It took a while to persuade Brian of the merits of an annual holiday but not being able to go away in January 2013 and a busy calving season that year convinced him. We were 25 years married last year so decided to go a bit further afield for our holiday this year as well as telling ourselves that we’d had a busy year and we deserved it! But where to go in January? We go away at this time of year as the cows are dry so we only need to get labour to check and feed livestock, there’s no grass management, no milking of cows, no walking around various fields to herd cattle and all the other summer jobs. We’ve gone to the Canary Islands for the last three years and have decided that we like heat and sunshine (although not too hot), the change in temperature also serves to stop us thinking about the farm, gets us out of the farm zone. Ski-ing is definitely not an option as neither of us want to risk breaking limbs before calving. We looked at South Africa but neither of us were that keen. Florida would mean hearing about Trump more than we do in Ireland. Then we thought of Cuba, I did a bit of research and we decided to go for it. A 17 hour travelling time of two flights doesn’t sound too bad when you say it quickly.
We popped into a travel agents one day and a quote for 12 days was €14K dividing our time between Havana, Trinidad and Varadero. Apart from not being able to afford it, I couldn’t justify spending that much on a holiday. I did some research online and discovered that the hotels at the resort of Varadero weren’t considered to be that great with one blogger saying she wished they hadn’t gone there, that if we at this side of the pond want to go to a resort, we might as well go to the Canaries or Majorca. A lot of Canadians head to Varadero in the winter but it’s only a 3 hour flight, it’s our version of the Canaries for them. I booked our flights and accommodation for the first two nights so we could arrange our visas and for 3 nights in Trinidad and decided we’d book other accommodation when we got there, we didn’t want to be tied to specific places. Flights for the four of us were €3,400 with Air France (had to fly to Paris first).
Preparation for Cuba
One thing to note that is your passport needs six months on it after your return flight from Cuba. I thought it was three months and guess how long was left on my passport? 5 months – and of course, it was just before Christmas that I realised this. A little bit of stress but it all worked out. Kate and I went to Dublin to collect the visas from GoHop just in case they got lost in the post (the four visas cost €140).
I got into a bit of a panic when I noticed that vaccinations were advised but on contacting our surgery, a nurse rang to reassure me that we should be fine, well, the kids were up to date which was the main thing. We didn’t have time to get some of the jabs anyway. Vaccinations are recommended if you’re going for longer than 5 weeks and if you’re visiting remote areas. Rabies is a risk but even if you are vaccinated, you still need to get treatment if bitten so we just gave all dogs a wide berth (and there are a lot of dogs around, especially in Trinidad).
We weren’t so keen on Havana initially. It seemed that every time we stopped to look at something, we were besieged by people wanting to sell something as we walked around getting our bearings and doing some sight-seeing. We visited a stunning art gallery and had a scrumptious lunch in their restaurant. We then went to Vinales and Trinidad but spent the last two days in Havana and enjoyed ourselves. We had “done” old Havana at this stage so visited the forts across the harbour and spent time in Central Havana. There is so much history in this city and the architecture is incredible. We loved the views down the side streets of colourful buildings and old cars.
The guide book commented on how Cubans don’t tend to use tumble dryers and I was so amused at this given the good “drying” that they have for drying clothes. What’s incredible in Havana is to see formal, restored buildings alongside or opposite residential buildings with lots of washing hanging from balconies.
The weather wasn’t so warm in Havana either end of our holiday. The Atlantic looked a lot greyer and colder than the Caribbean Sea near Trinidad so I was relieved we hadn’t booked into Varadero. We didn’t visit the beach near Havana and walking along by the Malecon was good fun dodging the spray that hit the pavements every few minutes. The tide came in very quickly after this photo was taken.
We didn’t do a vintage car tour, preferring to walk around to sightsee but got taxi rides in many old vintage cars, including a convertible Chevy.
Many of them were well cared for although our taxi ride to Vinales was in a car so old and decrepit we wondered if we’d get there. The windows had to remain open (as one was broken too) and my eyes swelled up the next day – I presume from all the pollens blowing in for 3 hours. He stopped at one stage along the route and the car wouldn’t start again so he jumped out, lifted the bonnet, hit something a few bangs and all was well. Only two taxis had safety belts by the way so we didn’t feel very responsible parents driving along with our teenagers!
There wasn’t that much of a police presence that we witnessed. It felt very safe there, and we never felt uncomfortable strolling along in any of the three towns, even late at night. The Cubans are extremely welcoming. Brian did spot a policeman letting a box of apples fall in Havana and as the apples rolled everywhere, people ran towards the apples. Not to help the policeman pick them up but to grab a few apples and run.
We spent two nights in Vinales and loved it. It’s not much more than a village with more and more restaurants opening on the main street and with many pretty casas particulars all with white rocking chairs out on their front porches. You don’t have to walk far to leave the tarmacadamed side streets to come to rougher surfaces but there’s plenty of building going on. Many houses are bungalows but are being extended with first floors being added. I did wonder if the foundations are strong enough – hoping so! Rooms for rent are advertised on signs outside the houses, the symbol resembles an upside-down anchor.
