Cuba

Trip Summary:

Dates:    April 13th to April 22nd

Year: 2016

Main Language of Country:   Spanish

Capital City of Country: Havana

Transportation Used:   Plane, Bus, Bike, Taxi, Horse

Currency: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC’s)

Accommodation: Casa Particulares, Hostels

Number of Photos Taken: 873

Favorite Place: Vinales

Average Cost of a Full Meal: 7 – 9 Canadian Dollars

Average Cost of a Night per Person: $36 (or $18 with 2 people) plus $7 for breakfast

Strange Foods Eaten: Yucca Root, Tostones, 

Tap Water Drinkable: No

 

Our trip to Cuba started from Calgary on April 13th. Hilary and I both worked full days and then flew out to Toronto around midnight for our connecting flight down to Varadero. It’s always a strange transition going from work to travel within a couple of hours, and when we arrived at the airport, we were very excited, but also very exhausted.

This was our first trip down to Cuba and we knew that the country was (and still is) on the verge of change and we wanted to see it before it was too late.

 

Varadero: (April 13)

As soon as we landed in Varadero, we began to realize the ATM’s were few and far between, which was unfortunate as we were relying on ATM’s to be able to withdraw money in order to get where we needed to go and buy important things like food and places to stay. Our plan was to head straight down to Havana, and luckily, we had a $120 of Canadian that we were able to exchange to give us barely enough to catch a taxi there. And so our trip began.


TIP: We decided to fly into Varadero rather than Havana because the flights were significantly cheaper than flying into Havana. It’s something to consider if you’re planning your own trip.


 

Havana: (April 13 to 16)

Driving along the Malecon Havana.

 

The taxi ride from Varadero to Havana was a couple of hours and it was a good introduction to the country.


TIP: We had planned to try to take a taxi collectivo (which is a shared taxi with several people that makes the trip cost significantly less) from Varadero to Havana, but we were both exhausted and slightly overwhelmed. We couldn’t quite figure out the system so we decided to take a solo taxi instead. Looking back, I think we would have had to wait until one of the scheduled bus departures (which wasn’t for a few hours). The taxi collectivos then begin to gather and offer cheaper rates in order to compete with the pricing for a bus ticket.


 

Once we arrived in Havana, we were greeted by smells of diesel fumes, sewers, street food, garbage, and a mixture of many other smells that made a true symphony of odours. Like any major city, Havana is busy, dirty and somewhat smelly.

Once you get past that, however, you began to realize the rich character and history of the city. Between the classic 50’s cars and the old colonial buildings it truly does seem like you have stepped back in time.

After we were dropped off at our Casa in Havana, we were running low on energy and focussed on finding food, water and money to buy it with. We didn’t have much time for photography on the first night, besides a few pictures off the classic building and classic cars.


TIP: A Casa Particular is a private home that has has been approved by the government to be rented out to tourists. It tends to be more authentic and cheaper than staying in hotels. Depending on the Casa, it would be comparable to either a hostel or a bed and breakfast.


 

Our major success of the night was finding a bank which had an ATM. Out of the 6 cards that we had with us, we were able to get only one of them to be able to withdraw money and it was a huge relief when we had 150 CUC’s in our hands.


TIP: Cuba has two currencies. One is the convertible peso (CUC, which is pronounced kook), and the other is the national or Cuban peso (CUP). The CUC is the tourist currency and one CUC is worth about 25 CUP’s. Throughout our trip, we only used CUC’s, but if you’re looking to save a bit of money, you can exchange some of your CUC’s for CUP’s. You can then use your CUP’s to buy things like food and drink and it they will cost less than if you had used CUC’s. For example, a drink might cost 1 CUC, but will only be 15 CUP’s if you use the national currency.


 

On the first night, we ate at a restaurant called Los Nardos. It was a recommendation that we received from the host of the Casa and it is located across the street from the entrance to the Capitolio. The food was inexpensive, but very good. We had expected the Cuban restaurants to be simple and plain, but were definitely wrong. In fact, we felt slightly out of place in our shorts and sandals, with sweat running down our faces and backs.


TIP: Restaurants in Cuba that are privately owned and aren’t government run are called palladares. These restaurants have better food than government run ones.


