Decades of communism, a fun-loving people and a charmingly stubborn indifference to change give Cuba an all together unique Caribbean vibe.
When, four years ago – and after decades of being ostracised by its mighty neighbour 90 miles to the north – Barack Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro shook hands at a summit in Panama it was supposed to usher in an era ending feudal politics, sanctions and restrictions on travel.
All went swimmingly for a couple of years as Americans flocked to the island, resulting in a shortage of accommodation and a hitherto unseen strain on Cuba’s tourist infrastructure. And then, a certain Donald J Trump rolled up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “With a change of US President, there has been a decline in visitor numbers resulting in a greater chance of securing your preferred choice of accommodation and, with less demand on hotels, prices have started to come down,” explains Rafe Stone, Product Manager at Journey Latin America.
“The reason so many people rushed to Cuba is they thought US investors would change the country and it wouldn’t be long before McDonald’s and Starbucks started popping up. But essentially that hasn’t happened and that’s why people go to see Cuba as it was, as it is, and as it will probably remain for the foreseeable future.
“One trend is the growth of good-quality, boutique homestays as Cubans look to fill a gap in the market. In addition, areas that were less visited have opened up with a greater choice of places to stay,” adds Rafe.
David Pettitt, Head of Product at Tunbridge Wells-based Pettitts Travel, says: “Despite the on-off relationship with the US, Cuba has experienced positive political and economic development over the last year or two.
“Although good for the country some of the charm may potentially soon be lost, whether that means fewer classic cars on the road or larger modern hotels at the expense of the casa particular (traditional private home stays). However, move away from areas such as Varadeo – that primarily cater for the all-inclusive brigade – and you’ll still find a fabulous island of history, culture, music, and warm, welcoming people.”
Behind the wheel
Starting your holiday in Havana, you’ll cruise around the city in a classic car taking in its iconic sights and atmosphere. From here it’s a short flight to Santiago de Cuba, from which you’ll drive the length of the country, stopping off to explore Fidel’s rebel camp hidden deep within the Sierra Maestro mountain range, ambling through the labyrinth of streets in Camaguey and learning to salsa with the locals in Trinidad before taking in the magnificent Vinales Valley. The 15-day trip from Pettitts Travel (pettitts.co.uk) costs from £1,869 per person including flights.
Salsa, beaches & vintage cars
A 15-day family holiday from Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk) opens up a new range of activities and adventures in a country where friendly people adore children, and costs from £2,897 per person excluding flights. Designed to take you beyond the resort hotels and further into the heart of the country, you’ll discover colonial splendour in many of the towns along with spectacular countryside.
Highlights of Cuba
A trip with Pettitts Travel (pettitts.co.uk) packages the best of Cuba, taking in the ‘must see’ but also delving beneath the well-trodden tourist trail. You’ll stay in a beautiful casa in Vinales, providing an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture while taking in views of tobacco fields, limestone rocks and quirky caves all adding to awe-inspiring countryside. The colourful town of Trinidad with its relaxed vibe also features on the 13-day tour before three nights spent kicking-back at a secluded Caribbean retreat. From £1,659 per person including flights.
For the more active, Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) has a 14-day cycling holiday where you can experience Cuba from two wheels, from £1,665 per person excluding flights. Travel the colourful streets of Havana, cycle alongside vintage cars on your way to the verdant Bay of Pigs, discover the UNESCO Word Heritage Sites of Cienfuegos and Trinidad and experience Cuba beyond the rum and cigars. You’ll also get to pay homage at Che Guevara’s final resting place in Santa Clara.
Parakeet: Beyond Cuba
Cuba’s unique Latin American beat sets it apart from other islands of the Caribbean and a 15-day trip with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk) takes you to its authentic heart. On route you’ll explore crumbling colonial towns evoking past elegance and characterised by dilapidated splendour. Parakeet: Beyond Cuba starts from £2,698 per person excluding flights.
Baldwins travel has a broad range of holidays available to Cuba – you can cruise around it, drive across it or even dance your way from city to beach! However you choose to take on this colourful island they can help you find the most memorable holiday to suit your time and budget. Call 01892 511999 or visit baldwinstravel.co.uk to find your local branch.
Short of time? No problem. Cuba’s capital is served by non-stop flights from London (around the same journey time as Florida). Veloso (veloso.com) has a six-night city break from £1,797 per person including flights where you’ll explore the fascinating and surreal city of Havana, as well as enjoying the Caribbean climate and sampling a relaxed pace of life while learning about the country’s dramatic history and unique society.
• Don’t take an American Express card (or any credit card issued through an American bank) – they won’t be accepted.
• Hiring a car is a great way to get around the island and quite reasonably priced.
• Eat in Paladares – private homes that have been converted into restaurants.
• Relax, go with the flow and remember the country operates on ‘Cuba time’!
• Confusingly, Cuba operates a dual currency system – the Convertible Peso (CUC) used by tourists and the Cuban Peso (CUP) used by locals. You will not be able to exchange CUC outside of Cuba, before or after you travel so you will have to exchange it on arrival at the airport.
• Cuba’s infrastructure remains outdated and general resources are limited. Flexibility is a must, so be prepared that sometimes plans may need to change – it’s all part of the old-world charm.
Think of stunning palm-fringed beaches with powdery-white sands and Cuba doesn’t disappoint. Journey Latin America’s Rafe Stone recommends heading to those around Guadalavaca in the north east of the island.
Music, music, music!
It seems as if music is everywhere in this country and one of the great pleasures is wandering back streets and finding a local bar – possibly with a cigar-smoking grandmother perched outside – while, from within, that infectious blend of Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythm emanate. Colonial Santiago de Cuba is the hub of much of the island’s cultural scene. It was in this area the revolution was founded and there are many monuments to celebrate it as well as a plethora of live music venues and some wonderful old bars.
Images: Interprid Travel