Cuba’s charm lies in its culture, one which has been barely touched by its giant neighbour, the USA, since the economic embargo 55 years ago, or by the long list of international organisations seen in so many of the world’s cities, thanks to the tough restrictions enforced by the Castro brothers. Despite their impermeable grasp on the country having controversial results, it has created a destination which is unquestionably unique; a country where modern skyscrapers have not had the opportunity to overshadow the gorgeous pre-revolution architecture, with iconic structures such as the National Capitol Building and Bacardi Building piercing Havana’s skyline for nearly nine decades. Cuba’s capital is an incredible place to explore, a constant reminder of a long-gone era when Havana was the biggest and wealthiest port in the Caribbean, with pristine Cadillacs and Chevrolets cruising the potholed roads amongst numerous less appealing, yet much loved Ladas, the most obvious trace of Russia’s links to Cuba.
Travelling to Havana offers the opportunity to study Cuba’s best known and most fascinating story in the Museum of the Revolution, which details the assaults which succeeded and failed between 26 July 1953 and 1 January 1959 with incredible photos and memorabilia, plus the effects this has had countrywide including the rise of its first-rate national health care. Spending time here facilitates an understanding of many of Cuba’s sites, from the memorials dedicated to José Marti and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara overlooking Havana’s momentous Revolution Square, to the Bay of Pigs, a beautiful, sandy stretch of coastline that saw America’s disastrous attempt to overthrow Castro; and Santa Clara, a sleepy town that played an essential part in the last battle of the Cuban Revolution.
Saying this, there is a lot more to Cuba than its political past. On a tour of the country, you can find vast areas of natural beauty, several of which have made the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you’re searching for a little bit of paradise, you can find modest, modern hotels along a chain of pristine, pale sand islands connected by a single causeway that stretches 30 miles away from the mainland; or head inland to gorgeous and peaceful valleys, encircled by dramatic rocky landscapes and covered in greenery and plantations (with sugarcane and tobacco being the most common crops), where life is simple, sunsets are sublime and you feel a long way from any other tourists. A day in Trinidad is another highlight, a one-of-a-kind colonial settlement with delightfully colourful rows of houses so photogenic against the bluest of skies (and wonderfully dramatic against grey ones) and cobbled streets holding an excellent market of traditional crafts including crochet work and original artwork, inspired by the island. And as you continue along comparatively empty roads, you find the contrasting ranks of Soviet-style concrete housing and corrugated-roofed dwellings which, although far from romantic, can only make this country more interesting and intriguing for many travellers.
Raùl Castro announced in 2013 that this is his last term as president, bringing an end to the Castro regime in 2018. We can only hope that this does not open up opportunities for huge glitzy hotels and fast food chains to infiltrate this outstandingly authentic and beautiful place. However, Cuba will always have a love for contagious, home-grown music, rum and cigars, three things that are deep in the veins of its citizens and encouraged to flourish by those who venture here, for it is impossible not to! Let the invigorating rhythm of salsa tunes, drifting from bars and small impromptu gatherings in old stone squares, lift your spirit and move your feet as you make your way around the wonderful island of Cuba.
Cuba is a country that cannot be compared to any other! My time in Cuba was particularly interesting as I was travelling with a friend who grew up in Cuba so I gained an insight into local life through their friends and family but also because we arrived the day of the passing of Fidel Castro! While it was a privilege to be there for such a historic moment in history, it did also mean that I saw Cuba in two completely different lights. The time spent at the beginning of the trip saw the country subdued in mourning with quiet streets and closed bars, whereas the last week of the trip saw a reawakened country, perhaps even more energised than before with the silent expectation of what a new era could bring hanging in the air. After discussing what the future may hold with a number of Cubans I met during my trip the general consensus was that they don’t think things will change in the country any time soon. Therefore, if you still want to experience the ‘authentic Cuba’ of the past few decades or ‘Castro’s Cuba’ as it has come to be known, then you likely still have a window of a few years to do this successfully.
~ Cassie Stickland, Latin America Product Manager