Cuba; a month of constant moving from one place to another in order to get to know the island as much as we can, turned out to be an amazing but sometimes hard experience for me and my traveling partner. Amazing; some parts of the island could be considered as one of those breathtaking places, hard; it’s not that small as many think of it and it can take you far too long to get from one town to another, due to the roads which are often extremely bad. When somebody mentions Cuba, there are several associations that people usually think of, things like Cuban cigars, rum, their well known rhythms or revolution and Che Guevara; communism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with connecting all that to the idea of Cuba, but the truth is that Cuba offers much much more. And Christopher Columbus’s quote in which he declared Cuba as the most beautiful country human eyes have ever seen, after our trip from the most western to most eastern part got its point.
I wouldn’t maybe claim it for sure, but the truth is that Cuba’s nature has absolutely fascinated and unconditionally overwhelmed us. Besides, the country is so safe for tourist that it’s hard for me to think of any other as safe as Cuba is. Still I don’t know for sure if this is just the way they are by their nature or is it the consequence of rigorous communist system and their fear of police. Probably combination of it all, but either way more than good for anyone traveling to Cuba. It’s again same old sad story shared with many other poor countries; the ones this beautiful nature should belong to have the least possibilities of enjoying it.
The thing that any future Cuban explorer should have are basics in Spanish, if not then good Spanish dictionary is a part of compulsory baggage, their English is really not good. Since most of the time tourists book rooms in one of the numerous Casas Prticulares, which are rooms with bathrooms in their family houses with breakfast or other meals as well, the ability of at least understanding Spanish is really useful. (Prices: 20 to 30 dollars per room per night). Of course you won’t have any problem if you don’t understand them, but you will miss the opportunity of getting to know them, their kindness and the chance of familiarizing yourself with the facts how it really feels like to live in Cuba. All Casas Particulares around Cuba have the same sign ( light blue reminding of anchor) and prices are also almost the same no matter where you go, but the quality can vary a lot.
The owners of the houses know each other all around the Cuba, sometimes leaving you with the feeling they are some kind of secret organization. After you had spent the night in their house they have already booked a room for you in the next city you are going to at their friends or relatives house, even though you haven’t really asked them to do that. As like if you didn’t even have the other option, since according to them everything else might be already booked. As you can assume, this is just their way to help their friends to earn some money, which is absolutely legal, but their suggestion for a room can be good as much as it can be a bad option for you, so from our experience the best way is just to find your rooms by yourself. When it comes to Cuba there is also one really specific thing about staying there, popular couchsurfing is forbidden. One of their laws simply forbids Cubans to have foreigners spending night at their houses, unless they have a room registered as a part of Casas Particulares system, since in this way country gets its commission and can easily control everything.
As you all know everybody expects Cubans to be that singing and dancing nation, I’m not sure what kind of images we all have in our heads when thinking about people living in Cuba, but seems like that they all dance and sing everywhere you go. Unfortunately that kind of image is far from truth. The truth is that almost every restaurant, coffee place or a bar has some Cuban musicians playing every night, you can also find them on many squares, but as you could have already realized, these are all places where tourists go. That doesn’t make them less good musicians, but their eyes often reveal the truth that their Cuban life mybe doesn’t make them feel like singing or dancing. But being just a tourist, don’t worry you will always find a place to enjoy Cuban music every night no matter where you go.
When it comes to all kinds of pleasures, Cuba is a place where all of your senses can easily receive an excellent treatment. Besides music their food is amazing, especially if you are a fond of sea food. When you realize that for approximately 10 dollars you can get a lobster and for even less money things like prawns, fish, shells or some other usually expensive meals, at first you don’t even believe it can be good. But it is , it’s actually more than good, all around Cuba. Even better part is that prices in best restaurants are literally few dollars higher when compared to cheaper ones. Besides sea food, fried bananas are something you will love, or at least get used to, since there are one of the most common side dishes.
Everybody for sure enjoys Cuban rum or famous Cuban cocktails; Mojito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri or some other combination with rum, you can find them on each step of the way, starting with the price of 2 dollars, yeah for two dollars you can get quite good Mojito. If you decide to drink it at some really fancy place it still won’t be more than 5, consequently you end up having trouble while trying to zip your jeans when leaving Cuba.
