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Blenheim woman Janna Wilkinson has been blogging about her life in Bermuda. Here she talks about a recent trip to Cuba.
Cuba had been on our bucket list for quite some time and with the embargo lifting allowing Americans to travel to Cuba (still not technically for tourism – but that didn’t seen to be a problem) and for trade between the two nations to resume after more than a decade, we thought let’s go before it’s too developed and ‘touristy’.
Stepping off the plane at Havana airport was an experience in itself. The arrivals hall was absolutely rammed and people waiting for bags all over the place, and people carrying massive new flat screen TVs in boxes was a sure sign that Communist times were changing. After collecting our bags we made our way to the currency exchange queue. One thing about Cuba is they have a tourist currency, the Cuban Convertible (CUC), which is equivalent value to the US dollar but you can’t get this outside Cuba. The queue was slow … After an hour and a half of sweating in the humidity we had exchanged our Euros for the CUC. Euros are better to exchange as an additional 10 per cent is changed on USD.
Taxi drivers were loitering around and there was no shortage of taxis so it wasn’t hard to get a ride to Havana – the set meter fare was $24. On this occasion, we opted for a modern Japanese car with air con over a convertible classic. We directed the taxi driver to our Casa Particular (essentially a room rented in someone’s home or like a kind of B&B) and passed some of the sights like Revolution Square and the university. A casa is a very cost effective way to stay in Cuba – ours ranged form $30-$50 per night depending on whether breakfast was included. It was easy to book in advance and I’d highly recommend this, though it can feel a little weird if you’re not comfortable with strangers. Our hungry tummies needed feeding so we walked a couple of blocks to find some lunch. As expected the offering was variations of beans and rice with a choice of meat. Oh, and a mojito on the side. All for about $5 each.
We then headed a few blocks towards the ocean and walked some of the Malecon – a massive road hugging the coast with a sea wall that you can sit on and watch the waves crash or simply watch the world go by. Next stop was the historic luxury Hotel Nacional de Cuba – a hit in the days with visitors such as Winston Churchill. The hotel is very grand and we sat outside and enjoyed another mojito and some live music at the outdoor Rosa Nautica Bar admiring the view of the Malecon and ocean.
From there we wandered some street markets and walked through the suburb of Vedado, taking in the interesting architecture and noting the massive amount of construction work going on to the old mansions once inhabited by Cuba’s elite. It felt like every other house was undergoing (much needed) work. A definite sign of changing times. We ended the walk at a rooftop bar called El Cocinero then headed to a Casa for dinner. Yes, more beans and rice (and mojitos). It was time to branch out.
Ok so maybe this wasn’t branching out quite yet, as the next day we decided to head to the Hotel Nacional for the coveted buffet breakfast. For $13 this seemed like great value. And it was. From omelettes, fresh Cuban coffee, fruit, pastries, fresh juices to cured meats and cheese, cereals, waffles and much more, it was definitely worth it and set us up for the long car journey ahead to Trinidad on Cuba’s south coast. We had decided to take a private taxi to Trinidad but hadn’t been able to arrange this in advance. I had found some information online which indicated it should cost around $150. So armed with our broken Spanish, we asked around a few drivers who were all quoting upwards of $200. Uh oh. Then we met a sweet guy working at the Hotel Nacional who called around some of his ‘friends’ and then, success! Someone would take us for $150. And we were on our way.
Getting out of Havana was a very smooth experience and we were very quickly in the countryside. The taxi driver was wasting no time so we zoomed past the gas guzzling classic cars, some packed to the rafters, and we passing sugar cane fields and farmers on horse and cart in no time.
About four hours later we arrived in Trinidad I knew we were somewhere special. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can see why. The taxi dropped us inside the town centre gates at our Casa – the Casa Colonial El Patio – our favourite Casa by a long shot. The host Manuel was a character and greeted us with a New Zealand t-shirt on and welcomed us into his gorgeous colonial home. The ceiling height in some of these houses is unreal and I can only imagine how grand they were in their day. We had a private room and bathroom off the massive courtyard which was super quiet and the location was perfect. Bags dropped, courtesy welcome cocktail consumed, we headed for a late lunch snack and accidentally ordered fries and an omelette (I really must get better at Spanish) and then set off to climb the steps to the bell tower of the church of San Fransisco de Asis. From the top the views take you right out to the ocean and to the hills in the north.
Trinidad has many little markets for tourists where you can buy knick-knacks – some better than others but largely it’s all the same stuff for the same price. You really need to watch where you are walking everywhere in Cuba – the streets are littered with horse and dog poop. Classic cars lined the streets of the old town and we had fun just wandering around taking photos.
On recommendation from our Casa host we settled on a restaurant near the square for dinner – Esquerra. More rice but no beans. Hurrah! And shrimp and lobster which was actually very good, just a little overcooked. We hopped a few bars for some cocktails – including the infamous Canchanchara bar for a cocktail of the same name and whittled the night away listening to live music.
