Cuba: the place where Ernest Hemingway drank rum and wrote The Old Man and the Sea; the one-party state where revolutionary Fidel Castro held power for decades in defiance of American-backed invasion and embargo; the tropical island of colours, cars and cigars.
The largest island in the Caribbean and the first to be colonised by Europeans, the once wealthy and vibrant country of Cuba has stultified for decades under the twin constrictions of a repressive communist regime and a punitive international embargo.
Cuba is a clash of two worlds: the old and the new
However, economic liberalisation and an easing of sanctions mean the country is slowly experiencing change and the locals are coming to grips with everything from private property ownership to foreigners wanting wifi access to their Instagram.
Brian and his partner Simon in front of a house in the old part of town, Trinidad de Cuba
In 2016, three million tourists visited Cuba. This year, as many are expected from the United States alone. Of course, things are changing as a result, so if you’ve ever been curious to see the classic cars and picturesque decay for yourself, now is the time.
The only hotels in Cuba are state-run – and they’re expensive. So, many visitors choose to stay B&B-style as guests in private homes, known as ‘casa particulares’. It makes visiting Cuba even more special.
On arrival visitors are warmly welcomed: beaming smiles, eager handshakes and a cascade of Spanish words. There are fresh flowers in the front room and family portraits on the walls of the corridor. There are a handful of modest bedrooms for guests, most with en-suites, many overlooking an internal courtyard.
Beachside holiday bungalows at a state-run resort, Playa Giron
Breakfast, like all food in Cuba, is simple and plain, but homemade: bread rolls with honey and jam, sliced fruit, salami and omlettes, coffee and juice. And the coffee, of course, is great!
One of the colourful houses in the old part of town
Outside, there is a riot of colour. From cities such as Havana and Cienfuegos to historic towns such as Trinidad de Cuba, the architecture is a vivid rainbow. Stonewashed facades of dusty cream and faded indigo stand alongside painted exteriors of bright cerulean and flamingo pink. The ram-shackled and neglected are juxtaposed with the proudly and immaculately restored.
There are colonial sandstone churches, grand mansions with neo-classical balconies, ornate baroque theatres and office towers of art deco and art nouveau elegance.
Cuba is one of the most photogenic countries you can imagine. And just as colourful as the buildings are the classic cars. The streets are awash with Fords and Chryslers from the 1950s. Tourists cruise through Havana’s historic districts in convertibles with polished paintwork and gleaming chrome to the pleasing purr of brand-new diesel engines.
Local families, meanwhile, get from place to place in weather beaten sedans, corroded by rust, their doors no longer closing properly: a timewarp of necessity rather than aesthetics. There is simply nowhere else like it in the world.
Then there are Cuba’s most famous products: cigars. Many tour operators take visitors to a cigar factory, but your time is better spent going to somewhere such as the Palacio de la Artesania in old Havana.
At a table in the open central courtyard of an old mansion house, as you listen to a Cuban band and watch men play chess nearby, you can get expert advice on how to hold your cigar and which rum is the perfect accompaniment. It’s like having a sommelier for cigars.
Locals playing a game of chess
But don’t take my word for it. Hop into a classic red convertible for a spin, puff on an authentic Cuban cigar, sip some rum as you take in a show at the Tropicana nightclub, and be dazzled by the kaleidoscope on the streets. The time has come to experience the colours, cars and cigars of Cuba… before it all changes!
Is Cuba on your must-see list?
Image credits: (feature) Diego Grandi / Shutterstock.com, (in-text) Brian Lindsay.