April Sun In Cuba… Oh, oh, oh…

For anyone who doesn’t have a legendary kiwi song in their head right now, please click this YouTube link before reading on… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHFFuukk9Y8

We arrived in the Havana airport at the same time as several other planes. The customs process was very long, with many queues. However, at each point, when we finally reached the custom officer, we were dealt with much faster than others (perhaps due to our kiwi passports or maybe just our good looks). Once we had cleared customs, we had to get some CUC. We joined the long line for the money exchange, this we’d read could take over an hour, but within half an hour we had our Cuban cash and were riding in a taxi on our way to our airbnb. We were both impressed by the large number of classic cars driving on the roads. Our taxi driver said, “Cuba is like being in a real life museum,” which summed it up perfectly.

Our first accommodation in Cuba was a room in an apartment near old town. Our host spoke limited English, but we managed to communicate well enough. She made us a cooked breakfast for 5 CUC each and washed a load of clothes for us during our 3 day stay. It was a great location and we spent most of our time walking the streets and experiencing the Cuban culture. We spent the first evening walking the streets in Old Town and surrounding area, and of course snapping photos of the classic cars…

The following day we walked the Malecon, a 7km wall along the waterfront. There was lots of street art on display and more chances to appreciate the old buildings and cars that make Havana unique.

We then walked back via inner suburbia and city streets.

When we stopped for lunch in a café, we met a Canadian who was studying to become a doctor a Cuban university. He was really interesting to chat to and shared lots of insight into life in Cuba and the ongoing politics. During our city walks, one thing that did start to wear thin was being constantly asked “Where you from?” (not many knew where ‘Nueva Zelanda’ was). We were also told the sob story about their wife who was in hospital, too many times. Kadin’s evolving look definitely drew attention, he was offered more than once to visit the barber (there seemed to be a barber shop on every street), and others just smiled, pointed to his beard and said “Fidel Castro!” So, we had a bit of fun when visiting the Revolution Museum…

We also spent some time checking out the main centre of Havana…

On Sunday, we were picked up from our accommodation, by a guide and driver, in a white 1951 Plymouth. We had the car for our own private tour to our hotel in Varadero (Blau Hotel). Our English-speaking guide pointed out the many different buildings and landmarks along the way and shared general facts about Cuba. It was funny when we went to roll down our windows to find that the rollers had been replaced for electric – pretty advanced for the early fifties! The car also had a Hyundai motor …most of the classic cars around Havana look original on the outside but have had many alterations under the hood. Our first stop was at the tallest bridge in Cuba…

Further along we stopped at Matanzas. We visited the town square which was surrounded by beautifully restored buildings. The town had just celebrated its 325-year anniversary, so the buildings and town square had been renovated for the big event. Havana will celebrate it’s 500 year anniversary later this year (founded in November 1519).

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Mantanzas

Next, we stopped at a beach and went snorkelling (Whoops – we forgot our gopro …so no photos folks). It was compulsory to go with a guide and there were large groups of about 20. So, we joined a group and paddled out in the water. The visibility was amazing and there was lots of coral and tropical fish to see. Somehow, we ended up going around twice by joining onto another group. Once we had dried off, we got back into our car and continued on to Varadero and reached our Hotel in time for lunch.

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Arrived to Blau Hotel

As soon as we entered the lobby we were handed a glass of champagne each. We checked in, but our room wouldn’t be ready until 4pm. Because the Hotel was all inclusive (all meals, entertainment, drinks …everything!) we were given wrist bands to wear throughout our stay. We headed straight to the restaurant and helped ourselves to the buffet lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent poolside and on the beach with cocktails. Life continued this way for the next few days.

Our wrist bands ensured a hassle-free way of life, being able to eat, drink or do anything within the spacious hotel grounds. There were lots of activities throughout the day. We enjoyed archery, beach volleyball, bingo and various Blau games. The winners of each activity would receive a bottle of Havana Club rum …and the losers would continue to receive the free drinks and food. Kadin won a bottle of rum from a round of shuffle board. We were also entertained by pool ballet and several concerts. Blau Hotel, is also adult only which created a relaxing atmosphere and there was always plenty of space in the restaurants, bars, lounges and pool.  It was like being on a cruise ship on land.

