Flying to Cuba felt like setting out on a two week holiday prior to the backpacking trip. I couldn’t envisage anything past that time frame – the mere idea of travelling for six whole months, a whopping 196 days, seemed surreal. I felt that I would have to take this one country at a time. The sensation of going on a simple two week holiday was only heightened by the fact that we had cheekily booked a package holiday flight with no intention of joining the tour group to the hotel resorts of Guardalavaca. Although a completely legitimate way to book a cheap flight, it certainly felt like we were one-upping the London to Havana airlines.
We arrived in the midst of a tropical storm, something I was more excited about than Jo it seems – my exclamations of “but it’s hot rain!” were greeted with eye-rolling. We spent our first two days in Cuba in the city of Holguin, a small city famous (as we later found out) for being the birthplace of Fidel Castro but which on the whole seemed extremely surprised to find two tourists wandering its streets. Our next stop was the southern town of Santiago de Cuba, a hilly and humid city of plazas, colourful colonial buildings and reggaeton.
Greeted at our casa particular by an endearing but slightly quirky woman, we were ushered through a living room in which the central ornament was a large cuddly toy of a snow leopard, sat in pride of place amongst the chairs, to our room decorated with hot pink satin curtains, balloon animals and a 3-dimensional toilet seat cover of ribbons and plastic flowers. You couldn’t deny that the room had character… Whiling away the evenings with mojitos in colourful bars blasting a mix of salsa, reggaeton and bachata, we were quickly greeted by some of the locals, curious as to who we were and what we made of Cuba. Invariably this quickly descended into promising us the best rum in Cuba, three bottles of which his brother coincidentally had spare, inviting us to clubs for a dance, etc. Through these conversations we did however discover that the best way to travel for Cubans is to be part of a band – Cuban salsa being particularly promoted in Europe. Having previously spoken to a taxi driver who detailed the lengthy process required to obtain permission to travel, it was quite a surprise to hear people familiar with Manchester, Zurich and other European cities.
From Santiago we took an overnight bus to Trinidad, a
cobbled Spanish colonial city of ochre yellow houses, European influenced art and sculpture and sun drenched squares.
Based in the centre of town, we were able to explore the small streets, shops and cafés on foot, allowing of course for a day at the Indonesian island-esque beach of Playa Ancón, a deserted paradise early in the morning complete with dazzlingly white sand, turquoise water and palm leaf thatched sunshades. Reluctant to leave, we stayed to watch the sunset over the water, turning everything around us to gold and amber.
On a last minute whim, we set out for the small university town of Santa Clara, with a brief stop in the French influenced town of Cienfuegos, known (whether by everybody, just the citizens of Cienfuegos or simply by our taxi driver whose adoration of the city was very apparent, I’m still uncertain) as ‘The Pearl of the South’. Santa Clara proved to be an unexpected delight – friendly, relaxed and with a student-led nightlife, there were plenty of bars and cafés to choose from. Santa Clara is also home to the Che Guevara mausoleum and museum (but that’s another post for another time). Travelling with a friend who we had originally met in Santiago, we were quickly joined by Carlos, a sports student at the university who was eager to tell us about the town and his impressions of Cuba in general. The first night in the bar led to another evening of mojitos, after a few of which we were convinced to salsa. Although I didn’t get off to a great start, apparently watching someone’s feet and attempting to copy them is not conducive to the chemistry required for salsa and will certainly result in you being told off for not looking at the person you are dancing with, I managed to twirl and didn’t fall over when dipped. Rather successful all in all, and it now entitles me to say that I have danced salsa with a Cuban in the Caribbean. That evening was one for another Cuban first: the cigar. Although I’m without a doubt that person who coughs after one puff of a cigarette, I was determined to try a Cuban cigar, regardless of not having the faintest clue what to do – made abundently clear by the manner in which I was holding the cigar and by the fact that I was not “savouring” it enough. I can safely say that I’ve never felt more sophisticated…