Secrets of Cuba Tour

Cuba's flag
Central America Caribbean » Cuba
January 22nd 2012
Published: March 25th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

The sun was setting as we touched down in Havana. A long tedious immigration line awaited us and when we finally retrieved our bags Ash's pockets had been rifled through though nothing had been taken. Welcome to Cuba! Interestingly and per Cuban immigration policy our passports weren’t stamped, as we understand that this may cause issues visiting the States at a later date. Despite being accosted by loads of taxi drivers at the airport we managed to get into an official one and were advised a relatively decent fare to our hotel. Our 30 minute cab ride was in the dark and disappointingly the car we were in was modern but we did see plenty of old cars on the road as well as old trucks and bizarre looking old buses type things.

The iconic Hotel Nacional was our home while in town. The grounds were stunning with sweeping gardens seemingly to the waterfront (there is a massive road hidden beneath the wall) and the building is fairly impressive too. Our room had a great view and beds were comfortable although we had to sleep in singles a lot while in Cuba. What wasn´t good was the staff,
Hotel NacionalHotel NacionalHotel Nacional

home for the 1st 2 nights
in any department. The food wasn´t exactly 5 star either but we soon found this was a theme across the country (goods are very limited e.g. canned carrots & peas in 5* hotel and same menu nearly everywhere we went or buffet). Surprisingly, Coca Cola is sold there (and everywhere in Cuba); apparently it comes from Mexico rather than directly from the States. The Hall of Fame bar has all walls and even the ceiling crammed with photos of famous previous guests including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Kate Moss and even Winston Churchill. A preview of the Cabaret show was being performed with big feathers and little costumes in typical all singing and dancing fashion in the garden as we waited for Ade´s parents, Harry & Mo to arrive. Unfortunately their flight was delayed and they arrived pretty wrecked but we still had a few drinks, a snack and pressie opening!!

We had booked onto a tour for the first part of our trip and this began in Havana with a whirlwind guided tour by Millie and driven by Rene, who we had for the whole 12 days. Millie wavered between being helpful and interesting to adopting
Our Tour GroupOur Tour GroupOur Tour Group

Ash, Mo (Ade's Mum), Phil, Sandra, Harry (Ade's Dad), Rene (Driver), Millie (Guide)
a more drill sergeant approach and Rene was a hard man to get talking. We had our own Chinese built Transtur (state run tourist company) mini-coach for just the 4 of us plus the lovely Sandra & Phil, another English couple. Havana is cram packed full of beautiful squares, meticulously renovated buildings and churches and stampedes of aging tourists who filed out of the legions of Transtur coaches lining the water front (we must have been at least 40 of these large blue and white vehicles parked up). We didn´t have time to stop at many places but we did have a Mojito on the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemmingway lived for many years and reportedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. The views were splendid and here we encountered our first band performing famous Cuban songs for tips, we did not have many meals or drinks without one during the whole tour.We nearly missed the Revolution Museum but did make it just before closing. It was interesting but spread out and not in English although the Hall of Mirrors was fabulous. At El Capitolio, a building similar in looks to its cousin in Washington, we encountered strange old women chewing cigars and giving us the thumbs up for photos. We respectfully declined.

Our tour of the country took off the next morning bound for the Pinar Del Rio area, famed for its scenery and tobacco growing prowess. There was some confusion as to where we were going and what the tour included but after an emergency meeting with the rep it was all sorted out and we were off again. First stop Las Terraces, a collective farming community, set in beautiful landscape with a couple of lakes and restaurants. We had a short guided tour by a resident, ate a very good home cooked meal whilst some locals serenaded us, tried out specialty liqueur coffees then headed practically next door to our home for the next three nights, Charco Azul. This was the only hotel we stayed in that run by the Department of Flora & Fauna rather than the Tourism Board. Standards were lower here, beds weren’t very comfortable, some of the staff were in need of serious training (one lady couldn’t do basic maths) and food was repetitive and bland although Ash was quite partial to the cheese in a mango jam desert which we then started getting for breakfast. It did have a pool though and a bar and we had our own 6 piece band blasting away 2 nights in a row. Plus we had the place to ourselves the whole time.

During our stay in Pinar del Rio we visited the town and surrounds of Vinales which turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole tour. The roads were mainly used by oxen pulling carts, horse and traps and bicycles. Fields stretched out as far as we could see with A frame tobacco drying huts dotting them. A lookout at the top of the valley showed off the flat green valley in a patchwork quilt of fields with karst rock formations jutting out randomly around backed by a row of rocky mountains. We visited Indian Cave where we took a brief motor boat ride checking out rock formations similar to objects e.g. fish, skeleton head, upside down champagne bottle. Outside a man had saddled his ox and was selling rides to little children on it. Another stop was at the Prehistoric Wall which has a timeline of the world painted on to a massive rock face. Possibly the best Pina Coladas we ever had were here. All the ingredients were fresh and we each got a full glass of non-alcoholic liquid which we then sipped on and topped up with alcohol as we saw fit, the rum bottle was just handed over. Surprisingly, most of us preferred the drink with little or no alcohol! After a quick stop in Vinales town to mosey about we headed back to our hotel where Millie and Rene gave us a Salsa demonstration and dragged the ladies up to practice. It was amazing how their demeanor changed once they hit the dance floor! Lots of practice needed for the rest of us!

We visited the small island of Cayo Leviso on a day trip. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to dive or do much else due to poor time management but the ferry ride across on top of the boat was fun and the island was beautiful. Phil and Ash had a go on the Hobbie Cats for hire and had a couple of seconds up on one side despite the skipper’s hesitations. The water was crystal clear and flat so swimming was divine. The beach was lined with chairs and palapas and a few restaurants were peppered along the coast. Back at the hotel we discovered the cheap Havana Club rum, for $5 we could buy a bottle of the cheap rum and a 1.5lt of Coke! For $8 we bought a 7 year bottle of reserve rum which tasted extremely smooth. The bartender on that night was a lot of fun and was letting us practice our Spanish on her. Everyday we’d been at the hotel the waiters and bar staff changed. When we asked, Millie explained it was so as many people as possible had the opportunity to earn CUCs in tips. CUC or the Covertable Peso is the currency that tourists spend and are worth approx 1 USD. Local pesos covert approx 24 to 1 CUC. A very decent local salary (i.e. a graduate with many years experience) was the equivalent of 20 CUCs per month (or 20 USD) so any CUCs received were greatly appreciated / sought after. (This leads to a strange situation where the highest paid workers are not doctors or lawyers but are chambermaids and tour guides). In addition to the tiny salary Cubans receive
Museum of the Revolution Complete With Bullet HolesMuseum of the Revolution Complete With Bullet HolesMuseum of the Revolution Complete With Bullet Holes

was the former Presidential Palace
ration cards so they can buy the basics very cheap, with CUCs used to buy “luxury” items.

On route to Playa Larga on the south coast we briefly visited a crocodile farm before arriving at our beachside hotel. Ade & Ash hopped into a brown and gold A-Team style van and drove a little further up the coast to dive a small fishing wreck and a wall. Diving there was cheap plus the obligatory driver and dive guide tips. On the way we picked up a local hitchhiker. People don’t own cars as the cost of fuel and access to them is prohibitive. They hitch, walk, cycle, take horse and carts or wait for infrequent public buses. That night we sat on a rock by the beach watching a fabulous sinking sun with a bottle of wine. Later we hung out on Harry & Mo’s porch sipping more rum and local $3 wine, which wasn’t as bad as we’d suspected. Ade continued with his cigar sampling, it would be rude not to after all.

After the standard breakfast of fruit and eggs we visited the Bay of Pigs Museum at Playa Giron. It was
Hall Of MirrorsHall Of MirrorsHall Of Mirrors

inside the Museum of the Revolution
simple and compact yet packed full of interesting information including photographs of the time. Outside we spotted about 6 hummingbirds dive bombing the flowers, we’d never seen so many in the same place together before. They were too quick for the camera though. Two backpackers tried to hitch a lift with us but Millie would not let them board as if we had an accident she would lose her job as they wouldn’t be insured. The poor guys were stranded. It seems like Cuba isn’t an easy place to wing it as all tourists are supposed to be on a registered government tour.

Cienfuegos appeared to be a grim city as we drove through the outskirts. Eastern bloc high rise apartment blocks seemed to go on endlessly but when we reached the town centre there was a nice park with the brilliantly preserved Teatro Terry on one side. We walked around inside and enquired about performances but nothing interesting was on during our short stay. While on our 1 hour ‘city tour’ we visited a beautifully restored hotel called La Hotel Union and peered across the rooftops from their top floor terrace bar. We stayed at the Hotel Jugua overlooking the bay, receiving our welcome drink on the rooftop of the magnificent Palacio de Valle which is owned by the hotel, shares the same site and also has a restaurant. It was previously owned by Batista’s son but was reclaimed by the Revolution. It features three towers representing love, power and religion and is the only building in Cuba built in the Moorish style. The hotel is beautiful and we’d recommend it to anyone staying in Cienfuegos. Both nights we were treated to breathtaking sunsets, so hard to stop looking at we nearly went blind. We had a free day there which we filled with eating, sampling cocktails & rum and playing games in the garden. One night a full Mariachi band played a few sets selling their cds and collecting tips intermittently. Even this hotel wasn’t spared from the poor service though, half an hour before the breakfast buffet was due to finish both mornings the staff came out and pilfered most of the food. It’s amazing to watch and happened in a few places in plain view so it’s obviously condoned by management.

