I knew embarrassingly little about Cuba before I visited last summer. 'Viva la Revolución!' crowed my Spanish friend the second I told him I planned to go. And that was really the extent of my knowledge. Communism. Che Guevara's heroic gaze on the bedroom walls of uni acquaintances. Castro's name emblazoned across a school friend's jumper. Oh...and the famous Cuban rum. Clearly it was time to go to the Caribbean and learn more about this country - and its turbulent history - for myself.
I spent a week and a half travelling around the eastern side of the island with two of my best friends from university, Rox and Im. We flew into the capital city, Havana (via a frustratingly circuitous route via Moscow - let's not go there) then did a loop from Viñales to Trinidad, finally making our way back to Havana. All three of our stops were buzzing and beautiful in their own right, and I've decided that each destination deserves a travel guide! After all, Cuba is beginning to open up now to the United States, and it really is your last chance to see the place in all its classic car glory. And where better to start than Havana, where people dance in the streets and mojitos are cheaper than water?
First off, you'll have to take a taxi from the airport into the city. I think it's a flat rate of 20 CUC, but make sure you agree a price with your driver before you get in. A lot of the streets in the city centre and old town are pedestrianised and pretty narrow, so you might not be dropped outside your hotel/casa. Bear this in mind when getting off the plane: that jeans and jumper you wore to keep you warm in the cabin will make for an interesting experience when you're dragging a huge suitcase down a packed street in 30 degree heat and full sun!
Once you're in the city, there's no shortage of options for transport. Vintage cars, horse-drawn carriages and even coconut-shaped taxis will jostle for your custom. Of course, walking around is the best way to see a new city for the first time, especially if you're staying in the old town, Habana Vieja.
WHERE TO STAY
The cheapest (and, I think, coolest!) places to hole up in Havana, and indeed the rest of Cuba, are casa particulars - in essence, Cuban Airbnb. We used Cuba Junky to find our casa in Havana, Obispo 360 (above). Our room, sleeping three, was a very reasonable 40 CUC (£32) per night, so just over £10 each. The room itself had a double bed and a single plus - joy of joys! - air conditioning and a small ensuite bathroom. You pay a bit extra for breakfasts, which are light and fruit-based. Guava is king in Cuba! We enjoyed pitchers of bright pink guava juice alongside platters of mango, papaya and - yes - guava. I'd recommend budgeting a bit for breakfast as it isn't easy to find somewhere cheap to eat in the mornings, seeing as supermarkets only sell a few standardised items (like crackers, cookies and rum. Of course.)
Of course you can stay in the beautiful old Spanish-inspired hotels, if you have the money - but I reckon casas are the best way to see the city and practise speaking Spanish with the locals!
WHAT TO SEE
Get some shots of classic cars, or take a ride in one! As you'll probably know, Cuba has historically been estranged from the United States, divorced geographically by the Straits of Florida as well as by a decades-long trade embargo. Combine that with more self-imposed import bans and this is the (incredibly photogenic) result.
Take a stroll around the Old Town, in particular along the Obispo. It's one of the arteries of the old town funnelling a constant flow of people, tourists and locals alike, and is where our casa was located. There's always something to see: eccentrics on the prowl who've come out to see and be seen, pushing a cat in a pram or walking a dog with its own pet rat, locals clustered on the pavements outside hotels with wifi Skyping their loved ones, people salsaing in the streets day and night. It's also a great spot to catch some live music, mojito in hand, as the day draws to a close.
Visit the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion, Calle Refugio No. 1). The revolution clearly lives on in the hearts of Cubans. On the motorway and on the approach to Havana you'll see huge painted murals proclaiming 'SOCIALISMO O MUERTE' or 'Hasta la victoria para siempre'. And entrance to the Museum is free for Cuban natives (though it's 6 CUC for everyone else!) The Museum provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the Revolution and its modern day legacy. It's housed in the old Presidential Palace - an ornate neoclassical building which has borne witness to the struggle for independence itself, as it's riddled with bullet holes from the student uprising against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Yes, it's crumbling a little, the rooms are oppressively close and sweaty from the lack of A/C units and most of the captions are in Spanish. But you'll leave feeling visually edified - and you'll see a side of history not often covered in the history books, regarding the CIA's shady involvement in Cuba over the decades.
