Flying from Gatwick is roughly nine hours, with decent inflight entertainment on the Virgin Atlantic flight. You need a visa for Cuba: we got ours from CubanVisas.co.uk, There are many sites out there, but a lot of them charge ridiculous prices. We paid £20 each, so don't go above that. I'd also recommend tank tops (or vests: more on that later) and shorts, as the climate is hot and humid.
In the same vein, bring a bottle with a good filter (I use Water-To-Go), as you will be drinking a lot of water. Much better to do so without filling the ocean with plastic, one of several problems exacerbated by bottled water. I also didn't use a day bag, preferring to dangle stuff from my shorts. The ones I have from Clothing Arts have so many pockets that you can fit everything on or in them: I had an umbrella, two waterproofs, a guide book, my money, passport, two bottles, my phone, my Kindle, headphones and phone batteries all crammed in there. More than enough to match a bag's capacities, without the sweaty back or sore shoulders. ;)
When you arrive into Jose Marti Airport, be prepared for a wait. Cuban bureaucracy moves slowly. After they check your passport and visa, there's a long queue for the security checks. Be aware that you need to fill in a blue customs declaration too, something our flight crew did not know, strangely. The forms are on the side, after passport control. Considerable waiting follows if you want to change some money, which you definitely will. On your way out, you do not have to pay the $25 'exit tax' if it's included in your ticket, which with Virgin Atlantic, it should be. Double check, I got conflicting reports on when you had to pay (we didn't pay it, as we flew with Virgin).
Cuba has two currencies: the one you want is the CUC, a 'convertible peso'. You can only get it in Cuba and only spend it there too, converting your pounds or Euros (they don't like dollars, so will whack on extra commission). Our taxi was prebooked through Taxi Vinales, but you can probably just grab a yellow government taxi (prices are apparently the same as the unofficial ones, meaning there isn't much incentive to stray outside them).
There are both 'old' and 'new' street names, which is presumably why those in our guidebook didn't match the one for our casa particulares, but we eventually found it. You will most likely end up staying at a casa particulares, operating much like an AirBnB. From there, we had a brief wander around the local area. It was an easy walk to the historic centre, immediately identifiable as the buildings aren't missing chunks or held up by rickety pieces of wood. Drinks were cheap (about £5 for a beer, a piña colada and a bottle of water), with numerous fresh juices available. I'm not used to papaya, gueva or sugar cane juice (guarapo), but all of it was tasty.
Our first full day in Cuba was spent in one of the famous classic cars, with a guided tour around Havana. That took in several forts, along with the Christ statue built in 1958 by a female sculptor, the same year the tunnel under the river was finished. Next to the status there is a picture of Fulgencio Batista (the dictator who ran Cuba before Castro), his wife and the sculptor. Our guide gave us an interesting titbit, claiming that Batista's wife suffered from gigantism, which she combatted by having lots of babies. That could well be Castro propaganda, as I couldn't see anything to back it up on google (except that she was tall), so it would be interesting to know if it was true.
At one of the forts, we had what was to be the first of many encounters with Cuba's most renowned export, cigars. There is a small shop selling them, randomly featuring a cigar of record breaking length. The man who rolled it is still sat there rolling, bizarrely sat in front of his own life like waxwork. I don't smoke, so I watched the judo on TV instead. Cuba is an international judo powerhouse (the women's team has an impressive pedigree), but sadly there isn't any BJJ in the country (which I'm sure will soon change with the opening up of Cuba).
Following a short walking tour, we were taken to a cigar factory. That's not the typical factory full of pumping pistons and conveyor belts. Most of the work is by hand although they do use a kind of vice to press down the rolled and packed tobacco leaves into a cigar. According to our guide, men and women were paid the same: the labour force looked to be relatively diverse, in terms of gender and ethnicity. A guard followed us around, presumably in case a worker decided to try and make some extra CUC by selling us a cigar. Those whispers of "cigar, cohiba?" happen a lot on the street, which may or may not be fakes.
Posters of Castro, Che and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez were all over the factory, which is true generally of Cuba. Having said that, Chavez tends to be inside buildings, rather than the many billboards and murals featuring the big three of Cuban revolutionary iconography (Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos). Revolution Square scales that up, with huge metal representations of Che and Cienfuegos (looking rather saintly, his hat transmuted into a halo) on the sides of large buildings housing important governmental departments. An even more beatified Cuban dominates the square, with Jose Marti's immense monument stabbing up into the sky. There was originally meant to a statue at the top, but Cuba's weather resulted in Marti's likeness prudently placed at the bottom, in a ponderous pose.
