Intrepid traveller Cecilie Bech Christensen shares her experiences in this unusual destination…
In spite of its relatively small size and humble economy, Cuba is one of the most instantly recognisable countries in the world. Say the word ‘Cuba’ and you can almost smell the cigar smoke, taste the Mojitos, feel the salsa rhythms and see the Che Guevara paintings. It goes without saying that Cuba is not a typical Caribbean island, and certainly my Cuban holiday was nothing like any other sun holiday I’ve ever been on.
In the early 1990s, Cuba faced a huge economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Cuba had been heavily reliant on trade with the Soviet Bloc and with its fall the country lost close to 75 per cent of its international trade. Living conditions worsened and desperation drove Cuba’s legendary socialist leader, Fidel Castro, to open the borders for tourism after three decades of isolation from the global marketplace. Since then, international tourism to Cuba has multiplied fifteen-fold and has rescued a national economy on the brink of implosion.
Due to its long isolation, being in Cuba feels like having entered a time bubble – where the glamour of 1950s America meets the Soviet austerity of the 1970s. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the streets of Havana, where Buicks and Ladas drive side by side.
Havana was my first meeting with Cuba and is an absolute must for any holiday-goer. The capital is one big chaotic jumble, with a mix of rubble, anachronistic revolution propaganda and magnificent Spanish colonial architecture, just a few eye-catching amenities to be seen. These are complimented by lively natives and horse-drawn carriages. Havana is a city in decay, but in somewhat beautiful decay, with irresistible music coming out of even the most miserable looking homes. These contrasts characterise not only Havana as a city, but Cuba as a country. I found myself being both spellbound and shocked – in Cuba the lines between beauty and ugliness, legal and illegal, equality and inequality and communism and consumerism can seem very blurry.Cubans live under severe restrictions from the communist system, yet they sparkle with vitality and passion. Although the government attempts to limit the contact between Cubans and foreigners, it is not difficult to get in contact with the locals. My friends and I found that it was better to avoid the hotels that are all state-owned and stay in casas particulares, which are the Cuban version of B&Bs. In this way you get to live with a Cuban family, eat homemade traditional Cuban food and get better value for your money.
In Viñales, a small village in the western province Pinar del Rio, our casa particulares owners greeted us from their cosy rocking-chairs – found on every terrace in the town. Viñales was one of my highlights of the trip; it felt like a breezy, green oasis after the intense heat and messy streets of Havana. The scenery is stunning, the people are hearty and welcoming, life is relaxed and the climate is more tolerable than in the big cities. Horseback riding, a visit to a local tobacco farmer, and watching divinely beautiful sunsets from Hotel La Ermita are just some of the things Viñales has to offer.
On the other side of Havana, on the southeast coast, lies another Cuban treasure, which has been on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites since 1988. Trinidad is known for its labyrinthine cobblestone streets, its pastel coloured houses and its ambience. There are excellent bars and outdoor nightclubs with live music, and every night the main square, Plaza Mayor, turns into one big dance floor that is like flypaper for tourists. My friends and I got a tip from one of the locals that if we wanted to experience the real Trinidad we should go to Parque Central. Known only to the natives, this night time treat is where you can really see the town’s inhabitants let loose, and with few other tourists in sight.
There are many interesting and beautiful spots around Cuba that are easier to get to, but I’m glad that we didn’t miss out on Baracoa. Although situated in the very east, almost 1,000 kilometres from Havana, this small seaside town, which was once Cuba’s capital, is well worth the trek. Whether you prefer beaches, mountains, waterfalls, jungles or lakes, Baracoa has it all – including some rather colourful inhabitants. Interesting characters with strange stories and a love for cheating the system populate this secluded spot. Here the black market in coffee and chocolate flourishes, and we were often stopped by suspicious looking strangers who mumbled something we couldn’t quite hear. We soon realised that they were just trying to sell us chocolate bars.
Cuba is one glorious anachronism and this is a large part of its charm. During its tumultuous past, it has gone through huge changes and, with the two Castro brothers now in their eighties, speculation is rife as to what will happen next. Many of the Cubans we talked to are hoping for change, but nobody knows what the future will bring. For those who want to experience this unique time bubble as it is now, time may be running out.
(As featured in the Life section of Mugg)