Havana for sure offers more than other Cuban cities when it comes to clubs, restaurants, cafes, museums, sightseeing… , but the Cuban capital is not a place where you could experience the stunning Cuban nature and landscapes. Although after spending just few days in Havana, there is a lot you can figure out about the whole country. Cuba is not one of the destinations for a crazy night life, but if you’re middle aged European, Canadian, Russian … who likes young female body next to him, than Cuba can easily be transformed into number one destination for you. They are young, really young and often good looking just as Rihanna or Beyonce, and you can have them for already 20 dollars per night. Better looking they are, higher price they’ll have , but not too much higher. Cuba has a bit different situation with “Roxannes”, here guys take them to dinners, clubs, cafes, beaches…they are not only hidden in hotel rooms. But, most of the time you will see them leaving places separately, since the girls that don’t have a passport could end up in a jail for being caught in a company like that. I don’t even have to tell you that getting passport for many Cubans is somewhat mission impossible. Even when they finally do have the passport, it still doesn’t mean they can leave the country in the way we are used to. Where they’re going and for how long are they about to leave Cuba is all regulated more than you could imagine.
Anyway this kind of true love stories are to be seen everywhere you go, but quite funny is that it’s not only middle aged men doing it, you will see as many white ladies having three times younger guys walking next to them. I’m a woman so I have the right to find this older ladies situation really amusing, even hilarious from time to time, or you can think of me as the Grinch who doesn’t believe in love. Either way the sex tourism situation lead me to the conclusion that Cuba is top of the tops when it comes to that , in my experience so far it was Thailand or maybe Kenya, but I have a feeling that Cuba beats them all. Unless I discover some other country like this in future time. Some of the gentlemen on the photos might be wrongly accused, since girls can get really persistent, but….
If you add the fact that Cubans are really liberate when it comes to the sexuality, so every typical Cuban has few lovers and a wife, you can turn famous association of Cuba and revolution into a sexual revolution. We didn’t have to wait too long for an absolute affirmation of this statement, we got it our second night in Havana in front of a gay club. Revolution indeed, it doesn’t happen often that you see so many gay people being so free in showing their affection and orientation in the streets. This is an absolute paradox since we are talking about communist country where internet in the way we know it doesn’t exist for Cubans. Our new gay friends made it clear that it was totally different few years back and that it was Raul’s ( president and Fidel Castro brother) lesbian daughter who changed the rules for LGBT community and turned bad situation in the one we can find today.
The internet situation is one of the things that will make you think that Cuba is still trapped in the past. Even as being a tourist you will have a hard time in finding the internet connection, only the most expensive hotels can offer you something like that, but when you finally find it, it might seem like it is the 50’s internet. It simply takes ages for everything, so facebook posting for instance easily turns into a never ending story. Local people on the other hand are able to use the internet only for emails, but even for this purpose they have a certain time limit. Cuba Libre! On the other hand if you are a fan of cars from the 50’s you might think of Cuba as haven. They can be in a great shape or just the opposite, from the 70’s or 80’s perhaps, but either way outnumbering the new ones.
Since recently they do have the possibility of importing new cars, but it’s just few of them who can actually afford it, since their average salary is a bit less than 40 dollars. The only way that helps them to survive is the fact that Cuba still has two official currencies, CUP, or the “national peso” and the convertible peso CUC, to put it simply Cubans use CUPs and tourist are paying in CUCs.
Communist slogans and symbols of their revolution are to be found everywhere you look, but it’s extremely rare situation to get somebody talking about anything that has to do with it. But other than that they are openhearted and will talk to you about anything else. When talking about the revolution, in all of the museums again everything revolves around it, with the same old perspective, communist values and heroes being shown as the supreme goods and anything related to “western” world (US) as pure evil and ultimate enemies. It’s not even necessary to mention that all of the main squares and streets are named after revolutionaries and not only in Havana, furthermore you will find a statue or something like it in each of them.