Several parks (including one named after John Lennon and featuring his statue) and drives around posh neighbourhoods followed, along with an incongruously American style diner serving a variety of burgers. They cost about 5 CUC and are quite tasty, but you could no doubt find something possessing some authentically Cuban traces than La Chucheria. We finished up at the Hotel Nacional, a famous Havana landmark. It proudly displays the various luminaries who have stayed there, with plenty of faces that would be persona non grata in many other countries, like Putin, plus yet another image of Hugo Chavez. That reminded me of a monument to Ho Chi Minh too, which as it is apparently only about 10 years old would seem mainly there to needle US diplomats.
After the tour finished, my gf and I had a wander around the Ambos Mundo ('both worlds') hotel that boasts of its Hemingway connection, as well as a lift that only rarely seems to function. The view from the roof top bar is excellent, where you'll also.he treated to a group of local musicians. That is something you swiftly get used to in Cuba, especially in bars and restaurants, but on street corners too. Be aware that they will expect a tip, so keep some coins handy. You'll need coins for the toilet (0.25 CUC is enough per trip), as even in restaurants there is often somebody sat a table in front of the loos.
While I went to art galleries (see below), my gf went on a surprisingly short Grand Theatre tour. It only takes 10 minutes, at a cost of 5 CUC. Right outside, next to El Captiolio (the Capitol building) is a great place to take pics of classic cars. There is a taxi rank with loads of convertibles, next to a junction. That's where I took the video at the top of this post. A walk by the Malecon is a pleasant way to end your day, especially if you get there in time to watch the sunset. There are several restaurants with a view across the sea, perfect for dinner around 19:00/19:30. We went to one near the bizarre USSR themed eatery with a big red star on the front.
During our wandering round the old town, we came across an interesting exhibition of (I assume) a contemporary painter. That consisted of several photorealistic boulders plonked in peaceful locations, including a pier, an open road and an otherwise empty road. I'm not sure if it was by the same artist, but there was also a surrealist image of hybrid peacock women being suckled by a human-breasted peacock. That's crying out for some exposition, of which there unfortunately wasn't any. Cool painting though.
In the Camera Obscura (or Oscura, in Spanish), the guy who takes your money also gives you a great little demo. It costs 2 CUC to enter at the bottom, then you can take the lift. Watch out for the flamboyantly dressed women in the square outside, they want to get a photo with you so they can charge. The Rum Museum featured a monotone but presumably informative tour, which was very busy: my mind wandered. You also naturally get a taste a rum, the first sip of alcohol I've had since Porto: again, I literally took a sip, then passed the rest to my gf. Port is much more to my taste than rum, and sherry even more so. On the rare occasions I do drink more than a sip, it will normally be some Pedro Ximénez sherry, a similar experience to drinking sugar. ;)
The museum hopping continued with an unusual playing card museum, where you can find playing cards that use electric razors instead of clubs (thanks to being sponsored by Phillips), among many other variations. My favourite was the series based on pop stars who were big in Spain during 1989. I would say the City Museum is not really worth it for 5 CUC. There is an entirely random accumulation of stuff, with Spanish military uniforms, swords, vases, carriages, sculptures etc. There are also no signs telling you about them in any depth, resulting in plenty of guesswork on my part.
Finally, for the Museo de la Revolucion, you will need context to get much out of it. I would recommend reading some history before you go. I went for a huge history book, but I underestimated just how long 1000 pages of dense academic history takes, finishing it halfway through the trip rather than in the UK. On the plus side it is comprehensive on 1762 through to 1962 However, it gets quite dry in places talking about sugar production and the like, plus it was written in the late '60s so is missing perspective on contemporary events.
The Museo is a bit overpriced at 8 CUC, consisting mostly of photos, plus ephemera such as hats, uniforms and even medical equipment. Still, I enjoyed it, as I'd just finished reading about 1959 in my book. There are some amusingly vicious caricatures of US presidents on the 'corner of cretins', especially the monstrous depiction of Dubya with a swastika on his head and claws instead of hands.
Museo de Nacional Bellas Artes
The highlight of this trip for me, as usual, was an art gallery. Havana has a good quality collection spread across the two buildings of the Museo de Bellas Artes. A significant proportion of the paintings are down to Fulgencio Batista's second wife, Marta, apparently a major patron of the arts during her time as First Lady. I only had an hour spare for each building, but even if you're going slowly, you shouldn't need more than two to three hours at most in each building. Entrance is 5 CUC per building, or 8 CUC for both. The Arte Cubanos is specifically Cuban, mostly from the 19th century through to the 20th. There is a cloakroom (though I didn't use it) and a small shop. The only English guidebook I saw was a large one for 50 CUC, which appears to focus on potted biographies of the artists (usually a page or lese) rather than discuss the paintings in much depth.
