Havana – ooh na na
With the sound of the Camila Cabello’s HAVANA ringing in our ears in the summer of 2017, we decided on Cuba as a destination for part of our next big trip! We had planned to visit Mexico in the New Year to see family, but wanted to include some other cultural experiences as we were in that part of the world. It wasn’t as easy to organise as I thought and I probably should have done a bit more research before committing to going, but hey, I love a good challenge, and that’s what I’m here for now, to pass this knowledge on to you!
As always, our main aim when planning these trips, is to do it as cheap as possible, but also with flexibility and ease in mind, as we have 2 children in tow. If we’d wanted to go straight to Cuba from the UK, that would have been fairly simple with a package deal sort of trip, but as we hate package deals and wanted to include Mexico in our trip, our cheapest option was to fly to and from the US. I found a great deal with Air New Zealand for a return to LA. From there, I found more flights to Cuba and then from Cuba to Mexico City, with an internal flight from Mexico City to Tijanua and overland back to LA. This was all fine, and a good deal for the 4 of us, but what I didn’t take into account was the additional cost of the visas required for entering Cuba from the US which came to another $400 which was a bit of a sting! Never mind, it was all worth it, our adventures were amazing and worth every penny!
At the time of travel, you were not allowed to travel as a tourist to Cuba from the USA. You have to fit into one of 12 categories for reasons for travel, and declare this on a form before leaving the country. This just seemed like a formality and we weren’t questioned or checked, the form was just handed to the airline staff when boarding the flight. The selection we chose which suited us best as a family, was ‘Support for the Cuban people’. We took along things like pens for the local children, and sanitary products, which are not easily obtained in Cuba. The Visa had to be purchased either in advance if you were resident in the US, or at the airport at time of check in. We found it hard to get definitive info on this before we got there, and as our flight was at 6am, we were slightly panicking that the visa office wouldn’t be open at 4am! It was, and all was completely fine! We flew with Alaska Airlines who I don’t think fly to Cuba any more, and I also believe other airlines have different Visa policies, so best to check with them before you travel.
So starting with our flight…this was the craziest flight we’ve ever been on…it was more like a coach load of teenagers on their first trip away from home! The flight was about 3/4 full, and due to weight and balance requirements, the Captain asked for a few people’s seats to be moved for take off and landing. You’d think this would be a fairly simple procedure, but it seems not…people moved, then moved back, then moved bags, etc etc and it took forever to get people to do what they were asked! After take off, about 75% of the passengers got up and we’re wandering around the plane…standing in aisles, chatting very loudly…it was like a party plane…for the whole 5 hour flight! It certainly made for an interesting start to the trip.
After a very early start and a crazy flight, the kids were pretty exhausted by the time we arrived in Havana and weren’t perhaps in the most cooperative mood when it came to going through immigration control. Thankfully there wasn’t a queue, but you are only allowed in the cubicle to be interviewed, one adult at a time. I went first with both kids and then in broken Spanish tried to communicate with the immigration officer. At this point Osito decided he wasn’t going to cooperate and sat on the floor out of sight as they were trying to identify him! Thankfully the lady was understanding, but I was sweating it a bit! Through to the tiny baggage hall and my first experience with Cuban toilets…more on that later!
Before we left the UK I had booked to stay with a couple called Bertha and Fidel in their Casa Partcular (similar to a B&B in the UK) I used a website called Homestay and had lots of helpful, chatty, email contact with Bertha in the previous weeks, making me feel like were were going to be in good hands when we arrived. We were met by Fidel, a lovely Cuban man who led us to his 1970’s pimped up Lada. The journey from the airport was about 30 minutes and filled with broken conversation with Fidel and the stench of raw fuel! We later found out he had a problem with his carburetor, but to be honest, we thought we were going to pass out from the fumes, they were so strong! We also had to throw all of our usual safety concerns out of the window as there were no seatbelts, let alone kids car seats! I sat holding the kids for dear life as we journeyed through the centre of Havana on our way to their house in the East of the City.
