Traveling Cuba: Everything You Need to Know
Cuba had long been on my travel bucket-list for a-typical reasons. I was 17 when I first studied Cuba in my Advanced Placement U.S history class. I consider Cuba the United State’s biggest mistake and the biggest blow to the country’s ego. From botching the Bay of Pigs attack to forcing the country to turn to Russia for help (thus strengthening Castro’s resolve to become Communist) to being unable to take down Castro (though I have some theories as to why this didn’t work out), it was mistake after mistake for the US. Click here to read a brief history of US-Cuban relations. So I’ve been wanting to visit Cuba to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears what really goes on behind this invisible iron curtain. I say invisible because a typical tourist (especially those who don’t speak Spanish) gets absorbed into what I call the facade. The real Cuba lies just behind that facade and that’s exactly where I wanted to go. It’s impossible to write this blog without delving into politics, but I will try my best to split the blog so that those interested in just travel tips can read that section, and those interested in everything can read it all. I will start with the travel.
If you aren’t American, a lot of my suggestions won’t apply to you. I flew direct from Los Angeles using my US Passport and had zero problems in either direction. I purchased my visa beforehand and filled it out with the proper purpose of my trip and off I went!
I won’t lie, watching Europeans use their credit cards made me envious! Which leads me to the “what you should pack” list:
1. Cash, and lots of it. Cuba is NOT as cheap as I expected, mainly because Cubans raised their prices about 100% in anticipation of American tourists. Thanks to Trump’s recent announcement, I expect prices to fall again. If you compare the prices to our American ones, you will still think everything is reasonable. Our first night we got fooled into eating at a tourist famous place called “La Familia” and between the three meals (we invited our host out) and the drinks my cousin ordered, we ended up paying $100 C.U.Cs (roughly $100 american dollars). Comparable to home, but that one night was as expensive as the rest of my trip. We later found more realistic places- full meals for $3. All you have to do is move one or two streets away from the tourist traps, and the real prices (and tastier meals) await you. But back to the cash topic- since Americans can NOT use ATM machines or credit cards, take enough cash to cover emergency situations. Plan for $50/day. Currently the exchange rate is $0.90 to $1- for every one US dollar you get 90 Cuban cents. Euros are a stronger choice, so if you have any left over from European trips, take them with you. A very unexpected expense was for bathrooms! Leaving change for bathroom services isn’t a foreign concept for me, but I didn’t expect most bathrooms to be 1 CUC! The Cubans would tell you “leave what you want” but brace yourselves for bullshit. One guy tried leaving 10 cents and the bathroom lady angrily pointed to his 1 CUC and said “that one.” Sometimes they don’t care and will let you through, but other times they’ll be angry and give you very little toilet paper to use.
Let’s chat a second about currency. Cuba has two currencies: the convertible peso (CUC) and the moneda nacional (CUP). I’m going to try not to get political here, but the exchange rate between the two pesos is heart-breaking. 1 CUC= 24 pesos. Cuba will be much cheaper for you if you opt to exchange money into moneda nacional. Most of their food is 1 peso nacional…. that’s free in CUC because the conversion doesn’t exist. I didn’t exchange money to the moneda nacional because I didn’t mind paying the locals extra CUCs. However, I would ALWAYS ask “do you work for the state or is this private?” If they worked for the state I either didn’t buy from them at all or payed exactly what I had to if I had no other choice. I didn’t support communism before the trip and after the trip I’m even less tolerant. But I promised I wouldn’t get into politics in the travel section and I’m not keeping that promise, so let’s move on!
2. Fanny packs– buy a really good one that is nearly invisible on your body when you wear it. Cuba is “safe” only because the people fear government. I made friends with spaniards and they told me their buddy got mugged in Havana (they stole his phone and all of his cash). Use good judgement on where you go, and if you stay at a good Casa Particular you can leave your passport there (I did this only once…I’m a paranoid human being and trust no one with my documents). Keep the fanny packs hidden under your clothing and if you are a female, keep your purse close to your body. Don’t be obviously paranoid, but use good sense when traveling. Cubans are deprived of technology and they’re so heart-breakingly broke that they can’t help themselves to look at you with envy. The spaniard friend I mentioned earlier told me he made the mistake of taking out his Samsung Galaxy S7 in the restaurant and immediately everyone around him started commenting on his phone and how in Cuba it would sell for $1100 US dollars. I was conscious of the poverty and the worth of my cell phone, so I was careful where and how I used it. I usually placed my finger over the logo of my phone so the locals wouldn’t see it was a Samsung. Like I said, I’m a paranoid person, but I’d rather offend people than place myself in unsafe situations (more on THAT later).
