from Leon Neal an English press photographer (Please visit this link for great photos and links.
Going on holiday to Cuba during the hurricane season may not have been the wisest move but Kirsten and I always enjoy a challenge. As the holiday got closer and the news channels talked of the damage from Hurricane Gustav and the impending impact of Hurricane Ike, we duly packed out flip-flops and headed to Havana.
First of all, Air France to Cuba. Old planes, no in-seat screens for the 9.5 hour flight and tiny seats. Traveling in cattle class on most airlines has improved to the point that it’s normally a bit squashed but acceptable but this was decidedly grim. As Virgin is an option, I advise anyone making the journey to go the Branson route.
Havana is incredible. All of the cliches are true but once you’re there, you realise that it really doesn’t matter as it’s so exceptionally cool. With every second car being a 1950s classic, paint peeling from the retro architecture and a friendly population, you may try to resist falling into the groove of reshooting the old classic photos but I can officially say, it’s virtually impossible.
As the country is so poor, there is inevitably an issue with both begging and hassle from street traders. With general rules such as never buying cigars or exchanging currency in the street, you also find that if you try to take a picture of anything, somebody somewhere will find that it belongs to them and, as such, you will be expected to pay them a peso or two. Where a peso is currently only worth 60p, it should be remembered that the average monthly wage out there works out to be around £8.
Things to do:
* If you’re only staying briefly in Havana, the orientation tours operated by the hotels are worthwhile as you get to see various points and places on a quick tour so you’ll know where to head back to later.
* The Parque Central hotel is in a great location, is reasonably priced and has a roof-top pool. Bingo.
* Take a ride in one of the classic American taxis (Grand Cabs) that are parked outside the Parque Central. They cost slightly more than the regular cabs but come on, the choice of travelling in a stuffy peugeot or an open-top Chevrolet Bel-Air is a no-brainer.. The official cabs have blue licence plates.
* Have a meal at the Los Nardos restaurant near the Parliament building. It may seem a bit dodgy as you climb the stairs once you enter, you realise you’re in a very popular and cosy restaurant. My only word of advice once there, if you want a rare steak, go for a medium and so on.
* Head to El Floridita for a Daiquiri (but watch out for the expensive food) and Bodeguita del Medio for a decent mojito.
Things to avoid:
* The Parisien cabaret show wasn’t quite worth the £60 that we paid. Considering what that converts to for the locals, we weren’t that impressed. Plenty of other people there seemed happy enough but I guess it’s just not our thing.
* Be aware that if you take photos of the old men and women in the street with huge cigars in their smiling mouths, be aware that they’re there for your money so expect to get a few pesos for their troubles.
Heading down to Varadero, we moved to the all-inclusive Sol Palmeras hotel. Now this is where I think, with hindsight, we would have gone for a different choice. This isn’t because the place is terrible, more that it wasn’t really our kind of place. The hotel aims at the kind of person who doesn’t plan on leaving the complex area for their holiday and is happy to sit by the pool and learn all of the staff names. Varadero is purely a hotel area so even if you do leave the area, there isn’t any particular town to go to. Our opinion may have been different if Hurricane Gustav hadn’t recently blown through, churning up the sea, resulting in murky water at the beach.
After a few days, the warnings began to come with greater frequency on CNN and the hotel started to roll out it’s defences. As the windows were boarded up and the coconut trees were trimmed back, we were given our warnings to keep away from the bedroom windows and settled in for the show.
When the time came, we ended up getting off rather lightly. As the southern coast was washed away, we watched as our windows bowed in under pressure but thankfully held out. Within an hour of Ike finally hitting, power was lost and we were soon running on the reserve generators. With the air-conditioning out of action and a lockdown on the hotel for three days, cabin fever was held at bay by the new experience of watching the windows rattle in their frames and rain water running into our room.
A few days later and we could emerge from our smoky prison and continue our holiday with a catamaran trip to the white sands of Cayo Blanco and a quick dip at a dolphinarium in the middle of the sea. Rather like something from Waterworld, we had the chance to desperately tread water as the dolphins wandered past us, occasionally close enough to touch. My concerns for making sure it wasn’t going to be a dolphin-unfriendly kind of place seemed to be unfounded as the dolphins were allowed to swim away from us if they were feeling threatened or uncomfortable.
Before we knew it, it was time to head home. Certainly an unusual holiday, Cuba provided some beautiful moments with some rather new experiences that weren’t advertised in the brochures! In conclusion, I certainly advise anyone who’s considered heading out there to get to Havana as there’s no guarantee that it’ll remain the unique place that it is for many more years.