By the time this blog gets posted JetBlue and Spirit Air will probably have scheduled flights to Havana from Fort Lauderdale and New York, bringing throngs of Americans to add to the already packed island. Some will be excited to introduce tacky Starbucks, McDonalds and chain hotels to this amazing island, some will talk the locals into selling them their vintage American car, and some will be buying cigars by the bucket load, but most will be amazed, as we were, by the way an entire country can just be suspended in time. Right now this Caribbean island is definitely worthy of a visit but how long that lasts will depend on how long it takes for the big American chains to get their foot in the door, converting an island full of atmosphere and personality into a characterless tourist trap.
Back in March it was still technically illegal for US citizens or Permanent Residents (Green Card holders) to visit Cuba without being part of an organized tour, whether it be religious, sporting, or some other approved group. This meant general tourism was off limits, pretty much the only reason people head to the island. For our visit we would still have to fly in and out through countries that didn’t have the same ridiculous limitations as the US, in our case flying from Frankfurt to Havana, then returning to the US through the Bahamas – we were already in Germany so it was actually a reasonably priced flight with Condor, unlike the way overpriced return leg using Bahamas Air and JetBlue.
Our first three nights were reserved in advance at Casa Randy in the heart of Havana – usually full, we lucked out with a private room in a shared house for a whopping $30 per night for the both of us, including tasty breakfast. The owner, Fanny, was the perfect host, full of energy and enthusiasm, quite clearly excited to host guests from all over the world. She was lucky after a chance meeting with a Canadian family who generously loaned her the money to purchase the property – this enabled her small family to move from the cramped family home into an apartment with income potential. It is now difficult to get one of her two rooms without a reservation booked well in advance.
Not sure Andrea felt the same but I was itching to discover Cuba, Havana in particular, beginning with trying to find some late night food. We immediately ran into a Cuban couple who must have noticed the lost look on our faces as we wandered aimlessly in search of somewhere half decent, not too expensive, and certainly not full of tourists – stupidly we followed them into an upstairs restaurant, complete with fat tourists puffing on even fatter cigars, serving up crap overpriced food. Far from being the most alluring place around we should have just turned around and walked out, instead we sucked in second hand smoke and paid the price for being dumb foreigners! Fortunately this was the worst Cuba threw at us.
Despite the limited number of American tourists and cruise ship passengers Havana still seemed overly busy, something I hadn’t expected – all of Havana’s picturesque squares, colonial streets, and reputable restaurants were packed. This was definitely going to get worse as soon as the American floodgates open! We also happened to be in town only a week prior to President Obama’s visit, the first by a sitting American president since 1959, filling the city with a buzz and some major street cleanups. Notwithstanding all this I did find that as long as we stayed away from the main tourist ridden streets and got up early it was still possible to enjoy the experience old Havana offered.
For me, seeing the decrepit state of the buildings, some that were barely standing, the classic American cars and the smiling faces of the locals was what made old Havana special. I would walk the back streets for what seemed like hours in search of photo opportunities, watching people go about their daily business, jamming to the funky beat of Cuban music, standing in line at the government run food stores, whilst never feeling threatened or at risk in this city of over two million. Sure, the facades of many of the buildings offered little in aesthetics but everywhere had a vibrant atmosphere, probably in anticipation of a significant cash injection from a new wave of tourists. It will take many years and millions of Dollars to even begin noticing a change from renovations, but having seen the possibilities in the old city of Panama the outcome here could well be amazing.
Our biggest surprise, at least in Havana, was access to Internet – whilst trying to get online through a cellular service was impossible access through WiFi was both cheap and fast enough to make Skype calls. Buying pre-paid cards through the local telecom shop, once again run by the government, could take a while depending on the time of day and the amount of tourists standing in line, but once we had a few cards it was a great service. We could always tell where the hotspots were located by the number of people milling around, mostly on Skype calls, some watching Youtube videos, and foreigners checking up on happenings back home. I’m sure access was somewhat limited and we never tried connecting to Andrea’s work through VPN, but we never encountered any problems.
