Our family holiday in Cuba last week was even more wonderful than we could have hoped for. Cuba manages to elicit strong feelings all round by offering a heightened senses experience. Extraordinary colours are splashed all over the buildings and the people, petrol fumes and cigar smoke linger in the air, live, spontaneous music is everywhere and the only thing to do is embrace it and go with it. Thanks to this in your face approach to life even my children were fascinated by it’s swashbuckling and intriguing revolutionary history. Images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are plastered everywhere. We discovered that Fidel Castro has experience around 600 assassination attempts on his life. Six hundred? Really? One was an exploding cigar, another a camera with a shoot to kill button. I wonder how many of his body doubles lost their lives during all those attempts.
Having been desperate to go for years, even more so since Obama’s conciliatory moves and the rumour mill working overtime about how it’s all about to change, we thought that unless we went right now we would never experience the real Cuba, because it would shortly be Americanised and become far too commercial (there are no adverts in Cuba). But, having been, I’m not so sure. It certainly doesn’t look like anything is going to change rapidly any time soon and given that apparently new hotels and buildings have to be built by the army things will still take time and I certainly hope that Cuba’s historical legacy continues to be safeguarded. Is that selfish? I’m not sure – they might not have a lot of money but everyone we spoke to seemed really happy, the state looks after them, the health system is second to none, with 70% of them signed up to the donor programme and there is around 5% unemployment. Things might start getting a little more difficult if Venezuela stop giving them oil on account of their own personal collapse.
There were 14 of us in total, so we took on Havana for our four day extravaganza with as much gusto as anyone could give – the experience was not for the faint hearted, but going with a gang of teenagers made it all the more enjoyable. They have such an open mind that you can’t help but join in and that is the only way to do Cuba properly – we experienced the Cuban holy trinity of coffee, rum and cigars at every turn:-
Here’s the full team:-
We danced in a late night pop up club (a school room), sat in smoky bars, smoked cigars in every building, drank rum till it oozed out of our pores, walked everywhere and best of all took a number of tours in a convoy of three classic cars all over the place, racing up and down the roads sans seatbelts, the wind in our hair, admiring the faded colonial buildings in eclectic rainbow colours, music blaring and admiring the lush tropical vegetation, the smiley, happy people and the buzzing scenery in general.
It doesn’t get better than bumping into people like this:-
One of our fabulous Cuban tour guides driving a classic car:-
“The food is awful” was something we were told more than once before we arrived, but this was not our experience. There is an emerging food culture – you just have to know where to go and consequently all the meals we ate were excellent. This was because we had an “Our Man In Havana” to recommend the places we ate and we had to be fairly organised in advance about this – turning up as a party of 14 without a booking would have been too risky. So we had a total foodie itinerary which gave us lots of different food choices and locations.
La Garida was based in an old colonial building and a great place to eat and or drink with a roof-top bar overlooking the city:-
El Eitorae near the US Embassy is a wonderful Mexican restaurant where we sat outside across from the sea wall and ate delicious food:-
Cocinera was another lovely restaurant where we sat on the terrace:-
All the drinks cabinets in the bars looked like this:-
The whole experience was thrilling and will linger in our minds for a long time and certainly not be forgotten. “Classic” would be the word of choice on every level, just like the albums they sell in the marketplace:-
We are all ready to go back again for more. Ask my children what their highlights were and as a parent you would not approve. My sixteen year old will say that it was smoking his first cigar in a Cuban hotel lobby bar, my 19 year old will say that it was sitting in the front seat of a pink Chevrolet and my 23 year old will say that it was all of the above – smoking and drinking his way through the day and enjoying the warm Cuban hospitality and music. My daughter noted that “Cuba is clearly a place that smoking parents take their children on holiday because you can smoke anywhere – there are even ashtrays by the lifts” – it was like going back in time to that wonderful 1950’s style decadence, but with quite a lot of faded glamour thrown in for good measure.
When my daughter sent a text to a friend saying “Cuba is amazing, it’s just like going back in time”, her friend responded by saying “I can imagine you are feeling really jet-lagged – going back in time is never easy”, um, nope, not that sort of back in time, real back in time – you have to go to appreciate what she means by being trapped in a time warp, it’s incredible.
