Friday, 19th December
I started the day with an ocean dip before 8am, wanting to make the most of our last day at this amazing resort. I hit the beach wth Bec, Doug and Melissa leaving Kirsty and Lauren to sleep in some more. The beach was nice and clear at this time in the morning, just a few crazies going for a jog and several people sun-bathing. The water was refreshing (cold) and I didn’t stay in long, just long enough for a full immersion and to be satisfied that I had made the most of our oceanfront stay by getting in the water more than once. I dried off on a sun lounger in full view of the still rising sun before heading in for the buffet breakfast where we met up with Kirsty and Lauren. We sat outside on the balcony today in full sun and got very hot, when we went for a sit down in the lobby. We hadn’t done much lazing by the pool so far down here so that is where we headed to next. We still had a few hours before we had to checkout at 2pm and our taxi was booked at 3pm to Havana. The water was equally cold in the pool but with the sun higher in the sky and a volleyball net and ball to keep us warm we had a frolic in the water whilst being taken care of for drinks by the conscientious staff here. At one point Doug and myself swam over to a poolside bar with stools in the water for a quick mojito or two. I’ve always wanted to be at a pool with a bar you can swim up to and order and now I have.
Close to checkout I went back to our room to shower off and pack, wanting to spend some good quality time with the lunch buffet before we left. We were told the checkout was at 2pm but when we got there we were informed it was actually at noon. No penalties were applied as that is what we were told so that was good, getting another couple of hours out of the resort. They weren’t happy about it though, especially Rodney with whom we completed our checkout. With checkout taken care of and our bags being looked after by the bell-boys we went in for lunch with cocktails in hand. The lunch buffet was good and well worth the effort, there was so much on offer you couldn’t leave disappointed.
We had a minivan booked for 3pm to take us all to Havana so after our lunch we loaded up the waiting van and headed off on the 150km journey. It only took two and a half hours before we were in Havana looking for our next ‘casa particular’. The journey was a nice one with views of the ocean on our right, to the north of Cuba. Our driver had some difficulty finding the building but we got there in the end and once inside caught the rickety old lift (Kirsty had to push the cage door shut to get it moving and if she let go it would stop) to the 6th floor as per the address on the booking. Not seeing any signage and three doors that all looked the same we walked up another level and there we found the sign of a casa particular. It turned out this wasn’t the one we were after but the lady there called down to the one below and they were waiting for us with an open door when we walked down. On the outside the building looks like it could be falling down on the inside but when we walked in we were pleasantly surprised. Large rooms and stunning views from our bedroom over Havana and the Malecon drive along the ocean from another window looking out from the communal lounge room. We are staying in Central Havana, a short walk from the old quarter and in a more ‘real’ part of the city.
We had a brief rest to collect ourselves before reconvening in the lounge at 7pm to decide what to do for dinner. We headed towards the ‘El Capitolio’ building and a restaurant called ‘Lod Nardos’ on the recommendation of a porter from the hotel we stayed in at Varadero. It also got a good write up in the Lonely Planet. To get there we opted for cabs as we aren’t staying in the safest looking neighbourhood here in Central Havana. We had to go in convoy and I was in a so-called classic American car. It was certainly from the fifties and was rattling away as we made our way down the Malecon towards ‘El Capitolio’. When got to the restaurant the line was at least twenty deep so we got in line and started the long wait for a table. During this time Bec and myself went to the ‘Central Parque Hotel’ to arrange a tour to Viñales. The concierge there, Julio Cesar, sorted out minivan for us for tomorrow with a driver that would take us on our own personal tour. I was impressed with the speed at which he organised a tour for the next day. It was already 9pm and we would leave at 8:30am the next day. When we got back to the restaurant the guys we left in the line were nearly at the front and ten minutes later we were in. It was around 10pm and we were just sitting down for dinner. This place is a favourite amongst tourists and locals alike hence the long line to get in.
Looking at the menu we were stumped by the multitude of options and in the end I went for a shrimp cerviche followed by a chicken skewer. The ceviche was good and when the mains came out we were taken aback by their size. My chicken skewers came on a spike maybe two feet long. Needless to say I didn’t finish it and got the leftovers to take back to Kirsty who had decided to get an early night with all travels catching up with us fast. We caught another ‘classic’ car back to our casa, this time with all five of us in the one car, two up front with the driver and three behind. We headed to bed right away with breakfast organised for 7:30am the next day.
