For many years I had this picture of Cuba in my head: a relaxed culture with Buena Vista Social Club-type of musicians at almost every street corner, big old American cars beautifully preserved and people lifting aromatic cigars to their lips.
The first thing to notice about landing at the Havana Jose Marti airport: it was like a small-town airport in Malaysia in the 1980s. The female customs officers were a surprising sight in their khaki miniskirts and black patterned stockings. Male officers had a couple of cute spaniels as sniffer dogs.
Depending on how gung-ho you are about visiting every recommended place in Havana, two or three nights are enough in the capital. The city is rather dusty with broken sidewalks, potholes and many unrestored buildings. I saw a blind man with a stick slowly making his way on the treacherous sidewalk and silently wished him the best of luck.
While the music was fabulous whenever we came across a band playing in a shop or outside, there weren’t that many. The arch at the entrance to the historical Chinese quarter looked so drab that we gave up and turned back as it was getting hot in the afternoon. Better yet, a fun day’s tour on the inexpensive hop-on, hop-off tourist bus gave us a comprehensive overview of Havana.
Chase down the Ernest Hemingway attractions if you like, but we didn’t fancy paying for high-priced daiquiris at tourist-trap bars. Or buy a ride in one of the colourful old American cars. One of our taxi trips turned out to be in a smallish Studebaker. Sometimes you don’t know what you’d get till the driver takes you to his vehicle.
We couldn’t wait to get to a smaller town and off we went on an Azul bus to Cienfuegos. My other half had pre-booked all our intercity bus trips. You have to be there an hour earlier to queue up to convert your booking into tickets. They have a system of checking in your big bags with the luggage handlers and sometimes they ask for a 1 CUC (RM4) tip for each bag which they tag.
It was a five-hour ride with a lunch break thrown in at a rest-stop cafe full of greenery.
Arriving in Cienfuegos, we negotiated a price for a ride to our hotel Palacio Baron y Balbin and it turned out to be a human-powered three-wheeler, which weaved and bumped its way over one or two ancient cobbled streets before getting onto tarmac.
The small hotel was a beautiful old building that was well restored. However, our big bathroom had an antique bathtub above which was a shower head without curtains or a screen. We tried not to splash too much.
The Palacio provided an excellent breakfast, and offered dinner too if we wished.
Cienfuegos was where we got up close and personal with locals. I suffered a broken molar and was directed to a dental clinic (for tourists) in a hotel. It was a Sunday and the nurse on duty called the dentist, a young woman, who arrived 20 minutes after. I was given treatment in a dental seat which was older and simpler than what was provided in my primary school clinic in 1970s Malaysia. You could see that the gauze and cotton were precious materials which were carefully unwrapped from brown paper.
After I got a temporary filling, we were given a ride in an ambulance so we could make payment at a government clinic. The driver even kindly gave us a ride back to town.
Possibly the prettiest town in Cuba, Cienfuegos boasts a university (where my beautiful dentist did her studies) and a gorgeous main square, and the people seemed more carefree and prosperous.
Our next destination was Trinidad de Cuba, a larger town and seemingly a bit rougher. Here my other half made the mistake of booking a room that was said to be 8sq m; he thought it was a mistake and that no room could be so small. But it was, and its bathroom was even tinier.
Luckily we found a lovely small square under shady trees after walking around, sat on a bench and listened to a band playing Cuban songs.
In the evening we went up to the flat roof of the inn and got a great view of the half-ramshackle town. There was also a pretty big main square where locals relaxed in the evenings. No mosquitoes during our whole trip on this sub-tropical island at this time of year!
A visit to a factory where cigars are hand made was interesting but a little disappointing. Entry fee was 4 CUC (RM16). A guide was speaking in French when we were there, so we looked around on our own. Since we don’t smoke, buying cigars at around RM40-RM70 each wasn’t something we were willing to do.
What we thought was our well-earned reward at an all-inclusive beach resort on Cayo Santa Maria for five days turned out to be challenging too. We got a lovely sea-facing room, but the door lock gave up on us, so we had to walk far, back and forth a couple of times, before a technician came to let us in, and we had to insist on a change of rooms. The second room was fine, until we discovered a leak in the ceiling of the bathroom.
The beach was lovely with pale, fine sand and pelicans diving for fish. The thing to note about all-inclusive resorts (unlimited food and drinks including alcohol) is that one might be tempted to eat and drink much more than usual.
Our last town visit was Santa Clara. The main square again was pretty and a good place for people watching. The B&B we stayed in was Hostal Florida, which I can freely recommend as they provided a good breakfast and served an excellent dinner, as well as providing affordable lodging in a charming tiled townhouse with an inner courtyard garden and a long history.
Our final night was spent again in Havana, the hotels of which are expensive for their standards. I’d suggest spending more days in the smaller towns instead of Havana.
People have been decent and never once were we hassled, although service in some cafes was lackadaisical. Beggars are almost non-existent. Some of the shops for the locals have shelves that are half empty. Often we saw queues outside bakeries, telco shops, banks and a cafe in the park for locals. Cubans don’t have many consumer choices but they appeared happy and content.
I am glad I made the trip once in my life and saw Cuba for what it is. It might not be a destination for everyone, but it is endearing, colourful and interesting.
Airport: The main airport is Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. There are a couple of international airlines that fly from Kuala Lumpur to Havana, though it is perhaps better to get your tickets from travel agents.
Visa requirement: If you are travelling to Cuba, say, from Germany like I did, don’t let the airline or travel staff make you buy a “visit-Cuba” visa. Malaysians do not need one either. My other half, who is German, wanted to play it safe and blew 25 euros (RM116) on a visa for me too. I made it a point to ask the immigration officers upon entering and leaving Cuba whether the visa was necessary for Malaysians and they said no (as long as I stayed for not more than 90 days).
Currency: Tourists use mostly CUC (RM4 for 1 CUC). Change about 2 CUC of local pesos (48 CUP) for tipping toilet attendants 1 or 2 CUP when they hand you toilet paper.
Pre-order a taxi from the airport to your first hotel if you are unsure if you’ll be able to change your currency into CUC at the airport (late arrival time, for example).
Find out if you need to bring US dollars or euro cash ahead of time. Credit cards are not always accepted, and if they were it would probably incur an extra charge. Pre-book at least your first couple of nights (or all) of accommodation online as the Internet might be slow, unreliable or expensive.
Gifts to bring: Stationery for school children; makeup, patterned black or white pantyhose for women, clothing (including underwear), toiletries. You can gift them to your B&B hosts, for example.
Best time to visit Cuba: November to April, when it’s not rainy, not too warm, and has less chance of a hurricane.
Recommended places to visit: Trinidad de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Vinales valley, Varadero (for pale sandy beaches), Santa Clara, Holguin. Pre-book intercity buses or hire a car.