Havana had always been on my hit-list for my staff travel adventures, but with only weekly flights, high demand and the lowest possible standby priority, I'd never had any luck.

However, Adrian – my friend at Virgin – wanted to visit too, and he has much higher priority! If I travelled with him, I would get to share his exalted status. Even better, Steph would be able to share the staff travel deal.

By this time, Virgin was actually up to three flights a week, and the loadings looked extremely encouraging. It looked like we'd even get Premium on the way out, with Economy on the return flight.

In theory, visiting Cuba is a bureaucratic endeavour. To get a visa, the Consulate needs to see your flight tickets, accommodation details, passport photo and so forth; in practice, you can just pick one up from Virgin at the airport without showing anything. In theory, your accommodation needs to be government approved; in practice, nobody seems to care in the slightest.

The reason we were all so keen to visit Cuba sooner rather than later was to experience the real country before things changed. It seems inevitable that with US relations being restored, it can only be a matter of time before the country at the very least becomes a major tourist destination, and perhaps sees far bigger changes.

For this reason, we'd booked rooms in a casa particular, staying in the home of a local family. The visa requirement meant that we just had to take a punt and pay a deposit on accommodation without knowing whether we were going to get there (and I'd have felt obligated to pay the balance either way), but it seemed worth the risk.

Virgin has changed its staff travel system. Previously, you could do online check-in if there were enough free seats, but now you just get a 'Seat requested' boarding pass and would only get news at the gate. But both standby gods and upgrade fairy were kind.

Quite the contrast from the previous night's Lie-n-Scare flight back from visiting family in Porto.

Despite having had only three hours' sleep the previous night (due to flying into one airport at midnight and flying out of a different one the following morning), I didn't sleep on the plane but instead watched a couple of movies. Steph and I watched Girl on the Train together (excellent!), and then I finally got around to watching I, Daniel Blake – very powerful. I also watched the first five episodes of Divorce starring Sarah Jessica-Parker, planning to watch the remaining five on the flight home.

The food was good and in-flight service excellent. The weather less so: we landed in the middle of a tropical rainstorm. The crew assured us this wasn't a horrible practical joke, landing us back at Gatwick, but that the rain would soon pass.

Adrian and Tania had had to check one of their bags due to too many toiletries, so Steph and I went through into Arrivals to meet our taxi driver and change some money, which can only be done in the country.

The light was wonderful.

Money was changed and the taxi ride to the casa particular took about 45 minutes. We were enjoying the mix of 50s American cars and Ladas on the journey.

Our room was basic, but clean.

Although we'd been emailing one of our hosts in English, it turned out that we'd actually been corresponding with his brother in Spain! Neither of our hosts in fact spoke much English, but fortunately Steph's Spanish is excellent.

They wanted to be paid in cash the moment we arrived, but as Adrian and Tania hadn't had time to pick up any and we wanted to keep some cash in reserve, we persuaded them that we weren't likely to do a runner in the night.

Tania was feeling exhausted, so she went to bed while the three of us headed out to a recommended restaurant about a mile's walk away along uneven pavements in hot and humid evening temperatures. We'd been warned the food in Cuba was bland, and this was indeed the case, but it was good to get our first taste of the country.

Our room was rustic but fine, despite the unpromising rubber-covered mattress and crimplene printed sheets! We had a small fridge and an air-conditioner that was at least a few degrees below ambient temperature. The shower only had cold water, but that wasn't a problem in the >30C temperatures. We had a view of a corrugated sun shield and an alleyway.

Adrian had tried to persuade us to book breakfast at 8am, arguing that jet-lag would outweigh exhaustion and we'd be awake by then. He was out-voted three-to-one.

He was right. We woke around 6am, so spent a bit of time doing all the things we would have done on arrival had we not been so tired: unpacking, charging mostly-useless gadgets (there is almost no wifi anywhere in Cuba) and generally getting settled in.

Steph and I had set some 2017 goals at the beginning of the year, and she realised we'd already ticked off two of them, including travelling together on a last-minute trip.

I also wrote this section of the blog, while Steph worked on a more impressionistic, poetic piece.

