The Big Trip: Havana, Cuba

If you've not yet visited this brilliantly atmospheric island, then now is the time...

If you’ve not yet visited this brilliantly atmospheric island, then now is the time…

Salsa, heat, rum, cigars, coffee, crumbling palaces, vintage Chevys, empty beaches, Che Guevara on every corner… Goodness – what’s not to love about Cuba? Easily reached on twice-weekly flights from London, Havana undoubtedly offers the best airport transfers in the world. As I cruise into town in a 1952 purple-and-cream open-top Oldsmobile, marvelling at how quiet the roads are, relishing the 31°C warmth, there’s only one thought in my mind: why did I wait so long? 

Got a light? Cigars are an essential part of Cuban culture © Ben Davis

For years everyone’s been saying ‘Go before Castro goes’, but in truth Fidel has already passed on the revolutionary baton to his successors. However, recent moves to ease relations between the US and Cuba looks likely to bring about considerable changes. New ferry services between Florida and the island have been announced, JetBlue (jetblue.com) will be starting flights from New York to Havana on 3 July, and airbnb (airbnb.co.uk) are already offering cool places to stay.

This is good news for the Cuban people, and travellers, but if you want to see the country before tourism explodes, then go soon. It’s been 56 years since the Cuban revolution led the Caribbean’s largest island down a bumpy road of socialist experiment, and it’s still marching forth in a blaze of rousing slogans and anti-US government rhetoric. Ironically, the Cubans love baseball and rodeo, and these days US citizens are able to visit ‘if they do good’. Change is clearly in the air. Many travellers now stay in casas particulares (B&Bs) and dine in paladares (private restaurants), and there are plans to end the dual currency of pesos (for locals) and CUCs (universally known as ‘cooks’, for foreigners). 

Cuba equals colour – your camera will be in overdrive © Ben Davis

Cubans still have food rationing cards, though, and there is a tradition of make-do and mend we wasteful Westerners should learn from. This is most obvious in the classic US cars from the 1950s that splutter and rattle through the streets. There are far more than I expect, and they make the near-deserted four-lane motorways look like a film set. While some have been pimped and retro-fitted for tourists, complete with flashing sound system, comedy police siren and faux bullet-holes, you still see families heading off to the beach in an ancient blue Dodge crammed with excited children.

Looking out from the roof terrace of my city centre hotel, the Saratoga (from £159, hotel-saratoga.com), the first surprise is the immense white dome of the Capitolio Nacional, completed in 1929, which looks very much like another well-known building in Washington DC. The neighbouring streets of Habana Vieja are rich with Spanish colonial churches, palaces and plazas in varying states of health. This area is very walkable, but it’s hard to resist a ride in a coco taxi, which looks like a big yellow crash helmet with a scooter on the front. I also recommend jumping in a three-wheeled bicitaxi at night when you’re heading off to that secret little restaurant. Crowded housing, thick heat and Hispanic gregariousness means that life invariably takes place outdoors, and a twisting and turning journey through the back streets, with families eating and TVs blaring, makes an engrossing ride.

Classic motor: yes, you really can ride in a car like this © imagepalace.co.uk

Much work is being done to preserve Havana’s marvellous buildings, and without too much loss of atmosphere. The quintessence of its faded grandeur is the long-established paladar La Guarida (laguarida.com) which crowns a picturesquely dilapidated apartment block that featured in the film Fresa y Chocolate. You reach it by climbing flights of marble stairs as families sprawl on sofas and washing lines hang in ornate drawing rooms, then enter a warren-like, candle-lit restaurant decorated with vintage finds, religious statues and contemporary art. It’s the sort of place where you could step outside for a post-prandial fag and fall down a hole – but the dishes (pork stuffed with plums, lobster with Pernod) are well worth the risk.

Havana is also a fine place for drinking and dancing – this is the island that gave the world Bacardi, the daiquiri and a fistful of Ernest Hemingway tales. You can knock off all three by visiting his famous haunt, El Floridita (floridita-cuba.com). Order a Papa Doble to get the party going, then have a salsa lesson at the nearby and highly professional La Casa del Son for £7, or book a dancing partner for the night for £15 (bailarencuba.com).

My home in Havana: now there are more and more places to stay © imagepalace.co.uk

While the partying is good fun, my lasting memories of Havana come from experiencing its day-to-day life. In the H Uppman cigar factory 400 workers, almost a third of which are women, sit at long wooden benches hand-rolling Cuba’s most famous export in a monumental building filled with rusty fans and ancient machinery. The sweet-smelling tobacco leaves are stacked up like piles of kippers, and there are sultry glances and stealthy offers of an under-the-counter sale. To keep the workforce entertained, clear-spoken lectores give readings from newspapers and novels in a tradition dating from the 1860s.

Everyone you meet, from guides to hotel workers to expats, will tell you about ‘la lucha‘ , the game required to get along. ‘The official state wage is 15-45 CUCs (£9-27) a month’ one Habanero tells me. ‘But you need 250 CUCs (£149) to live…’ Those tourist tips, money sent from abroad, the second job – they matter. On the flip side, healthcare and education are free, and there is abundant organic food because farmers can’t afford to import pesticides and fertilisers. Internet access may be extremely limited, but there is a strong sense of community and racial harmony – and Cubans aren’t mortgage slaves, unlike most of us. 

Cuba’s most popular buy? The Che Guevara T-shirt © imagepalace.co.uk

We could chat about the ups and downs of this all day (that’s what rum’s for), but the easing of the state’s grip is certainly making a visit more enticing. Now you can stay in restored 1940s beach bungalows and penthouse apartments with vibrant 60s interiors (if they can’t find the retro furniture they make it). A fine example of the new Havana is Starbien (Calle 29, 205 entre B y C), a hip restaurant with lime green walls set in a colonial family home in leafy Vedado, which started up after the owner had worked abroad for two years. Now it’s serving black pasta ravioli with pomodoro squid and sesame-coated marlin for around £7 a dish, not to mention mojitos for £1.75…

And, of course, beyond Havana lies a lush and sweltering country as long as Britain, but with much better dancers. One afternoon we jump in a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible, complete with white-wall tyres and two-tone tail fins, and head for the beaches of Playas del Este. The sun is out and the wind blow-dries our hair as we lie back on the huge white leather seats, gazing up at the glossy palm trees and cobalt blue sky. The roads are empty with goats grazing the verges and derelict buildings inland. Laid-back seaside hotels and villas hug the seafront, and the driver takes us to a quiet spot where the sands are wide and empty.

It’s midweek and there’s just a few Habaneros here, families and escapists, plus a wandering band of straw-hatted musicians complete with double bass, who stop by to play some tunes for a tip. If this is Cuban beach hassle, bring it on. As we sit in the sun listening to the feelgood sounds of son cubano, I realise that hardly an hour has gone by when I haven’t marvelled at something. The ornate palacios, the smart ladies with their fans, the ‘Che Siempre Presente’ murals. Yes, Havana’s that good – so don’t wait, as I foolishly did. Just find your diary and book that trip…

Book now

Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) flies from London Gatwick to Havana, from £797 return in June.

Cuba specialist Esencia Experiences (esenciaexperiences.com) offers tailormade holidays and concierge services, including airport transfers and excursions by classic car.

Visas are required, see cuba.embassyhomepage.com and visacentral.co.uk. Take cash in sterling.

Havana (£14.99; Rough Guides) is an in-depth guide; useful websites include travel2cuba.co.uk, cubaabsolutely.com and havana-concierge.com

lead image © Ben Davis

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