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Santiago de Cuba - Cuba

Santiago de Cuba – Cuba

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Rebels yesterday, hospitable today, always heroic

Reaching our last point in our tour through Cuba, arriving from Camaguey into Santiago de Cuba. 3 more nights here, before returning to Havana for one last night full day before the start of our way back to Europe, to the winter once again. That’s as usual the hardest part in this kind of trips we generally do from the end of December to the middle of January escaping the cold for a hot place in the sun. Thereafter, it will be a while until the next proper longer holiday, (Easter time), but first, plenty of the usual weekend trips around Europe, easy and fast to reach.

Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba, and was the first capital in the island right after the Spanish foundation in 1516. Surprisingly, from this period there is one house completely preserved. It is said to be not just the oldest house in Cuba, but in the Americas from the colonial times still standing! It was the home of the first Spanish governor in Cuba, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar. But there’s more, and plenty more to see and do in one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the country. The cathedral for example, was the first one built in the island too, and so the first museum in Cuba, and the first copper mine in the whole of the Americas.

The city is also very well known for being the birthplace of the world famous rum brand Bacardi, which was started by the wealthy Catalan from Sitges, Facundo Bacardí Masso in 1862 who emigrated to Cuba. In the very same building you have now the museum that displays the extensive art collection of the Bacardí family. And lastly, an event that changed the history of Cuba forever. It was January the 1 of 1959, when Fidel Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution from a balcony in the City Hall. These are just a few facts of what you are about to experience in the city, and why it really should ranks high if you ever consider a trip to Cuba. This country is not just about Havana and Varadero, but so, so much more! Santiago was a fascinating end point in our tour which we are glad to have done and include. (more…)

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Read more about the article Camaguey – Cuba
Camaguey - Cuba

Camaguey – Cuba

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Santa Maria del Puerto del Principe

Continuing along the east and towards our farthest and last point in our trip through Cuba, we leave behind Santa Clara in another longer but comfortable bus journey with Viazul for a one last stop in the way: Camaguey. Another of the impressive colonial masterpieces of Cuba, listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The third largest city in the country after Havana and Santiago therefore expect to spend a little longer than in previous smaller cities. Our overall stay here was 2 nights and a day and a half in full to enjoy the time. Arriving that late at night from Santa Clara, and having to depart towards the evening for Santiago, there was no other way around than making here a small base, having some bumper time just in case anything was not coming as originally planned like for example if not being able to take the next bus to Santiago, then at least, having the time to seek for an alternative like taking the train instead, or other possible way.

To us, what was originally planned worked well, and the day and a half in the city was about right. Yes it’s true a day is well enough, having the little extra becomes sometimes a “luxury” in such a trips we do where we usually end up running from one place to another in order to fit as much as we can, way more than anyone can even think! But here in Cuba I do strongly recommend you to take your time and enjoy the quiet life and lazy living. The simple fact of entering one of these ancient bars for a drink it’s already as fulfilling as the sightseeing itself.

Camaguey is a proper exception not just in Cuba but across the “New World” in what relates to urbanism. It is one of the few examples where the streets do not follow an orthogonal grid but instead these are a maze of bendy streets, small and narrow in most of the cases with rarely any order at all. The entire old town is as such, however the newer extensions of the 19th and 20th centuries surrounding the historic core do all follow the perfect orthogonal grid. It is easy to lose the consciousness of orientation and to follow an ideal sightseeing route. (more…)

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Read more about the article Santa Clara – Cuba
Santa Clara - Cuba

Santa Clara – Cuba

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Villa Nueva Santa Clara

Leaving behind the second main base in Cuba, Varadero; we do start making our way all the way to the east towards Santiago de Cuba however, with 2 middle stops. First, Santa Clara; city that we did briefly visit some days ago in our busy organised tour there including Trinidad and Cienfuegos; and secondly, Camaguey. Although we could have done the trip all the way from Varadero to Camaguey, it was physically impossible due to the poor bus services in the country hence this was the only possible way fitting our needs and route, a stop over in Santa Clara which in any case, worked great for better enjoying this time without rushing a proper visit, and giving us some bumper time in case anything would not have come according to plan.

It was anyway a short time to be honest. Mostly to have a night in between and rest, enjoy a lazy breakfast on the day which was the half-way of our trip in Cuba, and spend the morning and afternoon until the next bus departure towards Camaguey at 19.00pm. Plenty of time, but in a very charming city although pretty much anywhere in Cuba is charming and nice.

Like any city in Cuba, or anywhere in the “New World”, cities were created following a perfect urban plan of orthogonal street grid and squares, where the largest one, Plaza Mayor, would be the centrepoint for politics, religious, entertainment and shopping activities. Santa Clara is no exception, and it is actually one of the best and finest examples with beautiful constructions all over and its spectacular theatre. Elsewhere, churches, colonial and neoclassical constructions complete the central streets, yet beyond, the situation changes for a more deteriorated and run-down state. This is the unfortunate double reality of Cuba, where people have not too much for living, at poor standards and building crumbling down.


