Music, rum cocktails, dancing: all of these you expect from a holiday in Cuba. We had anticipated our holiday for months and when we finally boarded our flight from Madrid to Havana we were nervous and excited. Would it all go well? What would the people be like? Two full weeks later we toasted each other in grateful thanks for one of the best holidays we’d had. You couldn’t really ask for more from a vacation: Cuba delivers its promise of fun, variety, relaxation and interest. Bustling Havana with its skeletal buildings crumbling before your eyes – where dancing in the street or park is an everyday occurrence – lays its soul bare as it proudly displays its art and revolutionary history in numerous museums and shops. This was my second visit; I’d worked there as a tour guide in 2003, and I was looking forward to seeing what might have changed. It turned out that not much had. There are now ‘casas particulares’ – or homestays – where previously the closest tourists got to real life in Cuba was in the still illegal ‘paladar’ restaurants, sought out by my wonderful local guides and drivers. Now, we got around by ourselves, without needing a fixed itinerary. We were determined to skip the all-inclusive resorts as we wanted to experience the great variety of landscape, people and music that the island offers.
We moved on by Viazul coach to Cienfuegos, a four hour drive from Havana. Our ‘casa particular’, or homestay, was owned and run by a shy couple who welcomed us like long lost family to share glorious sea views and a home cooked dinner, which we preceded with mojitos and music in the tower of an Indian-style palace.
By now the beat had taken hold of us. In my brain, it dominated my every thought: DA dadaDa dadaDA dadaDA, and made me want to sway my hips and whirl around. Being so close to the sea (or was it the mojitos?) restored our energy, and we all began to dance our way ‘home’.
Next up was a short coach ride to the island’s second best known town of Trinidad. Colonial cottages, pastel-shaded, single-storied, tile-rooved buildings, horses and carts clattering along the cobblestones, and THAT rhythm emanating from the bars: the tiny squares were lively with tourists purchasing souvenirs from the many small shops or street market stalls. We found a space on the steps among a crowd of dancers, and before long we too were dancing our socks off to the infectious beat and the rattling of maracas.
Next evening we gazed open-mouthed at the smooth, molasses-coloured skin of the restaurant doorman whilst we tucked into a pile of grilled lobster, washed down with the ubiquitous mojitos. We were off to Camaguey in the morning, to the maze of its older streets, as well as more of the wide avenues lined with pillared pavements, like the ones we’d seen in Cienfuegos.
And then it was on to Santiago, a seven hour coach ride through rural Cuba, watching farmers working in the fields, bullocks pulling ploughs, cowboys on horseback, and the rolling hills of the Sierra Maestra in the distance. All the while the incessant beat rang in our ears and we couldn’t wait to get off the coach and move our hips again. Instead, we strolled from our casa to the main square where we headed up to the roof terrace of the Casa Granda hotel for – guess what – more mojitos, and a spectacular view of the whole maritime city, including the oldest house in South America.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the narrow streets and finally allowed ourselves to start dancing again, this time in the Casa de la Trova, where travelling troubadors once entertained the citizens. Too exhausted to walk, we tumbled into a taxi and blew kisses to the gorgeous young men we’d been dancing with. It was sighs and giggles all the way home.
Next day, we reached my favourite place in Cuba: Baracoa, like a miniature Havana complete with chocolate farms and coconut products. The cobbled streets were buzzing with life, the single storey cottages were just as dilapidated as the capital’s, with peeling pastels and rusty iron grilles. The malecon is so broken and pot-holed it’s almost impossible to navigate. But the beach – ah, the talcum sand and sago palms at the edge of the rainforest jungle, with medicinal plants of gorgeous lushness, teeming with insects and chirruping birds. What variety in one destination! No wonder we all said ‘it’s been our favourite holiday ever’!