We didn't have much time to spare, but the lure of Cuba was too much to resist. Was it worth going all that way for a week? Yes it was, as we took in the highlights of Trinidad, Santa Clara and Havana
Arriving in Havana on a Saturday evening, we hopped straight in a taxi - and the sightseeing commenced almost immediately, as en route to our hotel we saw the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Plaza de la Revolución, El Capitolio, Ballet Nacional and Gran Teatro. In fact, the hotel, the Park View (£52 per night), was only a five-minute walk from Parque Central, home to the latter three of these sights, and a few hundred metres from the Granma Memorial.
The room was clean and well presented, and it was straight to bed for us after the long flight. The presence of a Canadian school party on our floor didn't go unnoticed during the night, but aside from the footsteps and door-slamming, a good night’s sleep was had. Breakfast at the hotel was great - a self-service buffet served in an upstairs dining room with a fab view out over the coastline.
On to Trinidad
Most of our first morning was spent at the Viazul bus station, trying to organise the next few days in Trinidad (this is better done beforehand on the internet, but must be done more than 72 hours before departure). On arrival in Trinidad, we were met from the bus by the owner of the casa particular where we were to stay. You don’t find hostels in Cuba; instead it is common to stay with a family, in their spare room. These houses have a limit on what they can charge, so wherever you are in the country, a night in a casa should cost you approximately £15 for a twin or double room. Breakfast and dinner are optional and cost extra. As we discovered, the quality of the casas varies enormously, so it’s probably best to go with recommendations from friends and other travellers wherever possible.
Two nights in Trinidad was certainly enough to do all the town itself had to offer. We visited the Museo Historico Municipal, which was worth a look, especially for its rooftop view of the old colonial streets and tiled roofs; it only costs a few convertible pesos to get in. Also worth visiting was the free Art Gallery on the Plaza Mayor. The museum on the square was less inspiring, containing objects you’ve probably already seen around town (although the drainpipe shaped like a crocodile was a highlight).
The relaxed pace of the town itself means wandering the streets in the sunshine is a great way to enjoy the colonial architecture and soak up the atmosphere. An evening in Trinidad should be spent enjoying the music and cocktails at the Casa de la Música, just off Plaza Mayor - follow the steps up beside the church.
The beautiful nearby Playa Ancón is worth at least a half-day visit, and can be reached by bike or taxi (10 CUC each way; about £6). There are hotels here, too, if you fancy a longer stay at the beach. A slightly longer stay would have enabled us to take a day trip to the World Heritage Site Valle de los Ingenios, to see the old sugar plantation on horseback.
Next stop: Santa Clara
After travelling by bus to Santa Clara, we were met by our next host, Luis, who drove us back to Familia Sarmiento. We now learned how varied casas particulares can be, with this one 10 times cleaner, friendlier and more comfortable than the place in Trinidad. Dinner was served on the roof terrace, where we admired the view and the pot plants! Not only were the family great hosts – answering all our questions, giving us tips on what to see, and helping us arrange our onward journey – but the location was ideal, just a couple of hundred metres from Parque Vidal, the town centre.
Santa Clara is much bigger than Trinidad, and for this reason it feels as if there is much more to see and do. However, as seemed to be the case in Cuba, seeing the sights never takes as long as you expect.
First stop in Santa Clara was, of course, El Monumento del Che, which we reached via biki-taxi from the main square (5 CUC; remember to agree a pick-up time). The monument itself is vast and impressive. Inside, the museum (small entrance fee) is a must for anyone remotely interested in the revolution. Probably the most memorable, and surreal, exhibits are the cartoons Che drew as a child. After the museum, you can enter the memorial itself, which houses the ashes of Che and around 38 other revolutionaries.
We weren’t able to take a tour of the other Cuban must – the Cigar Factory - as we were too late to secure tickets (it's best to drop in first thing to book). So instead we visited the shop and asked lots of questions there. A 10-minute walk took us to the site of the Tren Blindado hijack, where Guevara and his men derailed a train full of Batista's troops and weapons in 1958. The exhibits were quite interesting, if a little tenuous at times. Back in the Parque Vidal, we visited the Museo de Bellas Artes before returning to the casa for dinner.
There are few things Cubans like as much as baseball, so we walked to the stadium for the regional match between Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. Despite not really knowing the rules, it was exciting to watch and invigorating to be in the crowd, cheering with the locals. Unfortunately, Santa Clara didn’t win, but with the rum flowing in the stands, no one seemed to mind that much.
Back to Havana
Heading back to Havana for the last few days, we stayed at another casa particular, Chez Nous, just 100 metres from the Plaza Vieja. This being our first visit to Habana Vieja, the Old Town, we couldn’t quite believe our eyes! We’d heard this area of the city had been restored, but we couldn’t help feeling we were in a Disney version of Havana. The pristine paintwork, immaculate litter-free streets and glossy cafés and restaurants were beautiful, but a far cry from the city a few streets away, where on average eight buildings fall down every day. We really enjoyed visiting the Old Town, and it is lovely, but we were very glad we’d seen other parts of the city, and country, before this (unlike many of the package tourists, who are bussed in from Varadero and other resorts, and only get to see this area of the city).
We did a pretty comprehensive tour of the Old Town’s sights, including: the chocolate museum (highly recommended if you’re in need of an energy boost); Plaza Vieja tower (2 CUC; it has a great view across the city from the roof, where you can also visit the camera obscura); Plaza de Armas; Casa de la Ciudad (well worth a look for the colonial artefacts and beautiful courtyard). Other options include Africa House (containing items Fidel Castro brought back from visits to that continent, as well as an interesting display on Santeria) and the newfangled rum museum (7 CUC), with models and recreations explaining the rum-making process. We took a quick look around the car museum, too, but saw more impressive vehicles out on the roads themselves.
Unmissable is the Museo de la Revolución, housed in the beautiful old presidential palace. Make this your first museum of the day because there’s lots of information to take in. Outside is the Granma Memorial, containing the yacht Granma (in which the leaders of the Cuban Revolution returned from Mexico to Cuba in 1956) and various other vehicles used during the revolution.
Unable to get tickets for the Gran Teatro, we paid to look around the spectacular El Capitolio. Then, to rest our weary legs, we bought a day’s ticket for the open-top tour buses (5 CUC), and definitely got our money’s worth, riding each route. First we visited the Plaza de la Revolución (impressive in scale but not picturesque). Next we rode to Hemingway Marina, where nothing was open and not a soul was to be seen - a half-hour stop was more than enough. Finally, we headed east to the beaches and spent the afternoon relaxing there. Although we didn’t manage to find the house where they cook your pizza on the roof and lower it down to you in a basket, our last night in Cuba was spent eating peso pizza and drinking caipiriñas while listening to live music. Ideal.