It’s a 9 hour flight from London to Havana and we landed at 4:30 in the afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport. Entry into Cuba was interesting and had similarities with Passport Control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport many years ago. But after much examination of the passport, the door into Havana was opened and then quickly slammed shut as each individual passed through, leaving whomever you were travelling with to take their turn out of both sight and earshot. Eventually, the door opens again, thankfully to admit the face you were expecting rather than a stranger which, in such an unfortunate event, would beg the question, “Where the hell…..?”
Luggage Reclaim was more of a challenge than at many other places. Firstly, identifying the correct carousel for your flight was more intuitive. Secondly, a baggage handler was busily removing bags and creating a random pile alongside. And, if you took your eye away from the bags as they entered the scene on one of two separate carousels, yours could easily be ‘selected’ for removal onto the airport floor. Anyway, we got lucky and were soon off to find the Travel Rep and then the air conditioned coach as the temperature quickly felt Caribbean.
The journey from the airport to our hotel took 30 minutes. The Parque Central Hotel in the middle of Havana was to be our home for the first five nights before travelling four hours further down the island to the coastal city of Trinidad – a world heritage site - for the second half of the holiday.
There was little left of the day on the Sunday but we walked as far as the Capitolio and then back to stroll down the Boulevard Prado to El Malecon. And despite more ambitious ideas earlier, our evening meal turned out to be little more than a pizza on the roof of the hotel!
Most of what we wanted to do we knew in advance. Tuesday became fully booked with Vinales Valley taking up the day and the Buena Vista Social Club providing the entertainment in the evening. We decided that Tropicana would be a good place to eat and spend our last evening in Havana, on the Thursday.
With all of the planning and organising taken care of we headed off in a taxi to Revolution Square to see a huge memorial to that man Jose Marti as well as the distinct outlines of both Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings at the far side of the Plaza. Plaza de la Revolucion is basically a huge square where thousands of people can gather for whatever reason Cuba sees fit and it exposed us for the first time to the heat of the day. Having seen all there was to see in Revolution Square we slumped into one of Cuba’s novelty Coco-Taxi’s to get ourselves back to the Capitolio, the focal point building in central Havana. Looking very much like Cuba’s own version of the White House the Capitolio provided us with a backdrop to our first real sight of the classic old American cars whose lives have somehow been extended by a combination of the favourable climate and the resourcefulness of Cuban mechanics. A walk around the perimeter of the Capitolio uncovered what looked like an old train scrap yard. There was also one of Havana’s premier cigar factory’s (El Partegas), a fairly major bus stop, and the edge of downtown Havana and its Chinatown district.
And it was here, close to the entrance to Chinatown, that we stopped for a drink ….. and also where we met Fernando. The bar was very ‘local’ and a drink was all we wanted but our waiter who spoke excellent English engaged us in conversation for the next half an hour and concluded with an offer of dinner with him (Fernando) and his wife that evening. Having researched Cuba I knew of the likelihood of this kind of offer as Cubans, some legally and some illegally (i.e. licensed and unlicensed), trade their hospitality for extra cash to try and bridge the economic gap between the real cost of an average living and the combination of state rations and a low personal income. So, we agreed that at 7 o’clock that evening we would get a taxi the short distance to Fernando’s home.
But before that, we headed for the streets and sights of Old Havana to see the old squares - Plazas Vieja, San Francisco and de las Armas. We set off on foot through the city in the direction of the port, passing La Floridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars). A glimpse inside the door showed it was far too busy – “we’ll come back” we thought.
The streets of Havana, with a few exceptions, are very rundown and in much need of repair and renovation. This process is happening but slowly. In its own modest way it’s a busy, bustling city but, with the equivalent of the population of London spread out over an island almost equal in size to the UK, the volumes of both people and traffic make life comfortable almost all of the time. Money is scarce and, with government controls being the way they are, Cuba has by default become a comparatively eco-friendly country with horses and bicycles used for private and public transport. Coco Taxis, powered by what is basically a small motor bike, exist mainly for the benefit of tourists whilst almost every car that you see can double as a taxi (official or unofficial) if required. Cuba is a third world country and with it comes a few idiosyncrasies that the eager tourist must make allowances for. It strikes me that it’s similar to Spain maybe forty years ago when you couldn’t guarantee running water every day and the shelves in the shops displayed little variety and were half-empty. So don’t be surprised if sometimes things fall short of your usual expectations.
