We’re heading towards Havana, the island’s capital, aboard a “coco-taxi,” eager to discover Cuba and its varied facets. The old quarter, or Habana Vieja, transports us to the era of the Spanish colonization with its old mansions, ancient buildings with iron-wrought balconies and doors painted blue, yellow or red. As the sun begins to set, its rays bathe the streets around us with a lovely charm. The scene is punctuated by a 1954 Chevrolet slowly making its way. We take in some window-shopping on calle Obispo before moving on to the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by government buildings and hunched grandfathers smoking cigars- one of the island’s hallmarks. A visit to a cigar factory is a must, even if only to admire some of the 170 steps of the production process. Aficionados will head straight to Vuelta Abajo, on the west side, where most of the cigars are made. Next, we wander amid the Havana casas, and pass through the amazing Chinatown. It’s not hard to imagine the past glories of beautiful mansions such as those on the Plaza Vieja or near the Paseo Martí, with its lovely Art Deco street lamps. Time here seems to have stopped. We pause to take in the spirit of the city, surrounded by lovers, children, parents and other locals who come to talk, walk or bet on one of the city’s baseball teams—the Metropolitanos or the Industriales. Let the games begin!
A festive atmosphere
We are quickly whisked away to the nightclubs, iconic symbol of the flip side of Cuban life. We let ourselves go in a frenzied dance to tropical rhythms, carrying us through the Miramar or Vedado districts. There’s something for everyone, and all rhythms of music are to be found and relished, from tango to latin jazz to salsa. Above all, one should not miss the peñas, a type of local popular festival, where lively drumbeats set the crowds into a seemingly perpetual rhythmic motion. The rum is freely flowing too, especially Havana Club. This drink—difficult to drink in moderation—is the island’s other pride and joy. Rum, distilled since the 16th century, comes in light (white/silver), golden (amber) or dark. It’s served in a cocktail, like the famous Cuba libre, or simply on the rocks. It’s said that rum was invented to give the pirates a boost of strength as they ravaged the surrounding seas. Today, a new type of pirate sets out on a quest for hidden treasures.
A dream come true for diving fans.
A little-known fact about Cuba is that it is part of an archipelago with a multitude of small islands, just waiting to be explored. All aboard! Some of the best spots are the Isle of Youth, the historically famous Bay of Pigs, and especially María la Gorda, off the western point. The seabed is rich in shipwrecks, and aquatic fauna will peacefully sidle up alongside your keel. The islands offer a wide range of challenges, enough to delight divers of all skill levels. On land, hikers will find their spirits lifted by lush landscapes; but should it be needed, the sea is never far away.