Cut-price Cuba

I am a student and would like to spend a month in Cuba. I believe that it is extremely expensive to get there. As a budget traveller, will I be able to get enough out of the country? The important thing for me is to get a feel for the life there.

Larissa Howlett

via e-mail

Simon Calder replies:

Reaching Cuba is not so difficult and expensive as it was a decade ago: instead of flying on Aeroflot via Moscow or Interflug via East Berlin, there are frequent non-stop flights from Gatwick, and weekly services from Manchester, on the national airline, Cubana (tel: 0171-734 1165). These link up with a network of domestic flights. Be warned, though, that besides coming last in a Which? survey of passenger satisfaction, Cubana is the most dangerous airline in the world for which records exist.

So you may prefer to use the new one-stop service on British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) from Gatwick, or, more cheaply, South American Experience (tel: 0171-976 5511) has a fare of pounds 388 from London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Birmingham via Paris to Havana on Air France.

Once in Cuba, you will find life easy, and - thanks to the legalisation of the parallel market - affordable. The dollar is freely convertible to 21 Cuban pesos at hundreds of casas de cambio all over the island.

The dollar is still the currency that fuels the economic recovery, and enables a tourist to live cheaply (if not always comfortably). A room in a private house (casa particular) will cost $10 (pounds 6) per night, or a little more if a tout takes you there; offers of accommodation (as well as cigars, rum and sex) are made frequently to foreigners on the streets of Havana.

Food is much more palatable and available than was the case just a few years ago. The cheap way to survive is to eat the pizzas sold by traders in just about every street for a few pesos, while for $5 or $10 (pounds 3-pounds 6), you can eat superbly in a paladar - a restaurant in somebody's front room, which by law cannot have more than a dozen chairs.

Travelling around the island is entertainingly easy these days, with a new "hard currency" bus company, Via Azul, offering fast, air-conditioned coaches to the main tourist spots, and long-distance trains that more than occasionally arrive on the right day. Best of all, get a seat in a collective taxi (a vast and disintegrating pre-1959 American saloon car).

A month spent travelling from Havana to Baracoa in the extreme east and back would probably cost around pounds 500, so even with the air fare, the total should be comfortably under pounds 1,000.

Simon Calder is the senior travel editor of `The Independent', and co- author (with Emily Hatchwell) of the newly published fourth edition of the `Traveller's Survival Kit: Cuba' (Vacation Work, pounds 10.99).

Fit to trek?

I am not a seasoned walker but I am thinking of doing some trekking on a trip to India and Nepal. Do I have to get into training for this, and what are the most common health risks?

Clive Jones


Dr Jim Duff replies:

You don't have to be super-fit to enjoy a trekking holiday, but the best advice I can give is that the fitter you are the more you will enjoy your trip. If you are feeling physically fit and confident you can easily travel independently in these regions, with low-budget "tea-shop" treks - tours departing from guest houses. However, if it is your first time trekking, you might want to organise your trip through a tour operator in the UK. Along with assuaging pre-travel nerves, doing this minimises the risks of contracting a gastric illness (the most common problem for trekkers here) as your sherpa and cook will have more control over hygiene.

Another risk that trekkers should bear in mind is acute mountain sickness (AMS). As we ascend, our bodies have to acclimatise to decreasing amounts of oxygen and at altitudes of 2,500m and above, trekkers risk AMS. Most people ascending above this altitude will experience some of the following symptoms: headaches, tiredness, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite/nausea, shortness of breath, palpitations, swelling of fingers or face. These usually disappear after a few days when you acclimatise.

There are various steps you can take to aid acclimatisation and reduce the risk of severe AMS (which can, in extreme cases, prove fatal). Do not simply ignore the symptoms and hope that they go away; instead keep to an ascent rate of 300m a day or less at altitudes below 4,000m, and 150m a day or less at altitudes of above 4,000m; drink two to four litres of fluid every day; avoid alcohol and excess salt; pace yourself and avoid getting breathless; do not travel to a higher camp while experiencing AMS; and finally, tent companions should travel using the "buddy system" to keep an eye on each other.

Dr Jim Duff is the medical consultant for World Expeditions (tel: 0181- 870 2600). He will be giving a talk `Expeditions and Incidents in the Himalayas' tomorrow in London. Tickets (tel: 0181-743 2976).

Mine's a big festival

I have visited Munich's Oktober Fest many times and have always had problems getting seats in the beer tents. Is it possible to reserve them?

J Mitchell


The Travel Editor replies:

Six million beer fanatics are expected to visit this year's festival in Munich. To avoid missing out on the meals and mayhem in the tents, you can book for the Oktober Fest (18 September-3 October) by calling the following breweries in Germany directly (they speak English): Hippodrome (tel: 0049 89 29 16 4646); and Hofbrau (tel: 0049 89 448 9670).

