Expert insider tips for... Cuba
Sarah Morgan shares with us some of her highlights and recommendations from a trip to Cuba.
What was the highlight of your trip?
Cuba is such a unique country to that just be there and experience it, even if only for a week, was a highlight in itself. A few things that did stand out for me included: wandering through the streets of Havana's old town with its crumbling buildings, visiting the Che Mausoleum and museum in Santa Clara and the friendliness and welcoming nature of the locals. The countryside, such as Vinales in the Pinar del Rio region, is also stunningly beautiful.
Where was the best place you stayed?
My favourite hotel was the Iberostar Grand Hotel, which is located in a beautifully restored colonial building on one of the city's plazas. The staff were welcoming and there was a great ambience. I was also very impressed by the rooftop terrace of the Iberostar Havana and the Melia Buenavista beach resort was also incredible.
What was the best meal you had?
It is fair to say that Cuba is not renowned for its cuisine which generally involves a lot of rice. However, for location and atmosphere, lunch at the Palacio de Valle in Cienfuegos was fantastic. This palace in the Punta Gorda district was built in 1913 and is reminiscent of Spanish architecture in the 12th and 13th centuries with gothic, Roman and baroque influences. The interior, as well as the grand exterior, is incredibly ornate and to be able to enjoy lunch as well as some live music was a real treat. The food was good too, but the most gourmet meal was definitely at the Melia Buenavista hotel on Cayo Santa Maria. This luxury all-inclusive hotel has two a-la-carte restaurants and the food was beautifully presented, with much more variety than found at most Cuban restaurants.
Cuba is famous for its music, did you catch any live music?
Musicians play on virtually every street corner in Cuba, whether to entertain others or simply for their own enjoyment, and the standard is astonishing. There are plenty of shows in Havana, including the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club who perform twice a week. In Trinidad, people flood daily to the steps by the Casa de la Musica for live music and dancing. You can expect to buy a few CDs before you leave because the Cuban rhythms will invoke great memories of your trip.
One thing visitors should bring with them?
In Cuba it is very hard to come across batteries, medicines and toiletries, including sun cream and insect repellent. Any left-overs you may have will be gladly received by hotel staff or your tour guide.
One thing visitors should know before they go?
I would recommend to read Che Guevara's Reminiscences of a Cuban Revolution or, if you are feeling game, Cuba; A New History before you go. You will appreciate the poignancy of the historical sites and the ways of modern Cuba so much more.
Any insider tips?
For a local experience, don't miss the chance to try comida criolla (Cuba's Afro-Caribbean influenced cuisine) in one of the growing number of paladares. These are small family-run restaurants, now permitted to operate providing they pay tax to the government. They usually have just a few tables in the dining room of their own home, so it is extremely personable and an excellent way to chat to some locals. Here you can try patacones (squashed fried plantain), yuca (the Cuban alternative to potato) and arroz congri (rice mixed with fried black beans). There is also plenty of delicious sea food in Cuba, including lobster and prawns.
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