Havana hits its perfect note late at night, usually just as I get home. Buried in one of the famous old cars, I’ll cruise through the salty spray of the Florida Straits and admire the couples flirting on the city’s famous seawall.
On the other side, among the crumbling streets, reggaeton will provide a backing track for people shouting to friends from the heights of tight colonial houses. Only chickens roost in Old Havana before three in the morning.
Cuba’s capital is 500 years old, half a millennium of being spectacularly fun to visit. “If in 1820 Havana was the most intriguing, beautiful and rhythmic city in the New World,” wrote Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in his 2016 book Island People, “so were these things in 1920 – and so it remains, under the crust of decadence and politics, as we approach 2020 as well.
Don’t confuse it with Disneyland though – for Cubans, life is no slice of mango pie. Telegraph Travel’s in-depth study this week named Cuba the largest island in the Caribbean for many good reasons, including low population density. Yet the reason for his space is that so many have left, deprived of opportunity. It is remarkable that it remains one of the safest places in the world for travelers.
Its wild and checkered history is to be seen alongside the roads that run the 777 miles of the island (roughly the same as Britain). And it’s a story that goes back far beyond the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to power.
Fortresses designed to fend off British and Dutch buccaneers still crouch on the exposed headlands. Wealth from sugar is evident in the fabulous facades of small towns and the endless rusty train tracks.
The island is an unspoiled ecological paradise. Climbing the 6,476-foot Pico Turquino a few years ago, the tocororo called and the hummingbirds roared before the fireflies graced the dusk. “Cuba”, said our funny guide. “Home to the world’s tiniest hummingbirds, orchids, butterflies…and wages.”
My family and I like to hire a jeep and head out into the countryside on random back roads. Very quickly, you’d think you were in the American West of the 1870s. In a ranchon, a rustic restaurant, one day a macho arrived on his horse-drawn buggy, galloping like Ben Hur.
He stopped and jumped back. As he entered, he was stopped by the romantic music from the bar. He dug a fist into his chest and wiped his eye with the other. The waitress handed him a can of beer, he turned on his heels, got back on his buggy and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Then there’s the coast – exquisite beaches everywhere. And I’m not just talking about the sublime 13 miles of Varadero. I’m a fly fisherman and realized that some of the best water in the world is here near Havana at Las Salinas, with acres of salt flat filled with flamingos and glowing roseate spoonbills.
Travel further afield though, to the uninhabited archipelago of Jardines de la Reina off the south coast, and the fishing, diving and snorkeling become too wonderful to be taken in.
Yet my heart is in Havana. After those long nights of trova and daiquiris, slumped in the back of the clunker, I relax as the sweat dries in the warm sea breeze. And then I’ll feel like a more interesting man than I really am.
Ruaridh Nicoll is an author and journalist who has been visiting Cuba for 20 years and living in Havana since 2018