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Read more about the article Cienfuegos – Cuba
Cienfuegos - Cuba

Cienfuegos – Cuba

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The Pearl of the South

As last on this busy day tour from our base Varadero to Santa Clara, then Trinidad; now finally we arrive to another of the Cuban masterpiece cities: Cienfuegos. Another colonial dream where time yet again stood still. In this case, a city bigger than Trinidad, with more to see however a bit more unfortunate for us that it’s the last we visited for today hence not too much time to be honest. We missed just couple of hours more, although we could not really make it either since it was getting dark when we departed back to Varadero. Anyway, it still worked great for us in being able to enjoy once again another unique and fascinating place. A city entirely listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is the only city in Cuba not founded by the Spanish, but the French instead. Yes, possibly a fact very few people will know. As such, its urbanism is a bit different to any other city in the island, with wide streets perfectly planned; although still following the same traditional Spanish orthogonal grid system. Thereafter under the Spanish colony, all influenced the style and charm. It was one of the last cities to be founded in Cuba too.

Starting by one of its nicknames, the Pearl of the South (La Perla del Sur), it’s then not complicated to understand such a name and why, while the UNESCO describe it as the best extant example of early 19th century Spanish Enlightenment implementation in urban planning. There is nowhere else in the Caribbean a place with such a huge amount of neoclassical architecture as is in this city. Now it’s not difficult anymore to predict what to expect when visiting Cienfuegos and probably what’s now in your mind would be why not to plan a bit longer visit of at least an entire day for it, and not just few hours as was in our case. (more…)

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Read more about the article Trinidad – Cuba
Trinidad - Cuba

Trinidad – Cuba

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One of the best preserved colonial cities in the Caribbean

On this day trip from our base Varadero, we would come to discover not just one, but three cities: Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. While Santa Clara was brief just to visit the Monument and Mausoleum of Che Guevara, (we would return to this city in the next days), it was still nice to see such beautiful Spanish colonial architecture that later we would enjoy as no other with Trinidad especially. The only drawback we had was time limitation. For sure it would have been nice to count with one more day for each of the cities but that was not optional if we wanted to continue on a wider tour towards the eastern end of Cuba with Santiago the end point for this trip.

The best we could do, and strongly recommended to anyone falling in similar circumstances than us with time constraints, is to pre-book a full day trip to this places. Varadero seemed to be the perfect base for doing this, and it worked just perfect! As originally thought and planned. In fact we did not really believed there would be enough time for visiting every place but it really was, with a nice guided tour in English where no major sight was missed at all. Should you wish to know more on this sort of organised tours as the one we did, here is the info for our tour operator Cuba Travel Network.

Trinidad is considered the jewel of Cuba. A colonial masterpiece almost intact ever since its foundation, and with the addition of beautiful architecture through the centuries so perfectly preserved that it feels more like an open-air museum on every corner. Adding to this it was the largest and most important centre of sugar production in the 18th and 19th centuries; all left an important patrimony and heritage not just the wealthy mansions for the land owners, but the countless sugar cane mills in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios. Both the city and the valley are listed UNESCO World Heritage sites. (more…)

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Read more about the article Varadero – Cuba
Varadero - Cuba

Varadero – Cuba

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Playa Azul

Leaving behind Havana where we’ve spent the first 5 days in the country visiting such a vibrant capital city and some excursions that we did nearby, it’s time for an in-between well deserved winter rest by the Caribbean. Sun, beach, pools and a fabulous all-inclusive resort in Varadero for the next 5 days. Yet I have to correct myself that after all, it was 4 days enjoying doing nothing, and a 5th super busy from the very early wake up call to the late at night return to the resort in a full day excursion to some of the most fascinating and historical cities in Cuba: Trinidad and Cienfuegos. And well, sun and beach did I say? I shall correct that. This time of the year it is also “winter” in Cuba, and while the chances of still having the wonderful 30 degrees and sun are truly high, was not in our luck. The horrible winter storms coming down from Canada and the USA were heavily affecting the Caribbean countries too, so we got half of the days pretty awful, the other half great though.

Varadero at the end of the day is just that, the great warm water beaches and the resorts therefore not much complications in here, and a little bit of history anyway. It’s a long and narrow strip where at the very east is the Punta Hicacos, the northernmost point in the island of Cuba, and while anyone might think of Varadero as just resorts, that’s not entire true. There is a large natural reserve, the Hicacos Point Natural Park home to dozens of birds and reptiles, and the remains of one of the very first salt mines ever constructed by the Spanish in the New World, known as La Calavera which provided salt to all the galleons in Latin America back then. On top of course, in the resorts and in between them, nice gardens and lush vegetation complements the area in a very similar way that is Cancun, for those who’ve been there then you will see the resemblance.

