Able to both confound and exceed expectations in equal measure, Cuba is an endlessly fascinating place. The archetypal tableau of revolutionary rhetoric, breathtaking beaches, classic cars gliding past faded colonial buildings and a population who dance on an endless ribbon of salsa and rum does of course exist, but for those prepared to dig beneath the dazzling surface, Cuba relinquishes so much more. Art Deco architecture peeks between the crumbling mansions; unobtrusive art galleries are filled with exciting contemporary art to rival the scenes of London, Los Angeles and New York; private restaurants hidden in backstreets throughout the country nudge Cuba towards the upper echelons of fine dining experiences; while a programme of arts festivals sees internationally renowned ballerinas, musicians and actors delight audiences for the modest reward of a state salary. Delve into the countryside and you'll find cloudforests and mountain ranges, birdwatching trails ripe for exploring, and panoramic plains filled with green-gold sugar cane that are a siren call for a growing number of visiting cyclists.
Even those who have visited Cuba previously will be amazed by the country of today. Since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of decades of subsidies to its communist outpost) saw Cuba descend into economic crisis, there has been a sense that this is a place on the cusp of a great political and cultural shift. There is no doubt that the economic reforms ushered in since 2008, when Fidel Castro handed over leadership to his younger brother Raul, have staked a marker in the fine Caribbean sand. With individuals now licensed to run a diverse range of businesses, there is an undeniable sense that Cuban commerce is awakening from a long hibernation: private taxi services, boutique restaurants, homestays, private tour companies and more are thriving – and becoming increasingly competitive.
No-one knows how the vestiges of present-day Cuba will endure in the face of recent change. One thing is for sure: immersing yourself in Cuba now is the best way to judge for yourself.