“If it’s so difficult for Americans to get to Cuba, why bother?” I asked my new travel companion. We’d just met as part of Out Adventures’ Cultural Cuba gay tour.
“Well, it’s kind of like forbidden fruit.”
His answer hit me harder than a double Havana Club on the rocks; the allure of Cuba — despite Trump’s hardened stance on US-Cuba relations, the “sonic attacks”, the hurricanes etc. — is the mystery surrounding the flamboyant destination. The thrill of going somewhere you were told you couldn’t.
As a Canadian who’s enjoyed the splendours of Cuba countless times, here are my top ten reasons Americans should visit this unique destination — despite the hoops they need to jump through.
10. The Locals
Cuban people seem to be made from the finest cloth. But no one made as positive an impact on my vacation as our local guide, Willmar. His enthusiasm for Cuba’s vast history was extraordinary. His vulnerability as a gay man was sobering. And his zesty personality, optimism and humour defined my entire trip.
Not only can you see, hear and feel the soul of Cuba, but take a whiff and you’ll smell it too. The musky scent of Cuban cigars is so thick it may as well be the island’s unofficial cologne.
8. Casa Particulares
Unexpected yet greatly appreciated were the incredible Casa Particulares (Bed & Breakfasts) we stayed in with Out Adventures. These authentically Cuban home-stays gave my group the opportunity to meet and interact with locals in a casual environment. They were, for lack of a better mojito pun, the sugar rim on top of this incredible journey.
While Cuban food is far from spectacular, the liquid lunches are world-class. A fresh piña colada blitzed with real coconut milk, pineapple, freshly grated cinnamon and a glug of Cuba’s Finest remains one of my favourite memories.
6. Vintage cars
Few experiences felt as authentically Cuban as hailing a bright, vintage taxi to navigate Havana’s narrow streets. My recommendation: ask the driver to lower his sunroof and cruise the Malecón. Nothing was quite as romantic as the spray of the Caribbean on my face as I took in the best views of New Havana.
Stephen Spielberg strongly considered this sweeping stretch of countryside as the major filming location for Jurassic Park. I spent an evening dining above this lush locale and immediately understood how Viñales transported the distinguished director’s imagination to a bygone Mesozoic Era.
4. Mi Cayito
To us Canadians, nothing says Cuba more than powdery beaches, so soft and white they might as well be made of confectioner’s sugar. My favourite? Mi Cayito — a gay beach located 30 minutes from downtown Havana. Slather on your highest SPF and head here for an afternoon of speedos and mojitos.
3. Afro-Cuban Culture
When writers reference Cuba’s “soul”, they’re often talking about the Afro-Cuban Culture. Brass players performing rumba in every plaza, women’s hips swivelling in ways I didn’t know hips could swivel, and local art so erotic and colourful it would make Warhol blush. Even as a tourist I could feel the island’s soul seep into my skin — and my hips.
Cuba’s still-standing colonial architecture has weathered dictators, revolutionaries, drug lords and activists. It’s seen days of excess and poverty, capitalism and communism. International names like Castro and Che are synonymous with the island. And lest we forget the guerrilla revolution, missile crisis or countless waves of homophobic law the country has seen. Read, listen and ask questions — Cuban history is as dense as it is fascinating and as exciting as it is frustrating.
Salsa floods every street. Rum flows in every restaurant. Under construction houses are painted in brilliant pastels. And the streets rumble and clunk with the sounds of cars so old they prelude the Kennedy era. As I wandered Havana, I imagined a thousand cliches I could use to describe the city. And all of them would be true.
According to Lonely Planet, “There’s rarely been a better time to visit Cuba.” Just this year it began a sea change: it elected it’s first non-Castro president since 1976. The strict communist government seems to be loosening its grip and entrepreneurship has begun to flourish.
My concluding message to Americans interested in experiencing Cuba: Go!
Written by Carl Hiehn
If you’re ready to feel the rhythm of Cuba seep into your own skin, click here to learn about Out Adventures’ incredible gay Cuba tours.
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Photos from top to bottom by Carl Hiehn, Intrepid Travel, Jamey Thompson, Shutterstock, Robert Sharp x 4, Kristopher Kelly x 2, Shutterstock, Robert Sharp, Carl Hiehn x 2.