Todos es Posible en Cuba!

CUBA

A place with as vibrant a history as its citizens. The cities crumbling facades and faded pastel paints contrasts with the lively feeling in the streets and pulsating energy. Music can be heard on almost any corner and travels into the countryside will open your eyes to what a diverse and beautiful gem of an island this country is. Todos es posible en Cuba is a phrase you often hear which means: All is possible in Cuba!

Havana

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I would absolutely spend a few days in Havana. Some people recommended more time and I certainly could have spent more time exploring the nooks of the city or just hanging out on my street petting stray dogs and eating tostones but in essence if you have a lot you want to see and a limited amount of time I think 3 days is perfect. It’s really cool to do a day walking around Habana Vieja (Old Havana) as well as the adjacent neighborhoods of Centro Havana and Vedado.

 

 

 

 

Havana Highlights:

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Photo credit Steven LoCascio

Walking along the Malecón (the street closest to harbor). Here is one of the best spots to gaze out at the water, watch the classic cars roll by, chat with locals and people watch. I expected it to be similar to Spain’s touristy street, las Ramblas which is filled with street art, food vendors and performers. This was far different. More of a local hang out/place to take a nice walk. Many kids and teens hang out there at night as well as anyone else who enjoys an ocean breeze. Some people walk around with things for sale or small snacks but nothing substantial. On the street side opposite the water you can usually find restaurants and bars. This street runs all the way along the city. It lacks the same crumbling 50’s beauty of the inner streets and can be a longer way to get somewhere by foot so keep that in mind when planning your day/night.

 

Walking around Havana.

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Cathedral Square, Havana

I stayed in the Vedado neighborhood close to the University. Coincidentally situated on Neptuno street which runs all the way down to Old Havana. I spent part of the day simply walking down Neptuno from Vedado to Old Havana (locals warned me is too far to walk but in reality only took about 30/40 minutes). Simply getting a taste for local life and experiencing the hustle and bustle yet easy way of life was wonderful. I was mesmerized by the crumbling building facades and the crackling pastel paints. Men crouched around an open hood of a well loved classic car, women with groceries, dogs and children scurrying about. Cars zipping by as well as bicycle taxis and old men with a limited and beat up selection of fruits for sale.

Occasionally coming across the perfectly lit corner, or laundry hanging from a line in just the right way to create a perfect picture. Noticing the street art and having a taste of some local snacks here and there makes for a very furfilling day. In Old Havana we visited Cathedral Square which looks like it’s taken directly out of Italy or Spain and plopped down in the middle of the city. This square is apparently kept in the best shape and was really cool to come across. On the way home we hopped in a taxi collectivo for 1.50 each to get home.

The Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución) I’ve visited heaps of museums in my travels, so I’m generally not one to recommend museums to people especially if the weather is amazing outside. That being said the Museum of the Revolution was an awesome learning experience that brought the revolution alive for me! It cost 8CUC and you can easily spend 3 hours or more walking around the old palace. The coolest part for me was seeing bullet holes strewn about the building walls and imagining Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their troops storming the place!

There’s also a courtyard which features war planes and vehicles used for the revolution and the “Granma”, the yacht which Fidel and Che sailed from Mexico to Cuba in to take over! I would highly recommend bringing a guide book or doing some reading beforehand to familiarize yourself with a bit of Cuba’s political history. The the museum can help to you to piece all of the facts together in a setting where history was made!

El Morro (Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro) or Morro Castle My entire time in Cuba I kept seeing this castle in the distance across the harbor. El Morro looks similar to the Spanish fort in San Juan Puerto Rico and was built in 1589. The grounds are large and grassy and you can enjoy the cool ocean breeze. I unfortunately didn’t get to go inside as we arrived late and it was already closed. BUT there was a book fair taking place on the grounds near the fort with tons of cheap food and fun people watching! After walking through the street fair, we walked along the edges of the castle and set up on the side of the castle to watch the sun set over the water and over Havana. Getting there was about 6$ from the Parque Cetral in an beat up 50’s car and on the way home I think we managed to bargain for 5!

