South America – First Stop: Cuba

…aaaaand we’re back. After a few long years of working hard, travelling only when on holiday, then hyping ourselves up to do a grand tour of central and south America for half a year, finally quitting our jobs, driving to Aourir, Morocco for 1.5 months, and visiting Japan for 3 weeks, we’ve gone and done it. We booked a one-way flight to Havana, with no itinerary other than the one mapped out in our heads, no plans past our first 3 days in a hostel in Havana. And you know what? It works. We’re a month into our travels, our dog is fine, everybody at home seems to be doing exactly what they were before we left, and we’re alive and well and, a month into our travels, just made it to Mexico. Yes, not everything has gone exactly according to plan, but to be fair all our “plans” were relatively short-lived anyway so the disappointments were survivable. Our route and our plans are becoming more and more clear as Mike chomps through pages and pages of Lonely Planet Guides, interrupting my reading every once in a while to tell me what I will get excited about for the next place, and I get to be blissfully ignorant of everything we do, following Mike around to the things he wants to see (knowing that they’re most likely all the places I’d want to see too had I done any research or planning), and entertain us on the way with random thoughts, as well as keep a daily diary and do all the communicating.

To fill you in, our route looks somewhat like this (past things first, future things later): We landed in Havana and spent our planned 3 nights there until we were told about the parade on May 1st (so of course we stayed another 3 days to do that), got on a bus to Baracoa where we spent 3 nights, after which we moved on to Holguín for the festival, stayed there for 3 nights, took a bus to Camaguey, stayed up until 2.25 am to get the next bus to Trinidad, where we spent 3 nights, before briefly dipping into Cienfuegos for a night, and on to Playa Giron to do some intense scuba diving for 2 days, before making our way back to Havana just in time for the gay pride parade on May 17th, which we were told upon arrival, had already taken place on May 12th, unlike any other year before that. Unfortunately, we had missed out on going to Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba to be back in time for the parade, and so we spent some more nights in Havana before heading north to Vinales, Soroa and Havana, well in time for our flight out of Cuba into Mexico City on May 25th.

Cuba Travels

From here our original plan was to spend 2 weeks in Mexico City (learning Spanish for one of those weeks), then getting a rental car and driving from Mexico to via Tulum and all the other sights to Cancun, then going on into Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama,  Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, Patagonia, potentially Antarctica, back up the east coast of Argentina until Uruguay and Brazil, where we were hoping to be for the carnival in March, visit Paraguay, potentially Suriname and, if possible at the time, Venezuela, then take a cruise around the Caribbean islands before taking that same cruise boat all the way across the Atlantic to Portugal. We’re not sure about going to Nicaragua, Suriname or Venezuela, and we will play it all by ear as we go along. We’re also not entirely sure that I will survive the sea sickness going across the Atlantic on a sailing boat (I got seasick on the Mediterranean. And it was only a bit choppy. We’re attempting to cross the Atlantic for 20+ days on a small-ish sailing boat at the start of Hurricane season. It just doesn’t seem like we should be doing this, but again, we’ll play it by ear and just see when we get there, how we feel.) If it’s possible to do the Caribbean islands by boat and then fly back from there or near there to Portugal, and it’s not well-advised to do the repositioning cruise the way we’re imagining it, then so be it. And now for Cuba.

 

Landscape, Culture, People

The biggest island in the Caribbean, Cuba, is warm, inside and out. The tropical climate can at times mean the end of a leg of your day to find refuge in a Café or a microbrewery, but it usually cools down at night. The Cuban people are an entirely different league to what we expected. Friendly, forthcoming, in love with their history and their culture, we felt welcomed and at home almost immediately (this is to a great extent thanks to Roberto and Yania, whose Hostel Red we cannot recommend enough, with their girl Luna, their son Roberto Jr., their wonderful dog Princesa and their Rabbit Bob Esponja). Havana, as well as most cities across all of Cuba (with the exception of Camaguey), is loud. Expect to walk past a totally abandoned-looking building, seemingly on the brink of collapse, with the shades down and mostly broken, and Raeggaton blasting out from the inside, threatening to give the building its final. You will constantly be asked whether you need a taxi, as you’re walking past rows and rows of brightly painted American Cars from the 60s (think Floridita, El Bodeguita de Medio, Mad Men), with men in white shirts and white wicker hats with cigars inviting you in for a ride with the top down (except on more than one occasion, it didn’t really feel like there was a top to put up at all.) You will constantly be asked where you’re from, and to my surprise, most Cubans knew exactly where Austria was – barely anybody confused it with Australia and only Mike confused it with Germany.

