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A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

We got another taxi from Trinidad to Remedios; this seemed to be our preferred method of travel because the costs were pretty low and it meant we had more freedom to stop when we wanted to. Unfortunately our taxi driver couldn’t understand us any English and it was the first and only time in Cuba I doubted whether we were completely safe to travel on our own. The driver was VERY serious and blasted salsa music for 6 hours straight and by the time we reached Remedios we were on the verge of insanity!

 

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We had booked to stay in Hostal Buen Viaje after seeing some great reviews online before our trip. The hosts were Lester and Naty who were so accommodating that I felt like I was home. The room was airy which was great because we felt the heat up on the north part of the island a bit more. We also felt the mosquitoes too so I would recommend a net when you’re visiting these parts! I was running about like a mad woman one night trying to find the buzzing culprits.

 

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The Casa had the most beautiful courtyard where ate our breakfasts and dinner. Our hosts even placed a little St. Patrick butter knife out for us which had been a gift from their Irish friends – such a thoughtful touch! The food was amazing too. Naty cooked a local fish (I stupidly didn’t write it down) which we both devoured and Andrew isn’t even a big fan of seafood.

 

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Remedios also provided the best sunsets we saw in our entire trip. On our first time we were sitting in the town square drinking wine and the sky was the colour of electricity. A storm was brewing within the clouds the sun was setting in which produced the most intense orange colours. No photo would ever be able to do it justice.

 

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We only had one full day in Remedios which we spent on Cayo Santa Maria, a key which is just off the mainland and connected by bridge. When we were dropped off, we had to walk about 700m through mangroves which felt like a hike in the midday heat. However when we arrived on to the beach and saw the water we were awestruck. This was by far this most idyllic out of all the beaches we visited mainly because there was barely a soul there.

 

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There was little huts to sit under out of the sun although I never wanted to leave the water. It was shallow enough to just sit and watch the dark storm clouds gather in the distance. A hotel was located up the beach so we could grab drinks when we needed to because there was nothing else bar the huts. A full day in the heat began to take its toll on us after a few hours and we started to make our way back to the hut to meet our driver. Through the mangroves an Italian couple were startled by a snake and had stopped in their tracks. We felt so knowledgeable when we told them that there were no poisonous snakes in Cuba – a wee tip our guide Eddie had told us in Trinidad!

 

I wish we had have been able to stay longer in Remedios, especially at our Casa because it felt like a retreat after all our travelling. If we ever come back to Cuba I know we would definitely make sure to return to see Lester and Naty.

A Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

A Cuban Adventure Part 3 – Trinidad

It was a 7 hour journey between Viñales and Trinidad so we made sure to have books to read and a fully charged laptop to watch some movies to keep us occupied! Our new friends were rapidly becoming our biggest irritants and small quarters such as a Peugeot 407 will only enhance tensions! Andrew had asked for a toilet break and Walter refused him only to get the driver to pull over a half hour later (Andrew was not happy). When we got out of the car we couldn’t run away from them fast enough but because luck was not on our side they asked us to join them for dinner that evening – nightmare! Both Andrew and I are pretty bad at saying no so we shiftily said maybe, we were ‘pretty tired’ and we might see how we got on…

 

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After we checked into Casa Jorge Mendez we soon realised how hungry we were and heard the Belgians talking about a pizza place called San Jose. We decided we would go there early to avoid bumping in to them but after our starters in walked Innes and Walter… I didn’t know how to react when they came over and I was getting to the point of giving up and asking them to sit down with us! Andrew sensed this and gave me a kick under the table and a look to tell me he I would be killed if I dared ask. Then came the most awkward silence and I wanted to throw myself in to my delicious pizza. They got the hint thankfully but that didn’t stop us from bumping in them several more times during our stay there!!

 

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Our casa was really great with shutters opening to a courtyard and a massive room and ensuite. A pool had been promised but apparently it had been recently closed for renovation although something told us that the pool may have never existed! The roof gave us a great view of Trinidad out to the ocean and we watched the most amazing thunderstorm that night.

 

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I quickly found out that Trinidad was my favourite town in Cuba. I loved walking down the cobbled streets looking in to the different shops and colourful buildings. The town seemed to not have changed very much since the mid 19th century when it was a busy port and the buildings have kept its character. The old quarter is an UNESCO heritage site on top of the steep hill. It’s a struggle to make it up there in the heat but the views are well worth it especially for the sunset!

 

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We decided to get a taxi to Cienfuegos for the day – another old Chevy that probably hadn’t passed an MOT since 1964. Cienfuegos felt very different to Trinidad with lots of French influences and more western style shops and restaurants. The day was so hot we needed frequent refreshments so found a lovely spot by the pier to have mint and lemon slushies. After a dander round the town we thought we might try and make a trip to the Guanaroca lagoon on the way back to Trinidad. I had heard there was a wild flock of flamingoes based here and thought it would be an opportunity not to miss…

 

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And I’m so glad we didn’t miss the chance because this was one of my favourite times of our trip! We had a guide walk us down, pointing out native trees and birds before we reached the canoe. Our canoe guide didn’t have much English but he knew so much about the environment there. He rowed us to the other side of the lagoon, pointing out herons, snake birds, egrets and pelicans before I saw little pink dots in the distance. As we got closer we could see that the pink dots were actually a few hundred juvenile flamingoes – the most flamboyant splashes of colour against the tropical surroundings. It was eerily quiet but incredibly peaceful save for the distant rumble of thunder in the nearby. When we got close enough the flamingoes became unsettled and took off in unison making a circle around us overhead. All I could hear was their feet hitting the water and the flapping of wings – such an unforgettable experience!

 

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That night we went to Sol y Son, an old restaurant in a colonial home that still has all its original furniture including a bedroom at the front. There was great music while we ate although by this stage I was fully addicted to our chess app we’d been using since the beginning of the trip. Andrew taught me on our first few days and I was obsessed with beating him!!

 

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After our dinner we headed up to Casa de la Musica – an outdoor salsa club that has the best live music and dancing in the old quarter. Lots of amazing dancers made sure that we dared not dance and make a show of ourselves! We tottered on up the hill from the old quarter to the very top where there is an actual club in a cave – no joke! On the way up are little stalls selling mojitos for inflated prices although it’s a great way to take a break from the climb. When you get to the cave, there’s lots of steps down and then you enter a cathedral-like space with a bar. It’s pretty amazing to see although we would’ve preferred listening to music other than salsa for a few hours at least!

 

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The following day we hired out bikes to cycle to the Ancon peninsula which was 12km and seemed perfectly achievable. We packed lots of water and began to freewheel down the hill from the town towards the coast. Once we plateaued we realised fast how hot it really was. The sweat was soon streaming down my face and into my eyes. After 10km we were closed to heatstroke and our lives started to pass before us (cue dramatics). The water had ran out and we began thinking we were going to have to sleep on the side of the road but most important of all we had to find shelter. A hut soon appeared like a mirage before us and I had the tastiest lemonade of my life! After about an hour of solace we managed to get the energy to finish the trek.

 

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The beach was worth the near death experience – the water was a bright blue and the perfect temperature. There was so much coral and fish to dive down and see with a snorkel, I found it a lot better for snorkelling than Cayo Jutias. We didn’t get to spend too long there though because our epic journey took up half a day and we had to start looking around for a lift back to town before dark.

 

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We met a guy at the snack bar who despite sitting with a beer can was more than happy to take us back to town. With a fair amount of apprehension we agreed, we thought it less risky to get a lift home with a guy who may or may not be a bit sauced than cycle all the way back again. He threw our hired bikes in the back of an old Honda Civic and we sat in the back praying it was his first beer that he was still holding in his hand.

 

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We had booked to join a tour to Guanayara National Park and our driver, Papa Noel, picked us up in the morning. Turned out Papa was a big fan of Celine Dion and played her greatest hits all the way up the mountain. There’s something to be said about climbing up through a jungle with a view of the Caribbean in a car belting out ‘Don’t Think Twice’.

 

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We were in a small group tour with a guide, Eddie, who spoke perfect English. Eddie was a fascinating guide and it was great to have a conversation rather than just exchanging names in Spanish. He had studied in Santa Clara and had relatives on both sides of his family who had fought on opposing sides of the Revolution. He explained how the rebels hid in the mountains we were in and how the locals had helped them. He also knew an incredible amount about the flora and fauna of the jungle; I could have listened to him all day.

 

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We trekked around 5km before reaching beautiful waterfalls and then swimming in natural pools. These pools were the real deal, not like the puddles in Viñales! The water was crystal clear and we could dive underneath the waterfall in to caves. After our lunch we were taken to a coffee plantation which told the history of the coffee trade and all the different beans grown there. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of coffee but felt because of where we were I should give it a go. Mistake. I could barely drink it but smiled at the farmers anyway to show I wasn’t really repulsed by the bitterness. I took a sneaky stroll round the back and threw the coffee over the fence. I couldn’t bare to give them back a full cup!

 

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That night we bumped in to the Belgians – again – and decided that since we were leaving the next day we could manage one last night with them. We took them to Casa de la Trova which we had enjoyed before but they thought was too loud so made tracks to Canchanchara. This bar was very chilled although I wasn’t too impressed with our Cuba Libres, they used cordial instead of fresh limes which I thought was complete sacrilege. We said our goodbyes to Innes and Walter, promised to stay in contact (got to love these false holiday promises) and headed back to our Casa. We sat on the terrace watching the shooting stars and planned the next part of our trip to Remedios.

 

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A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

We planned on getting a bus from Havana to Viñales but realised too late that you had to pre-book (small piece of advice!). We managed to find a taxi driver that could take us all the way for $80 and for the convenience of having a car all to ourselves we were sold. The driver was an English lecturer and we had a great chat with him during the 3 hour journey through Piñar del Rio.

 

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It amazed me how the car managed to make it up the hills as we began to rise over the mountains. The roads were incredibly twisty which wasn’t doing Andrew or his car sickness any favours. The views were breathtaking, deep lush valleys and horse and carts carrying the produce. We arrived in to the town which is basically one street and fell in love with the place. We had booked to stay at Casa Nolo which was a bright pink house on the edge of the town and cost $25 per room per night. We sat outside waiting for our hostess Vana, watching the hens run about loose and local girls doing each other’s hair on the porches.

 

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Vana arrived and was the loveliest ball of energy. We were staying on the top floor which was so spacious and we had a massive terrace all to ourselves. The bathroom shower was a bit unique in it’s plumbing and electrics but we didn’t get any shocks so can’t complain too much. We had dinner on the roof which was a complete feast – soup followed by lobster with salad and homemade crisps and only $10.

 

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The next day we had booked a horse trek through the valley and tobacco fields. We met our guide Lazaro in the morning and he looked at our attire and shook his head. We stupidly hadn’t brought long trousers and he told us in broken Spanish that we would suffer for it later. We also met another couple who would be joining us – Walter and Innes both from Belgium. Innes was fluent in Spanish and proved an absolute lifesaver in translating Lazaro’s mumbles and the guide at the tobacco farm.

 

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Andrew had never ridden a horse before and I highly doubt I will ever see him on one again. When we met our horses there was this beautiful big black horse called Negreto and another smaller brown one called Dancer. Common sense made me assume I would be getting the smaller one but it turned out Lazaro had a great sense of humour and saw an opportunity. Andrew was assigned to Dancer and he quickly realised the reason for his name. Dancer didn’t trot like a normal horse but danced about the trek throwing Andrew every which way causing him to howl with pain when we burst in to a canter. We all laughed an awful lot, Lazaro included. Andrew was less impressed!

 

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Being able to see the valley while riding a horse was incredible. Looking up to see dramatic cliff faces and lush green crops against the red earth was something I will never forget. The tour of the tobacco farm was great and the guides were so knowledgeable about the land. We felt extremely cool lighting up the cigars they had just rolled for us and because they had dipped them in honey, they actually tasted really good.

 

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After the tobacco farms we were brought to a natural pool hidden in a cave. I think they oversold this place a tad because when we got there it was actually a dark pond with murky brown water. They had the cheek to ask us for an extra $2 to get entry but luckily Innes was able to tell them where to go in Spanish. The walk through the cave was a health and safety nightmare with a few random torches. We braved the water although I wasn’t sure what the hell was swimming beneath me! I would recommend asking to see photos of these ‘natural pools’ before you visit them!

 

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We a fantastic steak at El Olivo this night followed by several Ron Collins. We sat on the terrace sharing a cigar and thought we were the bees knees. Cue an embarrassing conversation with our hostess when we got back with Andrew repeating ‘Me llamo Andrew’ – cringe!

 

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The following day was one of Andrew’s favourite trips of the holiday. We had booked an old Chevy to take us to Cayo Jutias, a beach on the coast about an hour and half away, with our new friends Innes and Walter. The car didn’t travel above 30mph the whole journey although it was hard to tell because the speedometer didn’t work. It didn’t matter because the drive was so beautiful.

 

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What we didn’t expect was how stunning Cayo Jutias would be. The sand was white, the sea was the most amazing blue and there was a beach hut nearby ready to supply us with food and some cocktails – absolute heaven!! We were told that this was a great place to snorkel however this isn’t all that true. The water is crystal clear but the sea grass didn’t offer a wide variety of marine life and we gave up after about 20 minutes. There were some terrific walks along the beach though and we didn’t have to go far to have the beach all to ourselves. It was such a wonderful day.

 

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On the way back we ran in to a thunderstorm which proved how old the Chevy was. Andrew’s passnger window only went up half way and the driver had to cover the rest with a plastic bag. This didn’t work too well and it wasn’t long before Andrew was ankle deep in rainwater. The sound of the thunder and the intensity of the rain was such a sight though we loved every second.

