With the start of a new year, comes lots of resolutions to be better – better-body, ‘better’ at saving, ‘better’ in your career. Just all-round ‘better’. My resolution this year is to learn Spanish, because it’s such a beautiful language but mainly so I can go back to Cuba and travel easier. Which brings me to the reason for writing this piece – why Cuba is my favourite destination of 2017.
In fact, that title is slightly incorrect – Cuba may be one of my favourite destinations ever. Here’s why:
Havana has an indescribable magic
Have you ever been somewhere and for some reason, you don’t understand why, but it just feels right. That place for me was Havana. Okay, I’ve been a tad obsessed with the city since I watched Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights about 15 years ago. And since then, I promised myself I’d celebrate a milestone event in Havana, so, in February I visited Havana for the first time to celebrate my 30th birthday. I struggled to get time off work, I was working in a hotel in Whistler and February is smack-bang in the middle of their busy season. But, I was beyond determined and before I knew it me and Paul were jetted off for 2 weeks to my dream destination.
Anyway, back to Havana’s magic. Havana’s not perfect, in fact its kind of dirty and gritty, the buildings are grand but crumbling and the light here is epic it’s honestly like walking through a very pretty Instagram feed. The Cubans leave their doors wide open, they sit on their front step chatting to their neighbours, their kids run barefoot on the street. The Malecon at dusk is the best place in the world. There’s a passion, a resilience about the city kind of like an eff you to the non-believers. Yes our buildings are crumbling our streets are dusty but we’re here and we’re dancing in the streets. I’ve thought about Havana every day since I’ve returned.
It’s a difficult country to travel
In Cuba, nothing is easy. We were silly and landed in Varadero airport at 5am in the morning with no accomodation booked. We thought there would be touts selling hotels, or a public bus waiting to take us to the city or at least a taxi rank. There was none of that, so, we stood there like silly fools until we found a taxi in the carpark with a sleeping driver and convinced him to take us to an all-inclusive resort which I had thankfully screen-shotted on my phone. We arrived at the resort and the receptionist looked at us like we we had two heads when we told her we didn’t have a reservation. But thankfully they had one room left. We paid in cash and I honestly don’t think anyone other than her and the night porter knew we were staying there. See, nothing is easy here, but it works.
We had a horrible bus experience from Vinales to Trinidad, which took 2 hours longer than we were told and was basically an old prison truck with plastic deck chairs as seats. There were lots of older couples on the journey who were obviously sold something and clearly paid a lot more than we did. In these situations like many others during our time in Cuba you have to just laugh and get through it.
Now matter how many times you visit you will never fully understand it
I think as tourists it’s easy ignore the struggles of being a Cuban, especially if you stay at an all-inclusive resort. On our last day we spoke at length with a Cuban girl at a street stall in Varadero. She told us she can’t leave Cuba. Well not easily anyway, she has family in Miami and in order for her to visit them she has to apply for permission from the Cuban government. Her family then must ‘back’ her application with a letter to the government saying they will host her and ensure she returns to Cuba. She told us that Cubans are the most educated in the Caribbean and she is fluent in 7 languages and studying a Masters in Marine Biology.
She told us that she works at the stall solely to send money home to her parents in rural Cuba who are looking after her children for her, she see’s them once every 3 months because she works 7 days a week. She told us that she’s met an older Canadian man while working at the stall and is tempted to marry him as a way out. She had an old iPhone and when she saw me looking, she told us her family in Miami gifted it to her and it is the most important thing she owns. She told us in every election as long as she’s been alive there’s just been one candidate – Fidel Castro or more recently his brother Raul. Supposedly she told us, this is about to change as the upcoming election is the first time in a very long time the Castro brothers will not be in the running. Yes, there’s big change ahead for Cuba.
There’s limited or no internet
Cuba is probably one of the last remaining destinations you can trully ‘switch off’. To access the internet you queue at an Etecsa store (each town has at least one) show them your passport pay the fee and they will issue you an internet card, these can last for 30 minutes up to a few hours. FYI – in some large hotels they sell these cards at reception. Then the fun begins because you have to find a WiFi spot, which are nearly always NOT outside the Etecsa store in which you just bought the internet card because that would make sense right. See, I told you nothing is easy in Cuba. I think we used the internet a whole 2 hours on our 2 weeks trip, which was honestly so refreshing.
Havana has probably the best night-club in the world
Its called Fabrica de Arte Cubano and it’s so much more than a night club. Contained within an old cooking oil factory, ‘Fabrica’ as it’s known to locals is an art gallery, a live music venue, a restaurant, a street food stall, it has a variety of music rooms playing different genres. The best thing is that you get a stamp card upon entry and when you buy a drink or even food your server simply stamps the card and you pay for what you consumed when you exit. Brilliant. No unnecessary queues at the bar. When, we visited the Havana Orchestra played and I cried, it was magic. I can’t describe how amazing this place is, it is definitely my top recommendation for Havana.
The beaches in Varadero are the prettiest I’ve ever seen
Just a photo here is enough explanation I think.
Cuba is home to Mojitos and Cuban cigars
If those two things aren’t enough to convince you I don’t know what else to say.
Don’t make your mind up on first impressions
I know a lot of the things I’ve written here may turn some people off. Yes, it’s a complicated country with a sad past that has obviously greatly affected the Cubans. Sure, it’s a difficult country to travel. Everything about Cuba is not easy.
But there’s no place in the world like it, it’s like stepping back in time. There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks, damn you’d be hard-pressed to find a grocery store in the capital Havana. As I mentioned there’s either no or very slow internet. The transport system sucks. It’s a country of vast contrasts from the white sand and palm trees of Varadero to the steamy dusty colourful streets of Havana. Music is everywhere, people dance in the streets in broad daylight. Salsa energy I call it.
The bars in Havana are not really bars at all but like sitting in someones living room. It’s a confusing jigsaw puzzle but somehow all the pieces fit together perfectly. And that’s why for me Cuba is the most fascinating and memorable destination I’ve visited yet.