There are two floors, with earlier works below, later above. Information is limited, generally just the title of the painting, the dates and locations of the artist's birth and death, materials used and sometimes the date it was painted. There is a laminated info card for each room, but only in Spanish.
I know absolutely nothing about Cuban art. It was therefore cool to explore a whole new (to me, at least) art world, though admittedly my favourites were the painters who reminded me of familiar material. For example, Jorge Arche brought to mind Tamara de Lempicka, with those chrome-plated curves visible in both 'Primevera o Descanso' (1940) and his 1935 self portrait. Guillermo Collazo is from the previous century (1850-1896), with a style reminiscent of a polished Goya (died 1828) or Gainsborough (died 1788).
As ever, I found the later art boring, especially the conceptual art, by far my most hated genre. However, because it was Cuban, the historical context made the work from the '50s and '60s interesting. I was far more at home in the second outpost of the Bellas Artes, the 'Arte Universal' building.
That's a collection across five floors of mostly European painting focusing on the 19th century, with some 18th century and a few older works too. There is a good Spanish selection, featuring some big names like Murillo and Zurbaran. There was also at least one painting associated with Goya, though I wasn't sure if the Spanish label was actually attributing it to Goya himself. Most of the paintings are 19th century, but it gets all the way back to the 15th century.
The fifth floor holds the majority of the paintings I was interested in seeing, particularly the German, Dutch and Flemish selections. The German sections began with some attractive stained glass, moving through various painters I mostly hadn't heard of (with the notable exception of Lucas Cranach). A few old friends from my recent Amsterdam and Haarlem trip popped up in the Dutch collection, including Verspronck, Rubens, Van Dyck and David Teniers the Younger.
British art is also well represented. Sir Thomas Lawrence has several works here, plus a small canvas by one of my favourites, Alma-Tadema. There's a generous selection of Joshua Reynolds, along with some less familiar names, like John Hoppner. Constable is here too, though he's not somebody I particularly enjoy.
I found the French room to be another highlight, especially two works by Bougereau and a glorious portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by George Clarin. There was also a female painter I don't know well, Maria Genevieve Bouliar. Judging by her dates she was a contemporary of Vigeé Le Brun, and indeed one of the works is in a similar style. However the other is quite different, akin to Raphael and other Italian masters of the early Renaissance.
Once I was back home, I found an entry for her in Women Artists: 1550-1950 (Harris and Nochlin's wonderful book, that I've mentioned before), which states she was taught by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, the "most celebrated portraitist in Paris in the 1770s and 1780s." I'll be keeping an eye out for her work: it looks to be mostly held in France.
The Havana bus station is a taxi drive away from the centre, you wouldn't want to walk it. We reserved our tickets in advance, but you can buy them at the station too. It's cool inside with plenty of seating, a small souvenir shop and toilets. About ten minutes before your bus is due to leave, you get your tickets from the desk. That has your name and seat number on it, but nobody checks where you sit.
The bus itself was comfortable and air conditioned. Baggage goes in the bottom, for which there is no extra charge (unlike some other places I've been, like Croatia). Our bus to Viñales had a toilet, but it was locked so not much use. Instead, the bus had a stop-off at a cafe about 2 hours into the journey.
Viñales is a small town (around 10,000 people), used by many tourists as a base to explore the attractive countryside. Our initial attempt with a 25 CUC horse ride wasn't entirely successful, as the guide was terrible and the places he took us were unfriendly and commercially focused. I did enjoy the actual riding part, as it's been a long time since I've been on a horse.
In fact, sufficiently long that I think I've forgotten what to do for faster gaits. As soon as my horse went beyond a walk, I was lifting up out of the saddle by pushing on my stirrups and thrusting forward before sitting back down, trying to time it with each 'bounce'. I'm not sure if you're only meant to do that for a canter and up, as well as if you're only meant to do it on every third bounce or something. But meh, it was fun to ride again.