3. Mosquito repellent. God bless mosquito repellent. If you’re like me, mosquitoes lust for your blood. I’m that person that constantly has mosquitoes circling around her while no one else has a single bite. I took a natural repellent and a deet based for emergency situations. I ALMOST made it bite free in Cuba… I made the mistake of going for a 2 mile run in Varadero and forgetting to spray my work out pants. I sprayed my entire body except my pants and I paid a heavy price. I counted 10 bites on each knee alone. My thighs welted thanks to the mosquito gang banging action, but I was smart enough to pack benedryl. On a side note, I should donate my blood to science so they can finally come up with the perfect mosquito repellent.
4. Sunblock– I used my entire bottle of sunblock while I was there. I come from olive-skin ancestors but packed 50 SPF anyway, so if you’re a white McWhite American, you better pack 70 SPF+ for the trip. The carribean sun is ruthless.
5. Small suitcase– Cuba is like Europe- elevators are non-existent. Cubans apparently love steep stairs. Whether it’s a Casa Particular or a restaurant, expect to be panting by the time you reach the top of the stairs. Cuba put Edinburgh, Scotland to shame 😀 Another reason to pack small is because large suitcases won’t fit all taxis (remember, the cars here are old school) and it will make traveling around more difficult for you.
Things to Know
- Internet: it’s practically non-existent. If you’re American, make sure your cell phone is on airplane mode the entire trip. Otherwise you’ll be slapped with a $3/mb fee. There are designated wi-fi areas in Cuba, mostly in the plazas or the fancy hotels (in Havana). You have to buy a wi-fi internet card for $1.50. Don’t buy them from Casa Particulares because they will try to sell them to you for $4! The internet cards look like this: Be careful when using the internet as it is obviously being screened by the government. Also, take note that some apps/websites won’t work (if you’re American). We tried to login to our AirBnB and we would get an error every time. I recommend buying 3-4 cards any one time since everything closes early. Admittedly, it was GREAT to be forced to disconnect from everything and everyone. Work e-mails were out of sight, out of mind and I was able to relax for the first time in years. When I finally returned to the States, I found it weird to have internet 24-7.
- EVERYTHING CLOSES EARLY: and I mean EARLY. We unfortunately kept arriving to new destinations at 5 or 6 PM, which is when almost everything was closed. Restaurants mostly close at 10pm. Plan accordingly. As in- pack snacks!!
- Restaurants: From the outside they will look like traditional restaurants, but they are really people’s homes. I used the bathroom at one of the locations and they walked me through the kitchen and it was one of the tiniest kitchen I’ve seen. Well, maybe not as small as the kitchens in Paris apartments, but REALLY small. Meals are made fresh and are home made, so expect delays. Meals will take anywhere between 30 minutes- 1 hour
- Markets: These are non-existent in the traditional sense. One of the biggest disappointments in this Communist world was the lack of fruits and vegetables for purchase. Havana was the only place I saw fruit for sale on the streets (probably to fulfill the tourist facade). I lamented this to one of our hosts in Varadero, whining how I expected to eat so many fruits on the road and how there weren’t even vegetables for sale at the grocery markets. She told me (brace yourself) that the fruit/vegetable trucks come every Saturday for the locals to purchase their needs for the week. I know I said I’d keep the political separate, but thinking of these people standing in line like Soviet Russians waiting for their share of food made me want to punch someone.
- Bathrooms: If you’ve grown up in a third world country, or visited one in your lifetime, then the bathrooms won’t be much of a shock. They took me back to Uruguay circa 1989. I’m an Environmental Engineer so it took me all of 2 seconds to realize the bathroom systems were all septic. This means absolutely no toilet paper goes into the toilets. DO NOT DO IT. They don’t have plungers and you don’t want to be stuck cleaning up your mess 😉 In some areas the bathrooms are so old that the bathroom ladies flush the toilets for you by dumping buckets of water (again, not a foreign concept for me, but if you’re high maintenance it may come as a shock). If you’re in the rural areas of Cuba (like the plantations), prepare to go SUPER old school and doing your business squatting over a hole. Don’t worry, all of the bathrooms in the Casa Particulares are SPOTLESS. Just don’t throw paper into the toilet. Don’t forget to pack that extra change to pay for bathroom services 🙂 I drink a lot of water and as a consequence I use the bathroom frequently. But I’m also a “thrifty” person and realized my camel-like tendencies were going to cost me quite a bit in Cuba, so I greatly reduced my water intake 😛
- Casa Particulares: All of the travel blogs I read about this before my trip suggested we use the casa particulares website to rent rooms. Don’t waste your time. I recommend booking the first two nights via AirBnB prior to your trip, but then just wing it. You can distinguish the Casa Particulares because they all have anchors on their doors. They are a dime a dozen and SO easy to find. We weren’t stressed once about finding housing. I will recommend the ones we stayed at in the next section. At taxi stops and bus terminals, there will be many people asking you if you need a Casa. TRY TO AVOID THESE PEOPLE. Some of them took us to super shady areas and we quickly bolted out of there. Before agreeing to staying anywhere, ask to see the house and use your judgement to decide whether it is safe or not. Casa Particulares range anywhere from $20-40/night. If you’re American and have a Gringo accent, expect to pay $40. I negotiated all of our places in Spanish and the most we paid was $30/night (and that was practically beach front). Casas are super clean for the guest. But brace yourselves for the beds- they were the most uncomfortable beds I have ever slept on. I once slept on the marble floor of the Frankfurt airport and that was more comfortable than these beds! All Casas have ACs and fans (which is super awesome) and they all provide you with sheets and bathroom towels. If you’re next to the beach they provide you with beach towels, too. So no need to pack towels! I didn’t use mine once! Some of the places leave you small shampoos and conditioners but I didn’t use theirs. They also provide you with toilet paper. Breakfast can be made for you for $5 CUC. Once you arrive, they will ask you for your passport and your signature. They are required by law to submit the information by next day to their version of Homeland Security. Note: they only accept cash
- Water: Remember I said I’m an Environmental Engineer? DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER. I REPEAT. DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER. Not even the locals drink the tap. We had packed a filter bottle, but even with that I didn’t trust the pipes in Cuba. The water comes out clear and odor free, but the pipes are old and the government comes by every 2 days to fill the water tanks for the cities (yep, saving this topic for the political section later on in this blog). Stick to bottled water. It’s not SO bad that you can’t brush your teeth with the tap water, but if you have a delicate digestive system, avoid even that. I train my body to deal with different countries (ie, I won’t always wash my fruits and vegetables to train my stomach to deal with contaminants, I’ll drink tap water unfiltered, etc) so I almost never deal with upset stomachs while on the road. The Casa Particular in Havana that I’ll mention in the next section has a water filter system in the kitchen. It was nice to have an abundance of water to drink.
- Taxi Particulares: This is the way to see Cuba. Use a LOT of good judgement though. Most people blindly trusted Cubans, but my trust radar wavered constantly with these men. When there’s hunger and poverty in a country, tourists need to be mindful and careful. Cell phone coverage is expensive thus unavailable (though I was always ready to turn off airplane mode in case of emergencies), and you are asking these men to drive you HOURS across empty highways. No one has GPS so you basically have to trust them to get you to your destination. The best thing to do is to make new friends with other travelers and split the cab rides. Negotiate prices as best you can. Typical prices are $20-25/person if you have at least four people in the car. We made friends for all of our cab rides and even made a pact with 2 Spaniards to meet at a specific time and place in each city in order to take the cab to our next destination. Note: taxis only take cash.
- Food: Someone had told me the food in Cuba wasn’t great. I can’t remember who it was, but if you’re reading this blog, thank you for mentally preparing me! I LOVE Cuban food. Cuban black beans were a big staple in my diet and fried plantains are the end of me. I was disappointed when I was warned the food wasn’t good, and then double disappointed when I realized he/she spoke the truth 🙁 I ate well twice: once in Trinidad (more on THAT in the next section…this place was orgasmically delicious. I literally moaned when I took a bite of the food. I take food pretty seriously, so if I say it’s delicious, I mean it!) and once in Varadero. The tourist trap areas will be expensive for food, but comparable to our own prices (which they shouldn’t be at all… remember I said Cuba raised prices in anticipation of American tourists). A plate of ropa vieja was $20 CUCs in most places. I couldn’t believe it! So I wandered over to the backstreets and ate ropa vieja with a salad, sides and flan for $4CUC. More expensive isn’t better. Stick to the hole in the walls. Btw, Cubans LOVE mayonnaise. They brought bread to the table and I grabbed one since I was starving (thanks to arriving to the towns during closing time, I was consuming about 500-700 calories per day), and lathered on what I thought was butter…but nope, it was mayo. Mayo is everywhere.
