Have a cigar.

The fragrant aroma of a fine cigar is an unmistakable scent and within Cuba, its smoky drift can be traced back to Pinar del Río province, the world’s premier place to grow tobacco. The region is a rolling rustic canvas of fertile, rust-red oxen-furrowed fields, thatched tobacco-drying houses and sombrero-clad guajiros (country folk).

Serene Viñales is a hassle-free village ringed by craggy hills and Van Gogh–like rural beauty, which beckons you to forge into some of the Caribbean’s best caves, discover the beautiful countryside, and explore the numerous tobacco plantations.

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Spectacular Viñales.

Embellished by soaring pine trees and bulbous limestone cliffs that teeter like top-heavy haystacks above placid tobacco plantations, Parque Nacional Viñales is one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. Wedged spectacularly into the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, this 11km-by-5km valley was recognised as a national monument in 1979, with Unesco World Heritage status following in 1999 for its dramatic steep-sided limestone outcrops (known as mogotes), coupled with the vernacular architecture of its traditional farms and villages. Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba.

Armed with six pages of dot matrix printed paper (my bus tickets for the next 3 weeks), a list of contacts for ‘Casa Particulares’ (courtesy of Mary), and a more compact back-pack than when I arrived (left unneeded items with Loly), I jumped into the shared taxi that was to deliver me to my next destination 2-hours west of Havana.

The Viazul bus from Havana to Viñales was fully booked for the next week so I had no option but to use a shared taxi.

The car was relatively new but still dilapidated and it’s owner, Eric, drove like a maniac. He was using his mobile phone during the entire journey – making calls and sending text messages. How we didn’t run into the back of another vehicle I shall never know. My fellow companions said very little, but then neither did I.

Valle de Viñales – western Cuba.

Next stage: hiking through tobacco plantations.

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The reality of life in Havana.

Public transport – buses:

I’ve had to deal with some fairly arduous bus journeys over the years but few compare with todays adventure. Bus travel in Havana is not for the faint hearted. I have never experienced such crowded public transport in my life. Squashed into a dilapidated bus with three times as many people as would normally be deemed acceptable, I found it an experience that went way beyond my comfort zone.

To make matters worse – I boarded the wrong bus. Initially I’d hoped it would do a loop and deliver me back to where we started, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to happen as quickly as I needed it to. After a number of failed attempts I finally managed to force my way to the double doors and get off. I did eventually find another bus, equally packed, that was heading back to where I had originally started. Suffice to say, I will never use the local bus in Havana ever again.

The challenges of finding food:

Trying to find a decent restaurant for an evening meal is hard enough, finding somewhere for breakfast is proving impossible. I have thankfully found a decent bakery so, when possible, I buy some pastries to help bolster my energy levels, at least until lunchtime.

A crumbling city:

For the most part, Havana is a city crumbling in front of your very eyes. I went to the railway museum today but (like so many other small museums in Havana) it was ‘closed for repairs’. The gentleman who was guarding the entrance explained that the building wasn’t safe to enter as they were waiting for funds to carry out much-needed repairs before they could open again. He apologised profusely and went on to tell me about life in Cuba. He accepted that Cuba has its challenges but was quick to point out four things that he was obviously very proud of:

  1. Fidel Castro.
  2. The fact that everybody in Cuba has access to free medical care.
  3. That there is free schooling, including university, for everybody.
  4. Finally, that children are sacred – it’s safe for them to play in the street anytime day or night.

Despite his positiveness, I shall be glad to leave Havana – 5 days is enough.

Next stage: Spectacular Viñales.

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The Cuban Currency & Public Transport.

 There are two types of currency in Cuba – CUC and CUP.

1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) = 1 US Dollar = £0.78 GBP.

25 National Pesos (CUP) = 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The National Peso (CUP).

This currency is what most of the local people are paid their salary in. Using the National Peso, you can purchase smaller items, and the “basics” that one needs. It’s important to realize that this isn’t the “Cuban people’s currency”, foreigners can use this money as well, and buy the following items with CUP:

  • Rides in the local inter-city buses (jam-packed full, no room to breathe)
  • Fruit and vegetables from the markets and side-of-the-road stands
  • Street snacks such as popcorn and fried plantains
  • Rides in a collectivo (shared) taxi

The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

This currency is used for “luxury” items and is the money you’ll mostly find yourself spending during your travels in Cuba. Locals who earn this currency rather than the National Peso are typically those in tourism (casa owners, tour guides, taxi drivers, hotel staff, etc.).