Saturday, 20th December
We had our breakfast organised for 7:30am this morning to make our 8:30am pickup for our tour to Viñales. At the moment of us leaving for the tour, our ‘casa particular’ hosts decided it was a good time for us to do the check-in so I waited downstairs for our driver and tour guide, Raymen, whilst the others did the checking in with their passports. The concierge at the ‘Parque Central Hotel’ had really come through for us today with a good ride and a great driver/guide. It was clear we were going to have a great day. Viñales is a two hour ride from Havana and we made our way through banana fields and eventually tobacco fields, what this area is famous for. Along the way we had a quick rest stop and the guy in the car next to us in the petrol station car park had his prize fighting cock with him. There was also a gentleman brandishing large knives for sale. He was walking around the parking lot waving then around and shouting, you could have easily mistaken this act for something quite different.
Before we got to Viñales we stopped at a small family-run tobacco farm, as most of them are here. The farms here are small allotments and are generally a one family operation. We got to look around the farm, with tobacco plants growing in the fields and leaves drying in the barns. We then went into a small room where we could watch a demonstration of cigar rolling, an impressive art. We also got to smoke one of the fat cigars, one inch in diameter. We passed this around and actually we were impressed by this experience, not feeling nauseous like we thought we would. Doug and myself ‘treated’ ourselves to some real cuban cigars, hand made from a small family rum farm. Being a typical tourist and helping out a cuban family in one stroke. And the best part is that they only cost a fraction of the fully packaged cigars even though they are the same cigars, just without the fancy box and the coloration isn’t as uniform. This family supplies the brand ‘Cohiba’, deemed to be the best in Cuba and therefore some would say in the world. For a ‘Cohiba’ you need a cigar of uniform colour though as they are very particular. Every farmer is allowed to keep 10% of their production to sell for themselves. The rest goes to the government, who own all the cigar factories and brands in Cuba. The tobacco grown here is considered the best in Cuba and the cigars the best you can smoke, possibly in the world.
After our cigar experience we had a ‘cuba libre’ (rum and coke) in the back seat of the minivan and made the short journey to and through Viñales towards the ‘Indian Caves’, which were refuges for runaway slaves. Here we walked and boated through a cave formation, ending up at a handicraft market, as you usually do on these things, and bought a couple of paintings. Our next stop was lunch but not before stopping off to see a massive mural, ‘Mural de la Prehistoria’ on a rock face. The work of the former Director of Mapping at the Cuban Academy of Sciences, Leovigildo González Morillo. A master of neo-caveman artistry, Morillo undertook the massive project of portraying world history up until the age of humans on a rock wall in the Viñales Valley.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called ‘Buena Vista’ with stunning views and tasty food. We all had lobster in various forms, I just went for straightforward grill on the barbecue. Doug bucked the trend by having barbecue chicken. Our meat was accompanied by rice, beans, yuca, salads and soup. A lovely meal to round off a fun day. Before we hit the road back to Havana we checked out a viewpoint with sweeping views of the valley around Viñales. This is very beautiful countryside and we could see its appeal as a destination in its own right. We also bought some local rum to take home, ‘La Occidental’ brand. I have noticed that all the rum is the same price no matter where you by it from. I assume it is price-fixed by the government. The rum at this market cost the same as from a convenience store in Havana.
Rayman sped us back to Havana, at one point getting caught in a convoy of a government minister. We saw our first and only Mercedes in Cuba then and we spent the most of the ride back to Havana tailing a police car. We arrived back at our ‘casa particular’ around 6pm and had a rest before heading out for a night on the tiles.