- Security: This section belongs in the political section, but it’s something you need to know. Cuba is like George Orwell’s 1984- Big Brother is watching you. I know all countries do this, but not as obvious as Cuba. There are cameras all over the city (was told several times by the locals). Cubans aren’t allowed to interact long with tourists. We were warned about this our first night (our host walked us all over Havana and told us) and were told police come to question the Cubans if caught with tourists. I saw this with my own eyes our last night in Havana. A couple of Cuban guys thought we were Cuban (it happened a lot) and we ended befriending them and talking for maybe 3 hours. They were black Cuban and there is still a very subtle form of racism in Cuba. It’s not obvious since there are many interracial couples, but it’s still there. The black Cubans are treated differently than the white. Anyway, they walked us to a place to eat, hung out with us, and on our walk back out a cop approached us and asked one of them for their documents. It was unbelievable. They let him go after a few minutes, but that moment solidified all of the information that was given to me by locals (I interviewed MANY Cubans during my stay and grilled them with innocent questions. Since they thought I was Uruguayan ( Aside from Casa Particulares, I didn’t tell a soul I was American) they let their thoughts flow freely). So is Cuba safe? I’m on the fence about this one. If you’re Cuban, without a doubt the streets are safe for you. Young kids roam safely without adult supervision. But if you’re a tourist you become an attraction for them. You’re something new, something different and potentially someone with money. I dunno, like I said, I’m on the fence about safety in Cuba. The men openly made comments to us about our beauty, and sometimes they were pretty sexual. Would I feel safe walking the streets at night alone? HELL NO. It’s also good to note that the tourists themselves are probably more of a threat than the locals. I was disgusted at how many drunk tourists I saw everywhere. I don’t drink, so viewing all of that completely sober made it more disgusting. If there’s a party scene in Cuba, it’s because the tourists try to recreate the Cuba of the 1950s, when Americans would go to Havana for a night of recklessness. The locals are too poor to afford anything besides basic necessities. Gah, I’m delving into politics again.
- Cigars: Don’t buy any from the streets. Most are made with banana leaves and not tobacco. Go support the tobacco farmers.
- The Cuban Minute: Cubans will always tell you “in a minute.” I thought Argentinians were bad (If you ask an Argentinian how far something is walking they will tell you “una cuadra” (one block) but in reality it was more like 5 or 6 cuadras). I was talking to a local bus driver, praising him on being punctual, and another local turned to me and said (obviously in Spanish), “normally a cuban minute is-” and we finished this sentence together “One Hour.” No joke… you will wait a LONG TIME for that Cuban minute. I would always ask “so is this a real minute or the Cuban minute?”
- Cubans: Cubans are a charming people and very educated. I had great conversations covering several topics and it felt awesome. I felt right at home with them- they’re loud, funny and blunt as all hell. When I say loud, I mean LOUD. My favorite memory was sleeping at one casa. Our room was separate from the house and this house had a beautiful garden. Around 7 am we heard gardeners rustling around the garden and then the house owner came out and bellowed ” LUISSSS! Quere’ cafe?????” I guess Luis didn’t hear her high decibel question so she repeated it two or three times. Two minutes later I heard her walk over to our area and say my cousin’s name loudly “CLAUDIA?!?!? I just realized you might be asleep! Am I waking you?” I burst out laughing and yelled back “if we WERE asleep before you asked Luis for coffee, we’re wide awake now.” Cubans are fun to talk with. I pity those who don’t speak Spanish. Anyway, when I first arrived I noticed most of the women had resting bitch faces and at first judged them. After 9 days in Cuba constantly being accosted by the Cuban men, I finally understood them and mastered my own resting bitch face. This picture summarize my Cuban experience. All I wanted was to enjoy a quiet sunset by myself, but per usual, men surrounded me like mosquitoes I couldn’t repel:We were driving, by the way. Where is he looking?!?!?!? Definitely not the road.
