Why you need to visit Cuba now!
Cuba. A time-warp island of colourful crumbling buildings, 1950s cars and old blokes with massive cigars.
There's an authenticity in Cuba which is surprising. It lives up to its cliché. It's all you imagine and more. The intensity of the colour. The actual, real fact of old cars being the only cars on the street. The music, the spontaneous street samba breakouts, the stunning beaches and, of course, the cigars.
But the clock has been set ticking on this old-time Cuba. In December 2014, President Obama announced a new era of US-Cuban relations. The times, they are a changin'.
Cuba-US relations (in a super-tiny nutshell)
Stick with us, people. It sounds boring but it's only four bullet points for the Cuba-newbie.
- By the 1950s, the USA was an important political and economic power in Cuba. It was a party island for Americans – dapper gents in white slacks drinking rum by the pool – the American dream on vacation in Cuba.
- The Cuban Revolution. Under Fidel Castro, the new revolutionary government undertook the nationalisation of all Cuban property. $1.8 billion of US-owned property was taken into Cuban ownership. Ouch. This led to the US embargo, stopping trade between US and Cuba.
- Other stuff happened – like the 1962 missile crisis. The jailing of the Cuban Five in 1998. And in 2008 Raul Castro took over the presidency from his brother Fidel.
- President Obama, in his usual debonair style, announces a new era of US-Cuban relations, after talks with Raul Castro about the 'normalisation' of the political landscape.
So, what's going to change?
20 December 2014 was an exciting day for Cubans. The long-awaited day. Things were going to change. Families reunited. Maybe new freedoms and new businesses. Maybe better internet. There were tears, celebrations, hugs with strangers in the street.
One theory goes like this. As more avenues open up between the US and Cuba, there will be more opportunities for trade – and eventually in comes American corporations. Billboards go up, neon lights appear.
In comes the opportunity to buy new cars – and the classic yank tanks that have been kept on the road out of sheer necessity will start to disappear.
Eventually the American tourist is allowed to return to Cuba. More hotels. Higher prices. And local infrastructure under pressure.
It's all theory at this stage, but there is no doubt. Things are changing. Who knows what the new Cuba will look like. If you want to experience the bright Caribbean 1959-time-paused magic of Cuba as it is today, you'd better start thinking about booking a trip.
What's great in the Cuba of right now?
Get to Cuba now and here's what's in store.
It's not hard to take a good photo in old Havana. A red vintage car parked in front of a shabby but strikingly-painted turquoise building. Two women in bright dresses with large flowers in their hair with baskets of flowers for sale. A skinny old man leaning in a doorway with a dusty hat and gigantic cigar. Every corner is a colourful photo opportunity of the best kind.
There's a rich art culture and wandering the cobbled lanes of the old city will reveal galleries and street stalls of remarkable quality. If you're looking to get amongst the music scene, head to Vadero, a modern student neighbourhood with some awesome samba clubs. And don't forget to stroll along the classic Malecon in the evening – this broad waterfront avenue, lined with old buildings, restaurants and palm trees, is teeming with liveliness. And young couples smooching on the sea wall.
Visiting a country ruled under a different regime is fascinating. You'll find strange quirks in the way things work. Like the time-consuming effort of undertaking a simple train journey. Or the narrow selection of products on the supermarket shelves – just one brand of oil, one brand of cereal, one brand of anything – it's all government controlled.
There's a lack of the range of businesses you're used to finding (although this is starting to change under Raul Castro). These differences are part of the charm of Cuba – getting into the rhythm of the special quirks is part of the experience.
The formerly-wealthy sugar town of Trinidad is home to grand Spanish colonial mansions, beautiful churches and grand plazas. Retaining so much of its character from its dazzling sugar-high of the mid-1800s, the city has been made a World Heritage site. Colours are bright, with pastel-painted buildings and colourful bikes, cobbled streets, donkey carts, palm trees and blue skies. It's no wonder Trinidad is one of the island's most popular destinations.
It's not just for the history buffs. The beaches are great and if you like to party hard, there's a unique experience waiting for you at Disco Ayala – a huge night club inside a massive natural cave. Descend through the cave entrance into a network of dance floors, bars, crazy performers and thousands of people. Epic.
Beaching, swimming, snorkelling, diving
To state the obvious, Cuba is a Caribbean island. Wide stretches of fine white sand, clear water turning to bright turquoise as you wade deeper. Palm trees, coral reefs, rich sea life... Cuba delivers the best kind of beach experience – for the chiller or the diver.
The resort town of Varadero has superb beaches and perhaps the biggest range of accommodation in Cuba. Playa Giron offers great snorkelling for the beginner, and the remote Maria la Garda is the place for the serious snorkeller. Near Trinidad, Ancon Beach is incredible. Further along the north coast, you can drive across to the island of Cayo Santa Maria on a 48km causeway – the beaches here are next level. Stunning. And birdlife a-plenty.
But really, there's no point listing the nice beaches – with over 5700km of mainland coastline (plus islands), there no shortage of gorgeous sand, water and sea-life here. You'll find it.
And the rest
The winding laneways of Camaguey, the tobacco plantations of Vinales, the revolutionary history of Santiago de Cuba, the stunning Spanish colonial architecture, the abundant birdlife, the lively murals, the delicious mojitos, the vibrant music culture... Cuba delivers a complete cultural experience.
Whatever happens in Cuba, it will remain an absolutely amazing destination. Seriously, hugely, abundantly good. But if you want to see it just as it is today, with all the unique 1950s charm that goes with it, you'd better move fast.
Talk to us about booking an amazing Cuban adventure. Pronto.