You gotta be quicker than Mc Donald’s!!
In January I watched the news and panicked! Ok…wait!! This sounds wrong, I mean I was happy to hear that the US changed their Cuba sanctions. But I knew that these changes would mean the beginning of a process that I did not want to see…Don’t take me wrong, I understand that Cuba needs this change (given that it will bring positive effects for the Cuban people, hopefully!!), but from a travellers point of view this was shocking news! I wanted to see Cuba BEFORE Mcdonald’s and Starbucks arrive!
So, with sweaty hands I sent off a message to a friend who just asked me if I had any travel plans for the upcoming spring… I did now! Let’s go to Cuba ASAP!! We booked our flights for March anxious to get there in time before the Americans would 🙂 Puhhh, and we just arrived in time….actually when we got there it looked very much the way it must have looked for the past decades: old cars, old buildings, horse carriages, rusty bicycles, hardly any internet access, regulated wages etc. We made it and saw Cuba in its very surreal and unchanged state. Check out our travel tips for Cuba!
With 3 million inhabitants, Cuba’s capital is busy and full of life. Havana is also the starting point for most travellers, even though there are some other cities that operate internationally. For example, from Canada you can fly into Varadero, where you’ll find one of the most popular beaches in Cuba. We didn’t go there though because it sounded very much developed and crowded… Anyways, in Havana we learned a lot about the local mix of cigars, rum and music. In combination with all those vintage cars that are still driving the streets of Havana, it gives this city a special vibe.
There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC and Moneda Nacional. CUC (Cuban Universal Currency) is for tourists, so if you want to pay local prices go change your CUCs and get Moneda Nacional. For us (in March 2015) the value was as follows: 1 Euro=1,05 CUC –> 1 CUC=25 Moneda Nacional. You can get Moneda Nacional in a bank or money exchange places.
If you are travelling on a budget like we did and don’t want to stay in hotels, don’t think of the usual hostel as an alternative! In Cuba you’ll find the so-called “Casa Particulares”. This means that some Cubans have a licence to rent out a room in their house. They offer usually bed and breakfast, some even cook you lunch and dinner if you don’t like to eat out. In some places we actually ate better food cooked from our host mummas than in a restaurant. So, I’d say it is worth trying their cooking at least sometimes. This way you also support your host family rather than a restaurant, which we found a nice way to say thank you for their (VERY awesome) hospitality.
In general I would say that Cuba is a very safe country to travel through. But like everywhere else you have to be smart and alert about your things. Plus, it has become a “sport” of some Cubans to make some extra money on the side with tourists. So, for example booking rooms in advance can turn out to be used as such an opportunity: We booked our very first “Casa particular” for Havana online, just because we thought it would be hassle free to arrive in Havana knowing an address to go to…well, it usually is more comfortable not having to look around with your backpack on your shoulders after a long flight and perhaps a jet lag, but in our case it actually took us longer to get to the final destination…. The reason: Our reservation was apparently made by the owner of the house, who was gone on holiday for a few weeks and who must have messed up our booking.
So, even though we showed our email confirmation to the couple who took care of the place while the owner was away, they said they had never heard of our reservation and therefore had no room for us. BUT, no problem, we could stay at their place instead! Long story short, we stayed, because we were tired and all worked out ok. But it was far away from Havana’s centre (35 min by local bus). And afterwards we read in the “Lonely Planet” that this was a classical scam and trick to make some extra money on pre-bookings… BUT, we didn’t pay more for the room, we had our breakfast included and a nice and clean room. So, all in all, not too bad either. Still, you might want to keep this in mind before making a reservation in advance!
There is a bus company called Viazul (www.viazul.com) that connects many of the places in Cuba. Make sure to check their website though for the actual schedule…we relied on the Lonely Planet one time and missed the bus from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa. And in general: IT’S FREEZING!! Be aware that in ALL the Viazul busses the AC is on very low and can’t be regulated! So before you board, make sure to take out all the sweaters, long pants and towels that you have in your luggage, no kidding, you will need it, especially if you travel over night! Also, at some bus stations Viazul workers set up signs that say 1 CUC for your luggage…we spoke to one of the drivers one day and he told us that these signs are not official/not from the company, it’s just another way to earn a bit extra… you decide!
Save 25 CUC for the fee you’ll have to pay at the airport when leaving Cuba!
THE ROUTE – 3 weeks is not enough time!!!