Ladies, if flings are your thing, Cuba is ready for you. They’re most definitely not my thing so the attention annoyed the crap out of me (though I never complained about the eye candy). Sometimes the men were super charming and their romantic antics humored me (example: our horse riding guide was charmed by me. He discovered I loved guava so he rode off into the distance like they do in romance novels and came back bearing freshly picked guavas and flowers haha!) Other times they deserved a punch to the face. Man, the day Cuba has internet and Tinder is discovered, the Cuban population is going to triplicate. One interesting fact is that divorce rates are super high in Cuba, much higher than the States. It is not uncommon to find single parents (of both sexes) or people who have been married 2 or 3 times. It surprised me, honestly. What else surprised me was the number of AMAZING eyes. I mean AMAZING. The Spaniard I mentioned above is gay and he and I drooled over the eyes together. Cuban eyes can melt even the coldest of hearts. My biggest regret was not photographing them and creating a Cuban Eyes series. I saw an older lady, probably in her 80s, with piercing blue eyes that put those death walker frozen things in Game of Thrones to shame.
- Poverty: Cuba lands in my “heart breaking” travel list alongside India. The poverty isn’t as bad as India, but it’s awful. I made a comment once saying “the one good thing about communism is that you don’t see poor people in the streets (aka homeless).” The local turned to me and said “you’re right. They are all inside the homes.” The locals make $25 A MONTH! A MONTH!!!!!!!!!!!!! Taxi drivers earn more than medical doctors. Ugh. I heard the locals needed supplies so I packed some. I ended up giving some to a pregnant lady and the rest to our taxi driver Alexei since he was a single dad. I’d encourage everyone to take supplies, but after I traveled Cuba I came back with the “f-that” attitude. The Cuban government needs to stand up and take care of its people instead of relying on tourists to do it for them. Taking supplies is the equivalent of enabling a heroine addict. We are enabling the government to continue sucking the life out of its people. I have a Mother Theresa gene in me and I want to help the world, but sometimes you have to realize that the best help is not doing anything at all and forcing them to create their own change.
- Airport: Be there 4 hours before your flight. They are very unorganized. Expect to pay $25CUCs for a taxi ride from Havana. Some people mentioned paying airport exit taxes, but I didn’t have to. Buy some sandwiches (from Laurita (see Havana section below) since the airport doesn’t have much for food. No outlets to charge your electronics either.
- Weather: June is the wettest month of the year (yay me). We had many thunderstorms!
Places to See
My original itinerary was as follows: Havana (half day), Trinidad (3 nights to be used as a base for day trips), Pinar del Rio (2 nights), Viñales (2 nights) and back to Havana for one night. What we ended up doing thanks to the rains was: Havana (half day), Trinidad (2 nights), Varadero (2 nights), Viñales (2 nights) and Havana (2 nights). I really didn’t want to spend much time in Havana at all. I had searched images on the internet and it reminded me of Montevideo, Uruguay- a place I have visited more times I would like to admit. Thanks to the rains, I was forced to spend that extra day in Havana, and it was everything I knew it would be (more on that below).
We pre-purchased our bus ride to Trinidad from the US using the Viazul website. All travel blogs will recommend Viazul. The buses themselves are great- you have air conditioning, comfortable seats and the drivers drive well.(The drivers love to chat, so if talking is your thing (in case you missed it by the length of the blog, it’s definitely my thing), spark up conversation with them). What they don’t tell you is that Viazul terminals are all located far from your destination (which will require taxi rides) and the terminals themselves are pretty shady/ghetto. Arrive at least 1 hour before your trip. That’s when they start checking you in and they’re pretty strict with the time. Don’t forget about that Cuban minute!
We only used Viazul twice- to Trinidad and then to Santa Clara. We took Taxi Particulares everywhere else. The best part of taking the 4 hours bus from Havana to Trinidad was being able to observe all of the cities en route. Bay of Pigs was a HUGE must do for me, but as we drove past it (and the water was as dreamy as expected) I decided the towns were too quiet and sleepy for me to spend a full day there.
With each city we stopped at, we changed our itinerary. Cienfuegos was a big city and the must-sees were architectural (which didn’t interest us), so we nixed that from our itinerary, too. This gave us more time in Trinidad, which was the best decision EVER.
