We spent three weeks in Cuba this January. It was the first time we pulled out a tropical holiday in the middle of winter, as well as my first visit to the Caribbean sea, and I ‘m not gonna lie to you: I felt damn cool! Visiting Cuba was one of my most memorable experiences. It was one of these trips that leave you with the feeling that you have grown, that you’ve come back home a wiser person.
If I had to honestly describe my trip in one word, that would be interesting, perhaps more so than enjoyable.
I decided to compile my Cuba experiences in a series of blogposts. This is not just a way to help you plan your journey and to share some of my favorite photography shots, but also a way of doing justice to the incredible hospitality we received from our hosts. In this first Cuba post I will tell you about how we planned our trip, and soon I will upload more detailed guides to the towns we visited.
Tips to plan your trip
There are many types of travelers out there. I would love to tell you that I am an adventurous girl, the first to climb the highest peak of a mountain, the one who is not afraid to fend off fierce creatures in the wild, but I am not. I am not a posh traveler either. I just try to travel within a reasonable budget, and try to get the best value for my bucks.
The first question is when to go, for how long, and what cities to visit. Apparently, the best time to visit Cuba is around Christmas: there are some holidays so you don’t need to take too many days off, the rain season in Cuba is just over, the temperatures are not as asphyxiating as during the summer months, and the water is still perfect to go for a swim! However, locals may tell you that in January it gets a little cold to swim: clearly, they have never set a foot in the North Sea in Europe. The downside of visiting around Christmas is that December and January are high season, so the plane tickets, and hotel prices may be a bit higher than during the low season.
We stayed in Cuba for 20 days, and decided to visit 5 locations. We like having time to take in what each place has to offer, so we decided to confine ourselves to the western part of the island. The chosen locations? Havana (must-see, of course), Viñales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Jibacoa (beach!).
1. Do not count on the internet once you’re in Cuba
The first thing you need to know about Cuba is that you will be offline during most of your trip -unless you stay at a resort with good internet. Note that in the next years Wifi will be much more widespread than it is now. At the moment (2016), there are wifi points in every city powered by Etecsa, the main telecommunications company, but these spots are usually overcrowded and you will get a slow connection, therefore the whole hassle of purchasing an internet card and activating it on your cell may not be worth it. Plus, an internet-free holiday is a dream!
No internet means that if you are a planner like me, you should plan ahead. I love the concept of letting go, travelling at your own pace, and seeking for accommodation as you go. Unfortunately, my happiness feasts on information. I need to have done my research, and to have it all secured. So, we booked all of our accommodation before we took off, and had a rough idea of how to move through the country.
2. Do not only stay in resorts or touristic areas
It is often not worth it paying for a hotel in Cuba. Even 5* hotels (there are exceptions, of course) will be miles away from what you may have in mind when you think 5*. Most of these hotels were grand back in the day, but due to the economic embargo, they have seen little renovations in over 40 years. Sure, some hotels are decent but they are often not worth the budget jump. Also, by staying at a hotel you miss part of the Cuban experience. Throughout our trip, following recommendations from friends and travel sites such as Cuba Junky, we opted for staying at Casas Particulares.
The concept of Casas Particulares lies somewhere between Airbnb and conventional Bed and Breakfasts. Since a few years, Cubans are allowed to obtain licenses to rent out rooms in their home for tourists. Some of these have evolved into more conventional B&B businesses, often surpassing the comfort of over-crowded popular hotels. At first, I was weary of the whole Casas business, mainly because it seemed “less legit” than to book at hotels, and I had read on the internet that if you are not there on time they give away your room to someone else. Nothing like this happened to us: we were always warmly welcomed at our casas, and before leaving to our next destination, each host contacted the next ones to let them know at what time we would arrive. So we didn’t even have to make a single phone call!
There are lots of websites too book your casa (e.g., casaparticular, casas-cuba, cubacasas, mycasaparticular) but only one that you need. I am serious about this:
Although the name of the website indicates “Viñales”, they managed the rental of casas in the whole of Cuba (at least the western part). On their website you can check all the casas you like and request their availability through a simple form. Then, you’ll get an email from them and if the house you requested is not available, they will just ask you to send them your Top 5 favorite casas, and they will manage everything for you. The guy working there, José, was a life savior. We booked all of our accommodation with him and had no problem at all. He arranged everything and sent us a confirmation document, with maps and extra information, about each house! Oh, and his English is good! A couple of days before we flew over, our first hostel (which we booked on our own) cancelled on us, and I wrote José in panic and he was able to find us a replacement within the same day! Phew!
If you like going with the flow…
You can just book the first Casa, and then improvise. Be assured that (almost) every Casa owner will have friends on the business throughout the country, and will be able to help you arrange the accommodation for your next destinations.
3. Travel by bus, when possible
In comparison with the relatively cheap costs of travelling through Cuba, renting a car is awfully expensive! That is why we recommend doing the long trips (e.g., between Havana and Trinidad) by bus. It is very cheap, and actually quite comfortable! We traveled with Viazul. On their site, you can see their main itineraries, and the price. Do not worry if on the website it says “booked out”. We didn’t make any reservations, and just showed up at their office a couple of days before traveling and arranged all without any problems.
