Reality hit hard when I arrived in Havana. English-speaking locals were hard to find. The dual currency system confused me: tourists are expected to pay more (using Cuban Convertible Peso) than the locals (using National Cuban Peso). People came up to talk, and I didn't have a clue whether they were touts trying to rip me off or if they were genuinely interested in meeting a foreigner, perhaps for the first time. I remember asking myself, 'What were you thinking coming here by yourself?'. But my initial trepidation slowly turned into a hunger for adventure and a heart-felt love for the country.
For two full weeks, I travelled all over Cuba. I met amazing people, saw incredible sights, experienced a colourful culture and basically disconnected from the rest of the world.
What's happening in Havana
Picture the capital, Havana, the quintessential Cuba. Remember that the country has been largely cut off from the outside world since the communist revolutionaries took power in 1959. In any given alley, there are old ladies people-watching from crumbing Spanish-colonial balconies, kids playing soccer, dogs barking, women salsa dancing, men shuffling dominoes and bands playing. It's busy and it's loud; it's a sensory overload.
In Habana Vieja (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as 'Cuba in a time warp', I spent hours walking around, dodging the 1950s vintage cars, admiring the glorious mix of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and listening to the ever-present hum of Latino music. Habana Vieja is exotic and mysterious, and to me hugely romantic.
The best way to get your bearings is to familiarise yourself with the main plazas. In Plaza de la Catedral, you'll find one of the city's most iconic structures, Catedral de San Cristóbal. Dominated by two unequal towers and framed by a theatrical Baroque facade, this incredible cathedral was described by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier [1904 to 1980] as 'music set in stone'. Just around the corner in Plaza de Armas, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is another majestic Baroque building. Home to the City Museum since 1968, artifacts on show vividly document Havana's rollercoaster history. Plaza de San Francisco, meanwhile, is home to the 16th-century Basilica and Monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi - now a museum and concert hall. Inside, there is a glass statue of Jesus given to former Cuban president Fidel Castro by Mother Teresa.
All in all, it took me three blissful days to get to know Habana Vieja. Covering just 4 square kilometres, it's not huge but there are so many enticing little pockets of culture to check out. Aside from the awesome sites, the thrill is simply to wander the cobbled streets where vendors sell pre-1960 books, musicians serenade you, kids play and Latino music blares. Seen thus, at face value, it's impossible to truly appreciate the poverty that is endured by many modern-day Cubans.
Centro Habana, home to the Capitolio Nacional (government headquarters), is another district worth exploring, and a real find for me was Barrio Chino, the local Chinatown. Visit Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes for contemporary art, and Museo Nacional de la Revolución for exhibits devoted to the Cuban Revolution [1953 to 1959] that saw the advent of communist rule. Opposite the museum, you can board Granma, the yacht that was used to transport 82 revolutionaries (including the Castro brothers and Che Guevara) from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956.
Of course no trip to Havana is complete without a nostalgia-fuelled drink at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which opened in 1930 when the country was a prime travel destination, long before the 1960 US embargo. Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Marlon Brando were among its early clientele. You'll also want to drop by La Bodeguita del Medio, a small and noisy joint serving Ernest Hemingway approved Mojitos. But to mingle with the locals, try one of the many bars lining the Malecón, a broad esplanade, which stretches 8 kilometres along the coast from the mouth of Havana Harbour.
Visiting Vinales and Trinidad
Heading out from Havana, on the four-hour bus ride to the Valley of Viñales, you take in some of Cuba's most spectacular vistas, from breath-taking limestone karsts and lush forests, to rich tobacco fields.
Viñales town, said to be Fidel Castro's favourite place in Cuba, is tiny and quaint. Instead of finding a hotel, stay in a casa particular (private homestay) - boarding with a local family makes the experience so much more authentic. Meals are prepared at an additional cost, and activities can be arranged. During my stay I hiked the valley, toured a tobacco field, and went horseback riding and caving. I also stopped by the Castro-commissioned Mural de la Prehistoria, a valley cliff garishly painted with snails, dinosaurs and a family of cave people - perhaps the weirdest tourist attraction in Cuba.
A six-hour drive on from Viñales, lies my new can't-get-enough-of destination - Trinidad. This perfectly preserved Spanish-colonial town (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) offers up old-world Cuba in a nutshell, with a little contemporary decadence thrown in.
My first day, I spent in town checking out the cathedrals and museums. Day two, I explored Valle de Los Ingenios, a living monument to Cuban sugar production, and hiked 180 metres up Cerro de la Vigia simply to marvel at the view. For the rest of the week, I took it easy. I dove into the Caribbean and lay on the white sand at Playa Ancon; I salsa danced and partied in a cave at Disco Ayala.
The 'activity' I recommend to all visitors to Cuba, whether you are hunkering down in Havana, getting out and about in Viñales or living it up in Trinidad, is an afternoon Mojito break. I spent many happy hours simply sitting and sipping, watching the world go by and listening to Buena Vista Social Club. When it came to it, I had to tear myself away. Two weeks in Cuba is definitely not enough.
* Fly to Havana via Canada, Mexico, or Europe
* To travel from one city to the next, take Viazul or Transtur buses - or hire a taxi
* Learn some basic Spanish to help you get around
* Board in private homestays for a more authentic Cuban experience
* Note that tourists are only allowed to use the Cuban Convertible Peso
* Stock up on Havana Club, Habanos Montecristo cigars and Serrano coffee