Oh, Trinidad. I didn’t expect to love this city stuck in the 1500s. As I mentioned above, Viazul drops you off in the “bad” parts of town. When the bus pulled into the terminal, I wondered if we made a wise decision to spend so many days here. But then we met Alexei (who looked nothing like an Alexei), our “taxi” driver, and as we wobbled across the little pueblo, I slowly started falling for its charm and magic. Watch our taxi ride:
Far from Havana and its stringent government, the people of Trinidad were full of life. There were more black Cubans than white in this town and we were able to experience the Creole version of Cuba. We stayed in a Casa Particular situated next to the smaller plaza. When we first booked Manuel’s Casa (Casa Familiar Escobar: 178 Calle Jesus Maria Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus Cuba. +5352929028) we thought we’d have access to internet since that’s what his AirBnB stated. What that MEANT (and was a tad misleading) is that his place was CLOSE to the wifi plaza. So no, don’t expect any internet at any Casa Particular for a while. I loved where we were located and Manuel was pretty awesome. He lives with his grandfather and girlfriend and everyone is super nice and sociable.
Places to eat/drink:
- La Botija: Go there and stay there forever and ever and ever. It’s 24 hours and we discovered it on our last night *insert crying face here* The food is AH MAY ZING. This is the place I literally moaned when I bit into the La Botija pizza. YEE-ZUZ. The flavors were a party in my mouth. The second runner up on amazing food were the stuffed plantains (definitely planning on making those at home). Imagine plantain rounds stuffed with ham, cheese and chorizo. You had me at chorizo. We shared the table with a couple of Brits (who we befriended because I photographed them the night before and they happened to stand in line behind us) and I had some of their food, too. You really couldn’t go wrong at this place! There’s also some weird sounding alcoholic drink that’s supposed to knock the sobriety right out of you. Can’t tell you what it tastes like since I don’t drink, but apparently it’s the thing to drink.
- Cafe Pepe: This is a cute local cafe with delicious coffee and tasty sandwich de jamon y queso (this was my staple diet in cuba to keep my costs down). Watch your head since mangoes fall from the sky. Make sure to pocket those because they’re delicious!
It’s pretty obvious where the nightlife is. There’s a Casa de Musica with live music (if it isn’t raining) or DJs. If you go too early, there is an entry fee. Be patient and go later 🙂 The cave is also a popular spot but we avoided going because it’s a long, dark road to walk and it was filled with drunk tourists so safety trumped any cool nightlife in a cave. I later heard that there are a lot of robberies in the cave (blame the tourists, not the locals)
Trinidad is full of life. There’s tons of music everywhere. The people are poor but SO happy. Roam the streets but prepare yourself for women asking for clothes, powdered milk and diapers. No one asks you for money. Just basic necessities in life.
Prepare to negotiate. Also, be careful not to piss off any taxi drivers. I turned down one guy because he was too expensive (Manuel warned me that anything above X amount was too expensive) and he CURSED me. He said “may the rain clouds follow you everywhere you go.” I take curses seriously, so I looked at him and told him “you are a mean, mean man.” He tried to shrug it off as a joke saying it’s a Cuban thing to curse, so I threw a curse right back at him and told him “I hope a flea bites you in your private parts” (I was a bit more graphic but I’m trying to keep a decent image for my fans haha). The rain clouds DID indeed follow me (within an hour I was caught in awful thunderstorms at the beach), so I hope a flea bit him where it hurts.
Places to Go:
The rain really put a damper on our plans. I was going to hike the waterfalls and do a bunch of day trips from Trinidad, but the torrential downpours didn’t allow it to happen. One on sunny day we went to Playa Ancon. It is supposedly the hot spot in that part of town. Tourist agencies will sell you Cayo Blanco nearby. If you’ve been to Tulum, Mexico (still my favorite beach in the world), then the Cayos aren’t going to be worth your time. If you happen to be in Cuba during normal weather, I don’t even think the Cayo’s are necessary unless you want to be super touristy. Anyway, these pictures sum up Play Ancon:
One sentence. Just no. LOL! Santa Clara is where the Ernesto Che Guevara museum is. I’m Uruguayan Armenian so naturally I grew up hearing a lot about El Che. I felt like I would regret not going to see the museum. We checked out the Che statues from the outside but didn’t enter the museum since we had to leave all bags at the counter and my paranoid self said NOPE!!! You only need 1 hour in Santa Clara to see what you have to see and GTFO. Santa Clara is VERY poor and getting a taxi particular proved to be difficult since we arrived on a Sunday AND it was Father’s Day. We first dealt with some guys outside of the Viazul terminal but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that “something bad is going to happen” so we (made other Spaniard friends to share a cab) walked away from that situation, took a 1 CUC horse ride to a different terminal and negotiated until we found someone willing to drive us to Varadero (about 4 hours away). We rode in a 1955 Chevy.