 

Lily’s Havana Tips:

Utilize the Taxi Collectivo system. They cost about 1CUC per person and they cruise along a route picking up a multitude of passengers who hop on and off when they need. Be prepared to cram in with strangers. You can ask your host or any local what streets the taxi collectivos frequent. Some have a route they follow all day while others will drive around randomly and pick people up. I know for sure one route goes down Neptuno and another Avienda 23.

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Saving some coin in a Taxi Collectivo

They are usually classic cars but very beat up. A jalopy would be the correct English descriptor. The owners gut the cars and fill it with benches to accommodate more passengers. Warning:  These old cars spit out lots of black fumes. If you are sensitive you may want to wrap a bandana around your face to block that a bit.

Skip the Double Decker Tour Bus. Once upon a time I had a great experience doing the cheesy hop on/hop off double decker red tourist bus in Barcelona so I thought I’d give it a try in Havana. The problem is it’s very slow and all of the more awesome stops are near each other by foot. Once you get out of Old Havana and to surrounding neighborhoods it becomes more suburban and visually bland (in my opinion). It cost 10$ for the day. We got off at the Plaza de la Revolución to see the José Martí Memorial only to find out that it’s blocked off and guarded. So instead we took pictures from nearby and got some cool photos of the giant Che and Fidel face sculpted on to the side of the Ministry of Interior buildings nearby. The other stop we got off was the Colon Cemetery. Again, only to find out there was a 5CUC entrance fee. The cemetery was beautiful but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.

Hold out for cheap food! My first night I was semi swindled by a fast talking Cuban who insisted the best food in town was around the corner. My friend and I gave it a shot and it was about 20$ per person this included a lot of sides and desert but definitely not worth the money. We basically had the same meal the very next night in a casual eatery for about 10CUC TOTAL! A typical dinner or lunch plate in Cuba comes with rice and a small salad and is anywhere from 3-5CUC. Some nicer places it may be 7 or 8 but it shouldn’t cost much more than that.

Viñales

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If you live for the great outdoors and nature makes you feel one with the world, then a trip to Viñales is an absolute must! It’s giant mogotes formed in the Jurassic era tower above the rolling valleys and farmlands below. The people are kind and animated and you can get cigars, fresh fruits and vegetables for super cheap! Not to mention some mouth watering Ropa Vieja and $2 Cuban sandwiches!

My Viñales Highlights:

Walk to Cueva del Palmarito.

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There are quite a few caves in Viñales one of which is the famous Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave). Upon arrival I heard it was quite overrun with tourists as well as they give a show where the locals dress up as Native Americans and dance around. For some this may sound awesome, but for me I was less than impressed by the description and started asking locals what their favorite spot was. More than one referenced Palmarito. It’s situated West of the main route 241 that runs through town.

Many people (namely the Caballeros who are trying to push horseback riding tours) insisted that walking to any destination in the valley is too far and that you must go on a horse. Luckily I downloaded an offline GPS map (MAPS.ME a MUST HAVE for travelers) so I could see how far our destination was. One way is to follow the horse trail on foot. I think going on horse could be fun so I wouldn’t discourage it. I however didn’t want to pay for a horse ride, and also felt that I wouldn’t be able to take great photos on a horse. So Stevie and I opted to walk.

Our map showed we could walk alongside the main road and then cut west to get there. Instead we took a MUCH more complex route that zig zagged through the valley and peoples farm land. As we got closer to Palmarito and deeper into farmland, farms began to be fenced off with barbed wire. Luckily we were able to shimmy under or through the fences and some were actually gates that you could untie and then close behind you. It took quite a few hours and we were slightly sketched out about trespassing, but I loved every moment of it. The farmland is stunning and seeing the mountains tower above you is simply majestic.

When we finally made it to the cave we were hot, sweaty and exhausted. It’s a 2CUC entrance fee and a guide accompanies you through a pitch black natural cave with flashlights. It’s eerily silent inside. After about a 10 minute walk we came to a pool of water where you can swim. This was the moment I was waiting for! After a dirty, sweaty, full day of walking in the sun I was so happy to jump into the icy water. It’s a bit scary because the water is quite dark but YOCPO (You’re only in the Cueva del Palmarito Once)! On the way home we walked along the main road and were able to hail a horse and buggy to get us back to town as my feet were hurting from walking on uneven ground all day.