There’s plenty of walks, with further hikes or horse riding available. The scenery is beautiful. We planned to take the hop on, hop off bus around various sites for a cost of 5CUC each but as it was full and only went once an hour, we took a taxi for a total cost of 30CUC and he brought us to the main attractions, waiting for us at each one. We visited one of Vinales’ main hotels for the views.
It was 4km from the town and while it probably did seem “away from it all”, I wondered how it felt having tourists arrive regularly and looking down as you sunbathed by the pool.
We stopped at a tobacco farm on the way down and had a quick tour. Many of the tobacco fields are very small and the town is definitely getting much of its income from tourism now.
Tractors are scarce and we spotted oxen pulling wagon loads as well as working in the fields. Many Cubans use horses and carts to travel and it really seems an oxymoron to see a young man (didn’t see many women driving horses) travelling in a small cart talking on a mobile phone. Many taxi drivers beep their horns repeatedly – the messages seem to be “I’m coming through”, “hello” and “get out of my way”. There’s no thought of giving horses a wide berth or not beeping a horn near them. Bicycles were often used for transportation (rickshaws for tourists too) and whole families can travel on a bike. I saw one man cycling with his wife on the cross bar and their 2 year old in a crate behind his saddle. Anything and everything was carried in crates on the back of bikes and motorbikes such as eggs for sale.
We broke our trip from Vinales to Trinidad by staying one night in Havana. Brian and I probably would have been okay with the long journey but we felt it was too much for the kids. We travelled by taxi as for the four of us, it wasn’t that much more expensive than the bus. The taxi to Vinales was €100 each way. The bus to Trinidad from Havana would have cost €25 each and we’d have had to get taxis to the station, the taxi was €150 with the convenience of being collected from and brought to the door. The taxi was two hours faster too, four hours compared to over six.
We spent 5 nights in Trinidad. The weather was fabulous and we loved the city. It’s so much smaller than Havana, with less than 100,000 people. Apparently it only had 3 eating establishments in 2011 and now has over 100. Many are very new and are located in the front rooms of colonial high-ceilinged houses. Some meals were very good and some were very mediocre.
There’s lots of museums to visit and most were quite inexpensive at 2CUC. Here’s the view from one – the admittance charge was worth it for the view from the roof alone.
Walking along the cobbled streets by terraced houses with washing hanging out, residents sitting on doorstops or by their open windows means it is heaven for anyone who loves looking in at different interiors.
Many shops and art galleries are the front rooms of houses and there’s an archway through to the next room where the family are sitting watching television or cooking. As we walked towards our accommodation, the houses became smaller, their tiny front rooms with kitsch ornaments proudly displayed beside new television sets.
We went to the Playa Ancon beach three days, from around 11:30 to 4:30. We stayed later on the first day, having arranged for the taxi to collect us at 5:30. Mosquitos started circling from 5pm along with the sand fleas that come as the sun starts to set. It’s a gorgeous beach and the cost of hiring a sun lounger with large umbrella is 2 CUC each. There’s one hotel on the beach which looks like a monstrosity and although the bar staff take orders from sunbathers, people aren’t allowed to visit their restaurant to eat. The cafe on the beach wasn’t great so we ate icecream on the first day and brought a picnic other days.
Supermarkets are interesting in Cuba. They are small and tend to have very little variety stocking mostly dried goods, oil, bottled water, crisps and tinned foods. Ony a certain number of people are allowed in at any one time. Some supermarkets worked by emptying the store before letting another group in, others let a few in as a few left. There were never many in the store at any one time though.
There are lots of street sellers selling bread and bags of crackers, they walked around with their bikes and a large crate on the back. Separate street stallholders sold bread, fruit, eggs, vegetables or meat. Pork and chicken seemed to be the most common meats.
We decided to stay away from hotels as we wanted to experience Cuban life as much as possible. Therefore, we stayed in casas particulars (similar to our Bed and breakfasts although breakfast was optional, at an additonal cost of 5CUC each). The houses were spotless, comfortable and the bedrooms had ensuites or an interconnecting bathroom.
We booked our first two nights in Havana and three nights in Trinidad via Airbnb (follow the link to get €35 credit if you’ve never used it before). However, we were unable to use the Airbnb app while in Cuba to book more accommodation, it just wouldn’t work, but our hosts booked us in with their friends or the taxi driver recommended places. Average cost per night was 55CUC for the four of us (about €50) and ranged from 30CUC for a large ensuite room with three beds to a two bed apartment in Central Havana for 80CUC per night. In three of the casas, the two bed apartment was in part of the host’s house but totally separate and private. We stayed with Rita in Havana, it was a bit further out of central and old town Havana than I had envisaged but was just a taxi ride in. It was a two bed apartment to the rear of their house. Built in 1948, it had fabulously high ceilings and their house was just beautiful. She spoke excellent English, arranged for a taxi to collect us from the airport, our taxi to Vinales, for us to stay with her next door neighbours for one night, and for our taxi to Trinidad. I’d read that it was hard to find ATMs in Cuba but there was one around the corner from her house. We found a cake shop just up the road so one night we bought cakes and having brought a few teabags with us (yes, we’re Irish!), she gave us some milk and we had tea and cake one evening.
