When: 27th Aug 2009 to 11th Sept 2009
Resort: Cayo Coco & Havana
Hotel: NH Krystal Laguna & NH Parque Central
Where We Went…
This was our second visit to Cuba; we previously had a holiday here at the same time in 2007.
In 2007 our holiday was purely to Cayo Coco and the NH Krystal Laguna, one of the excursions we took was an overnight trip to see the Tropicana Nightclub – which is still one of the most memorable night I can recall. It included a very rushed but great introduction to Havana and from that we decided that if we ever went back we would spend more time in Havana.
And so we come to 2009! And we found ourselves searching for a good value holiday and all avenues lead to Cuba! – Again! After that was decided – prices coming up for Sharm el Sheikh and so on were about £1000 more than Cuba – we quickly decided we would like to do a 2-center so we could spend time in Havana (there is so much that could be written about Havana but shall try to keep it limited to what we done!).
Being a 2-center we expected when we booked we would go straight to Havana and then onto Cayo Coco – but that would have been too straight forward for Thomas Cook! Instead we got the flight from Manchester to Cayo Coco and spent one night in our Hotel there before being made to check-out and take our entire luggage to Havana. We had been under the impression when we booked by phone that we would check-in to hotel in Cayo Coco and then take a weekend bag to Havana leaving the rest in the room – after all when you pay the price of a packaged 2-center this is what you expect! So we had needlessly packed with that in mind, i.e. toiletries for Cayo Coco and a smaller selection for Havana.
The flight out with Thomas Cook was actually quite decent; they had indeed improved the legroom. The seat-back system we has as ‘on demand’ so you could pause the film etc – handy for when nature called. In-flight mean was OK not the worst we’ve had.
My only complaint is for such a long flight is lack of complementary drinks – most others still do it so why can’t they! I understand costs and stuff but at least a free drink with the meal would have been nice (they did the last time!).
Transfer to the hotel when we got there was quick, as we knew – about 15 minutes. The other hotels on Cayo Coco are up-to about 20/25 minutes I’d say. For reference Cayo Guilermo is about 45/50 minutes to the first hotel there.
So on the Friday, we departed Cayo Coco and got the short flight to Havana – about 50 minuets. In the end everything was smooth, except the lack of information prior to getting to Cuba regarding being forced to take our baggage and about the flight, and getting to/from the airport at Havana – for all of that we were left in the dark until arriving at our hotel in Cayo Coco. FAO Mr Thomas Cook… This is not acceptable!!! People like to know what’s going to happen! Being reasonably well travelled and like to be independent anyway, we were both fairly happy. But still, it would have been nice to know!
From Havana airport to the NH Parque Central right in the heart of Habana Veija (Old Havana) took around 45 minutes including a few drop offs at about 3 other hotels.
A warning about the check in at Cayo Coco. When we got our internal flight to Havana, when we were checking in at the airport we duly put all our baggage (more about that later!) on the scales, and our cases were magically almost 5kg heavier than when we left Manchester and having not added anything, so… I objected and said that their scales were wrong I tried to get them to use another but were very reluctant to do so and didn’t. They wanted us to pay $40CUC, but instead I said they were lying but if they were insisting I would remove and put items into our carry on.
On our return we put all our stuff in the cases – nothing extra in our carry on – and this time our cases combined were 1.5KG under our 40kg allowance!!! So beware it is well known at Cayo Coco there are sometimes some questionable check in staff who fix the scales and pocket the money!
Our Accommodation (Havana – NH Parque Central)…
When we got to the hotel, I was told that the room we had been allocated was on a high floor with a view onto the park… but it was not yet ready… great! So we did waste an hour waiting before I asked again, still not ready but offered an alternative for that night but that we would be moved in the morning. So not wanting to waste what was left of the day I accepted, see below for more about the rooms.
Next morning I went to ask about the room we were meant to have, but the person who served us was not there and so the girl at the desk cheerfully sent me to see if a particular room was acceptable… it was on the 6th floor great view of the Capitolio and the park… went back to say fine, but by then she had found out we were with Thomas Cook and they all their guests were to be allocated on the 1st floor (well 3rd floor but 1st floor of rooms) – well done Thomas Cook no expense spared then! So we did move to a room on the floor we were on but did have a decent enough view on the corner of the building. Decided it wasn’t worth an argument and that you only sleep in it anyway that it was fine.