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How we felt after walking all day

Check out the best view of the mountains. There is a viewing platform directly next to the Hotel Jazmines which is about 2 miles outside of town. If you’re taking a taxi in from Havana or Pinar Del Rio, you can most likely ask your driver to stop there since it’s on the way. Otherwise you can get a cheap taxi from town. The views are stunning!

Eating delicious local food and walking around town. I have to say the food in Viñales was some of the best I had on the trip. The town is not huge, however the eating options are plentiful, delicious and of good quality. I was also under the impression that Viñales would be a sleepy quiet town but there was a decent amount of action at night.

Two casual eateries situated side by side had some of the yummiest food. For 3.50CUC you can feast on an unforgettable Ropa Vieja platter that includes rice and salad from Rompiendo Rutina.  La Esquinita, just next door, prepared during the day are the freshest Cuban sandwiches we ate on our trip. Different from the Cuban’s I’ve had in the states this sandwich is fresh cut ham, with tomatoes, onions and thinly sliced cucumbers. No cheese or pickles, then it’s pressed in a panini press. A healthy sized sandwich and a steal for 2CUC. I think we ate one of the sandwiches every day we spent in Viñales!

 

Day trips from Viñales, Viñales is SO gorgeous that if you only have a few days there I’d recommend enjoying the valley walks and the town. However if you have some extra time or are just curious to explore the surrounding areas there are a few options that I know of.  

  • There are 2 islands or Cayos as they’re called about 1 hour north of Viñales. One is Cayo Jutías which is more of a curvy peninsula with a road from the mainland, making it accessible by car. The other is Cayo Levisa which is accessed by ferry. In the main town square where the bus drops off there are tour offices where you can book an organized excursion for around 15-20CUC. If you find some travel buddies however you can share a taxi to take you to Cayo Jutías. Most cabbies will negotiate a price with you and is generally for round trip. I didn’t get to partake in this trip because there was heavy rain the day we were considering going.
  • Instead on our rainy day we traveled to the seldom visited Balneario San Diego (Spa/baths of San Diego) which is roughly 1 hour east of Viñales. We drove in a serene but steady tropical downpour east in a taxi that took us for 20 per person, 10CUC each way per person. This hospital type spa facility popped up around a natural hot spring which supposedly cured an ill slave back in 1632. Word spread and a town was soon built to accommodate visitors. It’s 2CUC to enter and you can spend 20 minutes in the bath. They also offer other treatments like mud wraps and acupuncture but I would recommend calling in advance. I really enjoyed the baths and walking around the town where my friends and I were the only tourists in sight. Down some side streets we saw some beautiful views of the nearby Escambrey mountain range.
  • Other day trips that might interest you include visiting a tobacco factory, Ruta del Tobaco or a trip to the nearby provincial capital Pinar del Río which is just under an hour away.

 

Viñales Tips:

Be prepared for long day hikes. Take advantage of the large breakfast most casas will provide for 5CUC so you can have fuel for the day. In addition, bring whatever leftovers and snacks you have. On more than one occasion we asked our host if they could hard boil a few eggs for us so we could have it as a snack. A hard boiled egg is portable, cheap and contains lots of protein to keep you going. There are lots of fruit stand in Viñales too, take advantage and get a bunch of bananas, a tomato, maybe even a cucumber to have snacks throughout the day. Bring some salt packets with you for flavor. Also be sure to eat at least one tomato. The tomatoes in Viñales are a deliciously sweet and juicy flavor bomb.

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Dress appropriately. Loose fitting clothes that are breathable, a wide brimmed hat, perhaps a sarong or light scarf to cover your shoulders from the sun, sunglasses, good shoes are all imperative necessities to enjoy your day and not return a red lobster.

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For hikes bring, sunblock, snacks, bug spray, a towel and bathing suit if you plan to swim, tissues for the bathroom, phone with map downloaded for long hikes.

Buy. If you’re interested in purchasing cigars, keep in mind it is much cheaper to buy directly from a farmer when you are not on a tour. Most farmers will charge 1CUC per cigar but if you are with a tour group the guide gets a commission so the price goes up to 3 or even 4 per cigar. Buy when you have the chance. I hesitated thinking I would come back to that farm another day but my days filled quickly with activities and I never made it back to snatch up the good deals!

Starwatching from the Viñales Valley is absolutely breathtaking! We walked down Calle Adela Azcuy Norte towards the valley one night and watched shooting stars and a sky littered with twinkling stars!! Wear long pants and/or bug spray as it can be buggy at night.

Taxi’s, Right by the tourist office in the main town square is where many taxi drivers hang out. Some will be very pushy and annoying to get your business. Simply say no gracias and find a driver who is less intense. Ask a few prices and try to negotiate. Your best bet is to find out how much the bus cost to get to your destination, then keep in mind a taxi that you are taking with other passengers should cost no more than 10-20% per person than the bus. Be polite but don’t be a pushover because you will end up spending more than you need!

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Trinidad and La Boca

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Trinidad is a beautiful Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500’s with a topsy tervy history. There is much to see and do in Trinidad such as museums and historical sites but I spent a full day walking around and exploring the town. It is very well preserved in comparison to Havana. There is a town square surrounding the Plaza Mayor, this is the heart of the colonial old town. The streets are closed off to traffic and the old uneven cobblestone is quite charming and picturesque but can wreak havoc on your ankles! Trinidad in general is incredibly touristy, especially the old quarter, but still a great spot if you want to souvenir shop.

La Boca on the other hand is a quiet village with plenty of Casa’s about 15 minutes south and a 5CUC taxi ride from Trinidad. The town is on the water and is very tranquil. La Boca is also only 15 minutes by car east to Playa Ancon, one of the nicest beaches on the south side of Cuba.

 

Trinidad Highlights:

La Popa, Take a walk/hike up to La Popa, short for Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de la Popa del Barco via Simón Bolívar. A ruined church now in the stages of renovation and reconstruction (as of Feb 2017). Even through the fenced off barrier it’s definitely worth a gander. If you continue up the road that curves behind the church (Rafael Trejo) the cobblestone street turns into a dirt trail you can hike up to see breathtaking views of the mountains, town, valley and ocean. It’s a popular spot for sunset!

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Parque Céspedes, while the Playa Mayor is the tourist center of town and beautiful in its own right, I found the square to be devoid of any authentic Cuban character. Yes they sell 1.50 mojitos and the Casa de la Musica is a wonderful venue but if you want to people watch in a square that’s a bit tourist and a lot local come to this square, a short 15 minute walk from the Plaza Mayor. On the corner at night a man sells 1CUC pork sandwich and it’s one of the squares you can use the state ETESCA internet at. It’s also a good place to organize a taxi from.

Disco Ayala, I’m sad to say I actually did not get to go to this disco tech but heard lots of fun things about it. I passed it during the day and took a peek inside. It’s basically a club inside of a natural cave. It gets packed so show up early (around 11pm). If you would like to see it but don’t want a rager you can see the cave during the day for 1CUC. It’s situated on the road near La Popa, mentioned above.

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La Boca Highlights:

Playa del Rio is the local beach of La Boca. There’s a coastal park where you can swim and snorkel in front of the main street but if  you face the ocean and go right there is a sandy beach with permanent shade structures or palapas.

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Playa Ancón is a 15 minute car ride away. A lot of people stay in La Boca in a Casa Particular because it is much more affordable than the hotels on Playa Ancon. You can negotiate a ride for around 5 or 6CUC or you can ask your Casa about renting a bike. A few places in La Boca rent bikes for about 5CUC a day!  We had such a fun day at the beach with new friends we made, this was definitely one of my favorite days! You can order drinks and food from the hotels or as I always recommend eat a big breakfast and bring lots of snacks with you! The beach is touristy but not overwhelmingly so.

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Not the best photo of the beach but trust me its beautiful during the day as well.