Overall, the culture can be described as vibrant, open-hearted, loud and proud, helpful far beyond what you’d hope, unexpectedly well-educated, and extremely resourceful. Their ability to make ends meet to an extent that they and their neighbourhood can live in solid and pleasant circumstances is not in a small part the responsibility of the ever-looming embargo that is blamed, (potentially more than is actually realistic). The revolutionary spirit is still very much alive – most people we’ve spoken to are “Fidelistas” and “Fidelistos”, and T-shirts, hats and paintings more often than not include a picture of Ché or the third, often forgotten by most who don’t live in Cuba, well-hatted, revolutionary, Camillo Cienfuegos. (Fidel Castro included a phrase in his will that it shall be forbidden to print his picture on T-shirts or hats, and the Cubans obey religiously, which is why you will not be able to buy a Fidel Castro shirt, necklace, or hat.) Contrary to popular belief (popular probably because the U.S. has a far wider reach in terms of news and other media than Cuba), Fidel Castro was not perceived by the people of Cuba as a dictator, but as a very mild-natured, sympathetic, Robin Hood-like figure, who freed the country from the tight grip of an oppressive puppet regime installed by the U.S., expressed mostly through capitalism (i.e. building American businesses in Cuba), and, after nationalizing all these businesses and houses, gave it all back to the people in a fair and even manner. This action of nationalizing all U.S.-owned businesses and villas and making it accessible to the general population understandably angered many powerful politicians in the United States (as an example, the “Hilton Cuba” was 9 months old when it was nationalized and basically ripped from the owner’s hands without them being able to do anything about it.) Hence the embargo, which has lasted since the 1960s and will continue to last if the United States continue to veto the annual United Nations Vote to lift the embargo as the only one of two countries, the only other one being Israel, out of political necessity. Not only is the embargo a decided act of blatant genocide, it is also the most obvious example of the power the United States have over the rest of the world, essentially bullying a small island nation, punishing it for taking back what was theirs in the first place. Neither Mike nor I understand why the rest of the world don’t simply ignore the U.S. embargo on Cuba and decide to instead trade with Cuba, and give up trading in the U.S. entirely. Not only would this act strip the U.S. Dollar of its dominance as the global reserve currency, it would also be a decent, humanitarian act, and would put the U.S. in its place for being a bully. We could write a lot more about the embargo and our emotional stance towards it, but onwards we move to our impressions while travelling.

Salsa, Rum and Cigars are the Cubans’ enticing vices, Rice, beans, meat, Pizza and fruit their daily “bread”. Shops generally don’t exist and if they do, they’re not what you’re used to – it’s a communist country, so think bare essentials and minimal choice (and no, bare essentials do not include phone chargers or flip flops). There are no store fronts and there’s no advertising. Again, the unimaginable resourcefulness of the Cuban people enables tasty meals despite (or maybe because of) an utter lack of any non-native spices and herbs. Fidel Castro was a big fan of Pizza and all cities are dotted with “peso-pizza” places, as we call them, which sell smaller, pan-baked, thick base Pizzas, generally with a range of meat as toppings, for about 20 cents – and nowhere was the Pizza as good as in Baracoa, where I had to stop myself from getting a third helping in a row. (By helping I mean an entire Pizza. They’re small, so don’t judge). Anywhere you go, whether it’s in Trinidad, Baracoa, Havana or Vinales, as you walk past, men will mutter “Taxi? Taxi senorita? Taxi para Trinidad, Vinales, Moa, Taxi?” – you do get used to it after a while, and once you do and you’ve got the “No, gracias senor, todo bien” down and can go even further, asking them for something you actually need, like “No necessito un Taxi pero sabes donde esta un bano cerca de aqui?” or “No peudo comprar tus ceramicas pero soy buscando una empresa donde puedo comprar una boteilla de Ron”, they will more likely than not even accompany you to where you need to go all the way, chatting away happily in Spanish muy rapido.

