Visiting Cuba was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. It was definitely beyond anything I’d expected. I stayed for a week in Old Havana, and this was the perfect amount of time to explore all that both Old and New Havana had to offer, as well as the beaches just outside of town in Bacuranao and Santa Maria.
One of the first things that struck me about the country was the infrastructure. Without getting into Cuba’s entire geopolitical and social history, the country essentially stopped developing towards more contemporary building styles, cars, and technologies in 1961. The 1960’s style cars are especially telling of Cuba’s cementation in this time period.
Of course, given that Cuba is a bit frozen in time there is also a lack of modern infrastructure in relation to telecommunications. The internet situation in Cuba is very different from what we’ve come to know in most of the world. Internet access is not readily and openly available, nor is it free.
Because currency in Cuba can only be bought and exchanged there, our first stop was to the bank. In Cuba, there is a currency specifically for tourists called the CUC or Cuban Convertible, which is $0.87 to $1USD.
Our next stop was the Museum of Revolution. The Museum is housed in a building that used to be the Presidential Palace, where President Fulgencio Batista lived until 1959—when the Cuban Revolution started. There are three stories and the inside in every room has been kept in its original state. The halls are filled with plaques, busts, photos, and Cuban flags, while some of the walls are lined with bullet holes from several assassination attempts made on varying presidents,. There are also small encasements with information about each room and artifact. On the second and third floors, you’ll also find vendors selling handmade trinkets.
Next stop was the seawall known as el Malecón, a five-mile esplanade along the waterfront connecting Old and New Havana. Because of Cuba’s lack of internet and the people’s lack of money, el Malecon has become a prime spot where Cubans come out at night to sit together, listen to music, drink, smoke and socialize. It is truly amazing to see the stretch of wall lined with people, just sitting, talking, dancing and enjoying themselves. Apart from el Malecón, Cuba has a lot of parks, benches, fields and open spaces for people to come outside and hang out together.
Another very interesting place to visit is La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory.) It’s a converted factory that has been repurposed into a gallery and café where you’ll find cool contemporary art and toe-tapping musical performances. It’s the ultimate urban art experience, definitely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are several other clubs and bars located all over the city where art and salsa fuse to make for an unforgettable experience. They’re a great way to dance with tourists and Cubans alike and hear some of the island’s captivating music; some even provide two complimentary drinks upon entrance.
The social/nightlife was great in Havana, but I can’t forget to mention the white sandy beaches in Bacuranao and Santa Maria. The beaches are decorated with soft, white sand, and the water is amazingly welcoming, refreshing and clean. The island does get a little colder than other Caribbean countries because of the wind, however, this makes for an amazing spot for windsurfing and other wave-dependent water sports. To top it all off, some of the very friendly locals will even offer you complimentary coconuts.
However, no country is perfect and the one downside in Cuba was definitely the food. Of course, not all Cuban food is bad, but finding the truly amazing island cuisine just takes a little more time and you may have a few encounters with the subpar tourist food. To experience truly amazing Cuban food you’ll need to find local, house-run restaurants. Often, major tourist spots and popular restaurants and hotels don’t serve the best food.
Ultimately, what made the trip amazing was the people. Cuba is a difficult place to live in for several reasons; however, Cubans remain some of the happiest and most joyous people I’ve ever seen. I had the honour of meeting many working Cuban locals who told me their stories and it is truly a hard, but unique world they inhabit. The nuance of their situation and politics in Cuba is complicated and definitely not easily solvable or understood by an outsider, but the happiness and genuine goodness of the people made Cuba one of my favourite destinations in the Caribbean so far.
By Leah Symmone