Travel writer Tom Leaman writes about some of Exeter's lesser-known treasures.Written by Tom Leaman on 6th April 2018
Travel Diary | Cuba
Travel writer Zoe Duncan takes us on a tour of her time spent in Cuba and picks out her highlights
Despite the increase in popularity in recent years as a holiday destination, much of Cuba still remains untouched, dripping with culture and history. I was fortunate enough to spend some time this summer exploring this magical island and, although daunting, can work out a lot cheaper than you would expect. The best and easiest way to travel around is to hire a car and stay in ‘Casa Particulars’, which are effectively rooms in people’s houses. This added to the thrill as you really get a feel for each place and discover the best hidden local hotspots. Cuba is very much still its own bubble, cut-off from the rest of the world and this is by far its greatest charm. I would strongly advise investing in a good travel guide (such as ‘Lonely Planet’) before you go as this was our saving grace, as well as a detailed roadmap – Sat-Navs are illegal! These are a few of my highlights from my trip and I hope it inspires you to visit one day; it was definitely an adventure I will never forget!
Havana is definitely the place to be in Cuba, packed with a buzzing mixture of live bands, jamming street artists, and feverish salsa bars. There’s live music on almost every corner with bars spilling out into the streets, and hanging out at one of Ernest Hemmingway’s old spots with a cocktail in hand is a must! You can’t visit Havana without spending half a day cruising around the city in a classic American car, feeling like a 1950s movie star, learning about the history of the city and seeing the best sights. Then you should hop out and wander through the cobbled alleyways, past colonial buildings and peeling paint jobs to discover the real charms of Cuba’s capital. If you fancy a challenge, hike up the church’s many (and narrow!) steps to discover a superb view away from the crowds. For a much easier vantage point, just pick from one of the multiple rooftop bars or restaurants dotted about for a more relaxing view! I would also recommend taking a short boat trip across the bay, where you can walk along the old battle forts which give you amazing 360-degree views of the city. Havana is slightly pricier than the rest of the island, but there are plenty of cute and quirky bars and restaurants where you can get delicious food and amazing cocktails for a decent price! Then put on your dancing shoes and salsa through the night (it’s hard not to!) as the atmosphere is lively and full of energy until the early hours of the morning.
A few hours’ drive south-east of Havana right on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, the small-town gem of Trinidad is not to be missed. Filled with an abundance of history, it’s easy to get lost in a colonial daydream on the cobbled streets and definitely get ready for more salsa dancing! Easily one of Cuba’s most atmospheric places, Trinidad has a history knee-deep in sugar and an irresistibly laid-back vibe. A bici-taxi tour of the city with a local guide is perfect for exploring the hidden streets and secrets of the town, and as you rattle along the cobblestones, your guide will give you the inside scoop on Trinidad’s colonial past, filled with sugar barons and tobacco dons. I would recommend taking a trip on an old steam train through some of Cuba’s beautiful countryside, riding through endless fields full of banana trees and lush green landscape with the view of the mountains on the horizon. Stopping off at a small village where you can purchase handmade traditional Cuban gifts, the train will carry on to an old sugar factory where you can wander around and snatch a glimpse into the past before heading back again. Take a short drive out of the town and you’ll discover a stretch of picturesque Caribbean beaches with beautiful white sand and crystal clear blue water that goes on for miles. Trinidad has some great restaurants at even greater prices and is definitely a place where your money will go a long way. The main square also features an open-air stage where there are live performances every night and even more dancing! Grab yourself a table and watch or join in with both locals and tourists, where you can keep the cocktails flowing until the late into the night.
PLAYA LARGA (BAY OF PIGS)
Another few hours’ drive heading west along the southern coastline and you will arrive at the famous Bay of Pigs, known in Cuba as Playa Larga. With pristine waters and an endless coral coastline, this place is ideal for snorkelling and diving or just taking a refreshing swim. You must head to Cuba’s deepest freshwater cave and spot exotic fish darting amongst the brightly coloured coral. Sendero Enigma de las Rocas is a pretty nature trail taking you through the jungle where you can spot alligators bathing in the pools, and caves full of bats and tarantulas, alongside an abundance of other flora and fauna. Surprisingly, there is no actual monument or recognition of the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government launched by the Americans that make the Bay of Pigs famous, so there is no specific spot you should visit. If you are lucky enough to be here between April – June you will witness millions of crabs migrate from the forest to the beaches in the annual ‘crab run’. At dawn and dusk, they emerge, scuttling sideways toward the sea, carpeting the coastal road that hugs the bay and even climbing up house walls! They are joined a couple of months later by the baby crabs that hatched at sea. This really is quite a spectacle and one that is definitely worth seeing, although be careful whilst driving! Despite all this, Playa Large remains rather a quiet spot with not much to do in the evenings and without the hustle and bustle of the towns; if you’re looking for a livelier vibe then this place might not be for you. However, if you do decide to pay it a visit, watch out for the mosquitos!
CAYO LEVISA ISLAND
Cayo Levisa Island is a little nook of beach bliss off Cuba’s north coast. In addition to the luscious scenery, Levisa has a literary history; heading for the island, you’ll be following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, who discovered this archipelago on a fishing trip from the next islet along. It takes just 30 minutes by boat from the small harbour, Palma Rubia, to reach this secluded island. Needless to say, it’s a beautiful ride. Uninterrupted sapphire waters shimmer in the sunlight until the distant palms and sugary sands appear on the horizon. Here, you’ll find a rustic resort situated on the spotless white beach with everything you need right on your doorstep. The island is all about taking a break from reality, where you can doze under a coconut palm, collapse in a lounger, and cool down with a dip in the bright blue sea. This really is a Caribbean island paradise! If you’re itching to explore, hire a kayak and paddle around the coastline, drinking in the views and sunshine as you go. Alternatively, visit Cayo Paraíso, the tropical hideout and fishing camp of Hemingway. The area around Cayo Paraíso is terrific for snorkelling and diving, so you can book a boat trip and easily lose track of time. In the evening, there is nothing better than ordering a cocktail and catching a magnificent Caribbean sunset. For me, this was a perfect ending to what can only be described as a wonderful adventure on the magical island of Cuba.