Wander along the Malecón at night. It's a long sea wall and seemingly the social hub of the city. Havana locals come here to chat, play and carouse as the day draws to a close. On our last night, as we wandered along the wall, we were lucky enough to witness a crazy lightning storm out at sea: violently effulgent, yet completely silent. Definitely one of my best memories of the trip.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
So let's start with the not so good. In Cuba, the food can be...average. You'll get the same things on the menu pretty much everywhere you go, and the standard is not always brilliant. This is due to the import bans I mentioned earlier, as well as the state of the Cuban economy - supplies are often short, and staff will often warn you that certain plates aren't available. Most of the restaurants are run by the state, and meals will literally just be made up of cooked meat and heated beans with a few token leaves on the side, with very little in the way of seasoning - or worse, you'll be presented with giant plates of lobster at eyewatering prices. Before I went to Cuba I'd heard rumours of the 'Cuban diet' - that the food was so terrible that you'd inevitably come back having lost weight. I'll be straight with you: all of us came home skinnier. But I think some of the blame for that falls on our strict budgeting and constant exercise through walking, swimming and horseriding.
Now let's move on to the good. You don't have to eat solely at the state restaurants. Paladars - family-run restaurants, often operating out of houses - are ubiquitous and tend to serve good Cuban home cooking. Additionally, I'd say that Havana, as a big city, was actually the best of our three locations in terms of food. Because it had El Chanchullero.
We discovered El Chanchullero (Teniente del Rey, Bernaza y el Cristo 457) on our first night in Havana. Little did we know we'd peaked early - this place had incredibly succulent, flavourful plates of meat - like ropa vieja con cerdo: stewed, shredded meat which tasted just like pulled pork - accompanied by generous servings of fried plantain, beans, rice and avocado salad - and at incredibly affordable prices. The three of us had giant mains plus mojitos for under 20 CUC (£5 each). The place itself is also very cool - three floors with wooden tables and philosophical scrawls on the walls, and even a little jail cell if you want to get that authentic revolutionary experience...
On our penultimate night we came back and nearly wept at how good the food was compared to some of the joints we'd eaten at over the trip. Definitely the best experience of comida criolla (traditional Cuban cuisine) we had on the holiday. If you go, I recommend the pork with okra and buttery mash, or the traditional ropa vieja with all the trimmings, mentioned above. So good.
Another of Havana's most popular paladars is Dona Eutimia (Callejon de Chorro 60). You'll probably struggle to get a reservation here, due to its location (the restaurant is just off the plaza home to Havana's beautiful cathedral) and fair prices. I had another ropa vieja (shredded lamb) which was filling and well cooked...but wasn't quite up to El Chanchullero standards.
If it's a beautiful lunch spot you're after, you can't go wrong with the restaurant attached to Hotel Florida (access from O'Reilly). The food isn't much to shout about (in fact, the paella I had above was a bit tasteless). Also, it's pricier than the other restaurants I mention in this guide - though not as expensive as some of the tourist trap locations. However, it's worth stopping by for a drink, as there's a great jazz/salsa band who'll serenade you with a wink, and the shaded internal courtyard with its curtain of vines makes for a very pretty - and, more importantly - cool place to hang out. We came here early on in the trip, when I was still nervous about drinking any iced drinks, having been advised not to drink tap water. Granitas, a Cuban staple, are nearly all made up of ice...but luckily they didn't seem to have an effect on any of us. Which is fortunate, because mojitos and cuba libres are almost cheaper than bottled water over here...