Likewise rum and cigars, which are offered on every possible spot, they are all crazy about baseball, so after few days in Havana you won’t be surprised when seeing children playing it everywhere they can. Unfortunately most of the time they don’t have the chance of playing with real bats…
While talking to an amazing retired geography teacher we “discovered” that socialist Cuba makes a major difference among people while taking care of them ( well that was really a new discovery). The old ones like her, now useless for the society, are in the worst position. Having a brain tumor she needs to sell newspapers, more like begging on the street in order to be able to survive. Still she is ever smiling and enumerates all the cities she knows about in Croatia- you wouldn’t believe it! Also one of the Cuban problems; attending university is possible for everyone, they don’t have to pay for it, but after graduating due to the lack of working opportunities you will have engineers working as waiters or professors as taxi drivers..etc.
With the tear in our eyes we said goodbye and left her 20 dollars ( it was all we could have afford since our budget was quite tight) even though she never asked for it. But to feel the compassion with the people like her you don’t have to go to Havana, I’m sure you will find enough sad stories like her in your countries as well. But the picturesque streets of Havana and people of it are more than worth of checking out. The best part to take a long walk and fell the city vibe is the old part of Havana, Malecon (a broad esplanade along the coast) as well. While the best city view offers fortress complex La Cabaña which is to be reached by underwater tunnel, so you have to take taxi or have a rented car to get there.
Hotel Nacional, is one of the places you want to see in Havana, the hotel is kind of a museum and moreover it has a small museum in the it’s park. Therefore you won’t be surprised when realizing that guided tours of the hotel are offered few times a day and surprisingly tours are free. It’s the best place to get the feeling what kind of a place Cuba was in its “golden era” before the revolution. It’s the place where all the big names stayed when visiting Havana, indeed you will see photos of all of them hanged on the walls. It’s also the place where The Havana Conference; a historic meeting of United States Mafia and Cosa Nostra leaders in Havana was held, what doesn’t come as a surprise since hotel was their popular meeting point with Sinatra as their constant guest. Cuba in that period was something like Las Vegas today and a place which all the big fish of that time would consider as their playground and this is something Nacional shows and you can actually feel it.
The place I was most fascinated by in Havana was Callejon de Hamel, artistic oasis. Salvador Gonzales Escalona, famous Cuban artist lives here and has turned the whole neighborhood into an open air gallery. Therewithal you want to go there if you are interested in details on African- Cuban traditions and Santeria ( African- Caribbean religion).
Our trips around Cuba started towards western part of the island and as further from Havana you go, more often you hear yourself saying WOW! Our first destination was Viñales. To get there you can take a bus – Viazul- name of the bus company for tourists or you can take “Collectivo”, this is something like shared taxi with people going in same direction as you. Often you will be driven in the 50’s car when choosing it, besides it is often the cheapest way to travel and the best way to meet new friends, furthermore good thing is that you will easily find them on the bus stations since buses are often overbooked. “Collectivo” is the most common mean of transport for Cubans too. I have to honest here, the best possible option is if you have enough money to rent a car while discovering Cuba, you can stop where and how long you want , but we weren’t that lucky, so we had to find other options.
At the first sight Viñales is some other Cuba, after seeing Havana. Even a bit different you would imagine Cuba to be, it’s not one of the most popular touristic places which is quite strange if I think of all the amazing nature you will find there. The city itself is not offering too much, but there are quite enough restaurants with an amazing food and Cuban musicians playing every night.
Moreover you might get the feeling as if you had found the time machine and there you are 60 or 70 years ago. Viñales and area around it is the main place of tobacco fields and the whole region is a national park. There are no sandy beaches, but there is a lot of red soil, tobacco and banana fields while the Viñales valley landscape is interspersed with dramatic rocky outcrops.
Taking a horse trip across the valley was one of the best things we did in Cuba, overall it’s for sure number one way to explore the valley; fields and people living there and making a living from growing tobacco. Besides you will learn how authentic Cuban cigars are rolled, you might try and buy them, even though they are not allowed to make them by themselves. The system works in the simple way, they sell tobacco to government at really low price, then they sell cigars at high prices, whereas people growing tobacco are allowed to keep some really insignificant amount of it for personal use. Viva La Revolucion! At one point of the horse trip we were also able to experience how it feels like to take a swim inside one of the numerous caves, and when I say inside I mean deep inside in complete dark. I did come, walked through the cave, but must admit, taking a swim wasn’t that tempting, so i skipped that part.