The reception and communal areas were exceptionally nice, modern and clean.
The lobby bar was done in a kind of 1930’s/1940’s style and the staff were friendly and attentive. It also served some nice sandwiches and snacks even at 2AM!!!
One of the most impressive parts of the hotel was the view from the roof-terrace, which also included the pool and a bar.
As you can gather from the above, we sampled 3 rooms. All 3 rooms were identical (almost) in size and facilities (except we noticed in the room we were not meant have had complimentary tea and coffee, but the rooms we had did not – again thanks for that Thomas Cook! – had we not seen the different rooms we would be non-the-wiser but nice to see they spare no expense).
The room was immaculate and the bathroom was modern and clean, also had a bath and separate shower so this was handy for getting ready.
Board basis for this part of our holiday was B&B, bearing in mind the hotel in Cayo Coco is part of the same chain the breakfast at least here was superior – however NH Krystal breakfast buffet was still decent!
The hotel did offer I think 2 or 3 restaurants as well as the buffet but we did not eat in them as we came to experience Havana not the hotel! But they purportedly are very good – probably what you’d expect from a decent place back in the UK, and its menu prices match that expectation (OK, slightly cheaper than UK, but expensive for Havana).
Our Accommodation (Cayo Coco – NH Krystal Laguna)…
This was our 2nd visit to this hotel… we had a great time again overall but there were some differences noted from our last visit, comparisons will be made as we go.
Something to mention just now is that the mosquitoes were quite bad – they did not bother us the last time we went but there is seemingly a plague at the moment (August/September 2009). But, I would recommend at any time really going to somewhere like Cayo Coco that you spray covered & uncovered skin (I’m sure we got bitten thru thinner clothing). That said – having done that we only got a dozen or so bites each other the 2 weeks, however there was one person who had 56 in one arm and was pretty ill and cost 80 CUC to get treatment.
Having visited in 2007 – same time of year – at the NH Krystal Laguna we were surprised when we arrived and were dropped off at the side which was previously closed.
Having walked around this side – the ‘Emperador’ – in 2007 when it was boarded up it was strange seeing it all open and in action and the side we were at previously – the ‘Laguna’ – be boarded up instead.
Out first impressions of the Lobby area – where much of the hotel activity and socialising takes place – was that is was nice too, but as time went on (and a walk along to the other side) we compared both sides and concluded the Lobby in the ‘Laguna’ area was better – was generally a nicer space and layout, and also offered more seating. Sometimes this trip it was a fight/after dinner rush to get a seat! Especially when the ‘show’ was in the Lobby area.
Another thing to be aware of the hotel is only fully open from end of November till around April/May – the Cuban (and Caribbean in general) ‘High’ season.
Not wanting to sound snobby 🙂 but we noted some fellow guests seemed ‘rougher’ than the last time – I am going to put this down to the neighbouring hotel being closed for renovations which when we last went was the home of the lager-louts and stuff in 2007. Not being teetotallers ourselves but if I wanted to holiday with people who’s main concern was getting plastered from 9am we’d go to any generic place in the Med!
My wife and I do not drink heavily but do like some cocktails – namely the Mojito is one of our favourites, and despite it being a very Cuba drink, it was almost impossible to get them here this visit – unlike in 2007. If you fancied a Mojito it was at the cigar lounge, and even at that – not the staffs fault – they had lots of upset people as the could only do them every few days due to lack of mint. I personally think this is quite bad as it is one of the most popularly known drinks you’d expect to get so you would expect they would make sure they had a reliable source.
(Note: Best Mojitos we had were in Dodeguita del Medio – where it was created my Hemingway – in Havana, and some other pretty good ones in other bars).
Now as we done a 2 centre holiday this time, the 1st night was spent in a room on the edge of the ‘Laguna’ half of the resort.
When we returned from Havana, the room we had for the 10 or 11 nights was in the ‘Empreador’ half – as the ‘Laguna’ half was officially closed till Xmas now – and we must admit that the rooms in the Laguna’ part were nicer.
The room was perfectly good, but visibly older and had very poor air-con (it worked and it was cold, but even in the other room we had prior to having to check-out to grotto Havana was like a fridge).