I booked three nights in Trinidad via Airbnb too, at Miguel and Mima’s house. This was two ensuite bedrooms within their house and we had breakfast each morning with them. As we decided to stay in Trinidad for a further 2 nights and they were booked up, they arranged for us to stay with friends, Pedrin and Mary, just down the road. It was even nicer as it was like an apartment at the top of their house and they had very good English which was really handy. The breakfasts were huge – fruit, pancakes, fruit juice, coffee, fried or scrambled eggs with salad and rolls. Some hosts offered to cook an evening meal too but we preferred to go out in the evenings. We’d all have different things and sample each others. Shredded pork dishes were delicious.
Both were about ten minutes walk from the really old and busy area of Trinidad and we were looking out onto apartments four storeys high but it felt much less touristy as it was where locals lived. It is noisy at night though as while the window shutters also have glass panes, it’s single glazing. The noise was an interesting mixture of music blaring, cockerels crowing (they never got hoarse and started up around 2am) and traffic of the clip clop of horses, motorbikes and old cars. We stayed in central Havana for the last two nights and while it was minus the cockerels, it’s incredible how many drivers hoot their horns all through the night.
There are two currencies in Cuba. It’s very much a cash-based country. Apparently some hotels accept credit cards but not all. We paid for everything by cash. Tourists use CUC (which work out about 85 cent (euro currency) to the CUC) and you can’t get it before you go there. It’s a case of bringing cash with you and changing it at the airport when you arrive. Cubans use CUP which work out at about 25 CUP to one CUC.
I’d read that ATMs are few and far between but we found them no problem. The only problem was we could only withdraw 100CUC at a time so luckily we had a few cards with us. All went fine until the final weekend when we arrived back in Havana. We had paid the 150CUC for the taxi and paid for our final two nights accommodation so only had about 10CUC left on us. No problem, down we went to the bank machine. For some reason, it wouldn’t give us any money – on any of our cards, even the credit card. It was 4pm on a Saturday afternoon and we were starting to panic when I noticed the bank was open. In we went and just had to wait a few minutes to see an English speaking cashier, produce my passport and withdraw 400CUC. Phew.
Is there a difference between the CUC and CUP pricing? Well, anything aimed at tourists is priced in CUC. One evening, having noticed bread rolls on sale in a stall around the corner from our casa, Brian went to buy a dozen. He gave the lady 5CUC and she gave him 50CUP in change as she didn’t have CUC so the 12 rolls cost about 3CUC. Two evenings later, we decided to get some more. I placed the 50CUP (equivalent to 2CUC) on the counter and indicated that I wanted some rolls. She pulled a dozen rolls off the entire tray of about five dozen rolls and pushed the remainder towards me! We managed to communicate that we didn’t want that many and she put the money back on the counter. We left 20CUP there and got two dozen rolls in return so yes, there’s definitely a different pricing scheme for tourists.
A Return Visit?
Would I go back again? Definitely. It’s changing so fast it felt as though it was changing as we were there. I’d like to go back in about five years time when the kids are at the stage when they don’t want to come on holidays with us any more but are old enough to keep an eye on the farm during a quiet time. Brian and I would like to travel more around the rural areas and do more sight seeing as the scenery is spectacular – and go for three weeks. The 12 days was great and long enough for the children, but I wouldn’t have minded staying for longer. It would be interesting to see more of the farming too. We saw small tobacco fields, large fields with white cattle and black cattle, large areas of sugar cane, and horses as well as oxen working in fields as we drove through the countryside but it would be nice to see more.
We loved the colours and sights of the vintage cars, although were relieved to have newer taxis for our journey to and from Trinidad! I’m sure the Cubans would like if modern cars became more affordable but it was lovely to view so many old cars, although the noise and fumes would have exceeded any tests back here I’m sure.
Unfortunately, we’ve been a bit poorly since we got back. We probably picked up bugs on the plane! I have to admit I felt more refreshed last year after our holiday in Lanzarote but we did a lot of going in Cuba so I guess that is to be expected.
If you’re thinking of Cuba as a holiday destination, go before it changes too much. While you’d need some Spanish if travelling rurally, most people dealing with tourists in the cities either have very good English, a smattering of English or are very good at sign language. Go before the Starbucks and McDonalds arrive and stay in casa particulars not the hotels.
Now it’s back into editing the manuscript following feedback from editors (launch date of Till the Cows Come Home is 3rd May by the way) and gearing up for calving which will start in about two weeks but there’s always one or two that go early.