This post has been a long time coming. I know currently, thanks to the lifting of the embargo, American tourists are flocking Cuba and drinking it dry. We did that a little earlier than it became the new tourist hotspot. We were in Cuba last November for a weekend, and it was the most wonderful experience.
Travel is not for everyone. As Pico Iyer says, “all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” We need to take in all of the experience, all of it, the good, bad and the ugly, and file it away as a complex interaction. This article is an attempt to document a travel that was never on our cards, but just happened because we were in the right place at the right time. Here is to hoping this would help some of the readers to plan your trip to Cuba as well.
Ever since Cigar Aficionado came out with a Special Cuba issue in May/June 2015, and we moved to Cayman Islands shortly thereafter in July 2015, we were planning a visit to Cuba. Most travel guides seemed outdated, the few travel guides that came to the local bookshop sold out immediately, so the magazine became our main guide.
Few friends who were from Cuba gave us some basic tips:
- Credit Cards usually don’t work, so take enough cash for the entire trip, including hotels.
- Remember to take cash in Euros, because there is a 10% tax on US dollars (this, we believe, has been cancelled after Obama’s trip to Cuba).
- A travel agent will be able to book hotels, arrange transport to and from hotels and also book tours of Havana in classic American cars.
We spoke to the travel agent, but got no response. Just a week from our planned travel date, they called to say that all hotels were booked out for months and they couldn’t get anything. We checked the website of the Hotel Meliá Cohiba and they had a room available with a sea-view that would take two adults and two children. It wasn’t cheap, but we booked it anyway, because we had been bitten by the travel bug.
The situation for visas was not clear. We called everywhere, but there was no response. Finally, we just decided to brave it and go to the Owen Roberts airport in Grand Cayman. We had to buy visas for $25 each for each of us and one gets a small card on which we could write our name/passport number, nationality etc. It was quite easy, and we were on the short flight that would take us across to Cuba.
The airport was a blast from the past. Lot of airlines we had never seen before – Cubana Airways, LAN Air, something from Venezuela, Colombia etc. Immigration was easy enough, but it took over 2 hours for the luggage to arrive. The carousels had broken down, so porters were lifting luggage and placing it at strategic intervals on the non-moving carousel, so one had to walk around and pick the boxes. It took so long, and the kids were restive, so we were about to give up on the luggage when it finally arrived.
Once that was done, we exchanged some Euros for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). It trades 1:1 to the US dollars. Plenty of taxis were available and we got into a yellow taxi to go to the hotel. The cabbie pointed out various sights along the way – The Ministry of Interior- the famous building with a Che Guevera mural outside, the José Martí memorial, various revolutionary posters with Fidel, Raul and Hugo Chavez and the classic American cars from the 1950s and the Soviet Ladas on the streets.
Internet was a problem throughout our stay. We didn’t get a room on The Level at Meliá Cohiba, so we had to make do by buying access – 30 minutes for CUC 5. Most of the time, access was spotty, so we spent a lot of these 30 minutes trying to connect & disconnect. But we finally decided to not even try connecting, and just went with the flow, taking a lot of pictures but not posting/sharing much online.
What we ate:
Breakfast was usually a buffet at the hotel. Breakfast was at the hotel – a very nice spread with made-to-order omelets, lots of fresh fruits, including red guavas and mosambi – fruits tasted much better than in America. In comparison, the one dinner we ate at one of the hotel restaurants, Italian, was unremarkable.
We wanted to have an ice-cream, so we decided to go to Coppelia in Havana, the big ice-cream place. It came recommended by everyone. The taxi guy who took us decided to take many detours to show us the Indian embassy in Cuba – an unassuming pink building and finally got us to Coppelia and refused our fare- because very few tourists came from India. We had to press 15 CUC into his hand and plead with him to take it.
Coppelia was a bit of a disappointment as we were hoping to join the crowds eating ice-cream, but our sunglasses, cameras and accents marked us out as American tourists and we were directed to a small air-conditioned room for tourists only, where we were served ice-cream. The ice-creams were like the old Indian ones, not churned well, so quite inconsistent and grainy, with similar flavors. I loved it, made me very nostalgic, as did my husband. Kids, now used to gelatos and creamy stuff in Europe, didn’t like them much. It was wonderful being able to speak Spanish, we learned from the ice-cream guy that the toys the kids had bought at the hotel shop were actually the uniforms of elementary kids in Cuba – changing skirt and scarf colors as kids went to higher grades.
Our first Lunch in Cuba was at Santy Pescador, a small fish shack in Jaimanitas. We took a taxi out to Jaimanitas, which was a long distance away. The route took us through the Quinta Avenida, The 5th Avenue of Havana, with all its fancy (but crumbling) houses and embassies. Clearly a reference to New York’s 5th Avenue, we liked this more as it was tree-lined throughout. Close to Jaimanitas, we came across Marina Hemingway and a hotel called “El Viejo y el Mar” – The Old Man and the sea- the first of many Hemingway references we will spot in Havana.
Santy Pescador was nearly impossible to find, but for our resourceful taxi guy who had brought other guests here earlier. We had to ring a bell at a shack without any signage and were let into a small restaurant. There was no menu, so we ordered the fatty tuna sashimi – very fresh, but cut haphazardly, not the fine sashimi cuts. The Sushi was very good too – mostly different kinds of tuna but also very fresh. The kids and the cabbie had the Emperador a la Plancha – Grilled Swordfish. A group of Japanese tourists found the restaurant as well, giving it some authenticity.
The waitresses at Santy were very excited by our copy of Cigar Aficionado, and it made many trips to the Kitchen. Finally they requested us if they could copy the page on which their restaurant was recommended, and thinking it will be impossible to find a copier in Jaimanitas, we simply ripped off the page and gave it to them and they were delighted.
The hotel had booked us for lunch at La Guarida, called Cuba’s best restaurant. We went to a place close to Old Havana but in Central Havana in an old building with a few seedy looking characters hanging around outside. We climbed up three floors with a lot of graffiti on the walls, and finally came to the restaurant. The restaurant is famous for the film, “Fresa y Chocolate” which was set in the same house.
Food was really wonderful. Excellent Margarita & Cuba Libre, Smoked Blue Marlin Tacos (tastes like tuna, but with much more flavor), Papaya Lasagna, Grilled Lobster and Tuna with sugarcane glaze. Kids had swordfish with vegetables. The restaurant itself looked lovely with Ochre walls, lots of paintings, statues of Christ, and a very windy balcony which they decided to close on a rainy day. The wine list was wonderful, and this was the only place we saw a Vega Sicilia Unico, but for an exorbitant CUC 350 a bottle. We loved the food, and as we walked down the stairs, we found a photo shoot in progress, may be for a movie. We got back to the hotel in a taxi, along a rain-swept Malecón.
What we saw:
From our hotel, Melia Cohiba, we wandered off to the nearby hotels – the NH Capri and the Hotel Nacional. Hotel Nacional is the government run hotel in a gorgeous palace like building.
From here we walked to a roadside market selling toys made of wood, where we were saw crocodiles, drums, almost anything for CUC 1-3. As we prepared to leave, various shopkeepers made offers we couldn’t refuse and we ended up with many keychains, drums & crocodiles. Later we learned that the average salary was less than 10 CUC a month in the non-convertible currency and many Cubans rarely get to see tourists, so anything we bought was a bonus for them. It really helped that we could speak the language, everyone here spoke only Spanish.
Easy and cheap travel option was a Coco Taxi (like an auto-rickshaw), at least to Old Havana and Malecon. The kids loved the breeze from the sea on the open-air Coco Taxi and later made demands to travel only by Coco Taxis everywhere.
On the way back from Jaimanitas, we got the cabbie to stop at a wonderful grove of banyan trees in Miramar, and got many photographs with the girls. Right in the middle of Havana, this was a place where it looked as if time had stopped. There were a few Cuban families having a picnic nearby, it was absolutely quiet except for the children running around and chasing squirrels and stray cats.
We went to the the Iglesia de Jesus in Miramar- the second largest church in Cuba.
On the second day evening, we took a bus provided by the hotel to go to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The driver recommended that the best way to see Old Havana with kids was to take guided tour in a horse drawn carriage, which will show us the Plazas and the main sights, and would drop us back to the bus stop, where we could come back to the hotel again. The price was 40 CUC for the horse carriage and the guide. We agreed and set off.
We saw the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) built by the Spanish colonizers in 1558. This was a proper castle with a moat and currently functions as a maritime museum.
