Rooftop bars where white-bearded expats sit in woven hats amongst young Brits in polos, smoking their long cigarettes and drinking mojitos out of tall, sweating glasses. An acoustic guitar is strummed by a man in a white linen shirt, and a cool breeze breaks the heat as it rolls in from over the ocean. I take a sip of an espresso in between heavy conversation about the revolution, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve stepped into an alternate reality, or at least one where I can’t help but understand why people come to Cuba and never seem to let it go.
Cuba is everything you would ever imagine, it’s a postcard come to life, a humid History Channel special that you walk into, and yet it’s enormously beyond what you could have ever expected. Havana itself surprisingly quiet in terms of traffic, curled up on the empty, polite shore of the Caribbean and the tumbling green forests that line its fortress walls. Cuba's crumbling streets dotted with wonderfully colorful cars from the 60’s – yes, there are as many as you’ve been lead to believe – their whimsical horns and roaring exhaust pipes creating a nonstop cacophony against a backdrop of blocky Soviet buildings, British colonial mansions covered in ivy and graffiti, and turquoise-and-gold painted restaurants and storefronts where locals lounge outside, reading old novels and selling cigars and pineapples and offering to shine your shoes. The accents are as thick and sweet as the cigar smoke in Hemingway’s favorite dim bars, and the locals openly grab each other’s hips in broad daylight on the stone walls that lines the marinas, or next to the square’s fountains, their skin bathed in buttery evening light. 3 PM on a Monday feels like 2 AM on a Saturday, and it’s effortlessly eccentric, almost maddeningly racy, and each minute spent in a crooked, dusty, deliciously musical alleyway almost begs you to join everyone else, to wear a little less. It feels like one hundred different places I’ve been to all rolled into one: the isolation of Barrow, Alaska; the colors and cobblestone of Cusco and Quito; the whimsy of Dubrovnik; the dust and Soviet squares of Bosnia; the sensuality and intimacy of Mykonos. Police officers stand on street corners playing guitars, apartment balconies overflow with purple flowers yet stand above crumbling imperialist Danish buildings, each distant note of salsa music and the smell of rum begs you to come closer. It’s dystopian, it’s deep, it’s everything you thought couldn’t exist rolled into one little gorgeously mysterious island.
The rest of the country as well is vivid and bright, with richly green mountains that hold deep valleys of red rock and cool waterfalls, and empty, sprawling coastline that boasts vibrant coral reefs swarming with passive, curious sharks, hundreds of neon fish, and emerald waves that gently lap the white shores. Cuba is pausing to chew on sugar cane offered by an old farmer you pass by, it's the sound of a Harley's engine rippling across plains of buffalo and wildflowers.