Cuba. What a unique and incredible country to visit.
The people, the rum, the music combined with the recent history, the vintage cars and beautiful colonial buildings, many of which now lie in ruins behind the facades. Trying to understand the currencies (yes, there is more than one), the communism, the way of life. It’s simply fascinating.
We’re recently back from an incredible holiday in Cuba. Adam is a photographer and I’m a writer, so it seemed like a good idea for me to write a blog to accompany Adam’s fabulous photos.
When I first asked around for hints and tips from friends who had visited Cuba before, a cigar aficionado who travels there regularly said, “Best advice? Don’t go in August!” Indeed, the humidity makes it difficult to spend a whole day sight-seeing, plus there is the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes (luckily, we only experienced a few small storms). The best time to visit Cuba is in the Spring when the weather is still warm and sunny, before the hurricane season begins in June. That advice came too late for us though, we (four families, each with a teenage daughter) had already booked for August so, armed with sunscreen, mosquito repellent and umbrellas, off we went.
Getting to Cuba
We travelled with Virgin Atlantic, currently the only airline which flies direct London to Havana. The disappointment at having to depart from Gatwick was offset by a free fry-up in the Virgin lounge, starting our holiday off in style.
The flight was smooth and relatively comfortable, the cabin thermostat stuck on ‘chill’ the whole way which was appreciated by women of a certain age (myself included). It was possibly the first long-haul flight where my feet didn’t swell up, thanks to the low temperature.
Wifi and Currency
After checking-in we needed to arrange two important things. Firstly, the wifi. Cuba has only one internet provider, and when it goes down there are no other options, so we had told our loved ones back home not to worry if they didn’t hear from us much. I was quite looking forward to a digital detox, but each guest was given a wifi pass for five hours internet access (regardless of how long their stay) which was enough for me but not for the teenagers, especially the one who had left her boyfriend at home. Best news? It’s impossible to access Snapchat in Cuba. That was an abrupt end to 592 days of Snapchat streaks! It’s a bit drastic but going to Cuba is a great way of seeing your kids without a phone in their hands 24/7.
It is possible to buy more wifi access from the hotel at 1 CUC per hour. That brings us nicely on to the currency. CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is the money used by tourists and is only available within Cuba so there is no point trying to buy it before you travel. If you don’t have a hotel transfer booked, you will need to convert some money at the airport to pay for a taxi. We were advised to wait until we got to the hotel as the queue at the airport can be long, although the queue at the hotel was pretty long too so best to change up enough money for a few days at a time and bear in mind that very few places in Cuba accept credit cards so cash really is the only way to pay. Also be sure to ask for some small notes and coins as tipping is a big thing. 1 CUC is equivalent to about $1. We took cash in sterling to exchange but you can also take Euros or Canadian dollars or use certain credit or debit cards to get cash. 3% charges apply and some cards are not accepted (like American Express, unsurprisingly and HSBC, which was surprising seeing as they advertise themselves as the World’s Local Bank). Och aye dunnoo why not, but Scottish banknotes are not welcome in Cuba!
CUC is the currency used by tourists while Cubans use CUP (Cuban Peso). If you manage to work out the connection between the two then award yourself a gold star. As a visitor you will only need CUC. All bars, restaurants and shops accept them, as do the people on the street who may ask for a tip in return for allowing you to take their photo, or just because you’ve got more than they have (that’s communism in a nut-shell).
So, wifi and money sorted we set out to get our first look at Havana. Wow! The colours, the noise in the streets, the lack of pedestrian crossings…. the broken pavements, the almost total lack of any shops… the dogs walking around with big labels around their necks (indicating that they belong to someone), the vintage cars, the buildings bearing the scars of the weather along with years of being left to ruin… the humidity! Above all the friendly people who love to ask you where you are from and recommend a bar or place to buy cheap cigars (more about those later!).
Eating out in Havana
We had been told that the food in Cuba is bland and repetitive - rice, beans, pork and chicken - so we went with few expectations but, having done our research, we ate in some wonderful restaurants which I would highly recommend. As a group of 13 people we had booked well in advance. La Guarida is a paladar - a privately-run restaurant – a short walk from our hotel. When we arrived, we were shocked to see the building look deserted and in a state of disrepair. But hey, we were in Cuba so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. We followed the signs up three flights of stairs and arrived at a beautifully decorated restaurant taking up the entire top floor including a large terrace space. The food and service were both excellent. Adam had what he said was the best lobster of his entire life. With drinks we paid around 40 CUC per person which is high for Cuba (it was quite a shock when we later learnt that is the monthly wage), but pretty reasonable for Londoners like us. Although we didn’t spot any celebs, La Guarida counts Madonna and the Kardashians among their diners. The toilets are fab too (always the sign of a good restaurant!).
