Cuba: Stepping back in time
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
I went to Cuba right after I finished my undergraduate studies. I knew I wanted to go somewhere far away as Wanderlust had really taken over me. I also knew that I wanted to go somewhere where I could speak Spanish; Cuba was a spontaneous decision and spontaneous decisions are usually the best.
I went there in August, which was probably not the best decision as there were days that were unbearably hot and humid. But none of that really mattered once I started exploring this beautiful country with a cocktail in hand.
My trip consisted of various stops in several cities such as Varadero, Trinidad, Cayo Blanco, Viñales and, last but not least, Havana. When I think back to it, what I remember is a constant sense of enthusiasm – it was not just me being happy for having the chance to visit all these places but it was the whole vibe of the country and its people. After all, people are what makes a city or a country special and that was pretty obvious in the case of Cuba.
Locals seemed so open, gregarious and friendly that one could easily engage with them and learn more about their culture and their everyday life just by stopping on the street and starting to chat with them. The country certainly had a romantic vibe with unsubtle looks not being uncommon, but I never felt uncomfortable, in contrast to other countries where the approach of locals towards female tourists can be disturbing and sometimes quite stressful. That was not the case in Cuba. There was something in the air that generated happiness and made you fall in love with life again as poetic as it sounds. Enthusiasm and energy were contagious.
Day trip to Cayo Blanco. Doesn’t it look like a postcard?
The unspoiled seas along with the wildlife-rich rainforests were postcardlike as you can see in the picture above. The landscapes instantly made me feel a bit closer to nature, which is quite hard in my case as I'm not such a big nature lover. Quite honestly though, feeling closer to nature or rather forcing myself to feel closer to nature was the only option I had (call it survival mode?) since that was the only way I would be able fight with two quite chubby crabs found under my bed before going to sleep and escape from a horse (!) found right in front of my room’s door when arriving back from a night out in Varadero.
One of the highlights of my trip was the city tour in Chevrolet 1957 (is there really a tourist who went to Cuba and didn’t do this city tour?) as well as my visit at the National Museum of Modern Art, which is probably my second favourite museum of Modern Art. The colours and the themes depict the vibrant character of Cubans and the whole museum serves as a perfect illustration of the development of art in the island. It’s a must see.
This picture was taken in Havana right before we started our tour in these convertible cars.
Things that surprised me
- Wifi is only available in certain public areas in the city and is charged by the hour. Inconvenient yet liberating.
- The historic city centre of Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
- Cuba has among the highest literacy rates in the world. By 2000, 97% of Cubans ages 15–24 were literate. Cuban leaders believe that people should be educated in order to be able to participate actively in society.
- Cuban sandwiches (known as Cubanos in the US) are not Cuban! Cuban Americans were the ones who created them, but Cubans actually started serving them since many American tourists kept on asking for them while visiting Cuba.
- Ernest Hemingway spent almost twenty years in Cuba. Rumours say that he was usually hanging out in two bars that have now become massive tourist attractions: La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. I confirm that these places serve excellent cocktails. And generally, I never had a bad cocktail in Cuba. There was one called canchanchara which I tried for the first time and was impressed not only by its sweet and lemony taste but also by its history. Canchanchara was first created by guerilla fighters in the Ten Year's War and the War of Independence. According to Cubans, guerilla fighters would drink this cocktail before each battle. Apart from its invigorating properties, canchanchara was also thought to have medicinal properties as it would ward off colds as well as fatigue and hunger.
- I wouldn’t say that Cuba is a foodie destination. Food is quite okay but the high risk of food poisoning doesn’t really let one properly enjoy one’s meals. My personal favourite was arroz con pollo, i.e. chicken with rice - simple, nutritious and tasty. What could go wrong with that? Or that’s what I chose to believe. One of the strangest things I tried was crocodile, which I would never do again.
- Visiting Cuba does feel like going back in time. The image of people walking on the streets and not being glued to their phones is in stark contrast to the image I see every day in the subway on my way to work.
Some last thoughts
-Probably one of the reasons why this country has such an uplifting vibe (at least it that's how it felt when I visited it back in 2016) is the fact that it’s so different from our way of living. That is definitely refreshing. However, things seem to be slightly different beneath the surface. Soon after one talks to locals, it seems pretty clear that years of political and social oppression have created a sense of uncertainty and helplessness. This probably explains why suicide rates are quite high in Cuba.
-It's clear that tourists can by no means understand what Cubans have gone and are going through in terms of their political and social reality. However, if there is one thing I learned in Cuba, is the importance of finding ways to make one's life happier even if it's just for a while. Seeing locals dancing, singing and enjoying some carefree moments before being drawn back to every-day struggles was inspiring and the main message I want to keep from this trip to this beautiful country.