Speaking of mojitos and cuba libres, the cheapest ones we enjoyed in Havana were at our local, Restaurante Europa (Obispo 301), at 2 CUC a pop. I think we tried most of the drinks on their menu; by the end, Rox had a penchant for shots of aged rum, drunk neat. Hardcore. They also have an energetic live jazz band, and pretty good food - your standard ropa vieja and crème caramel - at cut prices. Just be aware that cheapness does come at a price: it rained very heavily one night we were there and a thin stream poured from the ceiling for the duration of our meal. And waiters stamp on stray cockroaches without mercy.
Hit up El Patchanka (Caje Bernaza 162) for radioactively green mint daiquiris and more great music played by flirty musicians. It's just over the road from El Chanchullero and makes for a very chilled spot for drinks, and also serves food.
Havana doesn't have much in the way of street food, at least not on offer to tourists. But Im and I came across a hole in the wall place selling these bocaditos de helado (chocolate ice cream sandwiched between cake-like wafers) on Obispo one particularly hot day. They were only 50 cents (40p) each and incredibly satisfying.
Let's talk money. So as you'll know by now, the local Cuban currency is CUC (convertible pesos), which are tied to the value of the American dollar. Everything you buy as a tourist will be calculated using CUC. (There's also a second currency, CUP, used predominantly by locals - you probably won't use that much, if at all). You can only buy CUC in Cuba, so try and buy any leftover CUC from friends who have visited before you go, as it's quite tricky to get it once you get to Cuba. We got ours from a state-run bureau de change at Havana airport - where we got resoundingly conned. So if I have one tip it is this: count your money in front of the teller before you exit the booth. We only realised that they'd skimmed 250 CUC off our exchanged money once we'd arrived in Havana. And speaking of getting conned...
Try to avoid getting conned! You'll notice that Havana residents are very friendly, happily striking up a conversation with strangers in the street. And some of them genuinely are just nice people who want to have a chat in English. Others, however, have an agenda in mind and will do whatever it takes to drag you to whatever restaurant they've got a deal working with. We asked the girl in the picture above for directions to a cool cafe. She immediately dismissed it as a tourist trap and convinced us to walk to a paladar with her which she insisted was for locals only, at cheap prices. Surprise surprise, everything was about 25 CUC a plate (over four times the prices of El Chanchullero) and the place was devoid of activity save a few European tourists. We sussed it out the second we stepped into the restaurant and left quickly, staff calling out to us that we weren't allowed to leave without ordering something and the girl asking for money for milk powder (another well-known ruse in Cuba). It saddens me that the state of the economy in this country is such that the locals feel that they have to participate in scam activity, tricking unsuspecting tourists into shelling out hundreds of CUC for a poor meal for what must be a paltry cut of the profits.
Buy a mobile internet package. I didn't, naively thinking that I'd be able to get on to the wifi with ease once I got to Havana, like anywhere else in the world. I was wrong. After getting conned at the bureau de change money was tight and I simply didn't have enough to pay for wifi (accessible only at the large hotels in Havana, which limit usage to certain hours of the day). Not communicating with my family and boyfriend was very difficult and I know they were anxious for my safety. Definitely one to consider before you fly!
And finally...go with the flow! Some of the best memories of Havana are those that were completely spontaneous. Walking along the Obispo and standing on the pavement to listen to the funky strains of a salsa band. Peering in at a supermarket for locals only, which looked a billion miles away from the clean, neon-lit Wal-Marts just across the Straits. And the Malecon on our last night, where we walked for miles, ambling all the way along the wall to end up at a Cuban festival with an infectious atmosphere. The majority of attendees were locals having a merry time, fuelled by drink and ice lollies, sitting on the roofs of the nearby buildings to get a good view of the parade below, brightly feathered women and men gyrating on floats. We watched them dancing to the booming music silently, the lightning stretching its fingers across the sky above.
I hope you've enjoyed my Havana travel guide! Next stop, Viñales, a prelapsarian paradise straight out of the Lost World just a few hours' bus ride from Havana.