So for those of you who follow my blog, you may have noticed that things have been a little quiet for the last two weeks. This is because I was in Cuba, which summed up in one word, was amazing!
My sister and I travelled northern Cuba, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Varadero. The first thing I noticed and loved, was just how friendly and welcoming the Cuban people were. They were humbling and optimistic to be around. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by a cheery hola and a gorgeous smile. The building architecture was stunning. Each town and city showing off different eras of history, colour and design. The Cuban lifestyle is literally life - summed up as good food, Havana rum, cigars, Cuban salsa, classic cars, Cuban coffee and Reggaeton - I knew I was going to love it!
I literally took over 1000 photographs whilst in Cuba, so I've tried to pick the best ones to showcase in this travel post - but it's been difficult! I've seen, done and learnt so much in Cuba, I've tried to condense it, so this post isn't super long.
HAVANA / LA HABANA
Probably one of my favourite cities in the world! In total, I spent around 7 nights in Havana and loved every single day. There are lots of different areas to Havana including Old Havana, Central Havana, Vedado and China Town (amongst many others). Havana can be described as the buzzing capital of England - but 100x better with much more buzz and culture about it! With classic cars zooming around, horse and carts and bicycle taxis, there's always something going on in Havana.
I remember arriving in what seemed a small and disorganised Jose Marti airport, going back and fourth as signage wasn't a big thing. Once through immigration etc, I saw my name in bright lights (well black marker pen on cardboard) - my pick up guy was waiting! Prior to travelling to Cuba, I completed a travel visa online which cost around £20 and valid for 30 days (correct as of June 2016).
We stayed in a Casa Particular in Old Havana on Obrapia Street. A Casa Particular is essentially a family home, in which one or two bedrooms are rented out to tourists for a low rate, complete with much needed air con and your own bathroom (25-40 CUC per night, depending on the area you stay - although Old Havana is known to be a little pricier). It's a great way to experience the real Cuban lifestyle as opposed to staying in a commercial hotel, which are pretty overpriced for Cuban standards (think standard UK hotel price per night). The Casa owner, professional dancer Rafael, was lovely. He looked after us and showed me the nightlife in Havana, mainly in the Vedado area, which was good fun involving lots and lots of Cuban Salsa dancing! We also had the added luxury of a temporary pet, in the form of the cutest Pekingese. We visited Fábrica de Arte Cubano, located in the Vedado area. It's a really cool place, showcasing contemporary Cuban Art, along with bars, rooms showing subtitled movies and mini theater performances, amongst many other cool things - a place I would recommend! The atmosphere's great and it's open to all ages.
We haggled a good price with a local taxi guy for a tour of the city in a hot pink classic car (if you share the taxi with others, the price works out cheaper). The tour was good fun, seeing Che Guevara's house, The Christ of Havana and seeing an amazing panoramic view of Havana city.
There are lots of restaurants to choose from in Havana, the majority of which are government owned. The rest are privately owned, which to me, indefinitely means the food is 100% authentic and cooked from the heart! My personal favourite spot in Havana was the restaurant, El Guiro. Although the surrounding neighbourhood looks a little questionable, the food cannot be faulted. All homemade and absolutely stunning! Generally speaking, I would say the food in Cuba is hit or miss. It can either be super bland or super tasty. I think it's a matter of trial and error and being able to effectively communicate with the waiter/waitress so you know exactly what you're getting. Black Bean rice is my favourite, along with Cuba's national Cola (their equivalent of Coca Cola).
From simply walking around the streets of Havana, there is so much to see, photograph and take in! Dogs wandering around, beautiful architecture (El Capitolio, my favourite Gran Teatro de la Habana), locals selling food, bicycle taxis everywhere - it's a brilliant city. However, when you are walking around in the beaming sunshine in June - you can really feel the tropical humidity! I've been a few places around the world, but the humidity is something else in Cuba, making you feel exhausted. Just a little something to bear in mind - with August being the hottest month of the year!
Whilst in Havana, we couldn't not visit Hotel Saratoga. The hotel where Jay Z & Beyonce, Rihanna, Usher and Mick Jagger (plus others) all stayed when they visited Havana. I used the rooftop pool which showcased another amazing view of the city. However, as nice as the hotel was, I felt I could have been anywhere in the world - purely because I was in a hotel with other tourists. I would say the Casa Particulars are definitely the authentic way to go when staying in Cuba.
The Malecon is another brilliant spot to see in Havana. It is essentially a pathway, which stretches for 8km along the Havana coast. It's where all the locals meet up with friends and family to eat, drink rum, Salsa and socialise. The atmosphere is buzzing, with the sunset being the best time to go. From sunset onwards, the Malecon gets busier and busier, with a fantastic vibe. Like mentioned above, the Cuban people are so friendly and forward, so it was easy to speak/salsa with the locals.
O'Reilly is a well known street in Old Havana. It's got lots of cool bars and restaurants, including Bar 304 which has excellent food and very strong cocktails! Although O'Reilly is a little on the touristy side, it's one to visit - at least just to help you get your bearings, as each street is quite similar looking and set out in grids in Old Havana (a little like New York City).
We also visited Santa Maria Beach which is around a 20-30 drive from Havana in a taxi or you can take the T3 bus from Parque Central. The beach itself is beautiful with clear, turquoise water and white sand. I met lots of other tourists from Australia and U.S.A on the beach. Although I visited Cuba during hurricane season (June), I was lucky enough to only experience a rain storm maybe 3/4 times - once on the beach, where everyone ran for cover under a gazebo, which was memorable. It literally rains for all of 15-20 minutes and the sun comes straight back out.
