A while back when Cass and I were both planning this trip, one of the things at the top of our travel hit list was to visit Cuba. There is a certain level of “travel romanticism” about the place with its closed borders for many years and yesteryear appeal. However, we soon found out that it takes a bit more planning than most places. Money must be brought in and internet, something that we relied on so much for our travels, was difficult to access. We were also initially a bit concerned about the language barrier when planning. However, after struggling through many situations so far on our trip with our limited Spanish we felt we were up for it.
For me, the excitement began as we started to descend towards Havana airport. I marvelled at the broken-down planes next to the airport runway as we taxied to our gate. Surprisingly immigration was easy enough to clear. We then waited at the wrong baggage claim point for the next half an hour which slowed us down a bit. It did give us a bit of a chance to people watch – the uniforms for the airport staff were incredible with their burnt orange and very short skirts for the women.
We eventually made it into a taxi which soon sped towards our accommodation in the diplomatic area of Havana, Miramar. The people and building watching continued throughout the car ride. Cuba was definitely what we expected and much more. Upon arriving at our Airbnb we were greeted by Katie, Cass’s sister, and her partner Phil. It was good to see familiar faces again and have English speaking travel companions after travelling by ourselves for so long.
Our accommodation was a real find (thanks Katie). We found out later that the house was originally an old doctors surgery and was quite majestic with its high ceiling and architectural stylings. Katie and Phil had already gotten the lay of the land with restaurants and had a place lined up for the evening. We walked a couple of blocks down the road to a building that looked like any other house on the street. Initially, we had thought we had the wrong address until we walked through the doors to an amazing outdoor courtyard dining area. We soon found many private restaurants appeared like this and it was hard to judge by the front what kind of dining experience you were in for.
We were soon enjoying a couple of mojitos and catching up on life. The bbq plates, when they arrived, left a bit to be desired. In general, we found it quite difficult to find quality food in Cuba. Supply of many ingredients is obviously limited and I have to only reason that local chefs did not have much experience with cooking beef, etc. We later found out that all cattle in Cuba belong to the government and that punishment for stealing/killing cows can be more severe than for running someone over in your car! Sure, there were occasional meals, often the more simple fair, that were downright tasty. But in general, I would not recommend Cuba as a food destination. However, the cheap, and excellent, rum did tend to make up for this.
The following day we piled into the back of a beautiful convertible for a driving tour of Havana. Our guide spoke excellent English and was able to answer many of our questions about the Cuban lifestyle and culture. His brand new baseball jacket and shiny new watch set him apart from many of the folk on the street. Working in the tourist industry seemed to be a good option in Cuba. Among other locations, we visited Fusterlandia, a homage to Gaudi, Plaza de la Revolución and of course the compulsory drive along the Malecon.
We even stopped for what our driver touted as the best pina colada in Havana. A big claim. The waiter brought out the virgin drinks and left a bottle of rum on the table. Our driver explained that you were responsible for the alcohol portioning, a concept that took a bit of getting used to. I have to admit it was the best pina colada I have ever had.
We ended the tour in downtown and decided to wander the tourist area for a little before heading back home. There were souvenirs, cigars, and rum shops aplenty along with the standard harassment of travellers that comes with these areas. However, you didn’t have to wander too much off the main streets to be in a very different looking city. The older part of Havana that looks like it is falling apart, feels like it hasn’t changed in the last half-century. While there was definitely beauty there, it was also in a way disconcerting to think that people had lived like this for decades without change. Locals lounged without a great sense of purpose in the streets. I guess there isn’t a huge need to strive for more in a country where so much is still controlled by the government.
Phil and I managed to convince the taxi driver to take us via a supermarket on the way home. We wanted to pick up a few snacks and drinks. We understood his reluctance and confusion at our request as soon as we walked in. I do not overstate when I say that there were about 12 different products in the whole market. You basically had your choice of pasta, pasta sauce, spam, oil, rum and pineapple juice. That was it. It boggled my mind how this was possible, and how everyone wasn’t severely malnourished. We later found out that you can find fresh produce but it is hard to find and expensive. And many, many products that are part of the basics back home are just never seen in Cuba.
The government also provides rations for the locals. You would walk by shops in the streets and there would be lines of people waiting to be served. Each shop front provided a different product and it seemed like different days of the week related to what ration was available.
