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The Charm of Cuba


The first time I visited Cuba I had visions of palm tree lined dusty carriageways framed by faded billboards with the iconic faces of Che and Fidel, interrupted only by the slow progress of an occasional rattling old bus crammed with smiling school children in immaculate uniforms and salsa music blasting out from every street corner.

Romantic? Yes. Stereotypical? Probably. But Cuba really did live up to my idealistic vision. That's the thing about Cuba - it's all you dreamed about and more. Each Caribbean Island has its own unique charms - from the Olde English influence in Barbados to the Carnival of Trinidad to Bob Marley's legacy in Jamaica - but nothing compares to Cuba.

Cuba is a contradiction; the omnipresent military police in their khakis and with their unsmiling faces make you want to be on your best behaviour. But the hazy humidity, Salsa, Reggaeton and Hip Hop soundtrack heard on street corners and effortless sex appeal of  Havana's  young, hip crowd make you want to throw caution to the wind and embrace all the city has to offer.
I chose the latter on my first visit and have come to the conclusion that this is the only way to experience Havana, and Cuba. Dancing salsa at one of Havana's underground clubs is an unforgettable experience and the first time I stumbled across one such venue I had to pinch myself. I had danced Salsa for a few years in London and visited all the usual haunts but to be hanging out with Cuban dancers whose bodies flowed effortlessly to the music despite the 90 degree heat (no air con, just wear less clothes), authentic Mojito in hand. The only measure available is whether you're able to walk or crawl home after a few of these and within spitting distance of a live Cuban band to rival Los Van Van sent a shiver down my spine.
On subsequent visits to Cuba I did the "tourist" thing  (went to the rum museums and the cigar factories, bought arty postcards of Che, gawped at the hall of fame in the Hotel Nacional) and the "traveller" thing (headed out to Pinar del Rio to get close to nature, hired a car and drove to Trinidad and spent a weekend in the more "edgy" Santiago de Cuba.) All of which were fun, enriching and memorable - and I would do them again and again.
But nothing beats the experience of dancing real salsa in Cuba's beautiful, enigmatic capital city alongside people who live and breathe music and dance with a passion.