areas to make them attractive to visitors, which has in turn attracted locals looking to make some extra money. You're never far from an artist or craftsman, a gallery or a cafe. Vedado, the modern part of Havana, gives you a glimpse of where the city may be heading, the high-rise apartments look somewhat futuristic and there is the addition of small shopping malls and fast food restaurants (where you can get a rum tea for breakfast!).
Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands and with so much to see we focus on the key areas of Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos & Trinidad, all on the western side.
Head a few hours west to Vinales, and you find yourself in a small sleepy town surrounded by tobacco plantations. A great way to experience the real Cuba.
Back past Havana, further east, is the town of Cienfuegos, a larger place with the now familiar contrast of old and new, yet in places it looks and feels a lot more modern; it’s mainly the fashionable clothing stores and glamorous shoe shops that make the difference. In addition to the Spanish and Caribbean influences there has also been a French input here
The real Salsa nightlife
Although we were already living on a healthy diet of rum based cocktails, there is always more to be found care of the vibrant nightlife. You’ll hear music almost everywhere in Cuba, and see a lot of salsa – but a lot of that is tailor-made for the tourists, rather than the natural ‘local-based’ salsa. If you look hard enough you can find small, local bars offering mojitos and more variations on the rum theme where the locals may be more than happy to talk about local life.
In terms of the real local salsa night life, our best experience came from what initially looked like a private party, but we’re warmly welcomed. The place resembled an RSA or Working Men's Club with a live band playing salsa while elderly couples fill the dance floor around them - the local social club where the local people come to dance, socialise, drink and enjoy. If travelling to Cuba seeking out a local ‘real life’ experience like this is so enjoyable, I’d highly recommend it!
From knock off cigars to second hand shoes
Trinidad is on the south coast of Cuba. It’s an idyllic World Heritage listed town. Leading out from the church and museums in the main square are endless streets of galleries, craft shops, cafes, bars and locals looking to make a few extra pesos. From knock off cigars to second hand shoes, just about anything is for sale.
The town is surrounded by lush tropical views and just a few miles away, an endless stretch of Caribbean white sand. you can easily split your time between aimlessly wandering the streets and relaxing on the white sandy beach of Playa Ancon.
On our visit we were lucky enough to find ourselves at at a Santeria festival - Santeria being a religion based on West African beliefs brought here by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. While many followers of Santeria in Cuba also consider themselves to be Catholic, there are unique aspects to Santeria such as a tradition of trance for communicating with ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. I’m happy to say there was no animal sacrifice, but with plenty of drumming and dancing it's hard to tell where religion ends and partying begins. A festival like this is another great way to experience Cuba!
The best of the bunch
Returning home I took a moment to sum up all the things we loved about Cuba:
- Vintage cars are abundant and impressive for any car enthusiast, but it’s also a good reminder that they are a labour of love to maintain as you watch the locals constantly repairing them
- Casas are the best places to stay, essentially private home stays that are often better than the hotels (many tours or tailor made itineraries will use casas)
- There’s some great food to be found with new ‘paladares’ (private restaurants) opening all the time. Ice cream is a national treasure, although beware there are massive queues to buy one as there are few other luxuries that people can afford
I left Cuba having learnt a little more about its’ history; there is significant change coming, some would say for the better, some for the worse but what I have learnt is that it is an incredible place to visit, with a lively personality and an interesting and colourful history. Cuba still remains relatively undiscovered for most New Zealanders but if it is on your list be sure to book soon, before everyone else discovers the joy that is Cuba.