A trip to Castro’s island
We made a brief 7-day trip to Cuba at the start of January 2016.
We wanted to get a taste of Cuba before the thaw in relations with the United States started to change the country beyond recognition.
Obviously we were not alone in this idea. The whole country was swamped with European, Canadian and even American tourists. Everyone was keen to see the “real Cuba” before McDonald’s, Starbucks and Marriott arrived.
Our itinerary was simple: 3 nights in Havana followed by a trip down to Trinidad (a beautifully preserved colonial town about 200 miles to the east), a stay of 3 nights in Trinidad and then a journey back to Havana for a final night.
We travelled out to Cuba on Virgin Atlantic’s twice-weekly service from London Gatwick. Our journeys around the country were mainly by taxi. Taxis were competitively priced even on long distances. Accommodation was in pretty basic Casa (bed & breakfasts). The travel boom meant that very little other accommodation was easily available.
I am not a particular fan of Virgin but the outbound flight was surprisingly comfortable. We arrived on time at about 5pm on the 7th January 2016.
Havana is home to about 2 million of Cuba’s 11 million citizens. It has an old colonial part (Habana Vieja) and more modern sections stretching westwards along the coast. We spent our first day wandering around the old town. We got the ferry across the harbour to Casablanca (there is tight security as the ferry was once hijacked to Florida) and back.
In the evening we visited the world-famous Tropicana cabaret. Operating continuously since 1939, it is hopelessly touristy but it is also spectacular. 125 dancers in colourful costumes dancing on the multi-storied stage at the open-air venue.
Cuba, as is well known, is home to a variety of old American Cars. These date from before the 1959 revolution and are still mostly privately owned. Whilst the more modern Russian Ladas tend to be government-owned taxis, the old “Yank Tanks” are owned by families and handed down from generation to generation. The situation is changing now with government reforms in 2011 permitting Cubans to sell cars, but car ownership is still only around 4%. The 60,000 American cars dating from the 1940’s and 1950’s, mostly re-engined with Soviet Diesel motors, represent about a third of all cars on the road. They are everywhere and sometimes one feels one is in a time warp.
Not all the old cars are American. Some are British. We saw a Jaguar and several variants of the 1950’s Hillman Minx (the very first car I ever rode in when I was just 4 days old). There are also a lot of Ladas being used as taxis. They were a little nostalgic for me as I recalled trips to Moscow about 10 years ago.
On our first day we visited the Museum of the Revolution. It is housed in the beautiful old presidential palace in Havana. The building itself is impressive and the central dome is fitted with Tiffany glass.
The Museum gives a very comprehensive, if biased, account of the growth of opposition to the Batista Regime in the 1950’s and the final Castro-led victory in 1959. Outside the museum are various weapons that helped in the struggle. Pride of place goes to the Granma, the yacht that Castro used to return from Mexico. It is enclosed in a gigantic glass case and some people joke that the case is there to stop it being stolen and being used to escape to Florida in.
The Cuban economy is slowly undergoing massive change. The number of Cubans working in the private sector is now 400,000 (up from 150,000 in 2011). Nevertheless, the amount and variety of products in many of the shops is still very limited and reminiscent of Eastern Europe 30 years ago.
The Malecon, shabby but magnificent, is Havana’s seafront road and stretches for 5 miles from the old town to Miramar. We walked most of the length of it on our second day. The new American Embassy is situated half way down.
The economic reforms of 2011 allowed private restaurants for the first time. We ate mostly in these private restaurants and the food was pretty good.
Breakfast each day in the Casa was fruit based. The five most common fruits are: banana, guava, pineapple, papaya and mango. The bread was normally hard and almost reminiscent of crisp bread in Scandinavia. The local coffee was delicious and strong.
For lunch we enjoyed Cubano sandwiches comprising of ham, cheese, pork and pickles. We also ate quite a lot of grilled fish and salad. Some of the fish was less than fresh and could be a little salty, but it was all tasty nonetheless.
In the evening a variety of things were on offer. One of the most typical Cuban dishes is ropa vieja which is a lamb-based stew normally accompanied by beans, rice and plantain.
Coppelia ice cream also deserves a mention. The 500-seat parlour is located in a park in Havana and attracts simply massive queues. We queued for almost an hour but we agreed that it was well worth the wait!
On our third day we left Havana and journeyed down to Trinidad.
The Autopista is a six lane motorway stretching east from Havana. It was extraordinary quiet (not surprising given the low car ownership) and this is the only motorway I have ever seen with horses and carts in the slow lane and onion sellers in the central reservation.
