Monday 12 June 2017

#CubaDiaries - Part Two - Havana

Havana is absolutely incredible.

Everything I read before I went didn't do it justice, and this probably won't, either, but here I go. Imagine if Barcelona was in the Caribbean, but a bomb had hit the city leaving some parts in ruins, with trees growing out of the buildings, and yet still, sunshine, music and a strong sense of 'being Cuban' shines through - it's like that.

A lively, proud, gorgeous, crumbling place - I read that it's a city of contradictions, and they really weren't wrong.

I could talk about Havana for days but here are my top ten things to do /see / restaurants to eat / places to stay. If you are going to Cuba, you might also find my post 'travelling to Cuba: what you need to know' useful.

In no particular order, here you go:

1) The architecture

The first thing that hit us as we arrived in the dead of night, was why the building next to ours had been completely demolished. Our taxi driver just laughed, shrugged and said 'Cuba'.

The main thing we noticed with the buildings in Havana was just how many buildings and streets looked as if a bomb had just hit it. You'd be looking at an amazing church or building and next to it would be a complete wreck, with plants growing out of windows. It was really apocalyptic and a bit dystopian, which took some getting used to.

The colonial old town is very much like a European city (it really reminded me of Barcelona or Rome), but make your way over to Vedado to the 'commercial' side of the city and you'll see the overwhelming 50/60s concrete sky scrapers, dominating the skyline.

2) Walking the streets 

We walked from Habana Viejo (old town), through an area called Animas (probably one of the most eye-opening streets I've ever walked down), through to Vedado, choosing to see the city in all its different lights. We never once felt unsafe or really vulnerable, despite a lot of the time being the only tourists about (especially in the streets back from the main squares / roads).

There's so much to see, but hands down one of the best things about the city is the cars. I thought they were just something that we'd see every now and then as a bit of a tourist trap (and don't get me wrong lots are), but they're literally everywhere and add such a quirky, timeless aspect to the place!

One thing we did notice was the pollution was quite bad, so if there's not much wind you might find that you really notice it too and would prefer to get in a car - you can do car tours for about 70/80CUC for a couple of hours.

3) Drinks... 

The best places for drinks we discovered were:

O'Reilly 304

Nestled in the old town, this place was great. I had an amazing gin cocktail, and the drinks list was extensive and soo reasonably priced, so I'd definitely recommend this place.

Hotel Inglaterra 

We had a lush night here drinking beer and cocktails and listened to live bands until the early hours of the morning. A great place to end up after a night out...

During the day, this strip of hotels including the Hotel Inglaterra is a great place for a drink or coffee, as they've got seats and tables outside, and it's where a lot of the tour cars wait, so it's really colourful, busy and lively.

Hotel Ambos Mundos rooftop bar

This place was really special, with incredible views over Havana. If it wasn't for the relentless wind, it would've been perfect, but we didn't let that stop us enjoying a few drinks at sunset.

La Floridita

We discovered this place on our first day in Havana, where we found ourselves, not long after we'd had breakfast, ordering rounds of Daiquiris...

This place is apparently the birthplace of the daiquiri, made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who visited La Floridita loads. You can't help but get sucked in to the atmosphere of this place - the moment you walk in there's a band playing loud jazz and everyone is dancing, drinking and laughing together, despite the fact it was barely midday.

Definitely spend an afternoon getting tipsy here!

4) Eat...

The food in Cuba is weird, just to warn you. We found it difficult to find a good meal, but there were a couple of places in Havana that stuck out (and a few gems in Trinidad and Cayo Guillermo, so keep your eyes out for that post, too!)

Cafe Laurent

Wow, this place is amazing. It was recommended to me by someone through work, and I can't thank them enough! Situated in the heart of Vedado, it boasts a very unassuming entrance, so you think you're entering in to an office block or something similar. There was also some dude outside waving a menu which I usually find off-putting BUT don't let that put you off - the food, service, views... everything was so good.

