21st Century Cuba: My solo journey in a country facing amazing change
President Obama's visit is the latest step on Cuba's modern journey. Gillian Tsoi flies solo on a bucket list trip.
Many say the best way to travel is alone.
I'd never embarked on a trip on my own - from start to finish, anyway - so I decided now was the time to scratch it off the bucket list. But where to go?
I wanted to fly somewhere diverse, steeped in culture. Being a 30-something female, a destination where I would feel safe was a must. So I settled on Cuba, the colourful Caribbean island known for its rum, beaches, vintage cars, Communist rule and, of late, winds of change.
After 50 years of animosity, Cuba signed a deal with the US in December 2014 that set off a major thaw in diplomatic relations. The US embassy has reopened. The Rolling Stones have played. President Obama has visited, calling for US Congress to lift a decades-old trade embargo. US airlines and ferry companies are eyeing up new routes and itineraries.
Cuba seems bound to undergo significant change in the coming years and many fear its uniqueness may be diluted. Now, I figured, was a good time to go.
I arrive in Havana at night, and catch a taxi at the airport to my hotel. I've no idea why there are two men in the front of the cab and as we navigate through the dark streets of Havana, I'm struck with a sense of panic as I imagine the headline: 'Irish journalist disappears in Cuba.' But as my driver and his companion sing along to cheesy Latin music, my worries abate.
I arrive at the hotel safely and find two souls waiting for me in my room - a humongous cockroach beside my bed and Laura, a Finnish marketing executive who will be my room mate. We've both booked our trip with G Adventures and chat for a bit before falling asleep, excited about the adventure ahead.
After breakfast, we meet the rest of our 16-strong group. Coincidentally, about half are Irish, including three Cork lads, a honeymoon couple and a teacher from Dublin. The average age is about 30. We journey from Havana to Viñales, a pretty little village of colourful painted houses, where we will be staying in Cuban homestays (or casa particulars). Our 'Bean an Tí' offers a warm welcome before we go explore the town.
That night, a delicious lobster dinner sets us back about €10 and we venture to an open-air bar for some live Cuban music, cigars and rum.
After a hearty breakfast of eggs, warm bread, fresh fruits and mango juice, we set off on a four-hour trek. We hike through a beautiful, lush green valley as a local guide talks us through the local fauna and flora.
Later, we take a refreshing dip in a lake and visit a tobacco plantation, where the farmer gives us a cigar-rolling demonstration.
Afterwards, we travel to a restaurant in the surrounding hills, where we feast on a banquet of fish, lamb, chicken, salads, sweet potatoes and the staple Cuban dish of black beans and rice. The rum flows freely as the tunes kick in.
Another early morning and we leave Viñales to visit a cigar factory in Pinar del Rio. The cigar-rollers, or 'torcedores', work skilfully in the unrelenting heat, cooled only by fans. Air conditioning would only interfere with the quality of the cigars, which remain one of Cuba's leading exports, we are told.
On board our air-conditioned bus, Ivan, our knowledgeable guide, speaks passionately about his country. He boasts about its healthcare system: with one doctor to every 170 people, Cuba has the second-highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world after Italy. Last year, it became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, which the WHO lauded as "one of the greatest public health achievements possible".
I get to grips with a mild, rum-induced hangover as we embark on an eco tour around Guanahacabibes National Park near the seaside town of María la Gorda. Its UNESCO beach is a haven for scuba-divers, rich in coral reefs and marine life.
The sun is beating down and several group members are dealing with dodgy stomachs. I'm itching from mosquito bites, but later perk up at a visit to a beautiful deserted beach, where we cool down with a dip in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. Bliss!
Today we travel to Soroa, a resort town near Havana. After checking into our hotel, the group relaxes on sun loungers by the pool, watching fork-lightning illuminate the sky over the nearby mountains.
Cuba's recent deal with the US is likely to see Wi-Fi introduced into the homes of the masses, but for now, it is mainly limited to pricey hotels and special government telecommunications offices. I've been forced to go cold turkey on my smartphone addiction, but the lack of connectivity is refreshing and my stress levels are down.
We travel back to the melting pot that is Havana for a walking tour. The capital offers a feast for the eyes with its colonial architecture and vintage cars.
It's our last night and we finish up in style at a show by the Buena Vista Social Club - the Grammy award-winning Cuban musicians. Our group has built up a great sense of camaraderie, so as we bid each other farewell, we promise to stay in touch... as soon as we all get back on the information super-highway.
What to pack
Insect repellent to stave off the mosquitoes (Cuba has reported sporadic transmission of the zika virus) and over-the-counter stomach tablets, just in case you're hit with a sick tummy. Visitors need a visa (Tourist Card) and a passport valid for six months after arrival.
G Adventures' Cuba Libre tour includes an array of "immersive activities", including accommodation in local homestays, salsa classes, market visits, beach trips and nature excursions. It costs from €799pp, excluding flights.
Contact (01) 697-1360 or gadventures.com.
Where to stay
Casa particulars (Spanish for 'private houses') are inexpensive homestays where B&B costs €25-€30. They're the best way to get a real taste of how the Cubans live, with cheap homecooked meals available at your request. Try homestay.com or cuba-junky.com for options. Airbnb.ie is also now operational in Cuba.
Hit the road
Rent a 1952 hot-pink Chevrolet for about €25 an hour. The driver will whisk you around the major sights of the city, allowing you to hop out and take pics at your will. You can also rent cars by the day, from around €100 within Havana and €116 outside the city, with classiccarsincuba.com.
Havana's Grand Hotel
Visit the historic Hotel Nacional, a luxury hotel situated on Taganana hill just metres from the sea, overlooking Havana Harbour. Since it opened in 1930, guests have included Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway. See hotelnacionaldecuba.com.
Walk the Malecón
Take a walk on Havana's seafront highway, the Malecón, as the sun sets - an experience of a lifetime. Officially called Avenida de Maceo, the esplanade stretches 8km from the harbour in Old Havana, ending in the Vedado neighbourhood. All of Cuban life is here... and then some.