“Ron y son” -rum and salsa- is life’s motto in Cuba. Complemented with a cigar or two – and a hint of revolutionary spirit added to the mix. The chance to visit Cuba, and to get to know the country and the people, should definitely not be missed. Our author travelled from the Cuban capital of Havana via Cienfuegos and Trinidad in central Cuba to the holiday paradise of Varadero.

Travellers to Cuba from Switzerland are advised to set their inner clocks back by more than the actual six hours’ time zone difference. In Cuba under Castro (Raúl succeeded his late brother Fidél as president in 2008) time seems to pass slower than in other places. This is not just because of the cityscapes and the vintage cars that give a sense of being catapulted back to the 1950s. It is also due to the almost complete absence of people rushing – which is why three basic tenets apply here: relax, enjoy and marvel.

Photos: Edelweiss/Shane Wilkinson; Sandra Casalini

Drinking and dancing on every street corner

Visitors strolling through the streets of Cuba –be it in Havana, Varadero or in any other town- will soon realise: “Ron y son” is much more than drink and dance. Rum is quasi a staple drink; mojitos are served as an aperitif before every meal, and rum is available on every street corner – as is “son”, the Cuban version of salsa. Just like rum, dancing is ubiquitous, and not just in clubs or at parties, but -and above all- in the streets. “Ron y son” is an attitude to life that the Cuban people share in common. Foreigners wishing to become a part of it best help themselves to a sip of rum as soon as they land in Cuba, and sway to the beat whenever they hear music.

Travellers interested in a good, inexpensive alternative to hotel accommodation have the option of staying in a “hostal” (private accommodation). As for me, I spend my first few nights at the Hotel Capri in Habana’s Vedado district, situated just a few yards from the famous Malecón esplanade. Given the tropical climate, the central location of the hotel and its rooftop pool are not to be sneezed at!

Beans, rice – and the world’s best chocolate cake

There are a felt million things to discover in Havana, from the Malecón esplanade, which transforms into a relaxed party zone at night, through fruit, vegetable and art markets, to Havana’s historic centre that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The city’s most significant sights -Plaza de Armas, El Templete, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Cathedral Square, Plaza Vieja or Hemingway’s “La Bodeguita del Medio”- can all be conveniently visited on foot. Magnificent views of the city are to be had from Morro Castle (“Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro”). My absolute highlight: being chauffeured around town in a vintage convertible – feeling the wind in my hair, the sound of salsa in my ears and the incomparable scent of the city in my nose. Unforgettable!

On the subject of scent and taste: contrary to common prejudices, there is something to be said of Cuba’s culinary diversity. Whereas, besides rum, rice and beans are staple foods in Cuba, a host of “paladares” (private restaurants) serve very good meat and fish dishes, as well as delicious desserts! Sweet dishes made with the moderately sweet guava fruit are a particular speciality. I favour eating guavas with cheese and a local “Bucanero” beer. But by far the best dessert was a chocolate cake – in fact, it was the best I have ever eaten. Fancy that: me being Swiss and having to travel to Cuba for the best-ever chocolate experience! I was served this delectably memorable treat in “La Guarida”, a paladar that excels with other fantastic dishes as well. This gem of a place is tucked away on the third floor of an old, seemingly dilapidated house. But the truth is: it has cult status and is always full. “La Guarida” is where the Oscar-nominated Cuban film “Fresa y chocolate” was shot in 1992. It is also a choice restaurant among celebrities and luminaries, including the Spanish royal family – a fact evidenced by numerous photographs on the walls of the restaurant.

Cienfuegos and Trinidad: home to breathtaking colonial architecture

One could easily spend several weeks in Havana discovering new and fascinating things. But, that said, it would be a terrible shame to miss out on exploring other corners of Cuba. Tour operators, such as Cuba Real Tours, offer a variety of options. My tour started in Havana. Seated comfortably in an air-conditioned minibus, we travelled to southern-central Cuba, to the little town of Cienfuegos that features French colonial style architecture. That pleased our tour guide Rafael no end, given that he is from there. Rafael also happens to speak fluent German. This is not uncommon in Cuba and a result of many Cubans having spent several semester studying in the former GDR in the 1970s and 1980s, which, in turn, is due to the close ties of communism that existed back then.