Now being honest with you, yes, we did enjoy this place a lot. Yes we would recommend to anyone for sure, however our initial idea was not for coming here but instead to Cayo Coco or Cayo Guillermo as our preferred choice. It was very sad and unfortunate the Hurricane Irma in September 2017 devastated most of such paradisaical cays, destroying hotels, the airports, the beach, the infrastructures…just everything. It was a bit risky to get there still at few months after the disaster since most of the places were still under restoration. The only unaffected beach destination to consider was Varadero. A domino effect in the bad luck because, where else would the other thousands of tourists can go? Of course, Varadero. We paid the “unnecessary” premium because of the huge demand. (more…)

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Read more about the article Vinales – Cuba
Vinales Valley - Cuba

Vinales – Cuba

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Tobacco plantation land

Still tired upon recently landing in Havana at the start of this trip, but it was either this date or never to come to the west of the country and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Viñales Valley and the amazing landscapes of the tobacco plantations. Unfortunately the tours from Havana are not daily hence the reason it was for us only feasible on this day. We knew there was not going to be time to plan a tour that includes a day or two in this region, and even if enough time is what I had, I would have never consider in doing so and preferred to booked an organised tour here and visit as much as possible all in the same day. After all, for us spending any further day in that region was not really necessary considering we were going to be visiting the entire country.

Just a few notes for this place, since it’s better described below in what’s included in a tour: This is the region where the best tobacco in the world grows, and from where the most expensive and famed cigar brands take the plant. Halfway into the journey from Havana and the landscape start to change for beautiful tobacco plantations and wooden houses, by the backdrop setting of the mountains, however this is only a small sample of what’s about to come. The truly amazing landscapes are at the Viñales Valley where you will find the famous karst mountains, one of only 3 places on earth having this same formations.

In the subject that relates to tobacco, I need to explain you something very important. Basically you tour guide will strongly emphasise and encourage you to buy cigars in this region, especially at the shops they will bring you in Pinar del Rio claiming that it’s the cheapest shops where to get the good cigars in the whole of Cuba. That’s fine and it’s true, however it’s extremely difficult to 100% know what you are buying is the right deal or not. Of course the most desired cigars are the Cohiba Esplendidos. These are very precious in the Western World (say Europe for example), and might be very tempting to buy in Pinar if you are thinking in selling afterwards. Well be careful and don’t be fooled, from personal experience we got a box of 15 Cohiba, but when we brought them to an expert to take a look hoping for a trade deal, we found out one was having already a bug that could spread to all other cigars, and the use of green leaves which in a Cohiba this is NOT possible. So yeah, there you go, like anywhere else in the world no matter whatever they try to sell you, it’s difficult to trust 100% that you are getting the real thing. The cigars were still valuable don’t take me wrong, however I would recommend you to buy them at a state shop. (more…)

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Read more about the article Havana – Cuba
Havana - Cuba

Havana – Cuba

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Rome of the Caribbean, Paris of the Antilles

One last flight and trip for the year 2017, the beginning of a longer holiday until mid January. A year full of surprises and great travelling experiences which will be hard to beat to such an extent as this one. 91 planes, 21 countries, 7 of which never been before, and 92 cities. If this sounds mad and crazy, let me tell you in the year 2016 that was 99 flights; my all time record, yet the combination of kilometres in the air were 144577. 2017 topped anything I’ve ever done before with 186422. Yes, I keep a record of every single flight I’ve done in my life with all its details:, airport names, flight number, booking reference, aircraft model, airline, date, time of departure and arrival, miles, kilometres and even the cost for each flight. If I would only manage to calculate the hours in the air that would come to a shock I am sure.

Anyway, statistics apart, now it’s time for what really matters: the capital city of Cuba, Havana, or La Habana as it is known across the non-English speaking world. For so many years one of the most desired trips ever, but always been so in generally “prohibitive” in prices during the time of the year we wanted to go, December/January hence the reason why we usually went instead during this period of the year to Central America. Nevertheless, even though we managed to grab a nice flight deal with Iberia, the hotel situation was a very different story. In Cuba, you will end up in one of the most expensive places considering the already lower than average standards, quality and service you will receive.

With Havana being the starting point for a big trip discovering the entire country west to east, you won’t want to leave. This city is somewhat unique, like the country itself, a real time capsule, for the good and for the bad, where even some of the bad things you will experience are memorable part of the trip, many turned into beauty. The 4th largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean (or the West Indies as it’s also referred this region too), is also the city with the most number of historic sights, splendid colonial architecture and some of the nicest and warmest people with the most relaxed and most peaceful life. No rush for anything. Beware and learn about this, just simply merge with the locals and chill-out; everything takes its time, probably way too long; however as a tourist you should take advantage from this and enjoy the peaceful snail-speed life. Welcome back in time to the 1950’s. (more…)

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