With CUC, you can pay for:

  • Meals at a sit-down restaurant
  • Cocktails and beer
  • Bottled water
  • Tourist bus (Viazul) tickets
  • Internet
  • Hotels and casa particulares

The two currencies actually look quite similar – meaning you need to check your change when you get it. Both for the right currency, CUC when you might get CUP, and the correct amount of change. I lost count the number of times when people tried to short change me.

Public Transport.

City Bus: (£0.03) $0.04 (yes, 3 pence).

This transportation is very cheap, but the buses are packed to the brim with people. If you can imagine ‘rush hour’ tube travel in London and double it, you will get some idea of how crowded the buses are.

Shared Taxis (Collectivos): (£0.39) $0.50 / ride in the city (paid with 10 CUP.

In Havana, very old classic cars run up and down various streets, on a set route. They will pull over and pick up people who are going in their direction, but you must flag them down. This ended up being my prefered option for travel in Havana.

Taxi Collectivo

Next stage: My final day in Havana.

 

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Planning ahead? You’ve got to be kidding!

Mary Miro (Casa Mary), the lady who had helped arrange my stay with Loly, met me this morning – to go through my itinerary for the rest of Cuba. This is not my usual style of travelling; I prefer spontaneity and flexibility. However, Mary had warned me that seats with the bus company that tourists can use (Viazul) get booked up quickly, as do good Casa Particulares. She strongly recommended that I book things in advance as much as possible. The volume of tourists now visiting Cuba is outstripping the country’s ability to deal with them!

Trying to carry out research in Cuba is difficult. Internet access is extremely limited. Sure, top-notch hotels offer access. But for your average Cuban (and me) the only place you’re normally going to get access is in a Plaza. It’s easy to find out when there is internet access – just check out the number of people looking at their phones.

Prior to arriving in Cuba, I agonised for days about the places I wanted to visit. I scoured the internet, looked at the recommendations of my guidebook, and checked out the itinerary of various tour companies. In the end a plan came together. My original plan had been to travel the breadth of the country from west to east. After careful consideration I decided that this would mean my visit to Cuba would mainly consist of sitting on a bus. Better to focus on a smaller area and take my time.

Mary arrived at precisley 9am with a bag full of maps, and two A4 pages of hand written notes: the names of casa particulares, in each of the places I was planning to visit, which incidently she had pre booked, contact names, addresses, and telephone numbers.

 

The next thing to do was to buy my bus tickets. There is only one Viazul office in Havana and thankfully it was within walking distance of Casa de Loly. The que was relatively small when I arrived – only about 4 people. But I had to stand there for an hour – everybody appeared to have the same idea as me – to book their tickets in advance to guarantee a seat. It took about half an-hour to sort out my tickets – 6 separate journeys costing £75.00 in total.

Next stage: Day three in Havana.

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Exploring Havana on foot.

Walking around Havana is like being in an action movie – your senses are on constant overdrive. Around every corner there is something new, something that stretches your imagination. The city is like nothing I have ever experienced before – the smell, the poverty, the people, the architecture, the chaos.

Downtown Havana can be broken down into three main areas:

Havana Vieja: Havana’s colonial masterpiece. Located to the east of the centre, a popular tourist area, many beautifully restored historic buildings, lots of sights, the most hassle from touts and lots of restaurants/bars.

Vedado: Located to the west of the centre, the business/financial district, the most modern area, great nightlife, best live music, many restaurants and hotels.

Central Havana: Located between Havana Vieja and Vedado, the more “local” area, great location, many old buildings and homes, practically no hassle from touts, equal walking distance to Vieja and Vedado.

The seafront promenade (The Malecón) stretches for 8 kms along the northern coast of Havana, from Havana Harbor in Havana Vieja, along Central Havana and ending at the Vedado neighbourhood.

Él Capitolio Building. The Capitolio Nacional is Havana’s most ambitious and grandiose building, constructed after the post-WWI sugar boom gifted the Cuban government a seemingly bottomless treasure box of sugar money. Similar to the Washington, DC Capitol Building, but (marginally) taller and much richer in detail, the work was initiated by Cuba’s US-backed dictator Gerardo Machado in 1926 and took 5000 workers three years, two months and 20 days to build at a cost of US$17 million.

Museo de la Revolución. This museum resides in the former Presidential Palace, constructed between 1913 and 1920 and used by a string of cash-embezzling Cuban presidents, culminating in Fulgencio Batista. The world-famous Tiffany’s of New York decorated the interior, and the shimmering Salón de los Espejos (Room of Mirrors) was designed to resemble the eponymous room at the Palace of Versailles.
The museum itself descends chronologically from the top floor starting with Cuba’s pre-Columbian culture and extending to the present-day socialist regime (with a lot of propaganda).

Plaza de Aramas, the oldest square in Havana.

Havana Cathedral.

Habana Vieja, old Havana.

 

Museum of the revolution.

More classic cars.

Plaza de la Catedral.

Next stage: Planning ahead.

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Havana.

When I think of Cuba, I always think of my first night back in Havana after a break. I recall the busy atmospheric streets, the snapshots of lives lived out in the open, and the unmistakable aromas: tropical papaya mixed with tobacco leaf, petrol and musty carpets. Cuba is a forbidden fruit, a complex country of head-scratching contradictions, which, however many times you visit, will never adequately answer all your questions. Most of all I love Cuba’s musicality, robust culture, wonderfully preserved history, and the fact that it can frustrate you one minute and unexpectedly inspire you the next. Brendan Sainsbury, Author.

Havana Hop On Hop Off Bus:

It sounds very touristy and it is, but what a great way to see Havana in a few hours. Best of all, one of the stops, cementerio de Colon, is just across the road from where I am staying.




Next stage: Exploring Havana on foot.

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Casa particular de Loly.

No one has control on when or where they are born, I was so extremely lucky…….. on both counts. For the majority of people living in Cuba life is tough. Prior to the revolution it was even tougher.

The airport taxi whisked me straight to my prebooked casa particular, not far from the main entrance of Cemetario de Colon. No surprises there you might think. Bear in mind, however, that it’s not unheard of to give directions to a taxi driver but actually get dropped off somewhere else. The taxi driver gets a nice tip from the host, the host gets a guest, you get a room – but maybe not the room you originally booked!

A super useful app called ‘Maps.Me’ confirmed my location as Casa de Loly. This app became my best friend in Cuba. Google maps, being American, does not function here.

I rang the door bell and waited a few minutes; eventually an elderly lady opened the door, spoke my name, for clarification (I nodded) and proceeded to give me a warm embrace.

Loly chatted away in slow deliberate Spanish (making it relatively easy for me to understand what she was saying) before eventually showing me to my room, which was spotlessly clean. Equipped with a (large) comfy bed, en suite bathroom, and self contained kitchen – complete with fridge.  There was even a roof top terrace. All this for £30 per night, I was impressed.

My next task was to find a shop, to buy provisions. This is when the reality of Cuba, and especially Havana, kicked in. Something I took for granted in Mexico were the numerous OXXO convenience stores, where you can just ‘nip’ in and buy anything that took your fancy. In Havana convenience stores are conspicuous in their absence.

I did eventually find a tienda with a reasonable selection of items. However, as was the recurring theme from here on, there was a long que outside. The phrase I quickly learned was el último? – the last (person)?

The next thing to sort out was a restaurant. Yet another challenge. Within sensible walking distance – 30 minutes – there were only two restaurants with anything like acceptable food – other than just bland looking pizza. Outside of the centre of Havana, good restaurants proved hard to find.

La isla de la pasta caught my eye, with its excellent menu, good prices, and super welcoming staff. The food was excellent, as was the wine.

Map of Havana.

Loly.

Roof top terrace.

Musicians at la Isla de la pasta.

Next stage: A bus tour of Havana.

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Cuba, expect the unexpected.

Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes-shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to Western certainties and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, serially misunderstood, but – above all – a classic.

Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba.