Riding a bike through Vinales region familiarized us even more with the beauty of it, it took us around 30 km of riding in one direction to get to Puerta Esperanza, main port of the province, which offers literally nothing, but the nature and people on the road were unbelievable. But when in Vinales it doesn’t even matter which direction are you about to choose for bike riding, they all offer great experience, you don’t have to take that long ride or even towards Puerta Esperanza. Among all the comments we got form the Cubans while talking to them, was for sure the one that came from a small tobacco factory guard. He explained that we have the same smell ( we stink) just like his brother who lives in Miami and comes to Cuba with the same smell. Who knows perhaps his brother also cycles for hours, but I don’t think it was about the bad choice of the deodorant. 🙂
Around half an hour drive away from Vinales is the city Pinar del Rio, which is the main city of the this most western Cuban province, famous for the biggest tobacco factory. The factory is worth of checking out, but when it comes to city itself, you realize really fast while walking through it, why majority of the tourist decides to sleep in Vinales when visiting the western region.
BAY OF PIGS
After Vinales we were interested in discovering another thing to be found only in Cuba, but not as popular as Cuban tobacco and cigars, Cuban crocodiles. Bay of Pigs and the whole peninsula Zapata is the place which offers a lot when it comes to enjoying incredible wildlife and plants often endemic species. Since we were mostly interested in their crocodiles, crocodile farm was our next destination. Apart from the option of eating them in the restaurant on the farm you are able to see all kinds of them form babies to several decades old chunks. We skipped the restaurant since we know from before that their meat is not something that we would like to eat more than once. But on the other hand we learned it the hard way how fats chunks could be and were shocked how fast and high they’re able to jump when they smell you too close to the fence. In the certain moment I couldn’t stop laughing when I realized that my partner is able to perform backwards long jump, that cameras can handle serious falls and that the fence was doing its job even though it didn’t look promising.
Besides national park and inevitable revolution museums, Bay also offers amazing beaches on the Caribbean side of Cuba. Along with amazing nature there was another one getting us to know with awful facts about life in Cuba. Best beaches like Caleta Buena, which we visited are only to be visited by tourists. Well it’s not forbidden for Cubans to come, but if you take into consideration the fact that the entrance fee, which includes all you can eat and drink, is like half of their average month income it doesn’t take too long to realize why aren’t there any locals on the beach, unless they are someone’s escort. Talking about true love again. Beaches are also often part of some hotel complex, again Cubans being there only as workers, but Bay of Pigs is really big so you can find normal beaches as well, while later on the situation was even worse with some of the islands.
More and more amazing landscape with endless palm trees, bananas and sugar cane fields, along with sometimes heavily damaged roads followed us on the way to Trinidad, next city we were heading to. In our opinion the most beautiful Cuban city. Colonial style, which is to be found all around the country, is best and most preserved in Trinidad. Unfortunately we made one of our biggest Cuban mistakes here; we stayed to short when compared to other cities. Ok we did manage to see a lot in few days, but it would have been so much better if we had stayed longer in Trinidad. Of course we became aware of that fact after we have checked other places.
Plaza Mayor which is the central square is actually something like museum on open air, museum of Spanish colonial architecture. The thing you might like even more about the city is the realization that even the Casas particulares, houses in which again majority of tourists spends nights, are just as good and old fashioned but highly preserved, just like the houses you admire while walking through streets in the center. It’s really hard to say if we liked more walking through the streets of Trinidad during day when you can see all the colors, or during night when we weren’t even able to choose in which restaurant should we go first. There is surprisingly high number of restaurants for a small city like this, besides they even look better than in other cities, and most important offering amazing food for a bit lower prices than we saw elsewhere around Cuba. Again each of them offers Cuban musicians playing while you are having dinner. One of the coolest things about Trinidad was that we actually found the square with not only tourist enjoying Cuban music, there were many local people too and I’m not talking about the ones who are escorts to tourists.
