The uncertainty about travel to Cuba for Americans (is it allowed, not allowed maybe allowed?) made it a top priority on our travel wish list for fear that soon we won’t be able to go there at all. So as soon as we saw an opening in our schedule I rushed to get the tickets.
Cuba – some people love it, some people hate it, but you cannot stay indifferent. We absolutely loved it notwithstanding dilapidated crumpling buildings, food rations and communist bureaucracy within governmental institutions such as money exchanges and postal services.
On the positive side, the constant music, beautiful architecture, gorgeous plazas, friendly people, good food, low prices and non- stop dancing outweigh the negatives in such a way that I dream of going back to immerse myself in Spanish and Salsa lessons for several weeks.
Overall traveling to Cuba turned out to be much easier than expected. If you search Expedia for flights and/or hotels to Cuba, there are none. But, there are direct flights from JFK to Havana on Jet Blue and Delta on their respective sites at an amazingly low price of $312 R/T. However, you need to indicate the reason for travel. While most categories as cultural exchange or medical assistance require being in a group and numerous supporting documents, there is one category of Providing Support to Cuban people that allows individual travel without any documentation at all. Support for Cuban People only requires you to spend money directly on people and not on government held institutions, meaning, stay in private houses-casas particular, eat in private restaurants, take private transportation, etc. I was told to keep a diary in case I am asked on the way back, on the US side, but it didn’t happen. Nobody asked me anything, but I am glad I kept a diary to help me to write this.
It is very important to remember that US credit and ATM cards do not work there. We knew that before we went but some poor souls were left stranded without cash. Also, the US Dollar gets the worst exchange rate. It’s about 95 CUCs to a dollar LESS 10% commission. I had few Euros and the best exchange I got was actually in the airport. Non- European currencies such as Japanese Yen get the best rates.
The only thing I could charge on my card was bookings thru Airbnb. Each casa I booked had AC and hot water, but sometimes the water was not very hot and sometimes the water pressure was not great. We spent between $20 to $50 per night for 3 people. The accommodations ranged between 2 beds in one room to a two bedroom apartment always with a private bathroom en- suit and all are very clean. You can obviously negotiate better lodging rates with casas particular for cash but we preferred to secure accommodations before we go to the next destination because of lack of internet. Which brings me to the internet issue: Get ready not to have it. Feels very strange at the beginning but also it is such a relief not to be constantly connected. The only way to get online is to buy an internet card. The official rate is 1 CUC per hour in the post office, but you can also get it for 2 CUCs on a street. All main squares of each town and some nice hotels have WI FI and you can log in using that internet card. We tried to connect once a day to book accommodations and to check messages.
CUC is the Cuban currency for foreigners. Locals have no access for CUCs unless they deal with foreigners. They use CUPs. All the prices in restaurants and hotels are in CUCs.
As a way to travel between towns we took “collectivos”, shared rides. Usually they don’t have AC and are packed but still fun and a good way to meet other travelers. Casas’ owners can arrange them for you or it’s possible to approach them yourselves at taxi stands and to negotiate a better price which we did on several occasions.
Three nights in Havana
We were lucky enough to be met at the airport by a friend of a friend who took us to our first casa, which I pre-booked thru Airbnb, Casa Hugo. It was a very central location in Old Havana, for about $50/night for 3 people. Hugo speaks English, gave us some good advice and arranged for a collectivo to our next destination. He was very responsive to some water problems we had but some issues were beyond his control and we understood that without complaining. We took three free walking tours: Havana at night, Historical and Revolutionary. Some were better than others but nevertheless all interesting and informative.
There is a difference of opinions regarding whether to stay in Old Havana or in Vedado. In my opinion it should be Old Havana, hands down. Old Havana is so charming that you can just wander its narrow cobble streets aimlessly for hours. There is constant music pouring out of every bar and restaurant in town, however, nightlife in Old Havana ends around 11 pm but there are plenty of taxis to go anywhere if needed.
