There’s no doubt that Cuba has an allure about it. A Caribbean island with that well-known laid back vibe, famous for the vintage cars, rustic buildings, crisp white sand, crystal blue waters and an abundance of rum and cigars. It’s no wonder that it was on this island that my friends decided they wanted to marry, and what led me to Cuba.
It’s said that with American influence, this country will go through a vast transition and it’ll be unrecognisable in a few years’ time. You can already see some of the changes, particularly in the city where there are lots of new developments. There are hotels popping up left, right and centre, where it’s expected they’ll experience an American tourism boom because of previous travel restrictions. The new developments are all very modern and lavish. However, they are clearly trying to ensure in both the new and old parts of Havana that the architecture is in keeping with existing design and structure, where possible.
To get a true feel of ‘old’ Cuba, you only have to take a trip to one of the lesser touristy destinations to see how the majority of Cubans are still living. Whilst on a sugar, rum and cigar excursion, we stopped off in a town called Matanzas, and it’s like stepping back in time. The buildings are long established, rustic structures, some so deconstructed that you’re looking at derelict but still beautiful buildings. You’ll also notice that the majority of local’s ride on horse and cart as appose to car. Though here you’ll still see those famous 50 style cars. Although not much to see in these smaller towns, visiting along side a tour, like the sugar tour, is well worth it. Of course, if you’ve got the time and transportation, you may even want to coordinate your own stops to towns like this.
Even though there is a lot development happening all over Cuba, there are of course still elements to illustrate how set in time it is. Access to internet for example, in all aspects of the country is limited. You need a card which is time limited and only operational in certain areas, even in the major cities and towns. And of course, there are the famous and fabulous 50s style cars which you must take a trip in. Most of them operate as Taxi’s in the area and we’d always recommend booking one or grabbing one at your resort/hotel as the cars are not regulated. They’re not cars to book for long journeys but quick trips into or around town are ideal, as well as of course, just to have the experience of being in one.
Then of course there’s rum which can be found in an abundance. Word to the wise, do not buy anything from duty free on your way out. It’ll be a waste of money, simply because you’ll want to bring back as much rum as humanely (ok, legally!) possible. The rum is so cheap here, we’re talking £3.80 for a bottle of Havana Club, that they even use it as a disinfectant in the bars, restaurants and their homes. We’d also highly recommend Legendario Rum (only available in Cuba and Spain), which is also around £3.80. It’s so tasty you could drink it as is without any mixer at all and something of course less readily available in our country anyway.
Of course, alcohol is a big feature in the country where Havana Club and Bacardi originates; cocktails are available at truck-stop stations (highly recommended- I had one with sugar cane juice, pineapple and lime), and rum is pretty much added to everything.
Not only is it home to some of the best and most famous rums, but also the best and most famous of cocktails. It is in Cuba, Havana specifically, the Mojito and the Daquiri was invented. You can still, to this day, visit the establishments that created them and to where famous American author Earnest Hemmingway would frequent. So if you want to taste the authentic thing, as Hemmingway said, ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita’.
Whilst on the subject of drinking establishments (and restaurants of course- we’d also recommend dining in at El Floridita). In most restaurants and bars, Cuban salsa music pours out onto the streets and into your spirit. There are some incredibly talented musicians in this fine country and it really did add to the ambiance when dining; it made it all that much more enjoyable. If you like what you hear, the chances are, they’ll be selling a CD with their music on so be sure to ask and support the locals in this way.
As for hotels, we stayed at the Royalton Hicacos in Varadero, around 3 hours from Havana. This is an all-encompassing, adults-only, resort with nightly entertainment, spacious and comfortable rooms, several pool areas, private beach access, all-inclusive offering (you’re very well fed and watered here!), with plenty of dining variety; spa facilities, gym facilities, and additional activities with some water sports included in your package (you can do a diving excursion for free here- just make sure you go down to the beach early in your stay to find out when it’ll be happening). It’s the perfect place for a honeymoon, an escape holiday or even just peace of mind place, knowing that everything is taken care of. It’s also where my friends had their gorgeous wedding.
Many excursions operate from this area too. So if you want to do Havana in a day it’s possible, as is the Bay of Pigs excursion and you can take a sugar, rum and cigar tour from here too. We’d also highly recommend going into the town of Varadero to experience everything it has to offer too. It is home to the second La Bodeguita which is decorated (drawn on) just like the one in Havana. You can visit famous gangster Al Pacino’s house (which is now a restaurant); enjoy the wonderful local markets which has the best handmade souvenirs available and it also has one of the most bustling nightlife scenes. The Beatles bar plays host to a Cuban rock band playing all the best rock music we all love, and Celle 62 plays Cuban and salsa music nightly with dancing pouring into the streets.
We’d wholly recommend this resort- we had a brilliant time (go in May!), but if you’re looking to do Havana, we’d recommend you do a minimum of 1 night stay there too so that you can fully immerse yourself in everything the city has to offer. Including experiencing the famous Tropicana club, which sadly we didn’t get to see.
Conclusively, this Caribbean island offers you the best of both worlds. It’s the beautiful sandy beaches you expect with brilliant sunshine and the occasional tropical storm but it’s also rich in history and culture with plenty to immerse yourself in to enrich your knowledge and experience whilst at the same time, benefiting from some much-needed rest and relaxation.