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The landscape in Cuba varies between cities, usually with an old town center, picturesque beaches (some of them with swamps full of mosquitoes), and rainforest. The forested areas and smaller towns are also where you’ll find the majority of fruit, vegetables and other useful plants growing – a staggering collection that ranges from Guava to Bananas, Mangoes, Papaya (called “fruta bomba”, because Papaya in Cuban can also mean vagina, something we luckily found out about before stepping into that trap ourselves), Avocados, Pineapple, Coconuts, Cacao, Tobacco, Tomatoes, to lots of exotic fruit you probably haven’t even heard about.

The Cubans we met believe, for the most part, that consumerism is destroying the world and pride themselves on being the world’s only country that isn’t  – and when you’re there it’s hard to argue with that. Apart from burning oil for electricity and fuel, there’s barely any waste as Cubans reuse and recycle most things they find, machines and electrical equipment will be fixed rather than replaced, and nobody has a spare room or cupboard with the “things they don’t currently need but might need in the future” – it just doesn’t exist. The neighbourhood will have eg. One hammer to service said entire neighbourhood (not like in Europe, where everybody has their own hammer, because god forbid if you need anything from your neighbour), and bartering one service for another or a favour is as common as money is scarce.

Where to go if you only have…

4 days

This amount of time is really the minimum where it makes sense to go anywhere but Havana. If you’ve got about 4 days to visit Cuba, our suggestion would be to potentially do a day trip to Las Terrazas or Soroa and spend the rest of your time in Havana. We haven’t been to Las Terrazas as we decided to go to Soroa instead, and can only recommend going there as there’s a breathtaking waterfall you can swim in and climb on rocks – there’s a bit of the waterfall where you can sit down on a huge rock exactly where the water hits the ground and it’s truly, truly magical to have that much water crashing down on your head (also a great way to get rid of a hangover). Unfortunately you can’t jump off the waterfall into the water from that bit but it’s still well worth going and the food on the way back up is really delicious and very cheap. The guide at the entrance will look for a blue wristband to see if you can go into the waterfall for free because you’re a guest at the hotel, and even if you’re not, he doesn’t really want to charge you the 3$ entry fee so you can get away with paying just some CUP to get in 😊

In Soroa there’s also a beautiful Orchid Garden that you can visit for 4$ (at the time of writing) and a castle from which you have a nice view over Soroa, although the climb is not entirely worth the view.

7 days

With a week in Cuba you have a bit more leeway and under those circumstances we’d suggest spending 2 days in Havana (Wednesday and Thursday, if possible), 2 days in Trinidad and 2 days in Vinales (I’m leaving out a day for traveling here). While in Havana, make sure you visit the Camera Obscura from which you also have a 360° view of the city including the port and the tour is amazing if you’re even remotely interested in engineering, go to the Berthold Brecht Theater on Wednesday (actually a really fun jazz / funk club with local artists – a very popular spot for Habaneros, very few tourists go there and it’s a great night out!) and on Thursday to the Fabrica del Arte Cubano, an old oil refinery that was turned into an art gallery / night club, a very popular spot for tourists and natives alike. When in Trinidad, make sure to visit “Las Cuevas”, a nightclub inside a cave which you pay 5$ to get into and get a free drink. Absolutely do not miss this as a night out, alone to see the cave having been turned into a night club is spectacular.