Just traveling to Cayo Coco (one of the Cuban islands) is already interesting, for quite some time you are on the road literally in the middle of the ocean. There is one rule about the island, you need to have reserved place to stay before going there, at least we were told so. We didn’t complain too much when we realized that renting a room when you get there costs few dollars more. Oh yeah, on the Coco island we kind of had to go for the hotel option, since finding Casa Particulare option is not that likely. You can assume, the island is for the ones with a bit more money, but to be honest it wasn’t that expensive as you might imagine; for some 60 dollars per person you will get really good hotel on the beach with all you can eat and drink. There are even cheaper options but more often you will find more expensive ones.
When it comes to beauties of the island, it would be hard to find appropriate words, I can only constant that it was one of the top 5 places I have ever been to considering ocean and beaches. That colors are something you might always remember seeing.
Right next to Coco is another island; Cayo Guillermo, some claim even more beautiful, but if you ask me it’s the same thing. On the way to Guillermo you will see many flamingos, one more experience you can easily get impressed by, since the island is their nature reserve. Between two islands is also a place where you can find out how it feels like to swim with dolphins or to kiss them. Even though it’s one of those typical touristic things, something animals lovers like me really don’t support, but it was stronger than me, I became one of the people giving money for something like this ( and some money- around 100 dollars). On one hand I still feel remorse for doing it, but on the other one it’s one of the feelings you never forget.
In preventing Coco of being heaven on earth there are mosquitoes and sand flies. We were too cool to use some spray against bugs bites during the day, mosquitoes bite during sunset or evening anyway; wrong decision. Next few days after leaving Coco we looked like as if we were suffering from some serious skin disease – the flies are so small that you don’t even realize being attacked and itchiness has a postponed reaction, so we end up realizing that being cool has its own price. Besides itchiness there were some other bitter feelings in our mouth after magical island.
During the evenings you can feel quite depressed if you’re like us; two single girls expecting young people to socialize with, the emptiness of this type of tourism reaches its top. It’s only old couples, families, most often couples where he is like 50 and she is in her early 20s or in the best case some annoying just married couple on their honeymoon. The worst thing is there is no better place to go if you decide to run away from your hotel, they’re all the same at the end of the day, so the only fun was the fact that all we could have drunk was included, we were able to try almost half of the cocktails on the list or maybe even more, but we don’t remember anyway.
The reason why nobody asked us about the reservation of the hotel when entering the road to the island was the awful fact that we didn’t look like Cubans, who believe it or not are forbidden to go there, except if they’re one of the workers in the hotels. So the islands can be amazing and awful places at the same time. Again the story is not the same for all of them, if they’re a part of their communist party, the rules change, just like for the lady who was the owner of a house in our next city, she proudly explained it all to us, . Old Partisan was part of the system and she sure liked it.
She owned a house in Santa Clara, I don’t know if I was under a huge influence of the fact that I was strongly annoyed by her, but Santa Clara shouldn’t be on the list of the cities you must visit while in Cuba, unless you really have a plenty of time. To summarize it I can say it’s the Che Guevara’s and transvestites city. Nothing particularly bad about it, just there are so many better places to go. Now if you are crazy about the Cuban revolution or a huge fan of Che, than things change. The city has his mausoleum, several of his bronze figures, and of course a museum dedicated to his life. Santa Clara was chosen as the site for Che’s remains since a battle which he won in the city during the revolution was decisive for the liberation of Cuba’s former dictator Batista.
We spent most of the time at the club Mejune, which was really something special after so long in Cuba. When you are in the club you feel as in some European city. It was the only place (apart from the hotels where they are only foreigners anyway) where we were able to hear international music like Queen or Bob Marley. Otherwise it’s either listening to Cuban music exclusively or even more interesting are radio stations ,which do have international music, but more than often only instrumentals. So you are listening let’s say Michael Jackson, Abba or Simply Red, but without actually hearing them; no words and messages. But it’s not only about the music, club offers several times a week a drag show and other different artists. The feeling in the club is amazing, everybody at the same place, both old and young and gay and straight, and transgender and macho guys and all kinds of artists; awesome!
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
The city which taught us that perhaps you really don’t have to go to work when it rains. Rain followed us most of the time while in Santiago, which wouldn’t be an issue if it hadn’t closed all of the museums and other cultural spots for tourists. It’s simple; if it rains they don’t work; who wouldn’t love to live in a system like that? It didn’t take us long while staying to confirm that the Cuban nature is far more interesting than cities. Nothing particularly differs Santiago from Santa Clara, except that is bigger and has more cafes and restaurants, at the end it’s the largest city after Havana.
