This Caribbean island with a controversial political situation is an amazing destination for those who look for lively nights, good music, friendly people, wonderful natural environment and history
Cuba is often known as The Pearl of the Caribbean, there are hundreds of reasons to consider this island a jewel, it might be its enchanting and friendly people, its history, the beautiful scenery or the ancient cities and towns.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean (110,860 sq km) and it enjoys a subtropical climate that provides it with sun and enough water to maintain an exuberant vegetation and a constant green shade combined with pure turquoise clear waters. Its many attractive locations make it always hard to decide which places to visit, so after exhaustive research we opted for two areas: Holguín and Santiago de Cuba on the southern coast and then the legendary Havana (La Habana in Spanish) and the touristy town of Varadero in the Hicaco Peninsula, both on the northern side.
Entrada Barrio Chino La Habana
Our first destination was the province of Holguín. The appealing beaches of Guardalavaca, Caletica and Esmeralda attract many visitors and once you step on them the reasons become obvious. Crystal clear warm waters, white sand and a rich flora adorn the area. Hotels and resorts in that area often offer all inclusive packages, a real treat in a country famous not only for its delicious fruit and juices, its lobster and seafood, but also for the world renown mojito, daiquiris and cuba libre made with the best rhum in the world. Daiquiris are made with rhum, lime juice, ice. Add fresh mint leaves and you’ll have a mojito. For a cola flavour refreshing drink combine rhum with cola (remember, coca-cola is not available in Cuba) and you will have a cuba libre.
Those looking for sun, warm water and relax, the south of Cuba is the ideal destination. Comfortable hotels in tranquil beautiful natural surroundings adorned by palm trees and the constant noise of the waves and birds flying around. If this is too calm for you and you want action you can choose water sports such as windsurfing, kayaking, water-skiing and sailing. The coral reef on Esmeralda beach invites visitors to discover the sub-aquatic world, be it more serious scuba-diving or simple snorkelling. There is a wide array of day trips that can be easily arranged. We opted for swimming with dolphins. Not without hesitation – considering these beautiful animals are kept in captivity- our temptation to be close to them was too strong and we decided to enjoy that incredible experience. We swam with them, caressed them and even managed simple tricks such as being pushed at full speed by these intelligent mammals, absolutely unforgettable.
Our hotel was comfortable, and the staff were very helpful. But as they found out we were from Argentina, they constantly followed us trying to sell coins, notes, books and other memorabilia of the iconic Che Guevara. The world famous revolutionary (impossible to miss his famous portrait printed on posters, t-shirts, bags, etc, in any market) was an Argentine youngster who took part with Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution which toppled pro-US dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The visit to Holguín is highly recommended. Not from the typical touristy point of view, but we wanted to talk to people, find out how they live, how they see their country. We rented motorbikes and rode for 50km to the town. As soon as we reached our destination, we were surrounded by locals who wanted to become our guides or to sell us different products, from rhum to Cuban cigars to more photos of Che. A guy called Pedro convinced us to choose him as guide and we marched together on foot towards the town centre. He took us to the Plaza de la Revolución (all towns and villages have a square with that name), the church and the music school. We were amazed by the enthusiasm and skills of the children, despite the limited conditions offered by the school. It is possible to see that, as everyone knows, in Cuba music and rhythm are carried in the blood. Education –together with a public health system- has always been one of the objectives of the Cuban revolution; this poor country has, indeed, one of the highest literacy rates in the world, including developed nations. We had lunch at a local eatery where foreigners can only enter if accompanied by a local. We enjoyed a proper Cuban meal, including thinly sliced fried banana and what they call ‘moors and christians’ a tasty plate of boiled white rice with dark beans. During lunch, Pedro explained to us that the police usually try to avoid any contact between locals and foreigners to avoid any trouble that might jeopardize the booming tourist industry in the island. Although there are other important industries such as sugar production, tourism still provides the highest income in Cuba and creates an enormous amount of jobs. When the time came to say goodbye to our guide, he gave us some salted peanuts and a flower as farewell gifts and we gave him a tip which seemed to content him. The following day we headed towards Santiago de Cuba. It was in this city where Castro made his first failed attempt to initiate the revolution in 1953. On the way there we drove across a completely green landscape where we could observe the huge sugar cane plantations. The taxi was a state owned one, the driver had a salary and the petrol and maintenance of the car are paid for by the state. We chatted along while we enjoyed the striking fields while we realised that there are no publicity boards at all, the only ones you can see are huge ones dedicated to the revolution, Che and some other leaders –but never Castro , or against the US. In places like that one becomes aware of the continuous brainwash we suffer in our own countries with adverts and publicity popping out around every corner.
