Cativating Cuba
Cuba, North America
Dateline: June 2015
Fine cigars, great rum and fabulous old cars, but good food ... forget it! There's no foodie heaven in this Caribbean isle ... but it makes up for it in other ways as Ron and Viv Moon discovered.

The menu.

Havana
My eyes skimmed down the menu, alighting on the mixed grill - 'cow and fried root', while below it was the equally unappetising, 'Old Clothes' – I was too afraid to ask what it was – and then the not so bad, 'fillet of Cow'.
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Old guns still guard the entrance to Havana harbour.
We had been in Cuba for nearly two weeks, travelling around on the long distance buses, staying at 'casa particulares' (homestays) and eating in places that rarely gathered more than one or two stars. But as we found when we shouted ourselves a meal in one of the more up-market hotels that dot the shoreline outside the capital's centre, the food wasn't up to the hype shown on the outside menu. Such is Cuba!

Cuba though is bigger than you first realise, less communist than you originally thought, friendlier than you could possibly have hoped for and better educated than a lot of us. The country is a bit of a paradox; it’s a melting pot of cultures and a country in transition, being pulled one way by its history and the opposite way by forces seemingly outside its control.

We had started our Cuba exploration in Havana, the capital of this island nation that nudges up close to the southern shores of the USA, divides the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and is recognised, rather surprisingly we thought, as a part of North America.

We stayed in the historic old Hotel Inglaterra, a colonial-era building dating from 1875, opposite Parque Central.
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Monuments to rebellions and war - this one to Maximo Gomez in Havana.
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Happy taxi driver.
First established by the Spanish conquistadors, the once walled port of old Havana, the Habana Vieja, is today the largest Colonial centre in all of Latin America. Established in 1514, just 20 years after Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World, the Spanish enclave and fort saw many a king's ransom in gold and treasure flow through it, while pirates sailed its shores and at times plundered and pillaged the city. The country remained under Spanish rule to the end of the 1800s and revolution and wars finally ended when Fidel Castro came to power in the 1950s.

Shunning the West and especially America, the confrontation between the two grew till the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the cusp of nuclear war in 1962. For the next 50 years economic embargoes, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, saw the country and its people destitute. Today, with Fidel's brother, Raùl, running the show, the country is slowly opening up to the outside world and the lifestyle of the people improving to the point that there are around 170 jobs that individuals are allowed to do that are not paid for by the government; talk about free enterprise!
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Typical street scene in Havana.
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The lighthouse at the entrance to Havana harbour.
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Little remains of the original wall that surrounded and protected the city.
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Old cannons (and there's plenty of them) decorate a a wall in the old part of Havana.
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A 'Dandy' posses for pics for a few coins.
We met a couple of such enterprising business men and women on the streets of Havana, looking like smart Caribbean white-suited aristocrats or flamboyantly dressed women wielding huge cigars, unlit it was noted, and wanting people to pay for a photograph of them. Government (and the tax office) recognise them as a 'Dandy' and along with the taxi drivers, car hire people (invariably, old US cars), tourist guides and casa particulares owners, they are the most obvious of the new wave of Cuban entrepreneurs travellers like us meet.
 
It’s only when you take the time and chat though (many speak excellent English), that you find they are well educated above their seemingly tourist orientated station, with most being lawyers, accountants and even doctors and professors.
 



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This cigar wielding mamma was yet another 'Dandy' as the government call such.
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Signs of the revolution take many forms.
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Art glorifies the revolution ... and the landing of ol' Fidel and Che back in Cuba in 1959.
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Hereos of the revolution can be seen everywhere.
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Good ol' 'American Iron' wait travellers for a ride back in time.
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Our '56 limo for the day.
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Cruisin' main street in Havana.
Wanting a ride in some good ol' American iron we hired a well presented 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible with its driver, Carlos and an English speaking guide, Jali, for four hours of laid back touring. The cost? Just US$20 - which is not a lot to you and me but nearly equivalent to the average monthly wage in Cuba of $25. Helping the people to survive, everyone gets food vouchers that they can use at government-controlled stores, but you can suddenly see the appeal of being a Dandy or a tour guide. 