So if you want to go and follow our route, here is what we did, how much we spent and where we went…very detailed and very specific for those who’d like to get some ideas and are like us on the run to still see Cuba in its momentary state!
Havana (3 days):
- Arriving at the airport, we got out money from the ATM: there is a 3% charge. Later we saw that if you bring cash you can exchange money at the exchange office on the second floor – with no charge!
- A taxi from the airport to the city centre/Havana Vieja: 25 CUC
- We stayed in a “Casa particular” (see general info above) for 20 CUC/per night incl. breakfast (I won’t recommend this one though because it was outside of Havana (see the “Scams” info above)
- Hop-on Hop-off Sightseeing City Tour: 5 CUC for a day pass (nice way to avoid walking around in the heat!)
- The local bus is 0,20 Pesos (Moneda Nacional) each trip
- Sights: Capitol, Malecon, Calle Obispo (good for shopping, bars/restaurant and coconut ice cream out of coconut shells!! mmm)
- “Havana Vieja” (the old town of Havana) is worth a stroll to stop for a Mojito or Cuba Libre! It is actually part of the UNESCO world heritage list and you can tell that this nomination caused a wave of restoration of many buildings in that part of the city. You are walking through cute little streets and pass by bright coloured houses with a lot of music and art on the street.
Playa Larga/Bay of Pigs (2 days):
- The Viazul Bus leaves (or at least did so in March!) at 7am from Havana to Playa Larga for 12 CUC/person.
- “Hostal” Legendario, really the only hostel-like place which is directly at the beach and offers small rooms with a little terrace, breakfast, a welcome drink for 25 CUC. Some evenings they offer salsa classes for free (we missed it) and have a big dinner option for 8 CUC with ocean view….
- The beach “Playa Larga” was nice, even though the name “long beach” sounds longer than it actually is…
- There is just one restaurant on the main road which offers food (around 5 CUC) and then you can get something to eat at the kiosk. That’s about it…or else you eat in your “Casa”…it’s a very small place, so you might wanna bring food!
- We went scuba diving for 25 CUC (with licence) at the local dive centre Octupus Club. Diving for beginners without a licence is 35 CUC and snorkelling 10 CUC: all you need to do is let your host know that you want to go the next day and they call the company that picks up all the tourist in the area with a big (SCHOOL!!) bus and bring them to the dive centre 15 minutes away from Playa Larga.
Travel Tips for Cuba, Cienfuegos (1 day):
- So here is a tricky one…leaving Playa Larga is a bit of a juggle: you can either wait for the Viazul Bus that comes around 9 or 9:30am and pay 8 CUC once you board…IF there is a seat left! Or you negotiate with the taxi drivers that hang out at the bus stop and offer you the same price like the bus ticket, because they also know about the sometimes fully booked Viazul Buses. We ended up taking their offer for 1 CUC less per person just because we thought it’s a nice change and travelling in an “Oldtimer” was very cool 🙂
- Casa la Fuente Oraldo & Olivia, 25 CUC incl. breakfast: very nice building, high colonial ceilings, very lovely people, yummy breakfast!!
- Sights: Old town/city centre, waterfront, beach about 15km by local bus, national park El Nicho (we skipped that one but heard it’s a nice park!)
Trinidad (2 days):
- We liked the taxi idea and drove for 5 CUC from Cienfuegos to Trinidad (instead for 6 CUC by bus) with 3 other travellers…the taxis only leave when their car is full…and by full means 5 people in a normal car, sometimes 6! 🙂
- We stayed in a private house which had no license…so I’d rather not name it here.
- We rode our bikes (3 CUC organised by our host mum) to the beach “Playa Ancon” (12 km), nice trip, sandy beach!
- Sights: Old town, Plaza Mayor
Santa Clara (2 days):
- This time we took the bus again, 8 CUC from Trinidad
- And like before, we found our place to stay after arriving. Just walking down the street after leaving the bus terminal someone recommended a place….and we found out later that it was not an licensed one…we paid 20 CUC incl. breakfast
- Santa Clara is all about history! Here you can soak up Che Guevara’s impressive journey!
- Sights: Che Monument and Mausoleum, tobacco production place, train monument, old city centre
Santiago de Cuba (3 days):
- We went with the overnight bus from Santa Clara to Santiago which left at 7:30pm and arrived at 7am in Santiago: 33 CUC (bring your blankets!!)