At the tobacco plantation, the chap demonstrating how to roll a cigar was insistent about how great his stuff was by comparison to the allegedly rubbish cigars from factories. It did not sound at all credible. He claimed his cigars contained no nicotine at all (ridiculous), whereas in factories they supposedly didn't take out the middle strip where he said all of the nicotine resides. This was despite the fact we saw for ourselves that they quite clearly did remove that part. His answer was that this was merely a show for tourists. It would have to be a rather involved show, as the strips were all over the floor in large piles. He also wanted to convince us that prices were higher than what they'd told us in the factory.
Still, it was interesting to see him roll a cigar, no machinery required (though the only machine in a factory is that vice). he used honey for glue (though the guide at the factory said their glue was organic too, and cut off anyway when you smoke the cigar). It's tough for small tobacco farmers, as 90% goes to government, leaving only 10% he can sell for a decent profit. We also went to coffee plantation, though interestingly the chap there said it was just for tourists, not where the coffee is actually grown (the same is presumably true of the tobacco place).
We then headed up to the lovely La Ermita hotel for swimming (only 3 CUC each, taxi from the centre of town was 4 CUC). It has an awesome view. The next day, it was time to try again with tours, which went much better. Our guide for that was a total contrast, as he was fantastic. So, if you boot through Paradiso, make sure to get Julito. Friendly and approachable, he spoke with authority (in excellent English) about everything from Afro-Cuban religion through to local botanical oddities, with the genus and species.
We had four blazing hot hours to luxuriate in the beautiful scenery, as well as tobacco plantations, this time much more authentic and friendly. Geraldo didn't try to sell us anything, made jokes and didn't pretend it was nicotine free, just less (70% is in the middle strip of the leaf they remove). He charged a reasonable 25 CUC for 10 cigars: not much use to me, as I don't smoke, but cheaper prices than anywhere else we went.
We walked near, and then through, the mogotes (large limestone mounds covered in trees), including a natural tunnel ending in a fantastic view. There were lots of pleasant stops for a drink, such as the piña coladas that got the whole group laughing and chatting (as you choose how much Alabao rum to add. Again, Julito had further information here, telling us that 'Alabao!' was a Pinar del Rio expression similar to 'wow!' After the local baseball team won the National series, that exclamation for a home run became the name of the local rum.
An even more incredible view awaited as at the Los Jazmines hotel, on the opposite end of the valley to La Ermita. The hotel itself felt less exclusive, but the view was undeniably superior. Unlike La Ermita there wasn't much cover for the intermittent downpours, but you could head back inside. The day finished off with a meal at El Balcon del Valle. That's a little hidden away, down a long dirt track with a fence a short distance from the hotel entrance. We had a set menu of rice, noodle broth and meat for around 11 CUC. It was good, but the reason to go to El Balcon is the spectacular view, as the tables are on a platform secured at the edge of the valley.
Our third stop was Soroa, a tiny hamlet that can boast a lovely waterfall. There's enough space to swim, but be careful of the rocks, which are all very slippery. It only costs 3 CUC to get in and it wasn't excessively busy. The waterfall appears to be popular with locals (at least I assume they were locals, as there were lots of Spanish voices). We got there at about 12:00, but it's probably best to get there in the morning if you want a great part of the waterfall to yourself. If like us you go during May, be sure to bring waterproofs too: there were a few stints of torrential rain, as throughout Cuba during that month.
We had enough time left to check out the Orchidarium, a short walk up from the hotel that sits near the waterfall. It's 3 CUC for a variety of flowers and pleasant walks, first built in 1943 by a Spanish lawyer. To finish up, there was a long walk, again signposted by the hotel. It is fairly steep and full of rocks, so I would avoid it in the rain, but during dry weather you're rewarded by a great view.
Most of our second day in Soroa was spent at Las Terazas, an eco village very popular with tour groups. I'm not sure why, as while it is pleasant enough, it didn't seem to warrant that kind of attention. There's an innovative vegetarian restaurant here that is worth checking out, serving lots of dishes and drinks I'd never tried before.
Cuba is apparently famous for bird watching and I can see why. If you want to get a good look at the turkey vultures (extremely common in Cuba, we saw them everywhere), there is a brilliant spot for it up the road from the Don Agostino casa in Soroa (which incidentally is brilliant: they take particular care with the food, bringing you a breakfast that really is a work of art). The vultures roost near the so-called 'castle', in the garden of the neighbouring bar. I also enjoyed myself watching pelicans diving for fish by the Punta la Gorda in Cienfuegos.
