Traveling in Cuba – headache or pleasure?

I believe that the motives of most travelers to Cuba are way past turquoise waters and white beaches, but then again, I might be wrong. I just like to believe that although paradise is on offer, people are flocking to this Caribbean island for all those reasons that make me love it so much. Cuba is a heck of a lot more than long days soaking up the sun. It is an island with amazing nature and beautiful colonial cities, it has an incredible culture and a history that many think they might know, but which in reality boils down to a guy with a beret on a t-shirt that looks pretty cool. Above all Cuba is its people who are a heart warming, loving bunch, welcoming anyone coming their way as a long-lost family member. Although I could rant on for a long time about what makes Cuba a unique destination, it is better to see it with your own eyes. If you know nothing of the island, even better, cause despite culture shock and all, it will be an experience like no other. Just be ready to forget everything you know about the easiness of your 21st century life.

EL Capitolio was completed in 1929 and was the seat of government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Old American Classics passing El Capitolio in Havana. The building was completed in 1929 and was the seat of government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is now the home of Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology.

My mission with this post is not to tell you how incredible this place is, but to convince you to travel there and experience it first hand. Because in Cuba an era is about to end which will alter everything that separates it from the modern, materialistic world that is growing more embedded in us every day. Change is good, but change also means that what cuban life is today will be lost forever, and although communism doesn’t belong in modern society, I will give it a big chunk of the credit for making Cuba the fascinating destination that it is. There’s actually no time to waste if you want to experience the revolutionary spirit of this country before it becomes one of us; a modern, democratic nation.

trinidadcuba

Trinidad on the central south coast of Cuba, is one of the most visited destinations on the island. It is famed for its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and has been on the UNESCO Word Heritage Site list since 1988.

So here’s the thing. Through speaking of Cuba and meeting people who are curious about going there, I have realised that many of those who want to be adventurous are holding back because of what they think traveling there will be like. The appeal of Cuba is also its curse. In some ways they are still living in the past, without the amenities that we are used to. Do that include, wi-fi, trains, supermarkets and an abundance of hotels? Yes, yes it does. Will it be more headache than pleasure? Well, I’m here to tell you from the bottom most inner core of my heart that, NO it’s not. I know what its like, I was in that same mindset before I traveled to Cuba alone in June, apprehensive and a little bit nervous about how this was gonna turn out. To my pleasant surprise and despite the rumors, it went like clockwork.

Plaza de la Revolución

Plaza Cívica is a popular spot for tourists in Havana. You may know it better as Plaza de la Revolución which it was renamed after the revolution in 1959. Many of Fidel Castro’s major speech has been held here.

With a little bit of planning, traveling in Cuba is no more difficult than any other Latin American country, but if in doubt, I hope my experience will serve you with its intention, let suspicions and worries fade away and throw yourself into an unforgettable trip!

Che Memorial

Outside the Che Guevara Mausoleum and memorial in Santa Clara. The remains of revolutionary hero Ernesto Guevara and 29 of his fellow soldiers have been kept here since the discovery of Che’s body in 1997.

Safety

I think it’s important to mention that traveling to Cuba means traveling to one of the safest destinations there is. Crime rates are significantly lower here than most places you’ll venture to, I was there and they’re right. I felt perfectly safe day and night. Now, I know they are cool and I know they might be more official, but those ‘old school’ Buick and Chevy taxis are not any more safe than the little unofficial Ladas. They’ll take you where you want to go and the driver is likely to charge you less. Another tip is to find yourself a ‘private chauffeur’. If you are happy with the bloke who took you from the airport to your accommodation then get his number and he’ll be happy to assist you and good relations usually mean better prices.

Havana Street

Paseo de Martí, street in central Havana leading down to El Malecón.

Accommodation

Yea, you can just stop right there. There are no hostels in Cuba. Okay, that’s a lie. There’s one in Havana. However, the great thing about Cuba is that there are no hostels. What you are looking for is ‘Casa Particulares’ in other words, homestays. Cheaper than hotels and an experience way more interesting and personal, casa particulares are the best way to sleep your way through Cuba. As often when arriving a new destination, it’s nice to have a place sorted so the hassle of finding somewhere in the heat, at night, with your backpacks, whatever, is non-existent. What is normal procedure is booking a casa online on for example hostelsclub.com and then the rest will sort itself out. It’s all so easy. The owner at your first destinations, which will usually be Havana, will know other Casa Particulares in more or less every destination on the island. Give them your itinerary and they will make the necessary calls to secure a bed at your next stopover. So is the circle and the next host will make the same arrangements. They’ll meet you at the bus terminal, smile on their faces, your name in their hands. A homestay should cost around 10 CUC in Havana and anywhere between 15 and 25 CUC a night at other destinations. Bargaining is Fairplay and often necessary if you are traveling alone, as 25 pesos is quite expensive. Breakfast is usually 5 CUC. For those who don’t mind showing up unannounced, the most popular destinations are overflowing with Casas so do not worry about a place to stay. Look for a poster over the entrance displaying a blue or red anchor-shaped sign. Just remember to write down name, address and phone number to whoever you are meeting up with.

