Jazz, cigars and rock climbing: Welcome to Cuba
I can still hear myself shouting in the mexican streets of Merida: “We are going to Cuba!” My friend and I had booked a last minute flight, we were going to spend one week in Cuba only a few days later. My heart was beating way too fast. I actually didn't know it could beat so quickly. Oh Lord, we are going to Cuba, and I haven't got a clue about this country, except that they have excellent jazz musicians (and non jazz too), salsa dancing, the best cigars and the best rum. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Free education, free medical care and not so much liberty of expression. That's it. Luckily we've met many travelers who had just came back from the Pearl of the Antilles, and they gave us precious advices. I am now passing the good word to you, with my personal experience in addition.
Do I need a visa? How do I get it?
Yes, you need a visa. I actually stressed out because of that (Do I need to go to the embassy? How long would it possibly take them to deliver it? etc.) Fear not, fellow travelers! When you travel to Cuba from Mexico or any Central American country (Costa Rica, Panama, etc), you can get you TC (Tourist Card) directly at the airport. It costs USD20$ and allows you to stay in the country for 30 days.
Can I withdraw money from an ATM in Cuba?
Tricky question. Apparently yes, but only if you bank isn’t somehow affiliated with an US bank (which seems to be almost all of the banks). So we did what we’ve been recommended so many times: filling up our money belts with cash! WARNING! Do NOT take any USD, or you will have a bad surprise: the government applies a 10% penalty for operations involving American dollars. Nobody want’s this. So take euros, canadien dollars or, like in my case, mexican pesos! Also, in case of emergency, it seems to be possible to take out money from your bank account at the bank desk. I met a couple who had run of money and they have been told to do this. But you will probably loose money in the operation penalty.
How much money should I take with me?
It all depends on how much you have/are willing to spend. In my case, I was on a tight budget but still wanted to enjoy my time, and as I had been told that “Cuba is so expensive!”, I calculated a amount of USD70$ per day in order to feel comfortable. But guess what? I had quite a lot of money left when I traveled out of the country. It is always better to take more than not enough. Credit cards are not an option. Nobody takes credit cards really.
Speaking about money, how does it work with the two different currencies? Should I carry CUCs or CUPs?
I always struggle a bit with money when I get to a new country, but in Cuba it took me a while before I could understand the different currencies. In the end, it is not so complicated as it sounds like. 1 CUC (convertible peso)=1 USD. Easy. It has a 1:1 exchange rate, so if the dollar falls, the CUC will fall as well. 1 CUP (cuban peso)=26.5 CUCs. Most of the time you will only use CUCs, but it is always good to have a few CUPs in your wallet for local buses, street food or juices/fruits/vegetables on the local markets.
Where can I change money in La Habana?
You can change at a CADECA (change bureau). There is one in the airport where you will probably need to change a bit of money when you arrive, but the rate is a bit lower than in a CADECA in the city. Change just enough for a taxi to your guesthouse (around $20-25 CUC unfortunately) and then ask your hosts where you can change for a good rate in the area. Also, you can walk into the hotel Telegrafo or Hotel Inglaterra (right off of the Parque Central) and you can change your money there even if you aren’t a guest, but the rate might be lower (I haven’t done it, but it was one of the advices I have been given in Mexico).
Are they hostels in Cuba for budget travelers?
There is one hostel in the whole island, in La Habana, and it is always fully booked (at least during high season). But you will find guesthouses everywhere where you will share (or not) a room. Some of them includes breakfast, some includes dinner, but for the ones that don’t you will almost always have it as an option (for a few extra CUCS). The prices are usually between 9 and 15 CUCS the night, depending if you share a room or not. Always ask for the price in advance. The hosts will provide you with travel information, what to do in the city, and help you out booking tours or anything you need. They can also help you book another guesthouse in the next city you are traveling to. I highly recommend having dinner at the guesthouses: I had been told that cuban food was boring, that it had no flavor, but I actually found it delicious (was I lucky?), and sometimes it was even spicy.
What about the itinerary? Will I be able to go to many places if I only have a week in Cuba?
We were in Cuba for 7 days only, so we wanted to make the most of it, but without rushing anything. So we agreed not to go to the beach (although they seem really nice, Mexico has wonderful beaches) and go to discover the “inside Cuba”. We decided to travel from La Habana to Viñales and from Viniales to Trinidad.
And the transport? How do I get around?
In La Habana we almost only traveled by bus (really cheap, you pay it in CUP) and by foot of course! You see much more walking around. To travel to Vinales we wanted to book a long distance bus on Viazul but unfortunately it was high season and all the buses were full. So we shared a colectivo with 2 other travelers and it was perfect. The more you are in a collective, the less you’ll pay! Same for the rooms at the guesthouses. It’s a very good reason to go ahead and meet other travelers.