CUBA National Theatre, Havana
Santiago de Cuba
This currently quiet city has witnessed many battles in the past, particularly in the early 50’s. The Moncada military headquarters saw the first attempt to revolutionise Cuba. Nowadays, the building is a museum about the events of that historical day. We were surprised by the fact that the version of the story differed from other ones we had heard, but then we realised that happens continuously in History, the events are lived by its protagonists and written by historians. As most Cuban towns, this city has its main square and the Revolution Square. In the main plaza we started talking to an elderly gentleman and we could not help to be absolutely seduced by him. He was sitting down, impeccably dressed in a white shirt and taking notes about the people he talked to. The sun was shinning, we were not in a hurry and he obviously enjoyed telling us about Cuban history. After almost one hour he went to get five books from the time of the revolution and offered them to us, we got them for five US$ and he said that that money was worth his pension for three months. True or not that gave us a rough idea of the income people have there. That afternoon we wandered around the town, we walked along different neighbourhoods, schools and we ended up in the baseball stadium of the local team, one of the best in the island.
After a few days in the south we were ready to visit the north coast, we were looking forward to visiting Havana, but first we spent a couple of days relaxing in Varadero. Varadero is a small town crowded with international luxury hotels, apart from that and a few scatered shops there is not much to see there, but it’s perfect to relax. It is a good location from where to explore the many cayos (the keys) if you are keen on sailing and underwater exploration , as these small atolls are surrounded by shallow waters with an amazingly rich and colourful marine flora and fauna. With the friendly character of the locals it is really easy to start a conversation. A young student told us her opinion about Castro’s regime. She explained to us that the only means to leave the island –the dream of many youngsters- was to become friends with a foreigner or to marry one. Our conclusion after listening to many Cubans was that, generally speaking, those who had lived either under the Batista dictatorship or the revolution were thankful to Fidel Castro, whereas younger generations, aware of lifestyles in overseas countries (thanks to their contact with tourists and visitors) were, at least partially, opposed to the socialist regime.
Museo de La Revolución La Habana
The capital was our next stop. A very special city with plenty of history, hidden architectural gems, beautiful songs, people and legends awaiting us. We stayed at the Hotel Sevilla an old hotel opened in 1908 located in a privileged area of the old town, Habana Vieja,. Its Spanish colonial style, with patios and bars tempted us to take a break, and its restaurant on the top floor reminded us of the dining room in the film Titanic. There is no doubt that, despite its decay, the most beautiful area of the capital is the old quarter. People playing music in the streets, men wearing Panama hats and smoking cigars, a pharmacy selling medicinal plants or a traditional bar, invite visitors to enjoy every moment. Having selected a few places to visit, we put on comfortable shoes and headed towards the castle of San Salvador de la Punta. From there it is possible to see the bay bordering the city, the Fuerte de San Carlos and the Castillo del Morro, forts on the coast built by the Spaniards in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. A lengthy stroll along the Paseo de Martí -also known as the Paseo del Prado- gave us an idea about the old charm of the colonial period: beautiful run down buildings, trees, old street lights and statues decorate this pleasant promenade. At the end of the boulevard is the old Centro Gallego, nowadays National Theatre, the Capitolio (the parliament until 1959) and other interesting buildings such as the neoclassic Hotel de Inglaterra and the old Partagás cigar factory. Our next stop was the Museum of the Revolution (the former residence of the presidents built in 1909) were we learnt about the guerrilleros who fought against Batista in the late 50’s through photos, films, weapons and other memorabilia (including the box where the remains of Che Guevara were brought to Cuba for Bolivia, where he had been killed together with other revolutionaries). We decided to take a break and we went to the legendary Bodeguita del Medio, the most famous bar in Havana (together with Floridita) as it is home to the best mojito in the world according to Ernest Hemingway… and we agreed.
The Cuba-loving writer used to say “My daiquiri in Floridita and my mojito in La Bodeguita”. Right next to the temple of the mojito is the cathedral, one of the finest-looking ones in Latin America. The big plaza in front of it is surrounded by aristocratic 18th century mansions such as the Casa de Lombillo, the Palace of the Marques de Arcos, the Casa del Conde de Bayona and the old house of the Marques de Aguas Claras. Other interesting places to visit are the Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro gives his lengthy speeches (he probably holds the world record among leaders, as sometimes he talked for over five hours), the Ministries, the National Library or the monument to José Martí. As days went by our affection for Havana and its inhabitants grew stronger. Full of memories, mental images and photos we went back home to Argentina. There was still plenty to see and discover but time was over and we thought of a famous song ‘Cuando salí de Cuba/ dejé mi vida/ dejé mi amor/ Cuando salí de Cuba/ dejé enterrado mi corazón’ (When I left Cuba/I left my life/ I left my love/ When I left Cuba/ I left buried my heart there).
Written by Aldana Chiodi
Photography Aldana Chiodi and Dino Feldman