Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Havana

Our first stop of the day was Callejon de Hamel, Havana's centre of the Afro-Cuban culture and religion. The small area also had funky street art as well art studios housing bizzare art! 

A Merceded Benz in Cuba? That's not from the 1950s?!? One had to wonder how this was funded...this car slated for tourist rentals only

Psychedielic street art of Callejon de Hamel

Home of Afro-Cuban religion and culture

Made the dilapated buildings look funky

Colour everywhere

Food being prepared on the streets.

Hmmm, not sure if I would eat that

The former Hilton, not Hotel Libre
Yoanis then took us to “new” Havana. En route we passed by the main hospital of Havana as well as the University of Havana. The first was in a rather sorry state of affairs whereas the latter had somewhat maintained in grandeur. Buildings here were newer, built in the first half of the 20th century. They also seemed better maintained. Yoanis confirmed that it was a more expensive area. We walked past a hotel that was formerly the first Hilton in Cuba. Our stop was Coppelia, a local ice cream parlour. It was one of the few places we’ve been to that charged in local pesos. Double scoops of ice creams for all 10 of us only cost 18 pesos = less than 1 Euro! Whilst it was nice enough ice-cream, I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit it. We continued our walk towards the Malecon, Havana's water front promenade before heading for lunch around Vedado.

Lunch here was noticeably more expensive than in Old Havana but the food quality was also noticeably better. The dishes offered were fairly consistent, but the meal was flavoursome. We retired back to our casa for a sleep as we had reservations for a New Year’s Eve at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, an elegant establishment built in 1930 and one of the few well maintained. We were pleasantly surprised at the magnificent room in which dinner was served. Our New Year’s Eve party accessories were also ready in a beautiful bag waiting for us on our seats. The meal was plentiful and delicious. Included in our meal was a bottle of wine for every 2 guests! We were delighted to discover that our entertainment for the evening was a variety of classical musicians. There was nothing more relaxing that to enjoy our meal to the sounds of opera amongst others.

At the end of dinner, we adjourned to the nearby hall where the second half of our evening awaits. Our reservation included a “show” where we again we were allocated a bottle of “champagne” for every 2 guests. We were not sure what to expect. We thought they had likely misused the name and that it would be sparkling wine from Spain. However, it turned out to be the real deal! 4 bottles of Moet had our names on it. The best surprise of the evening was the actual “show”. We were gobsmacked to be partying and welcoming the New Year with the Buena Vista Social Club! There were no words to adequately describe how special this was. The music and the atmosphere were just AWESOME!

We were so grateful that we were given this rare once in a lifetime opportunity. Out of the poverty and squalor of Cuba, we have somehow ended up having one of the most amazing New Year’s Eve celebration ever. 

Jonah's photo of the streets of Vedado

Ice cream at Coppelia!

The majestic Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Malecon

The dining hall

Party gear provided!

Champagne anyone?!!

Buena Vista Social Club! Yes!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Back to Havana

It was a low key travel day back to the Capital. It was somewhat dismaying to leave the countryside to return to the crowded and dirty streets of Old Havana. We couldn’t help but feel that it was a shame to have so many buildings which were obviously once grand in such a dilapidated state. Some so bad that it looked like a war zone. Our casa once again was extremely basic. There was only one sheet covering the very thin mattress on the bed and air-conditioning was barely working. Whilst the bathroom was clean, it was full of mosquitoes. At least this time we were all in the same casa!

Our walk around Old Havana really highlighted the poverty of the country. Everything was broken or dirty. You had to be careful not to step into dog poo. There were small areas where things were well maintained and those were geared particularly for tourists. We did, however, chance upon a Japanese restaurant! The excitement of the family was palpable. We could not return there for dinner fast enough. The Japanese speaking waitress filled us with great hope of getting an authentic Asian fix. Alas it was not to be! Whilst it was not the typical Cuban offerings, the flavour was not quite Japanese either!

The buildings on the street near our casa

The corridor in our casa

Our room

Is that...Japanese food?!?

One of the strangest tasting karaage I've ever had!

Friday, 29 December 2017


Our morning started with a visit to the Indian Caves. It was believed that the Guanajatabey Indians sought shelter here. It was a small limestone cave system with a river running through it. The first thing that came to mind was how poorly it had been looked after. The limestone formations had obviously been touched and damaged, with many black and brown marks, broken bits of stalactites and stalagmites and even numerous carvings on the walls. The first half of the walk through the caved brought us to the river where a boat would take us out through the river. The motor boats used to ferry tourists through the caves couldn’t be good for the cave system either... We were glad that we went early as by the time we had boarded our boat, there was already a long line of tourists behind us.

Our breakfast spread

The back of our casa

This was enough to keep Jonah happy!

At the entrance to the Indian Caves

The first half was a walk through

The second half which took us out was via the water

We then met up with our next local guide, “Floyd”, who had to be one of the most hilarious guides we’ve met. His mother in law jokes were endless! He took us on a walk through the Vinales Valley and took us to the tobacco farm of the local farmer. We went through the tobacco planting cycle as well as the drying process to complement the manufacturing process we saw earlier at the cigar factory. The farmers were mandated to sell 90% of the tobacco to the government and were allowed to keep 10% for themselves. The farmer’s family kindly showed us how a cigar was rolled and offered for us to smoke his cigar. Their tobacco leaves were fermented with the family’s recipe of honey, guava leaves and rum. We purchased our cigars from him as they were significantly cheaper than at the shops.

It was then a walk back to the main town where we had some late, ice-cream and a siesta. We tried some Tapas for dinner which was unfortunately disappointing. The food was all deep fried. However, as the cocktails were all 50% off we didn’t care!

Walking through the locals houses and shops to the Vinales valley

The houses gave way to farmland

Tobacco farm

This farmer is 79 years old!

The young tobacco plants

The drying house where the tobacco leaves were dried

Frames to hang up the leaves

An example of the dried leaves

Walking to the farmhouse

Discussing flora of Cuba like a pro!

Coffee made the really old fashioned way

The farmer's son showing us how the cigars were rolled from scratch

Oma enjoying the free puff!

The locals know how to do it

Time for a rest after watering the crops

Back to the casa

Coffee margarita. Not so good but it was half price!