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.

Peru

This one was a long time ago – 5 years now, back in November 2015.

This was my first real solo foray into a non-western country, and one which I didn’t speak the language. I’d actually taken some informal Spanish lessons for a couple of months in the run up to this trip which proved invaluable, and useful for a few trips to Spain since then.

At the time I went, there were no direct flights between the UK and Peru. I had 2 viable options – via Madrid or via the US. I choose to go via the US to extend the amount of time on my trip that I could speak English, but having done this and transited through the US, I would not generally recommend this. Whilst I had booked connecting flights from London to Lima, via Dallas Forth Worth on the way out and via Miami on the way back, you always have to clear immigration in the US even when transitting which made for some slightly stressful connections and BA leaving my bag in Miami on the way back.

I don’t remember much about immigration into Peru – I didn’t need a visa, and I don’t remember it taking particularly long. I’d arrived early morning after an overnight leg from Dallas, the one thing I do remember is the hustle, bustle and chaos of the arrivals hall, finding my transfer (and another group member), and the traffic en route to the hotel being utterly insane.

This was my second trip with G Adventures. We were staying in a hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima. Having arrived in the morning we weren’t yet able to check in. However, having arrived with someone else who was on my trip, we hatched a plan to go to the downtown area and got a taxi/paid a guy at the hotel to drive us. I’d read beforehand that whilst Miraflores was a relatively safe area, the centre of Lima was a little more dangerous and you needed to have your wits about you. I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own so was glad for the company. There is some amazing architecture in downtown Lima, and loads of churches and the cathedral with unbelievably ornate decoration.

In the evening we met up as a group – there were 8 of us and we became a really close group – and went for our first dinner together. It wasn’t a late one as most of us were jet-lagged from travelling and we had an early start the next day to catch a flight inland to Juliaca. We arrived in Juliaca at altitude and travelled towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,000 feet above sea level, and the start of our acclimatisation ahead of the Inca Trail hike which would start in a few days.

Lake Titicaca

This was the first time I’d ever been at real altitude. Living in the UK doesn’t expose you to these heights, and whilst I’d done some exercise and preparation at home ahead of a 4 day hike, there was no way I could replicate the altitude. I was even more worried when we arrived at our hotel for a couple of days in Puno and got absolutely knackered walking up one flight of stairs!

We had a brief walk around Puno before dinner and drinks – though at this stage I was avoiding alcohol (unusual for me on holiday!) in preparation for our hike in a few days.

The next day we had a boat trip on Lake Titicaca and visited the Floating Islands of Uros on the lake, made of reeds, and people live here year-round. We had lunch on Taquile Island (grilled trout according to my diary!), and then in the afternoon and evening we were introduced to our homestay families where we would spend the night with local families, learning about their way of life and being welcomed into their homes. This was where it was advantageous to have learned some Spanish, though my roommate was way more fluent than I was. After a delicious dinner of quinoa soup, rice and vegetables, we turned in for the night. The next morning we helped the family with their daily farm chores (taking the sheep out to graze) and watched on as the mother soaked and prepared the quinoa (now a western health food, but a staple in Peru).

In the afternoon we sailed back across the lake and back to Puno for a final night before heading to Cusco on a local bus the next day. I was very impressed with the local bus – it was a double decker and we had lots of legroom and reclining seats. It was pretty much an all-day ride to Cusco, but it was super-interesting to watch the scenery go by. I had no idea what to expect from the landscape beforehand.

On the bus between Puno and Cusco

When we arrived into Cusco, the first thing we did was head to G Adventures’ hiking depot to get kitted out with sleeping bags, hiking poles and other kit for the Inca Trail hike. We would be leaving our main bags in storage at the hotel in Cusco as we’d be returning here in a few days.

The next day on the way out of Cusco, we stopped at the Cristo Blanco statue high in the hills on the way out of Cusco. We were heading through the Sacred Valley and stopped off at various spots, including at a women’s weaving co-operative, at Pisac which has some great Incan terraces, and at a wonderful restaurant which is supported by G Adventures for some more delicious food.

