Over a year later I find myself reminiscing on Cuba. From Havana’s antiquated beauty to the sparkling shorelines of Varadero. It isn't quite so 'on the verge' of digital modernisation as many write-ups have portrayed, the island is still very much enveloped in remnants of the 20th century, and whilst that hinders progression, on many fronts, it makes Cuba undeniably one of the most interesting places on our planet.
Towards to end of our 9h45 minute flight (on the now extinct Thomas Cook), as we were coming into to land. the plane flew low over the north of the island, soaring over hills of every shade of green, interrupted by bright blue rivers carving out the crevices of the valleys. After an extremely long border control wait, we finally made it outdoors, where I was eagerly anticipating what was in store on our trip. It was an hour or so before sunset when we arrived, so the first thing we did when we arrived at our hotel in Varadero was run down to the long stretch of white, sandy beach to watch the warm, golden light sink down behind the horizon.
Welcome to my 8 days in the alluring, the paradoxical, the fascinating Cuba. Cuba is somewhere to visit right now, not just before you die. Tourism is Cuba's biggest income source so the country has adapted to that, but the most valuable asset Cuba has is her people, and the people will sit with you over a glass of rum, and warm your ears with captivating stories of the island.
Varadero -one of the largest Caribbean resorts- suffered widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017, but it seems that due to the island's dependency on tourism, the recovery turn-around had to be rapid. Varadero extends 20km into the Atlantic, towards Florida. Yes, essentially it is a long stretch of resorts, surrounded on either side by a clean and sparkling coastline. Many have complained that staying in hotels don't put money directly into the hands of Cubans, nevertheless, in receiving over one million visitors a year, the tourism brought into Varadero is essential to the Cuban economy. Do not dismiss staying here for a few days to relax- it has one of the best beaches in the western hemisphere. Please see the pictures if you need convincing!
At the top of the peninsula lies the beautiful Marina Gaviota. It looks sleek and expensive, like something planted here straight from South Beach, Miami. It boasts impressive seafood, a Sala de la Musica and designer outlets. We ate at Kike-Kcho, a charming and stunning restaurant over the water, surrounded by schools of baby fish and jellies. Whilst this is more on the pricey side of Cuban cuisine, the seafood platter (especially the Lobster) will have you salivating for the rest of the day!
Only an hour's boat ride away from Varadero lies the secluded tropical island of Cayo Blanco. Imagine a place where no one can contact you, and your 360 view is every hue of blue. You can only access the island via organised excursions on a catamaran, which leave from small marina on a river that is definitely rife with crocodiles! Mid-way, you stop for snorkelling in the sea. if you are worried about sharks, don't be! The exact words of our host was 'today we can't see any sharks, jellyfish or crocodiles so don't be scared'... I'm sure you can imagine that this reassured me massively.
Although these trips are inclusive of food, the vendors on the beach sell this plate of seafood for 5 CUC and it really didn't disappoint. Bring an extra couple of coins with you!
Varadero is not the ‘Cuba’ I necessarily came for, but that doesn't mean that I didn’t need it, and that it has one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. The town is very small, but the vicinity of Varadero stretches along the entire peninsula. It is basically 20km of uninterrupted white sand and crystal clear sea. It is the largest of its kind in the Caribbean, and simply stunning. Pick up a roadside pina colada in a pineapple and take a stroll.
A beautiful park in Varadero town that boasts a small lake with pedalos to hire for 5 CUC an hour. Its nice if you are a couple or a family- grab a drink from the bar (where you will be sold 'the best pina colada in Cuba' for the hundreth time) and take a few laps around the lake. Bring lots of sun cream as there is zero shade! If you’re travelling with kids this is a great activity.
