Relations have improved with the US and Cuba meaning it is now legal to travel to Cuba, but with some limitations.
The bad news is that you still can’t simply book a flight and a hotel and head to Cuba.
You’ll need to book and travel with a Cuban travel organisation that has an official license from the US State Department.
A lot of the hotels in tourist areas you will find are all inclusive. We stayed in Varadero, this is a purpose built hotel strip along the peninsula of the island. The hotels are all majority owned by the government but outside hotels sponsor the hotels and put their name to them.
The star ratings in Cuba are not what you will find in the US. If it says 5 star, it probably means a good 3 star or four star so it is always worth going for the highest rating you can afford.
The hotels themselves vary, some are high rise hotels and some are small bungalow chalets. We stayed in the latter. The standard of rooms are very good, you can expect a roomy hotel suite with all of the essentials. But they go no further than that. You are highly unlikely to find wifi in rooms or hotels, but that is perfect if you fully want to switch off. In most towns in Cuba they share one computer between all of the residents so the internet is a real luxury.
The food is nice but nothing spectacular. The hotel we stayed in had a buffet restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The meals got a little repetitive by the end of the week but when most of your produce has to be shipped in things are bound to be limited.
There was also a la carte restaurants open for lunch and dinner, these were definitely of a higher quality and you received better service.
The drinks within the resorts are clearly watered down but that does mean you can drink all day and not get too messy.
But the hotels are not the real attraction to Cuba. The day trips out to see the real island are the reason you would come!
We took a trip to the Bay of Pigs to do some scuba diving one day. From Varadero it is about a 2 hour drive across the island to get there but on the way you see small villages and towns where locals live in small concrete houses and you can imagine what it would be like to live under communist reign.
One thing you will notice on the drive is the lack of advertisements, that being none. The only signs you will see are pictures of Che Guevara and the Cuban flag with writing in Spanish.
Once at the Bay of Pigs you get fully kitted out in all the gear and partnered with a professional. The water is warm and calm as it is on the Caribbean sea side of the island.
The professional will make you practice in the shallow water and when you are comfortable you will proceed to the deeper waters to swim with the fish and see the coral reefs.
This is one of the best experiences of my life. I cannot swim well but the instructor helped me and made me feel very comfortable in the water and with the equipment.
Another day, we made a short trip down the coast to Coral beach to do some snorkelling.
This beach is on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island so expect rougher and colder waters.
The diving instructor brings fish food with him so as you are snorkelling and looking at the great masses of coral literally hundreds of fish come swarming around you.
A trip to Cuba isn’t complete without a trip to Havana.
We got picked up in an American vintage Chevrolet and made our way towards Havana. On the way we stopped off at Bacunayagua Bridge. This is the highest bridge is Cuba. Close to the bridge is a bar that serves traditional pina colada’s in pineapple shells whilst you enjoy the view. They serve you a virgin colada and give you a bottle of Havana Club rum to add yourself to your taste. One of the tastiest pina coladas I’ve ever had and pretty boozy unlike the hotel cocktails.
Back into the car and we continued to Havana.
First stop was old town. You will find some renovated buildings and some still under renovation. Whilst they are renovating the building you will see they are not changing the original look of the building. As you walk past some of the buildings you can see before photos of the now finished buildings.
Walking round the streets you will get a real feel for the city, washing out on balconies, the locals selling street food on corners, and street performers performing for tips. If it wasn’t for the coaches you really would think tourism hadn’t hit the city.
We headed up to Ambos Mundos, a rooftop bar for a classic mojito. From here you can clearly see how many of the buildings still are to be renovated. You can also see the castle on the hill.
From here we took the car to Revolution Square. This is where Cubans celebrate national holidays and is the largest square in the world.
It is home to the Government buildings and is possibly most famous for the silhouette of Che on the side of one of these buildings.
We visited a local restaurant for a bite of lunch. The food was good. We had typical Caribbean chicken rice and beans, and you got a lot of the money it cost.
Last stop was a trip to an old rum factory. They stopped producing rum a couple of years ago but shop remains selling all types of local rums and cigars. If you want to buy gifts, this is the place to do it. It is so cheap!!! $5 for a bottle of rum!! Almost cheaper than water! What a shame for the weigh allowance for luggage!
Even though we visited in November (supposedly the dry season), as we drove back to the hotel we ran into the almightiest thunderstorm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen lightning like it. The wipers couldn’t clear the windscreen quick enough and we were driving with almost zero visibility. But as soon as it had started it was over! That being said, the rest of the weather was amazing.
Cuba is such an amazing country to visit and I would recommend visiting before tourism really hits and possibly ruins the authenticity of the history. But you can’t go to the country expecting luxury, it is rough around the edges but that is part of its appeal, it is perfectly imperfect.