We ended the day in Ollantaytambo where we hiked briefly into the ruins – a spectacular view over the town and mountains from the ruins. After carbing up with a pasta dinner, it was an early night and an early start the next day to Kilometre 82 and the start of our 4 day hike to Machu Picchu. We got all our gear, met our porters who would be carrying food, tents, most of our stuff. We were also given snack packs to sustain us through the hike.

Ollantaytambo

The first day of the hike is relatively gentle (certainly compared to what was to come on day 2), and it was absolutely beautiful. We also really lucked out with the weather. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch. Again I had no real idea what to expect with the food but it was beyond anything I could have imagined – we had asparagus soup, fried trout, and jelly for dessert – all ideal for sustaining hiking, and the jelly was a very welcome surprise. At every meal stop we were also able to fill up with water which was obtained from nearby streams and boiled for sterilisation.

After lunch we headed off hiking again. You have to have a permit to hike the Inca Trail, which manages the numbers of people on there at any one time. This was arranged for me with the trip I’d booked. As you can imagine, this is a very popular hike so you would need to book well in advance. I’d booked this trip in February 2015 for a late November departure. We arrived into our first camp in the late afternoon. Our tents had already been set up by the porters so I took off my hiking boots and relaxed for a while before dinner.

Day 2 involved walking up hill for about 5 hours as we reached the highest point of the hike at Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 feet above sea level). There were times during the hike uphill where I could only make it literally 10 steps before needing a break due to the thin air. And whilst munching on coca leaves helped slightly, it was still very hard, but very rewarding work.

After a 3 hour walk downhill we arrived at the campsite for the second night where again our tents had already been erected and we were able to relax before another delicious and nourishing dinner. In the evenings we would sit out chatting and stargazing. It was approaching a full moon whilst we were there, you do get amazing views of the night sky here.

Day 3 was a long day of hiking – around 9 hours in total, but not quite as steep as day 2. We passed several Incan ruins which we were able to explore. We were also walking above the clouds at several points which was really awesome.

At lunch on day 3, our chefs had prepared a cake for us which was a huge surprise. the porters are truly amazing people who do this trip several times a month.

After an early night on day 3, it was an early morning for the final 5km into Machu Picchu. We were woken at 3.30am and headed out in the dark at around 5.30am. After climbing up a near-vertical wall, we arrived at the Sun Gate at around 7am and after getting down to the main citadel, we almost had the place to ourselves as only the early day-trippers from Aguas Calientes were arriving.

After reuniting with others in the group who didn’t do the Inca Trail hike, we briefly freshened up in the bathrooms (actual flushing toilets after a couple of days of squats and holes in the ground) and then had a guided tour of Machu Picchu. It’s so awesome to walk amongst the ruins, and large parts of it are very well preserved.

After the tour, we took the bus down the winding road to the town of Aguas Calientes where we had lunch, wifi and a well-deserved beer before heading on the panoramic train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a bus back to Cusco.

Back in Cusco I had the longest shower I was able to take in the intermittently hot/cold/dribble/gush of the shower head, as is usual in Peru. We then headed out for a celebratory dinner and Pisco Sours in Cusco. Definitely a night to let your hair down and celebrate a great hike.

The final part of the trip had meant to be a trip into the rainforest. However at the time of our trip there was some unrest in Puerto Maldonado and so we ended up staying in Cusco for a couple of extra days. Cusco has a lot of history, a lovely cathedral, and we enjoyed a cooking class including sampling the Peruvian delicacy of ceviche (cured raw fish).

We flew back to Lima for a final night before I flew home to a rainy UK (sans my bag which eventually made it a couple of days later). This was one of my favourite trips for many reasons. My first real time in a different culture, the food was so delicious (I think Peru and Vietnam are tied first in my favourite food experiences), the scenery was epic, the people on my trip were so lovely and to have the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail is something I will never forget.