Last year, to end my 4 week journey in America, I took an 8 day tour to Cuba, Central America. Cuba is just as you could imagine from the photos, 1950’s cars set with a backdrop of Spanish-Colonial architecture. Walking through the streets of Havana is like seeing pocketfuls of lost eras.
It is a multi-ethnic nation with the majority of the population comprising from Western European migrants, mostly Spanish but also French, Italian and English. It also has a West-African element which brings influences from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica. It has a complex history and its current political situation was enough to puzzle and entice me to learn more.
It’s US embargo has sheltered the Island from American influences for decades. Instead its culture is entwined in the influences of migrants over the years. Cubans consider themselves as being ‘Cuban People’ as a nationality. My tour guide talked of the Cuban People by saying – Cubans can easily be spotted by their relaxed and laid back attitude towards life, their love for family, friends and dominoes and their ability to dance salsa!- I definitely saw and felt this when I was travelling around this rather magnificent island.
Fun fact- Dominoes is the national game of Cuba and their dominoes go up to 9 dots rather than 6 like is played in the UK.
Flying to Cuba
Flying to the country was just the beginning of the bewilderment that is Cuba. With the country being less than a hundred miles off the coast of the United States I was planning on visiting Miami and flying to Cuba after. However currently, Cuba is on the US list of Embargoed countries. I believe the list also includes, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. There are regulations for travelling to Cuba as a US citizen. Hah hah, I’m not a US citizen! Unfortunately for me travelling through the US to get to Cuba also meant that the regulations could apply to myself. According to the Travel State Gov website ‘Anyone located in the United States, regardless of citizenship and nationality, must comply with these regulations.’ So, to not risk this I decided to make a detour flight to Mexico visiting Chichen Itza and the beaches of Cancun for a few days before flying on from Cancun to Havana. This worked perfectly!
You do need a Visa for Cuba, as a European, which can be completed online and is delivered within a week. This needs to be carried with you through departures and boarding and then again on arrival at Havana. I was a little sad that they take the visa card from you its quite cubanesque and I really wanted to keep it.
The airport in Havana is amazing! It’s like flying into (what I can only imagine from the TV) the 1970’s.
Cash in Cuba
I would advise trying to take some Cuban money with you. Finding an ATM is rare and if you do go to the bank or ‘cadeca’ there are often ques of people waiting. Money in Cuba works a little differently too, locals use CUP (Cuban Peso) but the ‘tourist’ currency is CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). As far as I know American issued bank cards such as American express and Mastercard are not accepted in Cuba. My European Visa card worked fine at the ATMs and Cadecas, I was told that most cards that are issued by non-American banks will work. When changing money US dollars are charged a 10% fee, I was lucky I had brought some British sterling with me to exchange but Euros and canadian dollars are also a good currency to convert in Cuba.
My tour in Cuba was with the company Gadventures. I’d highly recommend this company and this tour. You get given a tour guide and a driver for the duration of the stay, our tour guide was brilliant he had a background of teaching history and he knew his stuff about this fascinating country. We were a small group of 4 and occasionally joined tours with another Gadventure group who were exploring at the same time as us.
We took a route clockwise around central Cuba starting in Havana going on to Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Vinales and back to Havana. We stayed in ‘casas’ which were like b n b’s but with more of a family home-stay feel to them. A great benefit of using this company was that they do not charge more for single travellers. Often companies ask for a two people stay or charge a single traveller more for their own room whilst travelling. Instead Gadventures pairs you in a same-sex room with another person, I was lucky enough to be paired with a lovely beauty therapist from Brighton. Our travel companions were a couple of Welsh teachers, so I felt quite at home and couldn’t have asked for a better group to experience Cuba with.
When I arrived at the airport a transfer in a vintage car was arranged to take me to the first casa in Havana. There was an import ban on cars in Cuba up until 2011, this means that many of the cars in Cuba are classic cars from the 1950’s. There are also many horse and carts being used on the roads. Luckily with the Gadventures tour we had our own minibus to travel around in. My dad had classic cars as I grew up, so seeing all the old cars on the road was a little reminiscent for me. I’m sure he would have loved this part of Cuba!
Cuban families have been able to rent out spare rooms in their houses, to earn extra money, since 1997. These are called Casas and are like bed and breakfasts or home-stays. They offer a real authentic cuban experience. I stayed in 4 different casas over the 8 nights and the families were very accommodating.
Below is the view onto the streets of Havana in the first casa I stayed in. On one evening, locals brought out a table and neighbours joined them for a drink and game of dominoes.
The one family that stands out to me in particular were the family we stayed with in Santa Clara, they had fridge magnets and little trinkets all over their living room space. The couple was proud to be able to show us the trinkets, they were from all around the world and were gifted by travellers who had stayed in their accomodation.This couple taught us how to play Cuban style dominoes and cooked us some tasty food. Cuban food incorporates cuisine from Spanish, Aboriginal, Caribbean and African styles. The breakfast in the morning always included such colourful fruits!
Fun fact- You will be given Papaya for breakfast but be careful when saying the word because in Cuba papaya is crude slang for vagina.
Another casa that stands out for me is the one we stayed at in Trinidad, there was a cute dog that liked to wander into our bedroom sometimes.
