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Parakeet: Cuba Beyond the beach

15 days from £2,095pp

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Parakeet: Cuba Beyond the beach:
Trip Dossier

Away from the all-inclusive resorts Cuba is an island of extraordinary contrasts that will capture your imagination and your heart. It is over 50 years since Castro's Revolution managed to both transform and petrify the island's society and economy. Fuel, food and transport shortages have been offset by a national educational system and state-of-the-art medical facilities. 

Crumbling colonial towns are characterised by dilapidated splendour, evocative of past elegance. The dusty alleys teem with barefoot boys playing baseball with bottle caps and rhythms pulsing out of every doorway. Vintage Cadillac’s still roam the streets which, beyond Havana and a few trunk roads, are virtually traffic free. The youthful population has retained a natural exuberance, expressed in dance and music, which spontaneously breaks out day and night. The tropical scenery, unspoilt and pristine, is as stunning as it is varied, and the warm waters of the Caribbean lap against palm fringed beaches, enjoyed by local people and tourists alike.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

UK clients depart Thursday on a direct flight, arriving Havana, Cuba, the same day.

Day 1

Overnight in the capital.

Days 2-3

Fly to eastern Cuba and travel on to the colonial port Baracoa.

Day 4

Drive to Santiago.

Day 5

Explore the city and take in a salsa show at night.

Day 6

Drive to peaceful Bayamo.

Day 7

Explore the Sierra Maestra; hike to Castro’s revolutionary hideout.

Day 8

Visit the university town of Camagüey.

Days 9-10

Explore and relax in Trinidad and on nearby Caribbean beaches.

Day 11

Drive to Santa Clara; visit Che Guevara’s memorial, continue to Havana.

Day 12

City tour of Havana.

Day 13

Bus journey to Viñales.

Day 14

Excursions and walks in and around Viñales.

Day 15

Return by bus to Havana airport. Depart on international flight or extension.

UK clients arrive home the following day, Friday.

Detailed itinerary

UK clients depart Thursday on a direct flight, arriving Havana, Cuba, the same day.

Day 1

Overnight in the capital.
 
Those passengers arriving on an international flight will be met at the airport by your local tour guide or representative who will escort you to the group hotel.

In the evening head out into Havana to hear to some of the all pervasive salsa which dominates the music scene. You may catch local people playing dominoes while you enjoy a cold mojito cocktail.

The streets of La Habana Vieja were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, and the subsequent restoration of this part of town has transformed it into arguably Latin America's finest colonial quarter, in marked contrast to the rambling, potholed streets and crumbling façades around it.

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Days 2-3

Fly to eastern Cuba and travel on to the colonial port Baracoa.
 
Fly to eastern Cuba, before travelling on to Baracoa, Cuba's most easterly point, and the first Spanish settlement on the island (Columbus landed here in 1492). It remained isolated from the rest of the country, only accessible by sea, until the construction of a mountain road, La Farola, in the 1960s.

The town is set in a spectacular curve of mountains and feels as if it has been suspended in time; isolation has protected it from the excesses of tourism, and it's a delight to wander the streets and take in the surprisingly vibrant and authentic nightlife.

The surrounding region is one of rich, tropical beauty, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Excursions include a boat trip on the Yumari River, passing cocoa and coconut crops with the background noise supplied by a myriad of tropical birds. The more active may want to ascend 'El Yunque' an anvil-shaped mountain that dominates the skyline. The climb is steep and there are wonderful views from the top over Baracoa Bay.

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Baracoa

Day 4

Drive to Santiago.
 

You drive up and along the winding road crossing the mountains between Baracoa and Santiago (6hrs). You often do not see another vehicle as you pass dense tropical vegetation, with the occasional panorama over the coast. As the vehicle slows, people emerge from the forest bearing handfuls of tiny bananas or treats made from coconut to sell or swap.

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Day 5

Explore the city and take in a salsa show at night.
 
Santiago is Cuba's second city and a town with its own pace of life; the city is lively, noisy and frenetic. From the rooftop of the Casa Granda Hotel in the main square there are views over the colonial centre and across to the glimmering waters of the Caribbean and the Sierra Maestra mountains.

You’ll visit to the Moncada Barracks, where Castro and his ill-prepared guerrillas launched their Revolution in 1953. It's a museum and a school now, but the walls are still riddled with bullet holes.

There are optional excursions in the surrounding area. Visit the Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca, a fortress poised on the high cliffs which flank the entrance to the Bahia de Santiago or relax in the rural village of Cayo Granma, an excellent place for a peaceful meal. In the evening the city's mainly Afro- Caribbean population come alive and there is a fantastic music scene.

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Cuba Musicians

Day 6

Drive to peaceful Bayamo.
 

Travel to Bayamo, the second oldest town in Cuba, and the birthplace of Cuban independence in 1898. Set on the edge of the Sierra Maestra mountains, it is a relaxed, pleasant town. Unusually for Cuba it has little in the way of colonial architecture as most of its original buildings were destroyed in a fire in the late 19th century. But there is a pretty main square and a park, which you will stroll through on your walking tour and the inhabitants are laid-back and friendly.

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Day 7

Explore the Sierra Maestra; hike to Castro’s revolutionary hideout.
 
You continue by road up into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra National Park. The region contains some of the island's most spectacular scenery; deep, lush, forested hills stretching as far as the eye can see, and the occasional vista down to the coast.

Its revolutionary heritage is legendary: it was in these remote mountains that Fidel and Che started the Revolution, gathering and training the campesinos who were to join their army, and planning their attacks on the incumbent regime. There is a visit to the wooden shack that served as Castro's base of operations, the Comandancia de la Plata, during the Revolution's initial guerrilla war. The Sierra is also home to Pico Turquino, at 1,972m Cuba's highest peak. You overnight in a hotel in the village of Santo Domingo at the bottom of the valley.

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Sierra Maestra

Day 8

Visit the university town of Camagüey.
 

Today is spent travelling north to Camagüey (5hrs), a lively university city renowned for its ballet, music, and fine examples of unspoiled colonial architecture. You will see the characteristic tinajones clustered in patios and on the streets; these large clay pots were used in the colonial era for storing water in times of drought.

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Days 9-10

Explore and relax in Trinidad and on nearby Caribbean beaches.
 
Continue west to Trinidad via the Valle de los Ingenios. This is a valley of sugar mills, where you visit a farm and climb the tower from where colonists kept a close eye on the slaves working in the plantations below.

Trinidad was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Its popularity has not affected its colonial charm and unhurried atmosphere. Low-rise, brightly painted houses with vast shutters open out onto cobbled streets, palm trees dot the main plaza and evenings go on to the early hours with dancing and music each night.

There is an informal walking tour and a number of optional excursions available. Drive up into the shady environs of the Escambray Mountains where you may spot the national bird, the tocororo, along one of the walking trails whilst en route to a waterfall for a refreshing dip. Or relax beneath the shade of a palm tree at Playa Ancón, a wide stretch of white sand.

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Trinidad Cuba

Day 11

Drive to Santa Clara; visit Che Guevara’s memorial, continue to Havana.
 

Leave the coast and head inland to Santa Clara (2.5 hrs). Over 55 years ago Che Guevara, assisted by just 18 guerrillas, captured the railway here, in a move that was instrumental in the triumph of the Revolution. Today, this vibrant university town is home to an excellent museum dedicated to the events of the late 1950s and to Che Guevara. There is time to visit the museum, Che's mausoleum and a monument and plaza dedicated to the man and the Revolution. After lunch continue onto Havana by bus (3.5 hrs).

For departures in 2017 after leaving Santa Clara we continue first to Viñales for a 2 night stay as per days 13 and 14 now. After this we travel back to Havana via Las Terrazas, and finish with 2 nights in the capital.

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Day 12

City tour of Havana.
 

Today there is an informal walking tour of Old Havana. The streets of La Habana Vieja were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, and the subsequent restoration of this part of town has transformed it into arguably Latin America's finest colonial quarter, in marked contrast to the rambling, potholed streets and crumbling façades around it. Stroll along the cobbles, between grand, pastel-hued mansions and take in the bustling street life, the music that seeps out of every doorway and the gargantuan, crumbling 1950s American cars that clog the narrow streets. You'll have trouble keeping your camera by your side as iconic images flash before you around each and every corner.

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Day 13

Bus journey to Viñales.
 
Continue by road to Viñales stopping en route to visit the community project of Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario UNESCO biosphere reserve. This is Cuba's premier centre for ecotourism, offering the opportunity to get to know the local community, who coexist harmoniously with their surroundings.

