Cuba…well it’s complicated…

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.

And of course there were the cars. The grand old 1950s American cars that patrol the streets are a tourist attraction within themselves. They look fantastic, to the point where even a reserved person like myself couldn’t help but drape oneself across them and pose for photographs. The cars have been maintained well, on the outside at least, with bright paint-jobs that have usually been polished to a high gleam. Driving down the highways in of these babies to the beach was pure joy.

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.

My favourite place here was the Casa de la Musica, a small bar on the steps of the town square that played salsa all afternoon. In the evenings it was the place to be, a place where locals showed the crowds of tourists just how salsa was done. I was told by one local that “Salsa is in the blood of Cubans”. Standing here, watching the locals step and twirl with the music, I could well believe it. They were fantastic to watch. After a few mojitos I was happy to give the salsa a try, and found though I wasn’t entirely incompetent, I certainly could not swing my hips like the Cubans. And yet they made it look so easy!

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.

Travelling in Cuba is a unique and beautiful country and I’m so glad I ended up experiencing it. I do think everyone should go at least once, and soon, because there are growing calls for reforms within the country, and I think eventually the Castro regime will have to give some ground. When that happens, I don’t think the Cuba that I saw will continue to exist. Within the next 10 years I’m willing to bet that Havana will have its first McDonalds and probably a Starbucks next door, and the quirks (even the frustrating ones) that make this country what it is will be ironed out.