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Isolated from the Western world for over thirty years, Cuba burst back onto the international tourist scene in the early 1990s and hasn’t looked back since. Shaped by one of the twentieth century’s longest surviving revolutions, until relatively recently Cuba’s image had been inextricably bound up with its politics. Even five decades after Fidel Castro and the rebels seized power, Cuba’s long satiny beaches, offshore cays and jungle-covered peaks – the defining attractions of neighbouring islands – played almost no part in the popular perception of this communist state in the Caribbean. Now, having opened the floodgates to global tourism, the country is changing and Cuba today is characterized as much as anything by a frenetic sense of transition as it shifts from socialist stronghold to one of the Caribbean’s major tourist destinations, running on capitalist dollars.

At the same time, though, it can seem to visitors that nothing has changed for decades, even centuries. Cut off from the capitalist world until the end of the Cold War, and still feeling the effects of the worst economic crisis the current regime has endured, the face of modern-day Cuba is in many respects frozen in the past – the classic American cars, moustachioed cigar-smoking farmers, horse-drawn carriages and colonial Spanish architecture all apparently unaffected by the breakneck pace of modernization. Newly erected department stores and shopping malls, state-of-the-art hotels and entire resorts created from scratch are the hallmarks of this new, emerging Cuba. This improbable combination of transformation and stasis is symbolic of a country riddled with contradictions and ironies and has led to the emergence of two new and opposite sides to the country which, in a sense, has become divided by tourism. Foreign visitors to the island are the surest way of bringing in hard currency but the endless flow of tourists benefits some places and people far more than it does others and perhaps for the first time since Fidel Castro declared Cuba communist, a two-tier system has been allowed to evolve. Anyone with a nice house, a working car or simply the know-how to make money out of tourists is automatically better equipped to take advantage of the new Cuba. In a place where taxi drivers earn more than doctors, and where capitalist reforms are seen as the answer to preserving socialist ideals, understanding Cuba is a compelling but never-ending task.

Despite the hard-to-swallow favourable treatment of tourists and the crippling US trade embargo, there is surprisingly little resentment directed at foreign visitors, and your overwhelming impression is likely to be that Cubans are outgoing, sociable and hospitable, notwithstanding the queues, food rationing and restrictions on free speech. In fact, many if not most people living on the island have embraced the changes ushered in by the ever-increasing reliance on foreign investment and tourist dollars. What’s more, in most of Cuba it’s difficult not to come into contact with local people: the common practice of renting out rooms and opening restaurants in homes allows visitors stronger impressions of the country than they might have thought possible in a short visit. The much-vaunted Cuban capacity for a good time is best expressed through music and dance, both vital facets of the island’s culture. As originators of the most influential Latin music styles, such as bolero, rumba and son, thereby spawning the most famous of them all – salsa – people in Cuba seem always ready to party.

There are occasional reminders that Cuba is a centralized, highly bureaucratic one-party state, which can give a holiday here an unfamiliar twist. Naturally this becomes more apparent the longer you stay, but one of the quickest ways of finding out is when things go wrong. Going to the police, finding your hotel room double-booked or simply needing to make an urgent phone call can prove to be unnecessarily and frustratingly complicated. These are the times when you discover Cuba has its own special logic and that common sense doesn’t count for much here. This is not to say you’re more likely to experience mishaps in Cuba than anywhere else – not only are all the major resorts as well equipped as you might hope, but violent crime is remarkably absent from Cuban cities. On the other hand, a certain determination and a laid-back attitude are essential requirements for exploring less visited parts of the country, where a paucity of facilities and public transport problems can make travelling hard work. For the foreign visitor, things are becoming easier all the time, though, with the introduction of more efficient bus services, simplified currency systems and a wider variety of consumer goods. Ironically, these improvements also mark an irreversible move away from what makes Cuba unique. Inevitably you’ll need to scratch harder at the surface these days to uncover something most visitors haven’t. Virgin beaches, untouched diving and fishing areas, quaint, unaffected villages and hidden paladares are fewer and further between. Though the nation’s culture and character will always ensure that Cuba is more than just another island paradise, the determination to sell the country to a worldwide market means the time to go is now rather than later.

[ Buy on Amazon: The Rough Guide to Cuba ]

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