Cuba is one of those places on everyones bucket list. But it’s not all fun and games. We wish we had some advice while traveling Cuba; so rather than feeding you the same information on where to go, what to do, we figured we’d give you a little insider tips on how to Cuba.
October 25th 2016 – Day 1
The first experience in Cuba is one of visas, excessive paperwork, and stray dogs. That doesn’t mean it’s not charming; you’re in the middle of a country whom, with misguided effort, is trying to mimic the success of it’s northern brother.
Landing in the airport was a comedic experience. Upon getting off the plane they transferred us to a run down bus which drove a measly hundred feet off the taxi way and to the airport terminal. It would have been faster to walk. From there we went through security again and were examined by sexily clad militant women. Reminiscent of Hitler’s female force. They examined the redundant paper work, then off we went to get our money exchanged.
A 20 minute, and 24CUC taxi ride took us to the Casa we reserved through AirBNB. It offered a first impression of the typical lifestyle a cuban suburban citizen faces. One of poverty. But they make it work. We had some trouble finding our Casa Particular, but once inside our host was accommodating and gracious.
After our exchange, and dropping off our bags, we went by foot around town. Santa Clara is dirty, smelly, and masquerades as dangerous although it’s safe. The diesel fumes belch out of various vehicles polluting the air. The ground is dirty, stray dogs, everywhere, litter. It’s rank. But we made it to Che Guevera’s monument after a 20 minute walk. And as if in another country, it was clean and serene. They love this guy. He’s an icon to everyone. We were forced to deposit our bags (free) before we could enter the museum – although we did so and purchased overpriced waters.
The museum was… boring. You needed to know about Che before going into the museum. All that was there were his belongings – there was no substantial educational pieces. Maybe different if one had a tour guide. We stopped for an ice cream in the square park area – delicious. Anyway we made it back to our AirBNB and…
Due to my iPhone de-activating itself, we set on a quest to get wifi. After much triumph we finally figured out where and how to get wifi. Eventually I got my phone working again.
Our first night was a good one. Our AirBNB provided dinner for us which was Lobster (while overcooked it was still tasty – and I’d rather them err on the side of overcooked to ensure no bacteria. And a feast consisting of fried cheese cakes, potatoes, gravy, salad, cucumber, avocado, rice, beans, and flan for desert. Yeah… fit for fucking kings. She also said she’ll take care of the Viazul (the bus to take us to Havana). I guess she reserved it for us and we pick up the tickets at the station.
October 26th 2016 – Day 2
I don’t understand the obsession people have with impoverished countries. Sure you can live day to day for less than you could in a first world country – but the charms are lost on me. You’re seeing humanity at its worst; both the tyrants who put the poor in their place, and the sufferers themselves. Poor people are rude, uneducated, filthy. Some might be making the best of what they have, but most are the product of their neighbors and their lack of resourcefulness. The poorest areas are always the littered and the rank. It can’t be coincidence that this is the norm. So what is it about the middle class that likes to dip their toes in the lower class? Is it that it’s a class they can afford? They can’t dip their toes in the upper class world so they instead choose to go down a class? I for one would rather focus my efforts to going up the ladder than down. Or is it morbid curiosity?
Cuba is no different from the rest of the islands peppered along the americas. It’s dirty, it offers little to see educationally, the rum is junk, the cigars are expensive; but most notable are people are rude. Everyone is in it for themselves. Like the Caribbean, everyone is out to make a fool of you, and get the one up on you. It’s a poor person trying to get above the wealthy. If this is someone’s interest, so be it, but it’s not for me. I’d rather go somewhere nice and culture rich.
October 27th 2016 – Day 3
Not a horrible day. We woke up to a nice breakfast from our Casa host. Not as fancy as the first Casa but almost. We went to old Havana. It was a relief to be somewhere that had some culture and nice buildings. Don’t get me wrong, parts are still a shit hole. But it has some nice buildings and plazas.
The lady at the hotel recommended we go down Obispo street to hit up the bars and check out the Hemingway district. We had a tasty, inexpensive lunch at some Europa restaurant. Drinks and food were cheap. Went to a nice Castle museum where nothing was in English – but it was still nice to check out their displays.
For dinner we had to eat provisions because – waddya know – everything closes before 8. Oh also, the Cigar factories all seem to stop tours at 1pm? Uh… so couldn’t do that. Some mother fucker tried scamming us on cigars again. Shut that shit down immediately.
