Even before last weekend’s news that Fidel Castro had died, it has been widely observed that Cuba is on the cusp of great change. The removal of trade and travel bans with the US means that it’s almost certain to lose its quaint charm for good. This is why a trip to this Caribbean island is a must sooner rather than later.
Cuba offers travellers the chance to step back in time, to the 50s to be exact. It remains almost untouched, except by wear and tear inflicted over the years. You’ll find no McDonalds, no large hotel chains, and public transport is hit and miss – but these are all things which make for a truly delightful destination. Here are our top five reasons to go:
1. Caribbean with a difference
It’s the Caribbean with a little more happening. If you love the idea of the climate and exotic nature of a trip to the Caribbean Sea, but are looking for more than the stereotypical lying by beach often offered by such locations, then the rich history of Havana will be a winner. You can opt to spend a portion of your time in a beachside resort with white sandy beaches and warm waters, such as Guardalavaca and then take a short flight, about an hour, to the country’s capital.
2. Step back in time
As mentioned previously, the untouched buildings that are commonplace in Havana speak volumes about the history of the city. The faded, multi-coloured facades are strangely warm and welcoming, inviting you in to enjoy a cocktail or two, in much the same way as Ernest Hemmingway did – a mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and a daiquiri in the Floridita!
The large gas-guzzling cars which drive the streets are reminiscent of classic 50s America – after all, that’s about how long they’ve been there. Kept running through sheer determination and necessity, the cars are used by owners to pick up workers waiting for the sporadic local buses, as required by law.
3. The other side of the story
There’s no getting away from the fact that Cuba is a communist country. The current regime, now lead by Fidel’s brother Raul Castro, has ruled since the 26th of July movement to overthrow the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in January 1959. Prominent in the political coup was Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara, and his influence is evident throughout the city. The military movement is well documented wherever you go in Havana – obviously with a positive slant on the revolution – but a visit to the Museum of the Revolution, with its tank parked outside, is well worth your time.
It’s also worth noting that Cuba has higher public spending on education than Australia and the US. The adult literacy rate is 98.5 per cent and 100 per cent of children are enrolled in primary school, plus all Cubans have access to free tertiary education. Also, importantly, health care is free for all and the crime rate is incredibly low.
4. Rum and cigars
Controlled by the state, the production of rum and cigars is what keeps Cuba’s economy going, if not flourishing. Contrary to popular belief, cigars are not rolled on the thighs of virgins; however, the production of these coveted tobacco products is enthralling to watch. Some cigars are still made by hand, and these obviously attract a premium. Even if you’re not a smoker, the attractive cases the cigars are presented in make them a nice holiday memento.
Since Bacardi was driven from Cuba in 1959, the production of rum has been the domain of the state, with Havana Club not only drunk in Cuba, but reaching the bars and clubs of many different countries. In 1997, Bacardi acquired the rights to the recipe and Havana Club name from an exiled Cuban family, but this is only sold in the US. There are several rum tours you can take, with most including a demonstration on how to make the best rum cocktails.
5. Go with the beat
Cuban music is an intoxicating mix of hand-beaten drums and sexy sax, which just entices you to sway your hips, or for the more adventurous – salsa. Venues are often hot and sweaty, but to be honest, that’s all part of the adventure. Fortify yourself with a couple of rum cocktails and just go where the music takes you!
If you’re looking for a little more refined Cuban ‘entertainment’, then head to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Take the time to relax in one of its salons, while the low hum of Cuban music washes over you, or take a walk around and marvel at the many famous faces to have visited, and indeed, even called the hotel home. Both pre- and post-revolution, names such as Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill, Yuri Gagarin, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener walked the corridors of this great hotel and it’s well worth taking the time to follow in their footsteps.
Flights to Cuba from Australia haven’t, as yet, become any easier. You can, however, travel via Canada. As rough guide, flights from Sydney to Havana in February start from around $1800.