This is a country where in the factories there is no radio blaring. Instead, perched in a corner, a man or woman sits at a desk in front of a microphone, reading. Everyone listens. Sometimes there are requests. Poetry, the sports pages and Dan Brown all have their moment beneath the anglepoise. Cuba has the highest literacy rate and the best healthcare system in the Americas. Just 60 miles from Florida across the strait of Biscayne, Cuba has held a finger to its Northern cousin, the USA for more than fifty years.
Picking a fight with the world’s biggest superpower has meant an embargo on all things American, and humiliated by the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, the US declared Cuba off-limits. This isolation from junk culture means an absence of angry brands and all-you-can-eat platters. The arts are seen as a vital part of life and are celebrated everywhere.
Cuba has its own take on reggae, rap and hip-hop. The live music scene is vibrant and eclectic. Every town has at least one Afro-Cuban hangout where that fusion of beats, cross rhythms and jazz phrasing keeps the musically-inclined up until the first flare of dawn.
The Tropicana in Havana has been preserved since Castro’s revolution. Once the preserve of Mafia boss Meyer Lansky, the Tropicana has been described as a world-class entertainment venue that discriminating gangsters just happened to enjoy frequenting. The style, pizzazz and showmanship here provided a blueprint for the shows seen in Las Vegas today. It costs a less than ironic 60 USD to see but is worth it simply to soak up the ambiance and pretend for a second that you’re back in the decadent world that preceded the revolution.
Trinidad is a world heritage site with cobbled streets and Spanish colonial architecture. The museum here proudly displays a section from a U2 spy plane shot down in the 60’s at the height of the cold war. The 21st century is celebrated in a stalactite cave at the top of the hill that conceals a local disco playing Cuban techno, reggae and salsa. Entry is 1USD. You’ll meet a lot of young Cubans here. Enjoy.
In the morning hire a horse – they know exactly where they’re going – for a ride into the forest and then a short walk up to a stunning waterfall with a hidden cave behind that you can swim into. There’s also a rattling old steam train that huffs and puffs through stunning scenery.
After fifty years of isolation Cuba is slowly opening itself up to the outside world. Cubans remain suspicious of their Northern neighbour but welcome anyone who chooses to visit and shows an interest in their history and culture. A smattering of Spanish goes a long way as does a relaxed attitude. Things happen in their own time here.
A final piece of advice would be this; take a salsa class before visiting Cuba. Just one will be enough to get the feel for this infectious joyous musical form that keeps everyone up until dawn.
If you love life, you’ll adore Cuba.