- Casa 15 CUC incl. breakfast
- Usually people go on a tour and see “El Salto” which is a waterfall, but for us it wasn’t possible to go because it was too dry, so there was no water…
- And we met many people going on a 1-2 day tour to the national park with the highest mountain of Cuba “Pico Turquino”. we didn’t go there either, because we spent more time exploring the city
- Nightlife: Casa de la Trova, Casa de Artes
Baracoa (3 days):
- By bus from Santiago to Baracoa: 15 CUC
- Casa Onilda: 15 CUC incl. breakfast: very nice place, beautiful big room and lovely people!!
- Baracoa is known for great food, it’s the chocolate/coconut area with also a lot of natural beauty products on offers, great seafood too!!
- Sights: Hiking trip with guide to Humboldt National Park, incl. 1 hour at beautiful Playa Managua
- Mountain hike to “El Yunque”
- “Playa Blanca” don’t get fooled by everyone who says it’s a nice beach (and bring 2CUC for entry fee!)… but I’d suggest walking towards the beach anyways, because the old wooden bridge was fun and beautiful when the sun sets!
- Indiana Jones feeling 🙂
- If you want to go to Holguin from here, keep in mind that the busses only go Wednesdays and Saturdays!!
- We went back to Santiago for one night to break up the LOOONG way back…
Ciego de Avila/Moron (2 days):
- The bus is 24 CUC from Santiago de Cuba. From there we took a taxi to Moron for 20 CUC/car (we were 4 persons)
- So Moron is the starting point to get to Cayo Coco…. THE MOST GORGEOUS BEACH on Cuba!! But there are only few places to stay on Cayo Coco (and mostly high-end hotels). Still, you end up driving for one hour in a taxi for 60 CUC/car (if you are four people that’s ok…), but it would be a lot more relaxed just to stay there…perhaps worth the money
- Make sure you have your passport with you when going to Cayo Coco, don’t leave it in the hotel! There is a police control for EVERYONE who enters the area. There are many different beaches on Cayo Coco (which is actually an island connected with a long street constructed in the water…), we went to the beaches Playa Larga and Playa Pilar
- On the way we stopped to see Flamingos!
Viñales (4 days):
- Now followed our longest and most complicated trip: by taxi (2 CUC) we went from Moron back to Ciego de Avila
- From there we took the local bus to Havana (wooden seats and packed), stopped WAY out of Havana…so we had to find another bus to Havana centre…
- then we missed the bus and paid a taxi driver to Vinales: 15 CUC/person: which was nice because I made a comment on the nice car and the driver let me drive it for a bit 😀
- There are places everywhere to stay…you don’t need to worry, you’ll find a “Casa” without knowing beforehand. Ours had no name, so hard to recommend and was 20 CUC incl. breakfast
- Sights: It’s all about the valley in Vinales!!! We made a tour on a horseback in order to see the gorgeous “Valle de Vinales’: 3-5 CUC/hour
- Go watch the sunset in “Valle de Silencio” (Silent Valley)
- After all that long bus rides we were ready for massage: 25 CUC/hour
- People told us about a day trip to a dive spot/beach called “Maria Gorda”…but we were too lazy and didn’t go!
Playa del Este (20 km East of Havana):
- Just at the end of our trip, we needed beach time. So we decided to spend our two last days before heading back to Havana at the beach. Unfortunately it was a bit crowded and a lot of people left their trash/rum bottles at the beach…
- There are plenty of places to stay for 25 CUC without breakfast, when you arrive in Guanabo just ask around. We got one 2 minutes after getting off the bus…
- Take a “collectivo” (taxi) for 2 CUC per Person if you have a lot of luggage and don’t want to squeeze in the local bus that runs from there frequently
Last night in Havana:
- Just before leaving Cuba, we wanted to get THE picture in a classical old car, so we paid 10 CUC to a guy with a very nice car to take us for a short ride at the Malecon (the famous harbour promenade) for one last ride and THE picture 🙂
- Our last evening we met up with an old friend of mine from Munich and his newly wed wife (they got married in Havana and were on their honeymoon). We celebrated with Mojitos and said Goodbye to a wonderful Cuba!
Thanks a lot to my travel buddy Elena from whom I learned that raw garlic can be your best choice if you don’t have a spread for your bread. And who wrote down all these details for her friend who lent us her “Lonely Planet” before that friend even had travelled to Cuba herself… (but that’s a different story) 😀[clear-line]
PIN THIS BEAUTY!
Did you like this post? Have you been to Cuba? Please leave a comment, if you have any other advice! Your feedback is highly appreciated!