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My first visit
“I went to Cuba for the first time in 1997, 18 years ago. That was only three years after Cuba opened up to the outside world; throughout the eighties, there was no real tourism in Cuba because they had a trade agreement with the Soviet Union – trading sugar for oil.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break up of the Soviet Union kicked off a time of change in Cuba.
There were some very difficult years at the beginning of the nineties – people had no money because the source of their economy had dried up – but tourism gradually became the answer to their problems.
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A country dependent on tourism
That’s why tourism is something they take extremely seriously in Cuba; it’s a big part of their livelihood.
Yet the real reason Cuba is such an amazing destination has nothing to do with hotels or food – its real appeal is the people, the attitude and the atmosphere.
Cuba is completely and utterly unique. It’s a Caribbean island where half the people have Russian heritage and culture, and it’s been subject to an embargo from the USA since 1959.
So it has a Caribbean-Russian culture, without too much influence from the States, which these days, is pretty hard to escape!
Because of the embargo, half the cars on the road are from before the revolution, from the 1950s – Cadillacs, Buicks, Chevrolets – they’re all big American 1950s cars that they’ve managed to keep going in ingenious ways.
And the other vehicles you’ll see, especially as you get further out into the sticks, are horse and carriages, and even – in the most rural areas – a goat and cart!
It absolutely is lost in time, and there are all these different layers to it, so as you make your way across the island, you almost feel as though you’re a time-traveller.
Havana is the most beautiful Spanish colonial capital in South America – of all the Spanish Empire, the one capital city in South America that Spain didn’t want to lose was Havana.
It was the jewel in the crown. It’s a beautiful sandstone capital that through the ages has started to crumble, yet retains this distinct sense of elegance and majesty.
Then after the Spanish left, it became a party capital, a sort of Las Vegas for the USA, a centre for the mafia, then of course came the revolution, when everything changed overnight.
But all the way through, Cuba has always been Cuba, and even though it’s been pulled and pushed in all sorts of directions, it’s kept its sense of identity.
I think I’ve been about ten times, and every time I go I find something new, something unexpected. It could be quite a simple pleasure; for example, in Havana there are some really great places to go and watch music, some really iconic spots to visit.
A novel experience
There’s a great list of books you should read too, either before you go or once you’re there – Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, or of course The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway.
They just help put things into a bit more perspective, give the capital a bit more context – and you also understand why these authors have all felt inspired by Havana, it does seem to give you that fire to go away and create something.
A lot of the life of Havana can be seen on the Malecon, a strip that runs alongside the coast – here you can find human jukeboxes, men who go along through the crowds with their guitars and play whatever you ask them to.
We recommend people go and explore and give them an insight into what we think will interest them, but we don’t tend to organise evening excursions, because the joy of Cuba is discovering it all for yourself, just going and absorbing the ambiance, soaking it all up.
It’s not for everybody; it’s oddly alien, a big, bustling Latin American city and a bit of an assault on the senses, so it takes a while to familiarise yourself with – but just take it easy, and you’ll love it.”
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