Images of 1950s classic American-made cars rolling over cobblestones are ingrained in the vision of old Havana. Hole-in-the-wall bars serving rum concoctions are filled to the brim as a band belts out famous jazz, salsa and trova hits. The sweet scent of cuban cigars linger in the alleys as Cuba’s red, white and blue flag flutters from the balcony it hangs on.
While all those images are experienced on Cuba tours, the country is much more than just real life look at a 1950s playground.
Prior to Columbus’ landing on Cuban shores for the Spanish in 1492, Cuba was inhabited by several pre-columbian tribes that were both farmers, and hunter / gathers. While the natives put up a fight against the Spanish, European diseases wiped out most of the indigenous population within a century.
Under Spanish rule, Cuba developed in a few ways: with sugar cane plantations but mostly as a staging ground for ships transiting between the New World and Europe. With vast riches coming from some of Spain’s other colonies, cities like Havana became an area with much wealth transitioning through it. Accordingly, beautiful architecture and strong fortifications erected across the city. During the 16th century, Havana was the most fortified city in the Americas.
Due to its wealth and strategic importance, the Spanish fought to keep Cuba under its influence. A revolution in the late 19th century was interrupted by American forces, and afterwards Cuba’s politics and direction became heavily influenced by its neighbour to the north.
During this time, the wealth expanded as evident with the beautiful art deco and neoclassical architecture created on avenues such as the Prado, in buildings such as the Capitolio, and elsewhere across the country. By the height of the 1950s, Cuba was home to many casinos and became a holiday hotspot.
It was at this time another revolution played out, this time by Fidel Castro and his band of rebels. By ousting the dictator of the time, Batista, Fidel and Cuba entered a period of communism.
Since the start of the revolution, battle grounds have been fought across the country, from the Sierra Maestra to the Bay of Pigs. On Cuba tours, one can see the other side of how history played out.
Far reaching parts of the country gained electricity, health care and education, but an embargo on trade left Cuba with a weak economy. Tobacco fields in the Vinales and Pinar del Rio region, a lush farming valley in the western tip of the country, relied on pre-industrialized farming methods of ox-plows as mechanical tractors became too costly for the Cubans.
Sugar plantations, found in areas such as Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santiago, once were the strongest export of Cuba even after the revolution when the Soviet Union bought it at guaranteed prices. These days, production has fallen and sugar is now the 7th most important cash earner.
Over 1200 km in length and sitting firmly between the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Cuba tours showcase a country that was and still is a cross section of cultures in the Americas. It has a musical soul from the African populations that make it feel slightly Caribbean. The grand plazas with large cathedrals feel distinctly Spanish while the lively baseball fields feel reminiscent of an American town.
Cuba may be thought of as a country paused in time, however with political shifts and changes in leadership looming, Cuba is one country to explore before it changes.