 

Day Trip from Trinidad / La Boca, If you can take time to enjoy these two areas I would definitely recommend it. While Trinidad is a pretty big mark on the tourist map, I believe one full day and night there is plenty. Situated beyond Trinidad are the expansive Sierra del Escambray mountains. I personally believe it’d be a shame to not take a day to explore some of the natural beauty of these mountains.

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  • Hiking at Topes de Collantes, if you’re into lush countryside, mountains and waterfalls this is definitely worth a trip. From La Boca, we took a 5CUC taxi in to Trinidad and found a big open “chicken bus” taxi as I like to call it, to take us to the park, wait for us and return for 10CUC a person. We had about 6 people. The ride up the mountain was beautiful especially since we were in the open air! One we got there our driver directed us where to go to see one of the bigger waterfalls Vegas Grande. The hike was somewhat challenging but you’re rewarded with a stunning view of the falls and a dip in the incredibly exhilarating fresh water! We could have hiked more had we started earlier but we didn’t leave La Boca until around noon. If you want a fuller day of hiking there are multiple waterfalls, rivers and peaks you can go to.

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Trinidad / La Boca Tips,

Get Colonial, A lovely feature of Trinidad is the old colonial homes. When you walk on the streets you can peek in through the open windows and find some of the most immaculate homes with tall ceilings and antique furniture. If a home you are particularly fascinated by is a Casa Particular you can politely knock and ask to take a look. Locals seemed to be more than happy to let us have stroll around their living room and/or courtyard. If they have vacancy you may even get to stay in one for the night!

Getting a taxi at night, will prove to be slightly more difficult between Trinidad and La Boca. Be prepared to have to ask around a bit longer than usual.

Trinibus, I didn’t use this but apparently there is a shuttle bus that runs from La Boca to Playa Acon several times a day for 2CUC round trip. You can ask your host about it.

StreetMeat, keep an eye out for stands that make Cuban sandwiches at night in Trinidad. They’re cheap, delicious and generally attract all the cute stray dogs of the neighborhood.

 

Varadero

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Ah what can I say about this wonderful paradise which was the last stop on our wild Cuban journey? Only 2 hours east of Havana this peninsula has almost 25 kilometers of white sandy beach. For us it was absolutely the perfect way to end our otherwise backpacker style / roughing it trip. I had my reservations about visiting this Varadero because I knew it would be touristy, but the beach and the ocean are so supremely breathtaking I could care less about how touristy it was. I would return again and rencourage anyone to go enjoy! There are hotels available but Casa Particular’s are mere blocks from the beach and charge anywhere from 25-50CUC per night. I am not 100% sure how far the residential area spans but I know for sure the streets are numbered, the end of the peninsula is mostly hotels, and my friend and I stayed in the 20’s and there were plenty of Casa’s there.

We were also able to find restaurants with good food at normal Cuban prices, such as 3CUC for a yummy pork sandwich or 5CUC for a plate of Ropa Vieja with rice and salad. 2CUC for eggs and rice, 1CUC for fresh juice! We also splurged one night at a restaurant that I can honestly say was one of the best meals I’ve had, not just in Cuba but in my entire life!

Varadero Highlights:

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The Playa (Duh!!!) If you did nothing else here but enjoy the beautiful Caribbean beach you would be winning this town! It’s nice because there are lots of trees so you can alternate between shade and sun. The ocean is pristine and the most lovely color teal I had seen in some time. At night it’s wonderful for stargazing but make sure to wear long pants and wear some bug spray if you have it.

