Our guide says “Cuba is famous for three thing: coffee, rum and cigars”. She could have added beaches, baseball and… bears.
Visitors to Cuba often want to see how coffee, rum and cigars are made and there are countless opportunities to find out. Once travellers have tasted the coffee, sipped on a Cuba Libre and visited a cigar factory, there is plenty more to explore. The island has miles and miles of sandy beaches in the resort areas of Varadero, Holguin and Santa Clara with prices that appeal to everyone from budget to five-star resorts.
Cubans are passionate about their national sport, baseball. Visitors can take in a game or listen in on the lively conversations of the men who gather in Havana’s Central Square to analyze and argue about previous games, from first to last pitch. Cuban league games often attract thousands of spectators and fan loyalty is fierce.
Now you’re ready to explore Cuba’s history and rich culture… and meet the bears. No trip to Cuba would be complete without a stop in Havana, Cuba’s metropolis of over two million people and centre of its historic architecture. Our intensive visit to this vibrant city began with an exhibition that took even our guide, Anna, by surprise. Walking into the 17th century Plaza San Francisco, we were delighted to find bears! Representing about 140 nations, each bear is two meters (six feet) high, each painted in vivid colours by an artist and with designs often emblematic of their country, and all standing at attention side by side in a very large circle. It’s the UNICEF bear project that has been travelling the world since 2003. Its message is simple: the Buddy Bears stand together “hand in hand,” symbolising tolerance. The bears change positions in the circle every time they reach a new city because they are arranged in the language of the host country. It makes for ‘interesting’ neighbours. Cuba is its only North America stop.
Like much of Cuba, Havana’s 500-year history is reflected in its architecture. There’s Colonial, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Deco and 20th century Modern. Buildings from the Spanish colonial period remain and many are being restored. La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1982.
Exiting the Plaza San Francisco down narrow streets is a walk back in time. The town that became today’s Havana was settled in 1519 adjacent to the Puerto de Carenas (Careening Bay) which today is Havana’s harbour. The city began as a trading port and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates and French corsairs. It was burned in 1555 and that’s when the Spanish began building the city’s forts. Today, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (Fort of Saint Charles) looks across the bay at the Malecon, Havana’s famous boardwalk, and affords one of the most striking views of the city’s skyline. Each night at 9:00 p.m., a cannon is fired – the “El Cañonazo de las 9” – a custom from colonial times to signal closing the gates in the city wall. The walls were torn down in 1863, to allow for urban expansion but the custom remains.
Havana’s State Building, currently under restoration, is modelled on the Capitol in Washington and is a fine example of Neoclassical architecture.
After World War II, Cuba was often used as a Caribbean playground, especially by Americans, and Ernest Hemingway spent many years there. Tourists still visit his favourite haunt, La Floridita, for a daiquiri and Cuban music.
More recent history is reflected in the modern buildings around Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). The square is dominated by the monument to José Martí, a Cuban national hero, and the imposing image of “Che” Ernesto Guevara with his well known slogan “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) on the Ministry of the Interior building.
But perhaps the most vivid memory that visitors take back from Cuba are the often photographed vintage cars. Economic and political circumstances have forced Cubans to be creative in maintaining the 1950s models to keep them roadworthy. They are colourful examples of Cuba’s past.
Cuba is changing and the recent movement by the United States to ‘normalize’ relations between the two countries will have long term effects. But much of what we see in Cuba today will stay the same, especially the coffee, the rum and the cigars!
Canadian travellers: Air Canada, West Jet, Air Transat, Sunwing, Skyservice and Cubana offer scheduled flights from Canada to Cuba and resort packages are also available. Your hotel can arrange group tours or help you hire a car, driver and tour guide. There were more than 1,000,000 visits by Canadians in 2014.
American travellers: The situation for American guests is quickly changing. American Airlines offers charters and is seeking to expand to regularly scheduled flights. Other airlines are also interested in offering regular service including Delta, United and Jet Blue. Under the current embargo, U.S. travellers can visit Cuba only for specific purposes including educational, religious, cultural, journalistic and humanitarian but not for ‘tourism’. Effective January 16th, Americans who qualify to travel to Cuba under one of the 12 permitted categories do not need to apply for a license. In 2014, it’s estimated that there were 500,000 American visits to the country, 400,000 of them by Americans of Cuban heritage.
Golf: There is one 18 hole golf course in Cuba, next to the 5 star Melia Las Americas in Varadero. Xanadu, a stately mansion built by a member of the DuPont family in 1930, serves as the clubhouse and is a popular tourist attraction.
Currency: Cuba is largely a cash society. Canadian dollars, Euros, British pounds and Australian dollars can be exchanged for the CUC, the Cuban tourist currency. Canadian credit cards are accepted with accompanying identification. MasterCard has announced that it will now handle U.S. currency transactions and American Express plans to do so as well in the future.
Lunch: Privately run restaurants are opening up in Havana. Try “La Casa” for a prix-fixe, three course meal (with wine) starting at $18.00. http://www.restaurantelacasacuba.com/
Photo credits: Dan McCaughey, Toronto, Canada