Next day we enjoyed breakfast in the courtyard of the Casa – included in the price. It was very good. Then set off to find a ruined church at the top of the hill behind the old town before heading back into the town to climb the Palacio Cantero. Again amazing views out over the town and out to the coast. We spent the day wandering and stumbled across an amazing restaurant for lunch at La Redaccion – no rice and beans to be seen on the menu! Instead we indulged in hummus, guacamole, falafel, croquettes, stuffed capsicums and fresh smoothies. (It was so good we went back for dinner). I will point out that I have nothing against rice and beans, I just prefer variety if it’s available. That evening we enjoyed more live music and cocktails. Cocktails costs around $2.50 each so it would be rude not to!
We had organised for a shared taxi (taxi collective) to pick us up the next morning to take us back to Havana. We weren’t really sure what this meant but after some waiting a driver turned up with his Peugeot and we were on our way. We stopped to pick up one other passenger and were worried it might be two, but we had the whole back seat to ourselves so it was definitely worth it. For $35 pp this was great value door to door service and much quicker than the bus (which costs $25). We made great time and were in Old Havana in four hours. We orientated ourselves with the Casa we had booked, which felt a little odd and a bit like Fort Knox with extremely dated decor and a mattress that was held on the base with cardboard, and went exploring Old Havana. We wandered the streets, soaking up the culture and smells, but I must say I was a bit shocked by the number of tourists. I thought we were ahead of the curve on visiting Cuba. Perhaps not.
The original Bacardi building is worth a visit and you can unofficially go up to the roof top by paying the security staff a dollar or two. We weren’t the only ones there doing this. The 360 views were definitely worth it.
That evening we indulged in the best cocktails I had in Cuba at El Dandy, a cute little bar/cafe and then hit 5 Esquinas for dinner on a friend’s recommendation. It was well worth it – more of an Italian take on the local cuisine. We shared a wood fired pizza and a seafood grill with an entree of grilled octopus.
No trip to the area of Old Havana is complete without a walk along the pedestrian street of Obispo – this street has the most shops you will see in Cuba (as far as I saw anyway) and the street of Mercaderes walking between the plazas offers a similar experience. The plazas are like any plaza in Europe – complete with pigeons and touristy restaurants!
We spent a few hours wandering through Centro Habana which offers a more authentic Havana experience. The streets feel much dirtier and the buildings less kept (in fact the majority are crumbling away!) and there’s noticeably less tourists. We attempted to go to the renowned La Guarida restaurant but unfortunately it was all booked up. It was worth the walk up the three flights of stairs though in the incredible building which is mostly decrepit! It used to be a multifamily house – a very grand one in its day I’m sure. We were sent a couple of blocks to Cafe Miglis for lunch – a private restaurant which describes itself as Swedish Chic. Again, you would never expect this in Cuba, nor would you expect the fresh ceviche, bruschetta, chicken bites with aioli and some of the best homemade bread you’ve ever eaten. Cuba is full of surprises, I’ll give it that.
Another great surprise was the Handicraft Market in a converted harbourside warehouse. Here you can buy a huge selection of paintings, prints, ceramics, leather goods, knick-knacks, and much more. You could easily spend a couple of hours there.
We finished the trip with food poisoning, but at least it was the last day. This was even bad enough to deter us from stocking up on $4 bottles of Havana Club rum or smoking a cigar! Next time. We did manage a ride to the airport in a convertible pink cadillac though – so all was not lost. The classic cars made for amazing photos contrast with the cities decaying colonial buildings. And as we headed out of the centre of the city towards the airport you really start to notice the blocks and blocks of soviet era apartment buildings – reminding you of yet another time.
Cuba is a confusing place. We definitely left with more questions that before we went. Communist times are clearly changing with the emergence of more private businesses – particularly evident in hospitality and accommodation (casas vs hotels and paladars/private restaurants vs state owned restaurants). From the outside the availability of technology and being globally connected has a way to go. Though it was refreshing to be off the grid with no wifi for a week (it was available in limited areas, we just didn’t want to spend hours queueing up at at a telco place for a prepaid card only to join the hundreds of tourists crowded on a street corner attempting to get a sniff of the signal). I felt like there were also more kids playing on the streets and in parks – not glued to screens. We also got pulled over my the police a couple of times when we were passengers in taxis. We weren’t quite sure of the details of the conversations but on both occasions the taxi drivers appeared very angry. One joked about there being two police officers for every one Cuban.
I loved Cuba and what felt like a mix of something between Spanish and American influence in what I’d imagine circa 1960. Though I wasn’t expecting there to be quite so many tourists and it was evident this was no new thing with the number of tourist goods available to purchase everywhere. Perhaps the time to go was five years ago when the number of Japanese cars did not outnumber the classic cars. But I guess if this was the case it would just be rice and beans and no fancy guacamole or lobster.