Dear American friends,
Go to Cuba.
Below are notes from our short visit — written for future friends that will ask us what we recommend. We wrote down our itinerary and observations, such that people can build on this knowledge and have an even deeper travel experiences…and not ask us over and over again the same questions we asked our friends before we went.
Like you may, we wanted to go to Cuba to experience it before it changed as a result of the boatloads of Americans soon coming. Interestingly, we were joined by lots of Europeans with the same thought.
For those considering going to Cuba in a few years, we also can ease your fears. To assume the country can transform into capitalist consumerism overnight would be putting too much weight on our American influence. The journey away from a state controlled economy will be take time, lots of policy reform and a sizable construction investment. Even when cars are available, people can’t afford them. The government still takes 90% of farmers production and controls access to internet services. Getting bottled water in Central Havana is difficult now, store shelves are still unstocked and you can hardly use anything larger than a $3 CUC to pay.
Generally the below itinerary is just one. While we wouldn’t recommend following this to the agenda to the tee, we do recommend stopping in small towns, Viñales, renting a car if you have the time and staying in Casa Particulars (vs Hotels).
Places we didn’t visit we heard good things about: Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Bahia de Cocinas, Barracoa.
Also the first person to read this + go to Cuba, let us know and we will give you $13 in CUP. Book your tickets.
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Wandered the streets of Central Havana at night.
- All the doors were open at the street level and people were hanging out in their living rooms. Theft, at least among locals, seemed to be non existent. During our walk around 8pm we didn’t’ see one open store. There were a couple of bars open, with almost all but empty shelves and almost empty seats.
We walked from Central Havana to Havana Viejo, along the sea front, getting splashed by the waves. (recommended walk).
- The mansions on the sea front were crumbling in abandoned ruins.
- Spent day in Havana Viejo. Went to Revolution Museum, which was a nice display of anti US propaganda and history of Cuba by Cuba.
- At night we went to Hotel National to see the sunset over the water and took a taxi to La Casa de Musica in Miramar.
- Music didn’t start until 12;30am, but when it did it was a big band salsa and dance performance that got the crowd moving. While there is also a Casa de Musica in Havana, this one was recommended to us. Cover $15 CUC.
Took taxi to Viñales
- In the AM we attempted to buy a plane ticket to Santiago and Baracoa but found out they are sold out for the entire month of December. After scoping the bus station ended up hiring a taxi for $60 CUC to drive us to Viñales
- Rented bikes and rode into the valley to see the sunset
- Enjoyed dinner at a surprisingly good Spanish restaurant in town (La Cuenca). Get the Pulpo (octopus).
Hike, bike and Salsa around Viñales
- Our house woman Marlen (recommendation below) arranged for a guide to take us into the valley. While we wanted to explore on our own, we now recommend having a guide to show you through the fields. We went on a 4 hour walk with the guide though fields and ended with a visit to a tobacco plantation and bought cigars. Peppered him with questions about life in Cuba.
- After the hike we biked up to the fancy hotel on the hill (Jazmin Jimenez?) and enjoyed a late lunch. It was a hard climb, but worth the birds eye view of the hills and valley.
- Did a 2 hour private salsa lesson
- And then…both Phil and I got the Cuban sick (code for puking). We aren’t sure how, but 2 other groups we ran into also experienced this. It took Phil out for a day and myself for a couple hours because I’m mucho mas fuerte.
Day trip to fisherman’s village Porta Esperanza
- Hired a taxi to take us to Porta Esperanza. Everyone kept recommending Caya Jutias as a day trip from Viñales but because of Phils aversion to the traveler’s path, we pushed back and choose a more quiet and undisturbed Fisherman’s town. In the town we met George the fisherman who nicely showed us around. Try to find his mother’s restaurant and eat there.
- Read in rocking chairs. Rocking chairs are a staple in the Cuban diet of life.
- Enjoyed a lobster dinner made by the House mom, Maria.
Rented car and drove to Cabo San Antonio — the western tip of Cuba.
- Day started at 8am exchanging money at the bank and attempting to rent a car. By noon (read: It took a while) we were loading our Chinese car and were off on the Cuba roads. It was a $200 deposit to get the car + $78 per day and extra money for gas and returning it in Havana.
- We drove the ‘most beautiful rode in Cuba’ according to lonely planet. This is from Pons to Guane. It indeed was breathtaking. Hills, cliffs, valleys and the most vibrant of greens.
- Our destination was the tip of Cuba, which was at the end of a national park. To get to the tip and to the only hotel in the park you passed the most remote beaches we have ever seen. 5–10 beaches line the park road, all of which deserve a stop and pictures. Of note, there was only one place to stay — you have to call ahead. It was pricey — 95 CUC, but worth it for the beach views. Also bugs like whoa. And not much to do except hang on beach and snorkle. There apparently is great diving nearby too.
Drove back to Havana with stop in San Juan y Jimenez and Soroa
- We drove across the western end of Cuba, heading back to Havana. We stopped in the small town of San Juan, the tobacco mecca of Cuba. We got 50 cent pizza, 20 cent ice cream cone and peaked into the tobacco rolling room, where 30 women sat rolling leaves. They make about a $1.50 a day. Very friendly people. No tourists here, as all the tourists end up in nearby Pinar del Rio or Viñales
- Our end destination for the day was Soroa, a quaint little mountain town. Per usual the first house we stopped in was full but they called their friend who had an open room. Per usual the room was clean and they offered us a full meal, complete with fresh tuna caught the day before.
- We passed through Las terrazas, an eco friendly village. It had breathtaking views but seemed to be a very popular place for Havana people to take day trips so was a bit busy.
Return to Havana.
- If renting a car, the available maps are lackluster and left us to ask locals on the road at every turn.
- Most important: Have a café/coffee around 4pm, sold by someone through their living room window. It was 1 CUP — which is like 4 cents.
- And of course other important info: Get and keep your tourist visa. It’s like $40 euro. You can buy this at airport before you get to Havana OR (and Phil did) at the Havana airport when you arrive. It did seem that the Visa was always available to purchase at the Havana airport… but we were warned that it was not guaranteed to be available. From what we know of the operational ability of Cuba government services, we believe it — they may run out or something. Anyway, get your Visa before at the Mexico or Cancun airport before you arrive.
- Re: the current guidance is that Americans have to choose one of the reasons for travel (journalism or education, etc) Note: we were never questioned on this at all. Nor was there a place where we could have been questioned.
- Did we mention withdraw cash before you arrive? Withdraw money before you get there. There is not a possibility to go to an ATM or use your credit card there.
- When you get there get $20 — $40 in Monedas Nacionales, the local currency. The dual currency system is confusing. Read up on it. You’ll find that you mostly use Convertible Pesos (CUC) but if you eat at local cafes, etc, you’ll find some opportunities to use Monedas Nacionales. They don’t exchange Monedas Nacionales in the airport though!
- Stay in a ‘casa particular’ vs. a hotel. In Havana you can book this in Airbnb, but in surrounding cities, no need to book in advance. All houses with rooms have a sign and if they are full they will refer you to their friend who has a room open. The casa particular’s are all very very similar — with small differences in the quality of the shower. Expect to pay $25 CUC.
- When staying in these ‘casa particular’ the host will offer you dinner for 10 CUC and breakfast for 5 CUC. Always take the breakfast and try to do a few dinners in la casa. The food is wonderful and will rival any restaurant.
- Don’t forget to walk around central Havana, it’s as lively and exciting as Old Havana.
- Want wifi? You need a wifi card and to find a wifi park. The card is 2CUC when bought at the formal place and $3 CUC when bought at a hotel or from someone on the street or a Mercado. It gets you an hour online. You know there is a wifi park somewhere because people will be gathered looking at their mobile phones.
- Negotiation works. Prices may seem final but generally for services like unofficial taxis or guides, negotiation is possible. While this doesn’t seem like the culture to pull one over you, we did get ripped off once.
- “Go to Cuba with the woman you love” — Phil. ((He’s adorable. )) “… or at least a cute one you’d like to bone” — Phil (He’s practical)
- Flights: VPN outside of the US to get full flight listings. Interjet (budget airline in Mexico .. no VPN needed) and Grand Cayman Air (also no VPN needed) had the best rates. Interjet was totally good and flies from Mexico City or Cancun.
Driving in Cuba:
A really nice place to rent a car. Roads are all pretty decent, rustic scenes are beautiful, very little traffic because of lack of cars in the country.
- Cubacar / Havanauto is the only rental agency in the country. Prices are standard $60–80 per day depending on car type. Insurance included. They rent Chinese cars, which perform fine. Ours was a stick shift.
- Availability was poor. We had to wait 2 days for our car. We were told in Havana there were no cars available in the city. Reserve ahead and go EARLY to the rental place. We were the only ones in the rental office and the procedure still took 1.5 hours.
- Maps: The one in Lonely Planet isn’t sufficient for off-highway driving in Cuba. Filled with errors and missing roads and turns. Supplement with a detailed driving map. Expect to ask direction in every town, but people are helpful
- Hitchhikers; There are a lot of them. Our madre in one of the Casa warns: “Only pick up pregnant women. Never pick up young men.”
- $200 CUC deposit in lieu of a credit card. They will do one-way rental for $40–50 CUC, which is nice.
- Don’t lose your rental contract!!!!! ($100 CUC fee, we learned the expensive way)
You know you’re in a communist country when:
- No homeless in the streets or local on local theft
- You suggest ways to make money to the airbnb type host and they politely decline saying they have everything they need with the money they are making
- You try to rent a car and they are out of cars. When you do find a place that has them, it takes 90 minutes
- They are sold out of flights to their capital city for the next month.
- There is no advertising of services — no billboards with pretty women and no promotion of services beyond telling you that they exist.
- They all speak pretty good English but don’t know what Facebook is.
- There are horse and carriages on the highway, because they stopped importing cars in the 60s.
Things to be careful of:
- Commissions: A few of the tourist trap establishments in Havana seem to be paying commission to locals to deliver you there. For example — a restaurant called La familia. It costs $20CUC per plate and it seems every Cuban in old Havana wants to bring you to it. If you ask for a recommendation to a lunch place, they may take you there…or they will come up to you in the street and suggest it. There is no reason to pay $20 CUC for lunch — even lobster.
- Most people in the streets of Havana want to sell you something. In other towns around Cuba, this is not true and people make a genuine offer to help or chat you up.
- Dollar exchange rate is bad. (87 to 100). Your best bet is getting Euros or Canadian Dollars, which exchange at a ~3% spread. Second best bet is Mexican Pesos, but exchange at a Cadeca in Havana, not at the airport, to get a reasonable rate. The FX places in the Mexican Airport do really good Euro exchange rates if you want to take money out of the ATM there during a layover. Rates vary heavily so find the good one (Phil found <1% spread)
- Planning to fly somewhere? Try to book prior to going, likely through s travel agency that is able to call the Aviation center and book. If planning to book while on your trip, you’ll have to go to the Aviation center (by Hotel National) and buy.
- Getting around by taxi is expensive. $30 CUC from the airport to Havana. Organize your day to minimize taxis. There are pedicab type things, which are cheaper alternatives, but would take a while to go some places.
- Bus station is far. 15 min taxi from Havana central. It doesn’t appear they have published the bus schedule anywhere and apparently don’t pick up the phone.
How the people make money. Here is what we found out:
- Tobacco rollers make $1.50 a day
- Tobacco farmers give 90% of their product to the government at a low price, but the gov provides the seed cost
- To do anything (like guide or taxi) you need an official license.
- Everyone who has a mobile phone has access to email through the data network (like old school Blackberries) — but not the internet. Data is run through a public and controlled wifi network
- People own their own homes — they are not state owned
- The airbnb type hosts (casa particulars) pay $40 per month, regardless of the number of guest, for a license. They then pay 10%-15% of the income monthly, depending on how much they make as a hotel tax. And then ~20% income tax every year. The sign they use to advertise is another $20 + needs to be approved by the state.
- Healthcare, education, and in some cases homes are provided free of charge by the state.
- And your bonus for reading the whole thing. https://goo.gl/photos/cH6gpJgYhjwSXAyJA