Our man in Havana

Havana June 2016

My recent visit to Havana fulfilled another of my “bucket list” must do trips before I hang up my travelling shoes. In truth I knew very little about Cuba, but somewhere at the back of my mind I was sure the week ahead was going to be a bit of an eye-opener.

Before I launch into any detail I think it’s worth mentioning that there are three distinct sides to this vast island and it unlikely that all of them will appeal to you.

I ended my stay with a couple of nights in Cuba’s largest beach resort, Varadero, and that is where I will begin. The beaches here are stunning by any measure. Miles of soft white sand, blue skies and a warm inviting sea add up to a picture perfect sunshine holiday destination.

Accommodation within the resort areas range from modest 4-Star holiday hotels right up to top-draw “couples only” 5-Stars. Personally I feel the more basic hotels are where the true value lies, after all you’re visiting a new country and it seems a shame to closet yourself away in a sterile luxury.

The Cuba Section of our website features an extensive range of hotel options and resorts. Take a look at the Sol Rio De Luna & Mares Resort or the Hotel Playa Pesquero where prices this winter start at around £600 each. I think that represents amazing value for money.

I don’t think anyone could say Cuba is the place to visit for haute cuisine and perhaps if there is justification in trading up your hotel choice food standards would rank high. Generally though expect good size swimming pools, buffet style eating and amazing beaches. Out of interest branded soft drinks seemed much harder to come by than mainstream spirits, a real turn on the head from much of the world’s all-inclusive offerings.

My stay at the modern Melia Marina Hotel was comfortable and I think it represented a great mid-range choice. The bottom line here is that my enduring memory of Varadero is relaxing on the sand and swimming in the clear blue sea. If that’s your idea of a perfect holiday stop reading now.

If you’re still with me it’s time for some culture Cuba style. The first thing you will notice is that the cars are old and I mean old. We all have that vision of the pristine antique American cars parked outside vibrant coloured Havana houses. They do exist, but outside the Capital vehicle standards slip to an almost pitiful level. This is your first reminder that this Communist controlled society has shut itself away from the Western World for decades.

Cars are a privilege of the few and the majority of locals travel around packed into ageing Charabangs or perched precariously on the back of  flatbed lorries. The law in Cuba is simple; if you have a vehicle and you have space then you are obliged to take passengers. Just in case you don’t fancy sharing with others a Government official is positioned every mile or two to enforce the rules. Thankfully tourist and party members are exempt.

Surprisingly the roads are well maintained and traffic flows quite freely. A hire car would be a viable option to get the best out of Varadero, but I would advise against touring the countryside unaccompanied.

The lack of commercialism here is best illustrated by a total lack of advertising. Can you imagine a day without encountering McDonalds or Coca Cola along the way? In Cuba, apart from the occasional roadside poster-board bearing the name Fidel and maybe the national flag, there is no branding to be seen.  What you are left with is long straight roads bordered by lush tropical greenery and a surreal feeling of calm. I never at any time felt unsafe.

I spent my time between Havana and Veradero taking in some small towns viewing Casa’s (privately run guesthouses) and more boutique style properties. Hotel space is at a premium so your budget and availability may dictate that a Casa is the only viable overnight option. These family run lodgings are relatively basic, but the owners are extremely accommodating. Because of the distances involved I feel a night or two at a Casa would be perfectly acceptable as a means to an end for an adventurous holidaymaker seeking an authentic taste of the Island.

Cuba boasts several UNESCO World Heritage sites. At the Valle de Viñales spectacular limestone mountains rise up through a sea of green tobacco fields to create a stunning landscape, while a visit to the old city of Trinidad rewards visitors with striking colonial architecture and museums. I was particularly fortunate that my overnight stay in Spanish influenced Remedios coincided with a local festival. This opportunity to rub shoulders with the locals and savour their warm hospitality will live long in my memory.

It is often said that a country’s history is determined by those who control its present and Cuba is certainly a prime example. The official mantra isn't complicated;

 

  • Christopher Columbus discovered the island on 28th October 1492

 

  • The Noble Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway took-up a boozy residence of Daiquiri’s and  Mojito’s  between 1940 & 1960

 

  • Fidel Castro ably assisted by Che Guevara led the Cuban Revolution (1953–59)

 

There are many sites to seek out devoted to this condensed view of the past and visiting them helped me in my understanding of why the Cuban people seem so remarkably content with their lot. I am not sure they really know what their country has been saved from, but they passionately worship their liberators none the less.

Cuba is large, but it would still be possible to take in many of these places on extended day trips if the thought of a rural Casa stay was a little daunting. My own thoughts are that the average Brit would get most out of a twin centre Havana/Beach combination with perhaps the odd excursion.

I started my stay at The Parque Central Hotel which as its name suggests is bang in the centre of Havana. It wasn’t very long before I fell in love with the place. Havana oozes attitude combining a glorious colonial past with a buzzing capital city vibe. It doesn’t seem to matter that half the buildings are falling down, why worry when the sun is shining and the cocktails are flowing?

One morning I was lucky enough to take a tour of the town courtesy of a vintage convertible Chevrolet. I would have happily spent the whole day cruising the seafront and drinking-in that exhilarating feeling only truly iconic cities exude.  I got a glimpse of the scale of the new building projects now underway and I hope with all my heart they get it right.

Havana is quite simply unique. American citizens will be descending on Cuba for the first time in over fifty years from this November. I fully expect they will be accompanied by all the merchandising and branding which Cuba has resisted for so long. My advice; go now before the face of Colonel Sander’s smiles down on you from every street corner.

 

(Victor travelled to Cuba with his friends from Cuba Holidays 20JUN16).

About the author

Co-owner Victor is the driving force behind the formulation and development of Golden Ticket Travel. His 30 years of self-employment have seen many personal highs and lows, but his appetite to make things better has never diminished. Now in his 50's his attitude to working life in general has softened as he watches his two daughters set off into their chosen careers and the world get a little crazier by the day.

Errors and omissions excepted.

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