When we arrived, we were met by the wonderfully full of life, Bertha who instantly made us feel welcome. The accommodation was great, we had a separate room for Biz and I and the kids had a sofa bed in the living area. The temperature was warm but not uncomfortable, and there were ceiling fans and aircon when we needed them. Bertha and Fidel lived out the back through a door to their kitchen and provided us with lovely meals. If you plan to visit Havana, check them out for somewhere to stay. https://www.homestay.com/cuba/havana/61332-homestay-in-antonio-guiteras-habana-del-este-havana
This photo may show Pebble looking a little unimpressed, but they really did do everything to try and cater for their fussy tastes🤨 I had mentioned before we arrived about Osito’s gluten intolerance and they kept showing us that they had gluten free ham, and gluten free turkey etc unfortunately whilst offering regular bread. 😊 Not sure they completely understood it, but they did try and we didn’t have the heart to say anything! Besides, the fried plantain was amazing!
We spent the next few days exploring Havana Viejo, the iconic, old part of the city with its charming yet delapidated style.
Fidel offered his services as our taxi driver and dropped us at a large play park on our first day. We wanted to start the day with something for the kids and this seemed the perfect place to start. Before I go on…a bit about the Cuban currencies as its a little confusing. There are 2 currencies in Cuba, the CUC which is the tourist currency, and the CUP which is the local currency. At the time of our visit the CUC was worth approx $1 USD and the CUP was 1/25th of that (25 CUP’s to 1 CUC) We were told just to get CUC’s but it turned out we also needed some CUP’s…this we discovered at the playground, which you had to pay for in CUP’s. We managed to get by with spending way more than required in CUC’s but later went to change up some money into CUP aswell. We only changed $20 and it was more than enough for our entire trip, but was very handy for parks, street food and toilets! The kids loved this play area, and we ended up back there a couple of times!
Oh yes, the toilets…! Wherever you choose to use the toilet, you will find an attendant sitting outside giving out tissue and collecting money. The standards of toilets varied quiet dramatically, but usually you were offered 1 or 2 squares of paper at best, so whatever you do, make sure you bring some with you. Money is tight in Cuba, and a lot of things we take for granted just don’t exist, or are not to the same standards as we would expect in the UK. We met some lovely attendants whilst waiting in queues and I always made sure I tipped more than required if the facilities were half decent. There were some exceptions of course, the main one that springs to mind was in the Viazul bus terminal, where I did object slightly to paying for using toilets with no seats, no tissue and more shockingly no doors! That was interesting in a packed terminal🤣 There was not always soap or running water either so hand wipes and antibac are also must have items.
I digressed…anyway…after the park we wandered into the old town, enjoying all the new sights and sounds and turning down offers of classic car taxi rides or horse and cart rides, wanting to take the sights in at our pace and walk the less trodden routes. The kids both felt instantly at home and although Cuban Spanish is a bit different to what they’re used to, they are both familiar with the language now, which I think helped a lot.
It was soon time for lunch and we were approached by friendly restaurant workers on the streets, tempting us inside. We settled on a quiet little restaurant on a side street and were led through to a small courtyard where a fantastic Cuban band played in the corner while we ate. The food was fairly typical of what we were to experience throughout our Cuban trip, plain chicken and rice with beans on the side. It was tasty but for some reason the kids were having none of it, so we ended up finding a pizzeria pretty much straight after to satisfy the kids. They were happy with a margarita and we had a nice tiramisu for our dessert! We took our leftover pizza with us as we wandered towards the old square, getting caught up in a brightly coloured musical parade along the way! It was so much fun to be part of, as we danced along behind them!
We followed the parade to the Plaza Vieja where we grabbed a delicious ice cream in a coconut shell from a recommended street vendor and sat with our pizza box by our side, on the steps surroundings the square. As soon as we had sat down we were approached by a gentleman asking for money, we offered him our pizza instead, which he took begrudgingly and staggered off! I think he wanted a meat feast?! 🙄
There was plenty of street art to attract attention, and lots of bronze sculptures taking up residency in the little parks dotted around the city. WiFi is not as easily accessible as in other countries and is heavily restricted, so there are dedicated WiFi areas where people gather to get online.
We visited the Cámera Oscura one day, which was fascinating and well worth a visit. After taking a very rickety lift to the top of a beautiful early 20th century building, we were overlooking the Plaza Vieja with amazing views all over the city. We were then called in to a dark room for a presentation, where we crowded around a large, raised white dish, awaiting the show! The Cámara Oscura was invented by Leonardo da Vinci and this one is the only one in Latin America. Using a series of mirrors and a pinhole camera, it projects 360° real time images of Havana onto a concave dish. Using a series of levers and pulleys, the guide expertly switched the views and magnified the images up to 30x, giving great detail of what’s going on around! He gave us the great advice of not picking our noses in the plaza below as the next tour group could have a close up view of it!!
