For a very long time, I’d wanted to travel to Cuba. Last year I finally had the chance to spend ten days on the island, and it certainly lived up to all of my expectations, and then some. Here’s why:
1. Cuba is colorful!
‘Well, duh!’ I can almost hear you say. After all, Cuba is a tropical country: rich, vibrant colors are almost a given. However, it is one thing to know what one will find, and another to experience it first-hand. Everywhere I went to in Cuba, I was inspired to reach for my camera, almost compulsively, and colors played no small part in this.
(All photos are © 2014 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you wish to use them.)
2. If architecture is your thing, there’s lots to see in Cuba
Cuban architecture is an interesting mix of styles, from the Spanish-inspired traditional and Baroque townhouses and mansions, to the neoclassical and Art Deco buildings heavily influenced by 1920s-30s trends in the US.
Yes, many of the old houses, buildings and palaces may be half crumbing down and in need of a good restoration, but this just adds to their charm. Many others, though, particularly in cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, are well-preserved and look positively stunning.
3. Beautiful classic cars galore!
Yes, specifically classic American cars from the ’50s. Now, I am not a huge car aficionado, but I do appreciate any beautiful, well-designed object. So if you are anything like that, you owe it to yourself to visit Cuba. And make sure to go sooner than later, because it seems that classic cars are now officially under threat.
4. A rich history
The history of Cuba, and particularly that from the second half of the last century, is firmly ingrained in most people’s minds. Probably even more so for me as a Spaniard. Signs of the country’s recent history can be found everywhere, in Soviet-style monuments, and mainly in billboards and walls emblazoned with political and patriotic slogans. While these were a frequent sighting during my stay, I didn’t find them to be overbearing nor as numerous as I’d expected.
Havana is one of those cities that deserve a 4-5 day visit at least. Sadly, I only had three days to explore it, so I would definitely love to come back for a longer stay. This vibrant, evocative capital oozes character. There’s a reason why most of the images in this photo-essay were taken in Havana (I refer you to the captions to identify them).
6. The highlight of the trip: Cuban people
Without a doubt, meeting and talking to Cubans was the best part of my trip.
First, a small caveat. I mostly traveled in a group, but had the opportunity to spend almost a full day wandering alone in Trinidad, and then three days in Havana. One of the reasons why I love to travel alone, or carve out some time away from the group whenever I can, is that you get many more opportunities to talk with the locals.
Also, if you like photography and are half serious about it, nothing beats the focus you can achieve (no pun intended!) when you are wandering around solo with your camera.
In my time alone in Cuba, I was approached by many people on the street who at first seemed to just want to chat, specially, I thought, with someone from the “Madre Patria” (the way Spain is sometimes referred to in Latin America, often with genuine affection, but also with irony). However, it was soon pretty obvious that most of them wanted to get something from me. It could be selling me cigars, or taking me to some crafts store, or plain asking me for something (a soft drink, a soap bar, some spare change). A few of them sounded kind of shady and may have been hustlers.
Needless to say, I understand and accept that encountering people less fortunate than me is part and parcel of traveling to many parts of the world. In the case of Cuba, however, this ended up annoying and disappointing me a little because Cuban touts will strike up a conversation with you in such a warm and friendly way that it’s kind of a downer when the sales pitch comes. I suppose the fact that it all happened in my mother tongue (Spanish) added to my frustration. On the plus side, all the touts I came across in Cuba were not pushy or persistent at all, and handled rejection gracefully.
Other than this quibble, most of the Cubans I had longer conversations with were interesting, well educated, articulate people. Many were surprisingly candid about the political situation and daily life in the country, and didn’t need to be prompted to speak their minds about it, which I found both unexpected and refreshing.
So, should you travel to Cuba?
Yes! All in all, I loved Cuba, and hope to be able to come back to see more of it.
Everything seems to suggest that the country will undergo deep transformations in the next decade and, while it will be mostly for the better (or so I hope), some of the features that make this island and her people so endearing could soon be gone forever. So don’t leave your visit too late!
If you have been to Cuba or are planning to go there, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section.