Cuba defies all the things I’d assumed about the country
Musings of my 7 nights in Cuba.
Day 1. Fri. Long flight via Madrid. Madrid airport was confusing with poor signage for terminals and Transit. There is a separate channel for transit passengers (to the right and up the stairs) as you enter the terminal building. This avoids having to double passport entry/departure with everyone else.
Journey through Havana airport was quick and easy, though apparently it can take 2hrs! They checked ESTA entry before immigration. At immigration they take a photo of you and stamp your external visa form (not your passport). After, they scan your baggage and then it’s a 20m walk to baggage claim (bags were quite slow in coming through). There’s one final baggage check before you leave (just someone looking at where you’ve flown from and if you have excess luggage what you might be bringing into the country).
Outside the terminal there’s the usual cacophony of taxi drivers, transfer drivers and locals).
The drive from the airport to Old Havana, took around 30mins and was dark and uneventful. Very surprised at the charm of Casa Viega (a casa Particular). Recently opened, with comfortable ensuite rooms and AC. It’s s traditional house, which is ideal for Achoice and typical of this style. Very impressed by accommodation, especially as the approach is full of dilapidated old buildings.
Had a snack and drink on roof terrace before hitting the sack. Slept well.
Work early and went for a pre- dawn walk around Havana. Dark, very quiet, but felt safe.
After a pleasant breakfast of fruit, coffee, toast, juice and eggs we left for our cycle ride around Havana. Good quality Trek bikes (well maintained). Saw loads of classic American cars, quiet roads, city park and river. Ended up at Revolution Square where the ride ended. After drove a short distance to have lunch burrito style wraps with beef, cheese, and banana. Simple, but very good. In the afternoon we drove to Vinales via motorway, golf course (where we waited whilst driver went for fuel) and rougher country roads. Our accommodation is in a Casa Particulars – very comfortable. Saturday night, was party night. The main street closed, and people set up shop selling drinks, cocktails, and snacks. Live music was going on in the square. Stopped for street cocktails before heading home.
Day 2. A busy day exploring Vinales and onward drive to Tres Terrazas, Santa Clara and finally Hanabanilla.
Another comfortable night’s sleep, followed by a breakfast of coffee, fruit, toasties, juice and bread.
Walked into the village to see how tobacco is grown, cured, and turned into cigars. A delightful elderly lady kindly showed us the different types of leaves used and how they are rolled into the famous Cuba cigar. She was 80 years old and smoked every day!
The area is surrounded by ancient limestone crags (popular with rock climbers). We continued our walk through the village pastures with the odd cows and goats to some limestone caves. The path up to the caves was steep and uneven, however the views were worth it and the cave was interesting with its stalactites and sleeping bats.
We returned to the minibus and departed for Tres Terrazas. The area is a UNESCO Biosphere park, and very pretty with small lakes, activities and pleasant hotel. Park was formerly an area for charcoal production and associated deforestation. In the 70’s the government decided to protect and reforest the area and now it‘s been fully restored.
We were treated to a lovely lunch at a former residence of a pre-revolution French coffee producer. the French came to Cuba after the revolution in Haiti and brought coffee with them.
After lunch we did a leisurely, but long drive in the rain to Santa Clara to see the tomb and mausoleum of Cha Guevara. For such an important historical figure and centre point of the Cuban revolution if had the feel of somewhere that had been neglected. Unfortunately, were arrived too late to visit the museum under the mausoleum (for another time). We departed Santa Clara for the last hours’ drive to Hotel Hanabanilla located in the Topes de Collantes National Park. The hotel was a former soviet style hotel (one size fits all…It did make me think that being an architect in Soviet times must have been a little dull as all these hotels look the same).
Day 3 – After a simple breakfast we walked down to the lake and caught the boat to the far end. It was a stunning journey, forested with native trees and plants. The air was cool after the evenings rain and the journey to the dam at the end of the lake took about an hour. Waiting for us as a rickety old soviet army truck which took us through the Topes de Collantes National Park via coffee growing areas to the starting point of our walk to the waterfalls at Vegas las Grandes. The track was reasonably well waymarked and easy under foot to start with. The last section was quite steep on a muddy track which led down to the Vegas las Grandes waterfall and cool plunge pool where we all swam and sat under the descending waterfall to cool off. Lunch was served on the trail in makeshift openair picnic spot and consisted of salad, fried pork, chicken, beans, rice and fruit.
We returned on the same path back to the bus and continued our journey to Trinidad, a delightful UNESCO world heritage town. We arrived in the dark, so didn’t get a feel for the town. Had delicious dinner at our Casa Particular.
Day 4 – Today we spent a full day exploring Trinidad on foot. As we’d arrived last night in the dark we hadn’t realised what a delightful and well preserved former Spanish colonial town Trinidad was2, with some really great photo opportunities. The buildings were colourful, the streets cobbled and quiet and as if planned, locals appeared on street corners to play music and entertain us. In the afternoon, we drove out to do a little zip wiring. The Zip was OK, but not very challenging, only 3 zips. After we continued onto Manacas Iznaga to see impressive tower and former sugar baron’s hacienda. The tower was said to have been built by the son of the baron to prove his love for a local girl.
Day 5 – This morning we departed Trinidad for Cienfuegos. En-route stopped at Bahia dos Ceinfuegos to sea kayak to Castillo Jagua (Spanish fort guarding the entrance to Bahia dis Ceinfuegos). There are many options for sea kayaking in Cuba and this short trip was to give us a flavour of kayaking in Cuba.
Continued into Cienfuegos for fuel (lots of run-down colonnaded building. The town was French in origin and has a different feel to many of the more Spanish places we visited. Continued to Bay of Pigs and Playa Giron to snorkel around the coral reefs. Lovely spot, frequented by both divers and snorkellers. There’s a dive school which hires masks, fins and snorkels (Closes around 4:30). Clean loos and changing rooms. From Giron, we drove the last 32kms to the Bay of Pigs. Stopped in Playa Larga. Lots of Casa Particulars on the beach. Had dinner overlooking beach and watched the sunset.
Day 6 – Our last full day took us back to Havana. We were dropped off by the fort in the old city and spent the next couple of hours exploring this lovely party of Havana with its old colonial buildings and well-preserved squares. Had lunch at Paladar Dona Eutimia, which weas excellent the then spent the afternoon exploring.
Had our last night’s dinner in a very special place called, La Guarida. Had the best mojitos on the terrace overlooking Havana and the best meal of the trip. Quite a surprise! The owner purchased the restaurant after offering his house for the Oscar winning move Strawberries and Chocolate.
Day 7 – No trip to Cuba is complete without a cruise around the city in those old American classics – many of these cars are 70+ years old and you’d think they’d just come off the production line. We drove down the Malecon, to the diplomatic areas and on to Fusterlandia, where the streets have been painstakingly decorated in mosaics created by the artist Jose Fuster.
You just can’t pigeon hole Cuba. On the one hand it’s falling apart, there’s not much to buy, the shops are empty and upcycling is the answer to the current US embargo. In most places in the world there would be chaos and crime, but not in Cuba. Since my return I find myself thinking about this fascinating country all the time. Somehow Cuba works even though by our standards they have so little. For now I’ll put it down to the Salsa, Rum and all that Vitamin D from hours of sunshine.
Cuba definately needs to be top of your bucket list.
Call or email me if you’d like to plan a trip to this fascinating country.