I haven’t written about our Christmas holiday in Cuba before now for one simple reason - it is most devoid of tourists and much as the country needs the tourist dollar (or CUC which is the local tourist currency) I am loathe to see it inundated by tourists ruining a country that is stuck in its own time bubble. (Phew - that was a big sentence!)
But, with Fidel having less and less of a ruling hand, and his brother Raul Castro now "officially" running the country, entry to the country is now becoming more fluid, and whilst pretty much every country (except the USA - who can now travel there with a visa and as part of a group) has been allowed entry in the past, for anyone other than Canadians and South Americans its a long slog.
Now - I am obviously not an American, and unlike most countries in the world, Cuba has no American aspects other than its love of classic cars (mainly due to necessity as the cost to import cars from anywhere else is prohibitive) which have been lovingly restored over and over again. There is not a Starbucks or McDonalds to be seen in Cuba, and I for one loved it!
Flying with Virgin Atlantic (through Virgin Holidays) we jetted of in a very old plane for the 8.5hr flight to Havana. Leaving a grey, cold, drizzly London - stepping off our plane in Havana was like stepping from a refrigerated flying tomb into a hot wet steam oven. Smokey steam oven - as in Cuba, you can smoke anywhere.
Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa, was brilliant - huge beds, huge rooms, huge baths and even huger cocktails of which we consumed a lot of. Thankfully the seats in the swim-up bar were not huge, and when we fell off them we were cushioned by the cool aqua pillows of watery goodness. And we did fall off. We also lost a dress, a pair on sunglasses and a single thong. Shoe thong – aka flip-flop, not the underwear variety.
We had heard mixed reviews of the food at the resort - I am not a huge fan of constant all you can eat buffets, and after the first day of blow outs, we were pretty well behaved. Breakfast was either pancakes of omelettes made to order with cold meats, smokes salmon and fruit (alright, and champagne, Bloody Mary's or a Canadian concoction called a Bloody Caesar which was made with Clamato juice - a drink made of reconstituted tomato juice concentrate flavoured with spices and clam broth - sounds gross but it was great for the constant hangovers we suffered!)
The facilities could not be faulted - the beach was amazing, the range of restaurants and bars vast, and the service of all the staff was amazing. (Check out my Trip Adviser review.)
We did a two tours while staying in Sandals - the first was a private guided jeep tour of the area with a highly knowledgeable and educated guide (he had 2 degrees, had worked as a teacher, but makes more money as a guide), and a day trip on a catamaran with snorkelling, swimming with rescued dolphins out at sea, lobster lunch and all the rum we could drink. I still get a ridiculous smile on my face when I think about the dolphin swim!
Moving onto Havana for our final 5 days of vacation we checked into the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Now this is a "luxury" hotel above the Malecon, it opened in 1930 when Cuba was a destination for the well to do American tourists, then the embargo hit and Havana fell on hard times. The hotel, whilst grand, is in dire need of updating. Fresh paint would be a good start, with our room having peeling paint and a dire bathroom (see my Trip Adviser review).
Whilst in Havana we had a private guide for 2 of our days, Dania Jomarron (below and to the right with the blue brolly), and she was one of the highlights of our entire trip and we saw more in 6 hours walking around town with her than we would have seen in 3 days by ourselves. You pay her by the hour, and for any cabs/meals you all share while out. Ended up costing us about 70CUC for the whole day - money very well spent! The first day spent walking all over downtown and Central Havana showing us around, orienting us, and giving us a history lesson along the way. She showed us a friend’s house, 1 block behind a recently redeveloped square, where the outside street was cracked and broken, and inside they had not had a roof for 3 years. 6 people lived there under tarps, but they wouldn’t move as the location was prime, and hey, everyone else has damaged buildings too!
We ate at some amazing local’s restaurants and street food stands, but two that stand out as highlights for Hussyband and I were Restaurant La Casa and La Guarida.
Highlights of our Havana time including spending a few hours in a classic convertible being driven around and sightseeing (puts London's open top buses to shame!), doing a tour around Jose Fuster's compound which is decorated to the nth degree in his mosaic work, and seeing the remnants of the Buena Vista Social Club band play one evening by the pool at our hotel to much smaller crowd than they would normally perform for in the auditorium - whilst we enjoyed the sea breeze and mojitos under the stars.
Food and drink in general - if you like pork, lobster and rum you will love Cuba. There are local mass produced beers, even a lone micro brewery Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas) in town. There are street side vendors selling everything from churros to pizza and back to ice cream sandwiches. The Havana Club Museum served us the best Cuba Libres of our trip (with imported Coca Cola).
Would I recommend Cuba for a trip? Hell yes. Having wanted to go there ever since I heard the BSC album back in 1997 I was not disappointed. Would I go back? Definitely - I want to go back in about 10 years to see what changes the increase in tourism makes to this amazing country, and I hope it doesn’t get ruined in the process.
Cuba is restricted to pretty much what it can make, or import from South America and Canada. The staff earn a pittance and usually live in appalling conditions, and whilst education and medical are free - they are limited.
Cuban people are (generally) extremely happy, willing to share their knowledge and laughter and will go out of their way for you. They are curious about our lives and homes. Don’t complain that the food isn’t up to your standards - it is far superior to what the locals are eating and is fresh and tasty.
So if you visit Cuba, smile, tip them in CUC's, leave toiletries in your hotel (or even better give a bag of them to a random family in the back streets) to save room in your bags for rum and presents, and most importantly, take home the happy memories of a generous people that we now cherish.
PS: Although if I don't hear Guantanamera again for at least 12 months I will be happy!
Tour Guide: Dania Jomarron
Email is email@example.com
Phone: 052975250 (send her a text message telling her to check her email as internet is sporadic and expensive there so she has to go to a cafe to check it)
Restaurant La Casa
865 30 Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)537 881 7000
418 Concordia Havana, Cuba
Phone: (0)7 866 9047
Factoria Plaza Vieja (Cervezas y maltas)
San Ignacio esq, a Muralla, Plaza Vieja Havana, Havana, Cuba