Cuba’s distinctive smell of petrol fumes, cigar smoke and dust greets you almost as soon as you land at Havana’s Jose Marti airport.
Travelling into the city you get a glimpse of the island nation’s unique character, passing men sat on the kerbside staring at nothing in particular, and overtaking every conceivable type of vehicle from modern Hyundais to old motorbikes with sidecars, horses and carts and, of course, classic motors.
Havana itself is filthy and fabulous. Believe what you read in the papers; the city is undergoing a huge amount of building work, funded in part by foreign cash.
Many of the streets where kids play football also feature piles of rubble as new cables are laid beneath the road, or colonial apartment blocks are stripped to make way for new hotels.
Outside of Havana, things are less hectic. The cobbled streets of Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site, are paved not so much with cobbles but small boulders, giving pedestrians what my guide described as a ‘Trinidad massage’.
In Viñales, the gateway to Cuba’s rural pursuits and the second most-visited destination in the country, farmers in hats on horseback give the place a distinctly Wild West feel.
I booked on G Adventures’ Cuban Rhythms tour for a seven day whirlwind trip round the western side of the island. Despite reservations about the tour’s ‘YOLO’ label (horrendous visions of chavvy 18 year olds in neon), the group was great, as was our guide Ray. So if you’re strapped for time, nervous about travelling solo or just fancy having someone else organise your trip, it’s a great idea.
The tour allowed for lots of flexibility, so with that in mind, here are some things worth checking out if you’re bound for Cuba.
A visit to Cuba would not be complete without trips to see where Cuba’s great exports come from. Coffee and tobacco plantations, sugar cane farms and rum factories are abound. These are best organised locally. Enquire in Viñales about tobacco, sugar and coffee, and for rum try Pinar del Rio.
Stopping in Trinidad is a must, and you can easily fill a few days wandering the cobbles snapping the colourful houses.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from that, there is good hiking to be had in the nearby national park at Sendero Huellas de la Historia. You can walk it in trainers and reward your efforts by a swim through the waterfall.
Viñales is also an excellent base for walking and horse riding through classic Cuban countryside.
Alternatively, just over an hour’s drive from Viñales is the stunning Cayo Jutias, a three kilometre stretch of white sand running alongside crystalline Caribbean waters. I stayed in the sea for two hours, until my fingers were prune-like and my forehead had turned a fetching shade of beetroot.
For history buffs, there are plenty of museums and historical sites to see.
For anyone interested in Che Guevara and Castro, head straight to the Museum of Revolution in Havana. This runs through the history of the Cuban revolution (it helps if you can read Spanish because not everything has been translated into English). You can see all sorts of artifacts (seriously, all sorts, from letters and diary entries to the plates people ate off and the seats people sat on). It’s probs worth taking everything, especially the stuff about America with a pinch of salt cos, you know, #propaganda.
If that’s not enough, head to Santa Clara, about three hours’ drive from Havana, where you can visit Che’s mausoleum and the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado where Che and his comrades derailed an armoured government train.
If it’s pre-revolutionary stuff you’re after, then stop at Havana’s forts. Both of these involve passing beneath the Malecon.
By day, visit the commanding Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro. This was built between 1589 and 1630 to keep pirates out of Havana. Today it offers great views of the city and has strong Pirates of the Caribbean vibes. According to my guide book, you can pay 2 CUC to go up the lighthouse, but it was closed when we visited. Instead, we were beckoned up to the signalling box, where flags used to be raised to greet foreign ships.
Today the signal box keeper will chat to you about the fort, ships and Havana. While explaining that he’s a big fan of British music, from Led Zeppelin to Adele, he’ll point out the sites of the city (he was very keen to show us the American Embassy) and will pull out your national to pose with (as you can see, the British one was well used). If you do go, please tip him lots because he deserves it and I’d run out of cash by the time I visited!
By night, visit Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña for its nightly firing of the canon. There’s quite a lot to see here, from museum exhibits to souvenir stalls, so go a few hours before the canon ceremony which finishes around 9pm. Avoid the on-site pizzeria unless sweet, microwaved pizza is your thing.
