It probably took me all of about 5 minutes after stepping out of Holguin airport to realise Cuba was unlike any destination I had ever visited. All the cliches are true. Huge 1950s cars own the streets and not just in token numbers. They are everywhere. Don’t fancy a 50s motor to get you around? You can try a horse and cart instead, not used as a tourist trap but as a genuine taxi service for locals. And there is just life everywhere. Not shackled by the technology obsession that has grabbed the rest of the world, Cubans are out on the street socialising; they’re in their front porches on rocking chairs or playing board games or dominoes with their friends. More than travelling halfway across the world, I genuinely felt as if I’d travelled back in time. After years of unfairly putting so much pressure on Cuba to be great, I was not disappointed with my arrival.
It’s surprisingly easy to get to Cuba from the UK and, in particular, Manchester. Package holiday company Thomas Cook fly to the eastern city of Holguin due to its proximity to the resort beach area of Guardalavaca. I managed to nab a one way flight for £200, my intention being to fly out of Havana in the west to Mexico. Even better, Thomas Cook provides the Cuba tourist card (the equivalent of a visa) free of charge to all passengers, saving a trip to the embassy. I was worried I might not get one since I was getting a one way flight and not going on a package holiday. However, they just gave them out without question just as we all boarded the plane. The card itself only requires very basic information but you must keep it with you during your time in Cuba. I was also told I would need to show proof of exit and health insurance when entering Cuba but I wasn’t asked for either. The only question Cuban immigration asked me was whether I had been to Brazil.
Holguin’s airport has an exchange office, run by Cadeca which is the main exchange place in Cuba, in both arrivals and departures. It was easy to exchange pounds and they accepted quite a few currencies. However, US Dollars incur an extra charge so definitely go for sterling or euros if possible. After exchanging my money, I was pretty stranded in the tiny airport. I had booked transport via my accommodation but, despite the flight’s arrival, nobody was here to pick me up – this was the second time in a week this had happened! Since they weren’t picking up the phone, I had to take an airport taxi. The official sign says a journey costs 24 CUC (around £20) to the city but a driver agreed to take me for 20 CUC. I was slightly paranoid my accommodation might not exist but it did – Casa Tropical Holguin. The owner, Luis, who spoke half decent English, was very apologetic and admitted he had just genuinely forgotten I was coming today. It was an honest mistake and it was all good – I was there at least.
Cuba’s approach to accommodation is something else that sets it apart from many other countries. In many ways, it was the birthplace of AirBnB. For backpackers, the most economical (and fulfilling) place to stay is in a casa particular, whereby a local rents out a room in their house. Many of them are now on AirBnB (I booked all of mine in advance on here so I could bring less cash into the country) but you can also distinguish them by the blue anchor-like symbol on the front of the house. Most casa owners know other casa owners in other cities so, unless you’re travelling in peak season, I think it would be very easy to find good accommodation by word of mouth. Casa Tropical was good – the room was big and the bathroom lavish. I had a little outside area and a well-stocked fridge of water, beer and soft drinks. One other thing most casa particulars do very well is breakfast. At Casa Tropical I paid 5 CUC (around £3) for a feast of bread, tomatoes, cake, fresh pineapple (in fruit and juice form) and tea, plus I could have had an omelette as well. I have a very bad habit of skipping breakfast even though it’s the most important meal of the day, and anything that forces me to eat it is a good thing – it’s an excellent way to start the day.
Luis and his wife were… maybe a little too hospitable. They were very friendly and always genuine I think but their hospitality possibly crossed a line one night when Luis used a spare key to let himself into my room in the middle of the night while I was sleeping to check if I was alright. He was concerned because he hadn’t seen me come back that evening – I really don’t think he intended to be creepy and weird – but it was still slightly odd to wake up at 1am with a big Cuban man looming over me. All was forgiven when he gave me a lift to the bus station in his marvellous 1954 blue Plymouth car which was ace.
Holguin itself was pretty mellow, certainly compared to other Cuban cities I visited later. However that’s what I loved about it, particularly as an introduction to this country. Just having a day or two here, if you do land in Holguin, helps you to acclimatise to Cuba in a more relaxed environment than, say, Havana or Santiago de Cuba. Also, Holguin has a lot of classic cars. They are literally everywhere. Walking even the shortest distance takes twice the time because I had to keep stopping and either taking “the iconic Cuba shot” or just smiling at how ridiculously cool the old cars look. Some look as if they’ve come straight from the Batcave whilst others look like they belong in Captain Scarlett. Can we just ditch modern cars and all drive round in these bad boys? Life would be so much more fun.
Apparently there are things to do in Holguin other than stare at the cars but I did very few of them because I was too busy staring at the cars. One excursion I did manage was to the North of the city where there is a large hill, giving a wonderful panoramic view of Holguin. There are 400+ steps up to the top of Loma de la Cruz, no mean feat in the 31 degree heat. The view is fantastic though, definitely worth the effort. Also there’s a bar at the top to replenish your energy.
Speaking of which, I was told Cuba was pretty expensive and yet I found Holguin remarkably cheap. Close to the atmospheric main square (Parque Calixto Garcia) is a great pedestrianised street filled with shops and bars. To the north east of the square is a great little bar with an outdoor terrace. After climbing the hill, I retreated to here for a cold beer and was shocked to find a bottle of the national beer, Cristal or Presidente (both brewed in Holguin) was just 1 CUC (£0.70). A bottle of beer in my casa was only slightly more. Elsewhere, I dined at Salon 1720 just round the corner for dinner. It’s a lavish, colonial building but the prices are reasonable. Dinner and couple of drinks came to around 8 CUC (just over £5). Perhaps it’s because I was expecting Cuba to be expensive, I was pleasantly surprised. Some things are more expensive – transport for a start and then small things like bottled water (50p – 80p depending where you get it) – and this is certainly no Thailand but I really don’t think it’s as expensive as some have made out. My casa in Holguin cost around £12 a night and many others I stayed in around the country were even cheaper. So yeah… don’t be alarmed, Cuba shouldn’t break the bank. Maybe it’s because I’ve just come from Jordan…
And, to be honest, even if it did, I wouldn’t care. Holguin was mellow and chilled and it was still incredibly infectious. I spent most of my time wandering round with a big grin on myself as I watched people live a life I didn’t realise still existed. And if a quiet little Cuban city made me smile this much, I couldn’t wait to see what the country’s more vibrant offerings would do…