 

All in all, our first day in Cuba started out a little overwhelming and stressful, but ended up being a huge success. And really, who can complain when you’re travelling to new places and gaining great experiences that you’ll remember forever.

Havana Capitilio and taxis.

 


TIP: The place that we stayed in Havana was called Casa Alex. It was in Old Havana and was located a couple of blocks behind the Capitolio. From what we found, it would be very similar to many of the other Casas in Havana around the same price range so you don’t need to be fussy when it comes to picking one. In terms of location, we found that a good rule of thumb would be how close the place is to the Capitolio as that is where most of the sightseeing is centred around.


 

On our second day in Havana we started to gather our bearings and get a few things figured out.

We found out that there are a few ATM’s around the city (and throughout most towns in Cuba as far as we can tell) where you can withdraw money. They are usually located within or in front of a bank and they only allow you to take out 200 CUC’s at a time and only by using a VISA. Therefore, as we only had one card that was a VISA, we were limited to 200 CUC per day, but it was easily manageable.


TIP: To be on the safe side, if I were to do it over again, I would bring cash with me for the entire trip to exchange as I needed it or make sure that I had a few VISA’s to use.


 

The second valuable discovery that we made in Havana was how to get wifi. As it turns out, and at the time of writing this, there is only one company in Cuba that offers Wifi throughout Cuba named ETECSA.  

They install it in different areas within towns and cities and generally these areas are parks, hotel lobbies and some cafes. You can spot them because there will be large groups of people all standing around looking at their cell phone or computer within one small area. It does look a little absurd when you see it.

The real trick comes with trying to log onto the wifi. To do this, you need to buy an hour of Internet at a time. You get your hour on a card or slip of paper with a username and password, which expires once you’ve used your time.

My first experience buying one of these cards looked like me wandering around a wifi park aimlessly with 3 CUC’s in my hand until a man called to me in a hushed voice as I walked by and told me to sit on a bench beside him. He pulled a stack of green papers from his pocket and handed me one and I handed him the 3 CUC’s.

The whole time his eyes darted around cautiously and it all felt slightly illegal. I’m not sure on the laws around this so it definitely might have been, but the good news is that it did in fact work, and it always gives you peace of mind to know you can access the internet if needed.

You can also buy these wifi logins from outside of certain hotels and from the ETECSA booths and shops scattered around the city.

We also found out that you can book bus tickets from a company called Cubanacan (we tried Viazul but they were sold out for Vinales, which is where we were headed next) in the lobby of Hotel Plaza which is just across from Central Park. It cost us 12 CUC per ticket and we booked it the day ahead.


TIP: One thing to know about the busses is that they are typically late, so our bus was supposed to leave at 8:00AM but was about 45 minutes late. It’s all part of the fun.


 

For the rest of our second (and last) day in Havana, we explored the streets and plazas of Old Havana. There were a few streets with some shopping and some old churches to check out and I know that there is plenty more to see and do in Havana that we weren’t able to see. We also walked along the length of the Malecon and it was nice to take in the breeze from the sea on such a hot day.

At one point, as our feet began to tire, we decided to hop on a bus a take a tour of the city. It was a nice way to see some areas that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen but it wasn’t spectacular and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

The highlight of our night was going to the Buena Vista Social Club which was a musical performance at a small club in Old Havana. We bought the tickets ahead of time from the owner of the casa that we were staying at.

We had also been given directions to the club, and were told that it was about 20 minutes from our casa.

It was strange, however, because once we started out, the further that we walked, the more it felt like we weren’t in the right place at all. We were walking along empty streets where vendors were packing up their carts, and stray dogs were watching us from the shadows. We began to get a slightly eerie and unsettled feeling as the streets became darker and we were sure that we were in the wrong place.

We decided to mix our best Spanish and English and ask for some directions and eventually found the place. It was a small doorway off of the street that led to a narrow staircase. Once we opened the door at the top of the stairs, we were surprised to find that the room was filled with warm light, music, and the voices of many people. It was a huge contrast from the quiet dark streets that we had just left.

After a bit of trouble finding the place, it was a great night and we met other travelers and took in the performance. I don’t know the full history of the group, but the setting and the music made it easy to let your imagination run and transport yourself back to the 1930’s and 40’s. Even though the performance is centred around attracting tourists, it is experiences like this that make Cuba a unique and interesting place to travel to and it truly does feel like a place that has been stuck in time.