After about an hour we stopped in the Zapata National Park. The area hosts a re-creation of an original Taino Village. The village is accessed by a boat across the swamp lands. The Tainos, who were almost all wiped out by the Spanish colonists, used to hunt the local crocodiles. Today the area also boasts a crocodile farm. It was all very touristy but quite enjoyable.
Bay of Pigs
A few miles south of Zapata is the Bay of Pigs. The beaches are stunningly beautiful but the area is better known as the location for the failed US-backed attempt by Cuban counter-revolutionaries to invade the country. There is a museum at Playa Giron with a British-built Sea Fury on display outside.
We arrived in Trinidad in the late afternoon of our third day. Trinidad is a perfectly preserved mid-nineteenth century sugar town. Although full of tourists, the town is also a modern working town. We wandered around the cobbled streets soaking up the atmosphere.
On the afternoon of our fourth day we spent a pleasant five hours relaxing on Ancon Beach. The beach is just south of Trinidad and it is reached easily and cheaply in a taxi.
On our fifth day we took the train up the Valle de los Ingenios. The valley contains the ruins of the plantations and mills that gave Trinidad its wealth. We stopped off at Iznaga to visit the tower used to oversee the slaves in the fields. After lunch we returned on the train. The train had a small buffet bar car complete with a coconut juice making area.
In Trinidad we stayed with a retired doctor and his family in a small 3-room bedroom bed and breakfast. The hosts were lovely and it felt just like being a guest in someone’s home. We stayed in three different Casa’s in Havana too. The rooms were quite basic but the hospitality was fantastic.
Trinidad has a wonderful live music scene and we spent every night bar hopping and listening to the variety of Son, Salsa, Rumba and Trova music. There was music on the streets too.
Naturally trains featured a lot in the visit. As well as the ride out to Iznaga we visited a few railway monuments where old locomotives were on display. I also managed to persuade the security guard at Trinidad to allow to look around the depot and included a few footplate visits.
On our sixth day, back in Havana, we went on the tourist trail associated with Ernest Hemingway. We had a Mojito in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway stayed. We then joined the crowds of tourists photographing other tourists ordering over priced drinks at La Bodeguita del Medio.(Hemingway’s favourite). There is also a bar in Havana that markets itself on the fact that Hemingway never visited or drank there at all.
Cristal Beer was surprisingly good. Presidente was the other main brand and also very good.
We also had a few Mojitos and Cuba Libres but our favourite cocktail was the Canchanchara, a delicious mix of rum, lime and honey, found in Trinidad.
On our last morning we visited the excellent Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The museum houses an interesting variety of Cuban Art including works by their own version of Picasso; Wilfredo Lam.
We then went on the trail of Meyer Lansky. Lanksy was the mafia boss who was given carte blanche by President Batista in the 1950’s to create “Las Vegas” in Havana (Batista would keep the slot machine profits). We visited the Riviera Hotel that Lansky built on the Malecon in 1956. It had a wonderful faded 1950s feel to it.
We then went on to the Capri (featured in the Godfather II) and then to the gothic Hotel Nacional which hosted the largest ever mafia get together (under the guise of a Frank Sinatra concert) in 1949. We ended up at the Habana Libre (the old Hilton) which has been restored and has excellent wi-fi.
Dangers and Annoyances
Cuba is remarkably safe and it feels safe.
There are few street lamps even in Havana so walking around in the dark can be a bit hazardous with the many potholes on the pavement.
The potholes and slow moving horse-drawn vehicles make driving a bit hazardous too. One would not want to be driving around at night. The locals also seem to avoid driving at night.
The dual currency system – (Convertible Peso = 1USD = 25 local Peso) can be confusing and can make things a little more expensive, but we never encountered any bad experience being ripped off or short changed.
The pollution (caused by low octane fuel) is a real problem and makes walking around Havana a little less pleasant than it could be.
The infrastructure is insufficient for the level of tourists. We waited 90 minutes at the bank in a queue just to change money and saw long queues to use the internet too. Hotel prices are rising to dizzy heights as demand exceeds supply.
Bottled water is not readily available and one has to plan ahead to get a supply.
Many toilets require a 1USD usage fee and don’t always have toilet paper available.
By far the best thing about Cuba is the people.
Rarely have I travelled to a country with such a friendly people. We were greeted everywhere we went with lovely smiles and words of welcome. Even the touts who were offering taxi rides and cheap cigars were polite and wished us a nice holiday after refusal.
The friendliness of the people cancelled out any other negative factors we encountered and make Cuba certainly worth a visit.