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Cruising around in Cuba

Vedado - a more modern Havana.

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We flew to Cuba on Iberian Airways, transiting through Madrid. We have never been to Cuba or any other Caribbean countries before. We were keen to see Cuba, because it sounded different from anywhere else in the world, as the revolution and the sanctions against it, have left it in a bit of a time warp. Cuba did not disappoint. It is interesting and colourful with lots to see and do. Cuban people are extremely lively and friendly. Unlike a lot of Caribbean countries, it is very safe. Oh, and the rum cocktails are superb!

It was way too hot when we arrived in Cuba in July and while we did plenty of sightseeing, we also spent lots of time just lazing by the pool or on the beach, because of this I will not write a day by day blog. Instead I will write a blog for each place we visited. I will start with Vedado, then Old Town Havana, then Miramar, Havana, then Santa Clara - which we visited briefly, Trinidad - where we spent three nights, Cienfuegos - another short visit and finally Varadero. We moved from town to town using Taxi Vinales. Obviously this was more expensive than using a long-distance bus, but it provided us with door-to-door service, time arrangements we could rely on and the chance to visit places on route to our destination. Thus, on the way to Trinidad we spent a couple of hours in Santa Clara and on the way to Varadero we visited Cienfuegos.

I will start with Vedado as we visited there first and stayed there for three nights.

We began our journey by flying from Gatwick Airport to Madrid Airport which took around three hours. We had enough time in Madrid to grab a drink and a snack - Iberian ham sandwich, coffee for me and beer for hubbie. The we flew from Madrid to Havana which took around ten hours. We had arranged a pick-up from the airport through Taxi Vinales and it was there waiting for us when we arrived. We told the taxi driver we had no Cuban money and he took us to the money exchange. Funnily enough, the only unpleasant people we encountered in Cuba all seemed to work in Havana Airport. We were not ripped off at the money exchange, but they have a strict rule - only one person at the counter at a time - so if there are two of you together, one has to step away or they won't deal with you. They tell you this by shouting at you, so your first impression is probably what a horrible place. Don't despair, other than at the airport, people are very pleasant.

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Stopover in Madrid.

Our taxi driver drove us into Havana. It was already quite dark and we could not see a great deal, but we did pass Revolution Square with its giant images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos all lit up.

Addresses are not easy to find in Cuba and our taxi driver stopped and asked people on the street for directions several times. Our hotel was called Hotel Chile Habanero and it was on the fourth floor of a building with no sign for the hotel. We would never have found it on our own, but thankfully our driver tracked it down. There is a well-known restaurant called Cafe Laurent just upstairs. The people in this hotel are lovely and the location is great. For these reasons I would strongly recommend it. The room was basic but it was comfortable enough. We had a safe, a shower, a toilet and a bed. The only other thing I would have liked was a fridge. It did not have this but reception sold us cold waters and beers everytime we came in. They did food too but we did not order this.

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Our room.

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Hotel balcony.

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Breakfast in the hotel.

On our first full day in Cuba we set out to explore Vedado on foot. We began by strolling along the street towards the Malecon. The Malecon is a wide road and walkway which stretches along Havana's coastline for five miles. It runs all the way from Old Havana, through Central Havana to Vedado. People stroll here, fish here and enjoy the views here. On the road we caught our first glimpses of Havana's vintage American cars, many of which are now used as taxis.

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Vintage cars.

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Fishing on the Malecon.

We walked along the Malecon below the Hotel Nacional to the end of a street called La Rambla. Here there is a good spot to take photos with a Cuba sign and flag above you.

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Photo spot below the Hotel Nacional.

Then we walked in the other direction to a monument commemorating all of those who lost their lives in the sinking of the USS Maine - an American battleship which blew up mysteriously in Havana Harbour in 1898. This explosion brought about American intervention in the fight against the Spanish for Cuban independence. Before going to Cuba, I read a book about this called 'Cuba Libre' by Elmore Leonard.

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Monument to the sinking of the USS Maine.

Not far from the Maine monument there is a statue of Jose Marti. He was a Cuban writer and he played an important part in Cuba's fight for independence against the Spanish. In this statue he is cradling a child and pointing.