Don’t miss out on going on a horse-back riding tour in Vinales as the landscape is unique, and enjoy the open-air salsa bar in the center of town (buying a bottle of Rum and a bottle of coke actually comes to about 9$ – your cheapest option for drinks).

Upwards of 20 days

You can go pretty much all over Cuba in 20 days, though going to Baracoa might be stretching it if you want to travel with ample time. However, if you don’t mind only staying in the same place for up to 2 days, make sure you do visit Baracoa, and hike up El Yunca. It’s a bit tough at times as you might not have a boat across the river and might need to walk and it rained heavily when we went, so in the end we were all down to our bathers, but it’s so worth it I’d do it again.

Camaguey was the only place we felt like we could have missed out on our whole trip to Cuba.

Travel Tips for Cuba

Language

Speaking a bit of Spanish is almost essential in Cuba if you venture outside of Havana (even there it’s very helpful). Most Cubans that were born before 1970 don’t speak any other language other than Spanish, but learning Spanish is fun and a great skill especially if you’re going to be traveling through more Spanish-speaking countries, and the ҉ Google Translate App ҉ helps, especially because it has a camera function that will let you instantly translate written Spanish (for instance in museums).

Currency and Credit Cards

Your credit card might not work. It’s definitely worth travelling with more than one credit card or bringing a widely convertible currency, such as Euros or Dollars. Change offices are called “Cadeca” and you will have to bring your passport to convert a foreign currency to the local one. While we’re on currencies: There are two currencies in Cuba. One is called “Cuban Convertible Peso”, or “CUC”, the other is called “Cuban National Peso”, or “CUP”. At the time of writing, A CUC is pegged to the Dollar, so one Dollar = one CUC, and 1 CUC = 23 CUP. Usually, both currencies are accepted in restaurants and only in rare cases, such as most museums, do nationals pay the same amount in CUP as a tourist pays in CUC – for instance the entry to the Revolution Museum in Havana is 8 CUC for tourists, and 8 CUP for locals. Usually prices in local “fast food places” are written down in CUP – be careful here because you don’t want to end up paying 25 Dollars for a small pizza. You don’t need your passport when converting CUP to CUC in a Cadeca.

We both have, use and love ҉ TransferWise ҉. It allows you to open bank accounts in most currencies instantly, receive money from a regular bank account into this newly opened “digital” bank account, convert currencies within the app for a much smaller fee than if you went through a bank, and if you apply for a TransferWise Card (essentially a prepaid Credit Card) and you’re lucky, you can even take out money with that credit card for next to no fee, and the credit card runs on MasterCard, which is widely accepted.

Casa Particulares (or where to sleep)

Cuba is not known for big hostel chains or even any hostels for that matter. Rather, you can stay in so-called “Casa Particulares”, or homestays, where you are given a room in a private person’s house. At the time of writing, the going rate per person per night is 10$, and we paid exactly that in every location we went, because every homestay was organized by the previous homestays owner, only calling ahead a day or so before we went, to give notice that we were coming. The homestay owners usually know each other only by phone and it seems that they have arranged with each other to accept travellers from each other with priority, and for a fixed cost in each location.

We highly recommend you stay in Casa Particulares – in fact, if your first stop is Havana and you stay with Roberto and Yania at “Hostel Red” (the only casa particular we stayed at where you stay in a dorm room with more than 3 beds), you’ll be set for accommodation in all following places you want to go to as they know a casa particular owner everywhere and will call ahead for you. We met other travellers who have opted to stay in Air BnB’s – those were usually the ones who did not enjoy Cuba as they had nobody to ask what to do or how to get around, and internet is hard to come by. Air BnBs will most likely not have internet access (read on for the section of how to get internet access, because even if your accommodation does have WiFi, you still need to get a WiFi card.)

Location and Navigation

Another app we both love is ҉Maps.me҉. Make sure to download the app and the maps for Cuba before you leave to go there because internet access is difficult to say the least. Maps.me allows you to bookmark locations, search for places offline and even navigate offline, as well as give you information about public transport.

