Cuba wasn't on our list when planning our adventure but after hearing from a few travellers how great it was and that things in Cuba are really about to change we started to consider it. Then when Paul's sister started talking about visiting Cuba, we decided to join her and booked our flights!
We flew in via San Salvador to Havana and braced ourselves for something quite different. The country has been run by Fidel Castro under a communist regime since 1959. Due to significant trade embargoes from by the USA and other countries, Cuba has almost been cut off by the rest of the world meaning that they have lived with very little since then. For example the majority of cars are still running from the 1950's and crumbling mansions continue to serve as people's homes. Only the Soviet Union (pre 1991) and China (now) have supported Cuba with products and infrastructure. It's only since Fidel stepped down in 2008 (his brother took over), that Cubans are starting to see change...such as the allowance to operate their own business (2011) and own mobile phones.
Our first impressions were a little different as we where whisked away from the airport in a new Kia Carnival with driver chatting on his iPhone. But once we made it into the old town it felt like we had stepped back in time. We stayed in a Casa Particular which is a room in someone's home marked by a symbol on their door as there are no hostels in Cuba, and it was a great way to meet and support local people. Our hosts Wilfred and Mercedes were fantastic and very welcoming.
It was great to catch up with Sally (Paul's sister) who arrive a couple of days later. We explored the nearby area, checked out the Malecon and Old Town where USA cars from the 1950's and Russian Lada's from the 70's and 80's are everywhere. It's hard to know how some of them still run, but the locals have no choice but to repair. The old town is huge and has countless beautiful old buildings. Before the revolution, this was a rich country and you can tell...so many of the aging houses and buildings are grand and ornate. The lack of large stores, commercialism and advertising was refreshing, except for when you needed something! We got immersed in Cuba's other love, music. Live music is at pretty much every restaurant and bar, and the musicians are so talented. The late night jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo was brilliant.
We took a day trip to Vinales, which was fantastic as we got to see how tobacco leaves are grown on a tobacco farm, dried and then how Cuban's hand roll their famous cigars in a factory. This coupled with tour of a rum factory, a boat trip through ancient caves and a view of the giant Mural de la Prehostorica.
Due to Cuba's rapidly increasing tourist levels, in most large cities or tourist areas we were constantly approached by touters. As a result of the low wages and communist regimen in Cuba, tourism has become one of the only ways to make the extra money many need to get by.