The origin of my trip to Cuba was suggesting to three friends in a row, “fancy going to Cuba?” to find the answer an almost instant “yes!”. In terms of holiday planning, where I usually end up with an A and a B list of destinations, this was shockingly simple. In fact, looking at my alternative options for my 2011 Syria/Jordan holiday, I put down:
So, Cuba was a simple sell. Sunny, in the Caribbean, cocktails, the mystique of the island that nearly ended the world yet always gets rave reviews from visitors, the fact that it may all end up strip malls and Starbucks soon enough but hopefully won’t; it all just works. While a trip to Cuba away from the soulless resorts requires a lot of thought and planning to get the most out of what the islands have to offer, it is also a place to just enjoy the moment and not get sidetracked by punishing itineraries. The Cubans are so clued up on tourism that you could easily book a first night at a Casa particular, then find your host knows someone you can stay with, and onwards from there.
As BA don’t fly direct to Havana and Air Canada involved a 24-hour layover in Toronto, Virgin was too expensive, Iberia has no in-flight entertainment, we took Air France which, uh, had no in-flight entertainment for both legs of the journey. Take note, if you check out this page now, the little asterix is perhaps thanks to us; the little asterix doesn’t want to tell you what flights lack entertainment, but it’s likely to be the Havana-bound ones, with the ancient 747s. Arriving at Havana was incredibly exciting, until you have to spend two hours getting your Visa stamped and getting money but getting into Havana is simple as the taxis seem to have a flat rate of CUC25.
Of course, the taxi driver was a bit of a boy racer which added spice to our drive into the centre, via many famous landmarks such as Plaza de la Revolución, some sort of palace of sport (might be called the Sport Palace!) and the Capitolio. Our Casa, the superbly located Juan y Margarita was clean and Juan was wonderfully friendly, giving us tips on what people will be like, what to ignore and what to do. Heading out down Obispo, Cuba’s economic difficulties become clearly evident but there’s a sense of joy in the air and music and people spill out of bars and restaurants. The clichés are all there; the American cars, the cigars, the music, the dancing…and I wouldn’t change it a bit.
The second day started strangely with us all battling horrendous jetlag, but I went out with Alex at 545am to look around the neighbourhood and see the sun come up over the Capitolio which was wonderful, but a pity the building is still being renovated. In the afternoon, one of the many many lovely men that liked to chat to us showed great knowledge of British culture by shouting an Ali G catchphrase at us when we told him we were from London (presumably they’d yell Rab C Nesbitt if we said we were Glaswegians?) and told us about some super salsa competition “OVER THERE!” which was some wonderful ruse to get us rushing around the city, and chucking money his way. When we told him we were heading to the Museum of the Revolution he announced it was closed, as he pointed at tourists milling about in the courtyard. That brazen attitude is so much fun. I’m surprised he didn’t point at it and announce it was burning down. The museum itself did a brisk trade in semi-conscious staff. Half the fun was sneakily taking a photo at the moment the woman would snap her head back or fall into the slumber. Clearly, big stories happened in the revolution, but the museum’s bizarre labelling made it unclear what really happened and preferred to demonstrate how a spoon saved some guy’s life and how blood ruins a perfectly good cotton shirt. Is it worth going to? YES!
After the museum, we headed to a geniune highlight of Cuba for me; the Edifico Bacardi. Currently under scaffolding, we saw the building and started to head away thinking it was closed, but another commercially-minded man spotted us and ushered us in – great! Sadly my friend Rachel is scared of heights so she missed out on the 360-degree views of Havana which were superb. It’s a strange cityscape, with some buildings having luxury pools on the roof, and others having just-there roofs.The bar in the Bacardi building do brilliantly potent Cuba Libres for pennies.
For food, we all loved the portions at Los Nardos, which is run by the Spanish Asturianas society, offering an enormous menu at knock-down prices. You’d think it would be impossible to feed people so well for so little, but the queues pay testament to the obvious success of the business. To top off the evening in style, heading to the Hotel Nacional is the best bet. I felt like a colonial king, sipping Mojito’s for about £2 and enjoying the beautiful terrace and atmosphere.
Other highlights include the walking tour of Old Havana, looking at the areas which have been renovated offer a glimpse at what Havana could be. Stray off the beaten path like we did (I was the ringleader in this, admittedly) and you may find yourself being offered weed three times a minute until you get back into the gentrified streets. Two of the party were not happy with this turn of events, but to me, it’s just added colour to an already colourful place. If you want to get back to luxury, Hotel Santa Isabel is a classic example of Old Havana at its glorious best; the rooftop terrace looks out onto the water and a beautiful square out the front. A few drinks here can be the ideal solution to a busy day of sightseeing and hassle from the million peddlers trying to sell you hats/bags/che made of old tins.
At some point, you’ll be drawn to Plaza de la Revolución. The square itself is a giant concrete patch – but it looks out onto the wonderful Ministry of the Interior building with the iconic image of Che emblazoned on the side of the building. Behind the square is the Jose Marti memorial, an ideal spot for posing.
On our trip, we passed through Havana three times, and it was a mixture of delight to be back in such a wonderful vibrant city and sadness to not be in the stunning country anymore. You can’t help but be swept along on Havana’s current and it’ll always be a city I’ll want to go back to.