 

Vinales: (April 16 to 19)

The next day we were up early and on our way to Vinales. Vinales is a small farming village southwest of Havana and it was nice to trade the noise and congestion for open fields and the sounds of animals.

On our first full day in Vinales, we decided to wake up early and head into town (we stayed at Casa Campos Sol Naciente which was about a 10 minute walk from the centre of town).


TIP: Again, just like Havana it seemed like most of the Casas were very similar. You’d be best to get one as close to the main street that runs through the centre of town as possible but the town is small enough that you can walk anywhere within 10 minutes. Also, if you’re like us and have limited Spanish, you might want to look for owners that speak some English to make communicating simpler.


 

We ended up setting out on a walking tour of the area for a few hours which normally wouldn’t be up our alley but was very helpful in our case as we had an English speaking guide to ask questions to and get some information of the area. It was also a great way to meet other travellers which also adds to the experience.

It was great to get out of the town and see some of the surrounding area as that was what we had come here for. The town itself is surrounded by a very unique landscape which is dominated by gigantic limestone blocks called mogotes. Over time, the mogotes have eroded  and are now full of pockets, cracks, and caves.

In fact, they apparently have one of the largest and longest cave system in Latin America. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up having time to check out any of these cave systems, but it’s on my list for next time.

The rest of the landscape was mostly farmers fields of fertile red dirt which could grow anything from tobacco and coffee to mangoes, bananas, avocados, pineapple, papaya, guava, and many other fruits.

In the town itself, we were surprised to see that the majority of the buildings were brightly coloured Casas. It seems that over the last several years there has been a dramatic increase in tourism to the area.

Like us, many people are drawn by the landscape and the slower pace outside of the large cities. Because of this, the town is a little bit touristy which can be good or bad depending on your perspective.

The people of Vinales do quite well because of this, however, and a Casa owner in a town like Vinales might make more from a guest in one night than people in other towns make in several weeks or a month. This explains why there are so many Casas for rent.

Besides the mogotes, Vinales is also well known for having “the best tobacco in the world”. Of course, there are likely plenty of other places in the world that claim that title, but it is evident that they take their tobaccos very seriously.

Throughout the country side, you can see many triangular shaped buildings with straw roofs that are used to store and dry the tobacco leaves once it is harvested. In Cuba, tobacco farming is controlled by the government and the farmers must sell 90% of their crop to the government to be sold and exported.

This is unlike other crops in which they are allowed to keep all of what they grow, which is eaten and sold locally.
Just like we had found in Havana, the food that we ate here was fantastic. Many Casas will provide breakfasts and suppers for a small additional cost. so we had food both at our Casa, as well as from restaurants.


TIP: If, like us, you’ve heard that food in Cuba was bland and not great, that’s likely coming from someone who has stayed at Cuban resorts as we have found the food to be excellent.


 

Everything from the chicken and the fish to the rice and the roots (similar to potatoes) was fantastic. But the real treat was always the fresh vegetables and fruit.


TIP: We noticed that you often get very large portions of food. In fact, we often found that we could eat lunch or supper at a restaurant (we generally ate breakfast at the casa) and share one meal between two of us.


 

Like always, as soon as we arrived, I was on the hunt for great photos and we found out that one of the best views in Vinales is from the Jasmine hotel. It looks over Vinales valley and if you’ve seen any pictures of Vinales, it was likely taken from the viewing area of the hotel.

It’s a little ways from town so we hired a taxi for about 12 CUC’s to take us there to catch the sunrise. We found that the taxi rides in Cuba were often some of the most interesting experiences. The car that took us up to the Jasmine hotel was a black Soviet car with seats so low that you could barely see over the dash and holes in the floor that let diesel fumes cloud the interior. The most dubious feature of the car, however, was that the driver couldn’t shift into 4th gear without first pulling the emergency brake half-way up as the handle of the brake would get in the way.


TIP: You can also ask the doormen of the hotel if you’re able to get out onto the pool deck of the hotel for another great view.