Places we visited:
Food: Café Espada, La Vitrola and Chacon 162 for breakfast, Lamparilla for tapas and cocktails, Esquina, 360, located on Ave. Brazil 360, for seafood.
Places of interest: Fusterlandia, Cabaret Parisien at the National hotel, Ingletera hotel roof top club, La Fabrica for late night entertainment
Bars: Mas Havana and many more which names I do not remember and of course bars frequented by Ernest Hemingway: – La Floridita and La Bodega del Medio where drinks are obviously more expensive. Most bars have a happy hour with music. Usually drinks are about 3 CUCs and its half price for happy hour. Needless to say our group had so many Mojitos that we came to call our trip “an Unlimited Mojito Trip”
Two nights in Vinales
Took a collectivo arranged for us by Hugo (20 CUCs pp), about 3 hour drive and arrived to Vinales shortly after noon. We stayed at Casa Cara, which unfortunately was our least favorite. We had some difficulty communicating with the owners who spoke very little English and felt very pressured to book tours with them. We actually did one immediately upon arrival which turned out to be a total rip-off. We were accompanied by a local guy to a tobacco and coffee farms, heard their sales pitch and had to pay the guy another 60CUCs on top of it. The owner told us its 5CUCs pp, which turned out to be 5CUCs per person PER HOUR!! We did enjoy the cigar place and ended up buying some cigars but we definitely didn’t need to pay for getting there and for a person to sit and wait while we smoke and drink.
The next day we were much smarter and bargained a local taxi to take us around privately to places that our host and other tour agencies around town were peddling, for a fraction of the price. We paid 30 CUCs for half a day and visited all the sites including 2 major caves: Caverna de Santo Tomas and Cueva del Indio, memorial Los Malagones, the mural de la Prehistoria and finished with lunch at Balcon Del Valle, a place not to be missed. It has a simple cheap menu, the food is amazing and the views are breathtaking. As a funny bit, I had a little altercation with the restaurant’s chicken…She had many cute little chicks and I picked one thinking it will make a good photo, but I guess the mama chicken instincts kicked in, she attacked me from the air and chased me around the yard to the sounds of loud laughter of my friends and other diners. The rest of the time the mama chicken kept looking at me angrily… and I was seriously concerned for my safety. After lunch we walked to Hotel Jimenez recommended for its views, totally overrated. Our restaurant had the same views less tour bus crowd.
Vinales is well developed thanks to many tourists, the casas are in good shape and it’s obvious that a lot of money went into their remodeling and upgrading. The main street is full of restaurants and bars with live music and constant happy hours and the best part, there is a daily show and dancing in an outdoor club adjacent to the main square till very late. The entrance fee is a laughable 1CUC.
The best food is definitely in Tres Jotas whose seafood soup is still fondly remembered by our group. We also ate in the recommended El Barrio, which was decent but not as good as Tres Jotas.
Every book and blog I read recommended eating breakfast at the casa of your stay. We tried that the first morning in our casa, but the breakfast was bland and unremarkable. The next morning we had a much better breakfast in one of the restaurants in town for half price.
However, the owner of our casa did come thru in organizing a collectivo for us to Trinidad (40 CUC pp), and we are grateful for that.
Two nights in Trinidad
The transfer to Trinidad was the most difficult of the trip and took about 7 hours. After couple of hours the collectivos from different locations meet at a certain gas station and switch, reshuffle and regroup their passengers according to their destination. Those are ingeniously executed logistics taking into account that none of the drivers have internet and some of the bookings were done at the last minute. Notwithstanding, everybody had a spot in a car. It also made moot my bf’s insistence on having a collectivo with an AC for which he agreed to pay more. Our first one did have an AC as promised but not the second one in which we rode the remaining 5 hours.
We arrived to our Casa Marciella in mid-afternoon. The casa was very nice and centrally located, about 2 mins walk from the main square; we occupied the second floor of a private house; Marciella spoke English which made it easy to communicate.
At first Trinidad didn’t look very good, it actually reminded me of the Mexican town in Desperado, but as we walked around and got familiar with it, it became my favorite in Cuba. It’s extremely charming, the architecture is beautiful and it seems to have the most entertainment places per square foot.
For dinner, we ate a fabulous freshly roasted pig in a restaurant just of the main square. Had many (many!!) drinks at some roof top bar with live music and internet. At which point we all stopped talking and attacked the internet like water in the desert (sad). Around midnight we moved to the central square for show and dancing.
The next morning we took a free walking tour of the town. The guide was not particularly qualified (an ex waiter) but we got to see the entire town. The weather became unbearably hot so we took a taxi to the beach, Playa Ancon, which is on the Caribbean side of the island. We did manage to take a short swim in very warm water but very soon a tropical rain began.
Since there was nothing more to do on the beach because of the rain we moved to a local seafood restaurant, Grill Caribe. The seafood was very good and lots of wine with it even better. The rain was getting stronger so we decided to have a massage back in town (1 hour 16 CUCs) after which I needed to sleep badly.
We woke up at midnight to the loud sounds of club and salsa music. It was difficult but we tore ourselves from bed and went to a nearby club where several groups of tourists were practicing their salsa with their dance instructors. This is what gave me an idea that I must come here to study Spanish and salsa. It’s an ideal place to do both.
One interesting bit about Trinidad is that most of the cafes don’t have coffee…for example the famous Café don Pepe. Therefore I recommend Dulcinea, good cheap pastries and coffee.
One night in Santa Clara
The day before, our friend Rena, lost her phone. We don’t know if it was lost or stolen, and kind of hoping it was lost since we don’t want to get disappointed in the local people…Anyhow, everybody told her that she must go to the police station because if anybody found it, this is where they would bring it.
This was a very long shot but we made our collectivo stop at police station (the driver was not happy) and had our Cuban police experience which was hilarious. First, we struggled to explain what we want which was just to ask if anybody turned the phone in. Then the very indifferent officer told us to sit and wait and ignored our simple question whether anybody brought in a phone. After about 10 minutes another very indifferent officer appeared who we assumed was the lost and found specialist. The funny thing was that when we told him a phone was lost he asked in which city…why we would go to Trinidad’s station if we lost it somewhere else. Anyway after a very long and difficult discussion, due to a language barrier, it became obvious that we are wasting time. He also said that if the phone is found he will call our casa, but failed to write down its name or the phone number…
The ride to Santa Clara is a short two hour drive. Again, our casa Hostel Monteagudo was in the very center of town around the corner of the main square. Our host Rene was fabulous, helpful and got us a good bargain for the transfer to Varadero the next day.
Since we only had half a day I Santa Clara we couldn’t waste any time and began exploring the town right away. Overall, Santa Clara is all about Che Guevara and the revolution. Apparently the revolution was won on December 29, 1958 when Che and a small group of fighters derailed an armored train with Batista regime solders in Santa Clara. The monuments to see there are: Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, commemorating this even, plus 2 Che Guevara monuments, one modest one with a small child on his shoulder and a huge Soviet style mausoleum on the outskirts of the city. A must see is a Café Museo Revolution, a small museum/coffee shop with an amazing collection of revolutionary memorabilia, photographs and other antiques. The central square is the focal point of night life activities with live concerts and dancing at night.
For dinner we ate at Florida Center (reservations are a must) in a beautiful courtyard with live music and a good selection of seafood and… you guessed it many mojitos. We also spend sometime in the famous Club Mejunje, the first openly LGBTQ place in all Cuba. Early in the day when we walked in we took some pics and were greeted very friendly by one of the event organizers, but when we came in at night we were a little taken aback because they demanded a quiet high entrance fee but later when we watched the people going in it seemed like we were the only ones who paid and it left an unpleasant feeling of being ripped off. Frankly we didn’t really like the music either and left shortly after arrival. After some searching we found a cool place to dance, Santa Rosalia, a nice colonial atmospheric building and danced salsa with the locals until the place closed.