I would also recommend taking the Havana open bus city tour (bus T1) which is around 1.5 hours long. It takes you around the main parts of the city, including along the Malecon, so you get to see Havana without having to walk in the unbearable heat. If the tour bus isn't your cup of tea, a horse and cart tour is equally as good. Haggle a reasonable price and you get a lovely personal cowboy tour guide!
Cienfuegos is situated in the Sancti Spiritus province of Cuba. It is a 2.5 hour taxi car ride from Havana, which we shared with some fellow travellers from Amsterdam. Cienfuegos is bigged up in tourist guide books as a 'place to see' and the Pearl of the South. The architecture of the buildings is amazing, the Malecon is gorgeous and the people are friendly, extremely helpful and welcoming. However, unfortunately for me, I found Cienfuegos to be very quiet. Now I'm not sure if this was because I'd just come from the hustle and bustle of Havana, but apart from the buildings and boulevard of closed shops (due to it being Father's Day) I thought there wasn't much going on. I stayed for one night in a cosy Casa Particular, with another lovely Cuban family. It was extremely hot and humid in Cienfuegos and I wasn't sure if it was because it was more inland, away from the coast, but at times it was pretty unbearable walking around in the heat. The Casas offer some excursions including seeing flamingos etc and the surrounding areas of Cienfuegos.
Next stop was Trinidad. A small colonial town, around a 2 hour drive from Cienfuegos. Trinidad also initially appeared quiet, but way more livelier than Cienfuegos. There were tourists wandering the streets and lots of friendly locals. I initially noticed the original cobbled streets and array of colourful buildings. They were amazing to photograph, making for some very good pictures. Again, we stayed in a Casa Particular for four nights, which was owned and ran by another lovely Cuban family, with the most caring granny! The breakfast was typical Cuban style - including tropical fruits, bread and omelettes!
We visited the beach twice, Playa Ancon, which was around a 15 minute drive in the taxi. It was a lot quieter than Santa Maria beach in Havana. Again, it was another picturesque beach - much like a postcard.
As Trinidad is quite a small(ish) town, the easiest way to see it was to take a horse and cart tour around the town. All the locals were so friendly, waving and saying hola as we passed by in the cart - very much feeling like celebrities with all the attention! We also saw some old-school railway trains, which was nice to see some of Trinidad's history. The horse ride also took us around the Plaza Mayor, which is the historic centre of Trinidad town.
The nightlife in Trinidad is pretty cool. Next to the Plaza Mayor, everyone meets for Casa de la Música from 10pm. It's a mix of locals and tourists who all gather to watch live bands perform and partake in some Cuban Salsa. The atmosphere is amazing, with everyone dancing with each other. After Casa de la Música, everyone heads to the local club - The Cave. Disco Ayala, it's official name, is housed 60m below ground in a natural cave. You have to walk uphill for a while, along the cobbles to reach the club. However, once you're there, it's pretty cool - definitely one to visit! I didn't take any pictures inside as my bag was stored away at the entrance, although it's very surreal looking up, as it is literally natural cave all around. The music played is a mix including Reggaeton and some Western mainstream music.
On one day, we went horse back riding on the outskirts of Trinidad. This is definitely something I would recommend doing. From 9am-3pm, you spend riding a horse in the countryside, into the sugar plantations heading towards the waterfall. Once at the waterfall, we took a dip in the natural pool which was so nice after such a long, hot trek. The highlight for me was probably picking a fresh mango from the tree, peeling it and simply eating it. Life seems easy in Cuba! I also particularly loved that there are so many authentic cowboys in Trinidad and horse and cart is still a traditional mode of transport and a general way of life.
The next stop was between Cayo Coco and Varadero, however we opted for Varadero as there was more to see. The drive from Trinidad to Varadero was three hours by taxi, which was very quick as the taxi driver drove like a mad man, with Reggaeton blasting out the speakers - ahh only in Cuba! My thoughts on Varadero is that it wasn't my favourite place in Cuba. It was full of Western tourists and hotel resorts, which to me, is not real Cuba. We stayed in a Casa Particular in old Varadero, which overlooked the beach, with another lovely breakfast on offer consisting of fresh fruit and pancakes. Salsa Suarez is a lovely restaurant which does very good typical 'Western' food (for when you just need it!). The service and staff are excellent, with a much needed air conditioned area. For me, I would say the beach is the only selling factor for Varadero. It is probably one of the best beaches I have seen in Cuba - with kilometres of turquoise, clear waters and white sand. Personally, I was itching to leave after two days to head back to Havana for some Cuban culture! Nevertheless, if you really want to experience the heavenly beach, I would advice a one night stay in a local Casa.
Overall, my stay in Cuba was amazing! The cost of living isn't major - it's not super cheap like Asia, but not as pricey as the UK/Western World. I would definitely go back to travel the south of Cuba. Although Cuba is a Caribbean island, it's quite big with lots to see. I feel I have learnt so much about the Cuban way of life which I absolutely love, from Cuban Salsa dancing, speaking Latin Spanish to Cuban coffee! I love the Cuban people and their outlook on life - to be happy, family first, Internet free and optimistic regardless of their background/situation. They are all so pleasant and friendly people, welcoming all tourists to their country with so much pride.
Flights were booked through STA Travel flying with Air France, via Paris. The trip was spontaneously booked as I went along.
All statements and recommendations are purely my own opinion. I have not been paid to feature or advertise any product, brand or service in this post.