From here we continue on to Viñales, a small, bucolic town tucked away in the Sierra de los Organos, in the west of the island. The shady high street is lined with trees, wooden colonnades and one-storey, red-roofed houses. Horse and carts clatter along the main road and children play baseball with sticks and stones outside the dilapidated whitewashed church in the main square. There is a splendid old chemist's shop and a few other bare-shelved stores, as well as a couple of salsa bars that attract a lively crowd in the evening.

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Day 14

Excursions and walks in and around Viñales.
 
The valley has a distinctive landscape, with dramatic limestone mountains, known as mogotes jutting into the sky from a lush, fertile plain. Using oxen and carts, local farmers cultivate the red soil of the valley floor for fruit, vegetables and tobacco, and the countryside is peppered with thatched curing barns for drying the tobacco leaves.

Included is a guided walk through this beautiful valley; the trails pass alongside fields being tilled by straw hatted farmers and their cattle, and you may have the opportunity to visit a campesino family in their home, where they'll brew you up a coffee, roll a cigar and talk to you about life on the land.

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Vinales

Day 15

Return by bus to Havana airport. Depart on international flight or extension.

UK clients arrive home the following day, Friday.

Essential information

Transport

1 flight (1.5 hrs), 9 road journeys (longest 6hrs with stops)

Accommodation

On our Discovery Journeys the standard of accommodation varies. We aim to keep the price competitive while ensuring the basic comforts. Hotels / guesthouses are comfortable and attractive in most places but elsewhere are purely functional. All properties are well maintained and almost all will have a private bathroom with hot water. (If you prefer greater comfort please see the Classic Journeys or Private Journeys on their respective pages on our website).

We use a mixture of medium-class hotels, as well as private homestays. We must emphasise that in Cuba the standard of accommodation (and service) varies. All hotels have private facilities. In some areas you will be staying in casas particulares, or family homes. This system allows Cuban families to open up a few rooms to tourists. As each family has 2 or maybe 3 rooms, larger groups will be split among a number of different properties, but these will be located near one another and your tour leader will arrange meeting points and be on hand for assistance. Facilities within the houses vary; all have communal outside areas such as patios and roof terraces to relax in, and all offer excellent meals at additional cost. Due to Cuba’s strict regulations, casas particulares or private homes which are open to tourists are of a relatively high standard, however they do not necessarily conform to recognised hotel standards. With tourism growing the casa particulares are increasing in scale and also in development meaning most now have fridges in the rooms and even TV's - something unheard of a few years ago. In all cases the rooms are clean and have private bathrooms with hot water. Staying in these is a great way to get an insight into the Cuban way of life and meet its friendly people.

Examples of the hotels include: 

• Havana: Hotel Los Frailes
• Baracoa: El Castillo 
• Santiago: Hotel Casa Granda
• Bayamo: Hotel Royalton 
• Sierra Maestra: Hotel Villa Santo Domingo
• Camagüey: Gran Hotel
• Trinidad and Viñales: Casa Particulares

Hotels are subject to change and are dependent on availability. Address and contact details will be sent out with your final documents.

Meals

Breakfast daily, lunch day 7.

Included excursions

• Baracoa: Yumari river
• Santiago: Moncada Barracks
• Bayamo: walking tour
• Sierra Maestra: visit to Fidel's hideout
• Sugar mills on route to Trinidad 
• Trinidad: walking tour 
• Santa Clara: Che's mausoleum 
• Havana: walking tour
• Viñales: walks in the Viñales valley

Summary of nights

2016 - 15 days, 14 nights: Havana 1; Baracoa 2; Santiago 2; Bayamo 1; Sierra Maestra 1; Camagüey 1; Trinidad 2; Havana 2; Viñales 2.

2017 - 15 days, 14 nights: Havana 1; Baracoa 2; Santiago 2; Bayamo 1; Sierra Maestra 1; Camagüey 1; Trinidad 2; Viñales 2; Havana 2.

Included in the journey price

• All land transport
• Local Tour Guide throughout
• Accommodation as specified
• Meals as specified
• Excursions as specified
• Cuban tourist card

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and insurance
• Meals other than specified
• Optional excursions
• International airport departure tax

Optional excursions

There are optional excursions which are booked locally through your tour guide once you are in Latin America. Not all excursions available will suit everybody, whilst others only operate within certain seasons, with minimum numbers or may not be included due to time constraints. A budget of around £100 should cover participation in the following options, but prices can fluctuate depending on the size of the party and so cannot be provided accurately until travel commences.

