This year the destination dejour is Cuba and having my friend Shailyn from Earthuncovered a regular visitor and advocate of the beautiful, contradictory and patience testing country it was on my list too. I have returned from two weeks wandering along the set tourist path; Havana, Vinales, Trinidad and Varadero staying in hotels, airbnb, casa’s and all inclusive resorts. We tried nearly every type of transport possible; government taxis, classic cars in various states of repair, local taxis we weren’t meant to be able to get in (it was an accident and we overpaid!), tourist buses, coco’s (modified mopeds) and bicycles. Havana is a bustling city, reminding me of Phuket in Thailand with a little less hassling from locals, plenty of hit and miss food locations, Cubans out on the street gossiping at all hours, repairing their furniture or watching the world go by.
I made plenty of notes everywhere we went to pass on tips as there doesn’t seem to much practical information available for travelers or what is known seems to suffer a fate of chinese whispers!
Getting cash. You already know Cuba has a closed currency so you have to get money when you arrive at the airport. Everyone from your plane will be in the arrivals terminal lining up at these cash counters for at least half an hour. You however will head up the escalator to departures, go to the money changer there, be done in 5 minutes and back down to arrivals to get your yellow government taxi to your hotel or casa! If you want local currency that the Cubans use just hand some of the CUC (Convertibles) back to the money changer and ask for Pesos. We found Pesos useful for tipping at the toilets for rest stops and buying snacks along the Malecon in Havana but if you aren’t venturing off the tourist trail there isn’t really any advantage to having the Pesos as all stores have a set conversion rate and you will pay the same amount.
Getting around. Put your hand out and a car will stop and take you where you want to go. Don’t worry if there are all ready people in the car, you are just about to experience what I call Cuba Pool! Confirm the amount with the driver beforehand even in government taxis as they don’t always turn on their meters. Practically every fare was 5-10CUC to get from one side of the city to the other for budgeting. Organise a Classic Car to drive you around on your first day so you can get a lay of the town. Depending on your negotiation skills and current demand these are around 25-40CUC per hour. The driver will know a good place for lunch and wait for you at no cost. Take him up on his offer or risk going back into Old Havana for a ham and cheese sandwich again!
Fabrica de Arte (FAC) is a converted oil factory that is an art gallery, theater space, cinema and music venue. Entrance is 2CUC that includes a coupon that you get stamped for everything you eat and drink, then you settle up at the end when you leave. Alcoholic drinks are 2-4CUC and there is small food section in the back with basics like cuban sandwiches for around 5CUC. This venue is incredibly popular with locals and tourists so I recommend getting in before 9pm. A bit early for Cuban nightlife but by 10pm the queue is at least 100 people snaking around the block. We saw a local Cuban singer, a theater troupe perform a story about Cuban relationships, a photographic display on Cuba and danced the end of the night away on the dance floor!
Hotel International has a great view of the Malecon and oceanwall with a sprawling lawn for drinks. A little more pricey for your beverage but not that much overall and there are also local musicians wandering around. The interior of the hotel is gorgeous as well dating back to the 1930’s with all the timber paneling and I felt like I was in a Frank Sinatra film!
Next stop Vinales? We took the tourist bus Viazul from Hotel Presidente which is the last pick up saving you around an hour and a half on the bus driving around Havana. The hotel also does a nice buffet breakfast for 9CUC and then you can retire to the veranda for an additional juice or coffee whilst you wait. Let the concierge know you are there to catch the Viazul and he will make sure you don’t miss it. Remember to tip him 1CUC per person!
Hit and Miss Food. Havana is a big city and lots of food that is farmed around Cuba is transported in, this means it isn’t that fresh or has been preserved by salt or smoke. We quickly agreed on two criteria to eat somewhere; be able to see the food and plenty of local people eating there and a bonus if there were queues to get in! We had success at El Litoral (book ahead), Cafe Bohemia and Cafe Laurent (ref your Lonely Planet).
Accommodation. A condition of our Cuban Visa was to have our first couple of nights booked before arriving so after some searching we booked a Casa through Airbnb. There are plenty available in Havana and this is particularly good for large groups as you can book out entire floors with 3-4 bedrooms. Cuban hospitality does not diminish by using Airbnb and our hosts were still able to provide breakfast and a maid service which we confirmed once we arrived.