Cuba has always been an intriguing mystery to me. On the one hand, we in the U.S. have been led to believe Cuba is a terribly poor country, run by a bunch of Communists, that has nothing to offer us. But, as a world traveler, always looking for my next great find, the mystery of this isolated island in the Caribbean has always drawn me to its shores.
With an average income of only $4,086, it’s true that Cuba is one of the poorest nations in the Caribbean. It’s also true that the country is run by a Communist regime. But the fact that Cuba has little or nothing to offer the world traveler is where the facts fall apart.
I must admit that I haven’t traveled all of Cuba but, the parts I have visited have plenty to offer. I’ll focus on Havana (or la- Habana with a silent “h” as the natives call it) because it’s the place most visitors will visit. la- Habana is rich with some of the most beautiful architecture in the entire Caribbean. Every building features fantastic architecture of the period in which it was constructed. Although much of it is crumbling, everywhere you look, you’ll see building reconstruction going on. You won’t see many modern glass buildings because la- Habana clearly knows how to retain its beautiful architecture.
The contradiction between the beautiful architecture and the poor living standards of the local population are contrasted by architecturally stunning buildings inhabited by families who hang their laundry out the windows to dry and sit on their porches to cool off because few can afford air conditioning.
Everyone has heard of the “old” auto’s that ply la- Habana’s streets as taxi’s and one of them, with its proud owner, is pictured behind me in the accompanying photo. What most don’t know is that almost all classic car taxi’s are perfectly restored. Understand, this is done by people who have an average income of only $4,086!
One of the unique aspects of la- Habana is its urban makeup. As a born and raised New Yorker, I am familiar with crowded streets filled with cars and people. But la- Habana is crowded with people and not only on the sidewalks. In fact, the word sidewalk has little meaning in la- Habana. Because so few people own cars, the streets are filled with people, literally from door-front to door-front. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find a traffic light. I only saw a total of 5 lights in my entire visit to the city. The taxis and the few cars that do exist simply struggle through the mass of people. If you need to get around, you usually travel by foot. This provides a unique dynamic to the city that is never found in any U.S. city.
For a people with such a poor standard of living, you’d be hard pressed to find an unfriendly face. And the music...oh the music. It doesn’t matter where you go in the city, you hear live music. Cubans love their music and their music is a fantastic mix of Caribbean strains, African beats and a bit of classic Americana thrown in for good measure. And everyone seems to be an accomplished musician.
Last but not least was the food. It’s the primary reason for my visit to this fascinating Caribbean island and in most cases it did not disappoint. I said in most cases because Cuba suffers from shortages that result in some foods being available one day and not the other. Not surprisingly, because of it’s location, the country does feature seafood, pork and fruit. The seafood is always fresh, the pork is always done differently from place to place and the fruit is always some of the most delicious I have ever had.
Cubans are happy to serve any tourists that bring money into their country. All the locals we encountered were more than willing to assist in any of our needs. Our taxi driver stayed with us the entire trip waiting outside a restaurant or club until we were ready to head home. Storekeepers were more than pleasant and our hotel staff were professional and courteous at all times.
One other thing that I found rather remarkable. la- Habana is a very safe city. Even though the people were very poor by our standards, I was extremely comfortable traveling the streets late at night with little or no lighting. There is little or no crime here, especially against tourists and that was a pleasant surprise for a city boy like myself.
Yes the country has its problems; state owned bakeries and groceries (where the locals shop) were usually bare and the people dress with whatever they can find but, the beaches were clean and beautiful, the water was Caribbean blue, the people were friendly and the food, if not, gourmand, was excellent. The true test of a destination is whether one would return to the destination. In my case, I can’t wait to re-visit my newfound mystery Island.