Sunday, 15 May 2016

¡Viva Cuba!

This is perhaps a record in tardiness. Exactly one year ago today we were in Cuba, in the beautiful countryside of Las Viñales, to be precise. With all the huge political changes of late and exciting things happening in Cuba right now we've been prompted to record our little adventure and maybe offer some help for those thinking about a (highly recommended) trip...

In short, Cuba is amazing, and although it feels familiar, we'd been nowhere else like it. We remember it fondly as a country full of colour, contradictions, music, politics, warmth and life. And, despite the long journey and lack of veggie food, given the chance we'd be back in a flash. 

From Manchester, we flew into Holguin, which is the exact opposite end of the island to its beating heart, Havana, mainly because it was a lot cheaper than flying to the capital but also because we wanted to see as much of Cuba as we could, so really it didn't matter too much where we landed. Holguin is a smallish town and it seems that not many folks who fly there actually go into the town (most of the passengers to this airport appeared to be headed in the direction of the all-inclusive package holidays) so when you do get a taxi, it’s super quick and easy, but also feels a little odd, as you’re probably the only people not getting on a coach. Once we arrived in the town, about a twenty minute drive away from the airport, we spent our time going from bar to bar (literally) trying to kill the six hours we had to wait for our bus. We might have missed something – Holguin is home to two of the island’s main breweries (nothing better than a cold Cristal after a day wandering round) but it didn't feel like there was much happening here, (and we did try looking, well, as much as you can with two large backpacks) so we'd recommend a good book or an enthusiasm to chat with locals (whilst you quench your thirst) if you're planning on starting your trip from here. 

Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil mural, Havana

We opted to get an overnight bus from Holguin to Havana which saved us a night’s accommodation and was also tons cheaper. If you are planning on travelling to Holgiun and you'd rather not wait around, a plane out the same day would probably be a good idea. The plane’s a lot quicker (1hr 30 or similar vs 10hrs!), but there are question marks over safety (it's a very small plane) and it’s a lot pricier… 

However you get there, Havana is AMAZING! We'd planned our trip so that we spent a few days here, acclimatising to the Cuban rhythm of life, followed by a couple of days in the countryside, then back to Havana for the bits we missed, before heading on to Trinidad for a different flavour and finally spending our last last two days at all inclusive near Guardalavaca, refreshed and ready for our flight home. We did this all by Viazul Busses, which were comfy, reliable and on time. These stop offs seemed to be the norm for those who are trekking around, although the routes, transport and end resorts varied. For their final beach chill out, most people we met were headed towards Varadero, which is east of (and much closer to) Havana. 

For our first stop off in the capital we stayed at Casa Vitrales, a beautiful old house in the historical part of the city. The casa is one of the newer accommodation options (which was a bit more like a boutique B&B). We highly recommend it. It was very clean and stylish and we've noticed has since had lots of excellent reviews. The host is laid back, friendly and knowledgable about all things Havana. As with most casas, breakfast is included and was really good, they were very accommodating of our non-meat eating diet (although do remember to remind everyone, all the time, about this, if you are vegetarian as meat is central to most meals). Cuban breakfast tend to be two courses, first fresh fruit with a juice and then coffee with bread, eggs and ham, or in our case salad. They make for a very good start to a long day's sightseeing. 

Casa Vitrales, Havana
Breakfast on the rooftop at Casa Vitrales, Havana

Take good, comfortable shoes (and a couple of pairs of them). We did a lot of walking in Havana. A lot of walking. Almost everywhere is walkable, and on our first day we managed to cover Havana Vieja (the old town), Centro Havana, Plaza De Revolucion and a good stretch of The Malecón (the sea front). The architecture is impressive and varies so much, from colourful colonial style buildings to amazing brutalist concrete structures. Our favourites included the National Theatre, a soviet style residential block called Giron and an amazing unused sports ground on the sea front (which photographer Olly Burn has captured beautifully on here). We also ended up accessing (and having a private tour!) a closed building which is famous for its lectures and academic debates, Casa de la AmericasThe long walk also meant we could enjoy a fair few mojitos along the way (it would have been rude not to) stopping at various bars and hotels on route. 

Our second day was dedicated to museums and galleries, which is something Havana (and Cuba, generally) is certainly not short of. Every town in Cuba has at least one art or cultural centre which is open all week and free to everyone. Take your time at the Museum of the Revolution, it's an old school style of museum but it's worth every minute you're there - the story of the revolution is emotional and well told and despite knowing the facts are heavily speckled with propaganda we left feeling we understood Cuba so much more than we had before that morning. We followed this with a visit to the art gallery and another wander around the old town, where we stumbled upon Taller Experimental de Grafica - a print studio and workshop. Here we chatted to some of the artists and were so very tempted to buy a beautiful print (which sadly, we didn't manage to get back for). By day two we'd discovered the delights of the Cubanito (a Cuban version of a Bloody Mary,  with rum in place of the vodka), which soon became a firm favourite. 

On day three we took another walk, this time up and down La Rampa across to The University (an oasis of calm) and around Vedado, Havana's suburbs. The architecture on this route was just amazing - everything has such history and no doubt a story or two.  