On Wednesday, it was time to leave the resort life and head back to Havana. We hadn’t planned any return transport, so we just waited in the lobby until we found another couple checking-out. We ended up splitting a taxi fare which worked out well, although a bit squishy. For our second stay in Havana, we booked 4 nights in a self-contained apartment in Vedado. Again, we enjoyed more walks around the city, taking in the culture. We were quite close to the University of Havana and the Memorial of Jose Marti was 3km away, so we walked there and back.

We got to see a lot of interesting things on foot, however, we did have to keep refusing the taxi drivers that kept offering us lifts in their classic cars. One of the things we’d read about Cuba was to be weary of restaurants providing incorrect bills. We finally encountered this, twice, during this second visit. Both times, the bill had 10% service charge added at the bottom, and next to this the amount was much more than 10% …after pointing it out they fixed it without much of an apology. We enjoyed most of the food we ate in Cuba (even though the traditional cuisine lacks flavours or spice). The best thing we came across were these delicious home baked fruit pasties that a man walking up and down the streets was selling. We didn’t really know what they were when we bought one off him and he didn’t speak a lot of English. But after taking a bite he understood from our facial expressions that we needed to buy several more! In the evening we went for a stroll nearby our apartment and took more photos of the classic cars…

DSC_7479On Friday, we decided to pay for the hop-on-hop-off bus tour (10 CUC each) it took about an hour and a half to complete the full circuit and it was an escape from the heat being in the open air of the upper deck on the bus. The tour confirmed that we had seen most of the main attractions in Havana by foot. We went back to Old Town and walked the streets once again.

We also decided to pay for one of the classic car town tours, mainly for some photos with the car. We tried to explain to our driver that we just wanted to get some photos of his car with the old buildings in the background, but he mostly wanted to drive us around the city and point out all the buildings and tell us the history. His car was completely original (rare in Havana), a 1957 Chevrolet. Right at the end of our ‘tour’ it started to rain – so we got to help put the roof up.

For our last day in Cuba, we booked a full day trip to Vinales. We were picked up from our apartment at 7:30am, this time by a beautiful purply-blue 1952 Chervolet (this one had some updates since the revolution; a Suzuki engine and a much welcomed air conditioning unit installed inside). After collecting another couple (there were also 2 other Chevrolets in our convoy; 12 people total in our tour group), we travelled for about 2.5 hours before reaching Vinales Park. As we neared the countryside, we saw some unique views from the car window…

First, we had a quick stop at a lookout across the valley where our guide told us a bit about the history of the area and went over our activities for the day.

Next, we visited a cave that was once inhabited by the ‘Indians’ (Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba when trying to reach India). Inside the cave we went on a short boat ride, during the rainy season most of the cave fills up and it closes…

We then stopped for a buffet lunch in a local restaurant inside the village.

After lunch we headed to a tobacco farm. We went on a tour with the grower who taught us all the stages of the cigar making process. The tour concluded with a free cigar and rum tasting. We both don’t smoke but we gave it a try (When in Cuba…)

Just outside by the tobacco drying shed were enough horses for everyone in our group, all saddled up and ready for a ride around the ranch. There wasn’t really any instructions or guidance, no helmets provided …but luckily the horses seemed to know what they were doing. Occasionally, the two ranch hands that followed the group around the trek would call out some instructions and the horses seemed to know which path to take. All up, it only lasted about 30 minutes, but it was more than enough with the heat…

We left the ranch and drove to one of the world’s largest wall murals, painted on one of the rock faces depicting the evolution of life. The area was chosen because they had found many dinosaur fossils in the valley. We also enjoyed Cuba’s best piña colada while admiring the artwork (it was a pretty amazing drink, especially when we got to pour our own rum).

Feeling content, we got back into our cars and made the 2.5 hour return trip to Havana, making it back around 7pm. Ready for dinner, bed and our 5am wake up for the airport (Cuba to Canada – time for a climate shock; leaving 32 degrees and landing into 14 degrees).

Have fun at work!

Gemma

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