An island paradise in Canada’s time zone

| January 5, 2015 | 0 Comments
The city of Trinidad, where the ambassador was born, was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

The city of Trinidad, where the ambassador was born, was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

In Cuba, visitors will encounter a warm Cuban spirit wherever they go — whether to a lavish resort, glitzy show, lush mountains or serene beaches.
If you love the sea as much as I do, Varadero Beach remains the country’s most famous vacation spot. Only 135
kilometres outside Old Havana, Varadero bustles with award-winning resorts, a championship golf course, nature-based attractions and historical sites such as the elegant du Pont mansion (Mansion Xanadu) and Al Capone’s stone beach villa. Mansion Xanadu, once the summer property of the wealthy du Pont family, today functions as the Varadero Golf Clubhouse and Varadero’s most luxurious property, with six guest rooms, a second-floor ocean-facing lookout and bar, a restaurant featuring fine French dining and a museum.

Cuba is home to many varieties of tropical fruit, often sold by vendors such as these, in the streets of Havana.

Cuba is home to many varieties of tropical fruit, often sold by vendors such as these, in the streets of Havana.

For those seeking tranquility, the Atlantic and Caribbean sides of Cuba are dotted with alluring island hideaways. The captivating keys (cayos), strung along Cuba’s Atlantic coast about 450 kilometres from Varadero, were first claimed by Ernest Hemingway, who used them as settings for his novels Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea. Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria are noted for their long, sun-blasted beaches ideal for walking, shell-collecting or lingering under the palms. The impossibly blue waters attract serious divers and snorkellers, while rural surroundings offer a glimpse of a simpler life and a slower pace.
Cuba has a vivid history and culture, in which Spain and Africa, along with other European and Caribbean countries, have played an important role. The Americans, too, left their legacies — the most famous of which are those classic Chevys, Cadillacs and Buicks that Cubans have kept running for more than a half century.

One of Cuba’s most important gifts to the world is its music.

One of Cuba’s most important gifts to the world is its music.

Throughout the country, ancient architecture, widely recognised by UNESCO, will satisfy even the most demanding and sophisticated history buffs. Among the most stunning structures anywhere in the world are 3,000 colonial-style buildings in Old Havana’s harbour area, which evokes Cadiz and Tenerife and marks the spot where treasure-laden Spanish galleons once stopped to trade. Today, these buildings are being restored and modernised, offering everything from palatial business hotels and quaint historical inns to shops packed with local and imported wares. Sidewalk cafés, multicultural restaurants and famous watering holes are great places to mingle. Gourmets will be pleased to learn that our chefs can be as imaginative as any local artists.

Varadero Beach is the country’s most famous vacation spot.

Varadero Beach is the country’s most famous vacation spot.

One of many treasures is the City of Trinidad, where I was born. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1988. Founded in 1514, it is called “the museum city of Cuba.” The meticulously preserved town offers a window into the past, from its sprawling colonial palaces and plazas to its remnants of sugar mills and slave barracks from another era. Soak up the rich Spanish colonial architecture by taking a stroll through the picturesque cobblestone streets of this very walkable city.
Trinidad’s picture-perfect location, between mountains and the Caribbean coastline, offers an abundance of natural attractions. Climb the mountains of the nearby Sierra del Escambray, refresh yourself at the immaculate Ancón Beach or go bass fishing in the Embalse Zaza.
For those who love nature, I strongly recommend Las Terrazas, a complex located 60 kilometres to the west of Havana, in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains (part of the Guaniguanico Range). This area was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1984.

Las Terrazas complex is a small village 60 kilometres west of Havana. Here, artists and musicians share their art with workers and peasants who live here.

Las Terrazas complex is a small village 60 kilometres west of Havana. Here, artists and musicians share their art with workers and peasants who live here.

Las Terrazas complex is a small village of 1,000 inhabitants, among them artists and musicians who share their art with the workers and peasants who live there. You can stay at La Moka Hotel, which has a beautiful and eco-friendly architectural design. For dining, you can choose from among the restaurants catering to tourists, such as Fonda de Mercedes or Cafetal Buenavista, which is housed in the ruins of an 18th-Century coffee plantation. To enjoy the best Cuban coffee, you must not miss the famous El Café de María.
Las Terrazas’ nature reserve includes 5,000 hectares of secondary forest, which was planted on the surrounding deforested hills by building terraces to avoid erosion. The reserve is rich in flora and fauna and includes lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Either for birdwatchers, lovers of eco-tourism or romantic couples (the stars are astonishing at night), Las Terrazas has something for everyone. For the more daring, it has the only zip lining experience available in Cuba. An aerial canopy tour by cables that hover over the village and forest for at least one kilometre is a unique adventure. This place is a great example of sustainable development, but its more important charm is the hospitality and kindness of its people.
One of the country’s most important gifts to the world is its music. Rooted in Spain and Africa, Cuban music has contributed internationally not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also to the Argentine tango, Ghanaian highlife, West African Afrobeat and Spanish nuevo flamenco. Cocktails, rum, beer, music and performances — these are the key ingredients for memorable evenings at Havana’s Tropicana Nightclub. Outside the capital, be sure to visit the Tropicana Varadero or Tropicana Santiago nightclubs for a sampling of the vast network of party rooms, nightclubs and cabarets.
Cuban cuisine, like the whole Cuban culture, has been influenced by the Spanish, French, African, Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese cultures. Traditional Cuban cooking is primarily peasant cuisine — very basic, but stunning. Our mothers and grandmothers have cooked by eye (a ojo), which means they have a special gift to make a delicious dish without taking into consideration measurements, order or timing.
Most Cuban specialties are sautéed or slow-cooked over a low flame. And most rely on a few basic spices, such as garlic, cumin, oregano and bay laurel leaves. Many dishes use a sofrito as their basis, which consists of onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano and ground pepper, quick-fried in olive oil. The sofrito is what gives certain foods their distinctive flavour. Meats and poultry are usually marinated in citrus juices, such as lime or sour orange and then roasted over low heat until the meat is tender and literally falling off the bone.
Another common staple in the Cuban diet is root vegetables such as yuca, eddoe and sweet potato, which are found in most Latin markets. These vegetables are generally flavoured with a marinade, called mojo, which includes hot olive oil, lemon juice, sliced raw onions, garlic, cumin and a little water. Whether you choose to eat in La Bodeguita del Medio, or in one of the most modern private restaurants, such as San Cristobal or La Catedral, you will always find a broad variety of Cuban and international cuisine to satisfy all your preferences.
Cuba is a very warm, beautiful and
affordable destination for Canadians, just four hours away. All Canadians will be most welcome there.

Julio Garmendía Peña is the ambassador of Cuba to Canada.

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Julio Garmendía Peña is the ambassador of Cuba to Canada.

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