The next day we convinced Katie and Phil to join us on a free walking tour in town. It was very different from any other free walking tour I have ever been on. The young girl who was our guide had trained at the university, or the Cuban equivalent, to run the tours and seemed to operate off a very set script. She was able to answer some questions but if your question strayed too far from the topic at hand she often did not have much light to shed. It was not as if anything was hidden per say, it just seemed like certain topics were not to be discussed or for the tour guide to have an opinion on.
After the tour, we visited one of the historical fortresses from the Spanish rule era that guarded the harbour. More notable than the fortress itself was one of the guides working there approaching me to ask if I was Australian. It took me about 5 minutes of broken Spanish/English conversation to figure out that she wanted to see if we could exchange Australian currency for Cuban. Turns out that she had been tipped by some Australians with coins and wasn’t able to exchange it. She was definitely over the moon when I happily exchanged it for Cuban tourist currency, which goes a long way for the locals.
After Havana, we had booked a transfer to Vinales, a country town in one of the main tobacco farming areas of Cuba. We had lined up a Casa Particular (private rooms in a locals house) which was a little different to the spacious Airbnb we enjoyed in Havana. Our host, albeit very lovely and accommodating, spoke no English. This was a good encouragement for us to try out our Spanish skills! We were surprised to find that we did well with checking in, organising breakfast for the following morning, and even booking a tour. It made me wish we had been forced to speak more Spanish in other countries as well.
We barely missed being drenched in the regular afternoon storm as we headed into town for lunch. Compared to the diplomatic area of Havana, the restaurants were much more rustic. We got very lucky and wandered into an excellent place the first day. Initially, we were quite reluctant being the only people eating there, but when the food arrived we were impressed. You can’t always trust the hordes of tourists.
The following day we woke early and enjoyed a homemade breakfast, almost exclusively fruit, coffee, spam and cheese toasties, and eggs wherever we went in Cuba. We were then loaded into a local’s car to be taken out to the start of our farm tour. Our host did suggest we put some long pants on before we left. We soon found out why when we arrived to see our guide with a group of 5 horses. After being so confident in my Spanish skills I had missed the important fact that the tour was a horseback tour. Given the fact we were all wearing thongs, we were slightly apprehensive about climbing onto our respective horses’ backs. Our guide, who spoke only a few words in English, was not big on any kind of instructions. When we called out to ask which way to go he would yell back “semi-automatic!”. Basically, the horses know what they are doing even if you don’t. He was having great fun watching our struggles. We were soon laughing at each other’s inability to control our horses and the fact we were riding around the Cuban countryside in thongs. Luckily, true to our guide’s words, the horses did need very little prompting to follow the trail.
Our first stop was at a local coffee farm. Luckily one of the owners spoke excellent English and showed us how they grew, hand roasted and ground the coffee into a fine powder for use. The government took the bulk of the profits but the farmers were allowed to barter with and sell the remaining coffee. They also had been enterprising enough to make a fruit-based spirit which they offered us a taste of. We opted to try several different cocktails, which much to our surprise were absolutely delicious. We even left with a couple of bottles of the spirit it was that good.
Our next stop was at a cigar plantation. We were ushered into a small hut with a number of other tourists to listen to one of the farmers describe how the tobacco plants were cultivated and harvested. He then proceeded to roll some dried leaves into a cigar for us, one of this plantation’s special additions was basting the leaves with a cinnamon honey mixture for added flavour. Lastly, we were all handed cigar for a try of the finished product. I was apprehensive of the quality initially, however the flavour was amazing. A much smoother flavour than most cigars I had tried, even Katie and Cass had to admit it was tolerable, if not enjoyable. Phil and I continued to enjoy our cigars on horseback as we rode through the Vinales countryside. This was probably one of my favourite memories of the whole trip.
We soon fronted up to a sharp drop down into a creek and found out that our guide expected us to not only ride down the incline but then down the creek itself. Our horses were about as reluctant as we were but after some yells of concern and laughter on our part, and “encouragement” for the horses from our guide we all made it down into the creek. Riding in the water, down the creek was fantastic however we all got splattered in mud on exiting. We continued to ride up a steep hill until we arrived at an amazing viewpoint. Our guide let us rest and enjoy a few drinks, we even managed to convince him to let us buy him a few beers which he duly enjoyed.
Our ride back to the start was at a slightly faster pace. Whether it was the couple of beers he had enjoyed or the fact that we had stayed on our horses so far, our guide seemed keen to urge our horses into a trot. He seemed to think our fear of trying to stay balanced on a cantering horse while wearing thongs was hilarious. At the end of the day we were quite lucky he did urge our horses on as we only just made it to a shelter before the heavens opened up and a deluge ensued. As we walked home after the storm had abated we were muddy, sweaty, and still a little shaky. However, it had been one of the most fun tours we had ever gone on.
