Rooftop bars where white-bearded expats sit in woven hats amongst young Brits in polos, smoking their long cigarettes and drinking mojitos out of tall, sweating glasses. An acoustic guitar is strummed by a man in a white linen shirt, and a cool breeze breaks the heat as it rolls in from over the ocean. I take a sip of an espresso in between heavy conversation about the revolution, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve stepped into an alternate reality, or at least one where I can’t help but understand why people come to Cuba and never seem to let it go.
Cuba is everything you would ever imagine, it’s a postcard come to life, a humid History Channel special that you walk into, and yet it’s far more complex than what I ever expected.
Havana itself is surprisingly quiet, curled up on the empty, modest shore of the Caribbean, with tumbling green forests that lining its fortress walls. Cuba's crumbling streets, mostly void of traffic, are dotted with pastel cars from the 60’s – yes, there are as many as you’ve been lead to believe – their whimsical horns and roaring exhaust pipes creating a nonstop cacophony against a backdrop of blocky Soviet buildings, British colonial mansions covered in ivy and graffiti, and turquoise-and-gold painted restaurants and storefronts where locals lounge outside, reading old novels and selling cigars and pineapples and offering to shine your shoes.
The accents are as thick and sweet as the cigar smoke in Hemingway’s favorite dimly lit bars, and people openly grab each other’s hips in broad daylight on the stone walls that lin the marinas, or next to the square’s fountains, their skin bathed in buttery evening light. 3 PM on a Monday feels like 2 AM on a Saturday, and it’s effortlessly eccentric, wonderfully racy, and each minute spent in a crooked, dusty, deliciously musical alleyway almost begs you to join in.
It feels like one hundred different places I’ve been to all rolled into one: the isolation of Barrow, Alaska; the colors and cobblestone of Cusco and Quito; the whimsy of Dubrovnik; the dust and Soviet squares of Bosnia; the sensuality and intimacy of Mykonos. Police officers stand on street corners playing guitars, apartment balconies overflow with purple flowers yet stand above crumbling imperialist Danish buildings; the sound of muffled salsa music and the smell of rum on the breeze. It’s dystopian, it’s deep, it’s everything you thought couldn’t exist rolled into one small gorgeously mysterious island.
The rest of the country is also vivid and bright, with richly green mountains that hold deep valleys of red rock and cool waterfalls, and an empty, sprawling coastline boasts vibrant coral reefs swarming with passive, curious sharks, hundreds of neon fish, and emerald waves that gently lap the white beaches. Cuba is pausing to chew on sugar cane offered by an old farmer you pass by, it's the sound of a Harley's engine ripping across meadows full of buffalo and wildflowers.