Havana

Cuba – cigars, classic cars and casas

My Cuban adventure was born within ten minutes of meeting a fellow aussie Jodie in a hostel in Valladolid, Mexico. A vague thought that I wanted to explore Cuba morphed into getting on a plane three days later with a girl i’d just met! Hesitant to go it alone, I jumped on the opportunity of some company and off we went.

After spending two days researching all we could, we were hardly prepared for what to expect. It was difficult to find current information and to be honest we weren’t entirely sure how we would get money, arrange transport or book accomodation. All we knew was that when we got to Cuba, we’d be cut off from the ease of the internet to help us to find our way.

With a little ‘dutch courage’, a stash of chicken noodles, and some Euros in our pockets, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.

International chicken noodle smugglers

Landing in La Habana we looked around the airport for suitable ‘targets’ to share a taxi with us, and soon found ourselves sharing beers in a Classic Chevy station wagon with two likeable Americans on our way to Viñales. Johnny and Evan seemed to have more plans than we did, and I’d heard the Viñales valley was lovely, so off we went!

 

Arriving late afternoon we checked into our first homestay or casa particular (arranged with ease by our taxi driver) and settled into a hammock. The Casas are a popular way for tourists to give back to local families by renting out rooms within their homes in lieu of staying in hotels, which for the most part are either extremely expensive or extremely basic.

Late afternoon was a great time to explore town, walking through the local streets up the hill. Instantly we were in awe at the friendliness of the locals and the colourfulness of the houses standing brighly against the green backdrop of the mountains. Touring on horseback is a popular activity but lacking time we opted for a tour by taxi instead, stopping at a mural, mirador (lookout) and tobacco farm.

Back to La Habana, it was total sensory overload. We spent our time people watching, and walking along the Malecon (oceanfront Boulevard). It is hard to ignore the obvious signs of money and wealth that was once there, stated by the large grand buildings and marble staircases that litter the once grand city – and I pondered how things would be so different if history had gone in a different direction.

Crumbling buildings dot the landscape, touched by earthquakes and years if neglect. Polished classic American cars on display in Parque Central with the drivers looking for tourists to pay $25CUC for an hour tour around the colourful barrios (neighbourhoods).


That being said, walking around the Cuban hub it was hard to ignore the signs of poverty. Every 10m stretch we were offered taxis, accomodation, food, music… Anything else we wanted?


At the beginning, searching for a casa particular was quite fun. We would look for the signs hung above the front door, ring a doorbell and be greeted by the dueño del casa, usually surprising us shouting down from a balcony three or four floors above.

The first time we were in La Habana, we quickly found a Casa just two streets back from the main street, Calle Obispo. Turns out, we were actaully quite lucky that day  as the Pope was in town and the very next day we spent three hours knocking on doors before we finally found something. Exhausted, and at the point where we would just about have accepted anything. A similar experience in Trinidad when we walked for around an hour with heavy backpacks in tow – I can’t even begin to explain the elation when we were able to settle into a nice room!

 We decided to take the Viazul bus to Trinidad – an experience which we did not repeat as it took some six and a half hours as the bus kept stopping! Actually we were lucky to get on the bus at all, as we arrived at the bus station by taxi at 6:55am for a 7am bus. The bus station is well outside town so we were not able to book the day before – so we just had to turn up and hope. Very Cuba!

  

Trinidad is a vibrant, colourful city and we took the opportunity to go off the beaten track and explore the local neigbourhood. We were met with bewilderment from the locals. Kids were running up to us asking for money. Local women asked for soap, detergent, and even the clothes off our backs. It was obvious that there is a lack of access to basic commodities in the poorer communities.

So far I haven’t mentioned much about the local Cuban cuisine, mostly beacuse my mother always taught me that if there isn’t anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all.

Our diet revolved mostly on “peso pizza”, ham and cheese sandwiches and bananas. However in Trinidad I was quite hungry and there was seemingly a lack of cheap street food available at 4pm in the afternoon. So we sat down at a nice bar and I ate some food whole Jodie had a quiet beer. All seemed fine until I spent the night driving the porcelain bus, I was so sick that all I could think was how much I wanted to leave the country and get out of there! But after spending a full day in bed, all was better and we were able to head on to Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos was an unexpected surprise, a small detour on the trek back to La Habana. It was on the way, and a Canadian lady I had sat next to on the bus a few days before had said she really enjoyed it. But it ended up being my favourite stop on the tour! There was a different vibe, a holiday feel, and the locals were much more friendly and less hassling than we had come across in other places.



We decided to drink in the local bar down on the Malecon on the way back from the yacht club, within 30 seconds of being there we were wildly greeted by the local loony (not that we knew it at the time!) who introduced us to his “friends”. That led us to meet two lovely Cuban boys, who convinced us to stay for another beer, which cost less than a dollar for two by the way. People on the table next door generously gave us some Cuban food, croquetes and these funny biscuits which were like Jatz with butter on that had been warmed in the oven!?!

The boys invited us out to the discoteque and after a quick consultation we decided to go for it. They had their bike taxis parked out the front, and offered us a lift home… Although we convinced them to let us have a drive which was greeted by plenty of staring from locals who couldnt believe the gringa was driving and the Cuban was sitting in the back!

Later that night we met again and were taken to the discoteque right on the water. We were proud to be the only gringas in the house. There was a crazy fun vibe and everyone was gong crazy for the usual six Reggaeton tracks I’ve heard all across Central America. The Cuban disco fashion was really something else – matching tracksuits, iridescent lipstick, anything goes!!


In Cuba Valentines day was such a big deal, not like home! All the restaurants were absolutely fill to the gills and there was no way we could get a table without a two hour wait.  So heading back to our Casa looking forwars to the two minute noodles we smuggled in our bag from Mexico, we were pleasantly surprised to be sat down by our lovely Cuban mama for chicken and rice, she absolutely insisted. In return we shared our rum which was the least we could do. The best family by far that we stayed with, although they spoke no English, they were so so lovely to us!

After eight amazing days it was time to arrange our classic car ride back to the airport for the next day. Glad to have experienced Cuba but happy to be going back to the relative ease of Mexico (and of course the food!). People watching was the best part, the Cuban people and their spirit make the country the vibrant place that we visited.

It will be interesting to see what changes in Cuba over the coming years as the US sanctions are gradually lifted. But I for one am very much hoping that the cash inflow from the additional tourism will bring more positive benefits than negative ones. Cuba Libre!

Cuba travel tips and hints

Having recently travelled to the amazing Carribean destination that is Cuba, i’d love to share my experiences and tips. In short, Cuba is either expensive or difficult – choose one!

The Cuban people are generally super friendly and happy to assist you with whatever you may need, however having said this consider carefully their motives as it is easy for them to see foreign visitors as walking dollar signs.  You will quickly notice at every bus station, airport, tourism office or hotel there are people on the street outside offering all sorts of services from taxis and accommodation, tours or recommendations for restaurants or shows.  Take these at face value as their is often a commission or friends/relatives businesses involved.  It is best to have an idea of the cost of a service first to avoid paying too much.

It is a good idea to have a basic conversational knowledge of Spanish as this can get you lower prices for almost anything as well as being able to get truly involved in the Cuban experience, staying in Casa Particulars with a real Cuban family.


MONEY

Cash is king in Cuba.  They have two currencies in circulation. Cuban convertible pesos (CUC  pronounced “cooks”, these are fixed 1CUC=1USD) and local Cuban Pesos (CUP or “moneda nacionales”). While the locals are paid in nacionales, this is also the currency used at many street food vendors, local restaurants and market stalls so if you are on a budget, it is a good idea to change a small amount ($10CUC at a time) into CUP at a casa de cambio (currency exchange) for this purpose.

Exchange rates all over the country are exactly the same, anywhere, including the airport. So change small amounts of money as you need it.  At the time of writing, February 2016, there is a 10-15% commission on exchanging USD which is not levied on other currencies.  Instead bring Euros, Pound Stirling, Canadian Dollars, Japanese Yen or Swiss Francs to exchange.  Mexican Pesos are also accepted however rates do not seem to be as favourable.

To date, it seems that Mastercard is not accepted widely however I had no worries at all using my Australian issued ING direct VISA card in an ATM in central Havana, Calle Obispo No 257 (unionpay ATMs  – located across the country). For a $200CUC withdrawal, I was charged a $6CUC commission which made the total $206CUC. Any card which is linked with an American bank may be declined – it’s worth checking with your bank in advance.

Note also that over the counter withdrawals seem to be possible using either a VISA or Mastercard at the casa de cambio.

If you are coming from Mexico, it may also be worth shopping around the currency exchanges to see what their rates are to sell euros – I was actually able to withdraw Mexican pesos from my Australian account, and convert to Euros at such a favourable rate that I actually MADE money even after I converted money a third time into CUC.

Be sure to watch your change when paying in CUC – as a common scam is for change to be given in CUP (nationales) which is worth 1/25 as much!  The notes do look quite similar.

To live on a backpacker budget, somewhere around $50CUC per day should be more than sufficient if you eat street food and can share a room in a Casa Particular with a friend (or sometimes two!). For eight days, my total spend was $310CUC including all expenses.

ACCOMMODATION

It can be difficult to book accommodation in Cuba and in any case this needs to be done weeks in advance. Email correspondence tends to be very slow.  You can also call ahead but many do not speak English, and the Cuban accent can make conversing in Spanish somewhat difficult as well.

Casa Particulars are my recommendation as you stay in a separate room/wing of a Cuban family’s house and is a great insight into local life, as well as being much much cheaper than a hotel!

We only planned our trip about a week in advance, and other than one night in Havana where we walked around for three hours knocking on doors to find a room (as the Pope was in town – who knew?) we had absolutely no problems finding a room as we went.  The best place to start looking is usually a street or two back from the plaza mayor or main pedestrian street in each town.

In larger cities expect to pay $25-30CUC for a room and in smaller towns $20-25CUC. The price is given for the room which you may be able to fit two, three or even four people in.  Breakfast and dinner can be negotiated to be included, generally ask $5CUC per person for breakfast and $10CUC for dinner.

If the creature comforts are of importance to you, ask if hot water is available and whether this is provided 24/7 or otherwise you may be in for a cold shower! Most casas we stayed in did have hot water, fans and air conditioning.

My advice would be to avoid the touts at the bus station and around tour office, and simply walk around and find a casa yourself – this way you don’t end up paying them a commission (this would be paid to the casa owner who would then on-charge in the form of a higher price!)

In Havana I would recommend finding a casa a few streets back from Calle Obispo in Habana Vieja (Old Havana). We stayed with Senor Alexander at Calle Lamparilla no 307. A lovely, safe area close to everything you need in the old town.

TRANSPORT

Taxis to and from Havana airport are regulated – they should cost $25CUC to central Havana.

Transport was surprisingly easy to arrange – with collective taxis being the cheapest and easiest option in most cases. Due to the poor condition of the roads, as well as all the slower traffic hazards (horses, cows, bikes etc) it seems best not to hire a car and just get around by collective taxi instead. Then you can just sit back and enjoy the journey – particularly if you get a nice old American classic car!

You can arrange a collective taxi the night before, and bargain on the price – look for them around plaza mayor (town square), tourism offices or near bus stations – but usually they are out looking for you not the other way around.

There are two bus companies in operation, Viazul and Transtur. As far as we could ascertain, there was no easy way to book the Transtur buses although we were told by other travellers they were the cheapest option. The infotur office advised us we would need to book four or five days in advance. The Viazul buses were more accessible although in Havana, the bus statioon is well out of town and you will find it costs $10CUC for a taxi to get you there.  Also you need to book te day before otherwise the buses are booked out, there are generally only a few services a day and you may find yourself taking a collective taxi anyway

We took the Viazul bus to Trinidad ($25CUC). While relatively comfortable journey, it too six and a half hours due to all the stops along the way. On the way back, a collective taxi was much faster option.

Below gives a brief outline on the costs between some of the destinations we visited. Generally, the distance seems to correlate with the price.

  • Havana to Viñales $15pp by collective taxi
  • Havana to Trinidad $35pp collectivo $25 viazul
  • Trinidad to Cienfuegos $10pp collectivo $6 viazul
  • Cienfuegos to Habana $15pp collectivo $20 viazul

Trains do run if you have the patience of a Saint – we were repeatedly told they were for Cubans only. Other forms of transportation include the Horse and Cart, as well as bici taxis which are great for short distances with luggage.

Classic convertibles can be hired from outside the hotel at Parque Central – we were quoted $25CUC per hour.

FOOD AND DRINKS

Prices in supermercados exactly the same everywhere, even for alcohol. So don’t worry about shopping around.

Cuba is not known for great food, but street food is plentiful and usually consists of pizzas (aptly named peso pizza!), hamburgers (generally pork – cerdo) and bread with ham and/or cheese. Pay in nacionales at market stalls and local restaurants – it is much cheaper. My favourite was Pollo asada – or spit roasted chicken.

You can negotiate with the casa particular to include breakfast and sometimes dinner. They usually ask around $5/$10CUC respectively.

SAFETY

I didn’t once feel at all unsafe in Cuba. That said, the people do not have a lot of money and therefore the usual precautions should be taken – don’t flash your wealth around, carry only small amounts of money, and don’t walk in dark streets at night.

OTHER

Maps – It is worth downloading the Gallileo app before you go (GPS is banned in Cuba). Google maps does not work in Cuba.
Don’t expect your mobile phone to work, and internet is scarce, and not available in private homes. Enjoy the detox!

If you absolutely need the internet you can buy half hour prepaid cards for $2CUC which can be used at public hotspots (usually parks/squares). This is sufficient for email but might be frustrating if you try to upload all your wonderful photos to Facebook! Some hotels will also sell you internet cards if you buy a drink at their lobby bar.

Cuba Junky is a great website/app with lots of information on casa particulars among other things. It has an offline function so can be used in a limited capacity whole in Cuba. Mycasaparticular.com can also help with finding places to stay.