Intoxicating, charming, its shops mostly empty but its streets filled with laughter, Cuba was for a long time one of the far-off, exotic places that I wanted to visit. Other, closer destinations always seem to take precedence. But then Cuba was pushed to the fore by Fidel Castro’s illness and the very real possibility that the country was about to change irrevocably.
I wanted to see the Cuba frozen in time, its old cars and colonial architecture. That I found, and more. What I did not expect was to be so completely seduced by the joyousness of its people, by the lush greenery of its farmlands, by the music on the streets, the beauty of its pristine beaches and by how vibrant every corner of the country was.
And what I love best is that Cuba is completely unique in a modern world – old- fashioned in its values but open-minded and tolerant. I was not at all surprised to learn that many visitors return again and again to this seductive place, be it to salsa on the open air squares, try the mojitos or cigars, laze on the beaches or follow the poignant history that every turn reveals. I became one of them.
On my first trip, my sister and I travelled by car from the easternmost point of Cuba (Guantanamo province), from a lovely little town called Baracoa via Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, to beautiful old Trinidad. From there we went to Santa Clara (Che country) and then back to Havana, making a detour to the tobacco farms in Vienales in the province of Piñar del Rio.
Cuba is one of the safest places I have visited. Rates of street crime are surprisingly low, and when we – two women travelling together – found ourselves alone on the streets in the small hours of the night, we never felt in the least threatened.
As tourism has become one of the country’s most important industries, if not its most important, it is easy to get around, to hire a car and to book hotels or home stays (in casas particulares). Due to the US embargo against Cuba, however, do not try to use American bank credit cards. In fact, apart from flights and hotels, it is mostly a cash economy. A dual currency is in operation, but as a tourist you will use Cuban Convertible Pesos (pesos convertibles), abbreviated as CUC. One CUC is roughly equivalent to a US dollar.
Varadero is where you find brilliant diving, and first-class resorts on gorgeous private beaches where, until fairly recently, Cubans were not allowed to go … but that’s another story. You could spend all your time there, pretend you’re in Florida and skip the complex culture and gritty history that is lived out every day on Cuba’s time-worn and picturesque streets.
I took those other pictures, too, but they are not included here. This is the real Cuba.
There is no quick way to get to Cuba, and you cannot fly there from the US at all, but there are many flights from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Europe and a number of cities in South America. Cuba has eleven international airports, and more than sixty carriers serve the island. From Singapore, the most practical way is to fly via Europe; there are direct flights to Havana from France, Spain and Italy.
I book through Country Holidays, who are extremely helpful in booking flights, accommodation, cars and drivers, and guides. You can get around on your own – but only if you happen to speak Spanish.
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