I’ve been meaning to write about Cuba as a ‘ babymoon ‘ destination for a while but never quite got round to it. With slushy melting snow outside and a poorly baby asleep on me,, now seems like a good time, so here goes. It turns out that we did quite a lot on our babymoon in Cuba so I’ve split the post in two. Part One covers why we chose Cuba for our babymoon and our time in Havana. In Part Two, our babymoon takes us first to the west of Cuba to the UNESCO site of Vinales and then to Holguin on the north-east coast.
My husband and I travelled to Cuba when I was five and a half months pregnant with my first baby. Other than the occasional spike in blood pressure, it had been a normal active pregnancy and we wanted to go on an adventure, a ‘ babymoon ‘ , with just the two of us before baby arrived later in the autumn of 2011. Apparently this is not an uncommon urge, with the birth (excuse the pun) of the slightly embarrassing term ‘ babymoon ‘ emerging to presumably help out confused travel agents with understanding their clients’ holiday expectations and allowing them to add the appropriate premium.
With three weeks to play with, our criteria for our babymoon were – somewhere new/adventurous (but not too wild on the activity front as I spent most of the day wanting to sleep), culture, affordable (turns out babies are expensive…), no immunisations/malaria tablets (bad plan when pregnant), reasonable medical care, possible to be covered by insurance to travel there whilst pregnant and a degree of relaxation. Sadly, the immunisations and malaria issue scratched off a fair few destinations from our wish list. Parts of Thailand were a possibility but given I seemed to have developed an aversion to Thai food since being pregnant, it seemed a scandal to visit and miss out on its culinary delights.
Planning and flights
Cuba ticked all the babymoon boxes. Cuba was good value for money (around £4000 for three weeks in transition season, including all flights, twelve nights all-inclusive 5-star accommodation and all other accommodation); it was opening up to tourism but not quite yet a mainstream destination, other than a couple of avoidable areas; Cuba ‘s position as a communist stronghold slowly reconnecting with the capitalist world makes it a fascinating country to explore right now and its strong mix of Hispanic culture and Caribbean vibrancy add hugely to Cuba ‘s character.
Although we normally try to research and organise all our adventures personally, for the first time we booked our babymoon to Cuba through a tour operator in order to provide an added level of support. Having said this, whilst they arranged flights to Cuba, a hotel in Havana at the start and end of our stay and our 5-star hotel at the beach in Holguin, we arranged all our independent travel and accommodation for our sub-trip to Vinales. In my opinion, this was the best of all worlds, offering us enough independence to do our own thing without the headache of organising transfers and accommodation and with back-up in case things didn’t go to plan.
We booked our babymoon through Virgin. Flight time to Cuba is around 8-9 hours and the flights went ok although we upgraded to the extra leg room seats. These are available on-the-day only and cost £30 each way. The extra leg stretching space was definitely worth it, although I still wore flight socks, drank buckets of water and went strolling round the plane at regular intervals to keep the blood moving. Pregnancy does increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis so this is something you should take into consideration when thinking of flying during pregnancy and definitely worth asking your doctor about if you’re considering a long-haul babymoon. The irritating thing about the extra leg room seats is that you have to be at the airport first thing to get one as it’s first come first served. As a pregnant lady, waiting around for hours is the last thing you need! I also have to say that despite the walking and extra room, on the flight out to Cuba my right leg did swell up – it took 45 minutes of lying on my back in my Havana hotel room with it in the air to get it to come down! This didn’t happen though on any of the three further flights in Cuba that our babymoon involved.
Cuba in general is pretty pregnancy friendly and a great place for a babymoon. Food is not brilliant but whilst you need to be a bit careful, there are usually plenty of plain cooked options available. The doctors here are incredibly well trained (though the hospitals are supposedly lacking in kit) and everyone is very family friendly. A few tips – when travelling by car in Cuba, seatbelts are sometimes scarce – make sure that any cab has a working one before setting off. Also, take an old fashioned fan with you – walking out and about is hot and steamy work and you may be some way from A/C. Bring favourite brands, personal toiletries and suncream with you as these are hard to get hold of in Cuba and they only seem to sell factor 15 suncream. Otherwise, relax and enjoy your babymoon in Cuba – this country has so much to offer and is also without doubt the best place to enjoy non-alcoholic cocktails!
Arriving in Cuba
Cuba is an intriguing and perplexing country, a bubbling, vibrant hotch-potch of romantic idealism served up with a large dollop of economic hardship and disillusionment on a plate of faded architectural magnificence and rural beauty. This is a place where doctors wait on tables to make a living, rural families despair of their childrens’ employment prospects and nearly everyone is a civil servant and yet it is culturally rich, has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and is full of colour and life, with its own unique energy.
Our babymoon in Cuba started with a couple of nights in Havana staying at the Hotel Telegrafo, right in the centre of Old Havana. Hotel Telegrafo has a beautiful colonial facade and the communal interior areas have been sympathetically modernised. The rooms are functional – it’s definitely worth asking for a street view for impressive lookouts over the Parque Central. Breakfast was a a rude awakening to the generally poor food on offer during our babymoon in Cuba ‘s tourist resorts – it included excellent coffee but despite a massive self-service buffet, nothing else was very appetising and even the bread could be used to break windows. More on this in part two… Havana itself is a fascinating city. On a sunny day, Old Havana is nostalgically beautiful, with its impressive colonial architecture, pastel coloured American classic cars and seafront vistas glinting under a tropical sun. On a cloudy day it looks like a recent war-zone – imposing, grey and with all the cracks in the building facades, pot holes in the streets and general decay crawling out at you. Both versions are accurate. This is a city which until very recently has been trapped in a continuous cycle of its own modern history, echoing the cyclical nature of the Hispanic blood that beats through Cuba ‘s veins.
Places to visit in Havana
We explored Old Havana on foot from the hotel, taking in most of the touristy things as well as diving into the back-streets. The walk along Havana’s famous Malecon – a long stretch of seafront paved walkway and a favourite with Cuban couples looking for a romantic stroll, was definitely worth it.
The Museo de la revolucion provided an interesting insight into Cuba ‘s 1959 revolution and a backdrop to Cuba today for anyone interested in Cuba ‘s famous history. The displays were largely in Spanish and the exhibits rather eclectic – anything from bloodstained revolutionary’s uniform or an old shoe and spoon to intriguing photos and correspondence from some of the revolution’s leaders – but it definitely gave a flavour of communist Cuba ‘s side of the story. The museum is housed in the suitably grand presidential palace – home to Cuba’s presidents up until the 1959 revolution, with bullet riddled walls showing the scars of its role as the scene of an assassination attempt on the then dictator Batista in 1957.
Back on the Cuba tourist trail, we took the lift to the top of Ambos Mundos hotel in Old Havana, which was home to Ernest Hemingway for seven years from 1932 and where he began writing his famous book ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls‘ . From the top floor bar and restaurant you can sit on the terrace and enjoy a mojito (Cuba ‘s famous drink) along with the fine views across Havana and out to sea. The food here was somewhat overpriced and pretty poor (we are fairly certain this was the cause of the mild food poisoning we subsequently suffered from), so I’d stick to the drinks and views if you’re considering going.
One highlight of our babymoon in Cuba was seeing Buena Vista Social Club playing at Cafe Taberna – an absolutely fantastic night out and pregnant ladies take note, the non-alcoholic mojitos here were out of this world! Bump showed her appreciation of Latin music by kicking for the first time during this visit!
Despite being incredibly touristy, we also tried going to one of Cuba ‘s famous cabarets just for the hell of it. Not up for spending ridiculous money, we opted for the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba instead of the world famous Tropicana. The cabaret was an impressive spectacle but I think it comes down to personal taste and I found it a bit long. Dinner was fairly bland and not worth the tourist price-tag that came with it. One fun thing is that after dinner and the cabaret show you can join in with dancing. Sadly, suffering from the after-effects of our earlier culinary misadventure at Ambos Mundos and exhausted from an over-active bump who had been practising her moves on the inside to the Latin beat all through the performance, we retreated at this point.
We also dropped in on Havana ‘s Museo de Chocolate – not so much a full blown museum as chocolate lovers’ heaven in the guise of a cafe serving every type hot chocolate available and selling plenty of the solid stuff too. One warning – just as rose wine tastes better on that holiday in France, the chocolate tastes amazing in Cuba but loses its magic post babymoon .
An unexpectedly enjoyable trip on our babymoon in Cuba was a ride on an open-topped tourist bus around Havana, taking in old and new parts alike and stopping off at the Plaza de la Revolucion – an impressively sized area with its towering iconic Jose Marti memorial which has been home to many political rallies and addresses from Fidel Castro and major government figureheads. I’m not normally one for group tours and follow the umbrella tours have me running in the opposite direction, but after being dragged onto the bus tour by my husband it definitely showed us more remote parts of sprawling Havana that we wouldn’t have found through wandering from the centre, particularly with a bump!
Talking of wandering, there is so much you can see just by taking to the streets, so long as you are adept at pothole jumping! A simple walk up the Paseo del Prado from our Hotel Telegrafo by the Parque Central took us past the impressive National Theatre and home to Cuba ‘s famous ballet. Unfortunately there wasn’t much on when we were there but you can still visit the theatre for a tour.
Further on is the iconic Capitolio building. Now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences, this ornate and extravagant building was home to Cuba ‘s pre-revolution governments and modelled on the White House in the USA, reflecting a time when Cuba and the US had stronger ties and the admittedly corrupt governments benefited from an influx of dollars. It seems bizarre wandering past El Capitolio now, with the US classic car taxis parked outside, given that anything American has been vilified by the authorities for so long in post-revolution Cuba.
Directly behind the Capitolio building is the Partagas factory and home of the world-famous cigars. Here you can take a tour around the factory, watching how with painstaking care each cigar is made from start to finish. From the careful selection and grading of each tobacco leaf by hand to the precise technique for rolling it into the final cigar, the process of making one of Cuba’s biggest exports is a lot more intricate than expected and truly fascinating.
Despite the long hours, concentration required and manual nature of the work, a basic job in the factory pays a larger salary than a qualified doctor could earn and positions are so coveted that you could compare entry to the apprenticeship here the equivalent of applying for popular graduate schemes in the UK. Even the lucky few who are selected have to undertake a rigorous and exacting few years of training. Each cigar can be traced back to the individual who rolled it and quality is double checked at every step, meaning that only the talented make it through to become permanent employees.
Coming from the West, it is surreal to find such competition revolving around a tobacco related industry and even more so to discover that a perk of the job is that employees get to take home an allowance of cigars for themselves and their family. Sadly for Cuba, the factory workers and the farmers, the smoking bans that are becoming so common place across the developed world are taking their toll and Cuba has seen a large dip in tobacco exports over recent years, relying increasingly on China and Brazil and other wealthy South American nations for trade.
Just west of the Partagas factory and through a large ornate Chinese-style archway is Havana’s Barrio China or China Town. A shadow of its pre-revolutionary self, the barrio is still home to some impressive eateries run by Havana ‘s Cuban Chinese population. If you are starving after a day of hit-and-miss culinary offerings from tourist eateries in the rest of the city then this is definitely a good place to head for a tasty and plentiful meal.
There is an absolute wealth of places to visit in Havana, many of them perfectly possible to organise under your own steam. However, you will quickly find that tours or entry to tourist attractions are generally quite pricey and there is little benefit in shopping around. The reason? Although Cuba is slowly opening up to trade and allowing its citizens to run their own businesses for the first time since the revolution, the majority of the tourist industry is largely controlled by the government, with prices being fixed. We continued our babymoon in Cuba by heading west to the spectacular and rural province of Pinar del Rio on an independently arranged leg of our trip.
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