We were offered breakfast on the roof terrace, which was a lovely place to begin the day –it was warm, and included a view of nearby Plaza de la Revolución, where all civic gatherings – including the first of May workers’ day celebration – take place.

First order of the day was a visit to the bank to sort out cash and pay for our rooms. The dirt car-park opposite the bus terminal gave us our first close-up look at some of the 50s American cars in various conditions.


There were more on the street en-route to the bank.

As well as a chance to check out some of the buildings, also in varying conditions.

The street on which we were staying:.

And our casa particular:

In Havana, as in many developing countries, the smallest things can be mini adventures – Iike changing money. We'd been told there was a bank in the bus terminal, so went there so Adrian could change cash and I could withdraw more. You could change cash but with a very long queue. The ATM wasn't cooperating, so we went to another branch about a 10-minute walk away.

There Adrian joined an equally long queue while I took out CUC100 from the ATM at the shocking exchange rate of 1.03 against the cash rate of 1.19. But needs must ...

Havana operates a bush taxi style system of shared cabs running on fixed routes. We hailed one of these. It was one of the 50s American cars, so we felt the day was off to a good start.

There were two people in the front, so the four of us squeezed into the back until the passengers in the front got out, when Adrian hopped into the front

We weren't entirely sure where the fixed route went, so jumped out at the Capitol, which was a few blocks from where we wanted to go next. We paid what Jose told us we should: CUC1 per two people.

We wanted to pick up maps of the city, so walked the short distance to the Parque Central hotel, where the Virgin crew stayed.

This was also a great place to check out some fully-restored cars – though most are not exactly faithful restorations. As they earn their living ferrying tourists around the city, reliability and economy trump authenticity for many, so most had diesel engines!

They looked pretty, though.

Even if one or two needed a little more work.

The Concierge gave us maps and we asked him to mark on a couple of places – including his recommended place for ice-cream. Did I mention it was 31C?

We walked the back streets en-route to the ice-cream place. It was interesting to see there were a handful of streets aimed at tourists – with hotels, eateries and upmarket shops.

While just one block away in either direction would be another world entirely. We soon learned to avoid the tourist streets except when we wanted refreshments.

There was no shortage of cars along the way.

We then continued wandering, the walk itself being our destination for the time being. Chess seemed to be popular.

We reached Los Canoñes Square, where there were a large number of cars, mostly – but not exclusively – of the gleaming variety.

Steph's not a great petrolhead, but she found the cars beautiful and thought there would be a market in manufacturers producing modern-spec cars in the same designs. I think she may be onto something.

We walked along the sea front for a short distance, with a view across to the lighthouse.

But the back streets were far more interesting, as well as somewhat shaded from the unrelenting sun, so we cut back into them – though in this part of town, the buildings were rather grander.

We found ourselves at Plaza Francisco d'Assis where we stopped for a cold drink and cakes.

A street singer was singing Hasta Siempre Comandante – a love song to Che Guevara – very beautifully. Sadly, she followed this with La Bamba and something equally naff.

We were amused to find street vendors selling reproductions of newspapers and magazines from the height of the revolution. Capitalist enterprise celebrating socialism.

Then it was time for more wandering.


We found a man making amazing sculptures from plants. I asked for permission to take a photo using one of the few Spanish phrases I managed here and there, which he granted with a smile. He then rapidly created something for Steph (seen later), which was a good way to guarantee a tip.

There was also an interesting place that appeared to be both pharmacy museum and working pharmacy.

Our trip wasn't official, of course, until we'd made a Facebook post, so we found the Plaza Hotel had (exceedingly slow) wifi and managed to post a few photos straight from the camera. We then walked along the Paseo de Marti, a rather grand promenade with buildings alongside in all states of repair.

Steph took a few photos of her own – and a glimpse of the plant brooch made for her earlier.

We walked out onto the harbour wall, but didn't stay long as we were being chased by mariachi bands determined to serenade the tourists. We escaped this fate.

We then walked back down the promenade to meet Adrian and Tania on the roof terrace of the Parque Central.

