After a few days in chaotic Havana (read here – Part I – Havana), we collected our rental car and headed into the interior. We planned to drive West to the town of Viñales, within the Viñales valley before heading to the 16th century town of Trinidad, and the beaches of Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero.
Driving in Cuba – words of warning
In the UK, as we shopped around on the internet for the best rental car deal, we were surprised to find that each website led to Havanautos or Cubacars. These are the national rental car companies, so shopping around is in fact a waste of time, at least as regards price since tariffs are fixed by the government (the same goes for purchasing rum and cigars).
Our car was hired from England, and was an economy model. It cost around £60 per day for a battered old cobalt blue Hyundai 2 door hatchback, with an unpleasantly sticky steering wheel and badly worn tyres.
The UK Consulate in Cuba informed us that satellite navigation systems are forbidden, and would be confiscated if brought into the country. Given that there are almost no road signs, no road markings, and no street lighting, and indeed many cars and bicycles have no functioning lights, driving (especially at night) is frustrating and often dangerous. Making matters worse, since so few Cubans have cars, the custom of hitch-hiking is endemic – this is fine as long as you are prepared for it, but we only found out when people starting throwing themselves in front of our car on the motorway!
We got lost on every journey we took, and spent a great deal of time asking for directions. Fortunately, the Cubans we met were very friendly and helpful, and obviously well used to this sort of thing. For two of our most difficult journeys (from Viñales to Trinidad, and from Havana to the airport) we were fortunate enough to spot buses or taxis going in the same direction, and followed them.
Viñales village is quaint, small and quiet. It is the best base to explore the beautiful valley of Viñales, where bizarre hills, formed by erosion during the Jurassic period, are found. The scenery is beautiful, and it is a great place for trekking, horse riding and relaxation.
Evenings are rather quiet in Viñales. There are a couple of unexciting bars and restaurants on the main village road which close early. There is not much else to do in Viñales once it goes dark. All restaurants and bars in Cuba (unless they are in people’s homes) are owned by the estate so they do not tend to stay opened until late.
Dr G and I stayed at another Casa Particular (Villa Isabelita) which was recommended to us by Yamir from our home-stay in Havana. Recommendations are common among Casas Particulares and as I understand a small commission is normally levied on your rate for the referral. To make sure you are not charged some exorbitant fee, ask how much your next Casa Particular will cost you when a recommendation is made and before they book. I was happy to accept this as I felt I would rather go somewhere recommended to me from someone I had stayed with and could rely than turning up at another home completely unannounced.
Owned by Señora Isabel, our home-stay in Viñales turned out to be one of the best Casa Particulares that we experienced in Cuba (€25 for the room, breakfast incl.). It was a lovely home, very clean and well decorated, but best of all, the hostess proved to be an excellent cook! Señora Isabel shared her home with her daughter Yarelis (a Paediatrician), her son-in-law and two teenage grandchildren. Dr G was intrigued to meet a fellow medic in Cuba, and we were able to talk to her and most of the other members of the family during our stay.
We had dinner at Villa Isabelita on our both evenings there for about €10 per person – she cooked us a homely spread which tasted delicious. It reminded me of the style of cooking I grew up eating in Brazil – rice, beans in a rich meaty sauce, fried pork steaks, soft cassava, fried malanga (a native yam), salad and fresh fruit. For a little extra, she also made us Lobster in Cuban Criolla style, in a rich sauce made of paprika, cumin and tomatoes- it was divine. Breakfast was also excellent with fresh fruit, coffee, bread, fried eggs and ham and cheese sandwiches.
The other meals that we had in the local restaurants were extremely disappointing, as was the visit to the town’s La Ermita Hotel. The Hotel has panoramic views of the local valleys, a swimming pool (our main reason for being there), a restaurant and bar, and tennis courts. The grounds looked uncared for and neglected, which gave the whole place a very tired feel.
Our next stop was Trinidad, a beautifully restored 16th century colonial town in Central Cuba. It is a very charming UNESCO World Heritage site with cobbled, traffic-free streets, centuries-old mansions in attractive pastel colours and red-tiled roof tops.
Our recommended Casa Particular was unfortunately fully booked when we arrived, but finding another was no problem as there are hundreds of home-stays all over town (Casas Particulares have a blue symbol similar to an anchor on their doors, so it is easy to spot them).
In Trinidad, I would recommend finding one as close to the historic centre as possible as it is the prettiest area as well as being the area with the greatest concentration of restaurants and bars.
We stayed in Casa Margely (€25 per night including breakfast), a very old house from 1796. It had an elegant feel about it with old fashioned furniture and beautiful, lush garden and trees. The room was very large and comfortable although Dr G and I noticed a smell of drains coming from the bathroom which grew more powerful as the night wore on! I would not recommend dining at Casa Margely.
Casa Margely, Piro Guinart (Boca), 360A e/Fdo, Hdéz, Echerri y Juan Márquez, Trinidad. Phone 53 (01-41) 996525.
In our first night at Trinidad, we went to “Paladar Estela” (Calle Simon Bolivar no. 557), the town’s most celebrated supper club at an elegant colonial house in the historic centre. Sitting is in the beautiful garden and is quite atmospheric.
The food was simple but rather good. I had “Ropa Vieja”, a Cuban dish made of slow cooked, pulled lamb with peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic while Dr G opted for fried pork steaks. The meat was served with salad and white rice and cost around €10 per person. We were tempted to try one of the Spanish wines on the menu at €15, it tasted of stewed fruit and was completely undrinkable. The place was busy and service was very friendly – it was a lovely experience despite the simplicity of the food.
We stopped at Remedios the night before we checked into Cayo Santa Maria. The town is only a few miles from the newly-developed beach resort, but could be on another planet, with its 19th century layout, pavements three feet above street level to allow for an elegant descent from a horse-drawn carriage, and early Victorian villas.
We stayed at a very charming Casa Particular, the Hostal Los Vitrales, owned by a husband and wife team, who were very friendly and helpful.
Their house is a very elegant mid-19th century villa, with it’s guest rooms mingling with family bedrooms set around an open courtyard.
The owners, Lourdes and Miguel, were very kind and helpful, and spent a whole evening talking to us after serving dinner. They explained life in Cuba in great detail, and were willing to answer all our questions about the system there.
The town is somewhat peculiar – it apparently has the oldest bar in Cuba, and its main square would not look out of place in a cowboy movie, yet the same square shakes to its foundations nightly, when its nightclubs pump up the volume.
Hostal Los Vitrales (€25 per night including breakfast), Brigadier González No. 12, E/Alejandro del Rio y Pi y Margall Remedios, Villa Clara. (€25 Euros including breakfast). E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cayo Santa Maria (Island)
The next morning, fancying a few days of all-inclusive resort luxury, we set off early to drive to Cayo Santa Maria. This journey requires you to leave the mainland via a check-point where you have to show your passport and pay a small fee. The drive along the 35 mile causeway is spectacular, passing through mangroves and around 50 small bridges.
Eventually we pitched up at our resort hotel, and checked in. It was pouring with rain that day, so the beach and pools were empty, and the lobby was packed with the nearly 3,000 guests staying there – not a good first impression! Around half of the hotel guests during our stay were Canadians.
The hotel was pleasant enough, although the Cuban idea of luxury is not quite the same as you might be used to if you don’t generally stay in communist countries. Dr G and I had never stayed in an all-inclusive hotel before, and the option to have as many Mojitos as you can drink while at the beach or poolside was quite attractive. We relaxed a good deal and read quite a few books.
Sadly however, the food remained catastrophically bad on the whole, with the added twist of having to queue up for it in canteen-style dining rooms. We were led to believe that the evening restaurants with waiter service were better (you have to queue at the reception desk to reserve your place), but sadly the food was, if anything, even more lamentable than in the canteens.
The hotel, pool and restaurant staff were, however, extremely attentive and friendly. There is nothing on Cayo Santa Maria except for all-inclusive hotels for foreigners, many of whom fly directly into and out of the airport without ever setting foot on the main island of Cuba.
Melia Las Dunas, Cayo Santa Maria (around €200 per night for two people, all inclusive). Tel: 42-35 0100. www.solmeliacuba.com.
Finding ourselves torn between Cayo Santa Maria and Varadero, both of which are highly rated for the quality of their beaches, we hedged our bets and went to both of them. Varadero represents Cuban tourism at its most developed and is the package resort in Cuba.
Not far from Havana this is by far the most popular beach resort in the country. Dr G and I had our reservations about staying there but we were pleasantly surprised to see that unlike Cayo Santa Maria, Varadero was a proper town with real Cubans living in it, many shops, restaurants and bars, and more of a buzz. Because it is such a popular destination, the infra-structure is better there and also the choice of restaurants and accommodation is much more diverse to suit many budgets.
We stayed at the home of Señora Mercedes, recommended to us by another casa particular owner. It is illegal for foreigners to stay at Casas Particulares in Varadero, so I will not publish her address here. If anyone would like to stay with her, please contact me for details (€25 per night excluding breakfast).
Señora Mercedes’ casa particular was a stone’s throw from the beach where we spent 90% of our time during our three days in Varadero. The beach was beautiful – turquoise blue waters and white sand for miles on end. It was a fantastic way to chill out before our return via Havana to London.
Other Travel Snippets
There is virtually no internet connectivity in Cuba. We found a few Internet Cafes during our stay but these were extremely expensive and painfully slow (around £5 for 30 mins).
The Cuban cigar allowance is 50 per person. We bought our quota at Casa del Habano in Varadero. Cuban cigars are not cheap but they are around a third to half the price you would pay in England. Prices in Cuba are fixed by the government so unless you buy fakes (and there plenty of those around, be warned), there is no point in shopping around. During our stay we bought single cigars of many brands to work out which we liked best. We ended up buying a mixture of Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta.
Having wasted a day trying to find plasters and paracetamol, I would suggest you take a plentiful supply of pharmaceutical products. Foreigners have to purchase from a separate pharmacy of which there are very few, poorly stocked and very expensive.
Despite a few surprises along the way, we had a very good time in Cuba, enjoying talking and staying with the friendly locals, their fantastic music, Mojitos, and the stunning climate and beaches. I thought this was fascinating place to visit, and I would be very interested to hear about your experiences in Cuba.
Written by Luiz Hara. You can read more of his restaurant reviews and articles on food in London at The London Foodie.