The problem with a country like Cuba is that you think you know all about the place before you even arrive. Over the years I have seen so many ‘classic’ photographs of the country, heard so much about it, and met to so many people who have been there; indeed I even had reservations about actually going; perhaps it would be a huge anti-climax? As it turned out Cuba was everything I imagined and nothing like I imagined.

I began to realise what might lie ahead when I arrived at Cancun Airport (Mexico). It started when I spotted the alarming number of cardboard boxes being checked in; TV’s, computers, food blenders; like the conveyor belt on The Generation Game, the list went on. The final realisation was when I saw the number of people checking in cartons of toilet roll!

The 1-hour 24-minutes flight with AEROMEXICO was straightforward enough, as was the immigration process – at Havana airport. As I walked into the arrivals lounge I was greeted by a middle-aged lady who held my name up on a hand written A4 piece of white paper, something that never normally happens when I arrive at an airport! So how did this all come about?

Travelling is always more about the people you meet than the places you visit. One afternoon, at my hostel in Campeche (Mexico), I met an Australian couple that had just returned from Cuba. I was keen to quiz them about their visit. It was the same story as everybody else. “ Wow, what an amazing country”. They waxed lyrical about their visit and finally gave me a contact name for a B&B (‘Casa Particular’) in Havana – Casa Mary. “Drop her an email, she’ll sort you out”, they said.

And sort me out she did. During our numerous email exchanges, over a period of two weeks, my visit to Cuba slowly started to take shape. Mary did not have availability but she knew someone who did – a recurring theme throughout my journey in Cuba.

The taxi from the airport, to the centre of Havana, which Mary had incidentally organised, took around 40 minutes. My first glimpse of Cuba, and what an eye opener it was.

Next stage: The smell of cheap petrol, a delightful 80-year old lady, and a walk through ‘La Havana’.

My theoretical route in Cuba.

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México in retrospect.

Palm-fringed beaches, chili-spiced cuisine; steamy jungles, teeming cities; fiesta fireworks, Frida’s angst: Mexico conjures up diverse, vivid dreams. And the reality lives up to the imagining.

An Outdoor Life:

With steaming jungles, smoking, snow- capped volcanoes, cactus-strewn deserts and 10,000km of coast strung with sandy beaches and wildlife-rich lagoons, Mexico is an endless adventure for the senses and a place where life is lived largely in the open air. Take it easy dining alfresco beside a Pacific beach or strolling colonial streets.

Art & Soul of a Nation:

Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations built some of the world’s great archaeological monuments, including Teotihuacán’s towering pyramids and the exquisite Maya temples of Palenque. The Spanish colonial era left beautiful towns full of tree-shaded plazas and richly sculpted stone churches and mansions, while modern Mexico has seen a surge of great art from the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Top-class museums and galleries document the country’s fascinating history and its end- less creative verve. Popular culture is just as vibrant, from the underground dance clubs and street art of Mexico City to the wonderful handicrafts of the indigenous population.

Travel for All:

Travel in Mexico is what you make it and the country caters to all types of visitor. Stay in pampering resorts on the Riviera Maya, budget beach huts on the Pacific or colonial mansions in the highlands. Eat gourmet fusion food in chic city restaurants or equally delicious grandmothers’ recipes at a busy market comedor (food stall). Getting from A to B is easy with comfortable buses running almost everywhere and an extensive domestic flight network.

Los Mexicanos:

At the heart of any Mexican experience will be the Mexican people. A super-diverse crew, from Mexico City hipsters to the shy indigenous villagers of Chiapas, they’re renowned for their love of color and frequent fiestas, but they’re also philosophical folk, to whom timetables are less important than simpatía (empathy). You’ll rarely find Mexicans less than courteous. They’re more often positively charming, and know how to please guests. They might despair of ever being well governed, but they’re fiercely proud of Mexico, their one-of-a-kind home-land with all its variety, tight-knit family networks, beautiful-ugly cities, deep-rooted traditions, unique agave-based liquors and sensationally tasty, chili-laden food.

My month long journey only managed to cover a fraction of this enormous country. The Yucatán and Chiapas regions of Mexico proved to be an excellent introduction to this incredible country.


Next stage: Cuba.

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