There wasn't a free table that could seat four, but we hijacked chairs from a couple of other tables – one of them one level down. The food was good, the wine and beer drinkable, the cocktails strong. The sunset was ok.

As our house was close to the national bus station, that made for an easy point of reference for taxi drivers. We discovered that it's one CUC per person for exclusive hire of a cab.

Our iPhones told us we'd walked a little over ten miles in the heat, so it wasn't a great surprise that we ended up going to bed at around 9pm.


Another Brit, Mick, had arrived, so we had a chat with him, then headed into town. While it had been great to have a local breakfast the first morning, we were fruited out so opted for breakfast at the Parque Central. Another 50s car took us there.

The waitress warned us that our chosen breakfast was huge and should be shared, and she was absolutely right. It comprised three courses and left us well set up for the day.

First on the agenda was a tour of the cigar factory, which became another mini adventure. You have to buy tickets from a tourist office in the centre of the city. With all the hotels around, there were lots of tourist taxis wanting to charge us CUC15-20 for the short drive, so we walked up a few blocks to hail a local one.

The first two had no idea where it was. The third claimed to, but promptly set off in completely the wrong direction – which fortunately Adrian noticed.

Discussions ensued, with the driver adamant that he was taking us to the right place, and us pointing out that he was heading north while the cigar factory was south-east. It was just outside the city centre, so our map didn't extend far enough to show him.

We had him drive back to the tourist office where I got them to write down the exact address, plus directions to get there. The driver seemed to understand – then promptly drove a couple of blocks back to the Capitol.

He was again adamant this was the right place. We advised him otherwise and he went off to ask directions. It turned out the place he'd taken us to was where the cigar factory had been up until about five years ago. He got directions to the correct location, and then got us to within a couple of blocks, at which point we decided it would be quicker to walk the remaining short distance.

Sadly, no photos are allowed at the cigar factory, largely, I suspect, because if photos show the process, fewer people will want to visit. It was, though, a great place to visit – and gave me a whole new appreciation of my two cigars a year.

The woman who led our tour asked us if we wanted to buy cigars and said that the workers were each given five cigars a day and some of them unofficially sold them. She claimed the price was about a third of the official price, which turned out to be nonsense, but it was at least a little cheaper than we were able to find them elsewhere.

I had vaguely toyed with bringing back a box, but as they only keep for about a year and I smoke two a year, a 12.5-year supply seemed excessive. I settled for bringing back two, and buying a third to smoke that evening.

We then took a taxi to the car museum, which was closed ("all the cars are on the street").

This was next to the 'feria artisanal,' a covered market where we were told we could buy products made by local craftspeople. In reality, most of the stalls were selling identikit tourist tat that I suspect was all mass-produced in the same Chinese factory.

What it did have, however, was genuine local art – some of it being painted there. Much of it was copies of existing artists, but some was original. Steph does collect affordable original art, and was briefly tempted by one artist, but his work was all on large canvases, too large to take back with us.

After a rather brief visit there, where Steph bought some earrings and I bought a small cigar holder, it was once again time for – you guessed it – more wandering around the streets.

That balcony needs a little work:

We paused for various coffees, teas and lemonades.

We then walked a little further ...

To the Museum of the Revolution. Housed in the former Presidential Palace, it's quite something to be able to see the bullet holes from the day the palace was stormed, to see the President's office and to walk through the boardroom where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others planned the future of the country.

The building itself is impressive.

The rest of the museum is, however, disappointing. Most of it is just photos behind glass – ones you could find on the web – with some rather uninteresting mementos in glass display cabinets. This was obviously set up as a local museum, as most of the explanatory copy is in Spanish only.

Then began our next micro-adventure: dinner. We first tried to go back to the Parque Central in the hope of a better sunset, but that was closed for a private function.

The Park Plaza next door looked, from the ground, to have a roof terrace, so we headed in there. Our visit coincided with a large party checking in, who were trying to pile into the lift en-masse, ignoring the 'Maximum: 6 persons' notice.

A member of staff came over to point this out to them, and it transpired that the second lift was now stuck as a result of over-loading. We decided to walk the five flights of stairs.

Which proved easier said than done. Four flights were fine, then we ran out of stairs. We wandered left and right. Still no more stairs.

Finally, we collared a chambermaid who gave us directions to the rear stairs, which looked rather like they were not intended for guests, but got us onto the roof. We circumnavigated it to find the bar.

Which was closed.

However, from the roof we spotted a third roof terrace on the hotel on the far side of the road. This turned out to be the annex to the Parque Central. We successfully reached the roof and open bar in time for the sunset.

We then headed indoors for dinner. We ordered mains, which, when they arrived, were very much starter-sized. We supplemented them with desserts afterwards, but the rations were still rather meagre.

Fortunately, we decided against ordering anything else as, taxi fare aside, we turned out to have less than one CUC left after settling the bill!

Taxi drivers in the centre of the city would often try to negotiate the fare to more touristic levels. Our hosts had warned us of this and told us not to give in, but on this occasion we were able to deflect negotiating attempts with a simple and perfectly truthful 'Four CUC is what we have.'

We ended the evening on our own roof terrace, drinking tea & coffee and smoking the third cigar I'd purchased for the occasion.

Adrian smoked half of his single purchase, saving the rest for home.


I have a plug adapter specifically made for the old MacBook Pro power brick, with USB-A sockets designed to charge other devices. But as I'd gone all-in on USB-C cables, I'd tested using my MacBook Pro as a giant USB hub. Pleasingly, this fully charged iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch.

(The photo looks like it's black-and-white, but it's not – there's just no colour in the scene.)

Adrian volunteered to make the bank run at 8.30am to change some more cash. I had no more sterling, but Steph had some Euros, leaving me with some in reserve (I keep a small supply of Euros and US dollars – useless in Cuba but a universal currency almost everywhere else in the world – in my passport wallet).

We woke early, so I did most of the photo editing before his return. We also again chatted with Mick. He'd lost his plug adapter and iPhone charger, so I charged his iPhone from my Mac. Impressively, it charged it fully in about an hour.

Steph had said the one car we hadn't yet tried was the other ubiquitous vehicle on the island: elderly Ladas! Happily enough, the first empty taxi we spotted was one, so we commandeered it.

Equally happily, the ride was short, as the car was leaking fumes into the cabin and, we noticed only on exiting, had several wheel hub nuts missing ...

We breakfasted, then went in search of a suitable 50s convertible for a tour. While we'd been riding in plenty of 50s saloons, these all had Diesel engines fitted, and we wanted one with the original V8. I was also fairly keen to have one that was a genuine original in the sense that it had been in Cuba since the 50s: we'd been told that some of the showroom condition ones were unofficial imports by American businessmen who bought the cars, shipped them over and then split the proceeds with the drivers. We found a suitable candidate.

We indulged in a little negotiation, doing our best to persuade the owner to let Adrian and I drive it, if only for a few feet. Sadly, he wasn't having any of this, so we had to settle for pretending.

We'd actually already walked much of the tour route, but we did get to see a few new places, including a rather prosperous suburb called Vedado. We ended it by driving back down the Malecón, again marvelling at all the prime hotel territory devoted to crumbling houses.

The driver told us the Beatles had played in an unlikely-looking small park, park, now named Parque John Lennon, where a statue of same marks the occasion.

We did a final back street walk, where we met this gentleman who was learning English and doing rather well at it.

Then it was back home to shower, change and pack, before a taxi ride to the airport. This turned out to be a rather unofficial taxi – despite the unusual feature of seatbelts – as the driver asked us to pay him on the approach to the airport so he wasn't seen accepting money by the police. He was, he told us, a friend dropping us off.

The standby gods smiled on us, but sadly the upgrade fairy wasn't able to join us. The very friendly crew did tell us we could have our pick of Economy seats, so we got an emergency exit row, with an empty seat alongside us, which was very comfortable – though Steph found it cold, as Adrian had warned.

We were greeted on our return flight with a 'welcome back to the UK' sunrise. I was feeling too lazy to get out my camera, so settled for a quick iPhone snap.

And that was our Havana trip. It was utterly fantastic to finally get there, and to do so before it gets too Americanised. If you get the chance to do the same, I thoroughly recommend it.