Cuba is a fascinating country that, for an American tourist such as myself, combines a sense of adventure with a rich history, wonderful & eclectic architecture, world-class beaches, delicious cuisine, lovely people, great museums and churches, incredible music, bucolic bliss, and a fascinating “way of life” that keeps your head spinning in an attempt to fully understand. Like most self-proclaimed world-class travelers, my strong recommendation is to visit Cuba as soon as possible to experience the charm of a country frozen in time. While not a destination that I would recommend to everyone, it is a special country with magical experiences awaiting the ventures.
Our trip began at peak season over the Christmas holiday with a non-stop flight from Newark International to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. With a little advance planning and/or traveling during the summer months, you can save considerable dinero in airfare. We enjoy cooler temperatures and the weather in Cuba is especially wonderful during December through February. It proved to be slightly too hot for our tastes at mid-day but the mornings and evenings are a perfect temperature with a great Caribbean breeze. We did a tremendous amount of walking and learned to take a break at mid-day for refreshments and to regroup. For example, we highly recommend a break in the lobby of 5-star hotels such as Hotel Saratoga or Hotel Inglaterra while staying in Havana. The outdoor cafe and grounds at Hotel National in the Vedado section of Havana provides a beautiful view of the Straits of Florida and the history of Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano’s ownership in the 50’s is quite interesting. All travel guide books recommend arriving with British pounds, Canadian dollars, or Euros as opposed to American dollars and this is sound advise. There is a 10% penalty for exchanging $US for reasons that are not clear to me plus a 3% service fee. So be prepared to lose ~13% if you arrive with greenbacks. We were whisked away from the airport in a 1957 Chevy and arrived in Old Havana (Habana Vieja) about 35 minutes later. Everyone’s trip to Cuba is different and often depends on the constraints of vacation schedules. Whether you have a 3-day weekend or a full month to explore the entire country, visiting Old Havana is a must. It is de rigeur to grab a daiquiri at El Floridita and a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio (yep, just like the author with the white beard did on a daily basis). On a more serious note, it is well worth it to visit these places, including the rooftop of the Ambros Mundos Boutique Hotel where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The charm of Havana is found in just walking around and observing. There are countless museums, cathedrals, squares, forts, and historic sites too extensive to list. You will also find wonderful restaurants, cafés, theaters and concerts to enjoy. An evening stroll along the Malecon. Is also a must. We enjoy walking and literally walked 6+ miles per day in Habana Centro, Habana Vieja, and Vedado. There are guided tours available by bus, 1950’s cars, and horse drawn buggies. There is a museum to suit everyone’s taste and great examples of Spanish Colonial, Barogue, Neoclassicism, Theatrical, Art Deco, and Eclecticism architecture to marvel over.
After Havana we traveled by collective taxi to the colonial town of Trinidad. This town remains frozen somewhere in the 18th century and can serve as a central point for day excursions to the beach, national parks, Bay of Pigs, or tobacco plantations. We rented bikes and took a day trip to the beach resort at Ancun. It should be noted that the southern Caribbean shoreline is rocky and the sand is coarser than the more popular beaches along northern coast where you find gorgeous white powdery beaches. Veradero for example has long been a resort destination for Canadians, Russians, and Europeans alike. There are accommodations of all types along this beautiful beach. Likewise, I’ve been told that the diving, scuba diving and snorkeling are fantastic. You can go big game fishing if that suits your fancy or just relax on the beach.
After Trinidad we traveled by bus to the famous city of Santa Clara. In 1958 this is where Che Guevara held-up a military train filled with troops loyal to Batista while his BFF Fidel was holed-up in the Siera Maestra mountains to the east. Together they led the revolution to overthrow Batista and Havana fell in 1959. I won’t go into the history but the Revolucion is difficult to escape while visiting Cuba. And even though I was a squirt at the time, I found reading about the ensuing Bay of Pigs and the Cuba Missile Crisis to be fascinating. Cuba’s history with Spain and their role in the Spanish-American War is quite interesting as well.
Choosing accommodations is an important part of any journey to Cuba. We stayed in Casas particulares which are like bed & breakfasts run by Cuban entrepreneurs. We found Cubans to be exceptionally friendly and accommodating. And because you are literally staying in rooms in their house, you do experience how they truly live. The other option is of course more traditional hotels. All hotels are run by the government and tend to be overpriced. We chose to splurge more on meals and entertainment but “to each his own.”
So please visit Cuba as soon as you can. It is so easy now that we have formal diplomatic relations. And who knows what the future may hold. They have awesome rum and their cigars are world renown. Cubans are delightful and so friendly. And if you like music, Cuba is the best. Brush-up on your Spanish and book the next available flight. I guarantee you won’t regret it!
Credit: Bernadette Mahoney and Patrick McSween