Can’t fault the maid(s) our room was always clean and tidy.
One thing however there was a lot of reports of thing getting stolen from peoples rooms but they only seemed to be from a specific block from what we were able to determine. Like any foreign country though just be aware and put anything valuable in the safe and ‘nice’ things out of sight!
I am personally generally more worried about other guests, i.e. leaving stuff at poolside when going for lunch.
On our departure day we had paid the 20 CUC to keep the room till 2PM – pick up was at 2:30PM anyway but thought it would allow us to make the most of the morning and have a quick freshen up just before coming home. So after some pool, beach and lunch we went back to the room to find the Hotels water was out! So, we duly checked out and when I stated this and asked for a refund they (reception) were insisting on me going to fill out a complain form first at the Customer Services desk – this was at 2:20PM – in the end the bus turned up and miraculously they filled in a quick slip and gave me my money!
The food in the Buffet was generally very good – however as you would expect it starts to be repetitive, but as long as it’s clean and properly cooked this is fine! The buffets on the Mondays were particularly good as they had a BBQ, the 1st Monday it was down at the beach grill which was a disaster so the following it was up at the Buffet restaurant where is was excellent – probably my best meal.
Breakfasts and lunches – similarly to dinner had a good choice, particularly good were the omelettes in the morning and fresh pasta at lunch, the grills which usually had a good selection of meat and seafood and of course the troughs were there too.
During our visit in 2007 the ‘a la carte’ restaurants were very good, and there was a choice of 3 every night. However on this visit the food was OK – it was nice to sit and be served – with the best being the Steakhouse this time.
We were disappointed as the seafood restaurant, which should be/is in the middle of the Lagoon, was our favourite the last time.
However this time (probably due to the ‘Low’ season) it was one per day, and they re-used the steakhouse for most of them – which as a shame as again it was nice to be somewhere different.
There were two pools, the Main Pool and the Adult Pool.
The Main pool is a nice large freeform pool with plenty space around it. The pool is split into section there is the large ‘deep’ part – about 1.6m at the deepest! The pool was kept very clean and it has a nice swim-up bar.
However, sadly we did not make the most use of this pool as it was wasted with loud blaring music that started without daily at 9AM till 5PM. Also, many of the activities were here. Great if you want thumping music all day and beer-drinking competitions! I said the pool was clean? It is until all the beer is drunk and their plastic cups are left floating! If I want the loud music by the pool I will go to the Med not the Caribbean! Or, perhaps I may be getting old!
Our pool of choice was the Adult Pool, which was largely deserted only possibly 6 people or so at busiest. Nice and relaxing. While I have no complaints about this pool at all, as this pool is adjacent to the ‘Laguna’ area and since this was ‘closed’ it was a very long walk (in the heat) back to the closest place for a drink which was the ‘Emperador’s pool/Lobby! Even the last time we were here and with just as many users, there was still a mobile bar at the pool. Which even if it were soft drinks would have been great… I even tried to get them to deposit something unmanned with even water & ice but it never transpired.
As I said, we were here 2 years ago in 2009, and as far as the Main Pools go the pool at the Laguna side in my opinion was much nicer and had a better snack bar with 24hr snacks which seemed to be lacking this visit.
Also, in 2007 at the Laguna side there was poolside activities, but no music in between.
There was plenty entertainment on offer for those who want it.
During the day they offered an assortment of games (including drinking games – which I would if I wanted that sort have thing have NOT have came to the Caribbean for!) by the main pool while assaulting your ears with deafening dance & sometimes some decent (but still too loud Cuban music). In our last visit even by the main pool the music was more subdued and appropriate and disruption with the ‘games’ was a minimum. The main pool in the ‘Laguna’ side offers a better layout where the action part is the top pool and the lower pool was for those who wanted to be involved and not at the same time. This ability did not exist in the ‘Emperador’ side this visit!
This time the hotel seemed to have their own in-house entertainment, a band that were actually very good, and a decent troupe of dancers. However this also lead to the shows that we did watch being pretty much the same thing but to different music. In our 2007 visit the entertainment seemed to be brought in daily for specific things, which kept it interesting.
The entertainment was split between the main lobby and the amphitheatre this time, the amphitheatre was good and it’s layout/views were great, however you could hear it all the way at the other side of the resort – and it’s a fairly big resort!