El Cocinero is in a residential area of Havana called Vedado, and is next to the Fábrica del Arte Cubano, an arts centre which has performances in theatre, music, dance and art. The arts centre is not open all the time so best to check before you go. I had done so and that was one reason I chose El Cocinero, so we could visit the arts centre before dinner. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked the small print and turns out there is an over-18 age limit so we couldn’t get in with our underage kids. When we told the restaurant of our predicament, they seated us early and, on the terrace, overlooking one of the art installations inside the arts centre. In fairness there were some body-parts on show but hardly enough to warrant an 18-plus restriction! Meanwhile the restaurant was fabulous. As a large group we were asked to pre-order from a set menu. To be honest I can’t remember what we ate but it was all very nice and everyone in our group enjoyed it. We paid 30 CUC per person with two drinks included. Booking is essential, or you can just go for drink. It’s a very popular place.
Cuban rum, cigars and coffee
The most famous Cuban exports are rum, cigars and coffee (and music!).
Cuban rum is fabulous in a cocktail. Chose from a mojito (rum, sugar, lime, soda and mint – but beware, there was a mint shortage when we were in Cuba and we had to wait several days until we could find a bar to serve us a mojito), daquiri (rum, lime, sugar and lots of crushed ice – cue brain-freeze) or a piña colada (rum, coconut milk and pineapple juice – a good choice for anyone who likes getting caught in the rain). I hadn’t had one since the 1980’s but I drank the most incredible piña colada in a road café between Havana and Varadero. Served in an actual pineapple. I felt like I was at Abigail’s Party. 5 CUC well spent.
Havana Club is a well-known brand of Cuban rum which is on sale in most UK supermarkets but is much cheaper to buy in Cuba (you can bring two litres back to the UK). Don’t worry about shopping around for the best deal – it is the same price everywhere, whether you go to a rum shop in Havana or buy it in your hotel. The 3 years white Havana Club is great for cocktails while the dark rum is best drunk neat.
Cuban cigars are the best in the world so, even though no-one in our group smoked, most of us wanted to experience a Cuban cigar. When in Rome etc….. We went to the café in the Palacio de la Artesanía in Habana Vieja and for 15 CUC per person Gustavo initiated us in the art of smoking a Cuban cigar with rum and coffee – el maridaje or ritual. Unfortunately, Gustavo doesn’t speak English so make sure you have a Spanish speaker to translate. The first part of the ritual involves opening a new bottle of dark Havana Club rum and throwing the first part on the floor as ‘a gift to the Saints’. While we smoked our Romeo & Juliet cigars Gustavo showed us the different way to hold them (the Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill or ladylike way), how to burn a ring at the beginning, how to deal with the ash (don’t flick it!) and when to put it out. Or in our cases, how to stop it from going out every minute.
Like rum, Cuban cigars are best bought in official shops and the prices are almost always the same wherever you buy them. Be wary of anyone offering cheap cigars or inviting you to a cigar festival!
Getting around Havana
One of the most iconic and beautiful sights in Havana are the beautifully restored vintage American cars. The ones you see outside the hotels are for hire, whether it is for a short taxi journey or for a tour around the city, but once you travel outside of the centre you realise that many Cubans use these classic cars for themselves. Cuba was a massive market for American cars until the revolution in 1959 when trade with the US was cut off. With no new cars or parts coming in to the country the Cubans were forced to maintain the cars they already had, using whatever parts they could get. Look closely and these colourful classic Cadillacs, Buicks and Dodges now run on Japanese engines and have USB ports to play music on. But they are great fun to ride in, and a must-do. Chose a model and colour you like and negotiate with a driver directly or ask your hotel to book a car for you. As with most things in Cuba, prices vary little from one source to another - look to pay around 40 CUC per hour.
Another fun option for a short ride is a Coco taxi, an auto rickshaw for up to three passengers, or go for an air-conditioned modern yellow taxi when the humidity is overbearing.