Our longest walk in Havana took place on day 4, we walked along The Malecón to Miramar, stopping at most of the big hotels along the way to take in their architecture and decor styles (usually built in the 1960s). If time is tight on your visit, unless you're desperate to see a lot of tree-lined roads and large diplomatic residencies, Miramar probably wasn't worth the walk.

Part of a mural inside a warehouse style microbrewery near the rail station, Havana

Food, like anywhere, varied in quality hugely. Most of the meals we had were really good but we do have to confess to not being super adventurous on this holiday, as we were prepared to have a difficult time having read about veggie options ahead of the trip. We found a pizza place in Havana, 5Esquinas Trattoria (we and ate there about four times because it was easy but also because it was really good! The pizza was super tasty and the cocktails were massive and amazing (it was also right next to the casa – but we tried a few places before we went there on a recommendation, and we'd say that at the time, this was by far one of the best place for veggie options). We had another lovely meal at Habana 61, which is also near to the casa. J opted for Ropa Vieja (a Cuban speciality) and I had vegetable risotto - both were very good and accompanied by a large Cubanito (or several). We ate at a few other places too but nothing we'd want to recommend, especially, if you're a very strict veggie!

If you're an ice cream fan (or just a lover of modernist architecture) a trip to Coppelia in the centre of Havana is well worth the blag it takes to get inside (the cafeteria is reserved for Cuban residents only) but if you're not feeling brave, there's a cabin for tourists just outside the gates... and you can (sort of) view the parlour from the side lines. 

We probably had a drink in most of the hotels (in the old town, Centro and along the The Malecón) as they all have such an interesting history, and amazing interiors – and you can get some great cocktails, of course! The coffee house O'Reilly does a very good range of caffeine based alcoholic drinks and we didn't go wrong with either a mojito or a cubanito in the following places - Hotel Raquel (mainly for the fancy lift and the view from the roof terrace), Cafe del Oriente (located in a beautiful square), Hotel Riviera (for sixties cultures and kitsch interiors), Teyp Habana Libre (which became Castro's headquarters in 1959), Hotel Florida and the top floor of Edifico FOCSA (for the amazing sea view). 

Veggie food in Cuba
From inside O'Reilly Coffee House, The Old Town, Havana

Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba
Coppelia ice cream parlour, Havana, Cuba
From Havana we travelled by bus to Las Viñaleswhich is worth the trip - the scenery is outstanding, but maybe just for one day, rather than the three we stayed for, unless of course you like horse riding or hiking, then you might want to stay longer

The route here is beautiful and if we'd done our research more thoroughly we might have ended up spending a night at Las Terrazes, an eco Park mid way between Havana and Las Viñales, where the bus has a wee stop off. 

The town where the busses drop off is quite small but there are plenty of places to eat and drink. On the day we arrived we were desperate for a swim so we hiked up a (larger than expected) hill (without a footpath) to a nearby hotel (Hotel Los Jazmines), which allowed use of their facilities to day guests. This was a genius idea, as although the weather wasn't so great, we felt like we had time travelled back to the 1930s, the building was lovely and its surroundings were very impressive. Thankfully the pool was pretty quiet (probably because it was raining) which meant we could relax properly, after a our bus journey. We sensibly opted for a taxi for the return leg. 

Options for food here were good, the main street has a lot of different paladares and restaurants. We opted for The Olive, a small, busy restaurant, which had the best reviews and clearly catered for veggies. 

The main reason folks travel to Las Viñales is visit the cigar and coffee plantations, and so there are lots of little tourist places taking bookings for hikes and day trips. We're not really fans of organised trips so we opted for a day on a remote island instead, which was just beautiful, perfect, in fact, especially as it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

A word of warning if you are planning on staying in Las Viñales, finding accommodation here can be a little frantic, especially as you get off the bus, as folks are very keen to help, even if you have already booked ahead. We stayed in a cute little fifties style chalet, behind our hosts, Mariuska and Alexis' house, just off the main street.Which was really nice, and backed on to a plantation. 

A second word of warning for those visiting the countryside... if you're afraid of creepy crawlies, you might want to have an extra (medicinal) mojito before heading to your bed, we were greeted by a very big furry eight legged pal on our second night after returning from dinner. 

Las Vinales, Cuba 
Las Vinales, Cuba

On the return leg to Havana we stayed Hotel Nacional de CubaIt’s a good hotel, with an amazing history, a nice pool and really good breakfast but if you fancy a look inside, it’s just as easy (and obviously cheaper) to buy a drink and sit in the gardens. We figured we'd seen most of the things we wanted to see by this time and ended up spending the day by the hotel pool and the evening revisiting the old town, with one last walk along The Malecón

Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana, Cuba
The Malecón, Havana, Cuba

