We left Mexico sad to say goodbye but excited at the prospect of seeing Rose’s family in Cuba. We landed in the capital, Havana, as the sun was setting and were immediately taken aback by its contrast to Cancun. Where Cancun airport was host to designer shops and rich American tourists, Havana appeared harsh and outdated, its faded red walls a metaphor for the country’s struggling communism.
Despite 3 months of travelling we would be lying if we said Cuba did not come as a culture shock. The impact of half a century of communism and strict sanctions has made day-to-day life very difficult for those who remain there. Long queues can be seen outside every public building, with locals diligently waiting to enter supermarkets whose shelves are virtually empty. The strict control of internet has meant contact with the outside world is heavily restricted, with locals struggling to contact family members in neighbouring Miami fortunate enough to have left the country. The food leaves a lot to be desired—its incredibly bland nature arising from a scarcity of ingredients—and generally revolved around dishes containing meat, beans and rice. Additionally, the introduction of a dual currency system in 1994 only emphasises the divide between tourists and locals.
The knock-on effect of this is a soured attitude shown by a large number of Cubans towards tourists. It was rare that we felt we were not trying to be cheated out of our money, and when it was clear that we did not agree with proposed exorbitant prices people would very quickly lose interest. Perhaps the bitterness arises out of the assumption that outside of Cuba people are made of money; however, it inevitably left us with a negative view of the people.
That being said, Cuba itself is beautiful—a pastiche of crumbling colonial buildings and 1950’s Chevrolet’s. The photogenic old town of Havana is an assault on the senses, with Afro-Cuban mambo and rhumba blaring from every bar and restaurant. The cigars are cheap and the rum is cheaper, offering endless opportunities for fun. The long stretch of ocean boulevard which frames the city known as the Malecon made for beautiful sunsets, the silhouettes of countless fishing rods providing a memorable sight.
Bypassing the better known beach resort of Varadero, we spent our second week in Cuba in Guanabo. Situated only a short drive away from Havana, the neighbouring town is a favourite holiday destination for Cubanos and a much more low-key spot to enjoy the country’s stunning beaches. Grateful to escape the overwhelming buzz of Havana, our second week allowed us to enjoy the beach and make the most of our time with Rose’s family.
Being able to enjoy Cuba with Rose’s family was very special and made Christmas a much more enjoyable affair. We were incredibly lucky they agreed to come out and meet us and I hope they had as much fun as we did. Sadly though this meant it was that much harder to say goodbye. After two great weeks, we put on a brave face, said our farewells and looked forward to Colombia.