Cuba’s time-slip charms offer intrepid travellers a uniquely wonderful Caribbean experience. Our woman in Havana (and Varadero), Samantha Hodgson, explains how to get the most from your visit.
Hi Sam! Tell us a little about you and your relationship with Cuba.
I’ve been in Cuba 12 years, and the Destination Manager now for nearly 10 years. I’ve also been married to a Cuban for six years. I feel very privileged, because I get the best of both worlds: I see what the tourists see and the way the Cubans live.
So, where in Cuba can you stay with Virgin Holidays?
We operate in three resorts — Havana, Varadero and Jibacoa (pronounced ‘hibacoa’). Jibacoa is a very small resort. It really is only just one main hotel there. The beauty of it is that it’s on the beach but nestled in the hills. It’s also quieter than Varadero, which has lots of hotels and a downtown that has coffee shops, restaurants and markets to explore. Varadero’s beach really has turquoise blue crystal clear water. The sea will take your breath away. Havana is a must for everyone. Make time to walk around the old town. It is charming and colonial and its squares are beautiful. There is literally a photo opportunity on every corner, oh as well as live music too!
What would you say are the biggest challenges for visitors coming to Cuba?
I think one of the biggest challenges for people (particularly those who live on social networks) is that if they’re able to roam, it’s expensive. All hotels have WiFi but you have to go and buy a card to use it. We can pre-book WiFi cards for you, but we also say that visiting Cuba is a chance to get away from modern life and really chill out.
Another challenge is knowing whether your bank card will work in Cuba. Because of the U.S. embargo, any banking card or credit card that is linked to the U.S. doesn’t work in Cuba. You can’t go to a cash point here with an American Express card or an MBNA or CitiBank card (or take money out across the counter). We know which cards work and which don’t so our customers can contact us to find out. Also, there are two currencies here. There’s a Cuban Peso that the locals use, and then there’s a Cuban Convertible Peso, which tourists use. And you can only get the currency once you’re here. It is worth bringing some Sterling cash with you (no Scottish pounds and we don’t recommend US dollars) as a back-up, as cards aren’t accepted for payment everywhere. Also exchange money up as you go along so you don’t have too much local currency at the end of your stay. You can change this back at the airport but they don’t always have pounds.
Anything else people ought to know?
Tipping. Of course, you don’t have to tip anywhere you go, but it means so much to the locals (the average Cuban doesn’t even earn the equivalent of $30 a month). Also, we Brits have a habit that, if we do tip, we do it at the end of the holiday. But actually, if you tip as you go along, it’s a nice way of making friends and people will remember you.
Havana airport isn’t the best for varied catering and there can be long queues. If you are travelling with young children, it’s a good idea to bring some of their favourite treats with you to keep until your departure day for when you are waiting to board the aircraft. Remember, the 100ml liquids restriction applies if you have drinks in your hand luggage.
You can’t come to Cuba without going out of your hotel. Authentic Cuban life is outside of the hotels. If you want to learn how to make a mojito or you’ve wondered how they make rum from sugar or get sugar from sugar cane, it's all here. Do some exploring and get to see the real Cuba!
Who do you think would get the most from a trip to Cuba?
I think the kind of person that should come to Cuba is someone who’s a little bit adventurous — an intrepid traveller. I’ll give you an example. Someone who’d visited commented, “Loved it. It was like being on the set of Casablanca.” And I just thought, “Oh my goodness! That kind of sums it up.” You’ve got to be brave and get out of the hotel. The people here are so charming, so friendly. And now is a great time to come. Cuba’s got old-world charm, but it’s trying to push forward and modernise itself.
What, for you are the top things to experience while visiting Cuba?
You cannot come here and not go to Havana. Our guests that are on a 14-night stay in Varadero have to at least book a day trip to Havana (it’s just two-hours away). If you can, get to Santa Clara, and Trinidad — which is a colonial city here — and another town called Cienfuegos. I would also say, try and get out and learn some of the salsa steps because the music just gets under your skin. These are all things that we can arrange. The Cays, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo — are worth going to because they’re untouched. Make sure you try the very typical roast pork with crackling, a bitter orange sauce, white rice and beans — sometimes black beans, sometimes red beans — but so tasty! If you are vegetarian or suffer from allergies or intolerances, Cuba is just starting to get on board with this. Let us know before you travel so we can help you speak to a chef at your hotel if that would help. It might be worth bringing out some snacks for when you are feeling a bit peckish.
Any final words?
It’s important our guests understand that we’re based here in Cuba, and we’re available 24 hours a day. My team are dedicated to providing excellence and impeccable customer service. People can contact us before they come here — on firstname.lastname@example.org — or they can see us while they’re here. Lastly, Cuba is just one of those places where you fall in love with the people — they love their country and they’re so proud of it.