Salsa Suarez Restaurant. We budgeted so well our entire trip, that the last 3 days we found we had a lot more money than we actually needed. So our last 2 days in Varadero we decided to treat ourselves to some fancy dinners, a ride in a pristine shiny cadillac as well as do some cigar and souvenirshopping. Salsa Suarez was by far one of the top meals I’ve had in my life. Succulent and tender Octopus Carpaccio and an array of lobster, shrimp and fish ceviche appetizers took my palette for a ride. A Fra Diavla that will blow your socks off and a spare rib that will leave you daydreaming for weeks to come! With drinks and dessert our entire bill was 60CUC with the tip included, but we of course left an extra 5 since we loved our waiter so much. We were stunned when we saw the bill because a meal of this caliber in NYC would have easily cost 200$. They fill up so make reservations in advance if you can! Sometimes you can luck out as a walk in. * Calle 31 between 1ra &  3ra ave. / http://www.salsasuarezvaradero.com/  

Casa de Al, The former vacation home and storage house for the infamous gangster Al Capone. He apparently vacationed here as well as stored booze that he illegally transported to the United States during prohibition. It’s now been converted into a beautiful sea side restaurant. The food (though reviews will say otherwise) is unspectacular. We ordered the paella and the shrimp cocktail both which left us unimpressed. The food certainly wasn’t bad but I wouldn’t spend my money on dinner here. Instead I’d just have a drink and enjoy the terrace, which is beautiful and generally features live music!  Avenida Kawama, Varadero 42200, Cuba

Ride in a classic car! There are plenty of opportunities to do this Havana, but since Havana was our first stop we were still in budget mode so we opted to get our classic car fix by riding in the old 50’s Taxi Collectivos for much cheaper. But some owners have kept their cars in absolute pristine condition and therefore charge much much more even for a short ride. It’s definitely worth it to do one time for the novelty.

General Cuba Travel Tips:

Visa and medical insurance, As an American citizen you may know that travel boarders between the USA and Cuba have recently been opened. Technically tourism alone is still not allowed but you can apply for a visa for 1 of 12 reasons. Now, from everything I have heard, read and experienced no one is actually checking that you meet the requirement of this 1 of 12 reasons, but to cover your ass I would choose the very broad category of “Education / People to People” visa. This visa is for cultural exchange and to improve relations between the citizens of Cuba and the United States. You can keep a journal of anyone you met and things you learned as well as receipts from any museums you visited. You are advised to keep these records for up to 5 years in case the US questions you about your trip (again highly unlikely). Additionally Cuba as a mandatory 25$ health insurance fee imposed on any visitors traveling to Cuba. (According the the New York Times)

Some people think they need to pay an exorbitant price for an organized tour that will meet the criteria of their visa, but it’s not so. If you are traveling around Cuba you will inevitably have many people to people and cultural exchanges. As long as you aren’t sitting at an all inclusive beach resort the whole time you should be fine. And if that’s what you want to do then you are probably reading the wrong travel blog, because I am not about that life!

The easiest way I found to handle this as is to book with an airline that includes this for you. I inquired with both JetBlue and Delta and both informed me that the health insurance fee was included in the price of your plane ticket to Cuba. If you get asked for your health insurance (which is highly unlikely) you present your plane ticket and they’ll know which airlines include it or don’t. Additionally both airlines informed me that I could purchase the Visa at the airport for $50USD. The form is very easy to fill out upon arrival at the airport gate.

Casa Particular vs Hotels, A Casa Particular is the best way to go. Many citizens have spare rooms which they rent to tourists. These are kept very clean and are often newly renovated. Citizens pay very high taxes to the state and have to keep it nice. You can book these casa’s on Airbnb or you can walk around and look for the sticker below on doors which is the symbol of a licensed Casa and knock on the door. What’s nice about this is you get to see the room before you book it. And generally if the person doesn’t have a vacancy they will call a neighbor and find you a place very quickly. It worked for us on our trip every time and we traveled during high season.

Many places offer a BIG breakfast for an extra charge. Almost every room had an air conditioner, some had mini fridge, one had a kitchenette. All had their own private bathroom. One or two did not have toilet seats. The going rate seemed to be 25CUC a night. One of the nicest beautiful casa’s we stayed at in Varadero was 40CUC a night. I found staying in Casa’s was a good opportunity to interact with locals and to help them out as they need the business more than the state run hotels.  I will add, in Cuba in general do not expect extremely comfortable beds and pillows. We stayed in about 10 different homes and only a 1 or 2 had comfortable beds. Keep in mind this is a struggling nation and people do not have much.

