Able to both confound and exceed expectations in equal measure, Cuba is an endlessly fascinating place. The archetypal tableau of revolutionary rhetoric, breathtaking beaches, classic cars gliding past faded colonial buildings and a population who dance on an endless ribbon of salsa and rum does of course exist, but for those prepared to dig beneath the dazzling surface, Cuba relinquishes so much more. Art Deco architecture peeks between the crumbling mansions; unobtrusive art galleries are filled with exciting contemporary art to rival the scenes of London, Los Angeles and New York; private restaurants hidden in backstreets throughout the country nudge Cuba towards the upper echelons of fine dining experiences; while a programme of arts festivals sees internationally renowned ballerinas, musicians and actors delight audiences for the modest reward of a state salary. Delve into the countryside and you’ll find cloudforests and mountain ranges, birdwatching trails ripe for exploring, and panoramic plains filled with green-gold sugar cane that are a siren call for a growing number of visiting cyclists.
Even those who have visited Cuba previously will be amazed by the country of today. Since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of decades of subsidies to its communist outpost) saw Cuba descend into economic crisis, there has been a sense that this is a place on the cusp of a great political and cultural shift. There is no doubt that the economic reforms ushered in since 2008, when Fidel Castro handed over leadership to his younger brother Raul, have staked a marker in the fine Caribbean sand. With individuals now licensed to run a diverse range of businesses, there is an undeniable sense that Cuban commerce is awakening from a long hibernation: private taxi services, boutique restaurants, homestays, private tour companies and more are thriving – and becoming increasingly competitive.
The change is also percolating through provincial areas. While you’ll still hear the languid clop of horse-drawn carts in small-town plazas, and the faded facades of pre-revolutionary storefronts continue to provide the classic photo opportunity, enterprise is also simmering away. Independent tour operators, Western-style streetside nail bars and a slew of new front-room antique shops are busily contesting for the tourist peso. Far from being a country whose economy is on its knees, Cuba appears to be flourishing in the face of the global recession; while a support system of reciprocal trade and fuel agreements with left-leaning Latin American states mean that, though undeniably detrimental, the US embargo is not the crippling force this long-standing adversary would wish it to be. That’s not to say that the infrastructure isn’t creaky in places. You’re bound to come across occasional reminders that Cuba essentially remains a centralized, highly bureaucratic one-party state, and this can give a holiday here an unfamiliar twist. Simply queuing for a train ticket or booking a state-run tour can be unnecessarily and frustratingly complicated; you may well discover that Cuba has its own special logic, and that common sense doesn’t count for much here. But if you can take the rough with the smooth, you may even come to regard such irritations as part of the charm of the place; and you’ll also find that in general, the new and increasingly professional level of commerce means that organizing an independent trip is now easier than ever.
A perennially beguiling aspect of a stay here is the easy contact visitors can have with locals. Cubans are generally outgoing, sociable and hospitable, and the common practice of renting out rooms in private homes allow visitors closer impressions of the country than they might have thought possible in a short visit. The much-vaunted Cuban capacity for having a good time is best expressed through music and dance, and despite the queues, food rationing and free-speech restrictions, people in Cuba are always ready to party.
That said, the continued growth of tourism is cementing the two-tier earning power between those who now work in the private and tourist sectors and those like doctors and teachers employed by the state. Whether adopting principles of a free-market economy will allow the communist government to deliver its egalitarian agenda of wealth redistribution remains to be seen. Similarly, no-one knows how the vestiges of present-day Cuba will endure in the face of recent change. One thing is for sure: immersing yourself in Cuba now is the best way to judge for yourself.