You won’t need to (and probably couldn’t) book any travel arrangements for within Cuba online, as most accommodation doesn’t have an internet presence and all the arrangements will be done for you by the owners of the place you’re staying. It’s a very relaxing way to travel. More often than not, the casa owners of the next place will meet you by the Viazul stop, or, if you’re arriving by Collectivo Taxi, you’ll be dropped off at your exact destination.

Internet

Internet access is nationalized in Cuba, meaning that no matter where you are in Cuba, if you connect to the Wi-Fi, you’re always going to have to go through the Etecsa Login page.  What do you need to do to have internet access? You need to buy an internet card (either from a local selling them on the street usually in or near wifi places for about 2 CUC, or from an official Etecsa booth for 1 CUC – look for a small white shipping container with the Etecsa logo on it [ETECSA LOGO] (source: seeker401.wordpress.com), or from a hotel for upwards of 4 CUC), scratch off the password information, find a WiFi spot (usually anywhere around bigger sights or just anywhere where you can see  a larger group of people gathering in the shade, on their phones), log in to http://secure.etecsa.net:8443/ and enter your login information. From the moment you log in, you will have as much time online as you purchased. Don’t stress if the internet “kicks you out”, it will automatically pause your credit, and logging out by simply tapping the WiFi Logo on your device should also log you out, though I wouldn’t bank on that and always log in to above mentioned site before and actually click the “Cerrar session” button. Any credit left on the card can be used at any later time, meaning if you’ve bought a 1-hour card and only use it for 10 minutes before logging out, you can use the remaining 50 minutes later. Cuba really is not the place for constant Instagram / Facebook / Twitter updates – enjoy the break from the world and immerse yourself into the offline world that is Cuba.

Getting around

Public transport in Cuban cities is extremely cheap. On public buses you can basically pay whatever you want in whichever currency you want, because unless you pay 1 CUP (which is a golden coin you’ll hardly even see), you’re paying too much. 1 CUP per person is the actual fare, anything above that is seen as a welcome tip, and you will most likely not receive any change. Expect insanely overcrowded buses during the day, people expecting you to get up if they are at any disadvantage in standing (disability, child, elderly, pregnant), and expect to be hosting people’s belongings on your lap if you’re sitting down – they’ll almost definitely say yes if you offer to hold it for them.

In between cities you can either take a Viazul bus, which you can book in any Viazul office or at the actual bus station within the city, a collectivo Taxi, or a private Taxi. The Viazul buses are usually either airconditioned to -10°C or are playing very loud raeggaton music, your seats might not recline, and don’t expect a toilet on the bus – instead, the bus will be stopping every 2-5 hours for about 45 minutes in a place with a toilet and a restaurant, with chickens and stray dogs running around. It’s an experience. The buses are very safe – we never had any problems with pickpockets, but exercise normal caution and don’t leave your valuables unattended.

If you take a collectivo Taxi to another city, reserve it through your casa, as you’ll get the best rate that way (your casa owner will be friends with somebody who does that – it’s how things work in Cuba: you know somebody or you know somebody who knows somebody). Expect an American car from the 60s with a loud engine, with no seatbelts or working windows, a driver who can tell you the entire car’s history including all its spare parts and repairs, fascinating scenery, and (if you’re lucky), a ride that picks up an additional 3 people on the way, all happily chatting away to you in Spanish while being squashed in the back seat. As a recommendation, take a collective if you’re going from Baracoa to Holguin, as the Jeep is able to go along a country road dotted with beautiful Carribean beaches that the Viazul is not able to go along.

If you’re splashing out, you can take a private taxi, but that just means the car you’re driving in will not pick up anybody else on the way. For everything else, refer to above paragraph about collective taxis 😉 Of course, if you’re really loaded, you can take a pretty, well-equipped convertible, but that’ll cost you upwards of 200$ to go the equivalent distance of Havana to Trinidad.

