I am unmistakably in La Habana, Cuba. It’s everything you read about. It’s so much more.

Whilst in town, I visit the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, so called after the iconic Cuban ballet dancer. Images of the prima ballerina adorn the walls, even at seventy – graceful, radiant, still dancing. The years have not been so kind to La Habana, though as with Alicia, rhythm still pulses through her veins. The beautifully preserved theatre and the stunning Capitolio whose rooftop it overlooks – golden dome shimmering in the sun – are a stark contrast to surrounding edifices.

Shells of colonial mansions and derelict buildings one might assume abandoned were it not for the lines of freshly laundered faded clothing hanging from precarious balconies. Havana is not a step back in time, for time – in the past sixty years post-revolution – has worn the city dramatically. The salty sea air has eroded its once grand facades, while passing hurricanes have also left their marks on the capital.

Cuba is a complicated and confronting destination.

Hyperinflation, hours-long blackouts, shortages of basic goods and services are all part and parcel of the quotidian for the average Cuban. A queue of cars a mile-long snakes it’s way around the impressive Colon Cemetery as we drive by. What are they queuing for? Petrol. Queues like that can last seven to eight hours, my driver informs me, and in the worst of times three to four days. I realise the Brits have nothing on Cubans when it comes to queuing. The recent years of pandemic did nothing to aid the country’s ongoing economic crisis, even the country’s exemplary health care system buckled under the strain.

Al mal tiempo, buena cara’ my guide repeats – quite literally ‘to bad weather, good face’.

The Cuban equivalent of ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ and seemingly the mantra by which they live – the Cuban proverbial cup runneth over with lemonade. The warmth of the people, the adaptiveness, ingenuity and resilience they display is magnificent.

Unless Cubans are the best actors in the world (they may well be if their musical and dance skills are anything to go by) there was no sense of underlying bitterness or resentment towards foreign tourists despite the luxuries afforded to us, yet not them, on their land. Overwhelmingly, tourism is seen as a positive and for many the only escape from dire straits, particularly the newer movements in travel which support the Cuban people rather than government.

In a few short days in the Cuban capital, I am introduced to a whole host of intriguing and brilliant characters, entertained at artists’ homes and treated to private performances by talented musicians – the dazzling Habana Compás Dance, an all-female dance and percussion company, a highlight. The sheer Cuban talent across the arts fields, from sculpture to ballet, is simply astonishing.

 I try my hand at salsa, saddened to learn that even with the very best of teachers, my British hips cannot emulate the effortlessly sensual moves of a local. Guiding throughout is impeccable. I am moved to both laughter and tears through candid stories told with such humility and good humor. Cuba is not luxury in the traditional sense. A million small miracles need to happen each day, just to ensure the basics like milk in your morning coffee and petrol in the tank of your vehicle.

Cuba is humbling, intoxicating and addictive. I leave certain that I will return.