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Caribbean: Hip Havana for Teens

Many families flock to Cuba every year. In fact, it’s the sixth most popular destination for winter-weary Canadians. But few make it to Havana, the bustling capital of the Caribbean’s biggest island. That’s a shame, especially if you’re travelling with teenagers or young adults.

Little tykes and school-age kids may want to stay sand-side on the white powders of Varadero or the gentle surf of Cayo Coco. Strollers would definitely struggle with the cobblestone streets and cracked sidewalks of Old Havana. But older kids will find a trip to Havana, especially with overnights in the historic section, challenging and fascinating. As should their parents.

There’s the vehicles—American Graffiti-style vintage cars—bright blue Chevies and two-tone burgundy Oldsmobiles gleaming with chrome, shiny yellow Coco taxis (turtle shells with two seats molded onto scooters) and horse-drawn coaches. There’s the old Spanish Colonial period architecture and the largest fortress in Latin America. And there’s Che Guevara, his romantic face emblazoned everywhere from T-shirts to billboards to government buildings. And always— music! Live musicians seem to appear almost magically in cafés and restaurants and open-air plazas to play guitar and maracas, bongos and bass, surely the purest musical combination in the Caribbean.

Rent The Buena Vista Social Club, the movie that made the Cuban beats of son known around the world. Then embark on a social history lesson of Revolution and romance—themes your offspring know only too well. Here’s what not to miss:

Start your visit at the Capitol building, taller than Washington’s Capitol with its 300-ft. dome. It’s impressive for its gold-leaf covered Statue of the Republic and Hall of Lost Steps (named due to its echoing acoustics). From the top of the steps outside, you’ll get a good view of 40s and 50s autos parked with pride in the square. Then have your photo taken with a similarly vintaged camera by a photographer on the sidewalk out front. Rajimo Basart has been using his 1914 Polaroid camera to photograph families for 18 years. His camera sleeve is a denim jean leg and his photo lab a bucket of water attached to the wired-together tripod. The cost? Just one American dollar.

Stop in at the Museum of the Revolution to see rebel paraphanalia from beach sandals to commando gear used by Fidel, Che and others committed to the social revolution against dicatator Batista. Out back is the Granma boat that carried them from Mexico to Cuba, a getaway truck from 1957 riddled with bullets and the American spy plane shot down during the missile crisis. If you’re looking for a souvenir, shop for Che posters in the flea market just behind the sometimes carnival-like Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square). Or head to the Plaza de Armas where the second-hand book stalls display Che’s poetry volumes or National Geographic magazines from the 50s or 60s. You might sometimes feel as if Havana time has stopped still.

Hemingway fans can stop off for excellent French fries, Cuban snacks and a juice or mojito cocktail (a delicious mix of lime, sugar cane liquid, soda water, rum and crushed yuerba buena leaves) at the popular La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant haunted by the famous scribe. Kids can scrawl their signatures on the wall with hundreds of others. Another musical time out is La Floridita, where “Papa” used to drown daiquiris. The drinking age in Cuba is 18.

But don’t leave Havana without at least one visit to the café taberna Amigos del Benny (Friends of Benny’s) at the corner of Teniente Rey and Calle Mercaderes. If you’re really lucky, the Buena Vista Social Club or another well known Cuban band will be providing the backdrop for reasonably priced house chicken with melted cheese or veggie sandwiches. It’s not rock ‘n roll or rave or funk. But your older kids just may groove to the sound all the same.

Tips: The Special Period in Cuba (due to the collapse of the Soviet Union) has resulted in a scarcity of necessities such as toilet paper, bandages or other drugstore products that we take for granted. So pack accordingly. It’s also best to travel with American dollars for tips and shopping, but do leave home without American Express credit cards or travellers’ cheques. They are not accepted.

SIGNATURE VACATIONS offers Skyservice flights from many Canadian cities including Toronto, Montreal and Calgary and Edmonton. Their week-long 2 in 1 Vacation combines three or four nights at a beach resort in Varadero with three or four nights in Havana. Their day trips into Havana (about two hours drive from Varadero) cost $63 ($48 for kids) and include city tours, lunch, and a stop at La Floridita. Their $159 overnight ($120 for kids) includes hotel, dinner, the very saucy but spectacular outdoor Tropicana nightclub show and breakfast. Consult your travel agent or visit www.signaturevacations.com. For more information on Cuba, call the Cuba Tourist Board 416-362-0700 or visit www.gocuba.ca.





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