On top of this we also found that…
- Trying to find half decent surf shorts – impossible
- Going for dinner at a highly rated restaurant without a reservation – impossible
- Not seeing countless classic American cars – fortunately impossible
- Photographing Hemmingways without a crowd – impossible
- Expecting not to stand in line at Los Nardos cooperative restaurant – impossible
- Not being wowed by a run-down city stuck in time – impossible
- Avoiding images of Fidel Castro or Ernesto “Che” Guevara – impossible
- Paying by American credit card – impossible
- Failing to notice where the cities WiFi hotspots were – impossible
I could have spent our entire 8 nights in Havana but also liked the idea of hitting the Cuban countryside. We were soon to discover that Viñales and Trinidad were destinations at least as popular as Havana! Our shared taxi, a large American vehicle with enough room to seat seven, would take us door to door, which although it sounded appealing was a hellish ride. Spending approximately 4 hours squashed into a car with zero legroom took its toll, and from the moment we got in we were both itching to get out, with the only benefit being the dirt cheap cost. A private taxi takes around two and a half hours and costs significantly more, but being budget travelers this wasn’t an option!
Viñales, a small inland town in the heart of tobacco growing country was looking like it was packed to the hilt. Our taxi driver took us passed house after house, street after street, all with countless properties displaying a rental sign, all clearly reserved. Fortunately our Havana host had made us a reservation with a friend of hers a short walk from the center, without which we would probably have been lucky to find a bed. The town itself had an abundance of bike rentals, horseback rides, cigar plantation tours, and plenty of tourist shops offering shared taxis to Trinidad, Havana, and various beaches.
No sooner had we arrived than the two of us were talked into heading out on a 3 hour horse riding tour – a great way to spend an afternoon learning the cigar making process, paying extra to be guided fifty yards through what was claimed to be a cave, and following dirt trails alongside tobacco farmers still doing everything manually as they had done for decades. A self guided full day mountain bike ride complemented the horse riding nicely, allowing us to get lost on quiet country roads, discovering off the beaten path eateries and smiling locals, all at a pace reminiscent of the Caribbean.
Even being a busy tourist destination it was easy to get lulled into the relaxed pace, chill out, and enjoy the amazing Cuban countryside. We now had a full day of cramped travel ahead of us to Trinidad…
I don’t think either of us had ever been to a place where we had struggled to find accommodation so much, especially thinking that we had lucked out finding somewhere prior to leaving Viñales. This wasn’t the case and we knew it as soon as we walked up the stairs to the attractive family run apartment and saw the host immediately pick up the phone. Now where would we end up? It didn’t take long before we were being escorted a couple of blocks away to a place that would suffice, not ideal, but not a dive, and they charged for breakfast on top of the $35 room rate – disgraceful! We were lucky and highly recommend making an advance reservation if visiting during March.
Trinidad has a lot going for it, with its location on the Caribbean Sea, its 28 year old UNESCO World Heritage status, and an extremely attractive colonial center. Pastel colored buildings line cobblestone streets, with cute restaurants, artisanal shops, churches and a bustling Plaza Mayor. Each evening it seemed like every tourist in town headed to the plaza for cocktails and an amazing sunset. We found that we didn’t have to move far beyond the old center to experience life from a locals perspective, living a very different life from the elite few and their expensive tourist restaurants.
Picking up a bug left me feeling pretty useless, leaving no desire to get out and browse the city streets or wait in line for dinner – time for Andrea to explore our new destination on her own. It didn’t take long for me to get sick of being stuck in a room, so somewhat reluctantly the following morning we jumped on bikes and cycled to the beach, triggering a new lease of life. Our hosts provided us with a list of recommended beaches scattered along a beautiful stretch of Caribbean coastline, the farthest around 15 windy miles away – of course we had to cycle there, putting up with midday heat, wind and Chinese engineered bikes. Neither of us being beach bums, boredom set in fast and no sooner are we locking the bikes up on a beach we are unlocking them and heading to the next one, however enchanting the view. Life is too short to relax!
Two nights in Trinidad was enough for us, especially for non-beach people, with the cute part of the city small enough to discover in a day. We would have preferred to stay in a colonial room with a balcony overlooking the plaza but being on a budget and leaving travel decisions to the last minute prevented this. If that’s what you like in accommodation then book well in advance!
Our taxi driver on the return trip to Havana sped along winding roads at breakneck speed giving us all sweaty palms – the moment we stopped for a pee break the four of us breathed a sigh of relief and agreed for the best Spanish speaker to tell him that we wanted to survive just a little longer! Finally we no longer had to remind ourselves that the four hour drive would soon be over and that dinner would be worth it. Havana was just as we’d left it a few days earlier, and dinner turned out to be even better when Guy Fieri, an American celebrity chef, and his film crew turned up to help out in the kitchen.
This trip was short and sweet, and hopefully not our last with all that Cuba has to offer.
March 4th – March 12th 2016