When staying in casas it is not recommended to drink the local water if you are not accustomed to it, you should also be cautious with ice being used in drinks. Large bottles can be purchased, we bulk bought water as a group when the trip started and kept it in the minivan. As we travelled from place to place we decanted it into smaller bottles when needed.
Toilets are another difference in the country, toilet paper should not be flushed and has to be placed into a bin instead. It’s really odd to become used to when it’s not something you usually do but it’s important because the pipe systems are just not able to sustain paper waste.
Bays and Beaches
Onto a more prettier topic! Cuba has over 450 bays beaches to explore, making it one of the best beach destination in the Caribbean. They differ at each coast, with some being a beautiful line of golden sand and deep blue oceans and others being more rocky experiences, with underwater exploration of the reefs.
The weather in Cuba is hot hot hot. It’s a sub-tropical climate and when I was there in August the temperatures were on average 30°C. Although the temperature was so high, it did rain occasionally for short bursts. I loved it! The warm rain is not only a relief from the intense sun but it is also a a very different experience to rain in the UK. When it rained it came down heavy and there was a rumbling thunderstorm at one point on the beach. The lightening bolts were fascinating to watch over the water. Only half an hour after the storm had finished, everything was dry again!
A sunny photo before the thunderstorm.
Salsa Dancing and Cuba Libres
Music and dance is all around Cuba, in the streets people play music and dance with one another by day, by night, all of the time! On some evenings we went to more tourist style hotels where salsa dancers were performing, but I prefered seeing the younger generation use these salsa moves in their dancing around bars and nightclubs. We went to one extremely memorable nightclub in Trinidad called ‘Disco Ayala’ this was a nightclub in a cave! A real cave! I’m sure health and safety would be all over this in the UK, but it was an amazing experience!
We had time in the evenings for food and drinks and cocktail time was definitely a favourite. Cuba Libre is the drink that Cuba is known for, this is a blend of Rum, cola and lime. I was told it dates all the way back to the early 1900’s when American soldiers occupied the island.
Fun Fact- Bacardi Rum was originally manufactured in Cuba but during Fidel Castros power, was moved to Puerto Rico.
I very much enjoyed the Mojitos and pina coladas in the evenings.
Hiking and Greenery
This is the beauty of the Viñales Valley National Park which we got to see when we were travelling between places. Cuba has an estimated 7000 different plant species. There were just miles and miles of palm trees and hummocks. It was a different side to Cuba then I had seen in most photos.
On another day we were lucky enough to go hiking in Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes. We hiked through forestry, over stream and small waterfalls until we got to a cave filled with water that we were able to swim inside. Some people opted to jump into the water from a high rock but I wasn’t brave enough on this occasion. We saw lots of tiny fish as we swam, we also saw a snake slither across a rock which I was actually quite brave around!
On our second day we took a guided tour of the famous Che monument in Santa Clara. I learnt about the history of the revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the combatants that were killed during an uprising in Bolivia.
Wifi and Main Squares
Internet access in Cuba is restricted and it is not possible to have access to the internet in your home. Instead Cuba has wifi spots in public places, like in main squares, parks or hotels. Cubans were not allowed to own a cell phone until 2008 but they can now be seen on phones around these public places. Wifi is not free, you can buy wifi cards for a couple of CUC’s and this gives you a number to log into the public wifi spaces for an hour at a time. We found that sometimes the cards purchased didn’t work, but I managed to log in a couple of times over the week. It was actually quite refreshing to spend periods of time wifi-less. The hardest part of not having my phone glued to me, was when you think ‘oh I’ll just google this’ and you can’t! Especially with directions or to look something up, which is usually a necessity when travelling in a new place.
The main squares below are the kind of spaces you find the wifi spots.
Places I Visited
Havana oo nah nah, it would be sad to admit that one of the things that initially drew me to Havana was the song… Like many cities Havana has many sides, it’s got the busy streets with crumbling buildings and then the more pristinely painted rows of houses in a more peaceful, up market part of the city.
Havana has their own Capitol building, it’s smaller than Washington DC’s Capitol building but its dome is noticeably taller.
This is the La Floridita bar in Old Havana, it is where the Daiquiri cocktail was created and it a popular tourist destination. It is said that Ernest Hemingway helped in the process and thought behind this cocktail.
Going from the business of Havana to the quieter Santa Clara was quite refreshing. The buildings were much more maintained, the streets had less traffic and there were many people standing or sitting on their porches, chatting to one another and soaking up the sun. I felt chilled and laid back here.
Trinidad was one of my favourite places. It is a Spanish colonial town, founded in the 16th century. It has rows of colourful houses, perfect cobbled streets and has been preserved meticulously, being one of those tiny pockets of the past.
Cienfuegos is a seaside town with a calm harbour and a buzzling market. There is a cruise you can take around the bay, I opted out as I was suffering with sea sickness this day – probably too many mojitos the night before!
On our way out of Cienfuegos we stopped off at the Giron Museum at the Bay of Pigs to learn about the US military involvement with Cuba.
Last notes about this fascinating county. I was told not to bother posting cards because they hardly ever reach the UK. I posted 4 postcards, and 2 of the 4 people received them about 8 weeks later! So I’ve concluded the post works 50% of the time. You could risk it.
Lastly I’ll leave you with a gift photo of the beautiful sunset.