Our travels took us to the Hotel Nacional, the old elegant hotel standing on a low hill just a few metres from the sea on the western side of the old city. It is a declared part of a World Heritage Site with the old guns out the front of the modern hotel coming from the original Santa Clara battery that was first built here in 1797. The grand old hotel has figured in every major historic event in Cuba, from the guns firing at the USS Montgomery during the 1895 revolution, to the slit trenches that were built during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

From its richly furnished rooms the Mafia ran the whole country and the gambling in the many casinos that were dotted throughout the city from the 1920s onwards, while during prohibition in the USA, organised shipment of grog from the island to the States was an everyday affair. And it seems everyone who is anyone has stayed at the Hotel Nacional from Yuri Gengaren, the 1st man in space, to Winston Churchill and every movie star since the 30s and every rock star since the 60s, including Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, amongst a host of others. With such luxury maybe you could get a decent meal here; we didn't try, just having a cool and refreshing mojito instead - rum based, of course!
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The grand Hotel Nacional has seen much of Cuba's history pass by.
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Old cars like this make some people's heart flutter.
Rum is part of the staple of Cuba. Bacardi Rum had its beginnings here and it is still the largest private and family owned spirit company in the world. Ol' Fidel kicked them out after his revolution and while the 'secret' of smooth rum was supposed to have gone with Bacardi when they shifted their base to Bermuda, there were enough rum workers from the factories to know how it was done. There is an absolute plethora of rum distilleries and while you can buy a good local 3-year old rum for just $4 a bottle, you'll find connoisseur brands with aged, silky smooth variants up to 50 years old for $900 ... and everything in-between!     
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Never too early for a refreshing rum. Viv's watch was reading around 11am.
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Rum is part of the Cuban experience.
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Ron enjoys a refreshing rum drink on a hot day.
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We stalked Hemingway and his hang outs around Havana.
Being a bit of an Ernest Hemingway fan we took the opportunity to stroll in his footsteps, which luckily for us includes some of the old bars and finest hotels of the city. There are also a number of monuments to him scattered around the place and the property he lived in for many years, 'Finca Vigia', 15km from the city centre, is kept like a shrine in his memory. That includes his fishing boat, 'Pilar', from which he chased the game fish of the Gulf Stream and even went hunting a German U-boat with friends during WW2 - there may have been some grog involved there, but Hemingway was no chicken as his records for WW1, The Spanish Civil War and WW2 testify.
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Having a drink with the great writer in one of his favourite bars.
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Hemingway's writing room at his old Cuban home, Finca Vigia.
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'Pilar' - Hemingway's boat which he chased giant fish and German U-boats with. The Pilar was equipped with an assortment of machine guns, bazookas, and grenades courtesy of the United States government during 1942/43.
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Hemingway's Nobel prize for Literature is on show in a Cathedral outside Santiago de Cuba.
Still his greatest legacy to Cuba, apart from setting it on the world map as a game fishing mecca, is, we think, his gift of his Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won for his acclaimed novel, 'The Old man and the Sea', written by him while in Cuba. Located and under lock and key in the El Cobre Basilica, in the mountains outside Santiago de Cuba, the original half pound of gold medal is out of sight to mere mortals like you and me, but you can see the original documents and a copy of the medallion, that helped make Hemingway one of the greatest writers of all time. ​​
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The El Cobre Basilica where Hemingway's Nobel prize is kept.
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Santiago de Cuba - the heart and home of the Revolution.
Santiago de Cuba

Such a treasure was just one more reason we hopped on a long distance tourist bus for the 900km and 12 hour ride to the east of the island to Santiago de Cuba.

Be warned, booking a ride on a given route isn't as easy as it sounds and you need to be flexible, and book ahead - but it is the way to travel in the country where rail is completely unreliable, plane is expensive and aloof from the local people, while modern hire cars are rare and expensive.
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There are many wonderful old cars driving the streets of Santiago de Cuba, such as this fine old Buick.
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Town square - Santiago de Cuba.
Havana may be the cultural, economic and political centre of Cuba, but the heart of the revolution has always been Santiago de Cuba. Here every uprising, revolt, insurrection, rebellion and finally the great revolution led by Fidel Castro began and was fought from the sanctuary of the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains. Today all the great leaders from Jose Marti, who was the leader of the 19th Century revolution, to Fidel Castro, along with their generals, have their tombs in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetary in Santiago de Cuba .
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The changing of the guards outside the monument and burial site of José Marti in the Santa Infigenia Cemetery in Santigo de Cuba.
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Monument at San Juan Hill.
Santiago de Cuba is not only the oldest Spanish city in the New World it is also the most African, the most musical of all the cities of Cuba and the home of Cuban rum. Here can also be found San Juan Hill where Theodore Roosevelt, in July 1898, led his 'Rough Riders' against the ensconced Spanish army, routing them decisively and helping the USA (and the Cubans) achieve victory over the Spanish and helping send ol' Teddy to the White House. And, of course, in the mountains nearby is Hemingway's Nobel prize; we grabbed a taxi to see it ... and were so impressed with the driver (an ex professor) that we hired him for the next few days as our private guide; at $25/day you can't go wrong.
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Fresh fruit on sale at the local market.
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Fresh meat stand.
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Travelling fruit seller.
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An old Yankee car and the 1853 bell tower of the Iglesla y Convento de San Farncisco.
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Not sure why this guy had a chook on his head ... but I took his pic none-the less (he didn't want any money!). Just one of many great characters in town.
Trinidad

