Cuba – Don’t go Changing …

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Whether cruising along Havana’s Malecon in a shiny 1950’s Chevey, sipping a mojito in Hemingway’s favourite bar, gazing at timeworn architectural treasures or simply relaxing on powdery white beaches, Cuba is a country that will reward and delight in equal measure.

 

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A group of us set off to explore the promise of treasures galore and were not disappointed!  Below are the key locations of our trailblazing itinerary and not to miss highlights of this wonderful country.

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Above:  Cruising in a 1950′s car through the run down centro – two of our group exploring Havana (right of picture – pink car!).

Each of Cuba’s exquisite cities is a fascinating melting pot of cultures, architectural styles and wonderful Afro-Cuban music whose rythmns resonate throughout cobbled streets and shady plazas.

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Above: A typical Cuban street-side scene

Havana

From swashbuckling pirates to sugar barons and Communist dictators to literary legends, Havana has seen and seduced them all.

Havana

In its heyday Havana was one of the richest, most important and certainly the most beautiful Spanish colonial cities in the Americas.  With high expectations we set out to discover behind the scenes Havana and it did not disappoint.

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We headed off on a guided walking tour of the key plazas of Old Havana and soon realised we needed an entire week in Havana alone.  Old Havana dates back to 1519 with Cuban Baroque style Spanish colonial mansions and around every corner there is something fascinating to discover.  However our favourite way to explore the city was by classic car …

 

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Above: Our tour of Havana by classic American cars began along The Malecon, one of the capital’s most cherished landmarks ‘El Gran Sofa’, the wide waterfront boulevard and past the Castillo de la real Fuerza military fortress which has been defending the city since 1558 against pirates and European enemies, this is the oldest fortress in the Americas.

 

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Exploring the city by classic car was the perfect way to cast the net wider to see ‘off the radar’ Havana.

20171114_145308Above: One of our rather dapper drivers.

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Above: Parked up to explore the forest.  Our Classic Car Tour took us to many interesting spots such as the Bosque de la Habana, Havana’s one and only forest.

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Above: Pre 1960′s Fords, Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets – vintage cars are an intrinsic part of Havana’s landscape

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Above: Exploring Havana’s fascinating streets by Classic Car – a very civilised way to sight-see!

20171114_155322Above: The Plaza de la Revolucion, Vedado district, and site of Fidel Castros famous speeches.

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Above: I think Nessie’s plan was to get me arrested in staging this shot! Kissing Che Guevara (Sculpture) at Revolution Square could have cut short my cocktail drinking time!

Pinar del Rio

Pinar del Rio is the capital of the tobacco industry with perfect growing conditions for premium tobacco. Visiting a cigar factory to see the skilled workers process and roll the leaves makes for a fascinating excursion.  We also hiked into the heart of the lush countryside and learnt the compelling story of the history of tobacco growing.

20171116_100616Above: Tobacco farmer explaining why his tobacco is some of the best in the world and sharing the complexities of tobacco growing in Cuba

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Above: Smoking a freshly rolled cigar! (not very well)

Valle de Vinales

The Vinales Valley is a World Heritage Site and is a tropical valley dotted with limestone mounds or stumps known as mogotes.

 

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Above: We based ourselves at Los Jazmines Hotel which overlooks the beautiful yet extraordinary scenery of the Vinales Valley

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Above:  The view of the valley from our hotel room balcony.

The Vinales Valley offers some of Cuba’s most beautiful scenery with its bizarre landscape of limestone monoliths scattered across a rich tapestry of lush fertile farms, eroded caves and subterranean rivers.

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Above: Exploring the Indian Cave, which was used in the 16th Century by the Arawak Indians as a refuge having been displaced by the Spanish.

 

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Above: Taking a boat ride on the underground river to the waterfall.

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Above: The best mojitos in Cuba at the limestone mound, The Two Sisters, famed for its vast mural of ‘primitive man’ that was painted into the sheer rock face back in the 1960′s (below)

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Above: The Two Sisters ‘mogote’ limestone mound.

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Above:  These farmers seemed a bit shocked to see us hiking through the valley in the mid-day heat and offered us a lift!

20171116_104349Above: Our friendlly farmer welcomed us into his home and he and his family made us a cocktail from rum named Guagabita del Pinar, which is made from ‘little guavas’ sourced from the mountains of pinar del Rio.  Our cocktail was served in half an orange with the flesh scooped out – 100% yum in Fi’s words!!!

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Above: At the end of our hike of the valley a delicious lunch awaited our arrival at the above enchanting cafe nestled between the mogotes with fabulous views.

 

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Above: Stopping to marvel at the traditonal farming methods still used to this day due to lack of fuel and resources to repair farm machinery.

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Above: Typical scene and mode of transport in rural Cuba.

Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is an enchanting French inspired port city and the ‘Jewel of the South’ of Cuba beside the Caribbean.

20171117_161826Above: Palacio de Gobineino, Blue Palace.

20171117_164508Above: Teatro Tomis Terry

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Above: Exploring the Palacio Centero

Trinidad

Trinidad is an old colonial gem where you feel as though you have travelled back in time to when it was founded in 1514. Trinidad is full of shady plazas, pretty little churches, cobblestone streets and colourful houses.

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Above:  Our lovely colonial gem of a hotel, La Union located in the heart of Trinidad’s old city and overlooking the main plaza.

20171118_162817Above: Plaza Mayor.

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Above: La Union with its bold and sumptuous ‘wedding cake’ facade is the perfect base from which to explore the city.

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Above: Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most charming and beautiful cities.

The following day we headed off on a fascinating tour of the Valley of the Sugar Mills.  The area is dotted with the ruins of sugar mills, milling machinery, slave quarters and mansions that all bore witness to the tremendous sugar boom in the 18th & 19th Centuries.

 

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Above:  A view from the mansion at San Isidro sugar mill to the look-out tower.

Sugar MillAbove: Manaca Iznaga Tower on the Manaca Iznaga estate built in 1835.

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Above: The view from one of the levels near the top of the 44 metre high Manaca Iznaga Tower built to watch over the slaves as they toiled in the fields.

Valley de los Igenios scenes

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Above: An opulent villa in the surrounding district of Trinidad in Punta Gorda.

The surrounding Escambray Mountains also offer lovely walking trails in the lush tropical forest and past waterfalls, as well as some excellent horse riding.

We headed to the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes for a change of scene andValley de los Ingenios some adventure …

 

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Above: Jungle Germaine strikes a pose mid-climb

20171119_105733Above: Pit-stop mid-hike

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Above: The exhilirating waterfalls offered a cooling dip after our long, hot hike!

 

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Above: Nessie at the Gran Parque Falls

Beaches of Cuba

Cuba is blessed with some of the most beautiful, white sandy beaches in the Caribbean and offers sun lovers the ideal climate to indulge in a huge variety of watersports from scuba diving to snorkelling and sailing to fishing.

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Above: The stunning Varadero Beach – 20km of uninterrupted powder white sand lapped by the gin clear waters of the Caribbean.

20171122_182546Above: Pink cadillac!

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Above: Our rather less glam but just as exhilirating tuk-tuk taxi ride …

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Above: Abandoning ourselves to the spirit of Zumba on the beach! Below: click the link for a video of our Zumba on the beach – but don’t worry none of us were featured dancing on the beach in our bikinis in this video!

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Above: abandoning ourselves to the spirit salsa with a lesson!!!

 

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Above:  A scene from the comfort of our air-conditiioned minibus back to Havana! Cowboys herd their cattle to pastures new.

Havana had been such an incredible experience we wanted a final explore so headed back a day earlier than planned to see more of the sights (and sample more of the cocktails!!!).

Havana cocktailsAbove: Panic cocktail crawl prior to departing Cuba!

Gran Theatro d la HabanaAbove: Gran Theatro d’La Habana

 

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Untitled collageAbove: The fascinating Museo de la Revolucion is not to be missed, with tales of horrors, revolution and heroic acts its an eye opener.

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Above:  The Museum of the Revolution still displays George W Bush on the Wall of Cretins!

Below: Our Classic Car transfer back to the airport – slightly problematic getting all our luggage in and a final adventure with a top to repair a flat tyre …

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Don’t go changing Cuba – we love you! Best Trip Ever! Much of it down the the incredible people we encountered along the way (and quite alot down to the fab girls I shared it with) – can’t wait for my return visit one day very soon.

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