By Sarah Ross-Browne
Worldwide Location: Caribbean Island; 90miles south of Florida, North America
Locations under the Spotlight:
- Havana (Capital)
- Viñales (rural west: Tobacco growing region)
- Trinidad (Declared a World Heritage site in 1988: located in the South)
- Cayo Guillermo (Beach)
What to expect:
- Very friendly locals
- A rich array of architecture best described as shabby chic
- Beautiful cars that we would call ‘classics’
- No American brands
- A strong sense of stepping back in time.
- There is not a lot of English spoken ….. learn some key Spanish words to get by.
- Two currencies in use throughout Cuba – Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP). Most prices here are quoted in convertible pesos (CUC$) and nearly everything tourists buy is in this currency
Where to stay:
Since 1997 the Cuban government has allowed residents to rent rooms in their houses to tourists, they are called Casas Particulares. Staying in Casa Particulares gives you a great insight into Cuban life and there are so many to choose from in each town that you can select a location that suits you. It is possible to negotiate the price a slightly, but generally prices are from 35/30 CUC (Havana) to 15 CUC (smaller places).
Most are very clean, comfortable and have air-conditioning. Often they will offer breakfast (2-4 CUC for eggs, bread, jam, fruit, juice etc.) and supper is also usually offered for about 8 CUC per person (and highly recommended as the food we ate in the Casa’s was the best we had on our trip!) You will usually be offered a buffet of rice, beans, fish, vegetables, soup etc. and as many Mojitos as you can drink without falling over!
There are a few ‘more exclusive’ places to stay if you don’t fancy staying with the locals. The majority of hotels on the coast are all inclusive and a few in Havana are also All Inclusive, namely Hotel Inglatera and Hotel Saville located in central Havana on the Plaza.
We spent 3 nights at Melia Cayo Guillermo (5* by Cuban standards) which was very nice with a fabulous, very quiet beach and crystal clear water. This hotel was all inclusive although the food wasn’t great but we found that to be true of most of Cuba. The hotel also had a gorgeous swimming pool.
What to do:
- Take a convertible Cadillac taxi for a tour round Havana (you will see much more than in a horse and carriage)
- Visit the many squares- Plaza Vieja is lovely and there is a great Casa very close – Casa de Pepe and Rafaela.
- There is a great indoor market at the old train station on the waterfront with loads of art and souvenirs
- The rum factory is worth a visit
- The cigar factory is apparently good but it was closed for a refurbishment when we tried to visit (You can buy much cheaper cigars from the locals who will wait around outside)
- Museum de revolution; good for a history lesson.
- Lovely little town with most people using a horse and cart.
- Bus from Havana (15 CUC) takes about 2 hours; we somehow booked a bus that stopped off at a tobacco farmers house also stopped for lunch and again at the big painting! We thought we were going direct but was a bonus to have a few extra things thrown in!
- Do a horse ride (book it at your casa or from the many locals walking the streets) – ride through the fields and visit a fabulous natural lake for a swim. We were lucky enough to meet a local tobacco farmer who gave us mojitos and showed us how to roll a cigar.
- There is a big rock painting just outside – it’s really not worth it! (It was painted 50 years ago and is just a tourist trap!)
- There is a great central plaza with music and dancing every night.
- A beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets and fabulous architecture.
- A great little market for gorgeous handmade table clothes/bed covers (you can’t seem to really get them anywhere else)
- We hired bikes and rode to the beach- it’s about 30mins to La Boca (not a nice beach but quite a nice little town) then from there we rode to Playa Ancon – much nicer beach. It’s a lovely bike ride through countryside and if there aren’t bikes left at the only bike hire place ask one of the locals; they managed to find us two bikes just by knocking on doors and asking nicely!
- If you are booking buses from Trinidad make sure you book early as they get booked up very quickly.
- STUNNING BEACHES! You need to get a bus to Moron followed by a taxi (approx. 2 hours 30/40 CUC) across the causeway to the beaches.
- Good diving and snorkelling
- Crystal clear water
- Beaches very quiet (however I predict that it won’t be like this for long…)
Tips for visiting Cuba
* Take little presents for kids; great for kids of Casa owners or kids on the street- pencils, bracelets, toys etc.
* Be careful in Havana- lots of reports of muggings etc. but we felt pretty safe if you stay perceptive.
* Tourists use CUC (Cuban convertibles) the locals use CUP (Cuban Pesos) which are difficult for tourists to get hold of but if you can you can buy things a bit cheaper. Approx. 1.5 CUC = 1 GBpound
* Learn some Spanish- it’s an incredible country with very friendly locals so if you can speak to them and find out about Cuban life it would be even better.
* The Cubans are very laid back and you won’t be pestered for things- if you say you don’t want it they leave you alone- if you are trying to haggle be warned then when they say no they very rarely change their mind and will sit and watch you walk off rather than chase you for a lower price.
* The food isn’t great- it’s worth sticking with fish as its usually pretty fresh- they love to deep fry their chicken!
* Take a raincoat- When it rains it POURS!
* Great coffee- not a lot of tea!
* Great rum- awful wine!