A Cuban cocktail that’s not one to miss

cuba hotspot

Cuba, the Caribbean island known more for its turbulent political history and rum production, is becoming more recognised as the go-to travel destination that is still untouched from commercial tourism. And believe it or not, is a perfectly safe place for a lone female traveller.

Where Cuba fails as a travel destination that may make a lone traveller nervous, is the unreliable and lack of public transport. It’s not impossible to go backpacking from place-to-place yourself, but you’d have to book through local travel agents to organise all the transport and accommodation. Booking yourself on an organised tour in advance saves a lot of hassle and time. After all, when you have limited time off from work, you want to make the most of it.

I did just that; booking a two-week tour starting in Havana, before flying to the eastern part of the island and  then making our way back to the capital by minibus. Here is a taster of my tour, highlighting some of my favourite parts along with the need-to-know for any solo traveller.

Arriving in Havana Airport, you’re instantly transported back to another time. Low ceilings, retro signage and dusty decor made it apparent that the airport hadn’t had a facelift in at least forty years. I wasn’t impressed that the toilets in arrivals were broken, and the sinks had no soap, which I soon learnt is typical in Cuba. I’d later discover that a public toilet with a seat and working flush was few and far between.

Baracoa

Part of the tour experience is that you get collected from the airport, and my driver suggested I change some currency at the booth outside the airport terminal as the exchange rates are just as good as at the banks. We whizzed into Old Havana in a 1952 Chevrolet, which was beautiful and incredibly un-roadworthy by our British standards. The car wasn’t a gimmick; it was a standard taxi that you’d find in Havana.

With these sorts of tours, the first night you meet the tour guide and your room mate for the remainder of the holiday. You can have your own room, but for me part of the experience of travelling solo is the friendships you make along the way. Sharing a room with someone and getting to know them allows you to make so many more memories.

You always get paired based on gender and age, so I was paired with Anne who is a few years older than me and from Belfast. Luckily for both of us, we instantly got on and I’m pleased to say we’re still in regular contact and have met up multiple times since our trip. Anne had also been in Cuba for a few days before my arrival, so was able to help me find my bearings and importantly, help me get internet access on my phone.

For my own peace of mind, and for that of my family and friends back at home, whenever I travel abroad I buy a local SIM card. In Cuba it works a bit differently; instead you buy Wi-Fi passes, a bit like scratch cards with a username and password on, to use at hotspots. Upmarket hotels have these hotspots, otherwise you’ll need to go to any town square or monument to find a hotspot and in turn access the internet! You know when you’ve found one with people all crowded together using their mobile phones. The cards aren’t expensive, but they are effort to buy. You need to queue along with the locals at the town/city’s main telephone shop to buy the cards. You need proof of your identity to buy them, such as your passport, and then you’re limited to how many you can buy.

Santiago de Cuba

Day two of the tour, we flew to Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba and some 540 miles from Havana on the south-eastern part of the island. One could instantly feel the change in lifestyle compared to Havana. People were friendlier and easy-going, and the city didn’t smell quite as bad as Havana did, with less litter filling the streets.

There are plenty of sights and attractions to see in Santiago de Cuba. We headed to Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, which was guarded by soldiers, as many notable Cubans are buried there, including the ashes of national hero José Martí as well as Fidel Castro. We stopped for a photo at the “CUBA” sign and enjoyed fresh coconut for one CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), which is about 75p, whilst visiting the fortress Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca.

In Santiago, I had my first experience of staying in a casa, and this was one of my favourite aspects of the tour. Most of the accommodation in Cuba is what we’d class as ‘Bed and Breakfasts’, allowing the guests to fully immerse themselves into typical Cuban family life. I learnt so much from talking to the families I stayed with, some of it using simple English, other times pointing and using the translation apps I had on my phone. I left every host a toiletries gift set too, as a thank you, because in Cuba they only have bars of soap, and not the more perfumed sets we’re more accustomed to receiving at Christmas.

It wasn’t just toiletries I brought from home to donate; I brought colouring books and pencils for any children I met along the way too. It was in Baracoa, perhaps the poorest part of Cuba I visited, where I gave most of these away. It highlights the simple things that we take for granted, even colouring pencils, which is a luxury only for the wealthy in Cuba.

Baracoa, a city near the eastern tip of the island and the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba, is home to beautiful landscapes. Cocoa farms and coconut plantations are plentiful, as well as idyllic spots such as the Boca de Yumurí valley and nearby beach Playa Barigua which is perfect for a seafood lunch with a cocktail in hand. The scenery made us feel like we were in the middle of nowhere; that part of Cuba is still so untouched, yet relies so heavily on tourism.

Trinidad

Trinidad was by far my place to visit in Cuba. The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with cobbled streets, colourful buildings and horse drawn carts replacing cars. The nearby Parque el Cubano National Park is perfect for hikers, those who fancy a dip under the Javira waterfall, and those who enjoy nature spotting, with Cuban’s national bird, the tocororo, being particularly vocal. There are lots of bars serving traditional Cuban cocktails, and one evening Anne and I sat on some steps and drank the night away, befriending all the local barmen, attempting to do salsa and having the time of our lives.

Then there is Havana. A trip to Cuba isn’t complete without spending some time in the capital. Driving around in pink convertibles is so much fun, and it’s an easy way to see more of Havana than just the “Old” part, which included a park dedicated to John Lennon. Another benefit of doing a tour, you get to meet people to split costs with, so dividing the car journey between three made it much more affordable.

A must-do in Old Havana is to get the local passenger ferry across the water to Casa Blanca. At a cost of one CUC each way, it’s an inexpensive way to see more of the city, and easy to do solo too, although Anne came with me on the trip. The ferries depart every 30 minutes, so if you miss one, another will soon be on its way. We walked up the hill to see the Cristo de La Habana statue and incredible views of Havana that was unrivaled by anything else I had seen in the city so far. There isn’t an entrance free to see the statue, so if you’re counting the pennies on the final days of your trip, it’s a money-saving activity that’s worth the visit.

During these sorts of tours, you drive through lots of towns that you may only stop at for an hour or two. One town in particular was Guantanamo, where we took a detour to go to a lookout point over the Bay to spot the infamous US base. Another was Cienfuegos, where I wandered away from the group only to spot two local fishermen casting their nets simultaneously. 

Drinking rum at all hours of the day, particularly mid-morning, is quite normal and part of Cuban life. The service stop-cafes only seem to sell black coffee, cocktails or water, so I got into the local spirit – quite literally – by enjoying freshly made piña coladas, where homegrown pineapples and coconuts were plentiful. I couldn’t quite get into the hang of salsa dancing, no matter how hard I tried, or drank!

So do come to Cuba and relish in the rum. Learn Spanish and salsa with the locals. Pack clothes you don’t mind leaving behind and donate them to those who need it. Bring gifts for those you meet along the way. And if you don’t like bland food, bring your own seasoning with you. Oh and if you like cigars, they are really cheap!

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