Where to start? Where to start? To wax lyrical about the splendour of Cuba would be to underestimate the level frustration and general annoyance I felt on a daily basis fending off the touts in Havana. To write it off as a country full of nothing more than con-men would be to underestimate the delight I felt while dancing at the salsa bars, hiking through the forests or swimming at the beaches. I guess the most honest description would be to say Cuba is an astonishingly beautiful country, but you need patience and a sense of humour to travel there.
Havana is a wonderful place to explore. It’s in a state of elegant decay, with its grand buildings plainly showing the toll of time. But there is still beauty to be found here, mostly down the side streets and alleyways of Old Havana. Here there is a litany of bars, art galleries, museums and restaurants where you can happily lose days. I took great delight in knocking back $3 mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio the same bar frequented by one Ernest Hemmingway. I was hoping that by some feat of time-travelling osmosis, some of his literary genuis may have rubbed off on me. But so far, it seems not.
The other Havana highlight for me was the elegantly quirky Playing Card Museum, where more than 2000 cards are displayed. Decks decorated in all kinds of manner were pinned up around the rooms – my favourite being the pack that was adorned with 1980s pop idols. George Michael never looked so good.
But while the city was bustling, it was also exhausting. With every Cuban now after the tourist currency – convertible peso – it feels like everyone is after your money. You can’t walk 10 metres in Havana without someone trying to offer you a taxi, a horse-ride, cigars or food. There are also plenty of scams about. Cubans will “befriend” you in the street, try and convince you to go along to a “salsa festival” or a “cigar festival”, in the hope of getting you to set foot in their friend’s bar, shop or restaurant. We learned the hard way that if you do set foot in these places, you’ll end up paying for it, either in massive service charges, or commissions. We also heard stories of extra drinks being placed on bills. In the end, every time a Cuban approached me I instantly assumed I was about to be taken for a ride, and almost always tried to politely fob them off instead of listening to them. Which was actually a little sad. But I know I’m not the only one who felt this way.
Out of Havana there were much less touts, which is why I enjoyed Trinidad and Viñales so much more. Trinidad – or at least the centre of it – was like a town preserved in time. The cobblestone streets were lined with gorgeous colonial houses in pinks, blues and yellows, which made strolling through the place a great way to spend time.
What did surprise me about Cuba was the natural beauty of the place. I had heard much about the bars and jazz clubs of Cuba, but nothing about the beaches and national parks. The beaches were the perfect stereotype of a Caribbean beach. Long stretches of soft white sands lined with palm trees, while the sea is best described as tranquil pale blue waters. Fruit and coconut vendors walked the beach, along with the odd pizza vendor. If that didn’t take your fancy, then you only needed walk a few metres to a beach-side bar selling good food and strong mojitos. As I said, the perfect stereotype.