Cuba is in much news lately and the world is watching the tiny island nation as it slowly sheds its centuries old aura. The latest update of America easing travel restrictions on the island, puts Cuba’s timeless charm on the brink of extinction and it is undeniable that the country is poised for change. It is, at the moment, on the last frontier of losing its ethereal innocence and even during my 2014 visit, tides of change could be felt through the urban Cuban society. That trip had been both circuitous and exhaustive one, one which had greatly repleted my travel energy as well as finances, but even then, I cannot deny that Cuba had been worth all the trouble.
It had been an experience of a lifetime and among all the inspiring places that I have visited, Cuba had been my biggest travel dream come true. Today, I consider myself to be awfully lucky to have managed to explore Cuba at a time when beauty, innocence and phantasmagoria had dripped throughout the island and I have returned home with a treasure trove of everlasting memories. Some writer has described Cuba as a prince in a poor man’s coat and I cannot but agree more. Innocently fated to confound and bedazzle at the same time, Cuba is beyond the descriptive power of words and it is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. The grand hot bed of revolutionary heroism, platinum blonde beaches, vintage cars gliding past faded colonial buildings and amazingly upbeat people who dance on an endless ribbons of salsa, rumba and rum is hard to resist; But beneath the magnificent gold dusted facade, the real Cuba throbs with innumerable untold secrets.
Incidentally, Cuba’s finest experiences lie beyond its much photographed cities and the island’s famous art deco architecture, stunning street murals, amazingly staged plays, exotic cabaret performances and beautiful colonial homestays are just mere scratches on the surface. While, the cities do emanate the feeling of having time stopped still, it is the intrepid Cuban countryside with its dewy cloud forests, pebbly river islands, table topped mountain ranges, emerald green sugar fields and gorgeous fjords that have actually managed to freeze the clock.
My cross Cuba trip of 30 days had covered many cities and villages and from dazzling Havana, magnificent Trinidad, flower filled La Boca to the mysterious Baracoa near Guantanamo, it had been an exhilarating roller coaster ride. So, let me present Cuba, my biggest travel dream, a country which is nothing short of a classic.
My Havana memories are varied. While placid Miramar, where I had stayed, had charmed me speechless, the gritty, yet drop dead gorgeous Habana Vieja and Centro had shaken my travel safety net. The preserved and photogenic old quarters with their neo classical mansions, romantic Malecon and pulsating bars had been a traveler’s delight and I had found the Santeria filled back streets to be slightly unnerving. The reason had been the hustlers who had peddled everything from contraband Cuban cigars to underage prostitutes and being a solo woman traveler had been a harrowing affair.
Santa Clara had been my second Cuban destination and it had been the perfect antidote for bold, overwhelming Havana. A lovely student town, famous for excellent medical colleges and an important historical site of the Cuban revolution, Che had smiled from nearly every wall graffiti of Santa Clara. It had been the first Cuban town, where I had seen beautiful Pakistani, Bangladeshi senoritas strolling in the square in salwar kameez and parasols, while cheerful resident ladies had sampled cocktails sold by the street vendors. Being the home of the best street party in Cuba, Santa Clara had nearly killed me from the vilest hangover and I had loved its elaborate wrought iron window grills.
Some of my most happiest travel memories are of Cuban roadways. I have spent a considerable amount of time on the carnival like lively national highways on Viazul buses and have fallen in love with their laidback attitude. The Viazul buses start whenever the driver feels like and he is mostly a good humoured, Mr Funny Bones who loves to interact with his passengers and keep them entertained with his wise cracks. Everybody is happy on a Viazul journey and though usually never on time, passengers and the staff indulge in the luxury of shopping, gossiping, making innumerable breaks and quick kisses. The Cuban roads carry all kinds of modes of transportation known to mankind and from vintage cars, tourist coaches, cleverly innovative public transport to horse and mule carts, they make a trip an experience of a lifetime.
Of all the places that I had visited in Cuba, Trinidad had been the most beautiful and least liked. A perfectly preserved, one of a kind Spanish colonial settlement where time had genuinely frozen, Trinidad had been founded on sugar and slave trade wealth amassed during the early 19th century. The town’s fortunate past had been clearly evident in Trinidad’s stunning colonial-style mansions which were decorated with Italian frescoes, Wedgewood china and French chandeliers. Blessed with the nearby spotless white beach of Playa Ancon, Trinidad had witnessed maximum number of tourists after Havana, yet the town had retained a quiet old world charm. Complete with winding cobbled streets, snorting donkeys carts, excellent home stays, paladares (restaurants) and dance/music lessons, Trinidad had also been expensive, un tourist friendly and full of aggressive hustlers touting nearly everything under the sun.
