14 April 2016

Three Weeks in Cuba — A Retrospective Travel Guide

As the United States begins to relax its rules that have long prohibited its citizens from travelling to Cuba, 2016 is billed as the year to visit the Caribbean's largest island in order to beat the rush. I visited Cuba way back in 2005: a couple of friends and I spent three weeks travelling around the country in the summer before our final year of university. As my trip pre-dated this blog, I thought I'd share some of my photos and experiences, although I am a little hazy some of the specifics. Warning: this is a photo-heavy post!

We spent a few days in the capital at the start of our trip and another night at the end. I really wasn't sure what to expect from Havana but I soon fell in love with the city. We stayed at the Hotel Palacio O'Farrill, a gorgeous hotel in the old town (La Habana Vieja). We got a great deal on our room (and got an upgrade too), which had high ceilings and lovely period details; throughout the trip, we paid about £30–50 per night for a room for three, I believe. We were right in the heart of the old town, which has beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture and plenty of lively public squares nearby,

One of the biggest surprises was the heat: I hadn't travelled to many tropical countries before and in August it was in the high thirties every day and extremely humid. We would often head back to our hotel room for a quick midday shower! Another surprise was the stark and rapid changes as you move through the city's neighbourhoods. The old town is pretty, historic and tourist-friendly, but just to the west is Centro Habana, which was residential and much more modern. The poverty was much more immediately apparent too, and this contrasted dramatically with Miramar, a little further west and a fancy neighbourhood resembling Beverly Hills where most of the embassies are located.

A few of the things we did in Havana:
  • Walked over to the Malecón (sea wall) and enjoyed the beautiful sunsets. There were stunning sunsets in every place we visited in Cuba.
  • Drank many mojitos, especially at Hemingway's favourite dive, La Bodeguita del Medio.
  • Hired a cab and visited Hemingway's house, Finca Vigía, which is nine miles from the city.
  • People-watched, admired the colourful architecture and classic American cars and chatted to the friendly locals.
  • Visited Plaza de la Revolución with its iconic Che mural and the Capitolio Nacional (the former seat of government).
  • Toured the Havana Club rum museum — and bought a bottle of fairly pricey rum that we somehow never ended up drinking!

Santiago de Cuba
Cuba is a long, slender island and Havana is located towards the western end, whereas Santiago, the second city, lies some 500 miles to the east on the south-eastern extreme. We took an overnight bus, which took about 16 hours with a few stops. We opted for the most expensive option, which was still only a few pounds, and the seats reclined and were incredibly comfortable so I got a better night's sleep than I've had on some planes. Dress for the air-conditioning though!

Santiago is much smaller than Havana but it's still a fairly large city. We only spent a couple of days there and spent most of the time exploring the city on foot, enjoying lovely rooftop meals at sunset. We also went on a half-day excursion to visit a coffee plantation, however. I was into coffee back then but not really into it, if you see what I mean. It was the first time I learned about the coffee production process and I was fascinated. Unfortunately, I don't think we got to try any coffee, which was a shame because it was arabica and throughout the whole trip, the only coffee we were served was robusta. Almost all of the arabica coffee is exported, which means that Cubans mainly drink robusta. On the way back to the city, we stopped at the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, a 17th century fortress with great views.

In Santiago, we stayed in pleasant, modern hotel in the city centre — the Meliã Santiago de Cuba. It had a wonderful swimming pool and was comfortable and perfectly nice but not what you would call characterful (again, we got a good deal).

We had hoped to visit Trinidad, a lovely, historic town that is also a UNESCO world heritage site, but Hurricane Dennis had stormed through a few weeks earlier, creating huge amounts of damage. We were planning to stay in a casa particular (private homestay) but unsurprisingly, nothing was available. Instead, we caught another overnight bus back to Havana and spent another night at Palacio O'Farrill.

This town — really not much more than a strip of resort hotels — is located on the Hicacos Penninsula, some 100 miles east of Havana. We wanted a bit of beach time during our trip and picked the best all-inclusive hotel our student budgets could afford. Although most of the hotels we stayed in were excellent value, our pennies didn't go far in pricey Varadero. The hotel rooms were unexciting, the food was unimpressive and the only included cocktails were Cuba Libres (cheap rum, in this case, and cheap coke). However, the beach was gorgeous and we spent two days soaking up the sun and enjoying the sea. The temperatures reached the forties while we were there and the warm Caribbean sea did little to cool us down.

My problem with Varadero was that we could have been anywhere in the world — we were told that Cubans weren't allowed on the peninsula except to work in the resorts, and there was very little in the way of local character or culture. And yes, I'm fully aware that our presence only contributed to this. Of all the places we visited, this was the one place I wouldn't return to. If you like beach holidays, there are better beaches elsewhere in the Caribbean and if you want to see the real Cuba, this isn't it.

Our next stop was Viñales, a small, rural town in the Pinar del Rio province, 100 miles west of Havana. I think we got a public bus back to Havana and then a taxi to Viñales. The heavens had opened during our taxi ride and it was bucketing down with rain. This, combined with narrow, winding roads, and our driver's carefree approach to speed limits made it a more exciting journey than we were expecting. When we arrived at our hotel, Los Jazmines, we were told that we were going to have to stay at the sister hotel, La Ermita, just down the road, because Hugo Chávez and his entourage were going to be staying in our original hotel. Our new hotel was supposedly better, though, so...win?

The valley of Viñales is a UNESCO World Heritage site and our rustic hotel was surrounded by beautiful countryside. La Ermita was a perfectly fine place to stay — the rooms were a decent size and had gorgeous views over the mountains, the food was quite good and there was a nice pool, although the army of mosquitoes guarding the latter made it a less tempting experience than I had hoped.

While in Viñales we did a caving tour one day. We also did a day trip on horseback where we met various local farmers and other people, learned about life in the region and learned to cook some local specialities. We visited a tobacco plantation and were given the chance to roll and smoke our own Cuban cigar (I didn't, of course!) and then met some very cute pigs. There is plenty of hiking in the area and other activities if you like the great outdoors.

Cayo Levisa
We wanted a little more beach time before heading back to London. Cayo Levisa is a tiny island just off the north shore of Cuba. It was on the way back from Viñales to Havana and I think we must have taken a taxi to get to the Palma Rubia port, where a boat shuttles to and from Cayo Levisa a couple of times per day. There is only one hotel on the island, Hotel Cayo Levisa, which has a few dozen rustic bungalows right on the beach. We scuba-dived, snorkelled, swam and ate delicious fresh fish in the hotel restaurant. The diving was the best I'd ever experienced: the water was beautifully clear and I saw many different fish, including a rather intimidating barracuda that lurked behind my shoulder.

There isn't a lot to do on Cayo Levisa but that's kind of the point. Things may have changed now, but when we were there, fresh water had to be brought over by boat each day and unfortunately, the boat broke for one of the days we were there meaning that there was no running water, but it was fine. We drank water from fresh coconuts and splashed in and out of the sea instead. Although the island is small, with so few visitors, you don't have to walk far to find your own private cove.

General points
The above information is ten years old, of course, but hopefully still useful. We loved the country and although we were often asked for money or 'gifts' — I remember feeling bad for holding onto the necklace I was wearing (a £4 shell pendant from Accessorize) that a young guy we'd been talking to for about 30 minutes asked for after telling us about his difficult life — but never felt unsafe. Everyone was very friendly and easy to talk to as well, and I absolutely loved the country's culture and rich, complex history. 

The Viazul long-distance buses were comfortable and cheap, if not particularly speedy, although we had to take a few long-distance taxis too when there wasn't a convenient bus. Hotel accommodation was also generally very reasonable (you can stay much more cheaply by frequenting casas particulares rather than hotels). The food was fairly bland — there's a lot of rice-and-beans or chicken-and-rice — which suited my then-unadventurous tastes just fine, but generally decent. The coffee served, as I mentioned above, is usually low quality, but there's plenty of good rum, so swings and roundabouts, really! I would love to go back to Cuba one day to see how much it has changed.

The postscript to this story is that while we were there, Hurricane Katrina was making its way inland. It was originally supposed to blow right through the middle of Cuba and, without internet access in our hotels, our only news source was the one English-language TV channel available in the hotels: CNN. We were more than a little nervous but kept on travelling. Eventually, of course, Katrina's course changed and we flew home the day it made its first landfall in Florida. Our flight had to change its route, but we were fine, unlike so many others. 

Although Cuba didn't bear the brunt of the storm, there were tropical storms and huge amounts of rainfall and 8,000 people were evacuated from Pinar del Rio, which had been so calm and peaceful during our visit days earlier. I can't hear the words 'Hurricane Katrina' without thinking of Cuba and vice-versa.

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