For smaller commutes, you can book a taxi on your own (more expensive if you’re 2 people or less) or share a taxi -ask for “colectivos”. On our way from Havana to Viñales, we paid for an Old-timer taxi. It was a must-do, sitting in an old-timer at least once during our trip but, could I have saved those 60 bucks? YES. And, was the bus more comfortable? Also, yes! We booked our taxi online via this company. Although the company itself is legit, our taxi driver was a bit of a crook, and fooled us into visiting “the best tobacco plantation in the world” which had no extra cost beyond what you would like to give away… I don’t want to be mean, but that is the way you lose money in Cuba. I called it “consented mugging“.
4. Trust the Lonely Planet, but do not trust the Lonely Planet
Like for many others, the Lonely Planet guide became our Bible, together with the notes we took while watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Cuba episode. While the Lonely Planet guys sure do an amazing job, I feel it is my duty to introduce to a phenomenon I’ve gotten to observe:
The Lonely Planet Curse
Getting featured in the Lonely Planet can be a curse for some small cafés and restaurants. This automatically means an influx of tourists that is often hard to keep up with, which some times leads to a decrease in the quality of the services. Thus, being featured in Lonely Planet is an immediate trampoline to success but sometimes it is a curse, too. We went to some places expecting the local charm, only to find ourselves surrounded by dozens of tourists who, just like us, came in with their Lonely Planet guide in the hand. The charm was lost, and often the tastiness of the food, too!
5. If you can choose, go for a Visa credit card
You may have heard that you will eventually spend a number of hours queuing for something in Cuba. That “something” is usually money. It is unlikely that you will be mugged in Cuba (although all tourist guides will warn you about the existence of jineteros), but you don’t want to be carrying all of your holiday money in cash, do you? In order to retrieve money you will need your credit card and your passport, and a high dose of patience. In Havana, we once queued for 4 hours! I took the wait quite optimistically but it could have been avoided if I still had my Visa credit card, as Visa cards work in the ATM! Unfortunately, my Mastercard did not, and hence the queuing.
By the way, did you know that Cubans and tourists use different currencies? Beware of strangers offering you to change money, not that they give you Cuban pesos (CUP), instead of the Convertible Pesos (CUC) that you would get otherwise. 25 CUP make 1 CUC!
6. Pack a couple of bottles of DEET spray, and a mosquito net!
Everywhere you will read that you should purchase some Deet before you leave your country. Deet is more powerful than regular mosquito / bug repellents such as Autan. Deet is a component and not a brand, so just ask at any sport / outdoors shop, or read well the instructions and look for a repellent that contains a high percentage of Deet. Mosquitoes in Cuba bite both day and night, therefore you should be well protected! Furthermore, although it is not common, there is always a risk for a Chikungunya or a Dengue outbreak. Spending 10 bucks and spraying twice a day seems worth the hassle, I would say! Do not touch your eyes or mouth afterwards.
For the nights, pack a mosquito net (even better if it has been sprayed with repellent). Except for in Old Havana, at each of the spots where we stayed I must have counted a dozen mosquitoes inside our room. I’m guessing Cubans are less susceptible to be bitten and therefore they happily live leaving all doors and windows open at night, with the lights on!
7. Find gut bacteria pills before you leave!
This is possibly my number 1 advice. The reason why I mentioned earlier that my trip was more interesting than enjoyable is that I was sick on my stomach from Day 5 up until the day we took off to return back home… While nobody at the health center I visited prior to the trip told me about this, apparently there are some probiotic pills that you can take a few weeks before you leave and that will protect your gut flora against new bacteria. Apparently these are over-the-counter and pretty common. Ask your GP before leaving, because they may save you a few bad days! In case it doesn’t work, take stomach protector pills, imodium pills for diarrhea (sorry I had to bring this up!), and everything you think you may need. Pharmacies in Cuba are quite precarious, if not totally spooky!
8. Pack a jacket
If you are going to Cuba from December to February, I would pack a jacket! Although it is hot during the day, temperatures can get chilly at night. Thanks to climate change, this year we caught quite some rain (although not as much as the poor tourists that traveled to Cuba in February) and I ended up using my only hoodie and my only pashmina like there was no tomorrow! Don’t think of Cuba as a place where you can just hop into the nearest mall or store and buy yourself something you forgot to bring along. Trust me, I tried to get an extra sweater. Not everywhere possible!
9. Bring a water-filtering straw or bottle
Although bottled water is widely available, it is not too bad to have, just in case, one of these straws or bottles that have a water bacterial filter. You can usually find them at outdoor sport and adventure shops (I’m sure there is a better word for these shops!). Also, remember to bring along a lot of kleenex. Toilet paper is often scarce.
10. Bring along your Spanish dictionary, or download a dictionary offline app
Cuba is the first destination where I have seen tourists from all over the world really making an effort to speak the language. I am a Spanish native speaker, so I had no trouble (well, ish…), but Florian isn’t, and he really noticed that if I had not been there, the trip would have been pretty difficult, even for a person with the very basic language skills like him. So, take your dictionary, or an app that you can access while offline. In Cuba, everything is verbally negotiated!
Extra TIP: Write a travel diary!
Probably I would not have been consistent in this habit, had I had internet access. Fortunately, I did not, so I spend every waiting hour either reading, or writing on my travel diary! I wrote about everything I saw and every thought I had about the Cuban life. Just think of how nice it is to remember your trip in detail in a couple of years from now! Also, I will use my diary as a guide to write all the City guides! Win-Win!