Ask a random sample of travelers to name their "Top Five Must Visit Places," and chances are most will say Cuba. Not unlike these fellow travelers, the former Soviet Union's soul sister has been on my mind for quite awhile. And now is the time to travel to Cuba. However the all-inclusive resort thing is not traveling; rather, stay at casas particulares, eat at local restaurants, take the bus or a collectivo, and always at least try to use that high school Spanish to converse with the locals. Even if you slaughter the pronunciation, just try! Oh and stay away from Veradero, which isn't the "real Cuba." (refer to the all-inclusive resort comment).
More on casas particulares:
I booked my first three nights in Havana, Cuba through Airbnb a month or so before my trip. I highly recommend doing this, at least for your first night to avoid the extra hassle of finding accommodations upon arrival. Airbnb has a huge presence in Cuba now. However I was told that the website does not work while in Cuba. So if you're in Havana looking to book a room in Trinidad, you're out of luck. At least on Airbnb's website.
Like I said I only booked my first three nights, but had no trouble finding a room the rest of my stay. Almost every home, if they have the capacity, has a room for rent. My casas particulares actually kept getting better as the trip progressed. Pictured is the rooftop view from my first Cuban casa particular. We are overlooking New Havana and the Monserrate church, built in 1843 and where Jose Marti’s parents were married.
Here are some great attractions in Cuba and the main reasons why this place had everything I was looking for:
- The light in Cuba is like nowhere else I have travelled. My biggest recommendation is to get up extra early and watch the sunrise. There is something extraordinary about a sunrise in Cuba and they should not be missed. The way the light penetrates the narrow cobblestone streets is breathtaking. "Yo quiero un capuchino, por favor."
- Cuba grips the imagination due to the dueling narratives of its mythical history. Depending on who you ask, either a ruthless revolutionary took power in 1959, or a brilliant revolutionary led the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship. Both are true of course. As an American, that's what I find most fascinating! The half-century old sanctions have been lifted, and people from the U.S. can travel with ease to Cuba and finally make that decision for themselves.
- Cuba's architecture is astounding, both in its expanse and elegance. Much of Havana was constructed during the Spanish colonial time period which is apparent in the city's baroque and neoclassic architecture. The city was burned to the ground by the French pirate Jacques de Sores after he captured Havana in its earliest days. It was after this incident that the Spanish built the city walls and fortresses that can still be seen in the area today. (source)
- Cuba contains one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Caribbean and maybe even Latin America, in the charming town of Trinidad. Trinidad was founded by the Spanish conqueror Diego Velázquez in 1514 and by the end of the 17th century became a Cuban trading center. The wealth attracted numerous pirates. During the eighteenth century the sugar trade boom made Trinidad a wealthy town and attracted many immigrants. Thousands of African slaves were imported to work in the sugar industry. A long period of isolation has preserved this unique colonial town in Cuba. (source)
- Havana is a city where colonial fortresses and cathedrals lie adjacent to neoclassical buildings and art deco hotels. The island of Cuba boasts nine UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites. Many of the recently restored buildings and structures in Old Havana were damaged or destroyed during 2008's Hurricane Ike. The city's inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1982 has helped secure the funds and manpower needed to foster efforts to continue restoring the city to its original glory. (source)
I was only in Cuba for eight days, but I fell in love with this country. I knew before going that I would love the architecture, but the Cuban people was what really touched me. It was a humbling experience meeting so many Cubans who, from our American standards have very little. Yet I've never come across a happier bunch. Traveling to Cuba was a reminder that it's not about how many "things" you have in life, but rather it's about the human connections you make. And it is about making the most of every situation. You just have to look at it in the right light. Cheers and viva la Cuba!
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust