Have you ever fantasized what it would be like to be a Band member of the Buena Vista Social Club, take part in an episode of Lost, or go on a wild ride in Dr. Who's Tardis - because that's how a trip to Cuba would feel? As soon as one steps off the plane, the sights, sounds and smells of this place will whisk your senses away to a land that time forgot. Being stuck in a track of a vinyl record or a time vortex is what Cuba feels like.
For a photographer, a voyeur of architecture, a history buff, a 50's car enthusiast, a Rum or cigar lover - this has to be on your list of must see - a bucket list item of the highest magnitude.
You require a Visa to enter Cuba. Check the Cuban government's website to locate the nearest city where you can obtain one. Before the plane descends into Havana, the crew will spray the cabin for bugs. And be prepared to wait an hour for your luggage after you de-plane (have water and a fan with you – it's hot!). They x-ray everything and bags come out 1-by-1. The ride into town is about 30 minutes, and after sunset, some of the streets are pitch black and riddled with pot holes. They tell me Cuba is a safe place. And they could be right as I never felt threatened while walking the streets late into the night.
Don't expect to go to Cuba to bathe in luxury, or experience haute cuisine either. It just isn't there. On the whole, the people seem friendly - but it's one of the world's cultures thatthey don't know what they don't know - and if you expect a five-star experience, you will be sadly disappointed - especially when paying five star prices for some things such as internationally publicised accommodations and meals at so-called, top restaurants.
Going out for a drink - a Mojito, Daiquiri or Cuba Libre – which one must at least try once when in Havana, can vary in taste from place to place - but the prices are very similar. A meal too can vary tremendously in both quantity and quality - regardless of what you pay. There is often a disconnect between cost and product. Veggie options are available, but don't over expect simply because the raw materials lack in availability and quality. Cabbage, carrots, onions, sweet potato and tomatoes are the staple veggies – and long grain rice (that's not the Asian type). For water drinkers like me, Aqua Panna and San Pellegrino are readily available, as well as a local spring water. Tap water is not potable.
If you seek international fast food fare - forget it. It does not exist. None of the names populating the high streets across the globe can be found here. Not even a clone. And if you want to use a public toilet (even in a restaurant), best to take your own tissues and wet wipes with you and be prepared to tip the Attendant.
One thing you will find is consistent inconsistencies – one day something will be prepared or cleaned in a certain manner, and the next time, it's very different. Yes, this is a Training and Management issue, but like I said earlier,they don't know what they don't know and the talent pool is very thin.
Hotels can perform currency exchange, but it's probably best to go to a money changer – "CADECA". However, be prepared to wait in a queue under the hot sun for possibly 30-60 minutes as they process one by one inside a small shop guarded by a security guard sat on a chair inside a cool room, operating the manual lock. Oh, and did I say, they close for lunch? ATM's are few and far between, and reject most international cards especially if they have a US link. You may be best to warn your bank card provider that you are going to Cuba to let them unblock the card. Phone roaming may also be an issue.
There are several wonderful watering holes around. Often Hotel lobbies serve drinks and snacks, and they are sometimes accompanied by live music that can be quite outstanding. If there is anything that marks life in Havana – it's the abundance of amazing musical talent in almost ever bar in the city. "No smoking" areas are limited, and so you will likely be seated adjacent to someone enjoying a Cuban cigar – sold at that establishment, and lit by the Cigar Sommelier. That's an interesting experience since they use wooden spills (made from the box liners - Spanish Cedar) to light the cigar versus a lighter, or heaven forbid, a candle or matches. Prices vary from 10-15 CUC for a decent smoke.
There are a few Pastelaria's around town (frequented by locals), and a famous one is close by Hotel Inglaterra where you can find a coffee and Palmier type pastry at a very inexpensive price.
Taking a ride around the city in a taxi can be quite a treat! Parked along some central city squares are a wide array of colourful vintage 50's automobiles that operate as taxis to choose from, some with open tops (no Aircon). Or you can simply hail a yellow cab. Be prepared to negotiate before taking off on your journey. The vintage cars could be 30-40 CUC per hour. It would be a shame not to take one of these rides having gone all this way. They are an Instagram dream!
