Cuba

In March 2019 I went to Cuba, having been inspired by seeing some amazing photos from someone I met on previous travels.

A short indulgent interlude before I get into the trip. I’d decided a few years ago that if I was on a long haul flight over 7 hours, that I would try and go ‘not economy’ if the price was not completely outrageous. By and large, this meant going premium economy, which I did when I went to Seattle and Alaska in 2018 and Utah and Arizona later in 2019. When looking for flights, I will always have a look and see what’s available price-wise. Usually, business class is prohibitively expensive (£4k+), but I’d spotted a deal via Skyscanner from Heathrow to Havana via Mexico City with Aeromexico for £1900 return. Obviously still expensive, but very reasonable by business class standards, plus as the UK-Mexico leg was 11+ hours overnight, and long time readers will recall my inability to sleep on aeroplanes, plus with a 3-4 hour stretch between Mexico City and Havana, I was eager to grab the deal before it disappeared.

One of the many advantages of travelling business class is the swift journey through the airport – priority check-in, fast track through security and relaxing in the lounge. I did get a slightly odd look at check-in as I was travelling with a backpack and was in my smartest ‘comfy’ pants. After relaxing in the lounge with a glass of vino, the flight departed at approx 10.30pm. We were then fed an evening meal before I then spent 7 hours lying horizontal in the lovely flatbeds on the Dreamliner. I know I’m rubbing it in but it was utter bliss, and definitely helped me cope with the 6 hour layover in Mexico City which was between the hours of 4am-10am local time. Another advantage of flying business class was that I could spend that time in the business class lounge at Mexico City Airport instead of trying to find somewhere to sit in the not-enormous departure lounge..

I arrived at the airport in Havana (actually a reasonable distance out of Havana) in the middle of the afternoon, and negotiated immigration successfully (I was ready to produce all the documentation that I’d been warned about but needed none of it). After changing approximately £300 for CUC (Cuban convertible currency, mainly used by foreigners, there is a second currency CUP used by the locals) I then had my organised transfer to the casa particular in old Havana. A lot of the accommodation in Cuba is in casa particulars which are nominally rooms in people’s houses, but in most of the cases that I experienced, are analogous to boutique hotels.

Some of the casa particulars we stayed in

After meeting the group in the evening and going out for our first meal (roast pork with salad and the first of many Cuba Libres), we bonded over rum on the casa terrace. I caved in at 11.30pm having had a very long day.

The next morning we had a vintage car tour around Havana – definitely a must-do. The vintage cars are an iconic part of Cuba and it’s so cool to be riding around in one. We went to Revolution Square, drove around some neighbourhoods and down the Malecon before ending in Old Havana where our tour guide then gave us a guided walking tour around some of the beautiful squares in Old Havana. The architecture is amazing – crumbling facades and buildings alongside some brilliant, bold, colourful ones.

Then we were treated to normal Cuban service for lunch. The longest lunch ever – we waited over an hour and a quarter from arriving to getting food – the food was good once it arrived, but it just took forever to do so!

We had what was left of the afternoon to ourselves, so I continued wandering around the streets of Havana Viejo. In the evening we went for dinner and then went to the Buena Vista Social Club to listen to some fabulous Cuban music – very enjoyable.

The next day we headed west, and after stopping at Fusterlandia in the outskirts of Havana (inspired by Picasso and Gaudí), we continued our drive out. After a baños stop and a morning Piña Colada (when in Cuba…), we carried on to a tobacco plantation for lunch (roast pork, pumpkin, rice, beans and salad). Cuba is world-famous for its cigars and it was interesting firstly to see how tobacco leaves are grown and then dried, and then to see Cuban cigars being rolled.

Looking out at Fusterlandia

Afterwards we continued our journey west towards Viñales. We stopped off to watch more cigars being rolled, and they were passed around the group. I’m not a smoker and so didn’t partake. The one thing I did notice was that Cuban cigar smoke does not linger on clothes and fabric like cigarettes do, and I actually quite liked the smell of the cigar smoke.

We arrived at the casa in Viñales in the afternoon and after a brief wander which was cut short by rain, we went for dinner (and got absolutely soaked on the way there). Tapas and cocktails, followed by a bar with Cuban dancing.

The next morning we went for a hike through Viñales Valley. It was a little cloudy and it briefly rained but the scenery is insane – like Jurassic Park. In the afternoon we had a salsa lesson which was fun (and involved more drinking) and then we played dominos – a massively popular pastime here – with more drinks.

In the evening we went to a restaurant a little way out of the town which had a great view over the valley. We then went to a bar for a dance show, and carried on drinking.

The next morning was an early start as we had a long travel day from Viñales in the west of the country, to Cienfuegos on the southern coast, towards the centre of the island. On the way out of Viñales valley, we stopped off at a wonderful viewpoint. With the blue skies it really looked like a landscape out of pre-history.

After one too many Cuba Libres the previous evening, it was a quiet journey. After lunch, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs for a refreshing swim in the sea – definitely a recommended hangover cure!!

We arrived in Cienfuegos in the early evening and went for dinner. After dinner we walked along the Malecon, which had a wifi spot and therefore large groups of people using the internet! The notion of mobile phone data hadn’t made it to Cuba, and very few of the casas had internet.

The next morning we had a walk around Cienfuegos including to the plaza major, and also went up a casa tower for a great view over the town. Cienfuegos felt much more well-maintained than other areas of Cuba and the architecture had a different feel from other areas we had already seen.

We then carried on travelling east for a couple of hours to the town of Trinidad. The heat was more intense here than the other places we had been. In the afternoon we had a wander around the old town – very colonial and Spanish-influenced. Another good view from the top of a monastery tower.

In the evening, after dinner we went to watch salsa by the steps, and then went to the Cave for some Cuban raving.

After a 2am finish, we went for a walk the next morning to a waterfall, and then went to the beach at Playa Ancon in the afternoon. A beautiful blue Caribbean Sea to swim in and some palm trees providing me with some shade to sit in. We stayed for sunset which had beautiful orangey red skies. After dinner I had an early night for a change as I was full of rum and sugar at this point!

The next day we headed back to Havana, via Santa Clara and a visit to the Che Guevara museum and memorial – an enormous statue of the revolutionist.

Back in Havana we had our final dinner of the trip at an Asian Fusion restaurant and a couple of enormous cocktails to finish me off.

So, my impressions of Cuba – a fascinating country, loved the architecture especially in Havana and Trinidad, the scenery in Viñales was spectacular. The food was ok, be prepared for menu items to not be available. There were signs that capitalism is encroaching. I didn’t go to Varaderos, which is the main ‘resort’ part of the island where the all-inclusive hotels are, but there was a lot of building going on in Havana, especially on the waterfront. I’m glad I went when I did as I can imagine it might be very different in 5-10 years.

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