I had read once that ‘Cuba is like a chameleon in a time capsule.’ It was not long before I could see why. This tropical island incessantly changes colors, yet it manages to stay still in time.
Let me now rewind my time to January 2003 when I randomly select an intensive salsa workshop in Havana and travel solo to join a Danish group. At the time, this decision seemed quite bizarre to my circle of friends, yet I raise a glass of mojito to it and smile 11 years later!
Immersed in history and legend, Havana is filled with colonial castles and cobbled plazas. It is a charming city of contrasts- serenity and vivacity; poverty and smiling faces. And, salsa rhythms everywhere.
On my first day there, I walk across the Malecón, a 7 km beach front, which bears signs of the war with the Spaniards. I follow El Morro, a picturesque fortress guarding the entrance to Havana Bay. Untouched and pristine, it somehow takes me back to another era.
I then wander through the streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). While at the Plaza de Armas (the site of the city’s foundation) I am allured by the sound of Afro-Cuban tunes. I soon feel the pulsating rhythms of bongos and tambores. Within seconds, I feel someone brushing against my shoulder, and, before long, we are dancing in the middle of the plaza. ‘Gracias señorita!’ he smiles as he slides smoothly to another partner. That’s what I call Rumba on the street. With gusto!
It’s time for a Coco Loco (rum and coconut cream) at the historic Hotel Nacional (www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com). “Did you know that Al Capone used to come here for drinks, señorita?” the waiter tries to impress me.
I sip my drink on the terrace, gazing at the seagulls chasing the most magical sunset across the MalecÓn. Time stands still for the next hour, and so do I.
“Buenas tardes!” I hear my friends’ euphoric cry. “Bienvenido!” (Good evening; welcome).
We have 40 minutes till dinner and they say we must go to Floridita, (www.floridita-cuba.com) a cocktail bar/restaurant. Otherwise known as la cuna del daiquiri (the cradle of the daiquiri), Floridita was frequented by Ernest Hemingway amongst other personalities. “Come on, Mahi! Shake it (daiquiri) like Hemingway!” Leonardo chuckles.
I feel a little woozy and I know it’s dinner time. We walk to La Mina (La Habana Vieja, T: +53 7 8620216 ). A traditional Cuban restaurant, La Mina (mine) used to be a governor’s house. We sit in the courtyard under the stars in the company of three peacocks. We relish an array of authentic Cuban flavors, yet, the maíz, pollo and plátano (corn, chicken and plantains) will forever stay in my memory.
“A round of Cuba Libre (rum and coke) por favor (please)!” Rosy calls out and I snap out of a delirium.
“Salsa class starts at 8am sharp tomorrow!” I remind them, and I order a herbal tea instead.
This wraps my first day in Havana. In one word? Mesmerized.
Mahi Solomou is the community manager for Fit to Inspire, an online and offline community inspiring women to greater fitness and well-being regardless of their age, shape or current fitness level. She is a blogger and also writes for The Elephant Journal and Mind Body Green. Α keen follower of yoga, a regular runner who finds inspiration in nature and a believer that life is all about creating memorable experiences, Mahi is the author of an international collaborative project – a recipe book with easy, quick and delicious recipes from women around the globe, “A Squirrel in Your Kitchen,” available on Amazon.