So, what exactly gives Cuba its undeniable charm? Our very own Flightie, Shanna, went down to check it out and came back with a full report. It’s more than just vintage cars, cigars and rum punch down there – much more. Get a feel for an authentic Cuba on the brink of a massive transformation and dive-in head first with Shanna’s not-to-be-missed must-do’s.
Beyond the expansive white sand beaches and snack bars lining the tourist compounds of Cuba, lies the extensive beauty of something so much deeper than the somewhat fabricated landscapes of the resorts. For me, the true, authentic Cuba was so much brighter and more breathtaking, though not in the traditional sense of what we, North Americans tend to see as beautiful. The broken cobblestones of the city streets are filled with life and the vibrant beat that emanates from the people within the city walls is infectious and genuine. It transports you into a world outside of your own.
Within this culture so unlike ours, there is much to feel, hear, to learn from and to understand. A socialist country, controlled by a distribution of wealth determined by the government, its people are constantly searching to provide a service that will engage the tourists that flood through the town squares, bars and restaurants. Keen to earn our tourist pesos, you are never without an offer for a taxi, a pack of peanuts, the best mojitos or a trinket with a Cuban feel.
We travelled from Havana to Santa Clara, to Trinidad and Vinales, returned to Havana and finally Varadero before leaving. Throughout, the people were a constant highlight; friendly, social and open, used to little privacy and shouting out to neighbours and visitors, old friends and family. Kids run freely and people live out loud. I loved the open social structure – so different from here at home, where we tend to hide behind our fences and gates. The collage of old cars, new cars, horse carriages, mopeds, bicycles, buses and pedestrians sharing the roads, in what should surely end in accidents and injury instead flows. At varying speeds, horns ablaze, people move where and when they want to.
A place known for having low food quality surprised us as we discovered many great dishes along our travels, always searching for something local and delicious between the ever abundant ham and cheese sandwich, a staple no matter where you are. The rum pours freely and cervezas come as cheap as water.
While being a visitor can be intoxicating, it does not go amiss that poverty runs rampant and that people live in conditions with dilapidated housing, streets and water systems. While basic housing, essential food items and health care are available, the salaries are minescule and the gratuities that you pay for services sometimes go further than a monthly earning from the government. True gratitude comes with gifts that are hard to obtain outside of Cuba and pesos make a true difference.
Cuba may be living in its last moments of what has been its recent history. Among the rum, the homage to the revolution, the salsa and the chaotic rhythm of its old time charm and its unique history and culture, there is a sense of modern life creeping in with mobile devices and Wi-Fi becoming more prominent. It is a brilliant time to travel and see a country so untouched by the United States and to watch first-hand how it moves forward into its next era.
Absolute Must Do’s
Stay in Home-stays
There are countless home-stays throughout Cuba offering comfortable, clean accommodations with private bathrooms. The best part however is that you get to stay with locals and support them. Guidebooks are great but if you really want to find that hot new bar or restaurant, there’s no better person to ask than your host. Breakfast is included each morning, helpful for getting up and out to explore quicker.
While in La Habana, do a mojito crawl through the city checking out the sights along the way. Walk from Old Town to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, sampling the rums, beers and cocktails, bar by bar. Try a daiquiri at El Floridita Bar and snack on the complimentary plantain chips – the best bar snack around. Grab a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio and make your way up to the roof for the perfect panoramic view of the city around you.
Go to El Alba for a real Cuban feast, local-style. Near the main square, El Alba is a popular local hangout where you’ll need to use the local peso – not the tourist version. In ordering the most expensive menu items, our collective bill was still only $15CAD, which included two drinks, a starter and two huge and delicious mains. Try the simple Cuban staple of black beans and rice – a 10 on the authentic scale. Walk your meal off with a visit to the Che Guevara monument and museum nearby.
Hang out on ‘The Steps’ and watch the salsa show. Afterwards, head inside to the Disco Ayala – the nightclub in a cave! Go to Salto de Javira and jump into the refreshingly cold water, mesmerized by the thousands of wasp nests on the mountainside. Do not leave without swimming under the waterfall to the bat cave behind it!
Take the walking tour to the tobacco farm. Walking straight from town, you’ll get an inside peek at everyday life and lots of flora and fauna before arriving at the farm. Observe the making and rolling of the world famous Cuban cigar, an experience well worth the hot walk to get there. Go to the original Organic Farm, Finca Agreocolgica El Paraiso, overlooking the fertile Vinales Valley and enjoy a full dining experience. Go with a group if you can and share the full meal deal. Don’t miss the ‘Stress Relief’ drink – a spiked Pina Colada with natural remedies for stress relief (I suggest two).
Go Five Star. While I love a cozy 1-2 star experience, if you’re going to go all-inclusive in Cuba, you should go top-of-the-line and Varadero is just the place to do it. In stark contrast to the rest of our humble trip, we found the transition to an all-inclusive a little strange at first but eventually found it a great way to unwind at the end of it all. In resort-heavy Varadero, it all happens on the beach – and what a beach it is.
Take a Spanish Lesson
While you can absolutely get away with not speaking a lick of Spanish, you are guaranteed to enjoy your time a lot more if you know at least the basics.