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Getting around the island via Autobus, There are a few buses that will take you and connect to all different areas of the island. Any major city or tourist destination will be visited by bus at least once a day. The Viazul is the most popular well known bus but be warned the tickets sell out fast sometimes days in advance! I never ended up using the Viazul but I heard it can be often packed with no bathroom on board but they stop frequently for bathroom breaks. The bus I ended up using much more was CubanaCar. This bus goes to all of the same places as Viazul for about the same price (sometimes a few CUC more). The bus was clean and comfortable and according the CubanaCar sales rep, doesn’t make you transfer buses and doesn’t stop in between destinations to pick up more passengers. One ride we lucked out and had a whole row to ourselves!

Taxi Collectivo’s, this simply refers to a taxi shared with passengers who are going to the same destination or general direction as you. Sometimes your driver will find these people, but if you’re as social and awesome as me you’ll make your own friends and have a full car when you go to negotiate for a taxi. Your best bet is to FIRST find out how much the bus costs to your destination, then keep in mind a taxi that you are taking with other passengers should cost no more than 10-20% per person than the bus. Be polite but don’t be a pushover because you will end up spending more than you need! These taxi’s are a great option when you can’t get a bus ticket or maybe just don’t feel like taking a bus. The buses are great but tend to get there slower because they make stops and sometimes transfer you to a connecting bus. Taxi collectivo’s will do local trips as well as long hauls for the right price.

Deniro. This is a bit uncommon, but Cuba has not one but two forms of currency. One is the Cuban Convertable Peso also known as CUC (pronounced cook), this is 1 for 1 with the US dollar. The other form is called Cuban National Peso or CUP sometimes called Nacional which is 25 to 1. You are allowed to use both forms of currency and sometimes having a bit of National comes in handy. This never happened to me, but I’ve heard some people have been tricked and given their change from CUC in National. this could lose you a lot of money so be sure to check your currency when getting change. The most common form of currency tourists will use is CUC.

Tipping is a thing! 10% on hospitality services is the norm in Cuba. Which is about 1CUC on every 10 spent. For smaller things like a coffee or small breakfast you can just leave some spare change.

IMG_20170211_140648EDITweb.jpgWorld Wide Web and Cell service, As you also may have heard wifi is not easily accessible in Cuba. Some of the large hotels have their own wifi for guests but in general tourists and Cubans alike use the state provided wifi called ETESCA. This wifi can only be accessed in certain town squares AND you need to purchase an ETESCA wifi card to gain access. The card is 2CUC for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Be warned signing on can sometimes take 20 minutes of reloading pages, re-entering passwords, restarting your phone, turning your wifi on and off etc. I noticed that once you do your initial log on it’s easier and faster every time after.

 

Mobile phones don’t work in Cuba. I have T-mobile and my phone went on roaming mode. It cost .50 per text and 2.00 per minute phone call, so I put my phone on Airplane mode. My friend had AT&T and did not have any service at all. Instead what you can do is purchase an international calling card for about 5CUC per hour. You can use it on a pay phone or ask to use the land line in your casa.

SNACK LIFE! Take advantage of Casa breakfast. Every Casa Particular we stayed at offered breakfast for anywhere between 2 and 5CUC per person. They load you up with eggs made to your liking, bread, fresh juice, coffee, sometimes a meat and cheese plate and a fruite plate of papaya, bananas, pineapples and guava depending on what they have. It was nice to have a big breakfast and be ready for the day. I would also take whatever leftover bread and fruit we didn’t eat and have it for snacks or lunch. Ask your host to hard boil eggs for you to take with you for the day. I found this to be a lifesaver for long days and bus rides when I needed a snack and there was nothing else desirable or even available. Most hosts will give it to you for free or for a small charge. Bring granola bars with you from home. This was another saver for me as they don’t sell this anywhere in Cuba. I bought about 8 bars with me. I also brought the Vitamin C powder packets to mix into water which is good to keep your immune system strong.

