We say our goodbyes to Ines and the Havana rep arrives to hand us over to the driver who will take us to the international airport. Unsurprisingly when we arrive the queues are long and there's no clear reason why everything is taking so long. We bump into Hugh Dennis again and he tells us they did finally manage to eat at the restaurant in Trinidad and it was the worst meal they had in Cuba. We queue behind a Cuban man who tells us how difficult life still is - he now lives in Surrey and only returns for holidays. As a place to visit I can certainly recommend Cuba, but I don't think I'd like to live there either.
We chose to visit Cuba in 2016 because we wanted to experience its idiosyncrasies before they were undermined by closer ties with the USA. Since Fidel Castro ceded some control to his brother Raoul, citizens have begun to take advantage of new opportunities to open up their homes as Casas Particulares and set up private restaurants. These are stimulating an entrepreneurial culture that allows visitors a wider choice as well as generating individual wealth that was unheard of a decade ago. It’s definitely a country on the cusp of change, but there are many reminders of the hardships suffered during its more isolated period and in many respects it feels like a country frozen in time.
Since we returned, the USA has elected Trump and Fidel has died, creating a new and interesting dynamic where Cuba is likely to become more open to external influences at the same time as the USA less inclined to pursue closer ties. Raoul has already instigated a pilot home internet project and it will be interesting to see to what extent Cuba opens up now he has full control. Due to lack of infrastructure and capital, progress is likely to be slow unless Russia or China steps into the void created by America’s disengagement. So, perhaps it will be a few years yet before the dreaded golden arches “adorn” Habana Vieja.
We booked our Cuban journey through Putney Travel with the expert guidance of Charlie Panton. He created a bespoke itinerary for us based around our chosen destinations, giving us the best of both worlds – travelling independently with the freedom to stop and check out anything that caught our interest but with pre-arranged accommodation and a safety net in case of unexpected events. Our itinerary turned out to be almost perfect, except that we should have pre-arranged a wildlife trip into the Zapata peninsula – it was our plan to do so on arrival at Playa Giron but somehow we never got round to it. Staying in Casas Particulares was a good choice, giving some insight into real Cuban life and helping contribute directly to the local economy. The best piece of advice Charlie gave us was to allow a full day in Havana for picking up our hire car. The internal flight from Cayo Coco to Havana was a low point but unavoidable given the eccentric way the flights are scheduled, with timings changing literally from day to day.
Here are my top 10 travel hacks for making the most of a trip to Cuba:
- Take a multi-socket adaptor – there are few electrical sockets – and a torch for powercuts
- If you like highly-flavoured food, take your own bottle of hot sauce and/or spice mill – the food can be samey and bland
- Stock up on fuel, water and cash when you can – cambios run out of cash, filling stations run out of fuel and there are no shops between towns
- Take sterling, not dollars – there’s a 10% surcharge on exchanging dollars, sterling gives you a better rate
- Take a debit card, not a credit card … ATMs are widely available but credit cards are almost never accepted
- If travelling off the beaten track, change a small amount of CUCs into MNs for roadside restaurants outside towns (£2-3 per person is plenty)
- Learn some basic Spanish if you plan to stay in Casas Particulares, most hosts don’t speak English
- Be prepared to wait – service is slow, queues are a way of life and delays are inevitable, even if you have an appointment
- Don’t drive after dark – the roads are full of potholes and stray animals
- Vintage cars are picturesque but unreliable – great for sightseeing around Havana but not to be trusted for longer journeys (especially on those roads!)