October 28th 2016 – Day 4
The trip the Cienfuegos was smooth. We woke up early, got in our cab ($8), hopped on the bus, and 5 hours later we arrived. Mid way through we had a rest stop which gained us a sandwich and two coffees. Nice clean place.
Cienfuegos is a whole different ballgame than the rest of Cuba we’ve seen. Sure most buildings are haggard, but there were more resort-type locations sprinkled throughout, and due to its more touristy nature, seems to have a more wealthy populous. In fact, the restaurant we went to had the nicest owners. Always smiling and ensuring our satisfaction. And the food was tasty and cheap. We walked around some more, became familiar with the area, and continued being victim of relentless hassling by the taxi cabs.
October 29th 2016 – Day 5
We met our German compatriots Tim, Svenja, Timo, and Katie. Timo and Katie were nice people. We went to the square of Trinidad. Had drinks, saw Salsa dancing. Trinidad is by far the best city we’ve been to.
October 30th 2016 – Day 6
Went to the beach and Timo got us a spare bracelet for the “all you can drink” hotel. This was great. We went to an over priced restaurant called Caribi Grille near Punto Ancora and it was terrible food for too much money. Then back into town of Trinidad, went to a bar, and then back home to the Casa – a little earlier than expected.
October 31th 2016 – Day 7 – Poetic Finale
Halloween, and the last day. It couldn’t have been more poetic. Our new German friends, Timo and Cati took us from Trinidad to Santa Clara by way of their rental car. What a difference! The Viazul bus was decent, albeit a long wait to get ahold of ticketing, but with your own car there is freedom to stop and you can take in the beauty of the scenery. We stopped at this tall cathedral / tower, and it cost 1 CUC per person to get to the top. Going through the small Cuban towns and seeing the Cuban school children was a charming glimpse at the average life of a young cuban citizen.
So we get to Santa Clara, and we part ways with our gracious German comrades. From here we walk the streets, knocking on the doors of Casa’s to see if we can even get a place to stay. We couldn’t. One kind woman at a Casa invited us in while she made a phone call to friends in the area to set us up with a place to stay. She found a place and let her beautiful daughter guide us through the streets to get us to our destination. She led us right back to the hostel we stayed in the first night! The Casa host was as tickled to see us as we were, giving us big hugs.
One impressive thing about the taxis is the effort they take to find your location for you. They don’t drop you off in the middle of nowhere. They take time to make sure you’ve arrived at your precise destination. More than can be said about taxis around the world. Negotiate with all taxi drivers. It’s apart of the culture, and never go by the meter. NEGOTIATE BEFORE you take a ride.
Taxi’s are everywhere and they’re cheap. If you’re not taken for a fool, or you do some haggling, you can get somewhere by Taxi for low cost. Just don’t let people bully/scam you into over paying. Your average 15 minute taxi ride should cost 5 CUC! Take that New York!
Viazul Bus is a cheap, somewhat comfortable, and an efficient way to city hop in Cuba. Buy your tickets the day before, however. Otherwise don’t count on getting a seat. Expect to wait in line as long as an hour and a half just to buy your ticket for next day’s ride. And they will print your reservation on Dot Matrix paper, or scribble it into a Composition Notebook ledger. Like the ol’ times! It’s inexpensive, and you can get an idea of travel times and prices by going to their website!
Collectivo are taxis that are shared with other people. They are super cheap, but typcially come in the flavor of the old diesel cars – so it’s an experience. THe cars are not always well maintained though. We did see one pop a tire and go flying into a curb.
The Airports are small (we arrived in Santa Clara), and other then lacking efficiency, are straight forward. Make sure to change your money out at the Caceda at the airport. It’s government run so you won’t get ripped off. You’ll need clean money; they reject torn or drawn on bills. And NEGOTIATE WITH THE TAXI DRIVERS. To get into Santa Clara from the airport, they’ll try and way overcharge. Offer 18 CUC. They’ll take it.
Car Rentals are sprinkled around Cuba. But if you can afford to do so, setup your rental before hand. You’ll need insurance, but it’s well worth doing. You’ll be able to see so much more of Cuba and at your own pace. Available parking is everywhere and theft is low. Rent. A. Car.
Santa Clara is small and uneventful. As stated earlier the Che museum is about the only significant thing and it’s un-wowing. Gathering in the square and people watching is OK. Some loud music rang into the night, and there was supposed to be a cabaret somewhere, but we didn’t find it. Nothing was obvious or well marked, and even its residents had a hard time recommending and directing to things.
Havana is a similar beast. La Maracone is a worthless and smelly trough at night riddled with cigar scammers. Old Havana / Capital. Go here and no where else. Cheap drinks and food, live music, and civilized atmosphere in the nice parts. It’s also good for shopping, street vendors, music, and appreciating the little culture Cuba has to offer. The museums are plenty and all beautiful, however, if you don’t speak Spanish you’ll gain nothing from it. The daiquiris in Floridita, the bar Hemingway frequented, were overpriced and standard – nothing exceptional about it.
Cienfuegos is a touristy town fueled by resorts. But its good. The best restaurant we went to in Cuba was called Big Bang. The service was good, the prices were cheap, and the Mojitos were the best we’ve had.
Trinidad is by far the best city we’ve been to. The Casa’s are the best, the cobble stone roads are charming, the food and drink is equally cheap as it is other cities. And there seems to be a younger, more parting crowd. The Wifi was stronger, the parks were better manicured. Trinidad was the best city we’ve been to.
Overview / Tips
- Look out for Cigar scams.
- You may have to pay for the bathroom in public areas. Especially if you’re a woman.
- Libraries open late! Not sure why.
- People cut in line. You’ll get used to it, and it happens everywhere.
- Wifi is in designated parks only.
- If you can afford it, rent a car!
Cigar Scams – Scams are everywhere in Cuba, but if you’re careful you can avoid getting duped. There are a few things to look out for. If people are selling goods on the street, its probably best to avoid it. Believe it or not, you’ll get it cheaper in an actual store.
Two, due to the high number of Germans lingering in Cuba, often you’ll be accosted by people saying “Alemania?” It means Germany? in Spanish. They’re trying to figure out where you’re from. If you don’t respond, they’ll assume you speak English, then say “English?” They will act friendly, and feed you a lie about having family in Canada, USA, or wherever you say you’re from. They are trying to befriend you. And beware, it’s not just men waling around doing this. Women and COUPLES too! If they gain your trust, they will try to bring you to bars or restaurants where they will GAUGE the living daylights out of you. Effectively they split the commissions with the restaurant. The normal price of a beer or cocktail in Cuba is like a dollar – so if you fall for this scam you’ll end up paying around $10-$15 a drink. Awful. These people might also try to sell you Cigars. Let’s jump into that next.
Cigar scams are common in Cuba. They happen in one of a few ways. Either the same people trying to scam you at the restaurants will try to sell you a cheap cigar; they’ll bill it as the best cigars you can get in Cuba, but they are garbage, and they’ll charge you an arm and a leg for it. OR if you go to a Cigar Factory. Cigar Factory tours in Cuba are great if you can find one. But they operate weird hours. Like 8 to 11am type deal. Any time after that you’ll have scam artists hanging outside the factories. They’ll try to coerce you into seeing a “private tour” or “where we really make the cigars”. All they will do is bring you do a shady looking alley, and try to bully you into buying their cheap and worthless cigars.
Key piece of advice I wish we had. It can be a little intimidating at first to be approached by the sheer umber of these scams. However Cubans are rarely violent and will almost never hurt a tourist. If they do its pretty much a life sentence in jail for them. Simply walk away, tell them you’re not interested, or tell them to go away. And if you want to do a Cigar Factory tour. Schedule it in advance or have your Casa host schedule it for you.
Wifi and Internet – Internet is not a household commodity like it is elsewhere. Even if your AirBNB says they have internet, in reality they are directing you to the wifi parks. If you want Wifi, you’ll need to connect to the public access point called WIFI-ETECSA (ETECSA is their telecommunications company). In order to connect you’ll need to buy a wifi card. These cards can be purchased in hotels, at ETECSA booths, or from peddlers on the street. 2 CUC affords 1 hour of internet, not cheap by US standards, but cheap enough to bail you out if you need a hit of internet. Find a place where a bunch of Cubans are congregating, and that’s the place with Wifi.
Cell Phone Reception – You can buy Cubacel SIM cards, but only count on it in the main cities. Rural area? Forget it. That said, you’re in Cuba, a place renowned for its vintage hardware. Leave the mobile phone in airplane mode, and enjoy the sites.
Prostitution in Cuba – this sounds awful, but if you want a girl, point your finger and she’s yours. They look at prostitution more as a romantic evening with a stranger more so than a dirty act. We never attempted to get them ourselves (we already had girls with us people!) but from talking with other tourists and citizens, this seems to be the status quo.
Know what’s curious? In the entirety of Cuba, we found one street performer and he was in Havana. A gold statue man.
The Language – Of course, in Cuba they speak Spanish. Most people will attempt to speak broken English to you, but it only gets you so far. Brush up on your Espanol basics before coming here.
The Evening – Even on a Tuesday night the streets were packed. The young and restless retirees all convened into the square and park areas. Music played way into the night, people drank, and overall socialized with one another. In fact, socializing in the streets seems to the be the main source of entertainment for most. Must be nice not being inundated with anti-social network, Facebook.
The Money – Cuba having two kinds of currency. CUC and CUP. As a tourist you’ll be using CUC for just about _everything_. US players will be hit with a 10% penalty for exchanging USD, and then a 3% exchange rate. Only exchange at banks and government run Cecada’s (found at the airport). The exchange rate is a 1 to 1 for CUC to USD. So after the combined 13% you’ll be taking 87 CUC for every $100 USD.
The Food – Can be fantastic. Lots of pizza and Italian joints litter the streets. Food is safe, but request no ice cubes in drinks!
TRAVEL TIP – Eating salads or vegetables that need to be washed risks you coming in contact with contaminated water. Be cautious. Also, just assume you’re going to get an upset stomach or diarrhea in Cuba. It doesn’t mean you have Cholera, but you will get the squirts. And as attractive as street food might be, avoid it. Flies consume the food areas and spread diseases. Being in Cuba you risk Cholera and Dysentery so don’t fuel your chances by eating questionable foods. Most Casa Particulars will make you breakfast for 4 to 5 CUC a person, and dinner for 10-12 CUC a person. It’s well worth it, at least a few times. You’re eating home cooked meals in another country and they are good!
The Drink – Most alcohols are ones you can buy in the states. There is a light lager called Crystal and it’s good. A darker beer called Bucaner which I didn’t love. Crystal is popular among the locals (probably because there’s not much choice). I prefer El Presidente beer though. A beer you can find most places. It’s more flavorful than Crystal and comes in bottles instead of dirty cans.
TRAVEL TIP – Don’t drink the water. Bring a water purifier, or buy water bottles! Water bottles can be purchased from El Rapido’s – Cubas version of 7/11. Under no circumstances drink from the tap.
The Hostels / Casa Particulars / AirBNBs – Almost every other building seems to be a hostel. You could come to Cuba with no overnight reservations whatsoever and still have a place to stay at night. They are cheap and the hosts go beyond their call of duty by calling cabs and setting up events for you. Some will even make breakfast and dinner.
The Culture – There is no defined culture like in China or Germany. They idolize Che Guevara to a fault, yet even his monument and museum are unimpressive. The museum they showed english speakers offered no information on his story or work. Instead, displayed his various possessions that offered little context.
Even the old cars, while fun to see, isn’t what we expected. Sure there are a lot of them driving around, but not as many as I assumed. And most have (newer) Mercedes engines under the bonnet.
The People – People here are all shapes and sizes. They wear anything from homeless attire to fancy looking D&G outfits matched with Versace eye wear. Something tells me the high end gear isn’t genuine. What’s remarkable is everyone has a smart phone. It’s like the states. And people have iPhones! Citizens convene into these park areas which are setup for wifi (more about that in The Wifi section). At night though, most men and all women dress to the nines, adorning their sexiest outfits. No one seems to flirt with one another or try to pick the opposite sex up, but it just seems like you dress well and socialize in public.
Cuba is not a vacation. It’s an endurance test of your health and patience. If you intend to see Cuba (and not sit idle in a resort for a week), there is no scenario to live luxuriously. If you want luxury, go to Germany. Cuba’s charms aren’t unique and you should question if you even want to come. If you stand by morbid curiosity of an impoverished nation, look elsewhere. If you want a resort life of luxury – look elsewhere. Cuba doesn’t seem to have anything over other countries other than a stark lack of American franchises. It’s a vibe tantamount to the wild west.
I have a love hate relationship with Cuba. I was getting real burned out in the beginning. But as we learned the culture, saw nicer places, and met with friends, suddenly it became more tolerable. And you could even appreciate it’s nuances good or bad. You give up luxury for freedom and no regulations.
The Casa’s are nicer, much cheaper, and have better food than the hotels. Even under the guidance of a hotel and tour guide you’ll be subject to the lack of luxuries Cuba offers.
The irony is, the food is the best thing about Cuba. Though if you eat the food, prepare to embark on a week long weight loss program – nothing a shot of Rum won’t cure.
The rum? There is one brand. Habana Club – where is all this famous cuban rum we kept hearing about?