We did everything we were specifically warned not to do. We used the classic cars that sat outside our hotel as taxis, which we were told to avoid because they were far more expensive than the usual yellow ones – but we didn’t regret it for a minute. You can negotiate and when in Cuba, you really have to get around in the old cars, it’s part of overall experience.
Everywhere we went, live music popped up, spontaneously and joyfully complete with a dodgy CD which we duly purchased:-
We followed a woman late at night who told us she was taking us to see the “Buena Vista Social Club” around lots of windy lanes until arriving at a blank slate of a room that normally functioned as a school and arrived to a very strange sort of set up and promptly danced our little white socks off – very badly – attempting a few salsa moves with the locals who very quickly gave up on us as totally as this without rhythm and clearly impossible to help. Nevertheless we felt very safe wherever we went.
We chatted with everyone and discovered very quickly that everyone has a different story and opinion to tell – not one bit of advice was the same as the next person we talked to.
We strolled and drove along The Malecon – 8km of impressive seascape that wraps around the North of the city from Habana Vieja to Miramar (the posh bit) and marvelled at the numbers of locals just hanging out together – listening to music, drinking rum and chatting. “The Sofa of Havana we call it” said one guide. “This is what our lives would be like if we didn’t have gadgets – just hanging out with friends at the beach, pointed out all our children rather wistfully”. There is very little wifi and it’s very expensive so you don’t see people on their phones. So who’s got it right then?
I didn’t manage to get a photo of all the people on the wall, instead found a quiet moment and a popular local pastime:-
We did a tour of the Havana Club Museum which was excellent and then drank Mojitos in the home of Mojitos and danced the salsa in the bar (or tried to). There are only eight rum masters in Cuba, one of which is a woman as of 5 months ago and they know all the secret ingredients…”are they drunk the whole time then?” asked one of the children:-
We learnt how it was made:-
Dancing after two mohitos:-
Another highlight was Hemingway House, now a museum to Earnest Hemingway who lived there until 1960. The villa’s interior remains unchanged and whilst you are not allowed to wander around it you can peer into all the rooms and imagine how he lived. There are books everywhere and lots of stuffed trophies.
We also frequented a few of the bars he used to hang out in – Floridita’s in particular, right near our hotel and we drank the daiquiri’s that are made in his memory – that man certainly got about – pretty sure I did something similar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and of course he’s well known in Kenya for his drinking skills too:-
And Sloppy Joe’s:-
We went to the Fusto artist area – very Gaudi-esque:-
We stayed at the Iberostar Hotel in old Havana which was the perfect location for all that we wanted to do and you could walk to lots of the key squares and to the sea from there. It had a wonderful atrium lobby and 24 hour bar – the ventilation of which must have been exceptional because you didn’t notice that everyone was smoking cigars right away. All the staff were really lovely – my son managed to lose his iPad in the cigar shop (as you do) and they came and found him the next day and gave it back. My only complaint was the pillows – they really need to be improved.
Walking from the hotel, you get scenery like this:-
Don’t paint it that colour!
Additional things to note:-
Expect a big delay at the airport awaiting your luggage – welcome to Cuban time.
At this time of year it rains generally between 4pm and 5pm heavily.
Cuba has not yet merged their two currency CUC’s (Cuban convertibles which is what the locals are paid in) and CUP (Cuban local Pesos)
1 CUC = 24 CUP, so you can understand why the locals are desperate for the tourist bucks. You need to take lots of cash, credit cards are only really used in the hotels, but there are ATM’s and you can change money at your hotel. You can’t get local currency outside of Cuba.
You need a visa
There is very little wifi anywhere. Hotel lobbies will have it.
Drink bottled water
It was very hot. Bring long sleeves, hats and suncream for the open top car journeys
Clothing is casual
Go to the Hemingway Museum
Buy some Cuban cigars – don’t buy them in the street, but they are state managed so the price is the same at a shop or the hotel
Go to the Havana Club Museum and stock up on rum once you’ve been advised on the differences in each style.
Did you know that Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba and a separate Naval base?