Over the course of several years I have been fortunate to travel to Cuba three times, and during these trips I have been able to appreciate the great changes that have taken place in this Caribbean country. In spite of the changes, the inhabitants of Cuba still transmit the same things today: authenticity, culture, national pride, curiosity…
Needless to say, within the island there are many worlds, each one different from the next. However, when I think of Cuba, I always feel invaded by a mixture of fragrances: papaya, tobacco leaves, rum... These exotic aromas are always accompanied by music, ubiquitous in Cuba and very important in the culture of the country. Of course, it’s not only about Son, Salsa and Reggaeton; you can appreciate many styles as you walk down the streets.
In Havana, the best atmosphere is found on the streets. Strolling through this charming city, it’s easy to find chairs and tables outside, where people gather to talk and hang out, creating a great sense of community, with a very strong bond between the inhabitants.
Over the years, a very interesting artistic movement has awakened, and now it’s easy to find a large number of art galleries, something that was not usual a few years ago.
In Cuba, and in Havana especially, gastronomy is very important; it’s not based so much on the variety, but on knowing how to take advantage of the native ingredients and enjoying them with family and friends, together with a good bottle of rum - not before pouring the first stream of the bottle in a corner of the house, for Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre -. Cuba is a complex country, full of contradictions, where we find a complicated political situation but with highly educated people, very hospitable and sociable; they welcome everyone with open arms, sharing their food and connecting with them.
This is probably why in Havana there are a lot of "paladares", private houses where food is served, as if they were small private restaurants. And it also helps them win some extra money! Eating in one of these "paladares" is a unique experience, and truth be told, you can actually tell that the food has been prepared with affection.
Apart from the "paladares", one of the best experiences I lived in Havana was in Plaza del Capitol. There was a photographer with a 100-year-old camera that was still working. I still treasure the incredible photos that he took.
Beyond the decadent charm of Havana and the wonderful white sand beaches of the island, Cuba can be proud of its incredible interior landscapes. Just a couple of hours by car from the capital you will find the valley of Viñales and Pinar del Río, a beautiful tobacco and Guajira area where we can really appreciate the ambiance on the street and squares. In no time you can find yourself sitting with a 70-years-old grandfather, talking about life. Coming from Havana you can appreciate the enormous contrast between the colonial city and the great scenic beauty of this rural area. The best way to enjoy it is horse-riding.
Over the years Cuba has become more of a touristic attraction, and there are some areas on the coast that have lost their old charm. Luckily, there are some jewels out of the beaten trackss, such as Cayo Coco, an incredible reserve of pink pelicans with beautiful protected beaches and an astonishing nature. Before arriving at the Keys I would recommend a stop in Trinidad, a beautiful interior area, authentic and very well preserved.
In this Caribbean paradise anything unexpected can happen: you can start the day driving a quad in the middle of the Keys and meet a peasant in a rickety tractor, and without knowing how, you can end up sharing a drink of exquisite rum with him, drinking from a dubious can. In fact, the Cubans are very skilful and resolute; they have learnt to adapt to the means that they have, and they make it work. It's easy to spot some rickety old cars and wonder how they’re still working!
Cuba is definitely a must-see destination. Of course, you have to learn to be patient, forget about the Western concept of time and simply enjoy this quiet and relaxed lifestyle, and take the surprises as they come, with a lot of humor.