The list below is only a guideline, so please enquire with your tour leader for any further areas of interest: 

• Santiago offers numerous distractions including walking tours, visits to the Casa Velasquez museum and Museum of Rum, Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, El Morro Castle and Cayo Granma.
• Camagüey: Take to a Bicitaxi on the streets of Camaguey to visit the artists’ quarters 
• Trinidad: hike in the Escambray mountains, relax at Ancon beach or stroll through the Parque el Cubano. 
• Havana: cruise in iconic 1950s cars
• Havana: see the dolphins at the National Aquarium
• Havana: visit the Havana Club (rum) museum 
• Viñales :visit the Cueva del Indio 

Throughout your stay in Cuba there will also be plenty of opportunities to take in the local music and dance at various concerts, gigs and festivals.

Travelling alone

There is no extra cost for single travellers who are willing to share a room. You will be accommodated with another same-sex member of the group who is also travelling solo. For single travellers who wish to have their own room there are a limited number of single rooms available, which carry a surcharge.

Currency

Cuba has a dual currency system. The official currency is the Cuban peso (CUP), with which local people are paid and which they spend. The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is the 'tourist' currency and is accepted in hotels and 'dollar shops'. You will be expected to pay  for goods and services in CUC. 

In October 2013 President Raúl Castro announced that Cuba would be abandoning the CUC; this is expected to happen sometime in the future.

Budget

Cuba is not a cheap country for the visitor. A budget of around GBP£35-40 per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday price, drinks and the odd souvenir.

How to take it

Cuba imposes a 10-15% charge on dollar exchange. To avoid this, you should travel with sterling or euro cash (no more than is covered by your insurance). Both euros and sterling are accepted in most banks and some of the larger hotels. You can convert these into Cuban pesos convertibles (CUC) on arrival. Keep the official receipt from your exchange, because you will need this should you want to change any currency back to sterling or euros at the end of your trip. 

Credit cards (not those issued by US banks) are also accepted in some places, but be aware that there is a 11% surcharge on payments made by card, including on cash advances. Havana has a few ATMs and there a couple more popping up in other cities, although these cannot be relied on. Maestro cards are not accepted in Cuba. Due to recent changes in the law travellers cheques have become increasingly difficult to change, so it is not recommended travelling with them now.

Tipping

Tips are normally welcomed and expected. Local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. We recommend approximately £2 (or local equivalent) per person per day for each of guides and drivers, depending on the size of the group. 

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Many Cubans lack what we consider to be daily necessities, such as soap, plasters and stationery. If you have room in your bags for some such things, they will be hugely appreciated by the islanders.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page. 

Airport taxes

International departure tax is approximately 25 CUC but is now included in the cost of your flight tickets.

Journey grade

There are some early mornings and long days of travel (all of which have stops). All walks are optional, and you can discuss with your tour guide which are suitable for you. Please be aware that delays and changes of plan are possible, in fact likely, and a happy-go-lucky attitude is essential if you are to get the most from your visit to the country. This journey uses a combination of tourist bus services and private transport. Be aware that although there are timetables for buses in Cuba, there are often delays and occasionally cancellations.

Climate

Cuba is generally hot throughout the year (18-32°C), with temperatures at their highest in summer, between July and September when humidity can also be very high. The rainy season runs from May to October, and the island lies within the hurricane belt July-November. The east of the island is hotter and more humid than the west.

Clothing and special equipment

Light, summer clothing will be adequate for this hot climate, and the dress code is very casual everywhere. Thin, long-sleeved garments may be useful for evenings, and a lightweight raincoat is the best protection against tropical downpours. Your footwear should include comfortable walking shoes or trainers and sandals. 

A small bag/day pack is essential to carry a few things for your overnight at Villa Santa Domingo.

We recommend that you pack a torch as lighting can be poor at night. Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in Cuba.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP. You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website. 

Visas

A completed Cuban tourist card is essential for all UK citizens travelling to Cuba. The cost of this is included in the holiday price and the card will be issued with your final documents.

APIS - important flight information:

Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the departure of flights. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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