With its old world charm, stunning scenery, beautiful ageing buildings and effortlessly cool culture, Cuba had been at the top of my travel wishlist for years, ever since I first read an article about it in a travel magazine some 10 years ago and was taken aback by the striking photos of the 1950s cars and colourful colonial architecture. After a year of umming and ahhing, I finally decided to visit Cuba this summer. I wanted to see the country before the communist regime of the Castros came to an end and the world’s multinationals descend on the island, turning it into yet another soulless tourist trap. Happily, it did not disappoint.
It’s hard to sum up the magic of Cuba in a few short paragraphs and do justice to this fabulous island. Cuba is renowned for being stuck in something of a time warp because of the long standing international blockades, and it was fascinating to see this old, preserved way of life up close – men travelling by horse and cart through the city streets, the spectacular vintage cars and farmers being pulled along country lanes by oxen. Even more intriguing was seeing these antiquated modes of transport alongside modern cars and vehicles. The sense of history you feel walking around the streets is palpable, whether it’s from the canons sticking out of the pavements in Trinidad and Havana, a reminder of the country’s colonial past, or a giant effigy of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara looking down on you from the side of a five-storey building.
The Cuban people are incredibly friendly and I felt very safe wherever I went. Even as a young woman by myself, I never felt threatened or out of place, despite obviously being a tourist. The culture is rich, and music and salsa, especially, are an important part of Cuban life. I loved the way that when you’d go out at night, whether to a bar, a restaurant or to the town square, there’d be a group of musicians playing, locals dancing or even on one occasion, a flamenco performance during dinner.
The other thing that got me about Cuba was how fantastic the food is. All the guide books I’d read before going said that the food was nothing to write home about and I could look forward to a plain diet of rice, beans and fish. But everywhere I went I had amazing food. From sweet tropical fruits to delicious seafood (lobster and shrimp are specialties) and the tastiest vegetable soup I’ve ever eaten, it was simply sensational. And then there’s the rum and some of the best cocktails I’ve ever sampled – you’ve never had a real mojito, daiquiri or pina colada until you’ve had them in Cuba. British bars and restaurants just don’t do them justice.
Cuba is an enchanting and fascinating country that’s well worth adding to your travel itinerary. Before I went, whenever I met someone who’d been to Cuba they’d go into raptures about how amazing it is and how much I’d enjoy it, even strangers on the bus gushed about the island, and now having been lucky enough to go myself, I understand why.