Cuba is top. It's an apocalyptic paradise. A place where people are trying to survive everyday all while maintaining a zest for life that is incomparable. Every day is an opportunity to dance, to sing, 'pa gozar la vida', while never ceasing to find a way to “inventar” as they say, to invent, and make ends meet. Cuba makes you appreciate the simple things in life- clean water, a hot shower, access to adequate food, and the ability to make a life for yourself- things that for the majority of Cubans are not guaranteed.
If you decide to make the journey to one of the most beautiful islands in the world go with an open and curious mind, free of expectations. Without expectation you will appreciate so much more when you happen upon a rooftop electronica dance party, a design store that only sources it's materials and products from Cuba, or a restaurant with the most delicious ceviche pesto tapas you've ever tasted. You must go with the flow and have patience, and quickly you will learn why people are so relaxed and at ease- because so much is out of their control, as it will be out of yours. Sure, make a rough itinerary, but know that the best experiences will arise when you open your sails and see where the wind takes you.
It's true. There's something fairytale like when you're surrounded by all of the old 1950's cars. Their shapes, colors, big bench seats, and eclectic hood ornaments! But don't be fooled, these cars have terrible exhaust and have created a city that feels more polluted than Los Angeles, yet with 1% of the cars.
"You're from The United States!", one taxi driver exclaimed. "I've tried to go 4 times by boat, and here I am". Another taxi driver told us he had attempted to leave Cuba by raft 7 times. No matter your politics, if there is a place that people are trying so desperately to leave this speaks volumes. One person told us that 90% of Cubans have family in the United States. Overall Americans seem to be well liked and well received in Cuba.
There is a constant warmth that envelops you while in Cuba. Yes it's hot as hell, but at least with all the humidity my skin was glowing. I'm talking about another kind of warmth that leaves a lasting impression on you even when you're back in the snowy Pacific Northwest. It's the warmth of the people and how easily you'll make friends. How without hesitation you'll be invited to join in and participate. Or be invited to dinner at someone's house.
"A topless car for a topless house", our taxi driver joked.
Like a warm bath, you won't want to leave the ocean. It's lapping waves will keep you mesmerized rolling in and out in all of it's crystalline turquoise beauty. Be sure to head to the local beaches right outside of the city called Mar Azul. Instead of a beach only for tourists you will find Cubans lunching on lobster tails, drinking rum coconuts, and playing reggaeton. Varadero beach is spectacular too but make sure you have a local take you to the Cuban Varadero and avoid the tourist melting pot of the resort bus tours.
Food in Cuba is pretty basic. You've got your rice and beans which they commonly call, "Moros y Cristianos", fried plantains, yucca (pronounced YOOca) with a garlic butter sauce, and an array of meat choices. Beware vegetarians and vegans, your options are limited. Yes there are variations on this theme, pasta dishes and side salads, but for the most part restaurants seem to serve very similar fare. It's for this reason that you get really excited when you discover a restaurant that intrigues your taste buds and has great ambiance, service, and music to top it off. This restaurant was called Espacios. I highly recommend the Tostones Javier and Pollo Picante with salsa de lemon. The restaurant is in an artfully restored mansion situated in Miramar. With abstract metal sculptures and Japanese hairy chickens strolling around, there's plenty of people watching and engagement to enjoy oneself for hours.
I spy a cake! On New Year's Eve we saw numerous people walking down the street with open air cakes. New Year's Eve is traditionally celebrated family style with a big cookout at someone's house that includes roasting a pig.
For obvious reasons Cuba isn't a "shopping destination". What they do have are great antiques hidden away in the back of tourist markets and new innovative pop-up's such as Clandestina. Clandestina Diseño 99% Cubano, is a design art house and workshop all in one. I felt very drawn to Clandestina as their mission is to use recycled goods to create new art-inspired products. They screen print their own bags, t-shirts, and art prints all from materials sourced on the island. Often, they sell out of products in just a few days because they can't keep up with demand- and sourcing consistent supplies is very difficult. I would love to forge a connection with them to help them get their hands on more vintage t-shirts!
My new friend showcasing his collection of antique wares.
(Fast forward to minute 3:00 to see why this felt so amazing!)
My 'Dirty Dancing Havana Nights' dream came true! I've been salsa dancing since I was 15 years old and since then, the rhythms of the güiro, tambores, and piano have entered my blood, seducing me to dance whenever I hear those sounds. To have this moment, dancing spontaneously on the streets of Havana, was like reaching the peak of Everest for me. It was true validation that everyone should just do what they love, because the infectious spirit of happiness will spread when other people see you living life 100%. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to visit Cuba and I definitely hope to return.
No matter what you want to do in life or where you want to go, I hope that you get there. You deserve it.