Cuba: Prepare to be Spellbound, By Conner Gorry
What’s the best day trip from Havana? Where should we go for vegetarian food/good music/unspoiled nature/an “authentic” experience? Where can I learn to dance salsa? What’s the best rum (hint: it’s not Havana Club!)?
As a blogger, founder of Cuba Libro and journalist reporting from Havana for the past 16 years, I get these types of questions daily. Via email and Facebook and in person at the café, travelers pick my brain for what to do and how to prepare for their Cuban trip.
How does internet and the double currency work? What about traveling with children? Should I bring my own toilet paper? Is Cuba safe? Can I travel there legally? I’ve fallen in love with Cuba and want to retire there, is it possible?
I earn no coin and spend inordinate amounts of time answering these and related questions, but Cuba is an enchantress and once the spell is cast – after that first cafecito with your hosts, swig of rum on the Malecón, or turn on the dance floor – we’re left wondering: what is it about this place and these people? How can this island of 11 million be so confusing and contradictory, inspiring and transformative all at the same time? It’s no Utopia, that’s for sure. And yet, it’s wholly intoxicating. Why?!
It’s a question I’m constantly revisiting in my own life, especially as Cuba evolves. Indeed, Cuban society is undergoing monumental changes including a new economic and social model, has a new President without the Castro last name, and is in the process of reforming the Constitution, to say nothing of navigating the troubled political relationship with the United States.
Speaking to as many people as you can during your visit, of different ages and backgrounds, will help inform your travels and untangle the many complexities here. And if you have the opportunity to travel to the provinces, even better. Havana, the nation’s capital, is home to 2 million of the island’s people and 70% of its economy – this concentration of people and finances gives this city a different tenor and feel. From Guantánamo to Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and Viñales, you’ll receive a diversity of opinions, part of the fun of visiting this beguiling island.
So when the folks at Travelers’ Tales approached me to write 100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go, I leapt. Here was challenge, adventure (I’ve had a knack for getting off the beaten track since my days of writing guidebooks), and opportunity to gain knowledge rolled into one. Still, I was skeptical about the ‘…Woman Should Go’ part. Were there places in Cuba women shouldn’t go? Were there places exclusively for women men shouldn’t go? My editor explained: it’s a platform for discussing deeper issues related to women and society and how that affects and enriches the travel experience. I could write about machismo, that problematic cultural norm, and topics of LGBT interest, he told me. I would have room to explore the role of Cuban women in history, science, politics, and business, he went on. It is amazing that women from a small developing island nation like Cuba, under a decades-long embargo by the United States, enjoy equal pay for equal work and constitute 60% of the professional workforce. Meanwhile, over 50% of scientists are women. How does that happen? I wanted to know. And I wanted the world to know. Plus, I would get to travel the length and breadth of the exploring, camping, and learning? Sign me up!
The strategy of talking to as many people as possible served me well during my research for the book, leading me to a few of my new favorite places in Cuba. Some fellows in Holguín tipped me off to the Salto de Guayabo and Salto de Berraco, two of the highest waterfalls on the island. Nestled in the Sierra de Mensura, they measure 318 feet and 417 feet respectively, and offer terrific hiking – to the top of the falls and the bracing swimming holes at their base. Something not to miss here is the natural swimming pool with wide, gorgeous views of the Sierra Cristal and opportunities to spy the red, white and blue tocororo, Cuba’s national bird. Avid surfers advised me not to miss the string of beaches along Santiago de Cuba’s southern coast, where I discovered what must be the country’s best beach hideaway, along the black sands of the quiet and friendly town of Chivirico. And right in Havana, a friend tipped me off to her favorite city getaway: the Jardín Japonés, a manmade garden where the paths, pagodas, benches and walls are made entirely of coral, shells and rocks tucked behind Restaurante 1830; here you can catch some of the city’s best live salsa a couple of times a week.
Over a year and 2,000 miles later (on a 1946 Harley-Davidson!), the book is out, my favorite places revealed, and I’ve a better understanding of why this country is so intoxicating – from the first cafecito, swig of rum or turn on the dance floor to the last. Oh, by the way, the best rum at the right price is Santiago de Cuba.
About the Author
Conner Gorry is the author of several books, most recently 100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go; TWATC (The World According to Conner); and Cuban Harleys: Mi Amor. Her blog Here is Havana has been called “the best writing that’s available about day-to-day Cuba.” In 2013, she founded Cuba Libro, the only English-language bookstore/café on the island leading one critic to note: “Conner’s Cuba is where Shakespeare and Company meets Easy Rider.”