After a wander through Cienfuegos and a visit to the nostalgic “Teatro Tomás Terry” where the Italian opera star Enrico Caruso (“O sole mio”) once performed, we journey on along the panoramic coastal road to Trinidad. Boasting its own unique colonial architecture, this delightful little town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated in the town centre is the lovely “Mansión Alameda”, a private homestay that offers spacious and comfortable guestrooms and has a charming little garden. This is the perfect place to relax before enjoying a night out on the town. Especially at weekends, Trinidad becomes a beehive. It is when the town metamorphoses into one big party. The bars, streets and steps are awash with bands playing a variety of music genres - from traditional son to modern reggae sounds speckled with rap elements. The scene is that of dancing, drinking and partying. In other words: the Cuban way of life!

Santa Clara: Discover your revolutionary side!

The next day of my tour is centred on Cuban history. We leave Trinidad and travel to Santa Clara, situated in the centre of the island. Santa Clara is where, in December 1958, revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara achieved his most decisive victory. By taking this strategically important city after two years of guerilla fighting, Guevara paved the way to Havana for the revolutionary forces. Just days later, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar fled into exile.

Today, this historically important place is a memorial site for the revolutionary leader who is still very much revered in Cuba. The remains of Che Guevara were transferred from Bolivia to Cuba in 1997 and subsequently buried in a specially built mausoleum at the memorial site. Che Guevara rests there together with a significant number of his combatants. The site also houses a museum with various personal items of Che Guevara and other revolutionaries on display, including documents (notably: letters from Fidel Castro to Che) clothes, weapons and photographs. All very fascinating! But it does require reading up about Cuban history beforehand, or, alternatively, having a guide like Rafael explain the key facts and overall context.

Nice, nicer, Varadero!

Our small tour group boards the bus again and we continue on. My tip for travellers: when stopping at a service area, make sure you treat yourself to an espresso. Firstly, because Cuban coffee tastes fantastic and, secondly, because it is served with a piece of sugar cane in lieu of a spoon. Bite into the sugar cane, suck out the juice and then sip your coffee – divine!

Our final destination in Cuba: Varadero. Like Havana, it is situated on the island’s north coast. The Meliá Marina Varadero is a seafront hotel set in the heart of a conservation area. The resort provides everything the classic holiday heart could wish for, including a marina, restaurants, bars, a spa and a kids’ club. There are also opportunities for catamaran and dolphin watching tours, which depart from the marina. Or how about relaxing in a sun lounger on the pristine white sand beach and doing absolutely nothing – bar the occasional dip in the crystal-clear, turquoise-blue sea? Not a bad choice considering Varadero is home to some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean! Of course snorkelling and scuba diving are on offer too. But the beauty of being here is the absence of the word “must”. Nothing is a must – with the exception of one last glass of rum and a cigar before boarding the flight home.

Three Tips from Trinidad to Varadero

1. Mansión Alameda Trinidad: A beautiful private homestay (“casa particular”) in the centre of Trinidad situated on the southern coast of central Cuba. The villa was reopened in winter 2017 after refurbishing.;;; (Calle Alameda 69, Trinidad, Cuba, www.mansionalameda.com)

2. Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara: The bodily remains of revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara and numerous of his combatants have been laid to rest in the mausoleum. The site also features a museum with some of their personal items on display.;;; (Santa Clara, Cuba)

3. Hotel Meliá Marina Varadero: This luxury hotel in Cuba’s must beautiful holiday spot has everything the heart desires, including a yacht marina and a private beach with pristine sand fringing the turquoise-coloured Caribbean Sea. Whether you are looking for relaxation or action, you will find it here.;;; (Autopista del Sur y Final, Punta Hicacos, Varadero, Cuba, www.melia.com/Melia/Marina_Varadero)

Text: Sandra Casalini