 

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Despite us lathering ourselves in suncream we still got burned. Andrew’s feet were practically purple and only added to the injuries he had accumulated on the horse trek the day before. Note: bring plenty suncream with high SPF and effective aftersun!

 

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Our last night was spent with on the terrace watching the sun set and eating more of Vana’s great food. The conversation was starting to dry up with the Belgians and we were finding ourselves in the holiday predicament of being stuck with another couple. Unfortunately we we were spending the next day with them in a car travelling to Trinidad so we had to be as polite as we could!

 

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A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

We flew in to Havana at night with lightning illuminating the clouds around us, letting us know we had officially entered the tropics. Usually I’m not a fan of arriving in a new place at night because it’s a time you might see it’s dirtier dodgier side but driving through Havana at night was a great introduction to the city. There was such an energy about it and these beautiful buildings were lit up on the corners of palm tree-lined cobbled streets – amazing!

 

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We were staying at Casa Pedro-Maria in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) which was absolutely stunning. It was one of the most expensive places we stayed but we had decided we wanted to land somewhere comfortable that wouldn’t overwhelm us – it was $80 per room per night. There was a spiral staircase in the courtyard where we had our breakfasts that brought you to the rooftop of the Casa. Here you could sip on your breakfast smoothie with a view of the Revolution Museum and the surrounding terracotta roofs- not a bad start to the day!

 

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On our first day we took a bus tour through the city although we didn’t get much use out of the guide – the speakers weren’t working so we couldn’t hear a thing from upstairs. It was only $2 for the tour though and it was a great way to find our bearings and get our first taste of the Caribbean sun. Think we drank about 2L of water on the bus tour alone because it was so hot!

 

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We went straight to the San José markets after to purchase the obligatory Cuban military cap for Andrew to protect his head. This is a good place to pick up some souvenirs for home but I found it to be the most commercial part of Cuba. I preferred picking up little things across the whole trip like cigars from the tobacco fields (although I didn’t buy enough!).

 

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We were coaxed in to the La Familia restaurant on our first night which was a very lovely paladar on a terrace. It was a bit on the pricey side for Cuba – I think the whole meal cost about $20 but the live music was fantastic and the portions were massive. With full bellies we strolled to O’Reilly 304 – how typical of the Irish to be drawn to a bar with an Irish name. This bar was very very cool, it felt like we were in a major metropolitan city and they served the most delicious cocktails. It was a great place to meet people too and get tips on where to find great places to carry on the night.
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The following day it was raining which was a nice relief from the scorching sun and allowed for us to escape inside to the Revolution Museum. The building used to be the Presidential Palace and you can view the original office and the escape route Batista took when he fled the rebels in 1957. The scars from the bullets can be seen dotted around the Museum as a physical reminder of the the building’s past.

 

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The dilapidated museum was impressive although we should’ve taken an English tour because some of the notices weren’t translated. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit and to have the opportunity to be in the rooms where Cuba was reformed by Castro and Guevara was pretty special.

 

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After the museum we took a walking tour of Habana Vieja courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide we borrowed from the Casa and explored the many many plazas. The buildings are so beautiful and look completely battered by the salty sea air and years of neglect. Everyone seems to live on the streets, sitting on their doorsteps and balconies shouting out to one another and buying food from the mobile vendors. The buzz is incredible and welcoming although sometimes too welcoming. Another little tip: you will be harangued by jineteros trying to sell tickets to a “big festival” – it’s a massive con and you will hear it every day you’re in Havana.

 

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On our way back to the Casa we stumbled upon the Havana Club museum. Andrew’s staple booze at home is Havana Club rum with coke and lime so he was beyond excited about visiting this place. While we waited for the tour to start, we sat in the bar and had a few Cuba Libres and mojitos. There was a full salsa band playing and I felt I was very much in Cuba. I got pulled up by the band and learned how to salsa in dungarees, extremely embarrassing but very entertaining for Andrew. It was a fantastic tour although after all the cocktails my memory gets a bit hazy!

 

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That night we ate pizza in a little place close to our Casa (unfortunately I forget the name!). The tables were out on the cobbles and we ate the most delicious bruschetta. After the food and avoiding a few overly friendly cats at the table, we headed for La Floridita – the supposed birthplace of the Daiquiri. Hemingway is boasted as being a frequent customer to the bar and it seems insistent on clinging on to that era. The air is thick with cigar smoke when you enter and the band are crammed in to a tiny corner by the door. The whole bar looks like a set from a movie and it could be viewed as slightly cheesy but we loved it.

