Cuba is an island full of anachronisms. It exists in the 21st century, yet much of it is stuck in the 1950’s, as the last time they were allowed free trade with the USA was 1960. Castro may rule, but it’s Che Guevara images that adorn most walls, and the citizens are a complex blend of poverty and pride, supported by the state’s free education and healthcare system, but deprived in other areas.
The weather is warm, the sea full of fish for a constant food supply and though an anti American air pervades the country, pride is taken in owning USA goods- microwaves and Juicy Couture clothes are luxury items. How do you manage to take in the full breadth of the country in a mere two weeks? It’s a difficult task, especially as I wasn’t prepared to compromise my need for culture with that of comfort- I wanted to soak up the atmosphere, not quickly tick off historical monuments whilst rushing from A-B.
To make the most of everything that Cuba has to offer- from the inspiring tributes to Che Guevara and the most famous beaches in the world, I started my trip at a beach resort on the island of Cayo Coco.
Cayo Coco – the paradise resort
Beloved of honeymooners worldwide, Cayo Coco offers fifteen miles of beautiful beaches. Set slightly away from the mainland, you access Cuba mainland by driving along a man made causeway that extends into the sea and connects Cayo Coco to the rest of the country. Locals aren’t allowed to visit Cayo Coco unless they are working at one of the resorts dotted around the island, so it’s a strangely insular experience- you’re served by Cubans, talk to Cuban entertainers, yet separated from them by class. Working on Cayo Coco is deemed a privilege as salaries tend to be higher than other places in the country and it’s not uncommon to find that your maid has a better degree than you do.
What to do on Cayo Coco
The biggest reason for heading to Cayo Coco are the beaches so make the most of them. Every resort had an individual beach and you’re a short drive away from Pilar Beach- rated No 1 in the world by numerous magazines, and apparently the place Ernest Hemingway chose to stay when he visited.
The beaches are covered in fine golden sand and rather narrow, with the water a crystalline azure blue. This was my first experience of Caribbean waters and I marvelled at how warm the water felt- day or night, it was like immersing yourself in bathwater, and I was buffeted by warm light waves and felt weightless and cosseted. The coastline of Cayo Coco is adjacent to some great coral reefs and the water is very clear, so even when you’re very shallow you can see smalls schools of fish around your ankles. All resorts offer (free) snorkeling rental and there’s a lot of Finding Nemo action you can see hidden behind the swell of the waves.
The resorts tend to be all inclusive, so they actually offer a lot of useful amenities to do with the water- free kayak rental, free pedalos and they’ll also take you out to the beginning of the coral on a small boat for free. To stay longer than 30 minutes you do need to pay, but an extra 2 hours on the reef works out at about £6 an hour. You can also rent horses from your resort beach and an hour cantering through the waves costs around £7. The horses are well maintained and looked after with sleek glossy coats and friendly neighs, and their owners are a funny pair of locals, wearing cowboy hats and flip flops, with broad sun-bleached faces and gap toothed smiles.
You can’t visit Cayo Coco without a trip to the famous Pilar beach- and to get there your hotel arranges a shuttle bus for a small fee (£1) which departs at various hours daily. The ride is entertaining- you get to sit in an open top bus and feel the wind whip your hair. You pass through Flamingo Bay on the drive, an area that’s an ACTUAL flamingo farm, and their graceful pink bodies fill the water like flowers whilst Pilar beach looms ahead. Accessed via a small wooden walkway, the first thing that strikes you about the beach is the quietness. Though a fair few people cover its sun drenched shores, there’s a strange aura of mystique and peace about it. There’s a bar at the entrance which serves ice cream and alcohol, and the beach is made up of the usual deck chairs and covers. The water is a liquid bliss, a beautiful turquoise gold flecked shade and the horizon seems to go on forever.
My Hotel: Blue Bay Cayo Coco
Blue Bay Cayo Coco hotel itself has its fair share of amenities for people who want to make the most of the beautiful weather. It features a spa, tennis courts a pool room and its own pools, as well as a rental room which lets out books and board games to guests. Every night they have a ‘show’, which varies from cabaret style dancing to comedy, and tends to be very family orientated but with huge flamboyant costumes.