Tours in Havana
We did two great tours in Havana. On our first morning Willy was our tour guide on a walking tour of Old Havana. He told us all about the history of the city and spent three hours showing us around. It’s a great idea to do a walking tour on your first day in any city so you can decide what you would like to see more of. There are a lot of museums in Havana. In the end we decided not to go to any of them although friends went to the Museum of the Revolution and the Museum of the City. Other choices are museums dedicated to rum and cigars, but we preferred to spend our time walking around and chatting to the locals (I should point out that I lived in Spain for 10 years and so I speak pretty good Spanish, although many people speak English in Cuba).
We also took was a tour in a vintage car. We chose our own itinerary, driving down El Malecón (along the coast) to Fusterlandia, and then a different route back. Fusterlandia is a neighbourhood of Havana which has been transformed into a work of art by local artist José Fuster. Our driver took us there and we spent around 30 minutes walking around. It’s an explosion of colour and art and a great place to visit. On the way back we drove through the Havana Forest (Bosque de Havana) which is actually a park but who cares… it’s full of breathtakingly beautiful sweeping trees covered in green canopy plants. Some call it the green lung of Havana.
Meeting the locals
We did visit other places such as Hemingway’s haunts La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, and the Raquel Hotel, but mostly Adam and I went off to explore the streets of Havana and meet the locals. We stopped to look through a window into a room full of tobacco leaves. The old gentleman inside with his son and daughter-in-law invited us in and explained that they make ‘rough’ cigars for Cubans. They were not permitted to sell them to us, but they offered us some as a gift, with the warning that they are very strong. We declined with thanks!
All the people we spoke to were very friendly and happy to chat with us. Naturally we were curious to ask about life in Cuba. There is no poverty, but people have very little. Food is rationed so everyone can access the basic necessities at a low price but there is little else. Everything belongs to the state. Education to university is free and of a high standard; after graduation you are given a job from a list and everyone earns the same. There is no private enterprise (except, of course, the black market). There are few shops and little to buy. I found it refreshing to see such a complete contrast to the consumerism we are used to, and an interesting lesson for our teenage kids.
Downtime in Varadero
After the hustle ‘n’ bustle of Havana we took some down-time at Iberostar Selection Varadero, an all-inclusive hotel in a beautiful beach resort. This was the most incredible beach I have ever been too. The sand is silky soft, and the sea is warm, calm and crystal clear. After looking at various maps and speaking to the locals I can confirm that no-one agrees if it is the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea, but it really doesn’t matter. The important thing, which no-one can contest, is that it is paradise.
It was tough to leave the resort, but we did manage to wrench ourselves away for a couple of trips. We enjoyed a fun evening at La Casa de la Musica in Varadero, dancing along to the Buena Vista Social Club, an ensemble of Cuban musicians established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, with a Cuba Libre thrown-in (Free Cuba – or rum and coke to us - was named after Cuban independence was gained in the Spanish-American war of 1898 and originally made with Bacardi, but Bacardi fled to Puerto Rico in the 1959 Cuban revolution and so it was replaced with Cuban light rum. Incidentally the original Bacardi building in Havana is considered one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in Latin American; you can visit the lobby with its original marble and granite interior.)
We took a jeep safari. Many people chose to drive their own jeep, but we asked for a driver which effectively meant we had our own tour guide for the duration of the tour (but no, we still don’t understand how the Cuban economy works). We visited La Dionisia, the site of an old coffee plantation, where we met 90-year-old Nemesia. Nemesia’s family used to own the plantation which is now a state-owned tourist attraction. Everything in Cuba belongs to the state. We started chatting and I asked him if he could show us around the house. It must have been grand in the day, but now it was anything but. He showed us relics from the days of slavery – neck collars and shackles, and even posed for photographs with them. After some quick mental arithmetic I was relieved to realise he was born after the abolishment of slavery, especially as our guide had previously told us how the plantation owners had forced slaves to reproduce once they realised that no more slaves would be arriving from Africa.
After that sobering visit, we enjoyed a speed boat ride, lunch at a Cuban holiday camp, and a swim in the freezing sweet water of Saturno cave.
So, these were the highlights of our trip to Cuba. Would I return? Yes! Would I recommend it to others? Yes! Would I have like to have spent more time in Havana? Yes!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip and looking at Adam’s incredible photos. Please leave us a comment and look out for more blog posts.
Debra (words) & Adam (photos)