Spicy garlic prawns

Seared beef, egg on toast
THE nicest lobster I've ever had!

We stayed for hours, drinking wine and coffee - the views are like something out of a film:

The Edificio Focsa (ugly huge building pictured, ha) was named one of the seven modern engineering wonders of Cuba (yep), and despite its ugly facade, it's actually pretty fascinating - there's a flock of vultures that live on the top floor!

I wish we'd seen this place at night, too.

Plaza Vieja

This little square in the old town is like something straight out of a European city and has lots of cute little restaurants and bars to sit and lap the sun up in. We had a great meal at a restaurant that I can't remember the name of but the atmosphere was amazing - live bands, people dancing and good, tasty food. It was on the corner of the square, as you enter from the old town.

Also, O'Reilly 304 do really good looking food (the tacos especially). We didn't have enough time to eat when we were there but it looked amazing, and our airbnb host recommended it to us as a great lunch time spot.

5) Universidad de la Habana

We walked here from the old town which took about an hour, so if you're not feeling a big walk, maybe ask to do this on a car tour!

It's worth a visit as it's on the way to the Plaza de la Revolucion and is really interesting to see it in 'action' - there's a HUGE athletic stadium and pool that's completely deserted, which is kind of weird.

The buildings around the uni are lush too.

6) Plaza de la Revolucion

Read up on the politics before you go (I mention a documentary James & I watched on Netflix before we went in my last Cuba post), as it puts the entire area into context.

It's a sparse, humongous space that's guarded seriously by government officials, and even in the gorgeous heat of the day, the ugly utilitarian buildings (built in the 1950s) and their grey colours dominate the landscape. It's not picturesque, but it's really cool, and you can really see how it was the perfect place for huge scale political rallies.

We didn't go inside the Memorial a Jose Marti at the plaza but apparently it's the tallest structure in Havana, with a look out on top, that's supposed to have amazing city views.

7) Malecon

The Malecon is weird. It could be absolutely amazing, like the promenade des Anglais in Nice, but... it's just a bit, well, sparse?

Don't get me wrong, it's seriously impressive (it's 8km long) and when you approach it walking down from Prado (one of the main boulevards), and you see all the amazing cars it's incredible.

Still, the sea is amazing and crashes over the wall onto the streets, so it's pretty dramatic - we ran along it one morning from our airbnb, down Prado and along the Malecon to the Hotel Nacional and back, which was tough, especially coming back; there were lots more cars on the road and the fumes were starting to get a bit much! If you're going to run, I'd recommend going before 9am.

8) Museo de Revolucion

This is just off Prado (a big boulevard that was modelled on Las Ramblas in Barca!) and the Malecon, and is a great place to get a bit of history and context around the city, and the whole of Cuba really.

It's worth looking on all the floors as each room has loooads of information in it through different ages. As you can see, the security guards take their jobs seriously:

It also shows quite graphic pics of torture victims, and blood stained uniforms, so it's a pretty graphic exhibition..

9) Capitolo Nacional

We spent the first two nights and three days staying right opposite this at a place called Capitolo Residences. It's an absolutely incredible location, with the balcony looking out onto the Capitolo Residences.

This building is absolutely gorgeous. It was modeled on the Washington DC building, and built when Cuba was gifted 'sugar money' after WW1.

The Capitolo Nacional was under renovation when we were there, and I think was being used as a science / uni building...could be wrong on this one!

We were a little nervous when we walked up the crumbling stairs to our air bnb, especially since the building next door had literally fallen down, but inside told a totally different story - with gorgeous marble pillars and huge, tall rooms.

If you're looking for somewhere central to stay in Havana, this place is perfect. Markus and the people that ran the place were soo friendly and helpful. They ordered us taxi collectivo, told us where to go, gave us great bar recommendations and made amazing breakfast for us each day:

The room was gorgeous - huge ceilings, white wash walls, gorgeous bathroom and really comfy bed.

As well as being opposite the Capitolo Nacional, you're also opposite is what used to be Havana's most famous theatre, which has just been left to rot, crumble and be ransacked of its beauty. It was fascinating to just sit and drink coffee, watching the world go by and having these two buildings, that couldn't be further apart, in the same frame.

The balcony in our apartment was incredible - look at these views!:

You're a 3-5 minute walk to Parque Central (where there are loads of amazing international hotels with great rooftop bars and live music; you'll hear this at night if you're walking around the area!), and 10 mins from Prado and the start of the old town, so it's a great base to explore the city.

10) Animas 303

I couldn't not mention Animas. It's the street I was talking about earlier, that's like a world apart from any street I've ever seen, and we stayed in a gorgeous airbnb / hotel on this road.

We spent another night in Havana on our way back home, and this time stayed at Animas 303. This place is gorgeous, a little boutique hotel with kitchen, dining room and rooftop bar (this wasn't finished when we were there but they were building it and it looked fab!). I think every room has a balcony, and ours had a great view out on to the lively street below.

The view from the balcony at Animas 303...

Inside Animas 303

I absolutely adored Havana and would go back in a heartbeat. It's bursting with intrigue and history, and has so much rich mystery surrounding it, I couldn't recommend it enough.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

#CubaDiaries: Travelling to Cuba - what you need to know

For those of you that don't know (which can't be many as I've literally not stopped talking about it... 🙄), James and I have recently come back from travelling round (some of) Cuba during April, and it was AMAZING.

I say 'some of Cuba' as until we started thinking about our itinerary I had no idea the island was so big - it's massive! We spent a good seven hours in a car one day, six the next, just getting to different places, and just scratched the surface.

We were there for 12 days but it felt like so much longer - we packed so much stuff in, exploring Havana, Trinidad and Cayo Guillermo - which was perfect as we got a fix of a city break, village / countryside and a Caribbean beach resort. Safe to say Cuba has it all.

If you're looking for adventure with a Caribbean climate, you're in the right place.

I'm going to do a separate post on each destination as there's too much to fit in one post - so I'll link to the Havana, Trinidad and Cayo Guillermo posts here, once they're done.

Havana was first on our list, but before I get into that, I want to offer some practical information about travelling there, as I'd read a lot on the internet.

Practical stuff for Cuba

When I looked into a few travel blogs / guides on Cuba, the overwhelming themes from people were a mix of contradictions - 'frustratingly beautiful', 'timeworn but magnificent', 'maddeningly frustrating' and so I was a little unsure about what to expect!

It is dilapidated; desolate at times, but so incredibly beautiful, safe and full of stories.

I got the Lonely Planet Cuba guide and found it really useful - I'd definitely recommend using it as a basis for planning your routes etc.

I was worried as I don't speak Spanish, and we'd read that Spanish speaking is favourable - but we were ok. Everyone we met could either speak some English (please note I hate how ignorant this sounds!), or we befriended Spanish speaking people who could decipher what was going on when, for example, the car we were travelling in broke down etc...

I also got a Spanish phrasebook and we made a real effort to learn a few key phrases, so we didn't look ignorant, and it's amazing how much we picked up in such a short space of time!


My main pieces of advice if you're travelling to Cuba would be...

1. Let go of expectations

It's backwards, slow and (at times) frustrating as nothing works as we know it. Travelling is full of random surprises (like the domestic flight we got on that unexpectedly diverted totally out of the way to another random city (Holguin) hours away from Havana...). So try not to stick to rigid itineraries and allow some 'teething' time to get from A-B. This took some adjusting for me as I'm a total control freak!

As a country under communist rule, there are quirks. We sometimes found it hard to find shops that sold water, for example, and there was definitely an air of foreboding near Government buildings. I'd read up on some Cuban history as I'd be the first to admit I didn't know all that much about its political turmoil, and watched a good docu-series on Netflix called The Cuba Libre Story, which tells the history of Cuba's fight for freedom. Nevertheless, I didn't want to offend / provoke anyone by saying the wrong thing about the regime, so kept firmly out of political discussions!

2. Money

There are two currencies in Cuba. CUC (pronounced cook) is what the tourists use, and then there's the CUP (Cuban Peso) which is the Cuban local currency. Sometimes you might get your change in the local currency, not CUC, so be sure to count your change - we didn't think we got given local currency as change but there were a few times when we thought we might have been diddled by people, so just be mindful (this was literally on like two occasions; generally, people were very honest).

Also. You can't get your CUC before you arrive in Cuba. So, once you land (tired, disorientated, a bit boozed from too many complimentary drinks..), you then have to queue outside the airport to get cash. You'd think that, as they know that no tourists can get CUC anywhere else, there would be multiple cash desks etc but no - this was the most low key, slowwww queue ever. I think we queued for about an hour (or maybe it was two?).

The guy who was driving us to our air bnb (more on that later) didn't have a problem with it though, he was clearly used to doing it! We got chatting to people in the queue and had a laugh about it all. Our flight was late in, and we hadn't factored queuing for money and so we arrived at our hotel hours and hours later than planned. This was absolutely fine though, they are used to it, but my hopes of a late night dinner / first night out in Cuba were dashed!

Also, it's worth noting we didn't feel vulnerable or unsafe in this queue, despite there being a lot of local people hanging about knowing that everyone was there to withdraw enough money to sustain them for a holiday. Still, we kept our wits about us and remained vigilant!

3. Internet

Ah, Cuban internet...

Cuba's truly a place you can go to and do a 'digital detox', as getting hold of internet takes effort, time and money.

Basically. there is one internet provider for the whole country. There isn't widespread data and everyone relies on wifi 'zones'. You go into a shop selling internet scratch cards (when I was there I only saw cards for either 30 minutes or 1 hour), and scratch off to reveal your unique log in and password. This doesn't then mean you've got internet though... you then have to find a wifi zone, which tended to be around large international hotels where people would use the hotel's wifi, or parks etc around the city. Essentially it's Pokemon Go but for internet. 

Locals and tourists alike flock to these squares and you just see people scrolling... we didn't bother with internet until we got to our final destination as it was an international hotel, and even then it was patchy; it logs you out all the time, the signal isn't great, and some webpages aren't accessible.

This is a photo of crowds of people queuing to get internet in Trinidad....

....and this is a wifi zone:

4. Flights

We spent a whole evening weighing up flights and in the end we flew from Manchester - Havana with AirFrance via a quick stop over in Paris (was a little nervy as the flight to Paris was delayed and we had to run to the next gate..only to find our Havana flight was delayed too!).

It's worth noting that AirFrance don't sort your visas, unlike some airlines (I think Thomas Cook sort them for you), so be mindful that you'll have to sort this out! I Googled 'cuba holiday visa' and paid £30 for my visa + delivery. AirFrance don't make it obvious that you'll need to sort this out, so be aware of this with other airlines!

5. Getting around

If you're planning on travelling round the country a bit, definitely travel by 'taxi collectivo'. This is basically where they fill up a taxi with random people, dropping people off and picking up new people as you go. It's an amazing way to meet new people and see new cities - we toured through miles and miles of the country, seeing places we would never have been, like Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegoes & Moron. We met all types of people and really enjoyed swapping stories and experiences. It was great to be in a group when something went wrong with the car (you will more than likely definitely break down)...

(Breaking down in the middle of Cuba...)

Essential taxi fuel....

Believe it or not.. the above pics are at a 'petrol station' just off the highway in Cuba....

It's an incredible place to visit, just don't plan your itinerary to the hour as you'll most likely have your plans changed due to transport!

SO, sorry if that was a bit information heavy, but hopefully if you're thinking of travelling to Cuba (which I highly recommend you do), you've got some practical advice! Anyway, now all that's out the way, let's get on to HAVANA... an incredible city.

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