Viva Cuba! To travel to Cuba is to entwine your life with the story of one of the most beautiful, the most evocative, the most singular and compelling countries in the word. You would not necessarily choose in Cuba if you just wanted to get away from it all, and dance. There is too much here of life. But if you would be enriched and enriching, enchanted and engrossed, and get away, then pack for Cuba immediately. There will definitely be dancing.
Like arriving in Manhattan for the first time, landing in Havana gives that miraculous, unbelievable feeling that everything you have imagined is true. Here really are scents of flowers and cigars in sweet warm air, taxis from the 1950s and an astonishingly kind and dignified welcome. The Malecon, Havana’s sea wall, really is one of the great boulevards of the world – flinging azure sea on one side, on the other, the city’s jumble of dilapidation, valiant invention and battered glamour. The streets really do glow with beauty and colour. But look beyond the intoxicating first impression, and you will find that although different eras are entwined here, Cuba is more than a time-trap; despite the scourge of sanctions, clenching poverty and the pandemic, this is an inventive and defiantly dynamic society, vivid with ideas.
To survive, Cubans rely on solidarity and creativity: you will hear the humour, satire and resilient joy in the music of the capital’s Old Town, and see it and feel it in the dancing. A rhumba tour will teach you to beat out the rhythm, kick out the steps and inhabit the characters of the street. Music is everywhere, falling like lamplight out of doors and windows, and you will be part of the ceaseless song of the island. Look for a Casa de la Trova: they range from celebrated venues to simple rooms of chairs, a dance floor, a small stage and a bar. ‘Houses of the Trovadores’, singer-songwriters, are one of the shrines of Cuba’s soul. Comedy, ribaldry, love and romance are danced and sung. Part of that song, too, is longing and struggle.
Tourism is vital to Cuba, not just dollars, but connection and conversation with the world beyond the shore. Cubans have a long history with and understanding of their visitors, which means you will be treated with immense courtesy, kindness and a perceptive comprehension. In need of directions, dance lessons, a drink, conversation, advice, a tour, or to be left in peace? As a people who have survived by understanding and sympathy, Cubans are strikingly and immediately empathetic – travellers find they can entrust themselves to the island’s proud hospitality.
We arrived by night with only the vaguest plan, took an ancient taxi into a dark Havana, asked advice, were shown to a crumbling palace and given a room on the roof. Casa particulares – homestays with licensed locals – are one of treats of the Cuban experience. Our breakfast came with views of the whole of Havana, and conversations about music, travel and local life. Although many Casa Particulares suit budget travellers better than honeymooners, there is a world of choice: palaces with pools, mighty old houses with sumptuous bedrooms; rooftop secrets. Unless the call of uninterrupted beach time is too strong, an unforgettable visit would include a homestay, and a good hotel, and a journey. Try Santiago for the Baroque and the dancing – here are son, salsa and rhumba.
Just off shore are magnificent wreck dives, for the scuba-inclined. Drive east from here to the Sierra Maestra mountains, where an easy and limbering hike will take you to the hideouts from where Fidel Castro launched the revolution. Go all the way to the coast of the Oriente region and you come to Guantanamo Province and the city of Baracoa, an emerald of a small city in the far east, awash with sea-light, cradled in green hills. (When Columbus arrived in 1492 he declared Baracoa’s bay and mountains the most beautiful place in the world and no one has ever argued with the judgement.) Any or all of dancing in Havana, hiking the Sierra Maestra, birdwatching and swimming in Humboldt National Park or diving near Santiago would make a journey in Cuba one of the trips of a lifetime, but activity is not the only route to happiness. What could be better, really, than sitting with the person you love, one sweet Caribbean evening, at a table or in a square, and talking softly, as music plays somewhere, of all you have done, and will do?
Horatio Clare 2021
For more information on Cuba head to: https://cubatravelservices.com/
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