[The dining area and the buffet]
My hotel is fairly atypical of hotels on Cayo Coco and it featured four restaurants. Three were open during my stay there (depends on the season) and the food varied in each one. The main buffet restaurant was open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner and featured a variety of hot and cold dishes with a chef that created custom pasta and fresh fish daily, and the pool bar was beloved for serving booze and chips. The classiest option was the fine dining venue where you had to book in at time slots and got Cuba style silver service. Food was filling but a little bland and I longed for some extra spices to give it more zest.
Snorkeling, James Bond boating and deep sea fishing
Cayo Coco is surrounded by coral reefs, but they do exist a fair bit away from the shore. Diving is on offer, but I chose to go on a snorkeling trip. There are a lot of fish on offer and you can also opt to drive a speedboat to a well known snorkeling area – called the James Bond experience!
Trips from Cayo Coco
Cayo Coco is lovely, and a a great place to catch up on your jet lag, but you can’t stay in tropical island world forever. The hotel I stayed at works with the Thomas Cook tour operator to provide relatively cheap excursions into Cuba, and I happily signed up to some. It might be slightly cheating touristy style, but they offer coaches and accommodation for the trips, whilst the alternative is renting a car and getting lost- buses and trains are not particularly reliable if you’re somewhere remote.
Trinidad Overnight stay with Cienfuegos visit, Dolphin Show and Che Monument
I booked in for the two day your which allowed you to visit the ancient cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos. After an interminable time on the coach trip- around 8 hours cross country- I arrived at the first spot of Trinidad. Trinidad was a bit if a culture shock after the five star resort; it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988 which basically means they’ve allowed it to become rundown and call that culture rather than decrepitude.
It was the closest I’d been to a shanty town since Thailand, with people sitting in doorways begging, and once proud buildings in various states of disrepair. A few hours was all we need to traverse the city and take in the unflinching poverty of the nation and admire the fading colonial houses. The architecture was beautiful but the ambiance was that of desperation with everyone we met desperate to sell us wares, from lace shawls to cigars and donkey rides. I felt uncomfortable there, and was happy to get back on the air conditioned coach for my next stop. Maybe it’s different if you’re a ‘real’ traveller here, but as a tourist it raised many wary signs in me, and though strangely picturesque had the feeling of a town on its last legs.
The next port of call was CienFuegos, a much more ‘Westernized city’, and I was again honked at by the Coconut cars that littered the streets. The main promenade saw a strange abundance of Western-ish shops though a few customs were new to me, such as checking in my handbag prior to entry to the stores ‘just in case’, and paying a coat check to keep it safe. Shops sold a mixture of toiletries and washing machines- all luxury goods and the food was very tasty. I managed to get in a line for a local ice slush puppy, and though I’m sure my £1 was way over the local price it went down a treat, a melting mouthful of fruity flavours.
I also admired the seafront, through there wasn’t much accessibility and admired the giant ex-casino next to my hotel (pictured above)- once a port for international gamblers and it is now a building for majestic events and high profile locals. This was an area I really enjoyed and would have liked to have mire time to explore, but that’s part of the tour problem, so after a night of rest we were hurried on to the next activity..which was-
The Cuba Dolphinarium!
Always a fan of dolphins, I signed up immediately for a swimming activity with them. I thought this might be Sea World style rubbish where you merely pat and pay, but so much more was involved. from splashing hands in the water to have the dolphins cheep back their whale(ish) song to holding their fins as they towed me round the ocean was an experience I’ll hold forever. They also lifted me full in the air, which was incredible- I was told to lie as flat as a board and two dolphins came beneath each foot, adjusted for my weight and voila, I was performing a circus trick. You can argue about the morality of using dolphins like this, but when I wanted extra (paid) time I was told the dolphins were too tired and then we watched (different ones) them perform a magic show for us with hoop jumping and hula hooping just for kicks. It cost around 30 UKP and pictures (which I opted out of ) were another £20. I’d suggest this to anyone, I’ve never felt so close to these animals before and I loved every moment!
The Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara
This was the last stop on my two day trip and was extremely eerie. After being searched for cameras and valuables we were admitted into this museum/crypt and could look through letters and clothing of Che in his days. Photos of him as a young man were the most interesting but it was frustrating how most of the correspondence had not been translated into English for us. The area features an enormous stone statue of Che which I had to get a picture of and a weird chapel where you have to be silent as you walk along the memorials mounted into the walls.