Casa particulars are the place to stay in Cuba. They vary in comfort and style, but generally fall somewhere between a B&B and a family home stay (think school French exchange).
You can tell if somewhere has rooms to rent by the sign that looks a bit like a blue anchor displayed outside.
I stayed at two hotels in Havana, the first a sort of Soviet shack with warped walls, fluorescent lighting and the first floor seems to consist solely of rubble and a cement mixer. The other was the 5* hotel where our group met, which was way out of the hustle and bustle of town and felt a bit soulless. So, to conclude, stay in a casa.
Hostels are not commonplace in Cuba, but a fellow traveller stayed at Rolando’s Backpacker in Havana, which unfortunately was full when we finished our tour, but they put us in touch with the Concordia Hostel Backpackers which was comfortable (as long as you don’t mind cold showers) and cheap at 10 CUC a night.
Cuba’s cuisine does not have a great reputation. Granted, you’ll have to plan ahead if you want a truly spectacular meal, but in general the food isn’t bad. Breakfast at the casa particulars generally featured eggs in some form and plates of papaya, pineapple and guava. The Cuban coffee was not quite what I’d dreamed of, and it was made more weird by the fact it was served with unpasteurised milk which glistened on the top like oil.
Lunch, unless you carefully plan otherwise, will be a toasted cheese and ham sandwich. Don’t fight it.
Since Raul Castro assumed power, private restaurants called paladars have popped up.
Two stood out for me.
In Havana, Somos Cuba is a tiny restaurant in an apartment offering a good set menu for 15 CUC. Order the pork ribs. If you need the loo, be aware this involves passing through the proprietors’ bedroom, and that the loo itself doesn’t flush without the aid of buckets.
In Trinidad, head to La Ceiba, and sit on the decking beneath the boughs of… you guessed it, a giant ceiba tree. Order the chicken in honey and lemon sauce and snack on the fried banana crisps.
While we’re talking about La Ceiba, it’s a great place to try Trinidad’s special drink, canchánchara. A bit like a cold hot toddy, it consists of ice, lemon, honey, water and ‘aguardiente’, which my menu decoder tells me means sugar cane alcohol (I thought that’s what rum was. Still confused.) Anyway, it comes in a special clay pot; stir it well to avoid slurping up a mouthful of honey and enjoy.
I also feel like I should talk about mojitos. I travelled to Cuba thinking I didn’t like mojitos because the ones served in England taste of minty melted ice. The ones in Cuba, however, are delicious. Unlike its pathetic British cousin, the Cuban mojito consists of a lot of rum (sometimes half a glass), varying levels of sugar, an ice cube or two, some mint and water. They are excellent. Drink lots.
If you are the going out type (I’m not but I went anyway and am glad I did), visit Disco Ayala, a club in a cave. It sounds dingy, but it needs to be seen to be believed. Lonely Planet says it’s a tacky cabaret with an indigenous theme but I didn’t notice any of that.
On the climb up the hill to the club, entrepreneurial Cubans have set up cocktails stands where you can buy mojitos (and other drinks) for 1 CUC. That’s about 70 pence! It would be rude not to have several.
Other drinks worth slurping include the Cuba Libre (made with Cuban cola brand Tukola), Pina Coladas (so good I want them for breakfast) and daiquiris.
Lots of people will tell you to visit La Floridita in Havana, supposedly Ernest Hemingway’s favourite daiquiri sport. However, the place is crawling with Canadian pensioners and the classic cocktail costs 6 CUC, well above the average of 3-4 CUC. If you’re really keen to drink like Hemingway, there is a facsimile of La Floridita in Trinidad where the good stuff costs just 3 CUC a glass.
Although the coffee at most breakfast tables was nothing to write home about, my Italian travel companions scouted out cappuccinos in Havana at El Dandy. They still used Cuban coffee beans, so it doesn’t count as cheating. This place is also good for European-style breakfasts and lunches. Try the bruschetta, but expect it to be garlicky!
So if you’re on the fence about travelling to Cuba, perhaps because it’s expensive to get there, or you can’t persuade anyone to come with, just go. It’s a fascinating place, unlike anywhere else, with so much to see and do. The people are friendly, the drinks are excellent and the Americans are coming, so book your flight asap.