3 years ago I visited Cuba for the second time after a hiatus of over 20 years. I fell in love with the place all over again, and longed to return well sooner than another two decades to see more of the beautiful island, its intriguing people and tortured history. So time had come to return and explore some more. Still only a week, still a very small amount of time, but we tried to do our best and decided to explore the central areas, after another couple of days in mind blowing Havana.
The question was in our minds: had Cuba changed since 2012, or was it too early to see any changes following from the warming up of US – Cuban relations? The first unusual thing we spotted on the tarmac at the airport upon landing was an American Airlines plane, not a sight to be expected around here. We also did meet plenty of American tourists all over, surely way more than we had 3 years ago. Had anything else changed?
Havana… thankfully this incredible city has lost none of its charm. There are more cafés, more restaurant and paladares and more smart and expensive looking stores in town selling consumer goods. The jineteros are still there, lurking behind every corner trying to get cash or something else out of you, there are still pot holes and crumbling facades of stunning period buildings. There are more efforts at restoring palaces and odd new buildings, not necessarily beautiful, are popping up hosting tourist friendly (read, mass market) enterprises such as the beer on tap venue by the port.
We spent three nights in the city this time, and like last time, I could not get enough. We stayed at restored 4 star Armadores de Santander, located 5 minutes’ walk from San Francisco de Asis square, slight further south. As opposed to the hotels we visited 3 years ago, this was a let-down. Pretty on the outside, but stuck in the 80s on the inside. Staff were friendly but they could not make up for the incredibly smelly bathroom, the cranky bed headboards, the lack of hot water and the dull breakfast. The last night we were ‘upgraded’ to their suite, and we could see how Cuban hospitality is going way over the top to please the expected discerning rich tourist. A huge, massive room, everything brand new, with shiny (slippery) dark mahogany floor (with steps. Watch it!) and a Jacuzzi right in the middle of said floor, next to the bed. A very bizarre version of luxury but an effort nonetheless.
Similar efforts we saw at the beach resort we spent two relaxing nights at, recently built (2 years ago) Royalton Santa Maria. The location is stunning. Long, white powder sandy beach, crystal clear turquoise water and… quite a few hotels, ugly concrete buildings at least not more than a couple of storeys high. The hotel itself was well laid out, with a couple of pretty looking swimming pools and then a few bars. Serving all inclusive alcohol at any time of the day. The result? Obvious. I felt like a young super model amongst a crowd of overweight, over lazy packaged holiday makers, who are likely to get no exposure to the real Cuban life and take home, as memories, those of the hotel next door ‘pueblo’. A street market complete with church tower and street sellers built for the guests so that they do not actually need to visit any Cuban real town, they just have this pre-packaged Disneyland style fake version. Yet the hotel was nice: spacious, clean room, plenty of facilities. It was ideal for two days, any longer and I’d have put my head in the sand.
Thankfully, we had also reserved two nights for the beautiful, colonial town of Trinidad, by the south coast. Unesco heritage, I remember visiting in 1992 but this time, spending two nights here, we really had time to appreciate how this place has not really changed much in hundreds of years. Cobbled streets, colourfully painted houses, with white metalwork window bars, plenty of classic cars and, recently I imagine, a huge amount of casa particulares (bed and breakfast), paladares (restaurants) and cafés. And I feel Trinidad is possibly the best place to see how things are changing for Cuba. A million miles apart from our experience in Vinales 3 years ago, the casa we stayed at in Trinidad was clean, comfortable, decently located but had the most unfriendly hosts I have ever stayed with. And at a cost of 30CUC per night (around £28) plus another 10CUC for breakfast, it doesn’t take long to do the maths. They had 4 rooms. That’s around 160CUC per night. As they have almost 100% occupancy… that is a lot of money. Yet, in the wise words of our local guide, they see us an an ATM. And they couldn’t care less about us, they even forgot then basics of hospitality (we were not even asked how we were after the journey and so on). Really quite disappointing, and I wonder if, since it’s a free market, attitude will come back to bite these people on the arse and will make them realise that yes, it’s good to make money but you cannot take hospitality for granted. Who knows.
Still, we loved Trinidad. Walking around at sunset, when most of the day tours have left, is incredibly beautiful. The sun casts long shadows on the walls, kids and elderly people peep through the bars of their ground floor windows, cowboys on horse back make their way home. We had dinner at two paladares who are highly rated (Sol y Ananda and Sol y Son): the best thing about both was how they have set up these former colonial mansions as homes; dining tables next to beds and wardrobes, yet everything is antique (including the crockery) and, where the food is less than amazing, the settings makes up for it. Yet we had decent meals at both places, in particular Sol y Son.
So how about food in Havana?
We are creatures of habits, so the very first evening, jetlagged and tired, we made our way to la Bodeguita del Medio, of course. The food is still pretty decent, and the service has much improved. I dare say it was actually friendly! The second evening, I had booked Paladar Dona Eutimia and I am very glad to see they have not given in to money and greed. Service was great, friendly, and the food was just as good as I remembered. And this was also one of the cheapest meals we had in the week. On our final night, we managed to get a table at trendy and very popular paladar La Guarida, one of the first to open in Cuba and very well regarded in terms of food. We only managed a table at 9pm, sure sign of its popularity…
We hailed a classic taxi and made our way to Havana Centro. I had read about the state of the building itself, yet nothing had prepared me for the magnificence of it. Dark, grey, dingy yet exuding history and grandeur, the location turned out to be the best thing of the evening. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the building still is now, when it’s missing plaster, paint, stones, everything. The paladar is located on the second floor, while on each floor there are people’s homes. You can just about see some lights through a door or a window, hear a tv playing somewhere, see a stash of drying clothes hanging between a staircase and a wooden pole. Beautiful. Yet once you enter the paladar somehow the magic ends. A busy place, with various rooms (we did not even see the terrace, behind ushered in a fairly plain room with ugly and wonky artworks on the walls). Tourists, everywhere. Staff running around. The menu was great: plenty of choice, with some fine dining hints. We had a started and a main each and I cannot fault the quality of the food nor the skills of the chef. What was yet again a let down was the attitude of the staff: uninterested, rushed, verging on rude. In and out, you’re just an ATM. The words rang in my ear again. What a shame. This was also the most expensive meal of the whole holiday, at 54CUC (£50) and the only place where service is added on top. They are catching on fast, but, as per casa in Trinidad, they’ll need to realise that when we pay money, we also expect a level of service.
We did better for our lunchtime food. One day, we followed advice from our tour operator and managed to locate Los Nardos. It’s a bit off putting as it’s up a steep flight of stairs and once you are in, it’s really dark, not letting any daylight in, plus the air con is blowing badly. Yet, the food was really good, very cheap for Havana and the service was professional and friendly. Bring a jumper and come early as they do not take bookings! We also returned to the tooth breaking restaurant, mostly because we were right in the tourist area and did have enough time to go anywhere far, before catching our flight home. We ended up at pretty La Emprenta on Mercadares and actually really like the food (fish starter, then chicken and pork skewers). No sign of stones in the food, and decent service, although this time no band playing in the background.
We also of course enjoyed a few drinks. The rooftop bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos offered great views but the ground floor bar is more appealing with the authentic art deco 1920s feel to it. I dragged @bmcboy all the way to the stunning Bacardi building, only to find out the rooftop famous bar had closed down after the refurbishments a couple of years ago, and we refrained from the more touristy spots we visited three years ago to enjoy a few pre dinner mojitos at nearby Dos Hermanos, which also has some period features such a long mahogany bar and steel fridges. We loved watching classic cars (and modern uglies) whizz past its wooden shutters.
In town, we enjoyed coffee and cakes at El Escorial, a coffee roastery and cafe in the stunning Plaza Vieja and I attempted to buy some of their freshly roasted coffee, although this is Cuba and after queuing for 30 minutes running the risk of missing the flight home, I gave up. The coffee is very good so hopefully I will plan ahead next time and queue first thing in the morning! Coffee was also part of an impromptu and unplanned stop in the Topes de Collantes national park. We were only driving through, and @bmcboy spotted some beehives. He asked our guide to stop to take some photos and as we got out of the car, he mentioned he usually buys honey from the family of farmers who live there. We made our way to the small wooden house and we met the family, only the women of course: they welcomed us with literally open arms, they made us a coffee and while they sold honey to our guide, they then sold freshly roasted coffee beans to myself. At least I could take coffee beans back home, and for 5CUC I was so happy – beautiful roast, sweet and intense arabica beans right from where they are harvested. This was the most authentic moment of our Cuban holiday, where real Cuban hospitality still exists. I left some medicines to the family who asked me ‘for free?’ almost not believing I was gifting them.
Despite the off moments we experienced, Cuba remains for me an incredible place, one of those places I could visit over and over again and never tire. It’s fascinating, it’s tricky and never what it seems but it’s also full of life, colours, energy.
Go now, before it’s too late. I say it again.