Travel Obsessions: Cuba
Want to do the time warp? Step back to the Fifties in Cuba. The last bastion of socialism is the largest island in the Caribbean, just 145 kilometres south of Key West in Florida. Since the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro between 1953 to 1959, US travel to the island has been restricted, but that hasn’t stopped other nations discovering this culturally rich and scenic gem.
The capital, Havana, is the stuff of photographer’s dreams: colonial buildings in Havana Vieja, classic cars, peeling propaganda posters and, yes, dancing in the streets – you can thank the Buena Vista Social Club for making that famous.
But Cuba is more than just cigars and clichés. Get out from the touristy spots and savour la vida Cubana. Take a stroll along the popular Malécon at dusk to see the locals hanging out at the sea wall, waves crashing over the retainer. Have an ice-cream from Coppelia. Do a homestay in a casa particular and eat locally at a paladare where you’ll be dining at a restaurant in someone’s home. On the menu? The Cuban staple of black beans, rice and pork known as Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians).
The mixed rice dish is an apt approximation of the Cuban experience with strong African influences, a Spanish heritage and indigenous culture as well. Some come to Cuba to follow in the literary footsteps of Hemingway (see the La Bodeguito del Medio bar for the famous signatures), some come to frolic in the pristine beaches, and some come for the nightlife, which keeps going until the generator conks out. That’s Cuba.
Best time to visit: To avoid the Caribbean hurricane season and the heat of the summer months, the best time to head to Cuba on holiday is between January and May when the temps are comfortable and there’s less tourists around town. A renowned party destination, there’s an event on every month in Cuba but some of the must-dos include Santiago de Cuba Carnival in late July and Festival Habanos, the annual Cuban Cigar Festival in Havana around February.
Know: Do you believe in voodoo? The Cuban version is Santería. A sizeable portion of the Afro-Cuban population has Yoruba roots, and the practice of Santería (a blend of Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas) is a belief system that involves traditional folk healers (espiritistas) and ritual ceremonies. Seek out a babalawao (priest) to get in touch with your natural side.
Places to go:
Havana – For clubs, cocktails, colonial sights and quirky museums, Havana is Cuba’s capital of cool and your introduction to the island’s musical culture.
Santiago de Cuba – Cobblestone streets, clubbing in caves (Discoteca Las Cuevas) and the hands-down best Carnival in Cuba can be found in this gorgeous colonial city.
Trinidad – Located in central Cuba, Trinidad is a World Heritage Site and a perfectly preserved example of a Spanish colonial site with an open-air museum of architecture in the Plaza Mayor.
Varadero – Considered one of Cuba’s best beaches, Varadero is where you’ll find that iridescent blue Caribbean Sea and the whitest of white sands for a drop-and-flop stay.
Isla de la Juventud – One of the top diving spots in Cuba, the ‘Isle of Youth’ is also quite isolated, which makes sense when you consider it’s located on the so-called pirate coast.
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