Cuba: Captivated by an island on the cusp of change
Sophie Gorman dances her way across a Caribbean island that's on the brink of major change as old meets new...
The smiling singer asks me to dance between songs.
I tell him I can't dance. He doesn't believe me until he pulls me onto the floor for a fast rumba and his feet are quickly crushed. But it gets worse... we're the only couple dancing.
All eyes are focused as he determinedly wields me around without collision. Then he starts to sing for a crowd large enough to spill out into the street. All the while, we're still dancing. For seven long minutes, the performance continues.
Yes, I am a dancing debacle. But I am also entirely alive.
This happens in a music house in Baracoa in the far east of Cuba. And I confess, I'm not a complete dancing novice - I did have a single salsa lesson when I first arrived in Cuba, and it was the best thing I could have done. It meant I was somehow transformed from an embarrassed maladroit to someone willing to give it a go, temporarily freed of my Irish shame.Cuba, as we know, is about to change. But I was determined to visit whilst there was still a Castro in charge.
Cuba: a culture that fascinates.
There is something so extremely fascinating about this regime, created by Fidel Castro and now being maintained by his younger brother, the 83-year-old Raul.
I had no idea that a couple of weeks after my visit, Barack Obama and Raul Castro would be thanking Pope Francis for helping to broker a historic deal to begin normalising relations between the United States and Cuba. It served to make my trip even more special.
What better time could there be to visit Cuba, after all - to abandon yourself to a Caribbean island where the past still mixes so atmospherically with the present? The Cubans of today have both ration books and mobile phones.
America has always had a presence in Cuba. In the streets of Havana, its beautiful classic cars are the typical taxis. Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Dodges… You expect the classic makes and models, but you never really expect these cars. On my first day in Havana, I put out my hand to hail a cab, and a gleaming 1947 Ford convertible pulls up to the kerb.
Book the best value packages to Cuba on Independent Travel.
There's also an unexpected Irish touch in one of Cuba's most beautiful cities, Trinidad. Trinidad is unmissable in itself, an ethereal colonial jewel with cobbled streets that lead you straight into the past. There's even a distinct Afro-Cuban religious presence and bewitching music houses. There's a nightclub in a cave complete with stalactites and 'mites.
And there is a certain Sean Joseph Clancy from Raheny.
Sean runs his own casa particular in Trinidad - you'll recognise it from the blue Dublin flag in the window. Casas particulares are the best places to stay in Cuba - they're like our B&Bs but with the added possibility of delicious dinners. If you do stay with Sean, you'll get unique insight into Cuban politics and maybe even an escort to the top restaurants in Trinidad.
What to eat? There's a lingering misconception that food in Cuba is nothing more than rice and beans. The very good news is that you can eat royally in Cuba without paying a king's ransom.
The best meals I have are seafood feasts with unlimited lobster in casa particulares.
Politics is everywhere in Cuba. It's not a topic that's swept under the carpet, or kept hidden from tourists. People are happy to speak about Fidel and of course, the symbol of revolution, Che Guevera.
It's important to talk, I think - to learn how Cubans feel about their unique social and economic structure. And it's important to confront the American situation too.
Caribbean coast, Cuba.
To stand on a hilltop viewing platform looking over at Guantanamo, where there is no sign of Cuba's only branch of McDonalds, you observe in slightly horrified awe this fully functional city complete with schools and hospitals and weekend resort facilities. Travelling around Cuba is like travelling through worlds. The old elegance of Trinidad, the historical preserve of Santa Clara, the utter uniqueness of Baracoa - which may be far away, but it is definitely worth the journey.
This little city is Cuba's oldest and one of its most beautiful, not to mention the ancient caves you can explore along its ragged coast.
Then there is the intriguing - almost feralness - of Santiago de Cuba, which is a little Jamaica, a little Haiti.
I arrive there at night with ears ringing from warnings about crime and cholera. Santiago plays by its own rules, but I experience no crime and no cholera. I do experience a very long power-cut, however - something rather frequent in Cuba. I am at dinner in a casa particular in downtown Santiago when the whole city goes black, for hours.
It doesn't take long before I'm dancing again, mind you. In Cuba, it never does.
I gatecrash a senior citizens' Sunday afternoon salsa party, and am pulled up to dance by a string of snake-hipped ancient men. I drink mojitos on rooftops. I accept flowers from chancers. I play chess on a corner. I jump like a child into waterfalls and float in caves with bats fluttering. I dance quite unselfconsciously.
Cuba is a hot, sexy country.
What to pack
Cuba has most things but it doesn't have well stocked pharmacies, so bring your own medicines. Also pack dancing shoes. Music is this country's backbone and your holiday will be wonderfully enhanced if you take a class and salsa and rumba with the best of them.
I travelled on Intrepid Travel's 15-day Best of Cuba trip. Prices start from £1,185/€1,507pp, including homestays and hotels, selected meals, transport and a local guide. Intrepid also has an 8-day Express Cuba trip from £665/€846pp. There are no direct flights from Ireland, but there are from European airports including Paris and Amsterdam.
Where to stay
Forget about hotels unless you go 5-star - Cuba's best accommodation solution is to stay with the locals. Casas particulares are a bit like our B&Bs, with added benefits such as central locations, lavish breakfasts and the benefit of having a very real experience - you'll often be invited to watch TV with the family!
Book the best value packages to Cuba at travel.independent.ie.