PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 12:00am

Getting there

From Hong Kong, we flew via Los Angeles and Mexico City, then into La Habana (Havana). Our connection between Mexico City and La Habana gave us only one hour to collect baggage and go through customs, check-in and immigration, and we nearly missed our flight. Make sure your travel agent books flights with sufficient connection times as the Mexican airlines and airport authorities are quite security conscious and checks may take longer than what we're accustomed to in Hong Kong. Alternatively, if you can fly via Canada or Spain, there are direct flights.

For our Cuba holiday, we used Farrington Amex Travel Services (tel: 2808 2828; which was very helpful. Most agents in Hong Kong do not handle connection flights to Cuba.


By far the best hotel in Havana is the luxurious Golden Tulip Parque Central, close to the Capitol building. The view from the rooftop swimming pool/jacuzzi and the lavish breakfast buffets are to die for (Neptuno e/ Prado y Zulueta. Tel: [537] 860 6627;

Even if you don't stay at the Hotel Santa Isabel in the old part of the city, you should definitely drop by. Originally the magnificent palace of Count Santovenia, it became a hotel in 1867 and was upgraded to five-star standard in 1996. It retains lots of Old World charm (Calle Baratillo 9. Tel: [537] 338 201).

Of all the hotels in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the Hotel Ambos Mundos is the most unique. Aside from the fact that this is where Ernest Hemingway stayed on and off for several years, it is superbly located, close to all the major sightseeing attractions. Lots of hotels claim to give you a 'nostalgic feel', but this one definitely does. The roof patio where breakfast is served offers a panoramic view of Havana and the lobby bar is reminiscent of old Hemingway. If you're lucky, the night porter might offer to sell you Fidel Castro's favourite cigars 'straight from the factory' at a fraction of the prices at state-owned cigar stores (Calle Obispo 153 y Mercaderes. Tel: [537] 669 530).

Avoid the Hotel Sevilla as the staff are rude and make Fawlty Towers look efficient (Calle Trocadero 55. Tel: [537] 608 560).

Those on a budget should embrace Cuban bed and breakfasts called casas particulares. Prices range from US$15-US$30 (HK$117-HK$238) a night and staying in them is a great way to meet and help cash-strapped locals. People will approach you in the street to stay in their homes, but bear in mind that touts will expect you to pay a fee for introducing you to the home.


Havana is quintessentially a nightlife town, with abundant nightclubs and cabaret shows on virtually every corner. However, you can take in the arts and craft fair (central Malecon), the Museo de la Revolucion (Refugio 1 e/ Monserrate y Zulueta, La Habana Vieja. Tel: [537] 624 091) and wander around the old town (increasingly restored with European Union and United Nations money) and cathedral square. Take a day trip to Santa Maria beach, 15km from Havana and US$10 by cab.

Visit Fabrica La Corona in Havana, the cigar factory where for a US$10 admission fee you can tour around and see demonstrations of cigar hand-rolling for famous brands such as Montecristo, Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta. You can also purchase a cigar and enjoy it at the bar (Calle Agramonte 106. Tel: [537] 626 173).

If you go to Santiago de Cuba, the country's second city, visit the Zoological Park. It houses an aquarium with a mediocre collection of exhibits and a dolphin and sea lion show. However, after the show for an additional fee you can swim with the dolphins, which is truly an unforgettable experience.

Give the whole Hemingway hype a miss. His house La Vigia, 11km from the centre of Havana and situated in a pleasant garden, should only be visited by die-hard fans as visitors are not allowed inside and can only peer in through the windows. It costs US$5 for each photo you take and this plus the tour cost (US$25), taxi cost and absence of toilets make it not a worthwhile visit.

Meanwhile, the tourist crush at his favourite restaurant, La Bodeguita del Medio, is more than the old ceiling fans can cope with and the food is very average and overpriced (mojitos are a steep US$4 here). The same goes for the daiquiris created in his honour at La Floridito (US$6 each).

If you must walk in Hemingway's footsteps, stay at the boutique Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana, where Hemingway lived for several years. It has been lovingly restored and has a graceful piano bar in the lobby (Calle Obispo 153 y Mercaderes. Tel: [537] 669 530).


Cuba is not a great place for shopping and foreign goods are rare and overpriced. Cigars and rum are the exceptions and are plentiful and cheap. Buy cigars from official shops, not the touts, who offer smokes of dubious quality.


If you want to experience real Cuban food, you should definitely visit one of the paladares, small restaurants which are only allowed to accommodate a maximum of 12 diners. There are often queues outside the really good ones, a fine example of which is Paladar Los Amigos in the Vedado district which is actually the home of the owner and you eat in the dining room complete with family pictures on the cupboards. Quite an unusual experience - you have to walk through their bedrooms to access the toilet (Calle M 253, opposite Hotel Victoria).

A good place to eat is Hanoi, a few blocks down from the Capitol building towards Old Havana. Meals are priced between US$1 and US$4 and the mojitos at US$1 are the cheapest in town. There's also live music all day (Calle Brasil. Tel: [537] 671 029).


For a groovy night out with the Havana jet set (those with mobile phones and gold jewellery) try El Kino at the Habana Libre hotel (Calle L e 23 y 25. Tel: [537] 334 011). It starts at 3am. Havana nightlife, as in most of Latin America, does not start early. For reasonable discos and bars, try the Vedado district. For plush hotel terrace bars try the old town but beware, prices are way above the norm: expect to pay US$3 for a Cuba libre or a mojito. For real Cuban streetlife try the Barrio Chino (yes, a Chinatown, although there's little Chinese food). Though small and dilapidated, it's always lively.


You will need an entry visa for Cuba and you can get it at the Honorary Consul of Cuba in Central (1112 Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place. Tel: 2525 6320). You'll need a passport photo, your passport plus a photocopy and your return tickets. Single-entry visas cost HK$250 and take five days to process, but you can get one in two days for HK$500.

Cuba is very hot (40 degrees Celsius some days), muggy and wet from May to September with hurricanes in September and October. Best to go in November to April when it's cooler (though this is the peak tourist season).

The American dollar is the preferred currency in Cuba. There is very little to buy, but if you do manage to find souvenirs, make sure your change is given in dollars. You will have trouble offloading Cuban pesos.

Bring plenty of biros, pencils, chewing gum and paper to give to Cuban children. They are always asking for them and it will save you handing them US$1 every time to ease your guilt, inadvertently giving them what their parents earn in a week.

Even if you're staying in an expensive hotel, don't leave your clothes unguarded by the pool. Modern clothing is greatly prized in Cuba.


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