We recovered in the lounge room of the casa particular with the view over the ocean for a couple of cuba libres before heading down to the Malecon to hail a cab. We found two cabs and we rode in convoy to the ‘capitolio’, a short walk to the ‘Hanoi’ restaurant for dinner. We had no energy to think of to find somewhere new so went back to somewhere we knew from our last time Havana and somewhere we knew to be good. The waiter recognised us and we all ate heartily with a classic mojito to drink. After dinner we decided to make it to ‘La Casa de la Musica’, one of the most popular nightclubs in town. With six of us it was either going to be one American car, two standard taxis or three pedal-cabs. We opted for the pedal-cabs after negotiating a 5CUC fare for each ride. Pedal-cabs are basically three-wheeled mechanical tuk-tuks and being only a short ride to ‘La Casa de la Musica’ from the ‘Hanoi’ restaurant this wasn’t too far for the riders. We rode in convoy to the club and got dropped off around the corner. When we went to settle the fare it immediately doubled and instead of being 5CUC per ride it was 5CUC for each person. We did our best to argue against this but being night, in an unfamiliar part of town and with minimal spanish we just paid up and made a vow never to ride in a pedal-cab again. Being scammed is one thing but in Havana it seems to be fairly commonplace and it gets a little tiring. I think our tolerance for having the ‘tourist-tax’ applied has decreased over our trip and now we are not afraid to let our feelings known, within reason of course.
‘La Casa de Musica’ is a salsa club and judging by the line when we got there, is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. Whilst we were queuing to get in a number of touts came up to us and offered their services for us to by-pass the queue. I think the best we got was 20CUC for all of us. However having just been scammed by the pedal-cabs we weren’t really in the mood for this and shut them down. We were happy to wait and in the end it took half an hour or so to get into. Not so bad a wait really. Once inside we were shown to a ‘reservado’ table with a great view of the stage and dance floor. The only catch was that for this table we needed to buy a whole bottle of rum . We stumped up the 70CUC for the rum and got four cokes and a bucket of ice to go with it. Apparently they like their rum and cokes strong here. There were two bands on tonight, the first of which got some couples up on the dancefloor for some salsa dancing. It was great to see these dancers showing off their stuff in front of everyone. Just people from the audience wanting a dance. The second band (Havana D’Primera with singer Alexander Abreu) was who everyone came to see and when they came on, the dance floor for packed out. We ended up on be dance floor towards the end, wanting to put our salsa lesson to good use. I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure we were ‘salsa’ing exactly but we were definitely having a good time. At one pint a lady started to what can only be described as ‘grinding’ and attempted to pick my shirt pocket in the process. When I saw this she simply high-fived me and walked off. Very odd. We caught a large American car back to our hotel that we all could fit into and got in to our casa at 3am.
Sunday, 20th December
We arranged to have a later breakfast today, at 10am. After our eggs we went for a walk along the Malecon, the road just outside our casa that runs along besides waters edge towards the old quarter. It’s basically a promenade but these days is very dilapidated and in need of some restoration which is happening albeit slowly. The sun was out and it was a lovely walk down to the old quarter taking in some sights along the way. This part of the waters edge has several forts and castles standing guard over the city that the spanish built back in colonial times. The castle here is the largest in the Americas, the Morro Castle. Once we got to the other castle, ‘Castillo de la Real Fuerza’, we stopped for a coconut. Melissa had bought a coconut form this stall last week but didn’t have the correct change so she got her coconut on the proviso she would return the next day and pay up. This didn’t happen however so she wanted to go back today to settle her tab. In the process everyone else had a coconut so it worked out well for the stall-holder. With a coconut under our belt we walked on to the postcard shop to write and send some postcards. Here you can buy your postcards and stamps and when you write it leave it with them for postage. The flea market was close to this shop so afterwards we had a stroll around and made a couple of purchases to add to our souvenirs.
It was lunchtime by now and we found a place close by that did a lunchtime meal deal of a main plate, drink and dessert for a reasonable price. Of course we also got serenaded by a travelling band. Quite the norm for this part of town being one of the more popular tourist hangouts. We had wanted to do a classic car ride being one of classic touristy things to do here. Having seen them driving around everywhere we wanted to get a couple to cruise around in. We asked a few guys near the flea market and managed to get a couple of cars, the one Kirsty and myself were in was a Chevy Belair 1956, a white and lime green convertible with the original engine (quite a rare thing here). It was a great ride although not quite as much just cruising around as we wanted. We did get to see some others sights on the way though. The Morro Castle, missiles from the cuban missile crisis, a statue of Jesus, the house that Che Guevara lived in of s short period of time after the revolution, the military academy. The highlight was cruising down the Malecon in convoy with Bec, Melissa and Lauren in a bright pink Chevy Delux 1950 and Kirsty Doug and I in the Belair. Before we got going the guy we organised the ride through with jumped in the car with the girls and turned out to be a guide as well. We rode around for around an hour and a bit and once we were done we wandered to the ‘Parque Central’ hotel for some internet time and a quick drink before finding somewhere for dinner.
