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Beautiful, exotic Cuba!

Created date

August 24th, 2010

In Cuba, umbrellas go up against the sun and the hand-held fan has never gone out of use or out of fashion. [caption id="attachment_14081" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Carriages and bicycle rickshaws supplement taxis. (photos by Jane Durrell)"][/caption] This lovely, long, alligator-shaped island that curves just below Key West is off-limits to citizens of the U.S. unless they choose to slip in by way of Mexico or Canada or legitimately as a member of a humanitarian mission. Our group was the latter, which brought our luggage near the weight limit as each of us carried ten to 15 pounds of medical supplies, school supplies, and other items not easily available there. Europeans are frequent visitors, and tourism is important income to a nation that saw its support evaporate when the Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba still struggles to make ends meet. Because so few travelers come from the U.S., those who do are welcomed with great warmth. Cubans are outgoing and hospitable and intensely interested in the large country that is a near but not easy reach.

Old Havana

Europeans vacation here for good reason. The countryside is green and beautiful and the cities we saw full of life and splendid architecture. In the [caption id="attachment_14080" align="alignright" width="280" caption="A luxurious building facade in Old Havana, Cuba. (file photo)"][/caption] centuries since Columbus first set foot on this island, money has been made often lots of it and frequently spent on handsome architectural details and facades. The Old Havana section of the capital city has been cannily restored to delight visitors, meanwhile leaving the residents in place. No gentrification here; facades are brought back to their 18th century fine form, but tenements remain behind them. The residents, though, have jobs in tourist-related businesses fostered by the attractions of Old Havana s colonnaded squares. The streets sometimes pedestrian only are clean of litter and frequently bordered by outdoor restaurants. Creating jobs is high priority in a socialist country, and an extreme example could be found in the woman selling tiny bottles outside a perfume store, as the store itself supplies only perfume, no bottles.

Trinidad de Cuba

We also visited Trinidad de Cuba, on the southern coast, once the thriving center of the sugar cane industry, and there enjoyed watching salsa dancers at an out-of-doors, every-night gathering spot. A cobblestone street goes up a hill, becomes cobblestone steps, stretches out as a terrace with the band at one side, and continues up the hill as steps to another terrace, all this filling up with people as evening begins. The dancers are limber, informal locals out for a good time, and terrific to watch.

Food and shopping Cuban style

Two things every travel story should touch on: food and shopping. We ate very well indeed, often at our hotels but also inpaladares family-run [caption id="attachment_14082" align="alignright" width="280" caption="A pedestrian street with a sidewalk cafe. "][/caption] restaurants in the owners own homes. It s a cuisine that goes way beyond rice and beans. Cuban breads, in particular, are varied and delicious. Outdoor craft markets are full of attractive things, but my own surprise purchase was shower curtains. Havana s Museo de Bellas Artes shop had an art-inspired design that hangs in my bathroom now. You never know what you might bring home.

When you go

Best months to visit:December to April, after hurricane season and before the heat of summer. Money:Locals spend pesos, but visitors must spend CUCs (so-called convertible currency) with a double charge for American dollars (One CUC costs $1.20; euros and Canadian dollars have much lower rate). American credit cards are of no use; bring cash to convert. Lonely Planet s 2009 edition ofCuba is an excellent source for everything you need to know.