Accepting the invitation to Fernando’s house for dinner was maybe a gamble but in hindsight it was nothing other than a safe decision. We spent around two hours talking about things Cuban over dinner and drinks. It was fun to talk football, basketball, education and life in general although Fernando’s wife spoke no English and so her contribution was mainly culinary but we left with a gift of three cigars plus a simple, unplanned and memorable experience in exchange for a financial donation that was gratefully received by our hosts. Fernando’s subtle reluctance to see us out as far as the street confirmed my suspicions that his was of the ‘unlicensed’ type of Casa Particular. Our relatively short walk back to Parque Central was easy and uneventful; in stark contrast to what had been a busy first full day in Havana.
It was an early start for us on the Tuesday. We needed to be ready for the journey to Vinales Valley by 7:30. With the Buena Vista Social Club already pencilled in for the evening it was going to be a long day. Vinales was a 2 ½ hour bus ride and on route we stopped to see a Cigar Factory, Tobacco Farm and the local caves as well as the Valley of Vinales. And contrary to what some of the guidebooks had said about the food in Cuba, we found the standards to be more than acceptable. The visit to Vinales included a lunch and being so early in the holiday we were slightly dubious about what would be set before us but there was no need to worry; and that proved to be the case for the rest of our stay in Cuba.
Back in Havana we found ourselves on a strict deadline to get to the Havana Club Bar and Museum in Old Havana, close to the commercial port. The Buena Vista Social Club was founded in the thirties and has gained a worldwide reputation for its brand of Cuban music and song. The original members have almost all since passed away but the existing participants have managed to maintain the high standards set by their predecessors. A couple of Cuban dancers added a touch of Salsa to the ongoing efforts of the various singers and musicians until midnight when after several Mojito’s we exited the door of the Havana Club Bar straight into an always available and very reasonable taxi that took us back to Parque Central for one more drink before bed.
The following morning we wanted to take the small ferry across Havana Bay. Another taxi ride down to the port, we managed to find the ferry ‘terminal’, bought our tickets, had our bags searched and stepped onto the boat. The rusty, flat-bottomed boat eventually chugged into action for the short ten minute crossing. Two places separated by even the smallest stretch of water can have a totally different feel and atmosphere. We had left behind the busyness of the city and disembarked on the eastern side of the bay in an area of almost total peace and quiet. But the sun was relentless as we walked up the hill to the fortress area and to Che Guevara’s house, now a museum. Perched high, next to the large statue of Christ, Che's house overlooked the bay and old Havana. The chance to see the various Che artefacts, photographs and personal belongings were well worth the effort and Che Guevara, as you quickly discover, is a hugely significant figure in Cuba - for an Argentinian!
Che’s house was a ten minute walk from the fortress which was then a further ten minutes to the lighthouse. We laboured in the heat around the old military fort which covered a large area on this eastern side of the bay and walking around the lanes within the grounds soon became quite draining so eventually we found the one and only place where we could buy a drink and, amazingly, we were the only customers. One Buccanero beer later and then another and we decided to get back over to the main part of the city. Could we find a taxi? It’s simple in Cuba, speak to anybody and they will get you a taxi. Whether it’s a proper taxi or more likely a friend with a car who will give you a lift for a fee often remains to be seen. This time, it was definitely a friend with a car; an old American car, a knackered old American car with a crack across half of its windscreen but then this is Cuba, the land of MoT’s and regular servicing, I think not!
The car took us back across and we had a short walk from where we got out to Plaza de San Francisco. From here, we ventured into Plaza Vieja, Plaza de las Armas and also the Cathedral. Lunch and Mojito’s were taken at La Bodeguita del Medio and we poked our noses into the Hotel Ambos Mundo (another Hemingway favourite).
The stroll back towards Parque Central somehow seemed longer due to the heat of the day. And by the time we La Floridita it was time for a drink and this time there was plenty of room at the bar. Two Daquiri’s each and an hour later we made our way back to the hotel, having decided by then that we would eat that evening in the Restaurante del Oriente down in Plaza de San Francisco. The remainder of the afternoon was spent on the roof of the hotel by the pool with a book and in the hot tub.
The Restaurante del Oriente was one of Havana’s more upmarket eateries. We knew in advance so were well prepared for the expense but it’s nice to do it at least once each holiday. And so we did. Afterwards we walked around some of Old Havana at night before finishing in the bar at the hotel with yet another different cocktail.
The following day, Thursday, was our last full day in Havana and there were still a few places to see. First was the the city’s cemetery. It is huge and worth stopping for half an hour or so. The Cementario Colon contained a mixture of the small and regular at one end of the scale and the huge and ornate at the other end. Tombs belonging to famous Spanish and Cuban families with their own security systems sit alongside, as an example, a pyramid (resembling a small model of those in Giza, Egypt). Much visited is La Milagrosa, the grave of Senora Amelia Goyra who died in childbirth at the beginning of 20th century. Mother and Child are said to have been buried side by side but when the coffin was subsequently opened the baby’s body was found in its mother’s arms. [In Havana, the bodies of the poor are allowed to be buried in the most prominent area of the cemetery for two years and they are then removed and reburied in smaller concrete ‘municipal’ caskets in a secluded and largely unvisited part of the grounds.]
From here, we hailed one of Havana’s smarter looking taxi’s which took us to the Callejon de Hammel - a tiny side street that has been given over by the Cuban government to artists and sculptors and the entire street is a work of art. It is very much ‘downtown’ Havana and far from a typical tourist destination. Because of that were a curiosity but never felt threatened in any way so we took our photographs and moved on. From here, we headed for the El Malecon promenade and on to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a huge edifice and one of Havana’s top hotels. It overlooks the sea from its raised position and whilst the location isn’t ideal for getting about easily and sightseeing, the facilities in the hotel are first class so a drink in the garden overlooking the Caribbean was well in order.
The Cuban sun was on maximum again and Plaza de San Francisco was simply too far to contemplate walking. Therefore, our contribution to the Taxi Driver’s Fund continued to increase. Next on the list was the covered Craft Market down by the waterfront. This was further away than we thought and we needed the help of a member of staff at the nearby Hotel Santander to locate it.
I rarely expect much from local markets aside from the chance to exercise the camera but the Havana craft market solved a few 'Gift' problems and we spent some of our Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC).
On our way back towards Old Havana we stopped at the Hotel Santander for a drink; our way of repaying the assistance given earlier which helped us find the craft market. From here it was an easy stroll back through Old Havana – in my opinion the most relaxing area in the city, full of colour and easy on both the eyes and the senses. Clearly, this is where most of the investment has been made to-date in the huge refurbishment project that exists.
We stopped for lunch at the Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja and then set about finding one of the old casa’s that are open to the public in this part of the city, La Casa de Africa. Essentially, this is an example of a large traditional Cuban residence that has been transformed into a museum. The exhibits majored on Santeria, a religion estimated to still being practised by up to 65% of the population, and walking around the casa for a while certainly added another piece to the Cuban cultural jigsaw that we were slowly piecing together.
This was to be our last experience of the sights and sounds of Old Havana and we made our way back up through the distressed backstreets including the now familiar “O’Reilly”, a street that we almost always found on our way back to without even trying. And we knew that if we kept walking we would eventually see the dome of El Capitolio before arriving at the junction close to La Floridita, a stones throw from our hotel.
The pool and the hot tub on the roof of the Hotel Parque Central now seemed a good fit for the rest of the afternoon.
