Looking beyond the salsa and mojito
When Colombus neared Cuba on October 27, 1492, he subscribed it as 'the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen'. He expected to find India, but instead discovered this Caribbean pearl in turqoise waters. To the island and its people the visit of Colombus was the start of a history with very painful episodes: genocide, slavery, bloody independence wars, a period of corrupt and violent quasi-independence, and then a populist revolution.
521 years after Colombus I arrive on the island, not quite as spectacular with a fleet of Spanish vessels, but at Jose Marti International airport in Havana. So many tourists arrive here to go straight to the beaches of Varadero and stay there for their entire holiday. Why do that if you could travel around the island and get a taste of the 'real' Cuba? It's easy to be charmed by Cuba. It's an exciting and vibrant place with music on every street corner, salsa, mojito, old timers, vivid colours, beautiful nature, colonial cities...
But don't be mistaken: Cuba is a totalitarian state with many absurd and repressive regulations. Behind the smiles and the music lies a hard reality. Daily life is a struggle. Still, change is happening. When in 2008 Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raoul due to illness it was the start of some reforms to the communist system. For the first time since the revolution people are allowed to start up a private business, to sell or buy houses, to have a computer and mobile phone, to access internet, to buy a new car. But there is always a 'but'. Paperwork, taxes and bureaucracy make it very hard to take initiative and the government can still take everything away from you at any time leaving you with nothing. Earning money stays a suspicious thing in a country where salaries paid by the government are just symbolic and insufficient for people to live.
It's hard to sum up Cuba in a few words. It's a country full of contradictions. Billboards with Che Guevara's image still glorify the revolution, yet nobody knows what - or who - will come after the Castro brothers.
I travelled the island for three weeks in group, guided by Alexis, a 'real' Cuban. From colonial cities such as Havana, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba to the mesmerizing nature of the Valley of Vinales, the mountains of Sierra Maestra and the waters of the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico... If you're willing to travel and explore, Cuba impresses and leaves you enchanted. You'll keep the music in your ears even days and weeks after coming home :-)
Feel free to read about my trip in this Cuba blog. If you want to experience it yourself, don't postpone your visit! Changes are coming, it might be your last chance to see communist Cuba with all it's peculiarities.
My other travel blogs:
New Zealand (2010)
South west USA (2012)