As was expected there was music everywhere, funky Cuban beats filled the air! Most restaurants had a resident band playing, creating a fantastic, vibrant atmosphere. Outside one particular restaurant we noticed a very well dressed Cuban man, sitting on a step, cigar in mouth and a crumpled copy of National Geographic in his hand…on closer inspection we realised that he was on the cover, and was offering photos of himself, for a fee! We then noticed him most days, watching as he made his living from his fame!
The star shaped fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza at Plaza de Armas now houses the maritime museum, and was fun to visit. It’s only cost a couple of CUC to enter and the architecture was fascinating. Lots of dark little rooms to explore, with old weapons, armour and salvaged treasures. There are lots of guides on hand to help, and one lovely lady obviously thought I was a bit overweight as she kept insisting I was pregnant!🤣 She was very keen at offering to show us around areas of the museum that were out of bounds, for a small fee of course!
The museum features a huge four-metre model of the Santisima Trinidad, located on the main floor and the exhibit describes life aboard an 18th-century ship which we all found fascinating. Launched in 1760 into Havana Bay, it was the largest ship in the world in the 18th century, with 140 cannons on four gun decks. The top of the fort is a great place to see the views of the city and the harbour and the kids loved running about the health and safety free rooftop😂
We also discovered another great playground called Barbe Parque. It is a fantastic community project, designed by a famous barber called Papito, with play equipment created in the form of hairdressing objects. There are barber’s chairs at the back of the playground, where apprentice barbers offer hair cuts to local children whilst practicing their trade. The kids loved it here and spent ages playing with the local children and trying out various hairstyles!
We spent a wonderful hour or so waiting for our lift home one evening, people watching and taking in the atmosphere…we sat perched on the wall surrounding a monument of some sort, chatting to local children who came up to us, finding common ground in Batman! One young boy had a Batman toy and wanted to play with Osito, so he got out his drawing book and drew him a picture of Batman! Pebble quietly sketched the palm trees around the park. Unfortunately we were moved on by a security guard soon after, but found another spot near by until Fidel arrived.
We spent an afternoon visiting a couple of other museums too.
The Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Cuba, was a great place to spend a couple of hours, it’s not the biggest, but what they had held the kids interest, and I think they even learnt a thing or two🤣 They have exhibitions on animals from around the world, Space and the origins of life on Earth amongst other things. It only costs 3 CUC for adults and free for under 12’s so worth a visit.
The other museum we visited was the Museo national de Bellas Artes de Cuba. Unfortunately we didn’t have very long here as we arrived near closing time, but we did our best to see as much as we could before being escorted off the premises by the staff as they finished their day. The museum is in a beautiful building and displays plenty of art along with Egyptian and Greek antiquities. I’m sure there is a lot more to see, but we didn’t get very far! Some of the labelling is a bit vague, saying things like ‘Greek statue’ with no other information…but hey it was still worth a visit!
Another great find was the Presidential train, Mambi, dating back to the early 20th Century. This carriage hasn’t been anywhere in a long time but is open for guided tours, and we loved our little tour. The carriage can be found at Calle Brasil in Old Havana and beautifully captures presidential train travel in that era. Take a little look if you’re passing!
Our final day was spent at the beach, and unfortunately it was a bit disappointing as the waves were a bit strong to do much more than paddle in the shallows. It was lovely to be by the sea though after a few days in the city! Pebble also wasn’t feeling great and spent her time sleeping on the sunlounger in the shade whilst Osito and I made sand sculptures. We had a nice meal at a beach restaurant before heading back to get ready for our trip to Viñales the following day.
This was the end of our time with Bertha and Fidel in Havana, although we did return for one night at the end of our trip before flying to Mexico. They were perfect hosts, and looked after us very well. Havana is an interesting city, and although we didn’t get to see a lot of the night life that we would have done, had we been sin niños, we definitely enjoyed our time here.
Best bits….Music, street parade, architecture
Our next stop was Viñales, come back soon to read all about this beautiful natural wonderland.