Isabel Conway explains what to expect when you visit Cuba for anyone who hasn’t been there yet. This is Cuba for first-timers.
Imagine a tropical island of bone-white beaches, washed by seas of azure blue, whose multi-racial population displays no whiff of racism? The population are entitled to free healthcare and education from cradle to grave, free housing and almost free public transport. Sounds like Utopia…right?
Welcome to Cuba, but as Bob Dylan wrote back in 1964 “The Times they are a-Changing”. Cuba is catching up fast with the world outside, hopeful of “taking what’s best and leaving the rest, though that will be tricky”, explained a pro-western academic I met during my recent visit. Cuba’s homegrown variety of Socialism and mixture of nationalism, dogma, and pragmatism still holds sway. But many ask, for how long more.
It is not yet noon on a stunning stretch of long fine sand beach. Carefully planted waving palms and lounger beds stretch as far as the eye can see along Cayo Santa Maria, one of 90 all-inclusive hideaway hotel resort complexes along Cuba’s fast developing north-central coastline.
The 48 km long causeway links these keys with the mainland, passing through Mangrove and birdlife-rich terrain, in days of old the haunt of pirates and corsairs. A necklace of lavish resorts catering to the ‘all-inclusive’ tourism bonanza from abroad is strung out along the idyllic coastline.
The beach bar waiter is a spiky-haired raffish Rod Stewart in his heyday type. He approaches our beach loungers on a stretch of creamy fine sand private beach in front of the sprawling 4 star Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria. Built in late 2016 this newish comfortable property offers inclusive food and drink, and plenty of it, 24 hours a day between bars, cafes and restaurants.
Ossie wears an apron full of pockets in which an array of cocktails and cool beers in takeaway containers hang. “Maybe a mojito or a Bloody Mary”? I consult my watch, resolving to wait at least another half an hour before succumbing to temptation!. Some guests are already on their second drink of the day. Ossie smiles “they’re making the most of their holidays and they’ve paid for it anyway, all part of the package”.
Teams of muscular Canadians play beach volleyball and learner paddle boarders tumble into the gentle surf. Who drinks the most here, I wonder. “The Canadians drink a lot, I start taking orders at 10 and I am kept going until 5 here on the beach; it keeps me fit, I walk at least 10kms a day up and down the beach. The English drink a lot too, they like our Cuban beer.”
Cuba is a favourite destination for urban Canadians, who can get an all-inclusive week with flights for as little as $700 (£415) a fraction of what tourists from Ottawa and Toronto, only a four-hour flight away, would pay for their sun and beach break in Florida. “ They prefer Cuba, we’re friendlier and they love our great music and cocktails” the beach bar waiter adds.
Ossie’s story reveals insights into the lives of ordinary Cubans. As we wander along the beach he tells me he earns US$ 20 a month, getting up at 3 am to travel to work from his almost free apartment an hour and a half away by bus from a purpose-built district where many hundreds of hotel workers live.
He dreams of moving to Montreal to be with his Canadian hairdresser wife. They fell in love after she came to Cuba on holidays a few years earlier. “We see each other about four times a year, I would like to move to Canada or even spend part of the year there but getting the necessary papers to leave Cuba is complicated. I like my life here but it’s hard to make ends meet.
The best job you can have is in a hotel where foreigners stay, they are generous with tips so we are able to save some money to buy mobile phones and things we want”.
Back in Havana a few days later I am sitting in an early 1950s throwback to US capitalist power when Pontiacs like this one, owned by rich pleasure-seeking Americans purred through the streets of Havana, with one of Cuba’s new breed of tourism entrepreneurs. Its a must do for Cuba for first-timers.
Maykel Rodriquez, joint owner of HST –Havana Super Tour – is embracing the still limited opportunities for private enterprise. Like many more, he was hoping for a tourism bonanza after former President Obama extended a welcome hand of friendship offering an ease on travel restrictions and a significant improvement in relations.
The US government’s initiative followed many years of hostility between the seat of global capitalism and one of the last vestiges of Marxist-Leninist socialism.
Back in 2016 US airlines were given the approval to start flying to Havana, and the island’s future looked rosy until the election of President Trump, that has since placed Cuba’s ambitions for a long-awaited hike in their fortunes on semi-permanent hold.
The largest island of the Caribbean nevertheless is going ahead together with providing new hotels and some joint enterprises as well as other necessary tourism infrastructure improvements to bolster Cuba’s global tourism aspirations.
Many Cubans say that provided it can be properly managed, tourism from their closest neighbour could greatly advance Cuba’s prosperity. Right now Mexico, Canada, Germany, France and the UK provide the bulk of tourists drawn to paradise beaches of pure white sands with crystal clear waters and historic colonial-era cities and towns.
Classic American cars like the stately Pontiac that took me along the seven km Malecon Boulevard of Art Deco facades and sixties high rise apartments, also exploring Havana’s former strong links with the Mafia, are a big tourist attraction. When Fidel Castro came to power, he banned the import of foreign cars so the classic automobiles fleeing Americans had left behind continue to motor on.
Bereft of the consumer trappings – there are no advertisement hoardings – of other cities of the world, citizens queue at utilitarian style state shops while a few streets away you’ll come across Mango and high-end Prada.
Away from the capital, the island has much to offer Cuba for first timers from unspoilt countryside and mountains to hundreds of gorgeous bays and beaches. Exploring the provinces locals, by nature incredibly warm and friendly, often invite visitors into their homes.
I explore the back streets of beautiful Sagua La Grande in west-central Cuba as a lively street festival is in full swing, encouraged to swig free rum and join the locals in a dance. Joie de vivre is expressed by the pounding drums of rumba and the slinky steps of samba. Cubans love any excuse for a party.
Most tourists to these parts stop off at Santa Clara on their way to the Northern Keys, where the last battle of the guerrilla war led by Che Guevara was waged, marking the end of Batista’s dictatorship. Known as “the city of the heroic guerrilla” the town is a place of pilgrimage for Cubans who come in droves to revere the soaring bronze statue of the Argentinian-born revolutionary.
A museum monument of the de-railed train including original wagons and the D 6 caterpillar bulldozer used by the guerrillas to immobilize and force the surrender of Batista’s reinforcements in December 1958 is nearby. Under the monument to “Che” is the mausoleum in which his remains lie flanked by other guerrilla leaders.
There is nowhere in the world quite like Cuba, the guidebooks usually assure the would-be traveller and Cuba for first-timers.
I am not sure what to expect but my expectations are exceeded……the pulsating music, the amazing mojitos, the bright colours and revolutionary murals, the crumbling buildings of old Havana and beautifully restored squares, the friendly smiling people, cheap and cheerful art. Nowhere quite lives up to all the hype as much as Cuba does. That was Cuba for first-timers.
Tell me more about visiting Cuba for first timers
Isabel stayed at the Dhawa Cayos Santa Maria resort, Ave de los Hoteles, 65100 Cayo Coco, Cuba. A perfect place for Cuba for first timers.
Getting there: Isabel flew to Havana with Air France on the latest generation Dreamliner aircraft in their new Premium Economy cabin; Daily flights to Havana from Paris CDG and from London Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic from £427 return twice weekly. Isabel visited Cuba as part of the FIT Cuba Tourism fair, invited by the Cuba Tourist Board on behalf of MINTUR. Visit www.cubatravel.cu.
Best time to visit Cuba is between November and May; Bring Euros or Sterling, not US dollars (locals are charged a commission to change them) WIFI is sketchy outside of international hotels who sell internet phone cards.