Never mine, never Che Guevara’s (he was argentinian)… perhaps Cuba was never even the people’s. Castro may claim it – he was, after all, responsible for the Cuban Revolution and held the country’s power for 50 years or so.
The song, immortalized by Celia Cruz and Tito Puentes, resonates to so many hearts though. The intensity, the passion, and the swing: it all matches the feelings felt by many for this central Caribbean island. The body of land that has America above its head, Haiti by its feet, and Mexico by its side: it’s so close to three very distinct nations, but somehow Cuba is absolutely distinct. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the few countries in the world that managed to become and keep a communist government.
What does that matter for us, tourists? Not much, really, for the ones that only go to one of the island’s all-inclusive resorts. They’ll enjoy the gorgeous beach, be served strong frozen margaritas, see a few salsa performances during the night entertainment, and go home complaining about the food.
Some have promised never to visit Cuba, “that communist country”. “It’s terrible what they have to endure there, because of the Castros!” they will say, obliviously. Ok, you might feel a little uncomfortable when a local asks for your leftover toothpaste. But that’s sad: sad for the one that spends life without experiencing this amazing island.
Varadero, the region that has the majority of the resorts, has turquoise waters and a cute little town that is very worth of your out-of-the-all-inclusive time: rent a scooter or take an epic ride on one of the vintage cars, and head to town to buy cigars or have a delightful Cuban coffee. At night, a must is La Cueva del Pirata, an impressive nightclub inside a cave where cabaret and magic happens – like getting to your hotel without remembering how (that part provided by the no-measured shots of rum in your drink).
Many tourists go to Cuba many times without ever making it to Havana. That’s another sad mistake, although I do understand that some are looking into only relaxing by the beach and don’t want to bother spending money and 4-5 hours (roundtrip) in a bumpy bus to visit the capital. A better alternative and fun experience would be booking a night at a Casa Particular, which is exactly what the name says: a bed and breakfast at someone’s house. Book it in advance if you can, or have a few options to choose from before your arrival.
My story on that: I first was looking for a convent turned into guest house. The place had its doors closed, I couldn’t figure it out a way in. Luckily I had a Plan B, but that was impossible to find it by myself. I then asked around, and after a few exchange between friendly locals, someone took me to an apartment, up through a red tiled staircase where a child sat playing with a cat. A nice mama in her apron then received me, and we negotiated the price – I think it was something like 35 dollars. The room must have been the best one in the apartment, an ensuite with a queen bed and a small corner balcony. And it had a lock, that for some reason felt really important for a woman traveling by herself.
Cubans are very friendly and the love tourists. We are, after all, their main source of income – can’t live with the US$25/month common wage only, so there’s a huge slush fund industry going on in the island. One example is: I took a private taxi to the airport once, paid cash to the driver. The driver then had to pay a bribe on a road toll to a public agent. It is natural and everybody is part of it, although sometimes the naïve tourist might feel explored.
While walking the streets of Old Havana, this young fellow decided to walk with me. I said I was sightseeing, and so he volunteered as my (unrequested) tour guide. We stopped for two mojitos – my tab, he made it clear beforehand – at a bar where soon a band started playing, and almost simultaneous a couple got up and started dancing. This simple stop is my most memorable moment in Havana.
I also visited the Cuban Cigar Factory (there are a few of them, I went to Partagas) and the Revolution Museum. I loved the history, the culture, and the nationalism of this beautiful island.
I just made a promise to myself while writing this: I need to go back to Havana to explore more the Capital sights. The problem is: my husband, last time we went to another part of the island for a wedding, said ‘never more’. He got really upset upon arrival at Santa Maria airport, where customs gave us a real hard time, claiming we were bringing pot into the country. They came with dogs and all shenanigans to inspect our suitcase. Without finding anything, obviously, but putting stress on the beginning of the holidays. Then there are the archaic processes at the hotel: for checking in, room amenities and services, etc; simple things for spoiled North Americans that can’t grasp how behind Castro’s country is.
I will convince him differently though, and hopefully this text might convince you too: Cuba is one the world’s best destinations.
Guantanamera is for all.