Trinidad

Casas particulares are usually on residential streets like this one in Trinidad.

Travel

I don’t think traveling in Cuba has to be any more strenuous than anywhere else, but you need to know that your options are marginal. The best way to travel is by bus, more accurate, the only national bus line, Viazul. It is an easy, cheap and punctual way to get around Cuba. What I did was looking up what places I wanted to go and schedule it so that I could write down the departure times and price of the buses before I arrived on the island (you gotta be a bit old fashion here, pen and paper is alway the best way to go). Then all you needed to do was to get a lift to the Viazul Terminal an 1 hour/30 minutes before departure (depending on city and time year), buy your ticket, board the bus and voila, it’s actually easier done than said! Another option is private collectivos. On your way to the bus terminal you will run into a series of men wondering where you are going. These are those who are trying to take business from the bus company offering cheaper ride to your destinations. If you feel the price they are offering is fair then this is also an option to get from A to B. Usually the price will be around 5 CUC cheaper and you might even get there faster! To get around within a city, get a taxi of all sorts; bicitaxi, cocotaxi or simply, a standard good old taxi.

Old Havana

Havana Vieja or Old Havana, has its own unique charm and the streets are never without people.

On the way to the airport as you are leaving, make sure you have the right terminal. Another important thing to remember is your travel insurance. I was denied entry to Cuba, when I couldn’t provide evidence of a valid travel insurance to the man at passport control. I tried to explain that my insurance papers had been placed in my checked luggage, but that really didn’t matter when I was there and my bag was waiting at me on the other side of immigration. I had to buy new travel insurance from the airport which wasn’t emptying my bank, but a bit annoying having to pay for insurance when I already had it. In other words, have your document in order and ON you at all times!

Although

Transportation opportunities are many, but alternative in Cuba. Here’s a man fueling up his ride in Santa Clara.

Money

Maybe the money situation on Cuba is what throw most people of, but it is hardly anything to worry about. What you need to remember is that convertible pesos (CUC) will be used for everything except food and drinks bought in the streets. For this you are better off using the national pesos (CUP). Converting your money is easy too. Cuba is not that backwards that ATMs are missing, but keep in mid that Mastercards are a no-no here. I think for most people a VISA will work just fine, but in case, take out a decent amount before you arrive (preferably not US Dollars) and exchange it into CUC at the airport and in town. You only need a small amount of the national pesos and you’ll get a hold of them by exchanging some of your CUC. There’s an exit tax of 25 CUC at the airport as you leave, but check your tickets, mine was included in the flight price and I needn’t pay at the airport.

The beautiful Valle de Viñales, east of Havana. A good place to buy Cuban cigars.

The beautiful Valle de Viñales, east of Havana. A good place to buy Cuban cigars.

Food & Drinks

You might have heard the rumors of Cuban food, that it is crap. Really bad. Horrific. How I wish I could protest, being down right outraged at such assumptions, but wow. The Cubans are good at a lot of things, but food is just not one of them. This coming from a girl who always looks forward to in flight meals. However, your best bet is homemade meals. If you are lucky you’ll have a great cook as your host, like I did in Viñales. Other than that I was saddened by the quality and lack of any imagination when it comes to food and cooking. I was once served cold pasta in some kind of tomato sauce with dessert on the same plate, mixing the flavours together making it straight out disgusting. For your own sake and sanity, stack up on snacks and easy foods such as noodles to have while on excursions or travels between destinations. You will soon realise that there will be no McDonalds to come to your rescue or even a supermarket to buy food. In Cuba you’ll only  find small corner shops that mostly sell water, beer and tinned vegetables. You better wash it all down with a Cuba Libre or Mojito, which are of course excellent. However, fear not, every other experience will make you forget about the horrid Cuban culinary encounter.

The famous Cuban mojito, in a not so famous location in Valle de Viñales.

The famous Cuban mojito, in a not so famous location in Valle de Viñales.

Internet

Have you even considered the relief of shutting the whole world out and just live in the moment? Cause here’s your chance. The thing is guys, the internet era hasn’t really made it to Cuba and only around 5% of the population had access to the open, unrestricted web. In Cuba you just gotta learn to live without it. However there’s a loophole if you really need some connection with the outside world. Remember this: ETESCA. That is the magic word you gotta know if you find yourself desperate to get online. It is the telecommunication provider in Cuba and they have offices in most of Cuba’s favourite destinations. Do you remember that time, when you had to go to an internet café and get a scratch card with a code to access the internet? Yup, that’s how things run around here. Cards are valued at 30 minutes or 1 hours depending on where you are and costs $4.50. It’s literally medieval times. So my advice is, don’t bother. Tell your parents you have arrived safely and let them know your scheduled flight out of there. Just read a book instead okay. Who wants to sit on social media anyway when you have the Caribbean’s biggest island to explore??

Girl

Local girl in Cienfuegos who was ready for a photoshoot!

If you got anymore questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *