When I left for Cuba I was 29, and now I’m in my 30s. Really, I don’t feel very old. The milestone is no big deal to me, and I would have been content enough to mark it at a pub in Kamloops. But Brittany (my wife) thought fit to arrange a much grander celebration, and I sure am glad she did. With much help from my brother-in-law, she gathered a 15-person group of family and friends for a week of tropical weather, breathtaking sights, and a vibrant culture steeped in centuries of momentous history.
Much of this was experienced during a day trip to Havana. There we visited the Plaza de la Revolución below the giant likenesses of Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos; learned the stories behind churches, monuments, sugarcane and more; saw the once resting place of Christopher Colombus’s bones, and at another site a reminder of the Bay of Pigs invasion; and traversed the cobblestone streets of Old Havana amid the striking architecture of old brick buildings and colourfully painted facades.
Closer to our resort in Varadaro, the Beatles Bar was said to be the peninsula’s most popular among Canadians, and so we went. The place was indeed packed while a band played rowdy covers of Western rock hits, but while this might have made for a decent night out at home, here it seemed like a pointless stop in a place with so much of its own rich music and nightlife. When in Cuba, why not indulge in Cuban style entertainment?
And so we did at Calle 62, where a portion of the street was closed down in the evening to make room for dancing. We romped to the sound of salsa until a sudden downpour forced us under the shelter of the bar, which became too cramped with people to allow enough room for our preferred range of gyrations. Fortunately, there was no shortage of live music to be found elsewhere in our travels—during a backyard lunch of Cuban food near Morro Castle; while we fed pelicans at La Casa de Al where Al Capone once stored booze to be shipped out to the United States during prohibition; and in the lively crowded spaces of La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita which Hemmingway used to frequent and which still serve damn good mojitos and daiquiris, respectively.
As far as drinks go, those just mentioned aren’t the only notable rum concoctions on the island. There are of course Cuba Libres and piña coladas, the latter of which we found best ordered at two choice spots. For the incredible view of a deep lush valley extending into turquoise waters with ospreys soaring overhead, and for the allowance of patrons to pour liberal amounts of booze themselves, there is the bar next to the Bacunayagua Bridge.For the truly refreshing taste, there is the FM 23 snack bar, which is also an excellent starting point for bar hopping along the palm tree lined main street of Varadero.
But a person should maintain a proper balance between intoxication and alertness if unfamiliar with the services of the country they are navigating. A horse cart ride which seemed a great deal at $10 turned out to be the most expensive transportation of our trip when we were referred at its end to the words “por persona” written on the price guide (and six of us had climbed aboard). Better ways of getting around are the many beautiful classic car taxis, the open upper deck of a bus, or, as we found the most enjoyable, scooter rentals. These were a fun way to zip around the peninsula of Varadero, and we used them to explore the space between La Sangria, where we gorged on pizza rich with Gouda, and Xanadú Mansion, where we watched the ocean hurl itself high in violent crashes against the cliff side.
We would have ventured even farther in the area if we’d had the time, but there was so much to do nearby our place of lodging even just by foot. We walked streets where chickens gamboled freely through yards and dogs watched over homes from rooftops. We sunk our soles in the cushiony sand of beaches, and swam in waves big enough to lift and carry us toward the shore. We puffed on cigars alongside the glowing lights of Parque Josone, stumbling upon La Grotte du Québec where inside a cave we dined on some of the best surf and turf we had ever tasted.
So it wasn’t the simple sort of birthday I’ve been used to in my latest years. It was more than any celebration—it was an experience, the kind that leaves a lasting touch of warmth upon one’s heart. What a lovely place to begin a whole new decade of life.
– Cory Magnus Stumpf