There were posters up everywhere about the ‘Cuban Five’ which we were informed were Cuban people who were captured by the Americans for spying. The fact that they were spying didn’t seem to be the issue, more that their spying was protecting Cuba so they needed to be freed- a bit surreal. The tour guide went off on a monologue about how an American naval ship blew up killing all passengers- but this was done on purpose so they could blame the Cubans. Unsure what to believe, I was happy to have a British passport on me. It was eerie being there, but uncomfortable as well, as I’d been led to believe that many Cubans wanted to reopen trade routes and connect with America again, but the angry men with guns and their anti establishment beliefs told a different story.
The Havana airport was shockingly close to the main town centre and the taxi journey took around ten minutes. I was sad not to be driven in a retro car as they were so plentiful on the streets, their strange big bonnets smiling up at me, and their chassis framed in a perpetual twinkle- or was its a sneer? Little ‘coconut cars’ littered the streets, small yellow electrified rickshaws with an odd yellow shell that gave them their moniker. The place was far brighter than the sleepy island- colours seem to pop more and differences in stone were more prominent. There were the same torn facades and displays of what once was proud, but here there was a lot more upkeep- made striking by the level of disrepair in the house adjacent to a renovated building.
Havana Guesthouse vs. hotel
When you stay in Havana you have a few options for accommodation. You can stay in a hotel- of which they have many- or you can opt for a more authentic guesthouse experience. Here you’re actually staying in someone’s house where they rent out two to five rooms, and you enter via their living room. The place I stayed in was called Casa Miriam Hostal Colonial (after lots of TripAdvisor research) and looked terrible from the outside. Broken stones, no discernible doorknob- I stood in the street wishing I’d gone for a real hotel after all. Finally, the door opened and I was led up a crumbling stone staircase, through a grated door and into a wide open room with high ceiling, wood panelling and framed family photos on the wall. It was crazy- the difference from outside to in, but that’s the beauty of Havana- you need to look at everything twice. My room was large with a marble en-suite bathroom and I could order food or my clothes washed from the family that lived there. I loved the wide balcony that came off the lounge quarter as it was amazing to view Havana from the middle of the streets, and I liked how the lounge was full of free guides and books about the local area.
Havana Old quarter and El Malecon
The Havana Malecon was on every single Havana to do list that I read, yet was strangely disappointing, The Malecon is a sea boulevard that’s roughly 7km long, and provides a long walk along the Havana coastline. Some of it is scenic- fisherman hooking their lines, coconut cars cheerily beeping as they drive by; but a lot of this promenade walk is desolate buildings, crumbling architecture and a uncomfortable sense that you may have stepped into the ‘bad’ side of town (this depends where on the Malecon you are). At night it’s pretty to see the sunset, and the sea front becomes a bizarre hang out for locals, with women selling popcorn and beer to the surly yet well dressed teens that line the wall. It’s odd- there are no activities going on, no music whatsoever, just a primp and preen parade, where young Havana men walk up in groups of three or more observing the Juicy Couture/ lycra clad tweens/ladies sitting on the wall and nodding at each other. As mating rituals go it’s an odd one as there’s no incentive to keep going to the Malecon- no bars, no clubs, and no real food stands, yet this peacock display of youth is quite entertaining to watch. Oddly enough, this preening sits side by side five year olds looking at the view, so it’s an odd cultural mash up of courting and its long term effects.
I also took a turn through old Havana, where the building are in better shape and you can happily stroll down picturesque side streets with cobbled floors and smiling men who try and tempt you into their heavenly scented restaurants. Their are strange cathedrals you’ll wander across, old forts and unusual statues where you wish you could interpret what the words say. It’s tiring to do this- the streets are longer than you think and the heat is relentless but it’s a nice way to get a feel of ‘real Havana’, even if it’s comparative to hanging out in Trafalgar Square in London ( but with a lot more space).
Tropicana in Havana
In the Tropicana the drinks ARE free, but that’s only because your entrance price includes half a bottle of rum (and some sliced meat). Once your inside you’ll be astounded by how much neon you can pack into a room, with dazzling displays of feathers and lush colours that are bright enough to burn. The Tropicana gained its fortune through its extravagance and it’s a world away from the rest of Havana. Situated down a long tree-lined road, once you pull up you’re greeted by a shining metallic exterior, with polished marble floors at the entrance, leading into a large outdoor amphitheatre behind. Here you are seated around the stage at various tables-often sharing- but all seats are good seats as there’s not just one stage, so you’re constantly turning your head to take it all in. From dances featuring sixty odd people dressed in feathers, to gymnastic stunts featuring two men performing Cirque du Soleil acts, it’s non stop, and two hours later you’re dizzy at how much has gone on. The stage then turns into a dance floor and the bar is open for a while, so prepared to hang out all night should you choose. It may bee expensive, but this made the free hotel shows seem like Kindergarten work, and how often will you be in Havana?
