Cuba: A Country of Contrasts
By Donna Corwin and Ellen Greenberg
Cuba. This tiny island off the coast of Florida is perhaps one of the most politically charged, richly cultural and spirited travel destinations we have ever visited. Long cut off from the United States, it often resembles a third world country. From Havana to Trinidad to Cienfuegos--- each city boasts a distinct personality.
Old Havana is filled with crumbling pastel façades, narrow, uneven bumpy streets, laundry hanging from the cracking windows and remnants of foundations where once grand and elegant mansions once stood. Over the past several years, however, American tourist money has also greatly increased the amount of restoration work in Havana.
There is nothing new or modern about Cuba, and herein lies its charm. We felt as though time had stopped, and we were magically transported back to the 1950s. Along the edge of Old Havana runs the Avenida de Maceo, better known as the Malecón, a five-mile seawall and multi-lane roadway. All of Havana spreads out from this colonial core. Antique cars are a main attraction in Havana. Our driver ushered us into a 1960 pink Cadillac Fleetwood convertible.
The majority of the cars on the road are at least 40 years old. Juan, our driver, careened along the ocean front. The sun was intense as the high waves of the Atlantic Ocean lapped on shore. Dotted along the shoreline were dozens of restaurants---or huts--- where fresh caught fish was the menu highlight. You can meander around solo, but tourists are required to participate in a People to People tour, which includes a list of well-chosen destinations by the Cuban government. These include art, music and cultural-related visits to museums, schools and hospitals.
Cubans are a proud people, and even in the wake of poverty, they have not lost their spirit. We were shown political monuments of radical guerrilla leader, Che Guevara, the communist revolutionary who allied with Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution. Cuba is filled with history and struggle. There were periodic glimpses of what Havana was like in its heyday of monolith hotels, casinos, and high rollers.
Traveling with kids can be a daunting---but a richly rewarding experience. All you have to do is think out of the box and not look for theme parks and standard family entertainment. The Cuban people are a close-knit family bunch, and your family will be welcomed everywhere.
Inexpensive, ‘only-in-Cuba’ experiences lurk in the unlikeliest places. Contrary to what you might think, Cuba’s pastime sport is not soccer! Every provincial city has a baseball stadium selling tickets for small change, an ice cream parlor full of families sharing tables, and a local Casa de la Cultura where artsy kids’ activities encourage imagination and spontaneity.
Havana features four pirate-era forts including the 18th century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, revered for its nightly cannon-firing ceremony where actors dress up in 18th-century military regalia. Old Havana features the colonial quarter where young imaginations can run amok in the narrow cobbled streets plied daily by wandering troubadours and theatrical performers on stilts. There are many small museums dedicated to playing cards. And then there’s the best one of all – a chocolate museum.
For another activity, you can hire a 2-seater rickshaw for very little money. You can get them 2 at a time and follow one another through the cobblestone streets. It’s a fun way to get to know the city!
Cuba's history is reflected in its food, language, art, and, most of all, its music. All year round, it seems as if bands and dancing are everywhere in Havana. The main musical form is called son Cubano, which combines lively rhythms with classical guitar. Son Cubano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNYOVEXJBBM See and hear other examples of Cuban music and dance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxIC6u5L62U
In the UNESCO city of Trinidad, there is the beautiful Playa Ancón. It offers excellent snorkeling just offshore. The coastal region features catamaran excursions that sail to a couple of Robinson Crusoe-like islands nearby that will help spur on your kids’ desert-island fantasies. It’s also close to easy hiking trails in the Escambray Mountains, some of which lead to waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
On your way to Trinidad, Cienfuegos is the city to stop at as a good halfway point. (The drive from Havana to Cienfuegos is 3 hours.)
You can visit a little zoo called Fiesta Campesina Don Pedro on the side of the highway. The grassy complex will give children a good runaround. For a nominal fee, kids can interact with a handful of animals. They can sit astride a Cuban ox, hold snakes, and play with guinea pigs.
As far as accommodations, we stayed on a yacht, but we wouldn’t recommend it for a family---these are tight quarters with no breathing space. A better choice would be to take advantage of the Cuban’s answer to our version of Air BnB (which is also available).
The Casas Particulares are abundant throughout Cuba and make perfect bases for traveling families. Essentially private homestays with Cuban families, these guesthouses are regularly inspected by government officials and conform to good generic standards. Stay at one, and your family will get a candid glimpse of Cuban family life, struggles, triumphs and all. Even though you can’t ignore the hardship that people face here, Cuba is a fascinating place to visit – lively, colorful and culturally rich. You’ll love it for safety, warm weather, the best mojitos and cigars in the world, and nostalgia on wheels. Fans of Ernest Hemingway can visit his haunts and feel his presence all over the country. Your kids will love Cuba for some of the same things, minus the mojitos and cigars, but also for swimming under waterfalls, taking a ride in a vintage convertible car and drinking guarapo or sugar cane juice.
WHEN YOU GO:
Cuba Travel Services-www.cubatravelservices.com