Opening the door on Cuba

 

CUBA
With the USA relaxing travel restrictions to Cuba, Melissa Hobson explores the idea that the quirks of this island nation might be lost forever.

Why now?
It might not be renowned for its fine cuisine, but Cuba is the destination du jour. Since the US government announced it is relaxing restrictions around travel to Cuba, tourists from across the world are rushing to see ‘the real Cuba’ before the Americans arrive. In 2014, the country welcomed three million tourists and, by the end of the first quarter of 2015, a million had already visited.

After a long flight, we collapsed straight into bed at Hotel Telégrafo and woke up refreshed and ready to explore. We had booked a tour of Havana and waited in the dappled sunshine as several coaches arrived to collect their guests. To our delight, our tour guide Jesus led us past the waiting tour buses to a beautiful 1952 Chevrolet with a high-shine metallic green finish.

Into Havana
Cuba’s vintage cars are one of the first things that come to mind when thinking of the country, but it’s still a surprise to see so many. While lots are beautifully maintained by professional drivers, for every gleaming tourist taxi there’s a battered old Chevy chugging along in a fume of black smoke. The city’s blackened colonial buildings are testament to the pollution they pump out.

We were treated to a two-hour city tour in our spotless vehicle – taking in the historic Revo-lution Square, the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba and residential neighbourhoods – before cruising past the seafront and being dropped off to explore on foot.

We visited the immaculately restored Plaza Vieja (the ‘Old Square’), Hotel Ambos Mundos – favoured by Ernest Hemingway – and the market on Plaza de Armas, where locals sell a host of revolution memorabilia, trinkets and books. Jesus explained why the street bollards looked like canons – with a surplus of canons and limited building materials, they stuck them straight into the pavement! His encyclopaedic knowledge wasn’t limited to history: he ordered peanuts wrapped in white paper from a street vendor and pointed out Havana’s best rum shop. We returned for several samples before coming away with bottles of the deliciously sweet, seven year-old Legendario.

Eating out
Stopping for lunch we enjoyed hot, fresh crusty rolls with thick slices of ham, cheese and roast pork.

Once our feet began to ache, we strolled up Calle Obispo – a street brimming with restaurants, shops and market stalls – and returned to our hotel for a rest (and a much-needed mojito).

There are plenty of restaurants in the old town for dinner, but menus are limited. Most offer traditional Cuban rice and beans, salad and mango salsa with a choice of plain but tender pork, chicken, shredded beef or, occasionally, fresh, grilled langoustines artfully presented in their own shells. We weren’t blown away by the bland chocolatón (chocolate mousse), but the arroz con leche cinnamon-tinged rice pudding was so delicious that we polished off the lot and almost ordered more.

It’s not surprising this Communist island isn’t blessed with spectacular dining – poverty is rife and people do what they can with limited ingredients. However, for all the warnings of bad food before I arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. Although meals were simple, on the whole, we enjoyed fresh food washed down with a generous helping of rum and often accom-panied by live bands playing distinctive Cuban music.

Havana has plenty more to offer to keep tourists entertained, whatever their interests: the Museum of the Revolution, the camera obscura, Havana Club distillery, or renowned bars such as El Floridita or Bodeguita del Medio (order daquiris in the first and mojitos in the second). A short drive from the city, the more adventurous could even learn to scuba dive with Nautica Marlin.

The call of the countryside
A two-day tour gave us a snapshot into the rest of the country. At Santa Clara, we saw the armoured train that was derailed by Che Guevara’s revolutionaries; the turning point in the revolution that caused dictator Batista to flee the country. We also visited the fascinating Che Guevara Mausoleum, which houses the remains of Che and twenty nine other rebels.

Our next stop was the enchanting UNESCO world heritage site, Trinidad, where we wandered picturesque streets and sipped on La Canchánchara – a smooth drink famous in the region made from rum, lemon juice and honey. After this Spanish colonial town, Cienfuegos’ grand French-style buildings were another world.

Lifting the US embargo is bound to have a huge impact on the lives of the Cuban people. Those I spoke to hoped it will benefit the economy but feared losing their cultural identity if high-rise hotels and fast food outlets shoot up as a result. McDonald’s-free, this charming country is a must-visit destination.


PLANNING YOUR TRIP

● Flights Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Gatwick to Havana, virgin-atlantic.com

● Accommodation A standard room at the Hotel Telégrafo is from £55 per night, ho-teltelegrafo-cuba.com

● Packages For package holidays to Cuba, visit advanceworldwide.com

● Tours San Cristobal organises tours of Havana, viajessancristobal.cu

● Tourist information travel2cuba.co.uk

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