 

For our second full day in Vinales we thought a great way to get out and see the countryside around Vinales would be to go on a horseback ride. As it turned out, the family that we were staying with owned their own horses and offered to take us out for a few hours.

You can also book horseback tours at several places in town but we figured that this would be a more authentic experience. Unfortunately, it turned out that we went to all of the same places that the tours typically go.

First, it was a tobacco plantation where they demonstrated the cigar rolling process and let you try a cigar. Then it was to a coffee plantation where you could buy coffee and rum. Then it was a cave tour (which was fairly interesting) and appeared to be free, until you got out the other side of the cave and they asked you for 2 CUC per person.

On top of all of this, I have only rode horses once or twice before, so the whole morning was made up of varying degrees of frustration and pain. It definitely wasn’t what we were hoping for, but all of that aside we were able to see more of the area and get a bit further from town which did check a few boxes for us.

After the horseback ride, we were able to take some bikes from the family that we were staying with to ride around town and do some exploring. We headed out West of the city towards the National Park which was fantastic and much more our style of riding.

I always prefer the modes of transportation that are not living animals as I feel much more in control. Our goal was to get out of the town and closer to the mogotes which didn’t take long and gave us an entirely different perspective.

The more of this area and landscape that we saw, the more we realized that it truly is beautiful and it’s no surprise that so many people come to see this place.


TIP: Vinales doesn’t have much for nightlife, but a couple ideas might be to find a restaurant and have a few drinks while watching a baseball game, or check out the community club. The community club is a bar with a stage that often features local musicians in the evening. It’s located in a corner of the main square behind the church.


 

Neither Hilary nor I speak any Spanish unfortunately and we found out upon arrival that the family that we stayed with at Vinales also does not speak English which made things slightly difficult. It’s definitely moved leaning Spanish up a few spots on my “want to do” list.


TIP: One app that we found invaluable, however, was XE translator. Before leaving home we downloaded the app as well as the Spanish language to my iPad mini. This enabled us to use the translator offline. It has proved to be helpful in many situations.


 

Not speaking the language in the place that you are visiting always makes you feel that you are missing out on experiences and interactions with the people. Typically, those who are able to speak English are involved in tourist activities and tours, so it doesn’t feel like you are communicating with authentic Cuban people.

We are always able to see the country and immerse ourselves in the places and landscapes themselves, but by not speaking the language we are unable to participate in the culture and form relationships with the people themselves.

You can’t let this hinder your travels or rob you of great experiences but it can serve as a motivation to find other ways to communicate and do your best to learn some of a language before you travel to a new country.

We both really enjoyed our time in Vinales and our time there flew by. In only a few days we had begun to feel quite comfortable and had quickly figured out where we could get the things that we needed like food, water (which proved to be more difficult to find than we had expected), wifi, and bus tickets.

It felt like we left a lot of the area unexplored (particularly all of the caving in the area), and we definitely hope to return to explore further along the side roads and less visited areas outside of town.

 

Trinidad: (April 19 – 22)

Our bus ride from Vinales to Trinidad was about a 7 hour ride. This might sound like a long trip, but it really just meant that I got to catch up on some sleep and listen to many hours of my favorite podcasts which was pretty great.

Once we arrived in Trinidad, we were able to figure out where everything was, and how things worked quite quickly. One thing about travelling is that it becomes a cycle of arriving in a new place, figuring it out over your time there, and then moving on to a new place. Between each place, however, you can find similarities and familiarities which make moving to the next location easier.

For example, after our experience in Havana and Vinales, it only took about half an hour in Trinidad for us to find ATM’s, supermarkets, bus stations, Internet, and restaurants. All of this had taken us two full days in Havana to figure out.

I think that’s one of the joys of travelling though. You’re always learning as you go and at first it feels like you’ve been thrown head first into the country, but then you slowly start to figure it out. It’s also exciting to wake up each day and know there will be new experiences and things to see and learn about.

Anyways, Trinidad itself is a very cool place and seems to be the quintessential small Cuban town. It is set on a hillside about 10 minutes by car from the southern coast of Cuba. There are several squares which are the centre for the main attractions in the town.

The rest of the town is made up of a grid of streets and plazas to explore and near the squares you can find a lot of trendy bars, restaurants and gift shops. The streets are cobbled and filled with noisy vehicles, pedal bikes, and people moving about their business and along each side they are lined with colourful old buildings.

