Havana’s historic centre is movement, loud music, entertainment. It’s non-stop camera clicking, jiniteros vying for your attention, crazy coco-taxis buzzing past. But among all the noise and bustle there are pockets of calm waiting to be discovered and enjoyed for what they are — a chance to pause and observe, to sit down and bask in silence, to reflect on the vicissitudes of history.
The most striking of these oases is the vast courtyard of the Convento de Santa Clara de Asis, just a few blocks off Obispo. When I arrived there the street door was closed, but the warden, who was sitting just inside playing dominoes with a friend, let me in to look around. I stayed there – alone – for over an hour. The courtyard is a garden of trees and cloistered walkways, flowers and beautifully restored buildings dating from 1643. The convent no longer houses nuns, but now contains a hostel and the offices of the Havana Restoration Project.
A more visible sort of garden oasis found every few blocks in the centre of Havana is the “pocket park”. This is a sort of green living room for block residents. Tall palms and hanging vines provide shade for the many benches, while birds and fountains provide calming background music. Men read newspapers and play chess, mothers and grandmothers wait for children to be released from school, toddlers chase pigeons… and there’s still room for the odd tourist or two.
In December of 2008, I flew to Cuba for the first time, not knowing what to expect. At that time it was harder than it is now to get an entry visa, so I applied and was accepted to give a talk at a Cuban teachers’ conference. I paid my own way, of course.
The reason I wanted to go to Cuba so much was that I’d been writing to a Cuban pen-pal for a couple of years and wanted to meet him. Julian was an English teacher like myself, so we always had something to talk about. We spent every day of the conference week visiting places in and around Havana. During my second week there, I took bus tours to provinces east and west of Havana.
Cuba was a revelation: not only the cars, but many other things as well were left-overs from the fifties and sixties. People seemed to be living on a shoestring, yet they were also lively, well educated and healthy. What was going on here?
I had to come back and see more.
Cuba is an attractive vacation option for North Americans and Europeans alike. It’s safe, flights are regular and available, the weather’s fantastic, the people are charming and the countryside is unspoiled.
One of the first decisions you have to make as a prospective visitor is whether you want to sample the country or just lie on another gorgeous beach. If the white-sand-and-turquoise-water aspect is the only thing about Cuba that attracts you, book a hassle-free resort package and you’ll have a great time, surrounded by dozens of (other?) friendly, polite Canadians. If, on the other hand, you want to meet real Cubans, explore the natural wonders of the interior as well as the coast, experience the colonial charm and pulsing local nightspots of Cuban towns, or sample delicious Cuban home-cooked meals… you could book a simple return flight to Havana or Santa Clara or Holguin, and tour the country from there.
Cuban B&Bs, called casas particulares or hostales, are now listed on websites like Trip Advisor and AirBnB, so you can and should book your room before you leave home. These places are where you’ll meet your first Cubans – your host family. They’ll arrange for a pick up at the airport, serve you better food than in a restaurant and help you arrange long distance taxi rides that are more flexible, faster and usually cheaper than traveling in a crowded tourist bus. Talk to them, trust them, and they’ll make your visit memorable. Other possible modes of transport are car rental and organized bus tours, but they’re much more expensive.
Many Cubans now have email and cell phones, so it’s much easier to arrange accommodation and transport today than it was even 3 years ago.