The only thing we were really fascinated by was forth Castillo del Morro, a bit outside of the city originally built in 17th century in order to protect the old city of Santiago. At the forth we had the best Cuban sunset, for me even one of the best ever, the place is outstanding for catching sunset. Even though we didn’t know in advance visitors are also able to experience the changing of the traditional guard after sun sets.
Baracoa is the city on the most eastern part of Cuba, and just when we had enough of buses and the constant movement and even being suspicious whether we should have another city on the list, just a trip towards Baracoa was already enough to make up for any tiredness. Columbus landed just near Baracoa when he first saw Cuba and declared the comment at the beginning of the story. It was first Cuban capital city, although today is literally at the end of the island somehow completely cut off. Since it’s the main production site of the Cuban chocolate Baracoa is the only place in Cuba where you can without much effort actually find traditional chocolate to buy, offered like cigars in Havana on every corner of the streets. In restaurants you can try some specialties like fish in a chocolate sauce, (it’s better than it sounds) not to be found around the rest of the country, while Baracoa is known to have cuisine a bit different than other parts of Cuba.
The town itself is quite small, again nothing spectacular, but the nature around it and on the way to Baracoa is so unique that at certain parts of the road I had the feeling that we were on some new planet. Countless palm trees, black sand beaches, some green rocks combined with all possible shades of blue and green ocean altering on the way.
The most interesting thing to see in Baracoa is the archaeological museum of Cuban Taino Indians, who were in fact the original inhabitants of Cuba. The Spaniards managed to eradicate them all over the island, except in Baracoa, for this the city is the only place where can find their descendants even today, they live in tribes hidden in the surrounding hills still in some other time. Besides the cave with bones and all kinds of remains, hill where the museum and cave are provides you with the best view of Baracoa.
The city itself and the nature on the way to it has already justified the fact that it takes forever to get there since it’s on the end of the island, but then we took a taxi to get to Maguna beach, some 30 minutes away from Baracoa and realized that it’s not just the matter of justification. Baracoa should actually be one of THE things to see while in Cuba. The only problem I had was to decide what I liked more; the nature on the way to the beach or the beach itself. Something I admired just as the beauty of it; there is no entrance fee, there are no expensive hotels around it, you can even find a place to hide from the others and the best part, the number of Cubans on the beach, not just tourist at least for now.
For us it was the last one on the list while for most of the tourists first, it turned out that it was not a coincidence. Varadero is close to Havana (approx 2 hours by bus), it’s truth that there is 20 kilometers long sandy beach, which looks ok, but after everything else we’ve seen in Cuba Varadero really wasn’t something I would recommend to someone. Absolute mass tourism, hotel next to hotel, tourist everywhere you look and when compared to other Cuban places not that beautiful, which might be the reason for a bit cheaper all included hotels than the Cayo Coco ones. Since it was already almost the end of our trip we have adapted to the typical tourist standards and spent the two Varadero days on the beach with cocktails that did not stop coming and concluded that for us this all inclusive way definitely paid off.
If you are traveling to Cuba:
Bus company / Viazul that it is intended for non Cubans has a temperature of about minus 10 in buses- bring warm clothing you will need it. Furthermore during tourist season you should buy tickets few days in advance if you want to get them.
Nightlife in Havana is the best in part of the town called Vadedo and there are most of the clubs. A good jazz club; La Zorra El Cuervo, really close to it is a good club with Cuban music; Gato Tuerto, besides them there is the Hotel Habana Libre – their top floor is the closest thing to disco in Cuba and has very good view on the whole Havana.
When it comes to restaurants, don’t miss Castropol which is on the Malecon, excellent food not significantly more expensive than other restaurants. Absolutely avoid eating in Chinatown because it’s Chinese food prepared in the Cuban way which turns out criminally bad.
Although the typical tourist thing; it’s ok to hire one of the guides / drivers of an old classic car for a few hours they are offering themselves everywhere so you won’t have any trouble with finding them. They can show or recommend you things that any familiar only to local people.