These contacts are for two of the six breweries that sponsor the festival. For information about the Oktober Fest, contact the German Tourist Office (tel: 0900 160 0100) - unfortunately, they cannot book the seats on your behalf.

Danger's what I need

I am tired of the usual bland holiday destinations. Can you suggest the most dangerous places to go on holiday?

Jonathan Duncan


Phil Haines replies:

I can tell you which countries are not very dangerous: Iraq, Iran and Libya, to name but a few. The really dangerous places are mostly in Africa. The last time I was in Angola for example, a beer in the hotel I stayed at was dearer than the cost of a used AK47 bought on the street corner.

Liberia is another country where I have felt uncomfortable. Accompanying me on one flight I took from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Monrovia was the Liberian Ambassador to the UN. He had offered me a lift into town and advised that I would have no problems with Customs and Immigration as long as "I knew what to do". In fact, I succeeded in keeping a sufficiently low profile until I was invited into the chief of immigration's office. He sat comfortably in a large leather chair behind his desk and began the inquisition while I creased into a child's school chair with a writing flap. I could see my reflection and that of a heavily armed soldier taking notes behind me.

Eventually the chief of immigration decided I required a letter from my employer and I politely explained that the consul in London had seen all my documents and, satisfied, issued a tourist visa. The chief shouted at me to stand up and walked around the desk unholstering his handgun. He pointed the gun at my chest and roared: "This is Liberia not London."

He assumed I would nod agreement at this and reach for my wallet. Instead - feeling surprisingly calm - I reached out, shook the shaft of his weapon and clicked my fingers in a typical West African handshake.

Fortunately, the ambassador's assistant chose this moment to enter the room and whisper deferentially into the chief's ear. He then guided me out of the door and to the waiting car. As we drove to the city they explained that they could not wait any longer. The ambassador left a man to ask the chief if he could complete his "business" with me when I left the country.

Two days later I returned to the airport and went directly to the airline manager's office asking for his help in boarding the flight. He instructed someone to take my passport and departure tax and invited me for a beer.

Minutes later my Ray-Banned friend stormed across the airport and insisted I came to his office. The chief was soon leafing through my passport once again.

"You travel a lot Mr Philip?" he began. "You say you are not a journalist. What do you do? What did you do in Liberia?"

"I had Bitterball Tuborgee and a few Clubs at Roseline's restaurant," I told him. "I spent most of my time there. It's the best food I have eaten in the whole of Africa."

He came around the desk again. This time he extended his hand and, after we clicked, he said: "Tuborgee is my favourite, I am a Lofa." After sharing a Club beer he walked me to the plane. The Customs chief ran shouting after us. My new friend turned on him nastily. As the airline manager bundled me on board and slammed the plane door I heard the chief shout: "I got no cash from him, so nobody else will."

Phil Haines - the youngest person to have visited every country in the world - runs a travel company, Live Ltd (tel: 0181-737 3725; phil.haines@live-, specialising in travel to special places.

Touchy-feely healing

I am the mother of a five-year-old and my husband is frequently away on business trips. I would like to take a healing holiday myself during one of these, with my daughter. Ideally I would like a healing experience with a holistic approach. Is there anywhere which can offer this along with some childcare while the activities or courses are taking place?

Ann Smith

by e-mail

Kate Calvert replies:

Skyros Holidays (tel: 0171-284 3065) runs around 200 courses on subjects ranging from yoga to increasing your spirituality at two centres on the Greek island of the same name. For the six weeks of the summer holidays (unfortunately now finished until next year) there are workshops for children of five to 15 years while parents are doing their own (or children can join the adult ones).

Near Santa Cruz in California is Esalen (tel: 00 1 831 667 3000) with a busy programme of workshops and courses on all kinds of new age and holistic subjects. The centre operates a Gazebo School Early Childhood Programme during the day for children up to six. This is open year-round with an average of 15-20 children in attendance each day.

The Neals Yard Agency for Personal Development (tel: 07000 783 704) offers advice on "inner and outer" journeys. Among the best for those with children are West Crete Holidays and Holistic Centre with courses in yoga, art, dance and movement. They can look after children between one and five. Another suggestion is Ulpotha, a village in Sri Lanka, where guests take part in reviving traditional village life. Small groups are welcomed for seven weeks each year. The couple running the holidays have children of their own and there are local children in the village, so life is set up for them.

For more ideas you might like to consult Places to Be (pounds 7.50), "a compendium of transformational holidays and places to just be" (tel: 0800 083 0451). This gives details of destinations in the UK (plus a few overseas), including possibilities for those with children.

Kate Calvert is editor of `Family Travel' (tel: 0171-272 7441), the subscription- only publication for parents.

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