Also, sadly bingo seems to have infected Cuba, or at least our hotel in Cayo Coco – again perhaps I’d expect it in some down market hotels such as the Sol or the Tryp – and it took place at the lobby so there was no escape!
As per our pervious visit the majority of the staff were very attentive, helpful and friendly.
The waiters and the Buffet the 2 we stuck to were very good. We did come across the odd miserable one who grudgingly came to give us water/wine/drinks. In the ‘a la carte’ restaurants there was one in particular who was very nice and gave excellent service.
The only staff we had issued with were those in the Lobby bar, I am a very tolerant person, but they must be the most un-enthusiastic bar-staff I have ever seen! Even for those who tipped them they were slightly more attentive but still lethargic at best.
The best bar was the cigar lounge ‘El Caney’, the were generally 2 regulars, one who we had the last time when we were in the ‘Laguna’ at the Lobby bar – Freddy, and another who’s name I forget but he did his Tom Cruise impersonation in Cocktail by flinging bottles and glasses – he was very good. This was also the only bar that seemed to serve Mojitos – which as anyone going to Cuba should know is one of the most famous Cuban drinks. The Mojitos – when they could make them – were nice and refreshing. My only comment (not necessarily the fault of the bar-staff) was sparseness of mint in the drinks – most were non-the-wiser, only for us as we make them at home and have had many in Havana.
While we both really liked both visits we do feel that after this visit during ‘low’ season they should make more effort or close until medium/high season as there was a definite lack of something from the hotel that we can’t quite put our finger on this time. Perhaps it’s simply because we thought the hotel was great in 2007 after enduring 1 day at the horrendous Sol Cayo Coco.
I do think that some of the people that had really horrible things opinions of this resort and they would probably complain no matter where.
Cuba does not have ANY 5-star hotels – by UK standards. Having said that and having stayed in hundreds of hotels across the world I’d put NH Krystal Laguna at a entry level 4-star – much to improve but could be much worse.
People do not realise that Cuba is still some 2 years or so behind rest of the World, so if you want a real 4 or 5 star resort, go to a different country, but you will get a very good 3 or 4 star in Cuba. However that said the NH Parque Central was probably a decent 5-star as you would expect.
Will we come back to the NH Krystal Laguna? Probably, but the world is big, so is Cuba so when we return to Cuba we shall try a different area first. And also as long as it was on the side we feel in love with in 2007.
Exploring Cayo Coco…
There is not a great deal to do just now on Cayo Coco outside the hotel except the excursions from eithet Cubanacan or your tour operator i.e. Thomas Cook etc.
There is however 2 options for getting out of the hotel… there is a ‘train’ which takes you on a small tour, and a local bus.
This year we did take the local bus but not until towards the end of our holiday – we wish we had done it earlier too but oh well always next time! We took the bus to one of the beaches
I will start my ‘Guide’ with some general information & advice on Havana then an outline of what we done with our 3 days.
Havana is a very (well relatively) safe place; the locals in general are curious about us but will not approach you/talk to you unless you engage them. Those who do are bad news, they are generally hustlers trying to sell you dodgy cigars or persuade you to go to ‘the best’ restaurant/bar – which is a shame. We never noticed this in 2007, but then it was a Sunday and we were with a guide and it was only a day so perhaps it did exist but missed it then. During early evening when we were going out to eat, we were pestered by young kids for any money and when you refused they would get very angry – never physical though.
At night the streets around Havana are not very well lit – in some cases none. We like to explore while on holiday so we liked to have a walk before/after dinner, and on a couple of occasions we found ourselves up some very daunting streets never knowing if we were in danger or not. But keeping in mind what the rep said I generally felt safe – but my wife hated some of the streets at night!
If going to Havana for the first time for a few days, I would thoroughly recommend taking a guided tour. These are generally quite cheap and good value and typically a decent walking tour should be between 3-5 hours. If you don’t, you will find deciding where to go and what to see quite difficult. Do it on your first day and then you can go back to places later if you wish to spend more time.
We found out eating in Havana is a hit-or-miss! I did a lot of research before our trip, but for some reason – mainly time, didn’t stick to it! We had 3 meals.
Ice – Many people advise not have ice in your drinks when not in the hotel, as it will make you ill! However we (mainly me) forgot and usually had ice to no ill effect.
Day 1 (Friday 28th August 2009)
After we finally checked into our hotel (see above), we went out a walk to refresh ourselves with Havana Veija (Old Havana). The sky was slightly cloudy but ‘thought’ it was moving in the opposite way… well after a walk halfway down Obispo the thunder – thundered quite convincingly – and the heavens opened (we did take ponchos for such an occasion … but just being out for a ‘quick walk’ we decided not to bother with anything and subsequently took them every day in our backpack but never needed them!). We took shelter in the doorway of a shop with a wee old man – he was quite funny when I tried my extremely basic Spanish, we must have stood for about ¾ hour before we got bored and decided to run! We sought shelter in a bar [INSERT NAME] that had some very good live music playing, so we had a few Mojitos and a pizza – 4 drinks and the pizza came to $9 CUC! The rain finally ended we continued to walk down around the Plaza de Armas along to Plaza Veija via the harbour and San Francisco square, and then made our way back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.
Having mentioned the streets at night above this wasn’t a great start, as Laura immediately didn’t like the route I’d decided on manly no lighting worth mentioning and everyone watching as you walked past (it looked and was the direct route to the restaurant on the map and we had walked down it earlier in daylight). This was our first meal in Havana and was memorable – for all the wrong reasons! We went to El Mina, which is on the Plaza de Armas and it was a lovely space, quite big, had a nice courtyard. The menu was limited to say the least, but we thought oh well limited but made nicely would do so we stuck and ordered. I ordered a mixed grill. My wife ordered (albeit on my advice) the Caribbean thing – chicken and shrimp in a Caribbean sauce was the description, sounded OK. When it came, the shrimp and chicken had been cut up – almost minced. Now I will try anything but this concoction was inedible even for me. Instead my wife feasted on rice and black beans. My mixed grill was chicken, steak and pork… the steak and pork were OK, but I wasn’t keen on the chicken. And it was served with rice and black beans.
After dinner we tried to salvage the night and took a walk along to Plaza Veija – where we had noted there was some concert stage being constructed that afternoon. The music that was on was some Spanish/Cuba rock band – seemingly very popular, the square was packed. We wished we had had dinner watching the concert at Santo Angel as it looked very nice and the menu was much better then what we just left – like my wife thought we were going to do! After listening to some music we settled in having a drink outside Café Taberna Benny More. We had a couple of very nice Daiquiris, however while enjoying them a young boy approached begging for some money and when I declined got an eye full of dirt and grass! But apart from that we had recovered the evening from the dinner fiasco and were talking again!
Now, after our drinks and some more music we decided to head back to the hotel. Now, had the concert not been on I would have been fine. But, as they had fenced off the corner I would have gone to head up from we went out the opposite corner. And so began our walk back, our good feeling of the walk lasted all of 5 minuets before we again found ourselves this time in a completely dark non-lit street heading to wards gangs of youths round a square we had never seen/heard of… by this time Laura had decided she hated Havana at night and was never coming out at night with me again. I relented and asked for the map, and as it turned out we were OK and heading in the right direction so we just walked quickly and got back to some lights quickly. Laura next spoke to me the following morning at breakfast! J
Day 2 (Saturday 29th August 2009)
The next morning we got up and had breakfast, the breakfast in the NH Parque Central was very nice and even served ‘campaign’. After a ‘bucks fizz’ Laura decided to speak to me again after last night and we decided to go a walk along to the Nacional de Cuba to see/check if the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) were playing – I had a feeling they might as there was a gap on their international tour dates.
It was a nice morning – about 38° and about 70-75% humidity but we didn’t find it too oppressive (it was worse in Dubai) – so we decided to attempt to walk to the Nacional de Cuba along the Malecon.
First we made a visit to the bank. Banking in Cuba (well exchanging money) was interesting. Only 1 of us was allowed to the cash desk at a time. But we did get a (slightly) better rate then that offered at the hotel.
So we headed down a very nice street in Havana called La Prado has a large pedestrian strip down the middle lined with trees and all down are some of the nicest (albeit decaying) buildings in Havana, and this brings you onto the Malecon.
As we walked along the Malecon strolling past yet more beautifully decaying buildings there were a few surprisingly modern buildings squeezed in from time-to-time. There was a nice looking café and a very trendy looking bar. The last time we were along the Malecon the waves were coming right over and onto the road, but this time it was very calm. We stopped and watched some locals fishing from the rocks, and also swimming & having picnics. We stopped off and had took some nice pictures and some water… the walk was good, it was hot but not unbearable. Probably got more than ¾ of the way and we decided to catch a ride the rest of the way – we jumped onto a Coco Taxi which is something Laura wanted to do the last time – so that we were not completely knackered when we got there.
We arrived at the Nacional de Cuba. I made some enquires about the cabaret that they have there – La Parisien – and about the BVSC. Armed with the times etc we tool a walk to the Golfo Bar for a refreshment after the walk. We had fresh lemonade and I had a Mojito as well. We decided that the cabaret show would ‘always’ be there while the few survivors in the BVSC would not, so we decided to go to their concert that night. After a quick walk around the gardens of the hotel we headed to the Copellia.
The Copellia and Nacional de Cuba are in an area called Veado – which is the ‘trendy’ and more modern area of Havana. The long road from the Nacional up the hill and the area around the Copellia is the centre of that area. One thing we noticed while walking around here was the lack of hustlers and beggars; it did seem nicer in that way that Havana Veija.
A fairly short walk up the hill took us to the Copellia. It was a strange arrangement, as we went to walk into the park where it is we were motioned to go round to the top of the park. On getting there again we went to walk into the Copellia in the middle of the park, but again we were stopped. This time it was explained to us it was for non-$CUC (technically tourists are not allowed $CUP, but I did read that if you have them you will not be stopped from spending them but never seemed to get a chance to acquire any). Instead, they had a portacabin for tourists to purchase from. Was a limited but interesting choice XXX & XXX, we had one of each in a Sundae form and were about $6CUC. It did seem to be an extremely popular destination for the Cubans; possibly with being the weekend it was (one of) their weekly treats! There were guards at each of the 3 entrances and allowed groups of people in at a time when similar groups left.
After our ice cream, we started to walk back. On our way down to the Malecon we passed another place I wanted to visit but never got time, a jazz club called ‘La Zorra y el Cuervo’ on Calle 23 in Vedado. The entrance into the club is an old red British Telecom phone box! Even though I had seen some pictures on the Internet, it was a very surreal thing to see in the middle of Havana!
Again about ¾ along the Malecon – it was getting late in the afternoon – we hitched a lift. This time we flagged down a Horse and Cart! Like the Coco Taxi it was actually only a few $CUC to return us to the NH Parque Central – it was quite nice trotting along the Malecon and up La Prado.
For nighttime, we had decided we would go to the Nacional de Cuba to watch the BVSC concert that started at 9PM. For dinner we decided we would go to the Hemingway bar Bodeguita Del Medio (BdelM). This is probably one of my favourite bars, it has always got a good atmosphere and usually live music not to mention the obviously good Mojitos. There are very cheap bars in Havana with their Mojitos – but personally I don’t mind the extra 1 or 2 $CUC for the BdelM.
Anyway, dinner this time was much improved on Friday’s. Laura ordered – bravely – something that sounded similar to night before – but this time was just chicken, and it came with a very nice Caribbean-style sauce and very tasty rice. I had their stewed shrimps, which came with a very nice sun-dried tomato-based sauce. Also had a side of rice, and a huge bowl of black beans. We both thoroughly enjoyed our meal and thought it was very good value meal & 4 Mojitos was about $32 CUC. We slipped upstairs afterwards to have one drink before we got a taxi to the Nacional de Cuba for the concert. Actually the one after dinner drink turned into a few!
The taxi to the Nacional de Cuba was $7CUC from the harbour area just next to the Cathedral Square. When we got the room and ticket desk I did jokingly ask for good seats… she whispered something to a waiter and we were whisked almost to the front row! Great seats. I ordered another Mojito and a bottle of wine. The night started with a warm-up band that were extremely good also, slightly more modern but still very Cuba. We thoroughly enjoyed them. Then it was time for the main event the Buena Vista Social Club (or partly at least!).
