Cuba – a country which immediately evokes images of an island frozen in time, its streets a time capsule containing all the elements of the world as it must have been in the 1950s. From the oldtimer classics roaming the streets along with horse and oxen-drawn carts to the crumbling colonial facades of the buildings in Havana, Cuba is in every sense a kaleidoscope of peeks into the past.
All of this is changing since former US president Obama eased the USA’s diplomatic relationships with Cuba and lifted its travel restriction, suddenly allowing US citizens to visit Cuba as tourists. This lifting of sanctions is fantastic news for the Cubans, most of whom have been living in dire poverty over the past decades, cut off from international trade, unable to import any modern technologies or building materials, and poorly connected to the world media and the Internet. If you are a traveler looking to come to Cuba in search of that sense of time travel, it means that you now have to act quickly, before the island is truly taken along in the global surge of modernity.
We visited Cuba shortly before everything changed, and were able to witness the country before AirBnB moved in. We slept in casa particulares, in rooms rented out by individual home owners. We shared the island mostly with European travelers, as US citizens were not formally allowed to visit Cuba by their own government. We met one single American traveler who had bypassed this restriction by flying to Cuba via Mexico, risking a fine upon her return should the USA border control discover that she had actually been in Cuba. Since 2016, there has been an increase of 50% more American tourists visiting the country and this is likely to increase even further now that airlines are scheduling regular commercial flights between the US and Havana. When we visited, we had to bring cash; today you can simply flash your credit card. We spent 2 weeks traveling around the island without any internet coverage, but wifi is now becoming more widely available. In time, McDonald’s and Starbucks will surely be moving in. Undoubtedly, Cuba is set to change – how rapidly it will be catapulted into modernity is hard to predict, but what’s for sure is that if you want to experience Cuba’s unique charm your best bet is to get there quickly, and savour it while you still can. And perhaps now is your chance, because president Trump has just announced his plans to reverse the progress made by Obama, making it difficult again for Americans to travel to Cuba independently for tourism purposes.
Make your way to Havana, to wander along the Malecón, the city’s famous seaside esplanade, while vintage Cadillacs and Chevrolets noisily roll by. Watch fishermen wait patiently for a catch, and as the sun sets you will be lured into Havana’s backstreets where live salsa music seeps from bars and squares with street musicians taking over the night. Walk past the Capitol, slightly larger than its American counterpart, and take in the broad palette of pastel colours painted on the the city’s crumbling houses. Shy away from the consistent heat underneath the ceiling ventilator in your casa particulare, whose high ceiling rooms are fitted with dark colonial furniture.
In Havana we spoke to a young man whom we encountered on the streets. He holds a law degree and has a dream of working as a lawyer, but there are no jobs in this country for men like him. “I have worked as a police officer for a while, but I quit. I earned only 22 peso per month.” (+/- 20 euros – no wonder why corruption among officials is a large problem in this country.) “I wish I could travel the world to see other places, but I cannot. What do you think of the city?” he asks us. We say that it is beautiful, but he sighs. “Beautiful, you say? It’s only misery, that’s what it is. The streets are unpaved, when it rains the city turns into one large pool of mud. Our buildings are rotten and nearly collapsing. It’s not beautiful, it’s terrible.” Of course he is right, and we feel a pang of guilt – and this is the constant paradox of traveling in Cuba: we go there to admire all that is old and we even hope a little bit that things could forever stay this way so that the country can keep its unique charm, but the Cubans are hoping for progression and improvement, and no one can blame them for it.
Seat yourself inside one of those beautiful oldtimer cars and drive for about 3 hours on mostly empty roads towards the west, to the spectacular Valle des Viñales where you will find green tobacco fields amidst towering mogotes, lime stone hills that rise from the flatlands. Feast on fresh fruits, rent a mountainbike and paddle your way through the fields on red-dirt roads. Drink fresh lemonade, cycle some more, get lost and get off your bike because the gears can no longer handle the steep incline of the road. Return to your casa and relax on a rocking chair on the veranda. Life is good.
In Trinidad, feast on a typical home cooked Cuban meal of rice and beans on your casa’s rooftop terrace. Then wander the city’s colourful cobblestone streets and squares, have a mojito, or two, or three, while watching Cuban grandmothers and grandfathers dance salsa as if they were still in their 20s. Take a train to Valle de los Ingenios through the countryside’s fields full of grazing cows or rent bicycles and make your way down to Playa Ancón, a beautiful beach on the island’s azure coast, and laze around underneath a palm tree. On your way back to town, you may get a flat tire but not to worry; farmers returning to town with their horse-drawn carts will be happy to give you and your bike a ride.
Last stop on this trip: the breezy city of Cienfuegos, which is reached by a ride in a blue-green Buick. Admire colonial villas on your way to Punta Gorda, then sit out the sunset in the José Martí park, observing the intricate qualities of local life: children and their footballs, scurrying dogs, old men and their newspapers, couples in love and lonely souls wandering to who knows where.
Cuba is bound to change – sooner or later, irrespective of USA policies and restrictions. For its citizens this is a positive development and hopefully it means that they will also be able in time to leave their island and see other magnificent places on this planet. And for us travelers, it means that we should simply move this destination up on our bucket list and get there as soon as we can. Viva la revolucion!