7 Days in Cuba

7 Days in Cuba

Our trip to Cuba begins from Mexico City, flying over the glorious small islands and beautiful aqua reefs of the Caribbean. The view of Cuba from the air is stunning, so unexpectedly green and tropical. It really is a breathtaking sight to behold, and a great way to start our Cuban holiday. From the airport, we were whisked away by our guide ‘Martha’ as part of our private tour from Havana to Las Terraces in the country. The sights on this journey were humorous to say the least: we travelled on a dual carriageway with very few cars, some horse drawn carts (with car tyres mind you!) and many hitchhikers. We soon arrive at Hotel Moka, situated up high and built around a large tree. A pleasant breeze meanders through the open foyer of this eco-style lodge, set amongst lush green gardens.

The next day we woke late for our tour but…..No problemo……This is Cuba after all! Our driver ‘Alberto’ was a little old crinkly chap in a clapped out Hyundai, but man it went like a rocket and so smooth.. Never felt him change gears only to avoid some potholes bigger than the car!

Las Terraces is a small community of 1000. It services the Vinales Valley UNESCO world heritage site, where we travelled to today, further along the same highway from Havana. Again we passed many horse drawn carts and saw the fabulous old cars some immaculate, others showing their age and blowing thick smoke. The country side is quite beautiful, clean, green, and clear with blue skies and no smog. Picture lots of Banana Trees and Coconut Palms. Different varieties of palms sometimes line the centre of the highway, with red Exoras, Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, Crotons, Oleanders’ and Alamanda – all hedged in the centre of the highway for the entire trip. (Just like Townsville!)

Our first stop was of course the obligatory cigar factory.- closed as it’s Sunday. But we still go in with our guide. Not what I expected?! A private house on the highway beside the tobacco drying house. (A large hut). A few bullocks in the field for ploughing. Dad cooking food (pork soup/stock) over a fire in the back yard. Mum selling a few cigars, they can keep 10% of the produce for a private sale. They let you walk right through the house. We bought a box knowing it is within the limit to bring into Australia but later realize they aren’t sealed! She gave us a few extra too! So we are giving the cigars to our guides and drivers with a mini koala holding a boomerang mounting the cigar. (It looks like a tree branch). There are several modern clean open-style cafe stops on the way and in the valley.

We stopped at a scenic outlook and the view is panoramic. The main feature of the area is the huge rock mountains. Similar to The Glass House Mountains of the Sunshine Coast, QLD, just many more mountains!  We headed into the valley and the village of Vinnales, visited another cigar factory and watched some fast-rolling action happening by one guy with a razor sharp knife. And I think the owner too is there. He looks like he’s straight out of the movies in his white Panama Hat and thick black moustache.
Our next stop is the colourful History Mural painted on a large rock wall on the side of the mountain, then lunch at one of the many tour group picnic facilities. Imagine open-style ‘thatched huts’ with large outdoor ovens for baking pork and chicken. And there’s always a Cuban band playing…’Guantanamera’!

After lunch we visited the Indian Caves and travelled by boat through well-lit caves where the guides pointed out features and faces in the stalagmites. Definitely an excellent experience!

On returning to the hotel our guide kindly advised us of the best rum to drink and the meal to order at the vegetarian restaurant. A great day and evening all around! Tomorrow we transfer to Havana for 3 nights, very much looking forward to this.

Havana

How nice to be greeted by Alberto .. The little crinkly man for our transfer to Havana in the Hyundai Rocket. Back down the empty 6 lane highway with few cars and the now common horse drawn cart with car tyres. We drove into Havana through huge shady tree-lined streets past the impressive Embassy’s. We stayed one street back from the ‘Malecon’ (that’s Esplanade for us!) which stretches for 8 kms. As the hurricane was in the area the big seas were smashing up over the cement wall, therefore closing the road to all traffic.

Martha (who also greeted us at the airport) was waiting as we pulled up at the town square in Old Havana. We wheeled our suitcases across the cobblestones (that was fun) to the Palacio San Felipe Hotel. Beautifully restored in 2010 with 27 rooms described in the Lonely Planet as Cuban baroque meets modern minimalist.

We thought it pretty fantastic, as was Old Havana. What a fabulous town – clean, safe, beautiful old buildings and many restored in this Unesco site. Small cobblestone lanes with cannons speared into the ground and cannon balls for bollards to keep out the traffic so us pedestrians can roam the streets.

And Mojitos…

Well, we had to have a few of these after walking the lanes and the Malecon …and only $3 each! So after an afternoon nap we headed to the ultra-modern hotel restaurant and enjoyed a meal to celebrate our 29 year wedding anniversary.

We met our guide, Louis, the following morning for our ‘walking tour’.

He was delightful, unpretentious, funny and very easy to understand. His take on Cuba, the people, the economy and history was so interesting to us. I really had no knowledge and little expectation of this country beside cigars and old cars!  The tour included lunch and drinks on the rooftop at Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Quote from Lonely Planet – Hemingway’s Havana hideout, where he penned the classic ‘FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS’ and an obligatory pit stop for anyone on a world tour of ‘Hemingway-once-fell-over-here’ bars.

Very Havana open verandah style bar, on the street level, indoor palms, shutters with a romantic piano melody playing.

Lunch turned out to be a four-course meal and Lobster for the main! We loved our time with Louis and delighted to hear he was our guide the following day.

We spent the afternoon at the city museum – once the Spanish Generals, then Governor’s Residence and also for a short time became the Presidential Palace (All the big wigs since 1770). Similar baroque architecture to our hotel with beautiful rooms, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, period furniture, dining room tables laid with fine crystal, silverware and china.