We weren’t going to visit Varadero because it is SUPER touristy. This is where you find all-inclusive hotels and all of the tourists in the world. We traveled during down season so the town was empty. It took us less than 10 minutes to find a Casa Particular. I HIGHLY recommend Fara’s House (located on Ave 1 and 18th St). It’s 3 generations of Fara’s. The oldest and I bonded immediately (she’s the one who asked Luis if he wanted coffee). The house is one street away from the beach. All of the taxis knew Fara. If you’re lucky enough to try her coffee (she made me some for free), then you’re in for a treat. Thanks to her we also got an awesome Casa Particular in Havana (see more in the Havana section).
Places to Eat/Drink: ONE PLACE ONLY. Again discovered on our last night, save all of your money and go eat at Super Matchi (located on 15th street and Ave 1). It’s located right behind the grocery mart. It’s literally a bbq stand. I got this dish here with fresh mango juice for $1.90 CUCs.
The Taxis: Negotiate to your heart’s content. I think I became a formidable foe for these cab drivers haha! Make note that Varadero drivers are lazy and won’t drive past Havana. So plan to make a pit stop in Havana and to switch to a different taxi. Have them coordinate that for you.
Viñales is GORGEOUS! As we drove into it, I imagined dinosaurs living there. All it was missing were waterfalls cascading down the mountains. This was a cool place to be, but you have to be mentally prepared to do nothing. It’s a farming area. Imagine Napa Valley but with more things to do other than just drink wine. We did all of Viñales in a day: horseback riding, walking 3 miles, going to Cueva de Indios (save your 5 CUCs…not worth it at all) to taking the city bus all around and seeing the Mural Pre-Historico. The Casa Particulares will try to sell you horseback riding sessions at $5CUC/hour (which is what we paid), but you can hustle on the streets and find it for $3CUC/hour. There are no horseback riding lessons, so keep your inner thighs firm on that horse because they take you on some steep terrain. One thing that was completely unexpected on this trip was the amount of Mexican music I would be hearing. In Viñales they particularly love rancheros!!!!!!!!! I “ay ay ayeeeeed” a couple of times because, why not?
Eat anywhere you want. Move over one street behind the popular avenue and you can eat Ropa Vieja for $3CUC.
Havana and I had a strong love-hate relationship. We were like abusive lovers fighting one day and murmuring sweet nothing’s the next day. We separated like any bad relationship – happy it’s over but savoring the few happy memories we had together. Based off what I saw on the internet before going there and after my experience, I would say a half day (one day max) is more than enough time for Havana. This is a huge tourist trap. If you need to buy stuff, buy it while you’re out traveling other cities. Expect to pay triple here. You get accosted by everyone: taxi drivers, restaurant staff, men on the street, souvenir sellers, etc etc etc! Havana EXHAUSTED me. The Malecon is nice to enjoy magical sunsets, and Havana has a lot of nice parks and good history. But I disliked more than I liked Havana. The city bus tour (the double decker) was a waste of time and money. All you see in Havana is poverty and more poverty. The biggest joke was seeing a sign above desegregated buildings saying “Socialism is Constructing.” I’m in the minority with this opinion of Havana, but I’ve traveled a lot of the world and seen enough third world countries to know where it sits in my list. The food sucks, the drinks are overrated. If you want great food and coffee, visit Laura on Aguacate and Juan de Dios (she’s #111). I bought 6 ham and cheese sandwiches, 2 coffee, 2 lemonades and a bottle of water for $4CUCs. Tell her the Uruguaya sent you (you can say Shantal). If she doesn’t remember my name or country, tell her “the girl who bought 6 sandwiches for her plane ride home). There’s no way she’ll forget that 🙂
Casa Particular: Stay with Yanin. She’s #109 Aguacate near Juan de Dios. She’s well situated in Havana Viejo and the best part is she never bothers you. Brace yourself as she has very steep steps and tiny spiral steps. I told her she needs to have a sign below that says “caution: if you’re overweight you might get stuck on my stairs.” The second best part is that she has filtered water in her home, so you can fill your bottles for free.
- Malecon: catch it during sunset and stay there until 9 PM. Every night they release a canon for traditional reasons. If you want, you can pay $10 CUCs to go across the water and see the ceremony. We didn’t.
- Playa del Este: this is a secret little beach 30 minutes away from Havana. Go to the plaza in front of Hotel Inglaterra and stand in line for the Transtour Bus. It’s $5CUC roundtrip for the beach. Get off at the last stop if you don’t want too many tourists around you.
