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Havana ball

Eve Vamvas discovers the world's her lobster when she embarks on an adventure to Cuba with her toddler.

The combination of horror and admiration was something that I had not only come to expect, but rather enjoy. "And you're really taking the kid?"


The time had come for an adventure. Three years of intensive parenting had taken its toll and we were ready to get back into the big, wide world. Backpacking around Cuba would be our first odyssey en famille.

Why Cuba? Aside from the obvious appeal of Christmas in the Caribbean, we wanted a destination offering interesting, manageable exploration options with a 2-year-old in the space of a fortnight. A (slightly pretentious) interest in the political system and a desire to see the place before Fidel's demise sealed the deal.

The only big question was if we were really prepared to backpack in the pure form, ie spontaneously wandering hither and yon, risking cockroach infestation and worse discomforts. Familiarity with the aforementioned had dispelled any romantic attachment to this approach when I just had to cope with me, let alone be a mummy too. The compromise was to book all the accommodation with the locals direct - backpacking in spirit, but planned three months in advance.

Organisationally, it was a nightmare. Many hours spent trawling the internet, emailing and 'phoning a country with poor communication systems proved to be foolish and entirely unnecessary: everyone we met subsequently informed me that they had booked tailormade trips through specialist local travel agents. Nevertheless, I remained proud of my commitment to the independent travelling ethos.

"Our friendly housekeeper brought us enormous meals, played with Theo and washed up – renting a private apartment is a flexible, economical alternative to hotels and ideal for kids."

Within 24 hours of arrival in Havana, we were living with locals in a casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of B&B, alongside a market that enervated the street. Every morning, an ancient Chevrolet would roll up and dispatch that morning's culled pig onto the red, dusty street; pineapples and bananas were tossed from truck to stall to passer-by as the resident pianist played and tourists visited with their cameras. Our friendly housekeeper brought us enormous meals, played with Theo and washed up – renting a private apartment is a flexible, economical alternative to hotels and ideal for kids.

Easy to navigate on foot, Havana is an amazing city to amble around. Intense interest in Theo's three-wheeler buggy and my reticence to emulate local fashion sense (tight, short, plunging everything, regardless of age or size; VPL obligatory) gave the locals much fodder for scrutiny and chat. Inevitably, some spots are less picturesque than others, but we were not remotely intimidated upon wandering into a slum, even without the heavy police presence that is apparent anywhere that tourists and locals mix. And the jineteros, or hustlers, young men who offer tourists cigars that are invariably fake and/or poor quality, were prevalent but never so pressing that a firm "No, thanks" didn't circumvent them.

The best food and drink to be had is generally at paladares, private restaurants in people's homes, where lobster is banned from being served (due to shortages and the government's desire to hold a monopoly) and is invariably the first thing to be offered. We were approached by a family with business cards advertising their home and crammed into their obviously unlicensed paladares for limitless daquiris, banana fritters and lobster for 10$ a head.

The famous Havana nightlife was not really an option for us, but fortunately the Cubans don't feel any need to schedule music and dancing, so it's easy to be thoroughly partied out by baby's bedtime. The only drawback to this merry approach is a complete lack of noise etiquette that can be alarming to the visitor unable to ignore major revelry and building projects at 3 am. Light sleepers should seek professional advice when arranging accommodation.

After four days in Havana, we headed off for the beach component of the trip. We had hoped to use public transport but soon realised that even the locals preferred to hitchhike, so we booked tourist buses. Cayo Levisa is a small island off the north coast, about two hours bus ride and a short boat trip from the capital. Only twenty basic but comfortable cabanas and a small bar and restaurant lie along the sandy beach. The water is ideal for children; shallow, warm and clean, although swampy style vegetation inland provided a particularly vicious mosquito population. After the first bout of bites, Theo became delirious with a raging temperature. The island's doctor came immediately, but I was disconcerted to recognise him as the man who had served my drink earlier in the evening. It was soon established that he was actually a doctor moonlighting as a barman, rather than vice versa, and although we declined his offer of a syringe full of unspecified medication, the attention that my daughter received far exceeded anything to be had at home. For the rest of our stay, he checked her daily and got us well acquainted with a selection of rum-based cocktails.

We then headed back inland to Soroa, the closest mountain resort to Havana. Known as the "rainbow of Cuba", the heavy rainfall here makes the vegetation tall and lush and the low key tourist resort has a small hotel complex, roman baths and an orchid house.

We had booked one of eight private houses up the side of a mountain with its own pool. Our main problem here was sourcing food for the self-catering facilities. In the country, everyone keeps their own vegetable patch and livestock, making the concept of shopping somewhat redundant. We hired a cab and drove around until we found a man who let us harvest some vegetables from his allotment (at least I hope it was his) in exchange for some dollars.

We also had another opportunity to experience Cuba's health service, as the receptionist at the hotel insisted that Theo see the resident doctor for what was now obviously a raging case of chicken pox. Offers of antihistamines, lotions and potions and more regular check-ups reassured us once more that parents in particular can feel pretty confident about exploring Cuba with children safely.

The home stretch saw us back in Havana for the last few days, and this time in a top hotel for a treat. At supreme expense ($160 per night – the equivalent of a year's salary to the average Cuban), we had our first poor customer service experience. Suffice to say, that five star classification doesn't mean much in Cuba and we wished we'd gone back to the casa and our friendly housekeeper and neighbours. But we knew our way around the city quite well by now and spent our last few days discovering more architectural and automobile oddities and purchasing all things Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as souvenirs. I also learnt to discuss the whys and wherefores of chicken pox in Spanish to every concerned mother in the province.

Despite it being a challenging holiday, principally due to our new status as a family, Cuba was exactly what the psychotherapist ordered in terms of a plausible adventure for all of us.

Things to Take

  • Pushchair, preferably all terrain, for the very potholed streets of Havana.
  • Car seat – you'll need to take your own if hiring a car.
  • Powdered milk – formula for under 1's essential, and regular powdered for toddlers advisable.
  • Food for emergencies – tins of tuna and dried fruit came in very handy. Nappies – disposable are difficult to find, expensive and small.
  • Torch, candles, lighter and matches – power cuts are a regular occurrence off the tourist trail.

Tip Also bear in mind that nearly everything in Cuba is broken – when arriving somewhere new check out the frequently dodgy electrical wiring and structurally dubious railings, handrails etc. to be on the safe side.

For more details on Cuba and places to stay, click here

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