We had booked an evening meal at Tropicana Club before the 2 hour show. Tropicana has been operating since 1939 and is located on the south western outskirts of the city so we allowed time for the 30-minute taxi ride. Our taxi driver, Javier, offered to be outside waiting for us after the show had ended and did so without payment in advance so we readily agreed. Isn't trust a great thing!!??
The show at Tropicana was something else that simply had to be done. And I’m pleased to say that it was more classy and traditional than typically tourist and splashing out on both the meal beforehand and front row seats proved to be money well spent.
Afterwards, as promised, Javier was outside waiting for us and half an hour later we were back at the bar in the Parque Central with the free cigar and the remains of the bottle of Havana Club Rum that came as part of the ticket at Tropicana.
With each day full to bursting, getting a good night’s sleep was never a problem in Havana but there were still a few boxes to tick on Friday morning before we checked out and set off for Trinidad. So, with breakfast regretfully finished for the final time we targeted the Revolution Museum which was within easy walking distance of the hotel. We loitered around what we thought was marked as the entry gate until the published opening time of 10 a.m. before being chased away by a taxi driver for taking photographs of his shiny black Cadillac! We then walked around the opposite side of the building and found a small queue of people that looked promisingly like they were buying tickets – and they were. Inside the building there were various posters confirming the past relationship between Cuba and Russia; caricatures of George Bush I, Ronald Reagan and Batista in what translated to be ‘Cretins Corner’, and a mock-up of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos thrashing through the jungle on a mission. Outside, there was an area given over to former military aircraft (well, bits of it anyway), vessels and vehicles used in conflict plus the actual boat with the slightly strange name “Granma” which Fidel used to journey into Cuba and kick-start the revolution. Next to all of this was an eternal flame, now a fairly common worldwide symbol used in memory of those lost in major battles.
Aware of our 2 o’clock taxi ride, we still had time to call in at the Hotel Sevilla for a drink. The Sevilla has a bit of history including being a base location for the film ‘Our man in Havana’. But we had time only for a drink and a snack; we sat in the courtyard café area and listened to yet another Cuban band. Around us, the walls had framed photographs of their celebrity visitors including Al Capone who apparently occupied the entire 6th Floor during his stays.
The journey down to Trinidad was largely uneventful with much of the four hour journey being undertaken on a long, straight concrete road that I guess would be regarded as a motorway if you ignore the fact that people stand in the slow lane waving and hoping either to sell you something or alternatively to hitch a ride. The occasional bush growing through the concrete in the middle lane also presented an interesting challenge.
Cars, or rather powered transport generally, are owned usually by necessity or not at all in Cuba. Fuel is relatively expensive and the Cuban people rely heavily on each other for many things and this includes stopping to help those that need to get from A to B. Consequently, spare seats in any vehicle are regarded as a waste and it was difficult not to feel slightly guilty about the extra space that we enjoyed on our journey from Havana to Trinidad.
On route we travelled through the outskirts of Cienfuegos, a major city compared to the various towns that quickly came and went along the way as we exited the motorway and found rural Cuba. We switched from the foothills on one side of the Escambray mountains to the other and soon we could see the sea. And after precisely four hours travelling we arrived at Las Brisas del Mar.
Saturday was to be our first real day of relaxation. Nothing to do, precisely as planned! After tolerating breakfast we made our way to the beach to try and lay claim to a small square of sand to call our own for the day and, the best surprise ever, we had it just about all to ourselves. Did I pay extra for this? It was magic! Yard upon yard of Caribbean coastline with barely another soul in sight. And that was it until lunchtime when there was little fear about losing our place under the three palms that now felt almost legally ours!
More beach time after lunch before dinner and then tomorrow we head for the mountains!
Just like the journey down from Havana to Trinidad, the two hour drive into the mountains provided an insight into Cuban life and how tough things are for the people. The roads in places were close to impassable but weren’t regarded as a problem by Eduardo, our driver, who incidentally had flown MIG 21’s during the Bay of Pigs conflict. Oscar did his best to point out certain things along the way including the comon Turkey Vulture. They quite simply dominate the skies in rural Cuba, their large wingspan enabling them to glide lazily to the extent that they can apparently go without food for up to three weeks.
The attractive skies over Cuba had been a feature since our arrival. Rarely cloudless, for all of its sunshine and warmth, the Cuban countryside remains Green and gets its fair share of rain at almost anytime of the year. We finally reached our destination high up in the Escambray Mountains where we had an hour walking with Oscar followed by lunch in a small restaurant. Along the way Oscar pointed out the various birds and trees that were around and explained some of the ways in which the Cuban people make use of the natural resources available. Cuban people are especially resourceful; they have to be.
At the highest point of the walk we reached a series of waterfalls and relaxed until the idea of lunch slowly became increasingly attractive and our small group - the two of us, Oscar and a family of three also from the UK – made their way back down the narrow, stepped pathway until we eventually returned to the restaurant area.
Don’t kid yourself that the choice of food in these circumstances is endless. Far from it, but it is certainly acceptable and better than we were led to believe before we arrived in Cuba. Us five Brits sat together and compared notes on Cuba in general until it was time to move on again. But we didn’t have to go far before Oscar pointed us in the general direction of more waterfalls and said that we only had forty minutes because the weather was starting to close in and it would be dangerous to travel back along the mountain roads to Trinidad in bad weather. Forty minutes turned out to be just enough time to walk to the bottom, take photographs and then retreat before being totally eaten alive by over-attentive mosquitoes.
The clouds certainly looked as if they were warming up to deliver something big but we travelled back safely to Trinidad and only met with the rain as we were passing through the City on our way back to Las Brisas. We had organised with Oscar that he would take us on a walking tour of Trinidad the following morning and promised that we would give him some of the things that we had brought to Cuba for the children that we had seen during our trip into the mountains.
We met Oscar as planned in the lobby of the Las Brisas at 8:30. He had bad news. He was unable to do the walking tour of Trinidad because he was required for a trip back into the mountains again. It was a shame but he explained that we should meet Juan Carlos at a hotel in the centre of Trinidad and there we were introduced to Lazaro who was to be our guide for the morning tour. Lazaro was a totally different character to Oscar. More quietly spoken but like Oscar very good with English (and four other languages) and we stood in the square outside the hotel listening to him explain some of the early history of Trinidad before we set off on the walk.
It took about two hours as we strolled through the aged streets that still showed the scars of past hurricane damage. You could feel the stresses and strains of living in somewhere like Trinidad, even compared to Havana which, because of its city status, has benefits that the more rural parts of Cuba don’t.
We stopped for a drink with Lazaro and watched a Cuban band and dancers for half an hour and then visited the History Museum. We also stopped at an Art Museum and met the Artist who happened to be at home. Some of her work was really different and I could have been tempted if the price and logistics of getting something like that home safely had been right, but they weren’t.
We ended the tour, tipped Lazaro and thanked him for his time and then it was back for lunch before heading to the beach and 'our' palm tree.
The following day, our last in Trinidad, was set aside to do absolutely nothing other than read and lie under our tree drinking. Only Santa Clara had so far eluded us. This would have been a bit of a shame really because it was the scene of a significant action led by Che Guevara that was key to victory and as a result the city of Santa Clara is dominated by Che’s influence. With the help of our local rep Juan Carlos we were luckily still able to get there.
Juan Carlos had been organising our transfer back to Havana Airport and suggested that if we still wanted to see Santa Clara then we could instead leave earlier and divert to Santa Clara on route to Havana – so this is what we agreed to do.
A part of me was hoping we might see a storm during our time in Cuba. It’s usually really good for photographs and midway through the afternoon, we noticed that the peaks of the not too distant Escambray Mountains had partially disappeared. Soon after, the skies over Trinidad city darkened significantly as a band of heavy cloud rolled over towards the coast – and towards us.