Having listed to their music for years, and having a lot of it on my iPod they were every bit as good was what we were expecting. The two current front men are sones of Omara Portuondo and Compay Segundo. They played all their classics including Dos Gardenios and the Chan Chan, a few others and Gantanamera. The concert ended just after midnight… We took what was remaining of our wine and sat on the terrace of the Nacional de Cuba. Then it was time to get back to the hotel…
This concluded probably one of the best days I can recall since our wedding 8 years ago.
Day 3 (Sunday 30th August 2009)
Today our plan was to try and see something different, and so we headed for Barrio Chino (China Town). From the NH Parque Central we walked along over to the Capitolio and walked around it… it is an excellent piece of architecture and in very good condition and surrounded by Parque Central and some other parks to the side. Towards the back of the Capitolio is the Patragas Cigar Factory (whch we forgot to go into!) and up the side is the distinct entry to Barrio Chino. We thought it would be interesting to see how another culture has integrated itself within Havana. Sadly, the area was very dirty and smelly – there were big piles of rubbish all around. When we found the street(s) with the wee lane and the restaurants, they looked generally OK though, but every single one tried to get your custom – it felt like being in Turkey or something! In the end, we just wanted to get out and back to towards the Capitolio as quickly as possible. On the way back we noticed a ‘junk yard’ full of old steam trains – some looked in very good condition. We stopped and took some pictures to pass on to people who know about these things!
On returning to the Parque Central we decided to jump on the Open-top bus – very touristy, but it is great value and a good way to get around, $3 CUC for a day ticket to hop on-and-of until 8 or 9 PM.
This was a great way to view Havana, it is thoroughly recommended. My only disappointment was – perhaps as it was Sunday – we could not get to Marina Hemingway. It gave us a chance to take some video & photos of Havana and places we visited very briefly on our last visit. We went round Havana to the Revolution Square and back along the Malcon. Afterwards – we got of near San Francisco Convent and walked back up along to the Bodeguita del Medio for a couple more Mojitos – it was hot on the bus and the Sun was very strong!
We headed back to the hotel, and had a swim in the rooftop pool and sat in the Sun and rested for a couple of hours – as if had been a very busy few days it was our first chance to just sit. Had a pizza between us, which was very good but a bit more expansive than our pizza on the Friday!
Being our last night, deciding what to do was actually very hard! Among our choices was going to the Casa De La Musica, music in the hotel, going for a nice meal, a show, the Jazz club near the Nacional de Cuba… it was a hard choice!
In the end we decided that we probably would be back in Cuba so a lot of it will ‘always’ be there, so we settled on going to the Havana Café which had been recommended in books and when asking advice from the Concierge and tour guides.
The Havana Café is actually located at the Melia Cohiba hotel right over in the other side of Havana in Vedado. We got Laura’s favourite mode of transport – she wanted to bring one home – the Coco Taxi ($7CUC from Parque Central, which was good as it is quite some distance). We arrived shortly before 9PM, so having stayed in the Melia Cohiba when we done our overnight visit to the Tropicana the pervious time, we went in for a quick look. It had been renovated since we were there and looked very nice, but staying here would mean a Taxi very frequently to the Old Town. However there is the Jazz Café just opposite, which is supposed to be one of the best Jazz café’s in the world. We crossed the road to a local bar and had a drink; we had a Pina Colada and a beer – $3CUC total! I doubt we’d have got a drink for that in the Cohiba!
After our drink we headed to the Havana Café. Entry is reasonable $15CUC each. We were shown to a table with a great view of the stage, and were given the menu for dinner. The menu had some Mexican and Caribbean choices. Laura had a very nice looking burger and fries, and I opted for burritos and shared a plate of nachos. All the food was good and fresh, although was slightly small portions.
The only thing that we didn’t enjoy in here were the drinks, we had some Mojitos, Daiquiris and a Margarita. For some reason they were all very salty.