 

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After our last night in Havana we were destined for Viñales. We arrived back for one more night before our flight home and stayed with Casa Isel e Ilena. Isel was such a lovely woman and the private room had it’s own bathroom and balcony. It was a great chance to experience the loud streets of Habana Vieja one last time and we had the biggest breakfast with her at 4am before our flight home. We would definitely recommend staying with her however our limited Spanish meant we couldn’t understand most of what she said BUT she told the greatest stories with actions that made us laugh so much. She was the best host to give us a farewell from Cuba and it made it that bit harder to leave.

 

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See my other posts for stories from Viñales, Trinidad, Remedios and Varadero!

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for Traveling in Cuba

Tips for Traveling in Cuba

In September last year Andrew and I went on the trip of a lifetime to Cuba. It’s a trip we always reminisce about and we will always compare all our other adventures to this one. It was a place I had wanted to visit for a very long time and since the embargo was lifted with the US that year, we both knew it was important to see the country before the westernisation began.

 

We packed a lot in the fortnight we were away and at the time we thought that maybe we were doing too much but we have absolutely no regrets. We moved around a lot but it was the only way to really get the feel of the island and to know we saw as much as we could.

 

I’ll break the trip in to five different posts according to the different places we stayed to make it easier to find any tips for the adventure you might be planning. The trip taught us a few wee things along the way so hopefully we might of some help!!

 

A few tips to get you started are:

 

  • Cuba had no AirBnB at the time of our trip but I think they now have it up and running. I would recommend maybe booking the first few days of your trip but leave some flexibility as you might really enjoy certain areas and because you will have little to no access to internet you can’t cancel bookings online. There are lots of casas in every town so you will always find somewhere, we usually booked our next casa through the one were staying at the time. It seems the whole island has a relative in the next town and it’s a great way to meet families and get a better deal.

 

  • About the internet thing – be prepared for zero access. The only time we got to use the internet was in Varadero when we were at an all-inclusive resort. Even at that, there was no wifi but a computer room that reminded me of primary school and it took a good 10 minutes to get connected. The only reason I wanted to use it was because it was my birthday and I wanted to see messages from home but we really enjoyed using maps and our instincts to get us around – way more exciting!!

 

  • Don’t change your money at the airport. We experienced our first scam here when we landed and had a few quid taken off us. Not a huge problem because we weren’t changing a lot of money but I would recommend maybe getting enough changed for the transport in to Havana and then getting the rest changed in the city.

 

  • Learn as much Spanish as possible – we were told this before we left and I swiftly downloaded the Duolingo app about a month before the trip. I wasn’t as strict with myself as I should’ve been which was unfortunate because I think we would have gotten so much more out of meeting local people if we had have known more Spanish. We stayed with quite a few locals who were among the friendliest and most open people we have ever met but a fair few of them had limited English which meant our conversations were limited too.

 

  • Bring as many cigars home with you as you can. We only brought home 5 each and I regret not bringing home more because we saw them rolled and were walking the fields where the tobacco was grown. Rookie error!!

 

  • There are very little shops that sell snack foods, especially when you leave Havana. For those long car journeys make sure to bring some things to munch along the way! We brought some things along with us from Ireland but they barely got us through the first week. We did find somewhere that sold Pringles but the cost is incredibly inflated. Make sure and take whatever fruit you couldn’t finish at breakfast as well!

 

  • Be prepared to travel in dodgy cars if you want to travel on a budget. We travelled in a lot of beautiful Chevrolets for very little cash but for the longer journeys make sure to use cars that look like they won’t burst in to flames when going more than 40 mph. When we travelled from Viñales to Trinidad we travelled in a Peugeot 407 which seemed a lot safer until the driver insisting on sticking the footpedal to the floor for the whole journey. Poor Andrew was terrified for the majority of the journey.

 

  • Make sure to pack a mini first aid kit with bandages, cream for blisters, chaffing and burns and bug spray. Another idea would be to pack long trousers for any horse treks because we were idiots and only had shorts and our legs and feet were ruined after them!

 

  • There isn’t a wide variety of cuisines here due to the limitations on trade and private enterprise. The food, especially when cooked at the Casa you stay in, can be very tasty, especially the seafood! We dined like kings on lobster but after a while it can be a bit repetitive.

 

  • Take as many photos as possible. We took nearly 2000 photos and I still regret not taking more of the streets of Havana. Maybe next time.

 

Make sure to read my other posts on the places we travelled to while in Cuba – there’s way too much to talk about in one go and the country is just too amazing for one post.

 

I hope these posts can be of some help but please feel free to comment if you want more information!