Probably best to take an arranged tour to see the places of interest such as Revolution Square, the cemetery, museums, old city, Hemingway's hangouts and the cigar factory etc. These can range from half to full day and with or without lunch. Your Hotel concierge will direct you to the Tour Desk ran by one of the government's agencies like Gaviota. Your guide will speak English, and expect a tip. Take water and a hat. Try and take in a performance at the Opera House – it's a fabulous place with superb performances in a world class setting. Quite an experience!
Internet is available in some locations and accessed by a pre-paid card – sometimes issued (free) by your Hotel. You need to sign on using 2 x 12-digit access codes, which you have to key in each time your device shuts down, or when you get thrown off the wifi. The card lasts 72-hours. Speed is acceptable. VPN's work…and may be required for some services like Viber.
As I said, a visit to a cigar factory can be arranged – we went to Partagas which is very close to the city centre and not far from the Romeo y Julieta factory and shop. Here you will witness the process of leaf selection, rolling and bundling of cigars as well as labels being attached. What you won't see is the final selection process, and boxing – this is something off limits – and I wonder if that's part of their secret sauce. Cigars can be purchased at the RYJ shop –and expect to find the usual suspects – mostly Robusto sizes, and a very limited selection of upscale brands like Cohiba and Trinidad. You can buy single sticks, variety packs in small cello bags, or boxes. They are all fresh in nature, and most likely best to age them if you can avoid the temptation to light up. No limit as far as I can tell in regards the quantity you can buy. Cigars are touted along the streets, but I was not tempted to purchase what could well have been fakes.
If you seek an upscale cigar experience, I recommend the newly opened Cohiba Cigar Atmosphere shop and lounge in the Gran Manzana complex. Here you can enjoy a reasonably priced smoke with a Cuban coffee in air-conditioned surroundings and a very comfy chair. The staff will also perform the lighting ceremony for you. If coffee is not your thing, they have alcohol and cocktails. Don't know if they do snacks.
Remember, nearly all businesses are government run – so when you buy something or consume a service, you are invariably supporting the regime – something the current US President is very anti. In fact, apart from souvenirs – hats, t-shirts and cotton shopping bags, rum and cigars, as well as cost of Hotel, travel and dining, there is not much else you can spend your money on. There are no malls, or corner shops. Having said that, a small gallery of boutique shops had just opened at the same Gran Manzana complex, but it's unlikely you will shop there as the selection is limited.
Better spend your time walking around Old Havana, enjoying the sights of imposing and impressive buildings and imagine what life must have been in its glory days and listen to the lustful sounds of Cuban music drifting from the bars as you walk along the streets willing you to come in and dance to the irresistible beat of the salsa.
2/f, 22 Stanley Mound Road
Stanley, Hong Kong (SAR)
Phone: +852 946 80848
Fax: +852 3010 0124
Terence Ronson is the Managing Director of Pertlink Limited. Now residing in Manila after almost two decades in Hong Kong, Terence launched his diversified hospitality career as a chef, later holding various general management positions with well-known hotels in the UK and Asia. In the mid-80s he developed his penchant for technology, and in 2000 started Pertlink Ltd., (Hong Kong) a hospitality technology consultancy, becoming as well the Technology Editor for HOTELS Asia Pacific and authoring since then numerous industry-related articles. In 2001, CNN's eBizasia program featured him for his innovative work at Rosedale on the Park Hong Kong, the first cyber boutique Hotel. It was at that point he originated the first hotel app – HOTELINMYHAND. Terence also helped Langham Place Hong Kong win many accolades for its technology deployment as well as various other well-known hotels across Southeast Asia. In China, Terence was heavily involved in establishing and delivering the IT strategy for Jumeirah Himalayas (Shanghai), Puli (Shanghai), Sofitel Wanda (Beijing), and Guoman (Shanghai). He also participated in the development of the technology vision for Disney Shanghai and Tangula Luxury Train. Terence often chairs and speaks at global industry events and sits on various advisory boards, in addition to holding a Visiting Lecturer position at Hong Kong Polytechnic. He is a CHTP (Certified Hospitality Technology Professional) and runs an active hotel technology blog.