Where Havana was the large bustling city and Vinales was the small farming town where there seemed to be as many horses and cows as vehicles. Trinidad would be the small colourful town by the seaside that is laid back and full of character.

After arriving in Trinidad, we were beginning to feel a bit worn out from the steady pace of the trip (and the horses that we had rode the day before, Ranchero and Tooti, had left us in all sorts of pain) so we decided to use our first day in Trinidad as a rest day to take things a bit slower and get some energy back. We took a taxi in the morning to Playa Ancon which is a beach that is about 12 km from town.


TIP: Playa Ancon is at the end of a peninsula, and there are several other beaches that you pass along the way. We found out later that Playa Ancon is the busiest of the beaches, so if you’re looking for some solitude, you can try one of the beaches that would be on the way out to Ancon.


 

The beach is considered one of the best in Cuba that isn’t part of a resort and there is a hotel on one end of the beach but it was still rather quiet. This was our first time at a beach in Cuba, and we weren’t disappointed. The sand was white, and the water was blue, and I think that’s enough said.

We knew from previous experience that, being from Canada, as much as we would like to return with a golden tan, it’s always better to put on too much sunscreen than get a burn. So, that was the plan and we didn’t hold back with the sunscreen.

As we later found out, however, the lotion that we had thrown into our bag had expired 6 years ago and didn’t prove to be nearly as effective as we were hoping. So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering if sunscreen expires, take my word that it does.

Everything was at an elevated state of red and tingly when we got back to our room after the beach. The unfortunate part about a sunburn is that it makes it hard to sleep at night, or wear a backpack, it forces you to stay out of the sun, and if it’s bad enough, can even make you sick. So I guess the moral of today’s story is…check the expiry date.

We stayed at a place called Elio Ramos which was great and is more along the lines of a hostel than a Casa. Like always, the food was been great with breakfasts that consist of a platter of fruit (consistently excellent), bread, omelettes, coffee and blended fruit smoothies.

Reflecting on the trip, I realize that with the time restraints and not being able to speak Spanish we were a little bit limited to stay near tourist locations and likely didn’t experience the entire depth and authenticity of Cuban culture that you would get in towns and cities further off of the beaten path. But even in the spots that we did travel to, you usually don’t have to go far to get to the less travelled streets where it feels more like the real Cuba.

In these less travelled areas, it sometimes feels that if you could step back in time 50 or 60 years, you might see a very similar scene, with two underfed dogs wresting in the middle of the sidewalk, an old Chevrolet car bumping and squeaking it’s way up a cobbled street pouring black diesel fumes out its exhaust, people sitting in doorways and leaning out their windows talking to their neighbours and passerby’s on the street about last night’s baseball game, all while someone in the distance is playing an old Beatles song.

Oftentimes, if you sit and watch, you really can see and feel these things that make Cuba truly unique. It is a place where it feels like time moves a little bit slower and if you yourself slow down and match the pace, you can too feel transported back in time to a place where all of the things that we put so much emphasis on, like deadlines and possessions, don’t quite matter as much.

I was often surprised when we would walk around at night time and many of the buildings would have their doors open to the street giving you a brief glimpse in. A lot of the homes were completely empty besides a few beds in the corner, a small TV surrounded by 3 or 4 wooden chairs and a table in the centre of the room. The walls were brick or cinder block and were unpainted and crumbling. It puts a lot of things into perspective.

Over time, I’ve begun to notice that when you are travelling it seems like at the beginning of the trip, the culture shock sets in and you notice everything that is different from what you are used to. But the more time that you spend in a place, you start to see what is the same. When we first arrived in Cuba, the differences were countless and somewhat overwhelming. After a few days, however, you realize a lot of similarities within the food, the families, the music, the way people get around, and the favourite sports.

Throughout the trip, one common trend was that the Cuban people are very friendly, kind and generous. In any place that you go in the World, you are often confronted by a pushy hustler on the street or someone that seems hostile or unfriendly and it’s easy to let those interactions paint a broad and negative picture of your experiences, which of course would not be accurate. Once you see past those small experiences, however, it’s usually evident that people are consistently helpful and friendly which always adds an extra element of enjoyment to the entire experience.

