Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 4 Weeks
Cuba was the first country we travelled to as part of our first World Trip (Expedition: The Great Escape). Cuba is beautiful, mad, buzzing, turbulent and unlike any place I've ever travelled to. Beyond the obvious tourist traps and resorts lies a country bubbling with life, optimism, hope and dreams of a better future. You will feel the pull of the politics and the passion of the people.
My top tip is to buy a copy of The Lonely Planet guide book and read it. Really read it. Read and understand the history of this country and take the recommendations. It's written/curated by Brendan Sainsbury, who we met by chance. The man lives and breathes this country and knows it all like the back of his hand.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
We began our journey in Havana and travelled west to
We then returned to Havana and stayed in the small beach town of Guanabo before heading off to
Just below my highlights I’ve included some extra information which, depending on when you read it, may or may not be useful before travelling.
Nothing can really prepare you for this City, especially if you're travelling on a budget. It's wonderful but can be chaotic and a little relentless. We couldn't take more than a few steps without being accompanied by a friendly Cuban ultimately wanting money. The poverty and conditions in which many people lived left us shell shocked. Post apocalyptic streets with crumbling homes sat adjacent to 'tourist friendly' promenades - facades to keep rich visitors happy.
This wasn't the Havana I had imagined but I embraced it wholeheartedly for what it was. I see Havana as more of an education than a top destination. I loved it but I hated it. I'll never forget it. I still feel confused by it. I think 4 days is enough time to get a feel for the City.
Places to Stay
Hostal Peregrino - Centro Habana / Habana Vieja
Hosts Elsa and Julio Roque run casas from 3 locations in Central Habana and Habana Vieja. The main Casa is Hostal Peregrino Consulado, where we stayed for 4 nights. The interior is beautiful with soaring ceilings complete with antique furniture. Our bedroom had an en suite bathroom, balcony, 2 beds and a fully stocked fridge. The breakfasts are unforgettable, with an unlimited supply of bread, cheese, ham, jam, pancakes, omelette, coffee, tea, yoghurt and fruit.
For $5 CUC, breakfast was definitely worth getting up for. The service was also just as lovely.
Casa Sr. Ruben Gomez.
Calle 470 A No. 7B03 e/ 7ma. B y 9na
Guanabo, C. Habana
When Central Habana gets too much, make your way to Guanabo along the Playas Del Este for a few days rest. Guanabo is a small beach town 24 km east of Central Habana. A taxi ride there costs approximately $25 CUC, although you can also catch a bus (no. 400) which leaves every hour or so from Calle Agramonte in Central Habana.
Casa Sr. Ruben Gomez is a block over from Lonely Planet’s recommended Casa Elena Morina, and here you don’t just a get a room, you get a whole apartment complete with a decent sized double bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and a beautiful outdoor patio with rocking chairs. The garden surrounding the patio is a work of art, where Ruben and his wife Lisa spent 2 years building in shells, coral and glass found at the nearby beach into the walls and floor.
What the guide books don’t tell you, however, is that the locals of Guanabo are a little cautious of tourists. I didn't feel unsafe, as such, but I felt watched. That said, we didn't spend much time in town and made the most of our lovely apartment and the nearby restaurant (and now local hostel), Restaurante Maeda. We met another tourist who had been to Guanabo and we all agreed that the food served in Maeda was by far THE BEST food we had eaten in Cuba. We had the Festival Del Mar – split between two. It cost us $6 CUC each and the dish included lobster. Hopefully the food stays the same but maybe with changing to a hostel, the restaurant also may have changed hands.
For the lovely apartment and that restaurant alone, a few days in Guanabo was well worth the stop.
The beach is not the most idyllic at Guanabo but a 2km stroll west was pleasant enough, with white sand and warm waters.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
El Chanchullero - Brasil, btwn Bernaza & Christo, Habana Vieja
Our favourite bar in Habana. If Salsa is your scene then unfortunately you won’t find it here. Described as a ‘Hemmingway-free zone’ it’s suited more for poorer Cubans and backpackers, with decent sized cocktails costing a mere $2 CUC and delicious plates of food for $4-6 CUC (things change though - it was a popular spot so prices may have gone up).
It’s a small graffiti-ridden dive bar, playing mostly rock music. We also discovered that this tiny bar is owned by the nephew of Fidel Castro. It made for good people watching.
You’re in Cuba so you might as well…
La Floridita – Havana
Below average Daiquiris but brilliant people watching! White middle aged sun burned men in white suits chuffing away on cigars thinking rather much of themselves. Loved it. Only stayed for one.
Restaurante Porto-Habana (formerly Castas Y Tal) - Calle E, No. 158B, Piso 11, e/ Calzada y 9na., Vedado, Habana
One of our favourite eating spots in Habana. What attracted me to this place was Lonely Planet’s promise of ‘wrap-around views of Havana’ and great food. I also liked the idea of riding up a ‘painfully slow elevator’ to the 11th floor of a residential apartment block. It sounded like fun.
This place does not disappoint. It’s one of those restaurants you will always remember eating at. The service comes with a huge smile and the food is AMAZING!
My vision of Havana was one of people carrying instruments on their backs to and from gigs, smoking cigars, strumming tunes in doorways and salsa music ringing through the streets. It was really hard to find any authentic music scene in Havana. Baffled I asked a local and they said that the music was more for the tourists and that musicians who weren't part of the tourist circuit didn't play as they couldn't afford to maintain their instruments.
Music was actually much more common in Trinidad but in Trinidad the tourists accounted for 99.9% of the crowd (the town is like a museum). I like a good live band, but what I found in Habana Vieja, Central Habana and Trinidad really wasn’t my cup of tea. I heard Vedado had a good scene but I couldn't find it.
The best music for me was in Santa Clara, simply because there you have a lot of students and the town doesn’t play up to tourists. Old timers jammed together - for each other.
Things to See and Do
Coco Taxis are great fun and most other taxis come as old-skool Fords or Yank Tanks of some form or another, usually with bits missing. It adds to the fun!
I would love to say that Habana Vieja is a pleasure to walk through but I found it quite overwhelming. Street musicians follow you, jineteros hassle you for your name, your country. It’s non-stop, and to enjoy this part of town you really need to learn to put the blinkers on and just ignore it all.
A stroll down Calle Obispo on the way to the cathedral is nice and there’s nothing better than sinking a big glass of ice-cold beer in one of the many outdoor restaurants in Plaza Vieja – but it’s pricey. This area of Havana is incredibly tourist heavy. Even when you’re sitting down to enjoy a beer in the plaza you can never quite escape the attention of people trying to sell you things like characteur pictures. We had quite a collection growing after 1 drink.