Recently there has been lots of exciting news about Cuba. Old barriers that long separated our countries are beginning to crumble and I’m sure that if you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered what life was really like on that “Forbidden Caribbean Island” within eyesight of the Florida Keyes. As an American citizen, I had become used to troubling news about the Castro brothers, their restrictions on religious freedom, roadblocks to free enterprise, limits on speech… the list goes on and on. Well, now that things are loosening up, I wanted to see firsthand what life was like there. So, I packed my bags and …Vamanos! The flight from the United States is direct and short as Havana is just 90 miles from Miami. After landing at Jose Marti International, I had absolutely no problems getting through customs. English was spoken by everyone.
The drive to my hotel was made in a new model air conditioned automobile. That’s right, despite what you’ve heard, all the automobiles and buses in Cuba are not dusty old relics from the 1950s. In fact, on my short drive into town I saw Mercedes, Audis and even Bentleys just to name a few. Seeing these famous international car brands reminded me that the United States was the only country that barred its citizens from traveling to Cuba. Then I noticed some of the hotels en route to our lodgings and saw newly built, modern structures like the Melia which is part of a Spanish hotel chain and others owned by Canadian chains. My stay was in the historic “Grande Dame” of Havana Hotels, the Naccional. Upon entering the lobby, I immediately felt important, like I was making a grand entrance in an old movie. I floated across polished marble floors and under the glimmer of crystal chandeliers. To be honest, being handed a refreshing Mojito (the national drink of Cuba) after my check-in didn’t hurt the fantasy in the least! The Naccional has unforgettable old world charm and sophistication and has played host to the likes of Nat King Cole, Mohammad Ali, and Whitney Houston among others.
I couldn’t wait to unpack my things and melt into the street life of Havana, starting with Havana Vieja (Old Havana) where the scent of fresh flowers perfumes the air and the street musicians never stop serenading passersby. Stunning ladies and alluring men smile at you while children play carefree in the streets. I found myself unconsciously walking to the beat of these musicians, taken up, as it were, in the syncopation of Jazz on one avenue only to turn the corner and move into a languid blues beat. The art galleries I found here are among the best anywhere I’ve traveled. In fact, Cuban art is considered one of its national treasures and local creations by recognized artists must be registered by government officials before they leave the country.
There are so many places of interest in Cuba, it’s difficult for me to tell you about them all. I visited the city of Matanzas that has a large Afro Cuban population which was honored just a few years ago by the opening an Afro Cuban museum. There you can trace the voyages of Africans to Cuba and learn fascinating details of how they lived and what they did after their arrival. In Matanzas you can also hear some great Cuban jazz played by an all lady band that never fails to impress. American Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie influenced and was influenced by the music of Cuba and you can hear what inspired him right here in the clubs of Matanzas. The next city I visited was Trinidad. In Trinidad you feel like you have stepped back in time to an old colonial town. Trinidad is the heart of the region where much of the tobacco that goes into Cuba’s world famous cigars is grown. If that isn’t enough, the art galleries and museums are great here too. (Are you starting to detect a “theme”?) Not, far from Trinidad is where the now infamous Bay of Pigs occurred. You would never suspect anything so ignominious could have happened in such a beautiful and peaceful beach front city.
My final stop was in Santiago de Cuba with it’s very large Afro Cuban population. It is the second largest city in Cuba, second only to Havana, and draws people from all over the world who come for its music and art. It is also known as the birthplace of the Salsa dance and the launching point of the Cuban Revolution. This is where Fidel and Che Gueverra landed in their famous yacht the “Granma” to begin their “liberation” of the people. I left Cuba feeling personally "liberated" of old ways of thinking about this place and knowing that I would be returning many times again. You too may want to consider visiting this fantastic country, the Pearl of the Caribbean. Keep checking this website for Africa Travel Advisors' upcoming tour dates! We’d love to show you a side of Cuba not many Americans get to see.