For our last full day in Trinidad, we decided to head out for a hike to a waterfall. When we are travelling, we always like to get outside of the towns and cities to see the surrounding areas and take in the natural landscapes. We had heard a lot about the waterfalls around Trinidad so we decided to make it our destination.

We ended up sharing a taxi with some others from the Hostel and headed into the national park  just outside of Trinidad called Topes de Collantes. From where the taxi dropped us off, it was about an hour walk downhill to the waterfalls.


TIP: We had heard that there are several different waterfalls in the area around Trinidad and we went to Salto el Caburni. It was definitely nice to get out and do some walking, but the waterfalls themselves weren’t spectacular and I would be interested in seeing what the other waterfalls in the area are like in comparison.


 

The highlight, of course, was jumping into the pool of water below the waterfall to swim and cool off. Even though it was all downhill and only an hour of walking, we got sweaty beyond belief so it was a great refresher. I won’t even tell you about the hike back out though. Between the heat and humidity and seeing 3 snakes, it wasn’t quite as enjoyable.

 

Varadero: (April 22 to 23)

For our trip from Trinidad to Varadero, we travelled again by bus. This time we took the bus company called Viazul. Now, after having taken both I feel like I can adequately compare them.

First, just a note though, we never ended up taking any taxi collectivos between cities even though we had heard that they were roughly the same cost and slightly faster. They were always our back-up plan if no bus tickets were available but we never ended up needing them.

Anyways, between the two bus companies Viazul and Cubanacan (which use busses with Transtur on the side) our preference would have to be Cubanacan. Our experiences might not be completely accurate across all places and trips but we had found a couple of things preferable on Cubanacan:

  • The offices for Cubanacan were generally just a table with a sign on it in hotel lobbies, tourist offices, malls, and other central locations. Therefore, they weren’t always intuitive to find but once you knew where they were or what you were looking for it was easy to book. The prices were identical to Viazul. This was convenient because we found the locations for drop off, pick up, and buying tickets to be more central and close to the main areas. Viazul, on the other hand, typically had bus terminals and stations of their own where you would buy tickets. These terminals were usually a large yard where the busses would park and leave from. These were generally farther from the central locations and we often had to walk quite a little ways.
  • You had to pay for checked luggage on large bags (only 1 CUC per bag from our experience) whereas you didn’t with Cubanacan.
  • The bus driver or Cubanacan attendant at departure would usually give you a rough itinerary for the trip including when and where you would stop whereas they didn’t with Viazul.
  • The Transtur busses with Cubanacan tended to be slightly comfier than the Viazul busses but not a huge difference.

These are just a couple of my findings and likely aren’t universal and definitely shouldn’t make or break any decisions. They’re just a couple of things to think about.

Anyways, after we arrived in Varadero, we spent a bit of time exploring the town and walking to the beach. Our plan was to spend the last full day of the trip in Varadero and it really is a great place to relax a bit and spend some time around the sand and water.

It’s very apparent why this is one of the resort destinations in Cuba as the beach is fantastic. The sand is the perfect white, the beach is wide, and the water is a beautiful turquoise colour.

You probably already know what a nice beach looks like, so just picture that and you’re likely pretty close. Varadero is a long peninsula so anywhere in town is only a few minutes walk from the beach which is very convenient.

White sand beach and storm in Varadero.

 

There was a bit of rain the first night that we were in Varadero, but otherwise the weather for the entire trip had been hot and sunny. We didn’t put much thought into the timing of our trip, but we got lucky because we went at the end of the dry season. This meant that the weather was warm and in a month or so, we were told that it would consistently rain every afternoon for a brief but heavy period.

We were also lucky, however, because it was an El Niño year meaning that there was a lot of precipitation over the winter so everything was still green and there was water in all of the rivers.

All in all, our first experience of Cuba was fantastic and it does have the feeling of a country that is undergoing some major changes after having been locked in time for many decades. The changes might be for better or for worse, but I feel lucky to have seen the country before it is too late.

The variety between Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, and Varadero illustrated the many different flavours of the country, but some things that were constant were that the people were friendly, the history was rich, the food was delicious, and the towns and cities were beautiful.


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