We went on holiday to the largest Caribbean island. We spent the next two weeks exploring Cuba by rental car with Romy’s parents. Our flight left Cancun at 7am. That meant we had to get up at 3:15am, but the flight itself was only an hour, so that wasn’t too bad. Because of some problems with our luggage and the exit stamp in our passport, we almost missed the flight, but luckily only “almost”. After landing in Cuba, we took our pre-booked transfer to our accommodation “Casa Chez Nous” in Havana Vieja. Popular Plaza Vieja was right around the corner.
In the late afternoon, for a first introduction, we walked a small round through Havana’s old town. We enjoyed our first Mojito in a cosy bar right outside the door of our casa. A taxi came to drop off Romy’s parents around 11pm who had left from Germany 12 hours ago.
We had not seen each other for 10 months. The reunion was hugely enjoyable and Havana was the perfect location for this. The streets in the old town are narrow and we were especially advised to stay in the middle of the street as it is not uncommon for a balcony to suddenly part with a building and fall down.
It is hard to put into words the poor condition of the buildings in this part of the city. While for some buildings a lick of paint would do wonders, behind some facades lurked only an empty space with not much left to rescue. We had read that the old city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but at first we saw little signs of how this could have helped the city in the meantime. Only on the next day would we encounter restored streets and buildings.
Cuba is famous for its old-timers and all over the city you could see these old, colourful cars driving around. Since Frank and Dagi had recently celebrated their birthdays, we thought it would be a nice idea to surprise them and we had booked an old-timer tour. We were picked up at our casa in two vintage cars that we used to explore the city.
Our guide Michael told us the interesting history of Cuba and especially Havana during the two-hour drive before he guided us walking through the old town on foot for another hour.
With some cocktails and a thick cigar, the four of us brought this interesting day to an end on the roof terrace of our casa and closed our eyes with the sounds of Salsa in the background.
On our second day, we visited the Fortaleza Fort located on the other side of the bay. We walked across the Plaza Vieja towards the ferry and marvelled at the long queues of people lined up at various shops. The shops turned out to be small supermarkets where residents could buy food with special coupons. One by one, people were called into the small shop where the shelves were already half empty and we knew with certainty that it would not be enough for all the people still waiting outside. Some food items here go ‘on coupons’ to regulate their selling, with the idea that everyone get their share. And we are talking about foodstuffs like rice, sugar, oil etc. so basically essentials.
An old ferry took us across the harbour basin. The boat was nothing more than a large covered space filled with people. There were no seats in the passenger compartment, but fortunately the distance to cross was not long. On the other side, the fort awaited us, which in its heyday had been the largest in North America and served to protect the port of once-mighty Havana. We passed the Christ statue and the ‘Che’ museum. Part of the fort is still in use today by the army that Che Guevara once commanded after the revolution. In the museum that was once Che’s house overlooking La Havana on the other side, we learned more about Che’s life and what influence he had on Cuba.
We spent the evening almost by tradition in one of the many cocktail bars in the old town. Music is an important part of Cubans’ lives and live bands played their upbeat Caribbean notes late into the evening, making every night a true street party.
After spending three nights in Havana, it was time to leave the capital and explore the interior and we did this with our booked rental car. It was a dead normal Peugeot with 98,000 kilometers on the odometer by now. We drove along a highway that was in good quality, beyond our expectations. That said, we always had to be on our guard because even the highway we shared with scooters, horse and carriage, pedestrians and cars that choose the opposite direction as the fastest route.
Left and right, the buildings of Havana soon gave way to the Cuban countryside. We drove our Peugeot toward Pinar del Rio which is the most important tobacco region of Cuba and perhaps the world. Just before Pinar we turned right to Viñales where we would stay for three nights to explore the valley. The casa particulares was just outside the village, but within walking distance of the main street with many restaurants and cocktail bars.
We hiked in the surroundings of Viñales which is surrounded by limestone mountains. The paths led us along the tobacco fields around the “Coco Solo” mountain, through the two valleys “Valle de la Guasasa” and “Valle de Dos Hermanas”. Along the way we were spontaneously treated to a personal tour by a tobacco and coffee bean farmer who enthusiastically tried to explain to us the ins and outs of his piece of land. With two of his self-produced cigars we said goodbye and wished him good luck in the future.
On the way back to Viñales we found a traditional rancho that offered lunch. By now we had covered 15 kilometers and were hungry for a sandwich. Sitting outside, we enjoyed the view.
Without exception, we spent the evenings in Viñales at a cocktail bar where we gradually tried most of the cocktails from the extensive menu. Frank and Eddy enjoyed a cigar on the terrace of our Casa before retiring to their rooms.
Our second day in this region we drove the car towards the north coast in search of a nice hiking tour and hopefully something good to eat. Under a clear blue sky and a heat that felt towards 40 degrees we hiked through rather less interesting surroundings and since we couldn’t find any shade either we broke off the hike earlier than expected.
In a small lake we saw two pelicans diving into the water in search of a tasty fish. We also went in search of lunch and ended up at Louis’ place in Puerto Esperanza, where before the Covid pandemic tourists were regularly dropped off, but now they couldn’t find their way to this small coastal town. Fair is fair…we didn’t encounter much of interest here either. The view of the Caribbean Sea won’t get boring easily. But it was the food that Louis served us that was well worth the trip to Puerto Esperanza in the end!