Two nights in Varadero beach
After an intense trip I always like to spend some time on the beach, so we decided to spend the last two days on Varadero. Frankly, this was the least authentic or exciting part of the trip and I wouldn’t recommend Cuba as a beach destination. Nevertheless, we had a great time doing nothing in warm weather after the freezing New York winter.
Varadero has two parts: one is a very long stretch of hotels, Zona Hoteliera, just like in Cancun and there are very few entertainment facilities since those are all inclusive hotels. The other part is Varadero town where all the casas are and where people who don’t want all-inclusive stay. There is no really a clear center in Varadero town either but most restaurants and bars are somewhere between 55th and 62nd streets. Our casa was on 52nd and it was a good location considering that everything is very spread out. There was an organized beach right at the end of our street, about and one and a half blocks away. Our host Oswaldo spoke perfect English, was very helpful and the place was very clean. The bathroom and the water pressure were perfect.
As soon as we got settled in we ran to the beach. It was a regular organized beach with chairs to rent under built-in palapas. It was very packed since this was a Sunday and people were drinking eating and listening to loud music. What was different was that the lifeguard also doubled as the beach bartender and by the time we arrived early in the afternoon he was completely smashed. And when he went to the bar to fulfill the drink orders the beach was left unattended. Therefore, it is not a good idea to drown in Cuba especially on a Sunday. ..
Anyway we were very much amused by the scene and stayed on until it became chilly. In the evening we went to the only two places of interest: The Beatles and Café 62. The Beatles play rock music nightly and we absolutely loved it and came back the next day. Lots of people from the all-inclusives go to Beatles as well probably because they must be really bored in their hotels. The other place of interest is Café 62 where they play local music but it’s not exactly salsa its more Latin club music and I liked it less but we kept going from one place to another several times a night. Café 62 has food and we even had breakfast there our last day. They also have an amazing BBQ chicken.
On the second day in the afternoon we took the double decker open top hop-on hop- off tourist bus which you can ride for 5 CUCs all day along the main Varadero road and rode it all the way to the end of the peninsula and back. There are two things we learned: First is that we did the right thing that we stayed in town and not in the hotel: the hotel zone seemed boring and the commute to town is long and expensive and the second thing that we learned is that when you seat on the upper level and the bus drives very fast it’s a great way to dry your hair…my friend Rena and I have extremely curly hair that dries forever, but while on this ride it dried really fast in a very nice style. So next time we have a special occasion we may take a similar bus in New York City and ride around…definitely beats expensive hair stylist…
On our last morning in Varadero, we managed to sneak in to a nice hotel in town, Quattro Palmas, and used their beach and the bar until it was time to go back to Havana.
One last night in Havana
Our last casa, Casa Roberto, was an amazing two-story two bedroom apartment with the highest ceiling I ever seen. We also had a balcony overlooking the very central O’Reilly Street. It was exciting to come back to Havana and we felt like we came back home.
Without any particular plans we had a nice dinner by the Cathedral Square in one of the restaurants on Callejon de Chorro, also known as restaurant lane. All the restaurants there have pretty much the same food and similar prices just beware of some unexpected “extra charges” on your bill. Then, we wandered around town catching some live music. At this point we had just enough money for breakfast and taxi to the airport the next day so we decided to call it for the night around midnight. However, on the way back to our apartment we were dragged into a private party by a group of very young guys who were celebrating their aunt’s birthday. This was absolutely awesome. The family invited all the relatives and neighbors and everybody was dancing and welcoming us to their home and introducing themselves to us. They were very excited that we are from America even though nobody spoke any English. We definitely got a taste of how welcoming and open the people in Cuba are and were really sorry that we didn’t have any gifts to give them.
The next morning we spend out last couple of hours before the flight home strolling the streets again saying goodbye to this wonderful country.