Post written by Laura
“Cuba: The fairest island human eyes have yet to beheld…” Christopher Columbus 1492
With its tropical beaches and shimmering coral seas, Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, was the choice destination for something of a special celebration! My best friend Bridget and I recently had a week of fun and indulgence in Cuba to celebrate the year we both turn 50!
We booked a TUI package holiday to enjoy a week of relaxation in the sun, interwoven with a couple of excursions to get a glimpse of this beautiful and fascinating country. Our all inclusive hotel was conveniently located on the north coast just an hour’s drive from Havana to the west and an hour or so from Varadero airport to the east.
After a couple of days to relax and unwind in the hotel, our first proper glimpse of Cuba took place during a day out in a jeep! Julio, the young Cuban driver collected us from our hotel at 09:30 and whisked us off on a mini adventure!
We were soon off road, driving along tracks in a lush valley towards Matanzas, where the only vehicles we saw were the occasional horse and cart. As we drove Julio gave us an overview of Cuban history starting with the earliest indigenous farmers and hunter-gatherers who had been on the island of Cuba for thousands of years until the settlement of the Spanish in 1492.
Sadly, like other Caribbean islands, this resulted in slavery and the importation of slaves from Africa. Many battles occurred for the next few hundred years as a result of invasions from Spanish, French, British and US troops.
Cuba became a communist country in 1959 when Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara led the Cuban Revolution overthrowing the previous 50 years of dictatorship. Argentinian born Che Guevara is a national hero and his iconic image is constantly seen throughout Cuba on walls, murals and tee shirts. Che’s image reaching far beyond Cuba has had the Andy Warhol touch and was the inspiration for Madonna’s 2003 ‘American Life‘ album.
Since the revolution Cuba has had close links with Russia and the US and Russia came close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The US then put an embargo on trading with Cuba which was to last for another 50 years. Relations have been improving over recent years, particularly helped when President Obama visited in 2016 and further information can be found here.
Fully briefed with an interesting insight into Cuban history, Julio pulled over whenever we asked him to enable us to take photographs of the gorgeous valley scenery. Our first scheduled stop was to a farm where we enjoyed sampling fresh coconut strips dipped in honey and fresh sweet deep orange mango. We were also given a small square of delicious home made peanut butter.
As we left the valley we arrived in Matanzas, which Julio explained is known as the ‘City of Bridges’ as it has 17 bridges crossing its three rivers. Julio drove us to the historic old town and parked for about 20 minutes so we could have a wander around the town square.
Cuba is famous for cigars, rum and coffee and in the past these were the staple diet of many Cubans. Cuba is also famous for its classic cars and we were fortunate to have a ride in one when we visited Havana (a forth coming separate blog post). Many are incredibly old and in a poor state of repair however some, such as the taxi above, look immaculate.
Our next stop was to a riverside bar with a small wooden jetty where we clambered onboard a small speed boat. Here, Julio turned from jeep driver to speed boat driver and we spent the next 20 minutes speeding up the river alongside the mangroves!
We returned back to a shot of 7 year old rum and a short cultural show!
Next up was the Saturno Cave where I had the opportunity to swim in its cool, 22m deep crystal clear water. This cave was actually packed with visitors but with a bit of clever positioning, Bridget managed to capture the above photo!
En-route to lunch, Julio showed us the limestone quarry where we took a bumpy detour down inside it. The large stacks in the photo above are rocks which were too hard to be quarried.
A traditional Cuban lunch which consisted of pumpkin, beans and rice and some kind of local stew was provided at La Dionisia, a former coffee plantation. After lunch we were shown some coffee bean trees and I had a tasty Cuban coffee, freshly ground using a traditional grinding machine. Next on the agenda was horse-riding from the farm which neither of us wanted to do… I’m not keen on the idea of animals being used in this kind of touristic activity…
Our final stop was on the way back to the hotel. We crossed the Bacunayagua Bridge, the highest bridge in Cuba and stopped at the viewpoint next to it. With its live band and pina coladas the viewpoint was quite commercialised but a good stopping place if you are in need of a drink or snack and of course, to see the amazing view.
We had a wonderful day and appreciated the freedom of seeing rural Cuba with our own personal jeep driver.
In and around the hotel
With a lovely sandy beach adjacent to the clear Caribbean and a full activity programme we were able to keep ourselves occupied in and around the hotel. The sea was warm and shallow and good for off-the-beach snorkelling.
We were fortunate to have very little rain during the week… the exception happened while I was snorkelling! Dark clouds had started to appear and as I snorkelled around in the sea I could suddenly start to feel large drops of rain on my back which resulted in a hasty exit back to the beach!
Every day a representative from the hotel led a hike or walk up into the hills behind the hotel. This gave us the opportunity to see local village life and we had a great aerial view of the hotel (top photo).
The hotel had three speciality a la carte restaurants (Italian, Mediterranean and Cuban) as well as the main buffet which gave some us some dining variety throughout the week.
There was also entertainment each evening and Friday was ‘Cuba’ day where we saw a lunchtime Cuba show (above), did some rum and chocolate tasting in the afternoon and had a traditional Cuban dinner in the Cuban restaurant that evening.
Would I go back to Cuba?
Hell yes!!! This was a brilliant introduction… I loved the culture, the latin music, the rum, the gorgeous tropical scenery and laid back easy going nature of the friendly Cubans. Cuba seemed different to anywhere else I’ve been and it felt like stepping back in time by a few years. Cuba has its own wonderful unique blend of a Caribbean and Central American feel about it. The next time I go to Cuba ideally I would love to spend a few days in Havana then a few weeks of travelling around the rest of this exciting country.
I’m currently working on another blog post which is focussed exclusively on the day trip we took to Havana!