Casa del Ron
If you want to get a little tipsy in the mid-afternoon heat, take a step into Casa Del Ron (literally meaning 'The House of Rum'). Walk in and smell the scent of old wood and sugar cane, whilst you admire every single rum brand and flavour Cuba has to offer. Whats more, ask Rosa to give you a tasting, she does not hold back on the rum! If its open, take a seat in the woody western-style bar. The rum here is slightly more overpriced (some exclusive bottles are 30,000 CUC...that's $30k to you and me! I didn’t stutter…$30k) than in Havana, but the usual prices are still extremely cheap and its not worth leaving without a bottle for the beach :)
Now we move away from Varadero to Trindad. Trinidad is a time-machine, If you want to immerse yourself in an experience with very little modernity, great bars and markets. look no further! It is worth staying a few days, as it is almost slap bang in the middle of Cuba. This gorgeous, multi-coloured town will have you creating stories in your head of what it must have been like in the height of its affluence.
The first point of call is the Plaza Mayor. It is the main square, enclosed by colonial-style Spanish churches.
The best view of the town is from the watchtower of the Historical Museum. Once you get to the top of this incredibly perilous and exciting stairwell, a panoramic view of Trinidad will emerge, with the brightly coloured building and cobbled streets contrasting against the charming backdrop of the Escambray Mountains.
We also went to Cienfuegos in the same day, travelling there on a road with thousands of crabs! Cienfuegos is very different to Trindad; very colonial and regal in its style. We only got to spend an hour or so here, but if I went back I would go to the Palmira Yoruba Pantheon; the Museum of Religious Afro-Catholic Syncretism. Cuba still has such a presence of Yoruba religious culture, originating from slaves being uprooted and bringing with them their mother cultures, which blended with Catholic ideas to create a new religious identity.
…ooh na na (couldn’t resist sorry). We packed up our things and headed on the coastal road to this iconic city. Half of my heart actually remains in Havana and it has taken me a while to out my finger on it, but I think I have finally figured out why. There is simply no where in this world like it. No where that has seen such extremes of extravagance at the beginning of a century and such deficit at the end, and created such a unique character. It is easy to imagine how decadent this city once was, in the roaring 20s when rich Americans and Mafia folk were seeking a place to live out their high life. But I’d rather see it for what it is now, a city with crumbling walls that tell the stories of the past hundred years.
There are two things you should know before visiting Havana. One, not everybody is poor. And two, the people who are poor are really grateful for any money you can spare. 1 CUC in the tourist currency (there are two currencies, one for tourists and one for locals) can help in a big way.
After you have wandered through the streets and alleys, you can go for a meal at La Bodeguita del Medio. It is very touristy BUT the food is great and the Mojito’s might actually be the best in the world!
Once you are full on rum, lime and sugar, I would highly recommend heading to Parque Centrale and doing a tour of Havana in an old car. Your driver may not have good English, so don’t expect too much information- you’ll get the jist of most things! Just haggle down to 70% of what they say they charge and enjoy feeling like you’re the star of a Hollywood film for an hour.
As the day ends, head down to the Malecon a 7km coastal road where locals and tourists gather at sunset to drink, make out and generally just enjoy being in Havana. Be careful of the huge waves crashing up and splashing you…though you may actually be grateful for it given the heat!
Riding around in a Coco Taxi was also a great experience! It’s quite cheap and is a useful way to get around Havana. I love walking whilst I’m away but my feet were so sore, so we got in a Coco Taxi and had no regrets.
Here are some things to know before you visit Havana;
You need a visa from the embassy, which I did not realise this until about 5 days before our trip, and had to pay for an express service!
Make sure you get the right currency and check what the notes look like. Don’t exchange money on the street as you may get given the local currency which is worth far less! Also you cannot use cards that are affiliated with American banks-just bring cash.
Do not expect WiFi in your hotel room. This was the most refreshing part of the trip; WiFi was only available in communal areas, and you have to buy a top up card for your phone which is pre-loaded with WiFi credit. These are incredibly cheap but you really won’t want to be connected to anything. Just enjoy being in the moment!
Stop listening to talk about food being bland! It really isn’t the case. We brought a bottle of seasoning just in case, but the food was tasty enough!
If you want to travel across the entire Island, I’d recommend 12-14 days! Also, go to Vinales!
This post could have honestly been so long, I have so much more to write, but I will save that for my Cuba Travel Tips post coming later :)