Day 1/2: London to Toronto to Havana

Cuba has long been high on my bucket list, with its beautiful cars, interesting history and the promise of a good mojito. The last few years I have found myself often browsing flights, only to dissuade myself however last year I obviously found myself in quite a persuasive mood and decided to finally get some booked!

We flew with Air Canada, leaving from London Heathrow for around £400 each. This included a brief layover on the way out and a longer one on the way back. Considering Adam and I have to travel in half term I didn’t think this was bad at all.

We arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time and went to our favourite terminal 2 restaurant, the Perfectionist Cafe, where we had delicious pizzas alongside a cider. Unfortunately the waiters were slow and forgetful when it came to getting us to the bill and we ended up having to make a run to the gate and were the last ones to board.

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Our flight out was a 6pm flight, the first I’ve got at this time and it certainly made the process of getting to the airport a lot easier and calmer. Whilst on board we enjoyed our first Air Canada flight, the food was good and I loved the Molson lager.

Unfortunately we faced quite strong head winds so spent an extra 90 minutes in the air. My original plan of staying awake the whole flight fell by the wayside by that point. We ended up landing around 10.30pm and I called the airport shuttle, complimentary with our hotel.

We were staying with the Best Western Carlingview hotel but accidentally ended up getting the shuttle to the Carlingview hotel instead. Easy mistake right! Luckily the hotels were both on the same road, about a 10 minute walk from one another, but it wasn’t so easy pulling the suitcase in the snow. It was quite exciting to see snow like that though, it was certainly deeper than I had ever seen before.

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Hooters was still busy despite the snow!

When we arrived at our hotel and tried to reserve the airport shuttle back to the airport the next morning many were already booked up and we had to book one for 5am, a couple of hours earlier than intended. The hotel room was lovely, the bed was so comfy, even if we were only in it for about 4 hours!

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I didn’t sleep immensely well, the room was very warm, and before we knew it we were up again for our shuttle. Once at the airport security was a very quick process and we grabbed a breakfast burger from BUILT custom burgers. They were $7.99 each but the woman didn’t really understand our order, I wanted no lettuce but despite asking a number of times ended up with it anyway, she also ignored a request for tater tots and charged me for a drink I didn’t get.

Toronto Airport however was one of the best I’ve ever encountered. There was a whole plethora of ipads to use so Adam and I plonked ourselves on the comfy chairs, of which there were plenty and played online games until it was time for our flight.

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The 3.5 hour flight to Havana flew by fairly quickly and before you knew it we were making our way through the hectic airport. Our first stop was getting currency, as Cuban dollars cannot be purchased outside of Cuba. I was a bit nervous at this step as many online forums had led me to believe the exchangers were infamous for short-changing you however there seems to have been some technological improvements since those posts as there are now a series of money changing machines in the main hall. They were slow and wouldn’t accept our cash as one singular transaction, instead having to make a number of small ones, but at least they were accurate!

Online research had led me to believe the price of the taxi into Old Havana should have been 20-25 cuc but after asking several taxi drivers none offered lower than 35 cuc. I don’t quite have the bartering skills needed to hold my own in Havana so we agreed and jumped in.

It was a fascinating half hour drive from the airport. Already Adam and I were hanging out the window, marvelling at the colour, the people, the cars! I could already tell that Cuba was going to be different to anywhere I’d ever been before.

We’d decided to choose an AirBnB option for our trip, as its competitive price wise and we felt having a Cuban ‘host’ would be very handy. Our AirBnb can be found (here) and I have nothing but positive things to say about it. It couldn’t have been any more centrally located, as it was in the square surrounding the Capitol building. We had two large bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room and a large bathroom as well as access to a roof terrace. Amazing value for £27 per night!

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Our AirBnB from outside, built in 1912

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Our host Alexander was so welcoming and after checking us in he took us out onto the streets to show us how and where to buy water from. He also took us on a small local tour of the area, telling us some tips and tricks to be aware of and recommendations of things to try. At this point I was pretty uncomfortable as the black jeans and jumper that was so sensible for the -10 weather in Toronto was on the verge of giving me a heat stroke in Cuba.

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The view from the door of our AirBnB!

So after a change and refresh we headed straight out for lunch, to Lamparilla Tapas & Cervezas. We didn’t have a reservation but was able to get a table right by the open door, perfect for people watching. The food was so delicious and we had what would turn out to be the best Pina Coladas there. We paid 30 CUC for 4 dishes to share and 2 cocktails and we left absolutely stuffed.

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Our post lunch plan was to go to Callejon De Hamel, a street known for its street art and Sunday salsa (which it happened to be) but the heat, the long day and the full bellies made us lethargic and we ended up quitting and heading instead to the Malecon. The walk around offered us such an insight into Havana. There were people dancing in the streets, singing, colourful buildings, interesting smells, walking is certainly the way to get around here!

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The Malecon is a sea wall, playfully called ‘The Sofa of Havana’ due to the number of people who hang out there. We appeared at a point very popular with the fishermen and as we walked down this evolved into young couples in love, men offering us taxis, families playing.

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We walked up to the Monument of Antonio Maceo, who was second in command of the Cuban army of independence. As we got closer the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the light was absolutely beautiful.

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We walked back to the apartment and cut through the Central Park, just around the corner. This is also a popular hangout for Cubans, although as a tourist if you hang around it won’t be long until you’re offered taxis, horse rides or cigars.

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From the Central Park you can see the Gran Teatro de la Habana, a beautiful building that sits as the home to the National Ballet.

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On return to our apartment our host, Alexander, invited us to join him on the rooftop where he made us Cuba Libre’s and handed us Cohiba cigars. He spent the next couple of hours chatting to us, giving us his take on Cuba’s turbulent history and his hopes for the future. It was interesting to hear the views of a real Cuban and wondered if his views were shared by the majority.

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Our rooftop view

We soon excused ourselves from Alexander’s company so we could make our 8.30pm reservation at La Gaurida, one of Havana’s most famous restaurants. The beautiful building was used in the only Cuban film to have won an Oscar, Fresa Y Chocolate, and a reservation is certainly needed. We turned up 10 minutes early for our reservation and still had to wait for our table to be ready.

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The beautiful staircase

We were sat out upon the terrace, which was lovely, if not a little dark. Adam and I had both hoped to have the fish of the day but were told they were out of fish. We were soon to learn this is a very common thing in Cuba, for many of the menu items to be unavailable. I had the shredded beef whilst Adam went for a lamb tikka masala and both of us enjoyed our meals. We also shared a chocolate milk dessert, a delicious end to the meal and for 2 mains, 2 cocktails and the dessert to share it came to 50 cuc. By Cuban standards this is very expensive but for the quality of the meal and the surroundings I felt this was more than worth it.

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One thing people often ask about Cuba is ‘Is Cuba safe?’. Well I can honestly say walking home that night, in the pitch black, on our first night in a strange place, we felt totally safe and we felt that way the entire trip. Our AirBnB host reassured us that Cuba had a low crime rate and we saw nothing at all whilst we were there to make us doubt that. All in all a wonderful first day!

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Steps walked: 20,539

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