Best moment in Havana: being serenaded my favorite song as I watched the sunset.
Verdict: Cuba was charming and it definitely had some amazing landscapes. However, the communism killed it for me. I can’t handle the poverty and the oppression. I also rate countries depending on how much I enjoyed the food, so Cuba lost many points there as well. Would I go back? Probably not. At least not while it is communist/socialist. I’d rather go back to Tulum (read about my Yucatan Peninsula trip here )
- Majority of Cubans make $25 DOLLARS A MONTH.
- The government takes 90% of the tobacco farm’s tobacco, thus leaving the farms to survive off 10%. They work their assess off, the government free loads
- Taxi’s pay $30/month to rent their cars, 10% taxes on gasoline, and pay the government 10% of their profits. The 10% profit is doubled during holidays. There was one more 10% charge but I don’t remember what it was for.
- There are spies everywhere. I was warned more than once to be careful with my fat mouth. They hang out, listening into conversations.
- Internet is controlled. Cubans are not allowed to have internet on their cellphones. They pay the same as tourists for internet cards
- Water is controlled. The government fills the tanks every 2 days (if you’re lucky)
- If you tell Cubans they are communist, they will get angry. They are socialists.
- There is socialist propaganda everywhere. I started making fun of it with my best impersonation of Che, and I have to admit they were pretty catchy. One of the signs said “if the production matters, then it isn’t socialism.” “Revolution means Unity” There are posters everywhere of Fidel, supposedly saving Cuba instead of throwing it deeper into shit and poverty
- There are signs of a hangman’s noose saying “the embargo: the longest running genocide in human history.” Now THIS really pissed me off. GENOCIDE? Bitch, let me tell you about genocide. It’s because of the annihilation of MY people that the term genocide was coined in the first place (read more about the Armenian Genocide here)
- 95% of the population doesn’t know it’s own island because they’re too poor to travel. Don’t expect good recommendations for food or travel from the locals because they’re too poor to know. How can you live somewhere and not know a city other than the one you live in?!?!??! Stupid communism.
I can’t believe this Cuba is better than when it was under Batista control. Sure, they had to deal with American mafia. But back then there were rich and poor Cubans. Now everyone is just poor. I spoke to one person for over 2 hours about Cuba. He told me how Trump’s news was a blow for the country and how they’re expecting a US president to restore good relations so their economy could improve. I am sick and tired of countries depending on the States to help them get out of their situation. We can’t save everyone and a lot of these governments are corrupt and lazy and freeloaders. Anyway, I told the cab driver “it’s your loved Fidel who kicked out Americans and now you want them back. You have plenty of friends in Central and South America and Europe. Why not turn to them?” The response? “They’re all poor. If you have poor friends, you stay poor.” This pissed me off for reasons too lengthy to write out here.
Cubans are aware of the shitty situation they’re in. They KNOW the government is screwing them left and right but they do NOTHING out of fear. I kept telling them to protest, have strikes, to create ripples in the city so the government knows its people are upset instead of standing around like sheep stuck in groundhog’s day circa 1955. Everyone wants change but no one is willing to do ANYTHING. They are all waiting for Raul to step down in 2018 to be succeeded by what? A better communist? They have a one party system. Cuba needs to wake the F up. I wasn’t expecting a relaxing vacation but I definitely wasn’t expecting coming back wanting a revolution. That’s exactly what that country needs. I highly doubt this was the vision Che had for Cuba. Fidel destroyed the country and kept its people at a poverty level that is shameful.He’s that guy who did one thing right in life (eliminate a dictatorship) but then did everything else wrong and constantly brags about the one thing he did right (all of the posters of him around Cuba made me want to vomit).
Before I left to Cuba, I criticized the USA’s stance on the embargo. Now I fully support it. The communist government should not be supported. Now, if we could extend this wisdom to other piece of crap governments like Saudi Arabia, TURKEY, and a few others, I’d be more proud of our government.
So if you want to see Cuba, go. No one will stop you. Will you see what I saw? Maybe, maybe not. I asked a lot of questions and I made a lot of conversations and learned about everything you read. Can you go to Cuba for the beaches and rum and not experience anything negative? I’m sure you could! But for now, I won’t tell anyone they must visit Cuba. It’s beautiful, but it is broken and needs work. That work shouldn’t come from the outside. The people are intelligent and educated. There’s potential. The government needs to change.
Hasta siempre, Cuba!