I did not quite know what to expect of Cuba before I visited. I thought that I possessed some important tourist knowledge regarding the economic system, the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s infatuation with rum (the latter I am pleased to say is not just hearsay). However, what I have concluded about Cuba is that it is entirely unique. Sure, if you are by the deep blue sea, you realise that you are in the Caribbean. Sure, you can see whitewashed mansions that stem from Spanish colonialism. But with horses and carts trundling up the highways, the legal requirement to pick up hitchhikers and an honest attempt to implement Socialism, this quirky country exudes uniqueness.
My journey started in the capital city of Havana; a bustling place brimming with character and mojito bars. The best way for a tourist to get their footing is by securing a bus tour around the city, visiting the Plaza de la Revolution (an administrative plaza that resembles Tiananmen Square) and the vibrant seafront. Havana’s Old Town (Havana Vieja), with its narrow streets and historical sites, constitutes a richly enjoyable travel destination to explore by foot. The Museum de la Revolution in Central Havana offers an intriguing overview of the 1959 Socialist revolution orchestrated by Fidel Castro, complete with awkward English translations.
The relaxing colonial city of Cienfuegos, situated on the southern coast of Cuba, boasts picturesque colonial mansions and a stunning seafront. Most importantly however, the city is just a stone’s throw away from the Bay of Pigs. Here, tourists can take in the serene beaches that once played host to the Bay of Pigs invasion, where a counter-revolutionary military, trained by the CIA, attempted to overthrow Castro’s newly installed regime. A trip slightly further afield to Santa Clara takes you to see Cuba’s impressive monument to famed revolutionary Che Guevara.
Further inland lays Trinidad. With its markets, colonial architecture and arid setting, Trinidad is reminiscent of North Africa and its souks. Trinidad is also home to one of the main Cuban music scenes. Each night the local bars are filled with drunk European tourists dancing independently of the rhythm while being spurred on by attractive locals. Like with most of Cuba, the atmosphere is warm and inviting.
A somewhat self-contained tourist destination, the peninsula of Varadero is saturated with lush golf courses, extravagant hotels and twelve kilometers of stunning white beaches.
Common Western Misconceptions about Cuba
1. Cuba is an insular, repressive state:
Cuba actually has a relatively relaxed environment and the warm citizens can often be found making light of their hardships. Due to a well-funded education system, many Cubans possess impressive skillsets and a curiosity for other cultures. Unfortunately, the job market does not match this expertise and the majority of Cubans suffer great poverty. There appears to be very little popular hostility towards ordinary Americans and some American figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, are seemingly popular.
2. There are no Americans in Cuba
American citizens are banned from using Cuban services by the U.S government and this essentially extends to a travel ban. However, Americans are increasingly visiting Cuba through religious and cultural exchanges and American accents are commonly heard in busy tourist areas.
3. There are no foreign brands in Cuba
Although this is seemingly on the point of evolving, all foreign business activities in Cuba are joint ventures with the Cuban State. McDonalds and other fast food establishments have been kept at arm’s length, but Coca Cola and Heinz products can be commonly acquired.
Despite the widespread poverty that was exacerbated by the collapse of Cuba’s principal benefactor, the USSR, there are reasons to be optimistic about the country. I would never wish to belittle the hostility between Cuban exiles in the USA and the Cuban State, but a thaw in tensions between the USA and Cuba can be observed. The country is also wandering slowly towards foreign investment, with successions such as the right to own property being announced in recent years. Many Europeans would suggest that the country is screaming out for this, but it is hard to view the country through Cuban eyes. Cubans tend to place a great deal of emphasis on complete equality and are weary of foreign investment stifling this. Cuba is, nonetheless, a must-visit destination for the traveller seeking a completely unique experience!
Date of Trip: April 2014