We continued on from Vinales the following day to Cienfuegos. Rather than just doing a direct transfer, we had booked a guide to take us to some of the sights on the way. Our first stop was to board a boat and walk around an old indigenous village on some small islands in the middle of a freshwater lake. As part of the tour, we were “blessed” by members of the local tribe who vigorously brushed us down with leaves and marked our faces with what I hope was just mud. Our next stop was for lunch in the middle of nowhere, which seemed to take forever to come out even though there was only one other group in the “restaurant”. Due to a late departure after lunch we decided to cut several other activities from the itinerary and just spend our time at a seaside cenote. Even without the lunch delays, we doubted that the tour could be completed in just one day. The cenote was incredible, a several hundred-feet-deep hole in the bedrock that connected to the ocean. It was full of saltwater fish and is very popular for diving. We went for a swim in both the cenote and the ocean before continuing onto Cienfuegos.
We were slightly concerned when we arrived to a dodgy looking street blocked off with corrugated iron where our hotel was supposedly located. However, once again, things were not as they seemed. Once we walked up a long flight of stairs from the entrance we found that the hotel was an amazing old colonial home that had been immaculately restored. The government was in the process of restoring the rest of the building to its former glory. However, seeing the pace work is completed at in Cuba, this could take years to finish. I would love to see the end result, the small section we stayed in was incredible.
We wandered around Cienfuegos itself the following day. There was not too much on offer after the historic theatre and the local tourist markets, and the heat was oppressive. We wandered aimlessly for a little before seeking lunch. We made the mistake of allowing a local to usher us to a “popular” restaurant. Turned out to be just of the 4 of us sitting in someone’s front sitting room. The food didn’t kill us, though it wasn’t great. But we did enjoy some amazing guitar and vocals provided by who I could only assume were some relatives of the family.
Our last destination in Cuba before returning to Havana was Trinidad. Trinidad is a well known cultural hotspot in Cuba and a great location to catch some local music. We had booked into another Casa Particular, Cass and I got to wrangle our Spanish skills again to talk with the owner on arrival. Our first day was spent wandering the local markets, which actually were a cut above many of the tourist markets we had visited so far. The town was beautiful, another UNESCO world heritage site. However, the heat was draining. We managed to escape the following day to a nearby beach. Being Australians, we have quite a high standard for beaches. But the Trinidad beachside was as lovely as any Caribbean beach I have been to so far. It was a welcome respite from the heat and hectic tourist nature of Trinidad. We just sat on the beach for the day, drinking mojitos. I think we would have all like to have stayed out there for a few more days.
That evening we ate at one of the more recommended restaurants with an amazing look out on the town and, much to Phil’s joy, a half decent wine menu. The meal and wine weren’t the best I have ever enjoyed. However, by Cuban standards, it was pretty good! The view was the real winner for the evening.
The following day we all piled into a cramped 4-wheel drive for the return trip to Havana. It was not the most comfortable transfer and we were glad to arrive at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The hotel was a bit of a splurge, however, it’s history (famous for hosting Sinatra to play to the mafia as well as pretty much any dignitary/celebrity to visit Cuba) and the Malecon front location made it a must. We were a little bit disappointed with the service and vibe in the hotel. It seemed that the staff weren’t too concerned about putting in the extra effort. To be fair, the reputation of the hotel alone probably ensured that it was always busy. We also had fun with the taxi drivers who refused to haggle with us and were trying to charge double the normal rate. We soon found out that we were better off walking outside the hotel grounds to hail a taxi. As a final send-off we organised dinner at La Guarida, one of the highest recommended restaurants in Havana. The restaurant was located at the top of a historic building in Havana, which made for some excellent photo opportunities on the way in. Dinner and drinks were a cut above the rest.
When we arrived back at Havana Airport the following day, it seemed like we had just arrived a few days ago. Travelling with Katie and Phil had made the 10 days go fast. The culture shock, language barrier, and sometimes pure randomness of Cuba was best shared with others. While none of us are in a huge rush to get back to Cuba, it is definitely a travel experience unlike any other. To be honest, reflecting back on it, I feel that many of the “tourist” activities are less entertaining that just sitting back and taking in the locals and the spectacle of the country. It is a beautiful place with amazingly friendly locals. However, it did make me more appreciative of the place I live. I don’t think I could ever live in Cuba. Fun for a visit, the memories will definitely be with me for a long while.