The People, Places and Culture of an Exotic Island That Time Forgot
The island nation can be a delight for the senses, with homes like this one in Havana, uniquely painted in a rainbow of bright tropical hues.
Lovers embrace on the wave-drenched seaside promenade known as the Malecon. Aromas of finely wrapped cigars waft through the air. Tattered clothing hangs from the intricate, rusted railings of second story, paint-chipped buildings drying in a balmy breeze. At night, dim yellow streetlights and musical rhythms pulsate from numerous clubs and bars.
Bienvenidos a Cuba!
Only a short, 60-minute flight from Tampa International Airport, Cuba has been isolated from western influences since the Cuban revolution of 1959. Although just 90 miles away from Miami, it can seem a world — and a half-century — away from our lives here in the U.S.
Christopher Columbus declared Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island, the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. Geographically, Cuba is very diverse — from the rain forests of Las Terrazas, to the pristine white beaches of Varadero, to the small villages of corrugated tin shanties, to the vibrant city of Havana.
Our guides were very positive and forthcoming about Cuban-American relations. Surprisingly, there was a singular lack of military presence. As American tourists, we felt very safe and comfortable to sightsee on our own.
Music and art are at the heart of the Cuban culture. Brightly feathered and sequined (and scantily clad) dancers perform nightly at the Tropicana. This cabaret under the stars ignites your senses and has entertained presidents and kings for more than 70 years. Another legendary Havana hot spot, The Buena Vista Social Club, embodies Cuba’s “musical golden age.” Live performances and free-flowing mojitos and Cuban beer encourage a very festive atmosphere, complete with conga lines to the rhythm of salsa and rumba. The Floridita, a famous Hemingway haunt, is known for its fabulous daiquiris.
A vibrant art scene thrives in Cuba. The Museo Nacional de Bella’s Artes is a must-see for anyone traveling to Havana. This world-class museum boasts a huge collection of fabulous contemporary and Spanish colonial art. On Calle Obispo and throughout the city, independent art galleries and shops abound. Many restaurants offer authentic Cuban cuisine.
Cuba has a thriving tourist business from Europe and Canada, and as of 2011, the island became more accessible to American visitors. That said, the communist nation still doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the U.S., and a visit is subject to visas and myriad rules and regulations (American money and credit cards are not accepted here). Students and journalists are allowed in, although it is still illegal for individual U.S. citizens to travel independently to Cuba. Most Americans wishing to visit the island sign up for a “person-to-person” cultural exchange tour (offered by companies authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury) to gain access.
For more information about travel to Cuba, visit the websites of the Treasury department (treasury.gov/resource-center) and the U.S. State Department (travel.state.gov). To see more of the author’s photos from Cuba, visit tutudivine.com.