From there we wandered the south coast, snorkelling on a few coral reefs (some of the best in the Caribbean) and enjoying the delights and history of the city of Trinidad, which had been founded in 1514 and declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

The cobblestone streets and pastel coloured old mansions make this city the most original in all of Cuba and we loved it and its people.  

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Inside some of the houses can be richly furnished and decorated.

Canchanchara is a Cuban cocktail recipe - with rum, of course!

We took the opportunity - any excuse - to have a La Canchanchara  - a drink that the slaves used to imbibe, along with the revolutionaries in Fidel's days. It's a mix of honey, water, lemon, ice and 'aguardiente' - which is a very RAW rum - you gotta stir the honey into it otherwise the rum is like rocket fuel!
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A young kid plays in the cooling rain on the old streets of Trinidad. We stayed in a 'casa particulares' in this street closeby.
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Typical old houses in Trinidad.
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A man and his donkey came to town.
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The cobblestone streets of Trinidad are just part of the history of this old city.
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Typical street scene.
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Viv enjoying the waters of Cayo Blanco.
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Local fishing boat.
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Back on the streets of Havana we took a horse & buggy trip through the back streets.
Back in Havana

Back in Havana we changed hotels to yet another grand old masterpiece opposite Parque Central, the Hotel Plaza, before visiting the Valle de Vinales and Cuba's most famous national park. The valley is also the source of some of the finest tobacco leaves used in the production of Cuban cigars. Like rum, cigars are the quintessential image of Cuba and when we got back to Havana we went in search of the country's finest. Once we found out the price we wandered the store crowded with cigars and memorabilia, looked, soaked in the ambience and smell of unburnt leaves ... and bought some lesser quality ones.  

But our time in this fascinating country was drawing to a close. Three weeks hadn't been long enough and as we headed for the airport our young taxi driver insisted we come back; we hope we will!     
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The skyline of Havana from our hotel 'Hotel Plaza', points to a rich past ... and hopefully a great future.
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A local farmer and his transport.
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The verdant Valle de Vinales is more than a national park.
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Some of the best tobacco leaves for fine cigars come from the Valle de Vinales.
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Mural de la Prehistoria is one of the highlights of the valley.
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he magic and mystic around cigars are taken to new levels in Cuba.
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Two different currencies operate in Cuba.
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A mojito and a coold beer - what a way to end a hot day.
Travel Planner

We flew from LA to Mexico City and then on to Havana. Flights from the east coast of the USA - Florida - are cheaper and now pretty regular. We also meet a lot of Canadians who told us about incredible cheap flights and accommodation packages from Canada to Cuba.

Cash in king in Cuba; especially the Euro, English pound or Canadian dollar, but US dollars are okay. Credit cards of any sort are NOT widely accepted in Cuba - be warned!

Confusing matters is that there are two official currencies circulating in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$ - 1:1 with the $US and for use by tourists), and Cuban pesos (moneda nacional, or 'MN' and used by the locals). Both are called 'Pesos' by the locals but when they are talking to a tourist they are talking in CUC$.

For accommodation, there are lots of hotels in Havana - check out some of the oldies - they have heaps of character and history. Elsewhere, 'casa particulares' are the way to go - they are very economical, and you get to meet the locals.

DO NOT expect too much Wi-Fi in Cuba. It's pretty much only available in the top end hotels.
Contacts & Information

Google 'Cuba' for a wide range of tour operators/commercial trips, but there doesn't seem to be a real government sponsored website.

DK Guides, 'Cuba', is a great place to start - see: https://www.dk.com/uk/cuba/

You could also have a look at the following websites:

Visit Cuba: Tourist Information

Cuba Travel:

Cuba Tourist Board UK: