I do not exaggerate when I state it is with a matter of urgency you visit Cuba. There really is no where else like it in the world. A country that you will love and find so intriguing, as long as you go with the right expectations. Do not visit Cuba for luxury or the cuisine, visit for the experience, love, laughter, sun and the colourful pulse that runs through it veins, Cuba’s heartbeat…mojitos and salsa!
Cuba for me was love at first sight. I had never experienced a city or culture like it. Walking around Havana city with the warm Caribbean sun on my face, my eyes were fascinated by all they could see. Frozen in by gone era with crumbling buildings and american cars from the 60’s, the city has a different feel to any other. Havana flirts with you and she has an irresistible charm with an aroma of leaded petrol in the air! Be warned she will charm you, like the locals, her charm is kind and seductive…….
Most tourist seem to spend 3-5 days in the Capital city Havana then make there way down to one of the beach resorts such as Varadero. The beaches are stunning all across Cuba’s natural and untouched coasts. If you are wanting a luxury resort type of holiday then I would suggest taking a trip to another island. The resorts are comfortable in Cuba but the standard of hotels are on a different scale to Dubai. You have to understand that since 1960 Cuba has had a trade embargo with the USA. Meaning little has been imported into the isolated island since then. The are no brands, no Starbucks, no McDonalds, or recognisable consumer goods; You will find it hard to spot a can of Coke-Cola here.
There are no shops, as we know them. There are markets and little hatches through out the streets where you can stock up on snacks, water and Havana Club. The essentials in Cuba!
I first traveled to Cuba in 2007 and continued for several times a year, it’s impossible to stay away. Now the embargoes are starting to be lifted things are are starting to change, imports are now coming in. The first flights since the embargo started in 2015 from the USA to Cuba and in 2016 President Obama even visited. This is amazing news for the country and it’s development but as a regular tourist I can see it’s not the Cuba that I use to know. Cuba is special to me because of it’s uniqueness. It will always have its rich history yet slowly it is losing some of it’s distinction from the other Islands.
This is why I say you need to visit Cuba with a sense of urgency, the country is changing.
As you step arrive into José Martí International Airport you get the feeling the island of Cuba is a unique place. The airport is dated but has a slight intrigue about it.
As you make your way out the airport you are among the hustle and bustle trying to get a taxi. One tip is to make sure you agree the price before you take the ride. You will be tempted to step in one of the classic looking cars but trust me take a regular taxi for now. I once stepped into a classic Cadillac and it had no floor in the middle, I could even see the wheels! Save the nostalgic ride for a trip in the city.
As you travel deeper into the city you see the architecture is different to another Caribbean islands. Spanish colonial buildings line the streets in colourful blues and pinks with every other building disintegrating. Havana will allure you, charm you and make you feel like you are walking on air.
If you arrive in day light I would suggest start your relationship with Havana by getting lost in her. Take a walk through the city. They will be something to look at everywhere you turn. Life is outside and you will here music and people on every corner. Locals will approach you and talk to you. Some will bring you into their bars to try and sell you the “best of whatever”on the planet.
Set you expectations low on this. Even though there are 4 and 5 stars hotels available. They are comfortable and have good amenities, though not as you will traditionally know them. The government controls most of the trade and there is not stock available in Cuba to furnish hotel rooms with mod cons.
The most famous hotel: Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a 4 star hotel, but picture a four star hotel out of the 1930’s. The hotel is comfortable but better to visit for a cocktail rather than stay. The location is not as convenient as other hotels. Just at the back of the hotel is the tunnels and forts. This is a great tour to go on to learn a little more about Cuba’s History, plus it is free.
The best hotel to stay in is the Iberostar Parque Central, “5 star hotel” right on Central Park, as it has a more modern feel than most others. It’s sister hotel (Hotel Parque Central) is connected through a walk way and you can use both facilities too. It has a beautiful roof top pool with good food. You also get access to its sister hotel which has a great roof top bar, great for sun-downers with one fab view of the city.
Salsa and Music
You will leave Cuba with the overplayed tune of Guantanamera in your head and your feet always tapping.
Music and dancing to Havana is like oxygen.. You have to look to find the good stuff! You will come across millions of tourist salsa classes and themed music nights down at the Casa de Musica or being told to go to El Floridita by tour guides. You can go to these but if you want the best and authentic experience then take my advice.
The best teacher for salsa in Havana is Natasha Sanchez. Ask your Concierge to call Casa Del Tango (The studio is old yet quaint) to book her and only her. She is a great teacher, she will have you dancing with a partner and plus she can speak English. Then you can try your new skills in the clubs at night!
The best place for Salsa in HOTEL FLORIDA. On a Wednesday at 9pm go through the lobby and it will seem so quite but open the doors on the left and you will be in a smoky filled room with live music and great salsa. You usually pay an entrance fee but that includes two drinks. Even if you do not want to dance, its great to watch great salsa! One warning, recently the hotel concierge kept telling me there was no salsa here, but I have still turned up and it has been on.
Samba and Cuban style music may not be everyone’s taste but if the Buena Vista Social Club are in town you have to get a ticket! They have impressive and talented performers, some of them well into their 80’s. They will hypnotize you with their magical voices and musical talent.
Things to Do
There is so much to do in Havana but these are some of the tourist attractions I enjoyed.
- Horse and cart around the city
- Cigar factory
- Bacardi factory
- Gran Teatro de La Habana – If Carlos Acosta is on then you must see him! Bring a fan as it gets hot inside.
- Walk along the Malecon
Cuba is not know for it’s cuisine. The government own most of the restaurants and the food priced in the country. Do not be surprised if you are having dinner and the restaurants has limited stock available from the menu. The food is plain cuisine, meat fish and vegetables. There are a couple of Italian restaurants and more places are appearing.
Los Nardos: Walk along the buildings on the opposite side of the road to the El Capitolio building and you will find a grey 3 story building that appears to be someones home. There will be a wooden sign above the door saying “Los Nardos”. More than likely there will be a queue outside; Join it. You will not be disappointed (by Cuban standards) as it serves fish, meat and grape that is not over priced. It is clean, has an open kitchen and great service.
Spanish is spoken here. A lot of locals speak English but you get further here if you know basic Spanish phrases. Especially as there are a lot of locals that have a few scams aimed at tourist.Take a pocket book with you.
Typical Caribbean weather, hot and prone to thunderstorms through out the year.
There are two currencies in Cuba: Cuban peso (CUC), Cuban convertible peso (CUP). This can get confusing for tourist as the CUC is more valuable than CUP. As tourist you will use the CUC, the locals use the CUP. The two currencies cannot leave the country meaning that you can only buy CUC once you are inside Cuba. I will recommend bringing in Euros or GBP to the country and exchanging them in your hotel. Major Credit Cards are not widely used and places that accept them charge between 10-20% for using them.
Cuba feels safe to me. I have walked around as a single female and yes people have approached me but to try and sell something or to talk. I have never felt threaten. I would walk alone a night but I wouldn’t do that in any city. Petty theft does happen here so leave your jewels at home. The theft is more of a seductive occasion than someone running off with your cash. Warning: Some of the locals are charmers, they will have you giving them all your worldly possessions.
From Dubai it would make sense to combine it with a visit to the East Coast of America. Even though Florida has a several major international airports that are close to Cuba there are not many flights between the USA and Cuba yet. I would recommended going on a longer vacation and having a break in the UK or Spain on the way. There are direct flights from there to Cuba.
Trust me Cuba will enrapture you like no other place on earth can. There is no where like it.
Have you visited Cuba? Let us know your thoughts below in the comments section below.