The emerging Cuban cocktail

By | Category: Travel destinations

the Cuba most people would know - sandy beaches and warm seas

Once again I am back in Cuba, this unforgettable Caribbean island, and happy to find the warmth of the air, the smiling Cuban people and this indefinable atmosphere of being back home despite being a Frenchman!

But this time, I didn’t come to Cuba on my own; Annick joins me and, as it is her first visit to the island, I want to show what Cuba really is – a mix of history, culture, traditions and ‘sea-sun-beach’ that draw millions of tourists each year. This is also the opportunity to discover the new secret of the Cuban hotel business, the Cuban luxury beach stay.

A direct Virgin Atlantic day flight gets us from Gatwick airport to Havana (Habana) in less than ten hours. Going out of Jose Marti International Airport is like entering a delicious warm bath with delicate strange fragrances, a delightful moment when you know that you definitely are on holiday.

Traditional tourism in Cuba

After only a few minutes to refresh ourselves after our arrival at our Havana hotel, we take a taxi – one of these old American cars from the fifties – and, after a little bargaining, we pay $5 to be taken to have a drink at the garden-terrace of the National, the most well known hotel in Cuba. On a large sofa under the garden arcades we order our first mojitos and listen to typical Cuban songs. With our second mojito we amble to the far end of the terrace to enjoy the gentle warm breeze. We are just a few metres from the Malecon, the long sea-front boulevard that, every evening, attracts Cuban youths. Here, every night, people slowly stroll, pausing to sit and drink sodas, (often mixed with rum,) play music, gaze at the sea and the waves as well as meeting up and chatting.

The next day, we visit old Havana, strolling in the pedestrianised historical part of the town which stretches from San Francisco Square to the Old Market Square and then onto the cathedral. But everyone stays a while on Plazza de Armas where authorised dealers sell old books, stamps and souvenirs of the revolution period. We come back to the Cohiba in a ‘Coco taxi’ one of these yellow, egg-shaped motorised tricycles that tries to compete with the fifties American cars. We spend the end of the afternoon basking in the sun at the swimming pool. Dinner is in Mercurio, one of my favourite restaurants, which serves the best pinacoladas in Havana provided that they are not short of coconut cream!

Our first journey outside Havana is a day trip to Vinales in the Western province of Pinar del Rio which is a two-hour drive. Imagine a widespread, red soil valley with green plants and luxurious vegetation, peppered by ‘mogotes’ which are like huge sugar loaf, shaped rocks. Farmers are working the fields with their white oxen. Here grow the best tobacco leaves which are used for the finest Cuban cigars. Stopping by a wooden barn covered with palm leaves, tobacco leaves are left to dry in the traditional way. The farmer, working in his tobacco-drying shed, seems happy to see visitors and invites us in. The leaves are attached to long wooden sticks hanging flat from the roof. The colour of the tobacco has changed from green to gold and, later on in the process they will turn to dark brown. The smell of drying tobacco is pleasant, even for non-smokers.

drying tobacco leaves

Then before lunch we move to the nearby ‘Cuevo Del Indio’ (the Indian Cave) for a 10 minute boat trip on an underground river. Welcoming it is refreshing after the outside warmth of the tropical sun.

In the afternoon we visit a rocky cliff covered by immense, colourful ‘artistic’ drawings representing diplodocus, giant bears and cavemen. Perfect for families with young kids and a funny background for anyone who wants to get his picture riding a strong white Cuban ox!

Three hours south of Havana is Cienaga de Zapata (Zapata’s Swamp) classified as a Biosphere Reserve. It’s a paradise for ecotourism with lots of rare birds, a huge concentration of wild crocodiles and also an attractive rocky beach for divers. In the Bay of Pigs, submarine caves and underwater walls are covered with sponges and corals all just a few yards from the beach so there is no need for a boat. For those interested in recent history, at Playa Giron, there is a small museum which displays many items belonging to the Bay of Pigs incident including one aircraft and two tanks.

We stop at the Tainos Village, not a real village but a copy built on an island in the middle of a beautiful lagoon. A pageant with local actors presents the cool life of Tainos as it was before their total extermination by Spanish colonists. For $2 you can taste crocodile meat served in small pieces and grilled with bell peppers. Surprisingly, it’s quite good and tastes a little bit like veal. But beware of mynah birds, they adore crocodile, are smart and so quick that they robbed us twice pinching the best pieces from our plates. When was the last time you had to protect your lunch from scavengers?

Santa Clara

An overnight stop in Santa Clara see us, next morning at Che’s Mausoleum and the site of the Train Attack, the last battle of Cuban Revolution. From there it is a short hop to the Topes of Collantes, another nature reserve park, known for its waterfalls, river caves and its rich rain-forest vegetation from tall pine-trees to numerous orchids. Hikers will appreciate its numerous paths through jungle and hills. To get there select a one-hour cruise on the lake; it provides a different view over the mountainous landscape.

At the end of the day, we finally arrive in Trinidad the destination of this journey. This town is surely the most amazing colonial city of Cuba. Trinidad needs a full days’ visit and maybe even more. Around the Plazza Mayor and the Cathedral, the old city centre is a huge network of cobblestone streets lined by pastel coloured colonial houses.

Trinidad

A lot of these old houses, still filled with their original furniture, are open to visitors. Casas de Musica, restaurants and craft workshops are scattered all around. My Spanish is far from perfect, but it’s enough to talk for a few minutes with an old lady sitting on her rocking chair, telling us her long life and her family. She is so proud of her great granddaughter, a pretty 8 years old girl who is playing on the terrace. A few minutes later we are looking to the front of a little blue house, when a man inside the main room ask us to go in, visit his home and patio, and chat for a while about music and travel.
Trinidad was once the capital of the sugar country. Today it seems unchanged.

The birth of luxury hotel business, the new Cuban revolution!

There seems to be the new Cuban revolution, the arrival of luxury services on the island. In Cuba the best beach hotels are huge structures that fit perfectly with middle budget packages, opening the country to millions of tourists looking for nice sunny holidays. Based on an all-inclusive formula, they offer an excellent value for money, good food, nice drinks, lots of activities, sports and entertainments.

some of the luxury offerings available

These top beach hotels are not installed all along the Cuban coasts. The greatest number is concentred on the Varadero peninsula not too far from Havana. The second big spot is on the Cayos, a long line of more or less small islands on the North coast of Cuba that can be only reached after a five hours drive from Havana. You will find just a few beach hotel complexes on the coast of the Holguin Province. Holguin and Varadero take advantages of the fact that they both have an international airport that can receive international charter flights, even if the Holguin’s one is really smaller.

So after these few days on the road, we finally decide to take a two hours flight to Holguin where we stay a few days on the quiet Esmeralda beach, enjoying a warm turquoise sea under a perfect dark blue sky. In our all-inclusive complex hotel the activities on offer are enough varied to fit with anyone’s taste. The quality of service is over my expectation. The service in Cuba has always been very smiling, but it was often not totally efficient. I am very surprised to discover how the staff of the hotel aims to progress in excellence. This is a big step for the Cuban tourism to attract more tourists including high-contribution visitors in the next years.

But that’s the attraction of the Cuba I wanted to introduce Annick to, a cocktail of the old and the new.

for more information about Cuba, click here.

Images © Frederic de Poligny

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