David Whitley explores the gateway to Cuba
It doesn’t take long to realise that the Cuban capital is unique. At first it’s the idiosyncrasies that strike you – the vintage 1950s cars dominating the streets, the complete lack of advertising billboards and the absence of recognisable brand names.
But then the character takes over. Every bar and restaurant seems to have a live band playing, people think nothing of getting up to dance in the potholed streets, and the gloriously restored architectural mishmash of colonial buildings sit alongside near-ruins.
Havana has evolved differently to just about every other city in the Americas, and its flaws are part of what makes it so fascinating. It will undoubtedly change as Cuba opens up to tourism from the US, but perhaps not as rapidly as many think.
The US airlines will eventually open up indirect routes from the UK into Havana. But for now, Virgin Atlantic’s direct flights from Gatwick are the best way to a city that can be a destination in its own right and a stepping stone to the Caribbean’s largest island.
What to do
Intrepid Travel’s offshoot Urban Adventures offers a handful of good introductory tours to the city, both of which are made more interesting by the chance to talk to ordinary Cubans about life.
The first is a $52 walking tour of Habana Vieja – the old town – which takes in the main squares, explains the stories behind odd statues and reveals little tales about the city’s history.
Also $52, the second goes farther afield, taking in Havana’s highlights inside one of those gorgeous vintage cars that Cubans have nursed through the decades.
This tour visits the ludicrous monuments of Plaza de la Revolucion and idyllic riverside spots beloved by locals, before finishing with a cocktail at the Hotel Nacional. The wind-in-the-hair experience of cruising through town is more important than the specific photo stops, though.
A third option, the $38 Afro-Cuban religion tour, delves into a highly unusual niche. Starting at the Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway turned into a giant art project, it explores Santería.
Billed as a Cuban religion with African roots, it is widely practised on the island and matches up traditional African deities to Catholic saints. The tour involves an explanation and a visit to a house where oracle readers are in action.
Outside the tours, the Museo de la Revolucion is worth visiting for a hilariously biased take on Cuba’s history, and a closer look at figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Take it at face value and you’ll come out knowing that everything the Cuban government has done since the 1959 revolution has been good and all bad things to befall the country are a result of CIA meddling.
The two forts across the bay – El Morro and Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabana – are marvellously atmospheric too. The latter is a small town in itself, packed with curious little exhibitions and offering superlative views back over the city.
The Museo del Ron in Habana Vieja is effectively a clever marketing gambit for Havana Club rum, but the tour guides do a good job of explaining how rum is made and how making it has formed a massive part of Cuba’s past. Oh, and there are free samples at the end.
But Havana’s real charm comes out at night. And that can mean either bar-hopping through Habana Vieja, taking a sundowner cocktail at La Torre on top of the city’s second highest building in Vedado, or going to see a cabaret at the Tropicana Club.
Where to stay
A common theme of Havana’s more famous hotels is grand, opulent lobbies with rooms that are decent enough but don’t quite live up to the lavish displays downstairs.
The Iberostar Parque Central is spread over a spectacular colonial building and a newer modern building. Crucially, both have a pool on top, and the property is just on the edge of Habana Vieja, making it ideal for people who prefer to explore on foot. Rooms are solid rather than spectacular, but they’re sizeable. Doubles cost from £106.
Inside Habana Vieja, the options tend to be either fairly rough-and-ready casas particulares (effectively private guesthouses) or boutique-leaning properties inside gorgeous old mansions.
The Hotel Santa Isabel is a fine example of the latter, and it’s smack bang on Plaza de Armas. Expect plenty of period touches, air conditioning and a sense of old world grace – but no pool to cool off in when it gets hot. Doubles cost from £77.
Many of the other most interesting hotels are in the Vedado district, a 10-minute cab ride away from Habana Vieja.
The 1930s art deco-style Hotel Nacional was once an infamous mob hangout, and the downstairs terrace bar is brimming with period charm. The room next to it featuring photos of Hollywood greats and world leaders who have stayed there is fabulous too. Doubles cost from £112.
The nearby Melia Cohiba (pictured above) comes closest to stylish modernity, and it borders on high rise resort territory. The 22-floor hotel has a pool that’s double the size of most in Havana, plus five restaurants on site that offer much-needed variety from the Cuban classics found elsewhere in the city. Half board prices start at £168.
Caribbean regulars expecting to be able to take day trips to everywhere of interest from Havana are in for a surprise – Cuba is the biggest Caribbean island by a long stretch and Havana is tucked at the western end of it.
Clients may appreciate knowing that Cuba’s idiosyncrasies and sparse internet access on the ground make on-the-hoof travel tougher than in many other destinations. It’s a good opportunity to sell pre-packaged itineraries and tours.
A couple of hours to the east of Havana, Varadero is Cuba’s main resort, and the best place for beaches, watersports and boat trips.
It’s possible to make day tours from Havana to do these, but they involve a lot of time on a bus; it’s much better to tackle Varadero as part of a twin-centre break. Hayes & Jarvis sells three nights at the Melia Cohiba in Havana, then seven nights at the Melia Varadero, from £1,299.
The more culturally curious will probably prefer to spend a fortnight hopping between Cuba’s towns and cities, taking in some of the natural wonders along the way.
Exodus sells a 15-night La Isla Grande trip that takes in the architectural splendour of colonial Cienfuegos, Camaguey and Trinidad, plus the isolated white sand beaches of Baracoa and the rum-fuelled high energy of Santiago, from £1,939.
For a shorter time frame, Western & Oriental’s Essence of Cuba eight-day private guided tour may well do the trick. It includes rum sampling and sight-seeing in Havana, before moving on to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, then Santa Clara, where Che Guevara is buried and has a museum. This costs from £1,435.
More-active types are well catered for as well. Journey Latin America sells a 16-day Active Cuba tour, involving cycling the tobacco-growing Viñales valley, a hike to Castro’s old hideout in the Sierra Maestra National Park and salsa lessons. The holiday costs from £2,026, excluding international flights.
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