We walked off lunch along the Malecon  and settled in a bar to people watch over a few more Mojitos.
After another arvo nap… We dined again at a rooftop terrace overlooking the sea and the fort opposite where cannons are fired at 9 pm. For something different we had a ‘Lobster Meal deal’ 4 course $22!!!

Museum of the Revolution…

This was once the Presidential Palace (and used by a string of cash-embezzling Cuban Presidents ending with the baddie Batista). Tiffany’s decorated the interior and there is also ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ based on The Palace of Versailles in France. Now peppered with bullet holes in the ‘marble’, it tells how Fidel and his brother Raul Castro met Che Guevara and led the Revolution against the bad guy Batista and the Liberation of Cuba. The opulent wealthy lifestyle of Americans living here while the Cuban people were poor and oppressed was fascinating and interesting to learn. So Fidel ousted the Americans (1959), took back their land, and life in Cuba became better. Batista fled to USA and took millions of dollars. The Russians supported Cuba and supplies were plentiful for 20 years. Then with the collapse of The Soviet Union and no trade with USA, supplies dwindled, goods were unavailable and life became poor. (It goes on and on)… Cuba before the Revolution after and now.

They love Che Guevara here. Monuments and pictures are everywhere. He wrote his earlier adventure ‘The Motor Cycle Diaries’, a great movie I saw recently. Sure tells you what a good guy he was.

Next is our ‘Vintage Car’ tour. What a Bomb! Spewing thick exhaust straight back into the back seat of our ‘convertible’ with no suspension. Bouncing around, I thought I was going to be sick!! Overrated…. Fortunately we had a few pit stops (more like running repairs). We went to New Havana, run down and in need of a paint job, but oh so ‘Retro’.

Cienfuegos and Trinidad

Nearly 3 hours by taxi up that huge 3 lane super highway with few cars. Some pot holes, tourist buses and of course horse and carts. No towns and little scenery to Cienfuegos ‘Pearl of the Caribbean’ … Well maybe a less than bright and shiny pearl. Home of Benny More, a famous Cuban musician (if you’re over 70 maybe). A small town and a lot more commercial than Havana. We noticed some advertising signage! (very rare for Cuba). And also street markets selling souvenirs!  Lovely old Colonial buildings restored. We dined for lunch at the ‘elegant’ (in its time) Cienfuegos Yacht Club. Still a beautiful building but we had to compete with a few bus loads of tourists devouring the buffet.

On to (old, like, 1514) Trinidad (not Tobago) and dropped off at our hotel, The Iberostar – The only 5 star in Cuba and a stunning property.

We scored a suite too, overlooking the town square, but felt like we had just pulled up in the down town slums of Nairobi.

Our guide Raphael told us to ‘just walk two blocks, turn right and walk towards the music and enjoy!’ It was dark…so we weren’t going anywhere unfamiliar! We stayed in and had a few Mojitos in the foyer where we had our first and only taste of internet in Cuba. Dinner consisted of crisps from the mini bar!

Raphael collected us the next morning for our walking tour. How things are different, and less daunting in the daylight and when you have a guide. Quote from ‘Lonely Planet’ Trinidad is a one-of-a-kind, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement where the clocks stopped ticking in 1850 and yet to restart. It shows the beauty of Cuba’s oldest and enchanting outdoor museums.

The rambling cobbled stone streets are the oldest or biggest stones I have ever seen. Lots of old Spanish history here. Once a big sugar cane industry and many wealthy land owners. We called into a few bars all with Cuban troubadours (musos) playing.  And purchased their CDs.

After lunch we took a taxi to the local beach, Playa Ancon, to have a look. Stunning and vibrant views! We ended up loving Trinidad, its safe and colourful life and beautiful beaches.

Dinner at a ‘local’s house’ was included in our tour for our next and last night in Trinidad. Didn’t know what to expect (That’s a lie…. I had visions of sitting on the floor eating rice and beans. I must have read too much in TripAdvisor written by back packers!) Raphael took us there during the day to show us the way and meet Vivian the hostess. It was actually a B&B. Through the little front door into a beautiful clean Spanish style home with a 90’s style big kitchen. Dinner was upstairs on the ‘retro’ roof terrace and 5 more table settings. We feasted on delicious lobster again!

The next day, we travelled with Raphael in a taxi driven by Elvis to Santa Clara – final resting place of Che Guevara. He was born in Argentina and died in Bolivia wanting to continue his fight for freedom. But so loved by the Cubans he and his men who were murdered in Bolivia were exhumed and interred in a mausoleum in Santa Clara.

We left Raphael and Elvis here and transferred by taxi for a near 3 hour trip to Jabicoa Breezes Beach Resort near Havana for our final night in Cuba. This was a slightly different drive as we were off that huge highway and travelling the back roads so we drove through many small villages. Not particularly pretty, and quite shabby.

We have left Cuba with a clearer and better understanding of the people and the country it now is; the colourful past, its beauty and history. We never felt threatened or unsafe. Never ripped off or cheated. People offering ‘you wanna buy a cigar?’ is often heard but just say ‘no thanks’ once and that’s it, no pestering or annoying touts. You can get a picture with old ladies dressed in long white dresses and fruit or flowers in their hair with huge cigars. Or with men looking very smooth Havana-style, cream or floral jackets and white panama hats and of course big cigars. But that’s it….No Coke or McDonald’s signs. No advertising signs at all!

Recommended travel destination!

 

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