Partagas Cigar Factory tour and Havana Club Rum Museum Tours
No trip to Havana is possible without some tourist attractions, so it’s just great that the ones here revolve around smoking and alcohol! The Havana Club Rum museum was interesting as we were taken through the whole process of rum distillation and got to look at giant barrels made for carrying it, and a cute model plantation with working model railway to demonstrate how rum was produced in sugar cane plantation days. The tour finished with a stop at the bar where we were given a cup of rum to taste. I downed mine much to the shock of the guide, who said that ten year old aged rum needed to be sipped-oops.
The Partagas Cigar Factory tour was a more instructional experience, as it was a real-time production factor, so it was strange to move around people hard at their work, fingers industriously separating and skinning leaves or clamping them in presses. I learnt a lot about the process about creating cigars and how different brand have special flavouring techniques. I was bizarrely accosted on the stairs by workers hissing they could sell me some ‘cheap cigars, good price’ which I found strange, then I learnt that all workers get given 2 cigars a day to take home, and this might be where they got them. A cigar might sell full price for the amount these guys earn in day (or more, the factory people are well paid compared to local Cubans) so underground cigar selling is a huge industry. It’s recommended you only buy cigars from proper retailers, but I was offered cigars about twenty times an hour from everyone the street- my pale skin clearly marking me as a tourist.
Havana Zoo is not something you’ll ever see in any guidebook and that’s because it’s not considered part of- or suitable for- the tourist track. Entrance was around £1, and the Zoo was large and sprawling- but very decrepit with animals kept in conditions that would have the RSPCA clamouring to be heard. Lions lounged in tiny pens, I witnessed monkeys kept in cages the size of a fridge and saw animals poked and prodded ( often by locals) in a way that made your heart ache. I do understand that there’s not much money for upkeep of the zoo, but I’d then question why have one if you’re going to keep animals in such a way. There was also no rest areas for visitors, and I found it difficult to buy a drink as they only accepted the ‘local’ Cuban currency.
[A different towel shape every day- what happens when you tip!]
Tips for a great Cuban Trip
- Pack for the elements. You may be used to sun abroad but this is Cuban sun and chances are you will get very very burnt. They do sell sun tan lotion but it tends to be low SPF, so be sure to bring a couple of bottles of SPF 30 and SPF 50 with you.
- The currency can be confusing and you currently can only buy it when you land. There are many places selling it though, so don’t stress about this to much. There are two types of currency- the Cuban Peso (CUP), and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is just for tourists as you can’t buy the CUP anywhere and it’s unlikely you’ll get any. This may seem odd, but most places you’ll go too will assess you and charge you accordingly- it’s not unknown for a cafe to have two menus, with great price differences if you’re a resident or a tourist.
- Crabs,- the fish kind. Go to any beach and you’ll find it dotted with holes- these are crab holes and you’ll see crabs scuttling about! They won’t harm you unless you attack them and if you’re quiet and go out at sunset you may see some massive ones- I saw some as big as my head which was really exciting.
- Cuban Tipping Etiquette- it’s often hard to know how to tip and how much, so I’ll share a few pointers. It differs based on where you are, as resort tipping is a new arena. It’s good to tip around 10% of what an item costs on a menu, but when in a hotel you tip variably. It’s nice to leave the maid a sum daily- start with a large amount (say £5) and then decrease and you’ll notice service and towels are always very prompt. Some people like to tip at the end instead, but I suggest that you tip as you go along, to not get ill will. When going to dinner, also tip the man who seats you and serves you- again, on a resort, start high, go lower, finish high. It may seem weird to constantly tip, but the currency exchange is so favourable that you really don’t lose out that much.
- The Cuban coin scam- People will approach you and try to sell you a ‘special’ coin with Che Guevara on it. It looks cool, but it’s actually LOCAL currency and worth about a penny, so if you must have it as a souvenir don’t spend a lot on it!
I flew to Cuba with Thomas Cook Airlines, and two weeks accommodation and flights for two to stay at Cayo Coco cost £1580. Return flights to Havana were £120 per person, and accommodation in a Havana guest house cost £20 a night.
All pictures were taken by me, please do not use without crediting.