The cloud cover was slowly working its way towards us, creating this ‘half dark-half light’ effect over the area, but eventually we conceded defeat and left our tree for the final time. By the time we got back to the room it had started to rain and within five minutes our balcony was flooded. The “all-weather” Turkey Vultures continued to glide their way around the resort looking down on those who had less durability but the interruption provided us with a chance to think about packing.
Organised for the journey home as much as we could be, it was time for either a cocktail or a beer before our evening meal. On our final night we decided to splash out on the lobster. There was a small price to pay for those who wanted it but it was the final proper meal of the holiday so we decided to have it.
The final day; we had breakfast early before checking out and meeting the taxi for the journey back to Havana airport via Santa Clara. Different roads and different scenery. Our driver for the day was the same one that had taken us into Trinidad for our walking tour and delivered us back to Las Brisas on Monday. His English was verging on non-existent so a little bit of Spanish helped break the silence along the way.
We then encountered one of those ‘National Geographic moments that you simply don’t see every day. Playa Ancon was fast disappearing behind us and following the coastline the road ahead gradually changed from sunlit Grey to a mottled Red colour. And for the next two or three kilometres the tarmac had literally become a pedestrian crossing for Red Crabs, crawling in both directions from and to the beach which was on our left hand side with trees and countryside on our right. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them braving the walk and some stopping defiantly (or maybe in surrender), raising their front claws as the car slowly approached.
Despite our driver taking as much care with both speed and direction to avoid them, you couldn’t miss the sound of crunching shell under the wheels of our taxi. Not that the Turkey Vultures were complaining! He explained that this happens during one week in every year, usually in April. This crustacean massacre was soon behind us and we pushed on to Santa Clara.
As you get nearer and nearer to Santa Clara, images of Che become more prominent and more regular. On billboards, hand-drawn on walls, and also in more general references to the Argentinian revolutionary who died in Bolivia on a mission in 1967; Che Guevara was Santa Clara’s claim to fame.
The floodlights of what looked like a sports stadium turned out to be the lights around the Plaza de la Revolucion which was to be our first stop of the day. Che’s statue stood at the top of the square looking over the marble seating area used by Fidel, Raul and other dignitaries during national parade’s and similar such occasions.
The area directly behind the statue led to the museum and also the room where Che was buried. We were limited on time as we had another stop to make in Santa Clara before we aimed for the airport but we made the most of what there was to see in the museum. And the tomb with Che, his colleagues and the eternal flame was a fairly quick walkthrough; in one door and out of another.
We finally persuaded our driver to take us to the site where Che derailed the enemy train and its carriages; something regarded as a significant action in the war effort and a major contributor to ultimate victory. It's in an open area on a main road and by a railway crossing of the still used railway track and it didn't take long to look around. And before leaving I went and bought two bottles of water; one for us and one for our driver who was visibly struggling with the heat. It was important to look after him – we still had a three hour journey to make.
We drove through the centre of Santa Clara on our way out of the city and, as far as seeing Cuba was concerned, we were effectively at the end of our holiday. We arrived at Jose Marti Airport in good time but only to find that our flight had already been delayed by a couple of hours. The delay soon became four hours and our plane took off at 11 o’clock that evening rather than 7.
We were woken at about 11 am UK time (we originally should have landed at 09:30) by the Captain’s announcement apologising for the extra time that the flight was taking. The reason – a volcanic ash cloud that was drifting over the UK from Iceland. It turned out to be genuine. Our pilot was still ‘hoping’ to be able to land in the UK and was going as quickly as he could but there was a chance that we could be diverted. As it happened, we got down just before the UK airports were closed.
Cuba was just about everything we expected and maybe even a little more. I don’t think that I fully appreciated the extent of disrepair and poverty that we would encounter on the trip. But like in many other countries around the world that have similar and sometimes worse living conditions and quality of life, the people in Cuba put on a brave face and rise above their ‘below average’ situation, making the most of what they have, accepting that they cannot as individuals change things, and instead simply try to enjoy life in the best way that they can. Their enthusiasm to help others has been fine tuned now that tourism, a feature of Cuban life only since 1992, has become a vital part of the island’s economy.