I had a dream - go to Cuba and find the real Buena Vista Social Club music. I had watched the DVD so many times. Ry Cooder reuniting all the old Cuban musicians from the 40s and 50s and bringing them to the world - I knew it by heart. At last I fulfilled my long-held dream. I went to Cuba to follow the music and found so much more. I found colourful cities, Afro-Cuban music, retro style, vintage cars, palm-frond beaches, World Heritage sites, rum, cigars and dance. I drank daiquiris and mojitos. I ate the rice and black beans mix "Moros y Cristianos" (literally "Moors and Christians") - delicious with a squeeze of lime and the local fish. I enjoyed the Cuban dessert, flan. McDonald's was nowhere to be seen!
Obama's thawing of relations between the US and Cuba meant there was talk about "when the Americans come". Cubans are expecting a tourism influx. There is some concern that Cuba's charm will be lost. However, I believe the important things - celebrating family, identity and community - will remain. Cuba is slightly smaller than NZ's North Island, yet has nine Unesco World Heritage sites (NZ has three). I saw most of these sites in my 17 days.
For me the highlights were:
The old part of Cuba's characterful capital city was packed and pulsating with music and dancing. Masses of people escape the northern winter and head for the Caribbean warmth. I had two days there, staying at the beautiful Hotel Sevilla. I was in Al Capone's room; the best room in the hotel, with views across the city. Recommended.
What a magical, inspiring city. It's a strange feeling - the sounds drifting through the hotel window are the same as the opening soundtrack for the Buena Vista Social Club movie that brought me here. The traffic, the music, the car horns - I can almost see Ry Cooder and son cruising down the Malecon (seafront). Everything looks and sounds the same as that 1998 DVD - the eternal music, the diligently maintained vintage cars, the "shabby chic" architecture - it's all as it was back then. Which is kind of the point when it comes to Cuba, really - things stay the same.
In 2019, Havana will celebrate her 500th anniversary, and renovations are already under way. For example, Havana's Capitolio Nacional is closed to tourists and covered in scaffolding. And on the Malecon, demolition and construction work has already started.
A nightclub in a cave, handmade lace, 500-year-old cobblestone streets and pastel coloured colonial buildings - enchanting. The main attraction for me, though, was the music. This is where I got to jam with the local musicians, who are skilled and willing to share their music with visitors. Trinidad is also where I had my salsa dance lesson; Cubans are incredible dancers. I couldn't wait to try out my new moves at Ayala, the dance club in a massive cavern. Finally, Playa Ancon, the Caribbean beach nearby, is a great way to cool off and relax.
A 189km drive west of Havana. What a revelation! Red-earthed, green tobacco fields are studded with strange rounded hills called "mogotes". These mogotes are found only here and in Vietnam, and they give the landscape an ancient, oriental feel, like you are walking through a Chinese silk painting. This part of Cuba could be a growth area "when the Americans come". For me it was an idyllic rural retreat.
I felt very safe in Cuba. If I was harassed I just said "para!" ("Stop") and the hustlers melted away. I was well looked after at the Casas Particulares (homestay businesses, i.e. owners pay taxes to the government to be allowed to advertise rooms and serve meals) I stayed in, which were all clean and well set up. The Cubans I met in the homestays - and everywhere - were educated, generous and loved to talk.
Cuba has maintained her principles throughout history. Pirates, slavery, gangsters, dictators, wars, revolution, power cuts, food shortages or blockades - whatever happens, Cubans look out for their families and each other.
Through every struggle they continue to celebrate their Afro-Cuban identity with music, art and dance. We see this unchanging quality as a nostalgic time warp. Cubans see it as survival.
Now is a great time to visit, because Cuba's charm won't change, even if everything else does. What a powerful testament to the survival skills of the Cuban people.
Peregrine offers a 16-day Cuba Highlights package from $8185pp, including return Economy Class airfares from Auckland, valid for bookings before February 28 and travel before November 30.