Though I haven't yet seen a fraction of the countries I wish to visit, I feel I can safely say that no country will ever have an impact in the same way that Cuba managed to. "El Caiman" - referring to the island's lizard shape - took all my preconceptions of Havana Club, cigars, Caribbean beaches and communism apart, and took me on a journey through time.
Landing in the capital La Habana was plunging into the 50s, the streets echoing with the engines of old Chevrolets and Plymouths. On the first day of my two weeks there, it became one of my most favourite cities in the world. It's hard to pinpoint why: The capital lacks the obvious grandness of Vienna, the flawless style of Paris or the metropolitan buzz of New York.
But it enchants with its complete genuineness, as you can tell by the extreme friendliness of the locals. Spend the day getting lost in the old town's colonial alleys, to stumble across a live rumba dance. At night follow the habaneros to the cooling sea spray of the Malecòn, the city's eight-kilometer long sea-drive.
car in Havana
A trip to Viñales, a small rural town to the West of Havana, took me to an old-Western seeming 18th century. Surrounded by sugarcane plantations, caves and banana trees, the town bubbles with constant chatting and horse-wagons carrying produce through the streets. Also the region of tobacco growing, I got a good deal on cohiba cigars when I was there.
rural countryside around Viñales
The town Trinidad de Cuba was dipping into a colonial storybook. Coloured in pastel hues are the remnants of Spanish colonial architecture of the 1850s. Like all Cuban places I visited, it sprung to life at night with the pounding of drums and cubanos dancing to a salsa beat.
Colonial square in Trinidad de Cuba
Venturing further to the East, a bus took me along precarious mountain edges through tropical jungle to reach the very tip of the island: Here I found the timeless paradise of Baracoa. It was this place at which Christopher Columbus landed on his voyage in 1492 and wrote in his logbook to have "heard the birds sing that they will never ever leave this place." Similarly I was reluctant to leave, be it for Baracoa's spicy cuisine, its jaw-dropping coastline or its blissful isolation from mass tourism.
Sunset in Baracoa
However, as I travelled around the county, I realized that Cuba is more than an island slumbering in the midst of cigar smoke, historic relics and Caribbean scenery.
It is a country still deeply troubled by its turbulent history: Being the bone of contention between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War has left Cuba in a crisis. Though the government has worked wonders in the areas of education, healthcare and environmental sustainability, the country is greatly defined by its political isolation and economic stagnation: These are both linked to the economic embargo imposed by the USA - that still persists today - and Castro's communist regime.
'All for the Revolution' with Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara
Having grown so used to omnipresent adverts in my own capitalist home, it was frankly a relief not to be harassed by the slogans of TV commercials, billboards or posters. Moreover, the lack of internet access in Cuba - linked to its high level of censorship - gave me a break from my usual dependency on online media.
As my first trip, it was hard to be in a country with a wealth standard lower than my own, that in some cases led to being treated like walking dollar sign. But this is an obstacle most travellers face at some point, and must overcome simply by communication: By staying with locals to hear their stories, learning their culture and sharing one's own with them.
When I arrived back in Havana, I was warmly welcomed by possibly my favourite Cuban family I had stayed with during my trip. The people are probably the main reason to love this country so much, for their generosity and friendliness.
I would recommend anyone who has the chance to visit it, especially while it still is a time-capsule. It makes an ideal destination for a first trip: It is safe, it is - compared to European standards - inexpensive, and impresses with an authenticity unlike any other country.
Whether you spend your time there drifting through colonial alleyways, dancing salsa in a tropical open-air nightclub or having casual conversations with habaneros along the Malecòn, Cuba will give you an experience that you will never forget.