From here, we went to the La Catedral de San Cristobal or La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (Cathedral of St. Cristobal or Cathedral of Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception of Havana). This is the Church visited by the Obamas on their visit to Cuba. The guide pointed out the different bell towers, but they were all closed that evening.
From here, we went to El Templete (The Temple) with a sacred La Ceiba tree, sacred to the Yoruba religion. The Santeria religion of Cuba is derived from Yoruba. On the anniversary of the day La Habana was founded (November 16, 1519), everyone stands in a queue to go around the tree thrice and try and put their arms around the tree and put a coin at the roots of the tree. This had happened just the week before when we visited.
Then we saw the lovely Plaza de las Armas with bookstores, shops selling vintage watches, cameras etc. S. bought a Collected Poems of César Vallejo and a book for Children by José Martí.
Somewhere here, we got cheated buying fake cigars, but more on that later.
Now it was getting dark, so we saw a few more sights – the Plaza San Francisco, where Mother Teresa visited a church and there Is a plaque in her honor. The Conversation, a statue by Etienne. Kids got a couple of balloons. We then drove past the Hotel Inglaterra and The Capitol, which is a replica of the US Capital in DC, the Museo de Revolucion and the Granma Memorial which has a replica of the yacht that took Castro and the revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1959. But we were tired, and it was dark, and we were glad to be back at the bus stop.
As the bus seemed to have left already, we came back to the hotel in a Chevrolet 1959, restored wonderfully, for all of 7 CUC.
The Cigar Con
Possibly somewhere here, our guide saw the money S. was carrying in his wallet and decided to con us out of it. As I was explaining the sights to the girls, he was giving S. the usual Confidence trickster spiel: That he knew people at the Cohiba Factory, who were able to make some cigars for themselves at home and that these were sold at a fraction of the price of the real thing etc. If I had known, I would have told S. to tell him off, but I didn’t even hear all this sales pitch.
Then we got to the Bar Dos Hermanos, where we ordered some Mojitos. S. suddenly disappeared with the guide. The Mojitos, supposedly the best in Havana were bad – too strong. The kids were given some milkshake which wasn’t too good either. Finally after a good 15 minutes, S. came back sheepishly with a bag in hand and tried to drink the Mojitos too quickly. As I gave him stare for leaving me alone with the kids in a bar, he told me the story.
He had gone to a small house- reminded him of houses back in India – one room. The guide’s friend had picked up a cardboard box full of cigars – Romeo y Julietas, Partagas, Cohiba Esplendidos. He said it looked genuine, and he bought a 25 pack Esplendidos for EUR 180 (Normally EUR 525). But you don’t smoke, I said. He said, that is true, just thought it will be a good idea to buy some cigars in Cuba. The guide came back, took S.’s box from him, promising to get his money back or something better. S. says this is the time he switched it to a fake box, complete with fake cigars, made with just tobacco shavings. I am sure the previous box was not too honest either.
3 days later, it was a rainy morning, and our bags were packed. We saw huge waves crashing on the Malecón wall – full moon was close. We got into a taxi with an unhappy driver, who didn’t speak much and managed to drop us off at the wrong terminal – the domestic terminal which had only Cubana Airways flights and flights to the US, so we had to persuade someone in the taxi rank to take us to the correct terminal for 20 CUC. Check-in was very easy and the guy at the counter spoke warmly about India and the Salman Khan film that was shot in Havana (Ek Tha Tiger). Salman Khan became so popular that a local Cuban brand used him in ads for some time.
The Airport had duty-free stores, for mainly Cuban rum and more Cigars. Finally we said goodbye to Havana and the plane took off in the rain.
- Hotel Meliá website: http://www.melia.com/
- Restaurant La Guarida: http://www.laguarida.com/en/
- Good Guide to Hotels in Havana: http://www.lahabana.com/guide/havana-guide-home/accommodations/
- Restaurants in Havana: http://www.lahabana.com/guide/havana-guide-home/restaurants/
- NY Times articles talks of International airport with only two luggage carousels causing five hour delays:
- Long article in NYT, where author buys fake cigars like S., but ends up liking them: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/travel/cuban-cigars.html
- Buying Cuban Cigars in Havana: http://www.cigaraficionado.com/webfeatures/show/id/buying-cuban-cigars-in-havana-18115
- Cuba First time: La Times on Cuba: http://graphics.latimes.com/cuba-first-time/