Published: December 26th 2011June 21st 2011
I arrived to Cuba once again with little or no idea of where I was staying or even where in Cuba I was gonna go and how long I would stay in each place. In fact, all I knew of Cuba was the information I’d managed to retain from reading another backpacker’s Lonely Planet Cuba guide for a couple of hours on the eve of the flight. I never meant to go so ill-prepared and I’d always planned to read up a bit more, but what with all the beaches to lie on and the jacuzzis to soak in I just hadn’t found the time. One thing I had found out was that it’s a hefty $25 USD taxi ride from the airport to downtown Habana. I made big efforts to save some money and come in every day under budget during my stays in Belize and Mexico with the basic aim of having good money for Cuba and to be able to get the most out of the experience. That said, $25 seemed a little steep for a lone traveler so as always I kept my eyes open for any other travelers heading to the city centre in order to
share the taxi and I was fortunate to meet a couple of other backpackers, Steve from Belgium and Enrique from Madrid!
Steve was clearly the most intelligent being the only one of us who had already booked and confirmed a place to stay in the supposedly cool, hip and once mafia-run district of Vedado just to the west of downtown Habana. We went to the place he had reserved in the hope that there were a couple of extra and available beds but upon arrival we were told that there wasn’t any more space. However, it seems to be the case not only in Habana but Cuba in general that if one place is full, there’s an extremely high probability that the owners know someone with space or someone who knows someone etc etc.
One slightly bizarre thing about Cuba is that youth hostels don’t really exist, or at least not in the same sense as other parts of the world. Essentially in Cuba you stay in people’s houses, “Casas Particulares”, in spare bedrooms or perhaps a part of the same house that’s been separated from the rest for guest use. Sure enough, Enrique
and I were guided to another house just on the corner of the same road and it turned out to be probably the biggest slice of luck I got during my five month trip. We would go on to spend the next eight nights staying with the insanely friendly and welcoming family of Haymee and Jorge (other travelers can see details of this house below). Like many places in Vedado, the house was something of a palace, built over three floors and with a great view of the neighbourhood from the roof terrace. We were treated very well and the fact that I now love Habana is due in no small part to the people we stayed with. On a couple of occasions Jorge, a barman in downtown Habana, even invited us to some homemade cocktails from his personal alcohol stash – authentic Cuban mojitos, Cuba Libres and Piña Coladas. Other people may be put off staying in Vedado as opposed to being right in the centre but it wasn’t a real problem as the old style taxis cost just 10 Cuban Pesos (a whopping $0.50) to get to the downtown area.
Indeed, Vedado itself had a
couple of good points of interest including Lennon Park, where a statue of John Lennon inaugurated by Fidel sits on one of the park benches. Amusingly, the statue used to don the famous round glasses, but after being robbed so continuously, an old guard now has to come along and place them on Lennon’s face whenever a camera-wielding gringo shows up. Another couple of attractions include the cemetery of Colon and the ‘Plaza de la Revolucion’ where many political rallies have taken place in front of Jose Marti’s monument and overlooked by the two bright giant faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
I found Habana and indeed all of Cuba to be such an interesting place and so completely different not just to the countries I’ve seen in Central America but to any country I’ve ever been to. And these differences go beyond the funky 1950’s Grease-style cars driving around the place. Almost everything they have is Cuban produced meaning there’s no sign of any of the usual highstreet brands – no supermarket chains, no huge Panasonic billboards, not even a hint of a Starbucks or fast food restaurant and given the difficulty of getting to
Cuba from the States, a blissful absence of loud Americans! Walking into a Cuban “supermarket” you’d probably be forgiven for thinking that the place had been ransacked just moments before – the shelves were practically bare save for a few rolls of toilet roll or a handful of bars of soap perhaps. Buying meat for a barbeque one day turned into a two hour operation. Yet despite the fact that to us it seemed a little sad having so little choice, no one seemed to care and in fact people were quite happy and content.
One thing that did surprise me about Habana was that it’s much smaller than I expected. From our house in Vedado we were about a 15 minute taxi ride to the centre. On most maps the downtown area and ‘Habana Vieja’ (Old Town) are highlighted separately yet they both merge into each other and with one single day it’s possible to take a stroll through both parts. The old in particular was very beautiful and full of character both during the day and at night when all the cute little squares light up and the sound of live salsa music starts to
fill the streets. One day from our house, we were able to walk from Calle 27 north to the sea front and then walk down a good portion of Habana’s famous malecón until reaching the downtown. I must confess though that it was a hefty walk!
