The Cuban recipe: Rum, cigars and salsa

“You’re not a real Cuban if you can’t dance” someone said to me on my first day. And after two weeks on the island I knew exactly what he meant.

The sounds of wind instruments, drums and singing were everywhere. In every bar, every restaurant, in hotel receptions and on the street.

It’s in their bones and the Cubans know the tourists love it too.

Venues like La Musica where the locals party is the perfect place to watch dancers, bands and try out your best salsa moves.

I’ll always try and it’s obvious I’m not Cuban when I move slower Or a bit wooden but you soon get men grabbing you and trying to show you the moves. They’re not shy in the slightest.

The atmosphere was incredible and it’s wasn’t long before I was joining in with the group dances, still envious at the women who moved heir hips and feet so beautifully, without a second thought.

cars in Havana

The venue was just round the corner from my casa in the heart of Old Havana.

Casas are like the Cuban B&Bs where you effectively stay in a room in someone’s house with their family.

They’re said to be much better than the hotels as well as giving you the authentic Cuban experience. In fact there’s not many hotels and they were all fully booked when I was looking for accommodation.

So I didn’t have much of a choice but I didn’t regret it either.

view of Havana Cuban street

As my taxi drove me there down the dark, derelict street on my arrival, I must admit  I was a bit worried and questioning what on earth I was doing.

But once inside the house was amazing. Well maintained. Nicely decorated. And not what I expected at all.

By morning it felt like a completely different street. It was buzzing, full of traffic and felt much less hostile.

My host Maria Elena spoke little English but with my limited Spanish we got by.

She gave me tips on what to see and do. Where to eat. Where to party. She thought I was crazy travelling around Havana on my own but she looked after me.

Breakfast was prepared for me fresh at the same time everyday and while I did feel like I was intruding her home at times, it felt homely.

A city with character

Havana isn’t a big city. You can walk around easily from one end to the other in a day.

After about three days there I felt like I knew my way round and I had seen everything.

The buildings are beautiful and unspoilt, although they stand in contrasts. One could be well looked after and painted, then next door could be dilapidated and very run down. There was no consistency.

The lack of money in this country is evident but I didn’t get the impression from any locals that they felt like they were missing out.

They have a good education system with free education until after university, they have a free health service and there’s hardly a pay gap with most people earning the same whether they were a bus driver or a doctor.

Colourful Havana buildings

The country – its history, its music and its people are fascinating. The colours light up your mind, and the vibrancy of the music and the people fills your soul. And I truly felt at home.

On my second day while at the Havana rum factory, I began talking to the security guard Raphael. He was intrigued by my heritage and after chatting for almost half an hour I had his entire life story. “Ask me some questions miss,” he said. ” I want to improve my English.” In fact his English was perfect. He talked about his education, his work, his hopes for Cuba’s future. Then he offered me a tour of his city.

My Cuban tour guide

Cuba has a lot of people wanting to be your tour guide. I had heard them being called Habaneros.

It is men in particular you have to be careful of. Sometimes partnered with a female they see a woman alone or in a group of females and want to act as your chaperone, giving you advice on where to go and whether it be correct or misleading they ask for a fee at the end.

The best way to deal with them is to just keep walking. I often pretended like I knew where I was going when in reality I didn’t have a clue. Fortunately it was very difficult to get lost in the centre of Havana.

turquoise blue car parked on side of the road

Lucky for me, Raphael was genuine. He insisted he was a government worker and not interested in making money. 

He was fascinated by England and other places in the world I had visited and he gave me a real insight into Havana from a local’s perspective.

We walked to Rosalina Castro’s (Fidel’s sister) house, had a drink to pass the time while it rained outside, and he told me about the best places to visit in Cuba. His pride in his country shone through.

Within days I felt Cuban

This was the beauty of Cuba. Everyone is so friendly and interested in your story.

By my third day in Havana I easily knew my way around, had practiced my Spanish, danced my evenings away and felt fully Cuba.

It’s fair to say Havana gripped my heart but there is much more to the country than just its capital.

If you fall in love with this city then just wait until you venture out and see the rest.

I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

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