Arriving in Cuba, we were confronted with the sweltering heat, the honking taxi horns, the quick-speaking Spanish language and the Cuban customs we knew little of. While we were only there for eight days, this proved long enough for us to find an adventure in this changing, exciting country and here we highlight our favourites of the trip.
1. The old cars.
Because of their political standpoint, for a long time Cuba did not import any new cars, but rather maintained the cars they had from the 1950’s and 60’s and it is incredible what they have done. The bright colours of yellows, reds, blues, greens and pinks contrast significantly with the rundown, black and grey buildings of Old Havana, somehow making it seem all the more beautiful. Some of the old cars are in immaculate condition, while others, with their black diesel smoke filling the air, are barely hanging on. These cars are beasts and it makes you wonder as you’re riding along in the big, comfy seats on the way home from the beach, why we ever got away from cars like these.
2. The old architecture of Havana.
The contrast of old and new in Havana is what makes that city so spectacular. The half torn-down buildings and streets in China town stand out against the beautifully redone masterpiece that is the Capitol building. The churches in Old Havana seem from another time period, yet they somehow seem to fit in this bustling city. Walking down the Malecón, you will see tall colonial buildings, each one so different from the next. Some are painted with pastels alive in the sunlight, while others look ready to crumble by the touch of a finger. The forts and castles near the bay tell stories of the Cuban’s past. And yet, you travel just 10 minutes down the road into New Havana and modern-day Cuba is alive and well. It’s a city not to be missed.
3. The colonial town of Trinidad, where time has literally stopped.
This place will blow your mind. The town is filled with pastel-coloured colonial buildings with Spanish clay roofs. The wooden shutters are often open, allowing you to glimpse into homes as you pass by. Often the residents are simply rocking back and forth on their old, wooden rocking chairs. Weathered Cuban men sit on the doorsteps smoking cigars. Donkeys and horses frequent the uneven cobblestone streets. Gorgeous green valleys surround the town, waiting to be explored. And while they have set themselves up for tourists with numerous cases particulares to sleep in and bars to party at, the town still manages to stay a quiet, sleepy town where you can enjoy the stars from the rooftop patios.
4. Staying in casas particulares (home stays).
Staying in casas allows you a view into the Cuban culture that you wouldn’t get any other way. In Havana, our hosts, Orquidea and Michel, kept telling us “mi casa es su casa,” which directly translates to “my house is your house.” We literally slept in the bedroom next to theirs and sat at their table for breakfast, all while enjoying their delicious freshly made juices and pastries, and getting advice on places to see and things to do. In Trinidad, our host Javier taught us more about Cuba than any Lonely Planet book ever could. He opened our eyes to all the wonders around Trinidad and he gave us a five minute lesson on how to smoke a cigar after selling us a box of Cohibas that came straight from the factory.
5. The beaches.
There is a reason Varadero is considered the best beach in the Caribbean. The water is a spectacular teal-blue, the sand is incredibly fine and white, and the sunshine makes all of it sparkle. While Varadero itself is only okay, the beach is an absolute must-see. Coming from a beach-lover, this is saying a lot. We also visited Santa Maria outside of Havana, a fairly local beach full of teens and families, and Playa Ancón near Trinidad, a resort beach where hermit crabs slowly made their way along the sand. Either way, we were not disappointed.
6. The epic thunderstorms.
For the last four days in Cuba, there was a thunderstorm every single night. Did it dampen our vacation? Not one bit. In fact, it made it better, cooling down the evenings slightly, as well as providing some great light show entertainment. Our first night in Trinidad, we were enjoying a pasta dinner in an old colonial building with high ceilings and marble floors with a live band playing “Guantanamera”, when suddenly a thunderous roar echoed through the town and all of the lights went out. Rain hit the cobblestone hard. It was pitch black. Yet as quickly as that had happened, the waiter turned on her cell phone light, the music started up again, and the town went about their business as usual.
7. The live music.
In Obispo, for example, a trendy cobblestone street in Old Havana, there are endless restaurants and lounges with live music playing. From upbeat Cuban music to soulful spanish, you won’t be missing the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift playing from the speakers in restaurants back home. You will actually find yourself clapping along and shaking your feet. In Trinidad, at an outdoor bar on cobblestone steps called La Casa de la Música, you might even want to stand up and give salsa dancing a try. The music is that good.
8. The cheap drinks.
Whether you fancy a mojito, a local canchánchara in Trinidad, or a cerveza like Cristal, you won’t be disappointed. Beers cost as little as $1.50 US and cocktails a measly $3 US. Drink up!
9. The cigars.
No matter where you go in Cuba, someone will be trying to sell you a cigar. Wait to buy in the smaller towns of Trinidad or Vinales, so that you know you are getting the real thing and for a fraction of the cost. Our casa host, Javier, got us a box of 25 Cohibas for just $60. These retail for over $300 in Canada!
10. Safety first.
In Cuba, you’ll never feel safer. The fear of dark alleyways will be a thing of the past once you’ve stepped foot here. No matter the time of day, nor the location, we did not fear our safety once. Even the downtown of our home city of Calgary, Canada, doesn’t feel this way. And it wasn’t just us. We met a solo female traveler who said the same. Tourists everywhere carried bags and cameras out in the open with no hesitation. I don’t know if it’s because of the socialist government policies they have, but something is working for them in this regard.