I had never wanted to go to Gibara, a small ghost town near the industrial city of Holguin when a stormy night and a beer drinking donkey had taken me just there. Pancho, the beer guzzling star had been the reason why I had traveled to Holguin and the lovely landscape of pincushion hills, rolling meadows, pine groves and orchids had kept me hooked for a few days. Rain, however had played spoilsport and Pancho had been on vacation, when travel boredom had called for an impromptu Gibara visit. It had been a very scenic drive through the wild Cuban countryside and although, Gibara had no special reputation at the moment, other than holding a premier Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre (International Low-Budget Film Festival) every year in April, I had fallen in love with it at first sight. A friendly, eye-catching little ghost town, Gibara had exuded intimacy and gorgeous pastel beauty. Rain had preceded me to Gibara and by the time I had reached there, blue skies had welcomed me with gorgeous views. The result had been an incredible wet coloured town, where pinks, peaches and yellows had been softened by the rain and Gibara’s beautiful but dilapidated architecture had cast a spell over me.
Baracoa had been my craziest Cuban adventure, one which I would never repeat again. While, the destination is closest to my heart and I would return there in a heartbeat, the roadtrip from Holguin to Baracoa via Moa had been seriously mad. Being cramped in a local Cuban public transport for hours with more people than the contraption can hold had been a terrible discomfort and the drive, although wildly scenic had been a wretched one. Baracoa, however had been worth all the trouble and I had spent my happiest days of Cuba there. Famous for micro climates and wild landscape, the municipality of Baracoa had everything packed into its natural space and the people had been most welcoming, friendly and warm.
Bounded by the Atlantic in the north and by rivers, mountains and forests in all other directions, Baracoa had been Cuba’s oldest and most isolated town. The destination’s stunning natural diversity, distinctive table-topped landmark mountain of El Yunque and vibrant cultural scene, such as the annual street festival of April had made it one of Cuba’s best kept secrets. Home to many unique musical traditions, changüí music had echoed from nearby villages Virginia and Yateras and Baracoa had been the home of the Tumba Francesa, a Creole dance inspired by the French minuet. I had traveled to Baracoa only because of food and the town had been famous for its many unique dishes. Thankfully, my casa hostess had been a warm, welcoming person who had loved to cook and she had pampered me with some of Baracoa’s exquisite traditional Cuban Creole food. Thus huge plates of fried chicken, rich, beans, breadfruit, sweet plantains, fish stuffed with plantains, garlic-rubbed shrimp and lobster smothered in butter had appeared on my table and every meal had been generously finished with huge goblets of local chocolate ice cream or bricks of its famous white chocolate, which had been sold in round, flat cakes encased in palm bark.
Baracoa had been famous for its rich cocoa production and the region’s natural lushness do not end there. It’s rainforests had held thousands of species of endangered flora and fauna and the landscape had been wildly diverse. From semi-arid cacti strewn meadows to mangrove clumps, cloudforests, plantations and tropical beaches, Baracoa had been one action packed place and I had made some of my most memorable excursions there. While one had been an enjoyable picnic in the countryside with my host family, others had been arduous hikes to the UNESCO biosphere reserve Cuchillas del Toa (which had contained Alejandro de Humboldt National Park) and the stunning 17-metre high Saltadero Waterfall. Those had been very beautiful days and Baracoa had been hard to leave. Even the small, colonial town with its blowy beauty had held a magic charm over me and I had loved its slightly rough, raw appeal. There had been less finesse and panache than the rest of Cuba’s colonial towns and Baracoa’s cobblestone streets had been lined with squat buildings whose wide verandas, peeling, carnival coloured paint jobs and weathered tiled roofs had been their biggest charm.
I had left Cuba immediately after returning from Baracoa and my last memories of the time warped country had been the sweetest. They had been mouthfuls of cucurucho, a local Baracoa product of honey, coconut, nuts and fresh seasonal fruit served in cones of palm bark, which I had discovered in my hand bag by happy accident and I had munched on them, as my plane had slowly ascended over the timeless emerald island of Cuba. With an island so magical and memories so sweet, it is evident that I heart Cuba.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE