Cuba: a rum place to visit by Derek Wyatt
Flying to Cuba from the UK is becoming easier. Virgin flies direct and BA should be adding it to its services shortly.
The Fidel Castro years are over and Raoul, his brother, is trying his best to modernise the country. There will be huge celebrations in 2019 when the country celebrates 60 years of the Marxist republic.
Arriving in Cuba can be a trial.
You will need a special addition to your passport which will set you back £30 and can only be purchased in London. You should carry your health insurance policy as there are random checks at customs. You will need a first degree in patience at the carousel for your luggage to appear and a second degree in murder! We waited ninety minutes before it arrived. Should this happen to you, make sure you have spare bottles of water - ask for them on board - and some games for the children. Be wary too of taxi scams. Always ask the price before setting off and use the taxis parked at the airport.
Raoul has allowed a thousand restaurants to flower. If only it was that easy. In Havana, there is not much evidence of a service culture. There are not enough qualified chefs. The infrastructure creaks every day, sometimes every hour. Water goes on and off. There is not sufficient gas for the ovens and stoves. Toilets cannot flush. Wines cannot be chilled. The air con fails. Waiting for an hour to be served is not unusual. And still you are left with bills of mouth watering proportions. Something has to give otherwise tourists will think twice about coming.
This would be a great shame because Cuba is the most wonderful place to visit especially its capital Havana. It has a rich Spanish architecture which under the brilliance of Eusebio Leal Spengler, a town planner with nerve and verve, has gradually seen its restoration (with help from UNESCO) especially in the old town.
Above all else it has music. Live music is everywhere. It goes with the rum. It punches above its weight. At Fabrica de Arte Cubano, which is a new arts centre in an impoverished area, you can hear jazz, salsa, fusion, garage and more across its three floors and umpteen bars. It opens at eight and closes at three the next morning. It buzzes. You can learn flamenco, listen to a TED style talk, dance, buy locally designed jewellery, art or photographs or just hang out. Whatever you have to be patient as you will have to queue for at least 30 minutes to get in so carry water. The queue starts early and finishes late. We stayed two hours. There are plenty of taxis to take you home and the smart thing is to have pre-booked dinner next door up three floors of winding staircase to eat outdoors.
Havana is not your average city break weekend.
On the other hand after a week your patience may have been tested to the limit. We tried six days which was two days too long. So, if you decide to visit, combine it with another destination in Cuba or more likely another Central American country ( we spent another week on the Pacific coast in Coast Rica) or a Caribbean island. Plan. Book your restaurants before you arrive (you can always unbook them). Book your entertainment too.
Several of the very best modern restaurants like O'Reilly 304 and Dona Eutimia were booked out so you either joined a long queue or missed a treat. As big Jazz fans we failed to find reservations at either Jazz Cafe or Jazz Cub la Zorra . We stayed at the Santa Isabel hotel in the old part of the City. It is an oasis of calm and breakfast on the terrace was a daily joy. It can be difficult to book a room with a balcony there but do keep trying and the odd tip helps. It was fun sipping mohitas whilst watching the city go by.
We can recommend: the Museum of Cuban Modern Art, the Museum of the Republic next door, a tour of Havana in an open top bus, a pleasure ride in one of the many splendid Cadillacs ($50) plus a visit to Fusterlandia to see a Gaudi-esque village designed by Jose Fuster (badly in need of renovation) but amusing nonetheless.
Unlike the rest of Central America the US dollar is unwelcome. You will need Euros or sterling in plenty or risk the local exchange scams. The currency of Cuba is different depending on who you are. This is confusing. Locals trade in MN$ (pesos) whilst others and visitors trade in CUC$. A merger of currencies has been proposed but action has been slow. You can expect to lose 12-15% of the value of your US$ if you try and exchange them in hotels or restaurants. There are a few ATMs but they run out quickly especially over weekends. There are also a small number of banks but the queues to change currency are long. We exchanged currency at the airport. The use of debit or credit cards is slight.
Over the Christmas holiday, a visit to a much warmer environment is becoming a habit for more and more of us in the UK. Cuba is definitely worth the struggle because it challenges us in so many ways - no graffiti, no rubbish, no advertising, hardly any crime, high levels of literacy, good health facilities and rum cocktails to help the music go down. Put it on your bucket list.