Discovering Cuba is an amazing experience and a feast for the eyes. What struck me first is the colors.
Bright, vivid,joyful colors everywhere, from the porches of rural homes…

Vibrant colors in Cuba

… to the streets of Trinidad.

Colorful fashion in Cuba
Colorful streets in Cuba

In comparison, our world seems so bland!
Then, Cuba offers the amazing feeling of traveling back in time, to the 1960s…

Night street scene in La Havana, Cuba

… or even before, in cities…

Traffic in Havana street, Cuba
Traffic in Trinidad street, Cuba

… as well as in rural areas, which have barely been touched by mechanization.

Farming in Viñales, Cuba - Tobacco plantation

The impressive and elegant colonial architecture, pristine in the few carefully restored historical centers (even though their marshmallow colors is a clear giveaway that they have been “updated”)…

Street scene in Cienfuegos, Cuba

… quickly turns into lively homes more representative of the Cuban culture just a few block away from the small touristic perimeters…

Colorful and decrepit Havana, Cuba

… and, a little bit further afield still, historical buildings turn into vibrant decay reminiscent of post-apocalyptic sets.

Colorful and decrepit Havana, Cuba – Havana • La Havane • La Habana – 2018

As you may have already noticed, Cuba is also a paradise for admirers of old cars. American cars from before the US embargo (1962) have been lovingly maintained, and, as they are prohibited from leaving the island (like most of the population), they represent a large proportion of the relatively small number of cars on the streets (along with Soviet era Trabants, which frankly don’t command as much attention or admiration…)

Colorful and decrepit Havana, Cuba – Havana • La Havane • La Habana – 2018

Sometimes, as their owners proudly claim, they are in even better condition than when they first arrived in Cuba, as they have been updated with the latest metallic paints, disc brakes, powerful sound systems, catchy LED lights, etc.

50s American car in Cuba

Unsurprisingly, they draw a lot of attention from tourists, and the most beautiful ones are typically high-end taxis eager to take you for a spin around the city.

50s American car in Havana, Cuba

That’s incredibly romantic, and has not been missed by this “just married” young couple.

Romantic Havana, Cuba

Another aspect that immediately struck me is… the complete absence of advertisement, anywhere in Cuba.

Well, that’s not entirely true, if you count political propaganda for the Cuban revolution, and the cult of personality for its heroes, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in particular.
For this part of the article, cue the song “Hasta Siempre Commandante”, in its modern and popular version by Nathalie Cardone, or, for a glimpse of present day propaganda, this more traditional version] – but make sure you come back to this article 😉
The propaganda is everywhere, and not particularly subtle.
Along the roads [“Patria o Muerte ¡Venceremos!” – “Homeland or Death – We Will Win!”]…

… on city walls, grand “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” – “Ever Onward to Victory”, or “Until the Final Victory”, with the Che’s effigy…

… medium in size, but just as megalomaniac … [“Che – Caballerio Sin Tacha y Sin Miedo” – “Che, Knight Without Fear and Without Fault”]

… or even on modest neighborhood walls … [“Yo Soy Fidel” – “I Am Fidel”]

…. and even in the most unlikely places, like the Che’s iconic effigy on this hairdresser’s apron or on this young woman’s t-shirt!

Street scene in Havana, Cuba

I have never seen the official party ideology questioned, except once, still quite subtly, on this wall of Habana Vieja:

[For the story of Alberto Korda‘s mythical and iconic “Guerillero Heroico” picture, see this Smithsonian article, and this other great one on Imaging Resource]

Cubans struck me by their dignity,

Pensive in Santiago De Cuba

strength of character,

Market scene in Havana, Cuba

kindness,

Kind in Havana, Cuba

generosity,

energy,

School children in Havana, Cuba

 and resilience.

Street scene in Santiago de Cuba

Although a few wealthy Cuban families thrive …

Beautiful interior in Santiago de Cuba

 … with personnel at their service, reminiscent of the colonial era …

… and the educational system is apparently excellent …

Shcool in Santiago de Cuba

 … enabling one of the highest levels of literacy in the world (over 99%) …

… Cuba is overall a very poor country.

Child in Trinidad, Cuba

In the state run shops, coupons are exchanged for rations of essential items such as bread, rice, beans, sugar, coffee, etc.
Still, shortages are frequent, and queues often form in front of stores.

Shop in Santiago de Cuba

 The shops are very different from what we are used to in our Western countries.
Each sells very few items, and choice is virtually non-existent.

Shop in Santiago de Cuba

Meat is a rare, expensive delicacy, available at little butchers and the occasional market – neither of which would meet our expectations.

A large part of trade takes place on the street, where pretty much anything can be found, from veggies…

Street selling Havana, Cuba

… to fruit …

Street selling in Santiago de Cuba

… school supplies, lollipops …

Street selling in Santiago de Cuba
Street selling in Santiago de Cuba

… pipes …

Street selling in Santiago de Cuba

… and watch repair services.

Watch repair in Havana

Rum, another key ingredient of Cuban life, is also sold and drunk on the street.
The way locals experience it …

Rum stand in Havana

… is a far cry from the treatment we tourists get.

Cubans deal with scarcity and adversity with amazing creativity and resourcefulness.

Motorbike repair on the street in Santiago de Cuba

For young people, like in most countries, being “cool” and stylish is extremely important, both for girls…

Teenagers in Santiago de Cuba

… and for boys alike …

Cool dude in Havana

… although the results are sometimes hit and miss 🙂

In Cuba as well, Western brands are a huge status symbol…

… and being in shape is taken very seriously, typically with rather impressive results.

    
Possibly even more than the rest of the world, Cubans have a love-hate relationship with their dominating neighbor the USA.
Although some are clearly in awe…

USA admirer in Havana, Cuba
DSC_5009

… others are a lot more realistic.

DSC_5019

Sound, music and dance play a central role in Cuban life…

Street sound in Havana, Cuba

… everywhere, and especially on the streets.

Street band in Santiago de Cuba

If older generations tend to focus on traditional music like son, cha cha, mambo and what became salsa, younger folks prefer the reggaeton beats.

The music and dance is a key draw for tourists as well, and opportunities to mingle with locals …

Dancing in the street in Santiago de Cuba

 … and practice abound.

Sports are important too, and football/scoccer is huge, both as a practice…

Playing soccer in the street in Santiago de Cuba

… and as a spectacle. The FC Barca has a huge following, and the European games are watched everywhere.

Proud team in Santiago de Cuba

In another category, playing dominoes is a major activity as well, and games often ignite passion in the streets.

Playing dominos in Santiago de Cuba

Finally, Cuba is also a land of amazing scenery,

Viñales mogotes scenery

beautiful tropical jungle,

El Rocio waterfall, Guyarana park, Cuba

and paradise beaches – making it, in my opinion, a fantastic destination.

Cayo Levisa island, Cuba

I will conclude this first article on Cuba with words of wisdom on a garage door in Trinidad:

Inspiring writing in Trinidad, Cuba

“The richest person is not the one who has the most, but the one who needs the least.”
“The happiest people are not those who have the best of everything, but those who make the best of what they have.”

A perfect summary of my Cuban experience.

You liked reading this article? Please share it! Thank you! – and comments are always welcome.
And if you liked it, you will probably also enjoy my other articles on Cuba:

Stay tuned, more to come!
Didier.