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Jose Marti

We then walked up to the entrance to the Hotel Nacional. This is an amazing building and a real must-see if you are ever in Havana. It was built in the 1930s by an American company. They constructed it on the remains of a much older fortified building. There are still cannons and tunnels from the earlier building in the grounds of the hotel. At one point the Hotel Nacional was run by the American mafia and was known for its huge casino. After the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro closed the casino down and nationalized the hotel. The hotel even played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is an exhibition about this in its grounds.

We came to this hotel a lot. We ate here, drank here, bought day passes for the swimming pool here and changed money here. If you buy a day pass for the pool, it costs 25CUC , but you can spend 20CUC of this on food and drink. For changing money the Hotel Nacional does one of the best rates around. You must bring your passport with you both for the pool and the money exchange. Our only grumble about the Hotel Nacional was that on our first visit we had drinks in the cafe/restaurant downstairs near the entrance to the pool and the waitress tried to short change us. I called her up on this and got our money back straight away. I had read short changing tourists was a common scam in Cuba. It happened to us twice. Both times we noticed and got our money back without argument - just be aware of what you are doing.

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

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Hotel Nacional

Although Vedado is not as old as Old Town, Havana, it has some lovely old, colourful buildings. We saw many as we wandered around. Some were in good condition, others showing lots of signs of wear and tear.

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Colourful old buildings Vedado.

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Colourful old buildings Vedado.

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Colourful old buildings Vedado.

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Colourful old buildings Vedado.

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Colourful old buildings Vedado.

It was way too hot to see everything in Vedado on foot so we used the hop on hop off bus to take us around. We caught it outside the Hotel Havana Libre and it cost us ten CUC each for a day ticket. We used this bus to visit Revolution Square, another must-see sight. This square was completed in 1959, which was the year Fidel Castro attained power. It was meant to have been called Civic Square but Castro renamed it Revolution Square in honour of his victory. Many political rallies have taken place here. It was also used for the visits of Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Francis in 2015. The square has a 358 feet tall tower which acts as a memorial to José Martí. His statue is at the foot of the tower. The National Library, the seat of the Cuban government and Communist Party, the Ministries of the Interior and Communications are also located here. The ministries' facades have a steel memorial depicting Che Guevara, with the quotation "Until the Everlasting Victory, Always" and one showing Camilo Cienfuegos with the quotation" You're doing fine, Fidel". These are extremely famous.

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Camilo Cienfuegos.

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Che Guevera and the hop on hop off bus.

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In Revolution Square.

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The Jose Marti Monument.

Next we got off at Colon Cemetery - one stop further on than Revolution Square. This cemetery is named after Christopher Colombus. It is entered through a huge monumental archway and contains many vastly ornate tombs. When we tried to enter, we were forced to go and buy five CUC entry tickets. Cubans enter free. I don't think I have ever paid to enter a cemetery before.

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Colon Cemetery

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Colon Cemetery

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Colon Cemetery

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Colon Cemetery

There are also several sights on La Rambla - one of Vedado's main roads. These include Havana University, Havana Libre Hotel, which used to be the Hilton prior to the revolution, Coppelia - an ice-cream parlour with a permanent queue, the Avenue of the Presidents which is lined with statues of various South and Central American presidents and the Fosca Building - once one of the largest reinforced concrete buildings in the world. At one point it went into a period of decline, but has now been fully renovated.

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Havana University.

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Fosca Building.

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Coppelia.

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Habana Libre Hotel.

Vedado is a good base to stay in as it has many hotels, bars and restaurants. We ate in the Hotel Nacional, Cafe Laurent - which was upstairs from our hotel. It is well-known but was not our best meal. We also ate in California Cafe which was friendly, cheap had great food and live music.

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Hotel Nacional.

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Cafe Laurent

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Cafe Laurent

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California Cafe

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Cafe California

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Sunset over Vedado

Posted by irenevt 04:37 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches churches hotels cathedrals cuba swimming cocktails

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I'm not sure I could suggest any friendly airports. Cuba sounds like LAX where everyone yells all the time. We avoid it when possible. When we lived down there, we flew in and out of Ontario, a friendlier subsidiary of LAX. Sounds like the rest of the trip went swimmingly though. Can't wait to see the rest.

by Beausoleil

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