Cuba is an emerging travel destination and one that will surprise and enchant even the most seasoned traveller. We recommend you travel there now, while the masses have not fully touched down. There are some well-known beach resorts that are very popular for the Europeans such as Varadero, however the main reason to visit is not for it’s resort beaches. Havana, the capital, is a fascinating city stuck in a tired sort of time-warp from American influences of mid-1900’s crossed with faded colonial architecture, which gives it an eccentric and very photographable quality. You can with no trouble spend a few days exploring Havana on foot, sampling a Mojito here and there, the Havana Rum of course and perhaps a Cuban cigar or two. Travel further to visit charming Trinidad, declared a World Heritage Site and “living museum”. Santa Clara, resting place of the revolutionary Che Guevara and Cienfuegos are also well worth being included on any itinerary. Continue to eastern Cuba to visit Santiago de Cuba and then uncover one of the more off-the-beaten path beach resorts where you can enjoy an idyllic few days to round off your Cuba experience.
• Havana – UNESCO World Heritage city
• Santiago de Cuba
• Pinar del Rio
• Trinidad – UNESCO “living museum”
You can visit Cuba all year round but probably the time to avoid is the July – October period when it is at its hottest and may be subject to the occasional hurricane. The months of November to May are considered the best time to visit.
Our flight from Lima to Havana took just 5 hours and 20 minutes, and from there 30 minutes by car to Old Havana. We’d arrived!
I had visited Cuba many years ago, and was taking a group of New Zealand travel agents on a trip to see how things had changed, if at all! I’m happy to report that Cuba has so much to offer the visitor, and thoroughly deserves its status as one of the world’s hot new destinations.
The Cuban government still controls almost everything, including the official salary of about US$30 per month – regardless of what your job is! However, all education (even up to university level), health and social welfare are free, and public transport is incredibly cheap for the locals. A flight from one end of Cuba to the other costs less than US$10. Don’t forget Cuba is more than 1600km from end to end, or the distance from Bluff to Auckland!
Despite this rather tenuous economic situation, the population seem very friendly, well fed and if unhappy with their lot, they don’t show it. Plus, they are among some of the healthiest and best educated people in Latin America.
The other striking impression is of very little advertising. None of the big hoardings or flashing neon we associate with life in the West. Certainly there are some big billboards featuring (very often) Che Guevara but hardly ever one featuring Fidel which was a surprise. Apparently he specifically did not want himself portrayed as a cult of personality – rare for a dictator!
HAVANA Staying at the superb Parque Central Hotel puts you in the best location in the old city, with an amazing view over the Old Town from the superb roof top pool terrace. The main shopping street is only 3 minutes’ walk from the hotel, as is the famous La Floridita Bar, where the Daiquiri was invented. La Floridita was of course the favoured watering hole of Ernest Hemingway, who now has a permanent position leaning against the bar in the form of a bronze statue. Great atmosphere!
Old Havana is a gem. Crumbling colonial architecture built mostly between the mid 1800’s and the 1920’s includes some amazing large public buildings plus lots of terraced houses – naturally very Spanish in style.
Much restoration is going on with some of the major buildings around the city which is encouraging. Dining locally revealed that things have improved since my last visit many moons ago. There are now some very good new restaurants opening as free enterprise is slowly creeping in.
I was really surprised at the number of old American cars on the road – both in Havana and elsewhere. I had imagined they were there largely for tourist interest, but they are actually still in common everyday use. I would guess about 40% of the cars on the road are pre-revolutionary (1959). Lots of old Buicks, Chevs, De Sotos and Fords, with some stunning well preserved convertibles about. A great way to see the city is in one of these old cars and for me it was a trip down memory lane to ride in the big old front bench seats I remember from childhood. The driving behaviour was surprisingly disciplined, no crazy overtaking or speeding found in many other Latin American countries. Indeed, it seems the police in Cuba are (relatively at least) incorrupt and maintain the rule of law.
A visit to a cigar factory is a must. It was fascinating to see how different parts of the tobacco plant are used for different sections of the cigar. Top workers can roll up to 140 cigars in an 8 hour shift. Each of the premium cigars is tested on a machine …too tight and they don’t ‘suck’…too loose and they burn too fast. Retailing at up to US$100 each for the very best cigars, quality control is vital. Workers get to take a few cigars home each day and these are sold on the black market to supplement their income. The better the roller, the more cigars they are permitted to take.
And where next but the Havana Club Rum Factory for a tot of rum before embarking on a walking tour of the Old Town. Much of this area is now pedestrianized, and great to wander around soaking up the atmosphere. It’s really worthwhile taking in a salsa show in Havana, the best of which is Club Tropicana. Or you could venture out and enjoy Havana’s vibrant nightlife, with salsa and jazz clubs open until the wee hours with enthusiastic dancing and rum drinking providing a great atmosphere.