TP, Never be caught without toilet paper, wipes or hand sanitizer in your bag. Bathrooms in Cuba range wildly from some having everything you need to some having no soap, toilet paper or even a toilet seat. Also bear in mind the plumbing in Cuba as in most developing nations can NOT handle toilet paper or baby wipes. Be respectful and throw any and all toilet paper in to the trash bins next to the toilet (even if there is no sign, just do it!). Also keep in mind that because of this bathrooms are generally a bit stinky.

Shade life. A straw hat in Cuba cost about 5CUC or possibly less. Instead of taking one from home, buy one when you get down there and support the economy. Perhaps instead of taking it home gift it to a local Cuban. People there do not have much and appreciate any gifts you give them even if you may think it’s invaluable.

Gift Life, If there’s anything you can bring to give away in Cuba such as sunglasses, shoes, toys, candy, toiletries, etc the people there are very grateful. Consider ditching your shoes at the end of the trip if you have more at home or bringing a care package with you!

Call in advance, if you are able to get a local sim card while in Cuba awesome, if not, locals are very kind and if you are trying to call a bus company, make reservations for something or organize a taxi, most any local will either make the call for you or let you use their phone. Calling and checking things in advance can save you a lot of time and disappointment.

Don’t let any Casa swindle you into mandatory breakfast and dinner. I stayed in about 10 different Casa Particulars around Western Cuba and only one demanded that if we stay there we must have the paid breakfast and dinner at her house. It was really annoying because when you’re on vacation and traveling you generally want to leave your schedule open to what comes your way. Also when breakfast is 5 and the dinner is 8 and it’s for 2 people and you’re paying 25/30CUC a night, your tab adds up quite fast! There are plenty of Casa’s that do not have this policy so if someone insists that rule I would move on down the street and look for somewhere else to stay.

PACKING LIST ESSENTIALS

  • Paperwork: Passport and copies of your passport (every Casa needs to see your passport to fill out state documents. I gave them a copy each time and that was sufficient). Also print a copy of your arrival and departure flights.
  • phone charger
  • backup phone phone charger such as portable battery pack
  • outlet adapter (I never needed mine but some parts of the country you may need it)
  • flash light or use your phone flashlight
  • sun block, bug spray, shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor (I thought I could buy this stuff in Havana but stores that are fully stocked with useful items are VERY hard to come by)
  • 1 bathing suit (black in case you go to mud bath or get it dirty)
  • A few ziplock bags (for snacks)
  • Granola bars and vitamin c energy drink mix

 

PERSONAL RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Download Maps.me (and download an OFFLINE map of Cuba)
  • Download Yandex.translate (and download English Spanish OFFLINE)
  • Casa in Vadado, Havana. You can book this through Airbnb.com at this link: Hospedaje Mercedes & Rolando Habitación Principal Our room was very large, had 2 beds, a fridge and a kitchenette. Everything was very clean and the family was lovely! We were ideally located and for 25CUC a night you can’t go wrong here.
  • Viñales –> Casa Vladimir y Gladys. The location is stunning, there is a roof top patio with a view of the mountains, room was perfect and clean, breakfast was scrumptious and lastly Gladys was a sheer pleasure to be around! Can’t say enough good things! Address: Adela Azcuy Norte Numer 10-A, Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba. Email her directly here: gladys.sosa@nauta.cu
  • La Boca –> Eida & Juján. Rocking chairs on the front porch, big room with minifridge, nice bathroom, AC, fan, 2 beds, etc. Yumy breakfast in the big back yard and kind people. Located steps from the beach! Address: Real No. 49 Playa La Boca, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Cuba. 
  • Varadero –> Villa Mercy ran by Gema (pronounced Hema) was by far the most deluxe Casa we stayed in. Blocks from the gorgeous Varadero beach, inside a beautiful brand new home with Italian flare. Room was spacious and comfortable, the host was lovely, the food was grand and the shower had a great pressure. It’s worth every penny extra! You can book on airbnb but am told you will get a cheaper price if you email her directly. Address: 2da Ave. No 2203 entre 22 y 23 / villamercy@nauta.cu / villamercyvaradero@yahoo.com / facebook: Gema Trujillo Aguirre
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I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you.

 

All images © 2017 Lily Montemarano

 

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