Bob Walker, who organises holidays and outings for Mancass in Manchester shares his highlights from a group trip to Cuba.
To be honest, Cuba had not featured on my bucket list but after a few requests to do a tour there from my group I decided it was worth a look. After chatting to various GTOs and friends about the island, a plan for a tour was hatched. With help from Success Tours a 15-day tour was arranged and advertised to my group.
The trip was a real eye opener for us all, as none of the group had visited the island before, but we thoroughly enjoyed it! Here’s a little taster of some of the highlights:
After breakfast, we were met at the hotel by the always cheerful Lazaro, for a full day exploring Havana. Our first part of day consisted of a walking tour of Old Havana. A short stroll from the hotel was the Museum of the Revolution, housed in the former Presidential Palace, which offers a fascinating insight into Cuba’s revolutionary history.
We continued our guided stroll through Old Havana, passing the old Bacardi Building (by the way, Bacardi is not now produced in Cuba), Ernest Hemmingway’s watering hole, La Floridita, the gem of a shop, Dr Johnson’s drugstore and the famous historical squares; Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas.
It was great to soak up the amazing vibrancy of Old Havana and the narrow bustling streets, with music everywhere, before being served lunch in the Bodeguita Del Medio (one of Hemmingway’s frequented restaurants). The lunch was good, as was the obligatory music, supplied by local musicians. It seemed to be a recurring theme with music and eating/drinking in Cuba!
After a busy day the group were free to explore at their leisure. They found things to see and do, shop or take a stroll along the Malecon to view the street sculptures.
After breakfast it was time to meet our guides Lazaro and Oswaldo for our next stop on the tour, the Las Terrazas National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty which is protected as one of Cuba’s most important National Parks. On arrival at the park were joined by a local ranger/guide for our visit to a former coffee plantation house where he recounted the history of Cuba’s coffee industry which is closely linked to the slave trade.
Our lunch was at the Farmers House restaurant which is set within the National Reserve and still the home of a local farmer before being taken to Banos del San Juan, a set of waterfalls and pools very popular with the locals, although due to lack of rain the waterfalls were not falling very much.
After our check-in at the Hotel Moka, we had a little time to explore and relax before making our way down to the village and the La Fonda de Mercedes restaurant for some local Cuban cuisine.
After breakfast, we headed west towards the picturesque Viñales Valley, an area protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site for its outstanding natural beauty. It is dominated by strange limestone mountain formations called “Mogotes” and the valley is also the home of Cuba’s tobacco plantations. Our first stop to day was at local tobacco plantation. We are warmly welcomed by the farmer and served a coffee along with a tot of local rum!
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Our next port of call in the valley was the extraordinary Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria. This huge mural is painted on the side of a cliff and I must add the mojitos served here were superb! Travelling back through the picturesque Viñales village to where a fabulous lunch was served at a local organic farm, which afforded wonderful views across the valley. Whilst there we learnt a little more about the farm and its organic methods.
On the road again, sadly saying farewell to Las Terrazas, we travelled towards the south coast of the island where our first stop was to explore the French influenced small colonial city of Cienfuegos. After lunch we had a stroll through the colonial centre and along the seafront promenade. Leaving Cienfuegos behind we headed along the picturesque coast road, through the sugar cane fields to Trinidad, preserved by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Not too early, we meet Lazaro for our comprehensive tour of the centre of Trinidad. We start our tour with a visit to a local shop. Here Lazaro explains the differences about the currency (local and Convertible Pesos) and also the current food rationing. Our next pit stop was the La Canchanchara, an old house dating back to the 18th century to sample their unique Trinidad rum and sugar cane cocktail. Later we made an interesting visit to the Museum of the Fight against the Bandits, which covers the revolutionary battles in the nearby Escambray mountains. It was worth the climb up the bell tower to see the very best views across Trinidad.
Our dinner tonight was at local private restaurant, Vista Gourmet. The dining afforded great views across the city and the food was superb.
“One of the highlights of our visit was a drive in an old American car, it was a great way to enjoy the unique city of Havana.”
Today we visited Sancti Spiritus, a small unique colonial town, with a river running through it, across which is the oldest stone bridge in Cuba. Lazaro, once again, took us on a short walking tour of the town and even bought us all ice creams. With time to explore before lunch, the main church and bell tower proved popular, along with a visit to the bridge and off course a coffee!
We set out for Sugar Mill Valley where the 145ft Manaca Iznaga Tower stands as a silent witness to Cuba’s history of slavery where over 30,000 slaves worked in the overlooked sugar plantations. Moving on, we take the picturesque journey through the Escambray Mountains, with its plantations of pineapple and mangoes before reaching our destination of Santa Clara. Santa Clara is a city of major historical significance in Cuba.
First we visit the final resting place of Ernesto “Che” Guevara at the very symbolic Mausoleum along with time in the museum dedicated to his life. Photo stop completed, it was time for lunch in the city centre at the Restaurante Santa Rosalía.
After our brief stay in Santa Clara, we made our way back into the city to see a couple of the sights we didn’t manage to get to the day before. The first stop was at the memorial of Taking of the Armoured Train honouring the Battle of Santa Clara, followed by a visit to another statue of Che Guevara holding a child. An excellent piece of artwork!
From here we travelled direct to Varadero, a stunning beach resort covering the 20km Hicacos Peninsula. The resort has a golf course and one of the best beaches in Cuba with white sands and crystal clear waters.
With three days to chill out, that is exactly what everyone did, enjoying taking the hop-on hop-off bus around the peninsula, catching the little train to the shopping mall, walking along the beaches or enjoying the free water activities. There was something here for everyone and you didn’t go hungry or thirsty either.
With the holiday drawing to a close, sadly we had to say adios to Varedero and travel back to the city of Havana. Great news when we arrived back at the Hotel Sevilla, Lazaro was there to meet us and he had arranged an early check-in.
With a full afternoon to explore, the group dispersed to see more of the sights on offer. The Cámara Oscura was very popular as was the Museum of Mural Painting which exhibits some beautifully restored original frescoes in one of the oldest surviving houses in the city. A short stroll from the hotel brought us to the Havana Gourmet Restaurant where we treated to a fabulous meal before picking up the heading to a performance by the world famous Buena Vista Social Club in their home city of Havana at the Havana Café. An excellent venue with quirky exhibits all around, great music and show.
With the final morning at leisure, there was some last minute shopping or exploring to do in Havana. Luckily I did manage to fit in a tour of the Capitol, although not fully open you did get to find out more about Cuba’s history and a good look inside the building, albeit with some of it under wraps.
I’m glad I was persuaded to organise the tour and I must extend my thanks to our guide in Cuba, Lazaro, for his cheery demeanour and commentary throughout. Last, but not least, a big thanks to Success Tours for putting together another great holiday, one that we will all remember for a long time.