The Unesco protected Trinidad was our next stop and we marveled at the rows and rows of preserved colorful colonial houses along with the other thousands of tourists that had descended for the day. Here more than anywhere we felt we were in “Cubaland”. It feels like the country is now a theme park of itself. Most locals you meet are working hard to extract your dollars; real life is well hidden beneath the surface. You can’t but help feeling it has sold its soul for a few CUCs. The city is still beautiful despite this and we visited some quaint museums, climbed a steep, narrow, crowded tower for a view over the rooftops which was well worth it. The Afro-Cuban dancing performance we were hustled in to was relatively interesting if you ignored the musicians who were glowering at us across their instruments which they didn’t play in time. We sampled a drink called chanchara at La Canchara bar which was delicious, made from honey, lemon, sugar and vodka. The music here was spontaneous and lively, no classic Cuban hits at all which was refreshing.

Santa Clara was the last city on the tour and is a shrine to Che Guevara. We visited his mausoleum,
Cigar SamplingCigar SamplingCigar Sampling

in one of the Hotel Nacional bars
a museum dedicated to him topped by an enormous statue of him and the railroad Museum. Santa Clara was the site for the first attack of the revolution led by Che and we visited the train that was blown up, now a museum. Each carriage had a display and it was quite interesting. While we were in town we visited a cigar making factory. This was the first time we felt the curtain been drawn back and we glimpsed a bit of the real Cuba. The factory employs over 200 workers all rolling by hand many of the different brands of Cuban cigar including Cohiba (smoked by Fidel), Montecristo (smoked by Che) and Romeo & Juliette. Workers collect tobacco from the office, the amount and age depending on what brand they have been assigned to that day. Then they roll, slice and press them into shape by hand then slot them into an ancient wooden box which presses them further. Quality control involves weight tests, width tests and how tightly packed they are which they test using an air pressure gauge called the DrawMaster (TM). Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos and we didn’t get any samples to take away at the end of the tour. Interestingly, a huge poster of Hugo Chavez was on the walls saying Welcome Hugo Chavez to your brother country. Che also featured heavily.

On the final day of our tour we drove to our all-inclusive resort in Jibacoa via Australia! There’s a small town in the Zapata Peninsula not too far from Havana called Australia which has a mill and a steam train museum which we took a stroll down to while breaking up the long drive. The local people we met off the tour here were very friendly and for the first time we weren’t being ushered around, it was really nice. We flagged down an old man driving a horse and trap and all piled in for the short drive back to our bus. We paid him what we thought was a fair price but what would have been for him a small fortune. The ride was probably worth just a few Cuban Pesos yet we gave him 6 CUC. He was quite stunned. It feels so much better overpaying someone who doesn’t normally have the opportunity to make tourist dollars rather than the chambermaids who write letters each day raving about what a pleasure it’s been to make your bed! During this stop we also wandered through the wildlife park by the restaurant. Ade sat on a big cow but couldn’t get it to go anywhere. Ash & Mo held a baby croc with its mouth taped shut and we all took a gamble on roulette with a guinea pig.

Jibacoa is on the north coast, not far from Havana and we spent 4 days chilling out here at an all-inclusive resort. The food was marginally better most of the time than elsewhere and we enjoyed the games room, pool and piano bar. The weather took a turn so lying on the beach wasn’t really an option but we did brave the high waves for a dive one morning. From the resort we hired an old green Chevrolet complete with driver and explored nearby Matanzas passing across Cuba’s highest (103m) and longest (314m) bridge in the process, called the Bucanayagua. A lookout area with bar and souvenir shops is perched beside it where we discovered the DIY Pina Coladas once more. Matanzas is not on the usual tourist route, we only saw one or two Transtur
Local BandLocal BandLocal Band

audience was just us!
buses the whole time. Buildings are black with pollution, local people crowd outdoor cafes and the place has an air of authenticity. It hasn’t been cleaned up for the tourists yet and we loved it for that. The Museo Farmaceutico was filled from ceiling to floor with old viles, bottles, pills and syringes and Ade & Ash had to translate as the guides only speak Spanish.

Our last 3 nights in Cuba were spent back at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. We spent the days wandering the squares and streets alone exploring the mostly disappointing museums but interesting for kitsch value. The architecture in Havana truly is fantastic. The first day we went in there were hardly any tourists and a lot of places were closed. The next day the coastal road of Malecon was lined with Transtur buses, the streets were mobbed with tourists and everything was open for business. It just depends what day you visit as to what experience you will have. On our last night we were treated to a show at Cabaret Parisienne attached to our hotel. The costumes were big and bold but 2 hours was a little too long for our attention spans and we were all jealous of Harry who had a little snooze towards the end.

Overall our tour of Cuba was interesting but tourism has made its ugly mark and the country is not the better for it. Ade had visited 8 years previously and was very disappointed in the changes he saw. Perhaps with the opening of the economy the gap between tourists and locals will decrease and visitors can enjoy Cuba for its people and culture and not just its pretty buildings and museums. It was fantastic to spend so much time with Ade’s parents and easier saying goodbye knowing we’ll be home in June.

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The Cuban TrogonThe Cuban Trogon
The Cuban Trogon

national bird

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