Next stop: Trinidad, which is beautiful. It's renowned for its free music and salsa offerings which take place every night on the old steps in the centre of the town. The town itself hasn’t changed for centuries and it's typical to see donkeys and horses as modes of transport in place of cars. It's worth researching casas here. We ended up leaving the one we’d booked online before we arrived because (it wasn't quite as it had been described and) you can get some real beauties if you're happy to seek them out when you're there. If you have left it late or are not happy with your booking it’s just worth knocking on doors and asking to see the rooms – which is what most people seemed to be doing, anyway.
Having read and prepared ourselves for a hard time on the food front (we took two boxes of Nakd bars with us), in general we were pleasantly surprised how well we ate (being veggie). Trinidad was one of the very few places we managed to find a grocery store (even in Havana it was difficult to buy food outside of a cafe or restaurant, as market stalls only take Cuban money, not tourist money - the closest we found in Havana was The Harris Brothers, but this was often empty shelved on a morning when we went for water).  The only hiccup I had was in Trinidad when we ate at a very cute little place, with a balcony just off the main square. I'd asked about vegetarian options and was confidently assured that there were several, but when the meal came (a tomato pasta) there was a chicken bone in it - so, the Nakd bars came in handy that night. 

We ended up staying at Hostal Maria y Enddy and really liked it, we would certainly stay there again. Our room was one of two located upstairs and so we had use of their balcony, perfect to chill a little, read a book/have some down time (which we needed after all the travelling). Breakfast here was super good too, typically cuban and very filling. 

Trinidad, Cuba
Trinidad, Cuba
Trinidad, Cuba

Our final destination was Playa Pesqeuro. An all inclusive resort near Holguin. Staying here was such a contrast to the previous two weeks. The choice of food was insane, and there was so much food on offer - it's was so weird to see the different experiences that people travelling to Cuba might have, depending on the type of holiday they chose. One of the hotel guests we talked to mentioned how disappointed they were that they hadn't seen any of the old cars, which was crazy as they are literally everywhere, usually as taxis (if you just venture outside of the resort). Despite the hotel being truly beautiful and having everything we could need on tap, I'm not sure we could have taken more than the three days we had booked there. It was bliss to lounge by the sea, read a novel or two and refresh ourselves for our flight home but we'd have gone a bit crazy if we'd spent two weeks doing that. 

If you are planning a trip to Cuba, we can’t recommend it enough, especially the travelling (and we’re really quite jealous). Here are a few practical things, for those travelling from the UK, which might help with your trip….

Holguin airport is tiny and you’re outside before you know it (though there can be quite a bit of queuing in the airport for customs/security before you make it that far). The cadeca (money exchange) is on the right-hand side just before you leave the building and taxis are on the right outside… pretty sure we were overcharged (around $20), so it’s worth agreeing a price before you leave, though as you’ve no reference point, it’s difficult to know where to start! 

We opted to get an overnight bus from Holguin to Havana which saved us a night’s accommodation and was also tons cheaper. If you are planning on travelling to Holgiun and you'd rather not wait around, a plane out the same day would probably be a good idea. The plane’s a lot quicker (1hr 30 or similar vs 10hrs!), but there are question marks over safety (a very small plane) and it’s a lot pricier… 

The visa situation changed slightly just before we headed out… essentially all you need is a tourist card – if you’re flying with Thomas Cook or someone like that, they’ll already have sorted it for you – check the small print if you’ve booked online – it’s not really obvious, and it was wrong initially as it said that the cards would be sent out, but they’d changed it by the time we went so that you collected them when you flew; you should receive it either in the airport or on the plane – it’s a two part thing you have to complete, one of which you hand in on arrival, the other on departure (don’t lose the second half!!). Not sure whether Thomas Cook sort it for you as most of their passengers are going on to TC hotels, or whether all airlines do it. Otherwise, you’ll have to send details to the Cuban embassy over here or use a company like this one.

There’s also a departure tax to pay which used to be collected in cash just before you left Cuba but which is now paid before you leave the UK by either card or cash (it’s about £25 [or maybe $25?] each)… you’re given a receipt and you have to keep hold of it until you leave Cuba as proof you’ve paid (otherwise you’ll have to pay again!).

Travelling about - have a look at – they’re the national bus service and, although you can get tickets on the day, it’s advisable to get them the day before. We did it online before we went out as we knew where we were headed and when, but I doubt there’s any real advantage in doing it that way if you don’t have to – you don’t get specified seats either way and still have to ‘check in’ when you get to the bus station so they can print you off another ticket! Only problem with Viazul is that their Havana station is well out of the centre – only a $5-$10 taxi-ride though – and their Hoguin stop is a bit out of the way too… only a ¾ mile or so, but it’s not central. Speaking to people out there, there were quite a few other options to explore too, but that was at the Havana end (shared taxis and another smaller bus companies). Looked at the possibility of trains before we headed over there, but – from what I read – the most reliable service (tren frances I think) had either ceased running or had really limited service. Again, may have changed… we didn’t really look into other options when we were there as we already had the bus tickets. If you’ve no fixed itinerary, it might be fun to try the train! 

Top tip: always carry small change for the toilets… they nearly always have an attendant in/next to them who will expect 25c or something similar before you’re allowed entry though it’s not always obvious that that’s the case until you’re confronted on your exit!

Enjoy Cuba!


L&J, Havana Port

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