Another equally bizarre and interesting thing about Cuba and one thing that’s immediately apparent the second you try and change money at the airport is the double economy system and the use of two distinct currencies: the locally used Peso Cubano and the currency used by gringos/foreigners, Pesos Convertibles, referred to as “CUCs”. Whereas the CUC is tied with the American Dollar one to one, the local pesos are considerably weaker with 1USD = 25 Pesos Cubanos. Although CUCs are widely considered to be the currency for foreigners there’s actually nothing stopping any tourist from changing them into the local currency creating the opportunity to bag some serious bargains. “Peso Pizzas” sold on the street each cost just 10 pesos – a little less than 0.50 USD and most mornings we would buy breakfast from a local stall selling a couple of omelet sandwiches and fresh mango juice all for just
1USD in the local currency. It became clear to me that Cuba wasn’t as expensive as I’d previously thought and in fact it was surprisingly easy to survive on quite a tight budget. Saying this, there was one fairly obvious downside to the use of two different currencies in that the locals will sometimes try and con unsuspecting tourists by charging in CUCs when in fact the price displayed is in Pesos Cubanos thus earning a tidy 25 times more than what they’re selling is worth. This is fairly easily avoided however if you just keep your wits about you, maintain a bit of common sense and keep the two currencies in separate pockets to avoid confusion.
After 7 complete days in Havana filled with sightseeing, cheap pizzas, visits to the Revolutionary Museum and Playa del Este and copious amounts of Havana Club rum, it was time to say a sad farewell to my Spanish roommate and Cuban hosts for the last 8 days. There was just time for Jorge to do me one more in a long line of favours and accompany me to the Omnibus bus station in Vedado, not far from the Jose Marti
monument. I decided to take a bus west a couple of hours to the very picturesque town of Viñales, famous for its jutting rock formations and cliffs. I spent three nights here and again I was fortunate to meet a fellow backpacker on the bus who agreed to share an already reserved room bringing the price down to a very reasonable 10 CUCs a night with breakfast included instead of maybe 15 or 20 had I been alone. Dinner was an extra 4 CUCs. Truth be told I didn’t do a whole lot in Viñales partly because I was getting a bit skint but also because there’s really not a whole lot to do here. This was the place where many people in Havana head to for a weekend of R&R away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I spent a day exploring the surrounding area and another up at Hotel Jazmines with its swimming pool and quite spectacular view. The admission price was 7 CUCs which seemed steep, but it’s for the whole day and includes the 6 CUCs to spend on anything in the restaurant. On the way back we decided to hitchhike given that there’s
only one road and any car going down it pretty much has to be heading for Viñales. It took a few minutes, but after a bit of persistence we were picked up and taken back.
On the morning of the 17th
June I took a rather pricey (37 CUC) bus from Viñales over to the central part of Cuba to a town called Trinidad, stopping briefly in Havana to drop off/pick up passengers. On this occasion my luck with meeting other travellers with pre-booked accommodation ran out and I made my mind up to just go with the first local person that screams “casa” in my face as I got off the bus. In fact, any tourist that just turns up to either Viñanles, Trinidad or indeed any other small Cuban town needn’t worry about accommodation as there’s always a hoard of screaming locals waiting at the bus stations with pictures of their respective houses, and they know perfectly well when the buses arrive too! I knew I was gonna have to bargain but I knew that being low-season I had the advantage. Actually, I’d been told that June is the lowest of the low seasons making
it probably the best month to go to Cuba as there’s sooooo many casas particulars and so few tourists, the locals are desperate for business to help pay the 200 CUC government fee each house has to pay, whether it’s rented or not. With this in mind I bagged myself the bargain of the trip, getting and air-conditioned, double room with en-suite bathroom near the centre of town for 10 CUCs a night. Breakfast was another 2.50 CUC and dinner 5 CUC. The details of this house can also be seen below. I would recommend it.
Trinidad is well known for its charm, cute cobbled streets and great architecture. In fact this town seemed to encapsulate perfectly the image I’d had in my head of Cuba before coming here. The place did have a special atmosphere to it but it was really at night when it came into its own, especially the area surrounding the Central Square and the “Casa de la Musica” nightclub. There was plenty of live music filling the streets including the free shows on the steps of Bar Escalinata, where beers were just 1 CUC each meaning even a pretty skint backpacker at
the end of a long trip can still get fairly trollied. For a decent view of the town and surrounding valley, I walked one day to the top of “Vigla Hill” directly north out of town where a poor lonely guy manning the antenna building lets you climb a ladder to a look-out point allowing a panoramic sight. I stayed in Trinidad for 3 nights as in Viñales and on Monday 20th
June I began the loooong and sad journey back home and back to reality, starting with a wee 6 hour bus ride back to Havana.
Cuba was great, especially Havana and the people I met there and I know Cuba will go down as the highlight of the trip. The best was saved till last.
Photos are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/65690652@N07/
Hasta La Victoria Siempre!!!
Details of casas particulars: Havana
Marta Ana Valdes
Calle 27 no.971 e/ 6 y 8, Vedado
Phone: (537) 833 8732
Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Website: http://www.santdiaz.260mb.com Trinidad
Margarita Oliva y Tomas Ruiz
Calle A Maceo No. 705-B
e/ Conrado Benitez y Giro Redondo
Phone: (0141) 993 110
Movil: (53) 522 85 259