“An action-packed holiday for adventurous families”, the brochure says. The children like that. “Famous for its rum, politics and cigars”, I add. Now they’re not so sure...
A few weeks later we’re in hot and steamy Havana, checking into our hotel. Already it’s clear everything in Cuba is a bit different, refreshingly different. There’s no traffic, no advertising and no neon shop-fronts. Our hotel is grand, slightly faded, full of character and right in the heart of the city.
You could easily imagine former guests Al Cappone, Enrico Caruso and Graham Greene staying here in its prime. A band is playing and I notice the children’s feet (jetlagged or not) are tapping the rhythms: I think we’re in for a great holiday.
In the evening we walk to the cobbled squares of Old Havana. The atmosphere on the streets is fantastic: Latino music drifts out from doorways and windows, relaxed men and women sit on their porches, chatting with the neighbours and smoking cigars. Local children play football in the streets. Beautiful but run-down neo-classical mansions are now tenement buildings, home to ordinary families, with washing strung on lines from wrought iron balconies. Shiny 1950s Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevys cruise the streets and there’s live music everywhere.
The children drink all this in and the questions come thick and fast: why are the cars so old, why is there no advertising, why don’t they clean up the buildings, where’s McDonalds, who is Che Guevara anyway?
Our tour leader Lian doesn’t just answer the questions, she gives them more, explaining what it’s like to live in Cuba and how the political system works in everyday life. Along with most of the Cubans we meet, Lian is immensely proud and patriotic, telling Cuba’s great stories of the revolution and its heroes.
We love Havana. It’s upbeat, lively and so different from any other city we’ve been to. Highlights are driving down the waterfront (the Malecon) in vintage American cars, souvenir hunting in the craft markets and the salsa dancing lesson (yes it’s true, Dad’s really can’t dance!)
Vinales and Cayo Levisa
A short drive from Havana is Vinales, a beautiful valley where soaring limestone cliffs (‘mogotes’) frame a rich, fertile patchwork of vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and tobacco fields.
This is Cuba’s cigar capital and we see the distinctive, thatched tobacco drying barns everywhere. At a local farm we see how tobacco is prepared and the elaborate process of rolling a cigar.
Next day for a change of scene we head to the beach at Cayo Levisa – gorgeous white sand, warm turquoise water and palm trees. Just perfect. Cuba seems to have it all!
Heading for the Hills
We head east via the Bay of Pigs and the beautiful coastal town of Trinidad to the Topes de Collantes mountains. Here we’ll be hiking jungle trails by day and sleeping in haciendas (old farms converted into mountain lodges) by night.
I have to admit I’ve been wondering how this will go down with the family. We like walking, but not all day and definitely not in 30 degree heat. And we enjoy camping, but what exactly will the haciendas be like?
Our time here turns out to be the most memorable highlight of the trip. Two days exploring the forests, mountains, waterfalls and jungle pools with our fantastic guide Jack.
What Jack doesn’t know about the wildlife and flora here isn’t worth knowing. He has a knack of spotting every bird, insect and plant along the way and bringing it all to life for the children. We see snakes, lizards, spiders, frogs, termites, bats, camera-shy Cuban hutias (marmot-like creatures) and dozens of birds including hummingbirds and the rare Cuban Trogon (the national bird - red, white and blue, like the Cuban flag).
Our walks are broken up with regular swims in mountain streams, including one ice-cold one running underground through a cave. At an idyllic jungle pool Jack finds a liana and swings out Tarzan-style into the water. Soon enough everyone’s having a go…
We stay at traditional haciendas. These are attractive converted farmhouses surrounded by forest and mountains, with beautiful gardens all around. We eat well at the haciendas, with wholesome, fresh cooked meals served to us on the verandas, and sleep even better - in the cool mountain air under a blanket of stars. This is camping for softies.
By the end of our fortnight we look back and can hardly believe how much we’ve packed in. Cuba is so varied and, as the brochure says, so ‘action packed’ it feels like several holidays rolled into one.
It’s a unique place and that’s what our family found so exciting. Everything’s different – the politics, the history, the wildlife, the music, even the cars – and nothing can be taken for granted. A few weeks later we’re back home, looking at the photos. We’re missing it!
Pete and his family did the 'Viva Cuba!' family adventure holiday in Cuba. Experience it for yourself.