If there is one song that transports Mia Heathcote straight to Cuba, it’s ‘Vivir mi vida’ by Marc Anthony. Whilst neither the song nor the singer are Cuban, this joyous piece of music was the soundtrack for an unforgettable moment in Mia’s life.
Picture this - a beachside resort in Varadero, a live band playing latino music, and in the centre of the foyer are Mia and her partner, Victor, dancing Cuban salsa in front of their families and other guests, the celebratory words of Marc Anthony floating through the air….
Voy a reir, voy a bailar.
Vivir mi vida, la la la la.
The lyrics of this song – I’m gonna laugh, I’m gonna dance, Live my life, la la la la – are perfect to include in a story about Mia’s trip to Cuba. After all, as a Senior Soloist with the Queensland Ballet, dance and music are an important part of her life and bring her a huge amount of joy.
Mia travelled to Cuba with her family for one of their most memorable holidays ever. They were there with with her partner, Victor Estévez, Principal Artist at the Queensland Ballet, to meet his family and experience the wonders of Havana and Varadero.
Lucky for us, we get to explore the passion and colours of Cuba through Mia and Victor’s eyes and find out some of their top tips for visiting this Caribbean island.
Impressions of Cuba
Victor wanted to immerse Mia and her family into his culture, to meet his family and for them to understand where he came from.
“It was fascinating to see Cuba through Mia’s eyes, I was constantly excited trying to show her as many places as possible. Reflecting back on my childhood, most of my memories are related to ballet, memories that created the path of my life to date. But what I most treasure about growing up in Cuba was the freedom, appreciation and values I have for my family and friends. It has shown me today, while currently living in Australia, that it’s the simple things that make a difference in life.”
Speaking with Mia, it’s clear that Victor achieved his goals.
“My first impression of Cuba was a colourful, tropical vibrancy which was stuck in a time warp. Retro vibes with bustling creativity, passion, music, dance and soul. It was incredible to be in the heart of Havana... surrounded by sounds of old building repairs, vintage car horns, muffled radios, kids playing soccer, the bread seller calling “El pan, el pan fresco y rico” at the break of day, string instruments humming through the streets from cathedrals and even the screech of a pig slaughter before the new year ritual of “puerco asado” (slow cooked pork on a spit).”
“We were able to immerse ourselves in the vibrant Cuban culture from both the perspective of a tourist and the perspective of a local. There is so much to love about Cuba, but what struck me the most was the nature of the people. The people have a way of being so creative and resourceful, and they are grateful for the more important things in life like family and human connection.”
Mia explains that “meeting Victor’s family was an absolute privilege and something I will cherish forever. They immediately treated us like their own family and made us feel so warmly welcomed. The importance of family is big in Cuban culture. It was lovely to see where Victor gets those qualities of humility, integrity and love from.”
Cuban Food – Comida Cubana
As well as welcoming Mia and her family with open arms, Victor’s family also left them with incredibly happy tummies. Mia declares that Victor’s mother’s cooking was the most memorable food of the trip, a “flavourful and hearty delight’.
Mia explains that Cuba’s unique cuisine is rich in flavour, hearty and generous. Beans and rice are a common component as well as the famous ropa vieja (pulled meat) and platano frito (fried sweet banana).
“Apart from the authentic home cooked meals, my favourite place we ate at was El Cocinero”.
Victor adds that “the food in Cuba is creative and innovative with a sense of home. A few other restaurants I recommend are El Idilio, Rio y Mar and La Guarida.
Tourist Sites - Los Sitios Turisticos
Victor’s advice on what to see and do in Cuba is simple:
“Find a local friend, grab a mojito and go with the flow. Havana has an energy that makes you feel like time has stopped, and that is when the real holidays begin.”
Pressed for their favourite tourist sites, Mia lists the Bellas Artes Museum, for its arts displays that take you back through Cuba’s colonial times, the revolution and contemporary generations and La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an exciting creative and social hub based in a former cooking oil factory.
Victor’s highlights cover a tour around Old Havana – El Malecon, El Morros, El Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso and, like Mia, the Bellas Artes Museum and La Fabrica de Arte Cubano.
Mia and Victor both enthusiastically recommend a few days at Varadero – the tropical beach about 2 hours east of Havana that was the location of their unforgettable salsa dance.
“Varadero is well worth the hype! I have never seen the sea as pristine blue or the sand as white and soft...or been as relaxed in my life! Varadero is literal paradise!"
Victor adds one more thing that all visitors to Cuba should try – driving an almendron, one of the iconic vintage cars that cruise around the streets of Havana.
Music and Ballet - La Musica y el Ballet
Anyone who has been to Cuba will tell you that music is everywhere you go; it permeates all parts of life. Apart from that memorable Marc Anthony song, Mia reveals that any music by Leoni Torres or Buena Vista Social Club will transport her straight back to Cuba.
It’s no surprise that Buena Vista Social Club makes the list. Their international success in the late 1990s is credited with reviving global interest in traditional Cuban music and, indeed, Latin American music.
What a lot of people may not realise is that Cuba has a thriving ballet culture as well, one that has impacted the international ballet scene just as much as the Buena Vista Social Club impacted the Latin music scene. Victor is rightly very proud of this.
“The history of Ballet in Cuba has lived with us now for over 70 years. Back in 1948 Alicia and Fernando Alonso founded El Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Cuban National Ballet). Not long after, the company started to be recognised internationally for its charismatic stage presence and outstanding performances. Alicia and Fernando created a Cuban style of dance, a style that is still distinguishable in most Cuban dancers today. Alicia Alonso became one of the most influential people of the twenty-century, greatly impacting the culture of ballet in Cuba. Due to Alonso’s influence ballet became a much loved and appreciated art form for Cuban people”.
Given Victor is one of several Cuban artists currently at the Queensland Ballet, it is clear Cuban dancers are held in high regard around the world.
As seasoned travellers, Mia and Victor have some fantastic and very practical advice for people planning to follow in their footsteps.
Up first is Mia, who is speaking from experience when she tells you her number one tip.
"Always take a photo of the contents of your luggage. You never know when it will go missing or get lost in transit”.
She also adds that one item she never leaves home without is her contact lenses and saline solution. “I have to be able to see the beauty of the world with clarity!”
Victor provides some extra handy hints that will make your stay in Cuba easier.
“Don’t forget your toiletries essentials (toilet paper)! Bring some good walking shoes, a hat and always carry some cash with you.”