The entertainment started with a ‘big band’, they played some classical tunes and a great version of the Pink Panther theme. Although they were very good, it wasn’t typically our kind of thing, but we always like to do something different. After they had a break the band were gone and it progressed onto some gymnastics. The two guys doing the gymnastics were very talented and contorted themselves in to some interesting positions. Following a final break, the show became a dance exhibition. Having seen the Tropicana the show they put on was perhaps not as extravagant, it was very different to it – it was much more modern. They were all excellent and talented dancers (much better then those at our hotel in Cayo Coco) and it was a very entertai9ning evening, the cabaret just seemed to go on and on progressing from the big band to gymnasts to dancing, the whole show was a good 3 hours worth. And afterwards the stage disappeared and it became a Cuban disco. Even watching the normal Cubans dancing to the very raucous rumba-type club music was enthralling it seemed that EVERYONE could dance as effortlessly as the troupe that had just been on stage! I am sad to say we did not feel brave enough to show them up with our humble efforts – Laura perhaps could, but my skills end at a very clumsy cha-cha to music a fraction of the pace this was at! It was just great spending time watching and enjoying each other’s company and was yet another interesting and enjoyable evening.
We got back to the hotel early Monday morning (about 2AM), and Mr Bunter decided he was hungry and had a coffee and a Croque Monsieur! After I scoffed that down, we went up to the rooftop for a last look at Havana at night. From our vantage point we must have had some of the best views you can get in Havana… from looking down onto the Parque Central (which never lacked some activity) and Capitolio to the dimly lit side streets.
And so came to an end, our slightly longer – but still seemed very short – trip to Havana… I shall remember it forever.
Final thoughts on Havana
Despite the unexpected begging and hustlers we still like Havana and would/will return. I don’t know what it is about Havana, but we just like it! (Except the hustlers, and dodgy streets).
For eating, there are lots of very good places such as the Paladar la Guarida, Bodeguita del Medio and many others. My advice is RESEARCH before you go, BUT also DO NOT rely 100% on them as what is good for me might be bad for you!
There is music being played constantly in bars and on the streets, and nightlife does seem very varied and exciting. There is a huge array of choices – almost too much – that is was/could be difficult to decide what to do!
If/when we go back we may stay in Vedado in either Nacional de Cuba or Melia Cohiba mainly as it is always nice to explore new places. Getting back to Havana Veija is pretty cheap (at time of writing) by taxi/horse/coco taxi, so that’d be OK.
In general Havana is in a pretty bad shape… Havana seems to be trying slowly to improve itself there was a big difference in and around the Old Town mainly in the historic squares and streets there has been a big restoration effort over the last few years. The streets, while in general disrepair, are on the whole clean. OK, it’s a HUGE city so I am only talking about the small areas I have been able to visit. Roads are generally very poor even being the centre and the capitol, I think it would be an exciting challenge to drive there but would be pretty scary and don’t think the sat-nav would work!
While we done a LOT of stuff this time, there is still plenty we didn’t do that we planned to – partly due to the flight times I think. Which means we have still things to do/see the next time!
About Thomas Cook…
The package by Thomas Cook was OK. There was a couple small issues which let them down. Mainly this was the ‘cheap’ rooms in Havana, and the hotel in Cayo Coco (NH Krystal) is a very nice hotel, but this year they had closed more then they usually would – mainly in the A la Carte restaurant choices.
The most shocking thing was the price of the excursions; they had literally doubled in 2 years since our visit in September 2007 to this visit in August 2009! Especially if you go to a resort, which is not Varadero, you are (unless you hire a car) very isolated in Cayo Coco/Cayo Guilermo and similar. You are then forced to pay inflated prices. We never checked with the other operators, as having done the 4 days in Havana we were not that bothered, so can’t say if using Cubanacan directly was cheaper or not.
Our rep at the hotel in Cayo Coco was OK – we never really made much use of her. And the rep in Havana seemed OK at first, but during yet another ‘welcome meeting’ (I really should have learnt by now not to bother with them) having asked if anyone had been before and we replied yes, he promptly lost interest in us.
Havana – I wont regurgitate! It’s all above!
Cayo Coco; we love it there and will possibly go back. However it might be nice to visit an alternative area for some variation… Wherever we go when we come back we will include a few nights in Havana.
If you are looking to buy some cigars, and staying in Cayo Coco, buy them in the hotel. More preferably, if you are lucky enough to do a 2-center/trip to Havana buy them there. In the Airport at Cayo Coco they were extortionately expensive I was mad at myself for waiting – but this was not the case in 2007.
OK, last year we had a pretty bad year. This holiday was well worth the wait and is a holiday I/we shall remember.