Lainey Quinn began her global travels for The Travel Directory in the Cuban capital of Havana – and offers her Top Ten Tips for holidaying in this Caribbean island.
“Due to fog in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, your flight will be delayed by six hours.” Just what you want to hear while trying to depart from Dublin Airport on a trip of a lifetime! I was due to fly to Cuba on Friday morning at 5.30am but as a result of our transfer flight being so delayed, we had to stay overnight in an airport hotel in Amsterdam and wait until the next available flight to Havana the next day.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines really takes care of its customers and, much to our delight, we were treated to a luxurious hotel with all meals included. We were scheduled to fly to Havana the following morning, which thankfully went to plan and we arrived at our final destination on Saturday…the start of the adventure was finally beginning!
My first 48 hours in Havana was spent with my Dad and sister and we instantly fell in love with the vibrant and colourful city with equally vibrant people despite the undeniable poverty that is clearly present. The devastation that Hurricane Irma left in Cuba can still be seen, especially along the rubble-lined Malecón Boardwalk where cafes and restaurants that once thrived are now left empty and abandoned.
Residents of huge apartment blocks that were completely destroyed sit outside on the pavement shadowed by their washed-out homes with no electricity or running water, yet they still had smiles on their faces and greeted us with a friendly “Ola!”. The positivity radiating from the locals in Havana is palpable and contagious. I asked myself many times how are these people still so happy and friendly towards tourists despite their hardships? It was eye-opening and really made me appreciate the luxuries I have back home.
Prior to arriving in Havana, we decided that in order to experience Cuba properly, the best choice of accommodation was a casa particular, which is a homestay b&b in which the owners of the house still live. We stayed in a beautiful casa belonging to a Cuban couple in their 60s on Plaza de Revolucion in the quiet neighbourhood of Vedado. They were extremely kind to us and didn’t hesitate in helping us to plan our itinerary in Havana.
For our first day, they organised a guided tour with a friend of theirs, Pepe, who was a taxi driver, a beacon of knowledge and who spoke perfect English. He drove us around the entire city in his vintage American car and brought us to the most poignant sights such as Che Guevara’s home (the famous Cuban freedom fighter), El Cristo de La Habana, Central Park and El Floridita Bar, where Ernest Hemingway wrote some his most famous works and helped invent the daiquiri cocktail.
That night, we went to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a magnificent building oozing with grandeur that was perched on top of a hill overlooking Havana surrounded by pretty gardens and charming water fountains. The sheer size of the hotel with its neo-classical and neo-colonial architecture took my breath away, as did the mojitos, live salsa music and dancing. Our casa hosts, Tony and Marie, told us about the history of Hotel Nacional the next day and how it was once used as a venue for major Mafia gatherings in the 1940s, which was later depicted in The Godfather Part II. Famous figures such as Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Sinatra have also stayed in the hotel in more recent years.
The day tour was a fascinating whirlwind guide to Havana that gave us a good idea of where we wanted to explore on our own the next day. We wandered the streets around Old Havana and Central Park and visited the Museo de la Revolución, which was once the Presidential Palace for a string of Cuban presidents, with the last being the overthrown Fulgencio Batista. To finish off our Havana experience, we topped up our tans on Santa Maria Beach and re-visited El Floridita Bar to taste Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, which was sublime!
During our time in Havana, we talked to many locals and soaked up the history, culture and stories that many were happy to share with us. Although not many speak English in Cuba (Spanish is the main language spoken), we managed to communicate with a mixture of both languages and charades.
Our next move will take us to the cobbled streets and small city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is steeped in history and whose colonial appearance hasn’t changed since the War of Independence.
Lainey’s Top Ten Tips for a Holiday in Cuba
- Spanish is the main language spoken and the language barrier can be difficult to overcome. Bring a phrase book to make your life easier or, alternatively, brush up on your charade skills!
- Only use Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) not the Cuban peso (CUP). Check your change when you buy something and make sure you are getting the right currency back.
- Buy wi-fI cards from an ETECSA telecommunication centre and head to a public park for the best connection – just look for a group of people on their phones and that’s where the best signal is.
- Don’t be afraid to barter with taxi drivers. If you don’t, you will get ripped off, big time!
- If you are staying in a casa, ask your hosts to help arrange excursions and other casas you would like to stay in. The casas are all very well connected and seem to know each other all around Cuba and the hosts are more than happy to help/make phone calls for you.
- Museums are closed on Sundays and Mondays so plan your itineraries around those days.
- Service charges are included in restaurant bills but it is nice to tip your waiter a CUC or two.
- Mosquitos are like owls in Cuba, they make an appearance at night-time. Don’t wake up with 100 bites in the morning, cover yourself in fly spray before you go to sleep!
- Don’t buy cigars off the streets, only in the tobacco shops.
- Inform your bank of your travel plans prior to arriving in Cuba or your card could potentially get blocked.
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