Cold war, communist state, trade embargo. These are the three phrases that come to mind whenever someone mentions Cuba. Thanks to our western-dominated media influence, many people do not have a good impression of Cuba. When I informed my family members that I was headed to Cuba, they were all so worried for me and asked me why I need to fly to that part of the world.
I was undeterred by other people’s opinions. I had already booked my flight and even the deteriorating US-Cuba relations was not going to affect me. My plan was to stay two weeks in Cuba, visiting four different cities such as Havana, Varadero, Trinidad and Vinales.
I flew in to Cuba via Varadero airport. My first challenge faced was to convince the customs officials that I do not need a visa to enter the country. Other nationalities had to purchase a tourist visa card from their departure airport which cost between US25 to $35. However, thanks to positive bilateral relations, I did not need to purchase that. Luckily, being able to speak Spanish, I communicated with the chief officer who then interviewed me about the places I was going to visit, the address of my guesthouse and the purpose of my visit. After 15 minutes, I managed to get that precious entry stamp on my passport. I was finally in Cuba!
Varadero is Cuba’s package holiday resort, one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. It is also known as Playa Azul, meaning “blue beach” in Spanish, serviced by sprawling four and five-star hotel complexes. Nowehere on Cuban soil can you find such a high concentration of beachfront restaurants, nightclubs and luxury hotels. The peninsula juts out from the mainland, offering a brilliant stretch of white sandy beach for all to enjoy, regarded as Cuba’s best. Instead of staying at the glitzy hotels, I chose to stay at a tranquil fishing town just twenty minutes by bus from Varadero, where locals are able to enjoy the public beach, away from the tourist crowds. During the day, I took the public bus to Varadero to relax by the beach and was mesmerized by the warm seas, crystal clear waters of the Carribean. This is indeed one of the most beautiful beaches indeed. I met a Mexican mother-son pair who were traveling together, they also concurred that Varadero is amazing, it is comparable to Cancun in Mexico, but it has fewer tourists.
My next stop was Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage City which is home to beautifully preserved colonial architecture, dating back from the 18th to 20th centuries. Trinidad is a town in Cuba, not to be confused with another Carribean country Trinidad and Tobago. The oldest part of the city is one of its greatest attractions, filled with cobblestone streets that bring me back to old towns in Europe, with horse-drawn carriages. Trinidad contains a lot of rich colonial history because it was the point of receiving African slaves in the past who would toil in the sugarcane plantations, forming the driving force of the Cuban economy. Due to the profits generated from the sugarcane plantation, the town of Trinidad was able to flourish and construct several churches and main squares (Plaza Mayor).
Besides wandering around the picturesque streets of Trinidad, I also climbed up to the top of the radio tower hill (Cerro de la Virgia) to enjoy the panorama of the city, as well as visited the beach again at Playa Ancon. This beach had stronger waves than at Varadero and the waters were not so blue, partly due to the raging storm during my visit. Unfortunately, I was unable to snorkel or go diving at Playa Ancon as planned, due to the inclement weather.
My third city on this trip was Viñales, which is also the favourite weekend escapade of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Walking through the breathtaking valley or going on horseback riding to explore this countryside town is definitely recommended. Along the isolated tracks in the lush valley, farmers cycle past wearing straw hats and puffing huge cigars, or trot past on horseback. In the fields, simple wooden plows are pulled by oxen rather than tractors. One of the highlights in Viñales is the collection of underground rivers and limestone caves, such as the Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave) or Cueva de San Miguel. Viñales also offers a plethora of hikes in the surrounding valley, where you can go with a local guide and get close to nature. For those who do not want to exert too much, the Hotel La Ermita is a 20-minute walk from town and offers a stunning sunset scenery of the looming valley.
Leaving the best for last, I finally arrived in the capital city La Havana. From Habana Vieja (old Havana) to museums, theatres, Central Havana and the the famous Malecon scene shot in the recent Fast and Furious 8 movie, Havana is pulsating with life. There is also a beach area at Playas del Este popular among locals, located east of Havana and about 20 minutes by taxi.
At the Plaza de la Revolucion, I could imagine the crowds listening to Fidel’s former speeches in the sprawling plaza, surrounded by the monolithic government buildings.
Touts bombard the innocent tourist to persuade them to take a ride in one of the American-imported vintage Cadillacs. I preferred walking along the streets or just hopping on a public bus to see where it will take me to. From the Capitolio Nacional to the Malecon, there is never-ending sites to see and explore in Havana.
Another place to check out is the Cemetrario Cristobal Colon, a huge city for the dead which contains almost a million tombs and today it is also a national monument. It rivals the cemetery that I had visited in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Havana is definitely my favourite city to visit in the country.
Two weeks were gone in a blink of an eye. I made so many Cuban amigos (friends) who told me to come back to visit again. I know I will, one day.
How to get there? ✈✈
I flew in to Varadero via Tokyo and Mexico City on ANA airlines, spending 5 days in the latter. On the way home, I went the other way round the world and flew out of Havana on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. It is faster to take the route via Tokyo and across the Pacific Ocean to reach Cuba.