We visited one of Havana’s four original Spanish forts, built to defend the city against pirates and buccaneers. Next door is Che Guevara’s house, and further on a display of missiles that were at the centre of the 1962 ‘Missile Crisis’ when the world came to the brink of nuclear war.
VARADERO About 3 hours from Havana is the beach resort of Varadero. With more than 80 resorts on a 26 km long spit, Varadero is very popular with Europeans and Canadians. The beach at Varadero offers bright white sand and water of an incredible turquoise blue.
En route to Trinidad, we passed through lush and quite underdeveloped countryside -sugar cane, crops, and lots of horse and carts. We stopped at a country school and I gave them a box of exercise books I had brought from NZ, received with great glee by the kids. The kids sung us some songs and overall it was a wonderful little interaction with locals.
TRINIDAD A charming historic town with cobbled streets in the old town Trinidad offers a much more low key experience than Havana, with an interesting Museum and a small market. The Iberostar hotel here is a delight, with the rooms at the front overlooking a quaint square.
Driving back from Trinidad to Havana we took a different route and visited a slave owner’s house (many workers were brought from West Africa to work the sugar fields) and at this house there was a 46 metre watchtower which you could climb for a great view. This tower was used in the old days to ensure no slaves escaped…a fascinating yet poignant visit.
SANTA CLARA Also between Trinidad and Havana is the very pleasant town of Santa Clara, where we enjoyed an excellent lunch in a new restaurant with a great duo playing salsa music. On the edge of Santa Clara is a huge memorial to Che Guevara, still highly respected throughout the country. An interesting little museum to him there…I didn’t know he was a very keen rugby player when at University in Buenos Aires. He even edited their rugby magazine called Tackle, a copy of which is in the museum.
So there we have it, we thoroughly enjoyed Cuba! Ok so the beds were a little hard for some, the roads a little less than perfect, and things don’t always run to clockwork, but this is more than made up for by the people, the amazing atmosphere, and the absolute gem that is Havana.
I’d return in a heartbeat. – Chris
Currency The local currency is the Cuban Peso and because of restriction and additional fees in converting US dollars, the best currencies to take are Euro’s, British Pounds or Canadian Dollars. These can be easily converted into CUC’s (Cuban Convertible Peso’s).
Language Spanish is the official language of Cuba but English is widely understood in hotels and at tourist facilities.
Why we love it There is really nowhere else like Cuba. One of the true ‘melting pots’ of humanity, people of all colours live happily side by side. Music is everywhere – you cannot escape it and will be swept along with its rhythm. The Buena Vista Social Club is there in almost every street side bar and you will feel welcomed by the locals as you enjoy an excellent coffee or the local rum beverage the ‘mojito’ while listening to the band. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is everywhere! Much of the country has been caught in a time warp with wonderful old circa 1950’s Chevys and Studebakers still plying the streets of enchanting and World Heritage listed Havana. Elsewhere, you can enjoy the scenic countryside and great Caribbean beaches on your way to historic Santiago de Cuba situated at the opposite end of the island from Havana. Cheap, friendly, fun loving, very scenic and historic with great people, Cuba will change once Castro dies. Go there now!
Weather You can visit Cuba all year round but probably the time to avoid is the June – September period when weather is at its hottest. Occasionally Cuba may be subject to hurricanes between June and October. The months of November to May are considered the best time to visit.
Social customs & quirks Welcoming and friendly, you may find yourself invited into the local’s homes. In cafes and bars you will find the Cubans most welcoming and they are fun to be around. Music rules their lives and is a fantastic way to break down cultural barriers. Cigar smoking by men and women is common.
The economy is very poor in Cuba and people are struggling financially. Keep this in mind and don’t be careless with your valuables. Bartering is the norm in the markets and you may get a better deal if you pay in US dollars.
Festivals & events Catholicism together with a blend of African religions and beliefs make up the main religion in Cuba and it reflects in the celebrations. Typical “fiestas” take place periodically country-wide throughout the year. Whether celebrating a Patron Saint’s day or a national holiday, these fiestas generally feature lots of good food, drink and music. Other important festivals in Cuba are based around music including jazz, hip-hop, afro-caribbean, salsa and Spanish “Nuevo flamenco” – it’s a very social scene!
Health* Considered a very healthy destination, there is no risk of malaria and no special medical precautions are required in advance. Make sure you take ample supplies of any medication you are taking and contact your health practitioner for full and current details on the health situation in Cuba prior to your departure from New Zealand.
Notes *Please be aware that Health information is subject to change at any time and you should always double check these requirements at the time of booking and before travel.