Wildlife in Cuba is easy to spot and safe: you don't have to worry about enormous spiders or large predators (except for crocodiles, but they are down in the south). The biggest animal we saw was a hutia, a kind of tree rat. You'll also see small and medium sized lizards spread out on rocks, climbing walls and chilling out under trees. A great place to see them is the central courtyard of the municipal museum in Trinidad, an interesting building itself. Despite the name, it is essentially a Cuban equivalent to the stately homes you can visit back in the UK, albeit with a few rooms dedicated to local history (with some important figures, like Eddy Chibas).
On our way to Trinidad from Soroa, we paused at the lovely El Nicho waterfalls. After paying a rather expensive 10 CUC to get in (given you're limited to a miserly two hours), there are three main pools to swim in along a short hike, plus a great view. My favourite was the second, where remarkably clear water looks to be ideal for snorkelling. I preferred it to the one in Soroa, though that one was much better value for money, with no time restriction.
Trinidad looks like a quiet Spanish rural town at first, especially compared to the relative glitz of Havana and Cienfuegos. The aforementioned municipal museum is worth a look. If you are hungry for exhibits and photos after Havana's Museo de la Revolucion, be sure to check out Trinidad's bandit museum. That contains further photography and artefacts from Castro's guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra, as well as moving the story on to another guerrilla battle. This time the conflict had flipped, as they were counter revolutionary forces fighting Castro's fledgling government.
While Trinidad may initially look like a quiet rural town, it's crammed with both rampant construction and jineteros (touts). Every few steps, yet another tout is shouting "taxi" or attempting to draw you into their restaurant. Even allegedly posh (overpriced would be more accurate) eating holes like Vista Gourmet has people pestering you for money, though they are offering magic shows and violin music rather than taxis. There's also an active nightlife, with a great deal of live music. I am not generally one for going out, though I do like to dance: my favourite place was the Casa de la Trova, where I dusted off my rusty salsa and most likely amused the locals. ;)
At the nearby major tourist sites, like the Manaca sugar plantation, the jinetero situation gets even worse. Still, it is worth a visit, particularly the enormous tower: I think.I counted around ten flights of stairs on the way up. Be sure you head to the far greater authenticity of San Isidro de Los Destiladeros plantation first to get an idea of what a sugar plantation would have been like a few centuries ago. Although San Isidro lacks the glitzy restaurants and shops of Manaca, the workings of the old plantation are easier to appreciate, with pretty much everything there (albeit in a ruined state, thanks to both time and tropical storms).
That ranges from the baracoons where slaves were held, through to the 'Jamaica train' of ovens to process the sugar. The main house is in a poor state of repair, something which was in the process of being rectified when we visited. I imagine in a year or two, it will look similar to the carefully reconstructed example in Manaca, most likely with a restaurant to boot. Hopefully it won't be overrun by jineteros and stalls.
On our way to the ultimate tourist trap of Varadero, we stopped at Santa Clara. That's the city Ernesto 'Che' Guevara captured in 1959 by derailing an armoured train, the final blow to Batista's regime. The enormous monument to Che consists of a massive statue, an equally huge bas relief, plus several quotes etched on monolithic blocks of stone. Underneath is a small museum, as well as the earthly remains of Che and (I think) some of the guerillas who took part in his ill fated attempt to expand the revolution to Bolivia. You have to leave your phones, cameras and bags at another building behind the memorial: this won't cost you anything and the museum itself is free too.
Like the Museo de la Revolucion, the exhibits are photos and various military ephemera, including lots of pistols and rifles. Some of those other fallen guerillas are similarly commemorated, like 'Tania', which appears to be the nickname for a female guerrilla called Haydee. There's a letter mentioning the German Democratic Republic, for some reason. The resting place of Che and his guerillas is in another room, where an eternal flame lit by Fidel burns. You'll get shushed by the guard, as they expect a respectful silence.
In Varadero itself, there isn't much to say. There's a beach. That's about all there is to do. However, it is a really, really good beach, hence why there are a bazillion hotels along it. As the beach is so huge (all the way up a several kilometre long peninsula), that mass of hotels isn't obnoxious, if like us you stay in a casa outside of the hotel zone. Food at Salsa Suarez was good and relatively cheap, if you're looking for somewhere to eat.
It will be interesting to return to Cuba in a decade or two, as I imagine things will be very different after the big jump in tourism (the first cruise ship only docked in May, two weeks before we flew in. There will be many, many others) and the increase in private enterprise. At the moment, widespread private enterprise remains a new thing, as can be seen from the total lack of advertising billboards, which is a refreshing change. The only 'advertising' we saw were pictures of Che and Castro next to revolutionary slogans. Coca Cola, Nike, McDonalds and the other harbingers of corporate greed must be licking their lips in anticipation.