Safety

Cuba is generally very safe. Watch out for pickpockets, and “be smart” about your valuables, but don’t worry about being mugged or going out in the dark – Cubans are more likely to ask you for money or strike up a conversation about whether you’re enjoying yourself in their country over a beer than mug you. We never wore a valuables belt and never felt like we needed it. Cubans also pride themselves on living in a country that is “muy Seguro”.

Queueing

Ok, so, bear with me on this one. Queueing in Cuba is challenging unless you know what you’re doing. If you walk up to a place with a queue (like a Cadeca or the Etecsa booth, or even in the Viazul ticket office), call out “El ultimo?” and look at somebody for help. It means that you’re asking for the last person who has joined the queue, who is your reference point. You’re now the last person who’s joined the queue. The next person to walk up will also call this out, and if you say “Soy yo” that means they’ll be able to go in just after you did. Don’t be frustrated if people seemingly randomly re-join the queue – it may look like they’re cutting in, but they’ve most likely just joined the queue way beforehand and gone to do something else in the meantime.

Our favourite things about Cuba

 

  • There is no waste

At home you probably have a drawer, cupboard or garage full of junk: old cables, tools or even stationary. In Cuba this does not exist, everything is reused or re-appropriated to a place where it can be most useful.  Plastic bags are folded and stitched together to make washing lines, glass bottles are used as bricks to build walls. Tools are borrowed from the state and given back to the person in the area who fixes things for other people. Everyone is inventive in Cuban society.

  • Everyone has time to help you

People are never in a rush, a taxi driver will wait for an hour for you while you explore the beaches, towns and churches – just make sure to negotiate a price beforehand.

  • Rum and Cigars

In Cuba there is only one alcoholic drink that is worth considering. White Havana Club is cheaper than soft drinks and even the 7 year old rum is only 20USD for a litre.

  • Unspoilt nature

Cubans are really proud of their country and really believe that they are the only society that are not destroying the planet through exploitation of resources. Once there it’s hard to disagree. There is no mass farming or over consumption of resources. Nature is respected by everyone and generating income is always second over nature.

  • Homestays

In Cuba you have two choices, either you stay in a government run hotel where you will be drip-fed tours and kept away from the real Cuban way of life, or you stay in a home stay (called a casa particular) which is basically a small hostel, with a family in their house. Staying in a casa particular means you stay with their whole family including children and pets, you eat their food and start to see life through their eyes.

  • The Cuban spirit

Cubans are extremely proud of what they have achieved in standing up to the US. Without going too much into politics, they know thy have suffered due to the blockade, but it has also shaped their society into the non-consumerist society they are today and they are really proud of what they have achieved. They love Fidel Castro and they love their history. They remind me of William Wallace from Braveheart of old, no one can ever take their freedom.

 

Our least favourite things about Cuba

 

  • Being treated like a tourist

You have to actively try in Cuba to live like a local. Tourism in Cuba started as a way of generating income due to the US embargo and at the beginning there were only tourist hotels and special tours, the way you would now expect in a country like North Korea.  Nowadays tourism has opened up and there are no restrictions on what you can do or where you can go but sometimes you have to go to some effort to make people aware you are a backpacker and not a rich tourist who wants five star treatment.

  • No internet

There is internet in Cuba but it doesn’t work well at all. It generally works like this:

  1. Find a place that sells internet cards
  2. Find a wifi hotspot at a time when it is not overloaded
  3. Try to access your accounts (due to the embargo many of your accounts will be blocked)
  4. Give up due to running out of time

After a couple of cycles of the above you realise you don’t actually need the internet.

  • The negative effects of the embargo

There are many positive effects of the embargo but it’s also difficult to see where people are used to a lower standard of living. The hardest for us was seeing the effects on animals. Everyone loves seeing the old American cars in Cuba but in a society where cars are so overworked, everything else is also overworked. As there are no cars animals are often the main source or transport and are therefore seen as a commodity and not as a pet. As a westerner where we use cars for carrying goods, seeing horses or donkeys being worked to the bone is difficult. Pets are not a luxury people can afford to feed and there are many stray dogs in need of medical care.

 

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