We found a restaurant called ‘La Dona’ which had a veranda to sit in overlooking the Obispo street. This turned to be a lovely restaurant and some of the best food we have had here. I had the beef dish which translates as ‘old clothes’ which was excellent and we all had a few drinks. The house band, ‘Evoluciones’, were superb and got us up dancing around although the song we danced to was Cha Cha Cha and not Salsa so that confused us a bit. We all bought a CD of the band to relive this night when we get back to the UK. After dinner we had another cigar, one of the ones we had bought from the farm on our day trip to Viñales and a 12-year old Mulata rum to go with it. It was a great night and great way to round off our trip to Cuba, leaving tomorrow. We had a relatively early night, turning in around midnight, with Melissa and Lauren leaving tomorrow morning. We don’t leave until 5pm in the afternoon for be airport so we have a day to hang around with Bec and Doug first.
Monday, 21st December
We had arranged breakfast for 10am again this morning with no plans for the start of the day. After eating and checking out, Melissa and Lauren were picked up by the always happy and smiling Raymen who took them to be airport at 11am. This left Bec, Doug, Kirsty and I to amuse ourselves until 5pm when Raymen would be picking us up for our ride to the airport.
We headed out into the lovely sunny day and walked towards the ‘Parque Central’ going through an area we hadn’t seen before where the hustle and bustle of daily life is all around you with all the smells that go along with it. We were heading first to a strip of shops where I thought I might be able to buy a ‘team cuba’ tracksuit of something similar. The Adidas store was a random section of Adidas clothing with no actual sportswear and the Puma store next-door was basically a random clothing store with Puma signs everywhere but no Puma clothing to speak of. It was a long shot so I wasn’t that bothered when I came up empty-handed. After checking out another couple of souvenir shops we walked on through ‘Parque Central’ and down ‘Obispo’ street (the long pedestrian street) to buy some souvenirs from the market they have along there. This was a success and got that out of the way so all we had to now was simply so relax, eat and be back at or hotel for our 5pm ride to the airport.
Walking around in the sun is thirsty work so we made our way to the cathedral and where there is a rooftop bar next door, ‘La Moneda Cubana’, with a view of the castle over the water opposite and there we enjoyed a a drink. They don’t like you hanging around this place if you don’t eat so after our drink we moved on to a cheaper and nicer place for lunch, ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’. This is the bar we went to for our first night with Melissa and Lauren and where Ernest Hemingway liked to drink his mojitos. Above the tiny bar there is a seating area where we ate lunch to the sounds of salsa coming from the house band. Kirsty and Bec had the prawns and Doug and myself had he ‘ropa vieja’ all teamed with rice and beans (called ‘Moors and Christians’ here) and fried sweet potato. It was a nice lunch and good way to round off our eating experience in Cuba which has surpassed our expectation from the bad rap everyone gave the food here. On the clock and with a plane to catch we didn’t linger and made our way back to the ‘Central Parque’ hotel for some internet time and Doug went off to change some money on the way after which we hopped in a cab for the short ride back to our casa. Some final packing, a quick shower and change of clothes later we were saying farewell to Bec and Doug with Raymen there ready to take us to be airport.
Havana airport is fairly low-key and not that busy so check-in was easy and after we paid our airport tax of 25CUC each and we were through immigration with over an hour to spare for our flight. It’s a funny feeling with our trip coming to an end and heading towards the UK for Christmas and to start up for another chapter in our lives but a happy one. Mixed emotions probably describes it best. We have been on the road for around 300 days (nine and a half months) and are both looking forward to some stability.