Is it possible to connect to the internet?
Yes, you can. Internet is available in some parks and squares. You will see a lot “zombies”, as one of my hosts use to call them. Don’t take my wrong! I am not talking about a The Walking Dead convention but about a full bunch of people with their nose stick to their smartphone. Just wonder a little around and you will find some men wondering about, offering an internet connection. 3 CUCs an hour. You can disconnect if you are done and reconnect later.
What to do in La Habana? Where to go? Any tips?
We haven’t spend much time in La Habana, but my highlights were:
- The Museum of Revolution (because I am a history freak maybe). My friend didn’t enjoy it as much as me because most of the explanations are in Spanish only. But I think it is worth it anyways to get to understand a bit better the country’s history and it's actual political situation.
- La Zorra y el Cuervo. A very good jazz club. I’ve listened to amazing music there!
- La Fabrica de Arte. If you are in La Habana between Wednesday and Sunday, don’t miss” (I did, I was there twice on a Tuesday…) but everybody says it’s fabulous! Located in the Vedado neighborhood, it’s an art gallery/museum that becomes a night club and it's got a great vibe with a more alternative crowd. It costs only 3 CUCs to get in.
- Walking around the historical center. Amazing architecture!
- Watching the sunset on the Malecon. Breathtaking!
What about Viñales?
Viñales was THE highlight of the week. We had an amazing time over there!
I highly recommend you to stay at Casa Nery, who is the kindest woman and best cook ever. She made us fell like part of the family. The 2 rooms she offers have a private bathroom each, and they are very clean, with comfy beds. Remember: the more you are sharing a room, the less you’ll pay! Breakfast is included, and I recommend you to have dinner at her place. You will eat much better than in a restaurant and much cheaper! Also, her nice, Yurisleidy, works with her and speaks English, which can be very helpful if you don’t speak Spanish.
What to do there:
Viñales offers much to do. You won’t get bored! You can go cycling, hiking, horseback riding, visit some caves such as La Cueva del Indio, rock climbing, etc. We were in Viñales for only 2 whole days so we did 2 main activities:
On the first day we went on a horseback riding tour with Domingo, a very sweet old man. We ride around this beautiful region of Viñales and first went to visit a cave, then we stopped at Palito’s tobacco farm. He showed us how he hand rolled the cigars and gave us some to smoke for free. Even if you are not a smoker you should totally try these cigars: they are 100% organic. Best thing ever. Then we stopped for a drink in a coffee plantation but decided not to visit it, as some big black clouds had appeared in the sky… We hurried back but in fear of the storm we stopped at Domingo’s place, and just in time before the rain. He’s family gave us a warm welcome and his wife pored us some hot (and too sweet!) coffee and offered us mangos and bananas. We sat down in his house until the rain stopped, and then headed back home.
On the second day we went rock climbing with Raul. I had never rock climbed in my life, and I had a blast. I felt perfectly safe every single second we spend with him, he is very supportive and cheering, and speaks very good English! I highly recommend Raul for any extreme sports you want to practice: he’s the man! You can get it touch with him through his Facebook page Xtremos. He will normally answer within 24hs. Or if you haven’t got in touch with him before traveling to Viñales, just ask Nery (if you are staying at her place-you should!-) or anybody else, he’s quite popular in the region.
Each night we would go out after dinner at Nery’s at the only place in Viñales were there was salsa dancing (on the main square, you can’t miss it). Girls, even if you don’t have a clue how to dance, you will be dragged out to wiggle on the dance floor, and you’ll have a super fun time! If you feel shy, just make sure you drink enough rum before 😉
We were actually in tears when we had to leave for Trinidad. Viñales was beyond expectations.
But is Trinidad worth going to?
Yes, Trinidad is a nice place. I was really sad because I missed Nery, Yurisleidy, Raul and all the friends I had made in Viñales, but it’s part of the traveling.
The historical part of Trinidad is very beautiful. It’s a nice place where to get lost! They is also many museums there, but we didn’t have the chance to go to any, as we were there only one day (and 2 nights). In the morning we went horseback riding (yes, again!) to a waterfall called Salto del Cabruni. Swimming in the natural pool was so refreshing! And in the afternoon we went down to the beach (playa Ancon) and met some cuban guys who took us to a 100% cuban party. We felt like two white wales, but it was super fun. The only non fun thing was the water: I was as warm as therms! Not refreshing at all. That night we went to a popular music show on the plaza and then to a disco IN A CAVE. Yes, a real cave! If you go to Trinidad, don’t miss it! It opens every day of the week, and I had never seen a club like this before!
I hope you’ll find these tips useful, don’t hesitate to contact me for any other question you may have, I would be glad to help. There is so much to explore in this very controversial country that I can’t wait to go back. And you, what are you waiting for?