As you lift off the tarmac, forget everything you’ve read or heard about the mysterious isla de Cuba. Arrive to the gentle breezes that flow across the island day and night and form your own opinion. This is mine.
I count my Mexican amigos among the friendliest people in the world, but now I have to put the beautiful inhabitants of Cuba at the top of the list. Every person we met–in shops, restaurants, taxis, and on the street–greeted us with joy in their eyes and smiles on their faces. Cautious travelers can toss their worries into the soothing breeze as there isn’t a safer travel destination than Cuba. Crime rates are low and offenders of drug and theft laws are destined for years in prison.
Whatever your pleasure, Cuba has it. The main attraction for most travelers is the small, steamy city of Havana. The entire country is just 11 million people, enough to fit in the pocket of Mexico. All your senses will be thrilled, from the music emanating from every restaurant, street corner, home, and car to the brilliant colors as you stroll along the cobblestone streets breathing the fresh sea air.
Lovers of music and dance will be in a state of euphoria. In addition to the music in the famous dance clubs–Buena Vista Social Club, Tropicana, etc.—there’s music in every restaurant, live or otherwise. The world-famous Cuban Ballet performs in the Teatro Alicia Alonzo, a strikingly beautifully restored palace for the arts.
Food and drink are an important part of anyone’s agenda. You have, no doubt, heard that the food is awful. This is no longer true. Raul Castro has allowed more private restaurants that take the CUC, the currency for foreigners. And don’t worry about being scammed–the prices are reasonable. I had Red Snapper (pargo) several times, and my friends ate lobster for around $15 USD a plate, which includes the inevitable rice and beans (delicious, by the way … called congris or moros y cristianos), salad, sometimes soup and yucca or a starchy vegetable. Should you prefer something lighter, do as we did and order several appetizers, at $4 to $6 USD a plate, to share.
Drinks are reasonable too. A selection of three beers cost about two dollars each on restaurant menus. They are Crystal and Presidente, both lagers, the latter from the Dominican Republic; Bucanero is a darker beer, all three delicious. Of course, rum drinks dominate the menu. The piña coladas are especially good, light and foamy with a distinct coco flavor. Mojitos are the drink of the day. If you ask for extra herba buena, the mint flavor will be stronger than the alcohol. Daiquiris are another favorite, coming in many flavors. Hemingway drank them at the famous La Floridita bar, which is packed with tourists vying for a spot next to his statue at the bar.
For Hemingway fans, besides La Floridita, you can visit the hotel he occupied as his first home in Cuba, Ambos Mundos, in centro Havana. Later he purchased a 20-acre estate about a half hour outside the city, called Finca Vigia, also open to visitors.
Baseball and soccer dominate the sports scene. Havana has two baseball stadiums where Havana’s two teams, the Industriales and the Metropolitanos, play. I was fortunate to see the Little League finals for both 12- and 16-year olds. Decked out in blue and white, they played their hearts out, with lots of parental support in the crowd, which cheered on not only their team, but the opposing team too. I was surprised to learn that parents pay for the kids’ uniforms and equipment. There are nine baseball stadiums in the country, simple places to enjoy the game. Fans are well schooled in baseball, knowing all the Cuban and Latin players that have made their way to the US.
The island of Cuba is 780 miles long, with a variety of colonial cities of particular interest, including Trinidad, which was on our agenda. This is a must-visit if you have the time. It is to Cuba what San Miguel de Allende is to Mexico, a colonial gem providing tourists with lots of good restaurants and music. And should you want to visit the beach, Playa Ancón is just 20 minutes away. There are several hotels if you wish to spend the night.
Where to stay: Tourism is important to Cuba, and there are many many European travelers taking in the sun during the winter months. Of course there are hotels, but an excellent option is the one we took: casas particulars, which means staying with a family. In the four different casas we inhabited for our ten-day visit, all were superbly appointed. There were air conditioning, fans, and private bathrooms with bathtub and shower (including interesting shower curtains). The beds were comfortable and there was adequate closet space. The prices are far more reasonable than the hotels: around US $30 to $40 USD a night. A breakfast of eggs, fruit, juice, coffee, bread, and cheese adds five dollars to the price. But the best part is being in a home with local people and also with tourists from other countries (although most casas only have two or three rooms for rent).
Many Cubans are dependent on the tourist business and for that reason I tried to buy as many souvenirs as I could carry home. My friends will love me!
Because of a personal contact we had in Cuba, we chose to travel with a guide and driver, which turned out to be the wisest choice we could have made as the knowledge they imparted in nine days was more than we could have learned from a year of reading. Our guide Danays, a former professor of history at University of Havana, now has all her eggs in the guide business, mostly training the guides for the entire island. We couldn’t walk a block in Havana without several people stopping to chat with her. Our driver Ramon even accompanied me to the baseball game.
So, put Cuba on your bucket list. And don’t hesitate to write me with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org