We did a 10 day trip to Cuba , visiting Havana , Cienfuegos , Remedios and Trinidad , in March 2005. The weather was hot - at least 30 degrees centigrade everyday, and the sun is very strong, so take plenty of suncream! It is hard to buy toiletries and suncream in Cuba so take plenty of supplies of your own. Any leftovers are much appreciated by Cubans, for whom toiletries are hard to come by and extremely expensive. Mosquito repellant is also a must, especially for the evenings.
BEFORE YOU GO
Some tips before you go to Cuba:
- Learn Spanish
- Book your first few nights accomodation
- Buy medicine and toiletries (a lot of medicine is unavailable in Cuba)
- Buy Mosquito Repellent
- Get your visa/tourist Card from the Cuban Embassy (£15)
- Bring enough GBP Cash and/or GBP travellers cheques
- Bring a Money Belt
- Buy some spare Memory Cards for your camera, you'll take a lot of photos!
- If you want to drive, don't forget your driver's licence
- Bring enough reading material
- Photocopy some street maps from your guidebook so you don't have to get your guidebook out all the time
- Buy a hat, the sun is fierce!
Cubana and Virgin airlines do direct flights to Cuba . A number of other airlines (such as Air France ) also fly non-direct routes at a slightly cheaper price. You need a visa from the Cuban embassy to enter the country which costs about £15 - visit their website for full details. For a true experience of Cuba , it is well-worth learning Spanish. Few Cubans speak much English, and if you can make yourself understood in Spanish (even if you are not very good!), you will find the Cubans very appreciative and ready to help. The Cubans are highly educated people, who like to talk - so the more Spanish you can learn, the richer your trip will be, particularly if you stay in casas particulares (similar to a B&B in the UK), where you can learn so much more about Cuban life.
American dollars are no longer accepted currency in Cuba . There are two currencies operating in Cuba - the peso, used by Cubans, and the convertible peso, used by tourists. Convertible pesos are equivalent in value to American dollars. When paying for something, it is always worth checking whether the price is in pesos or convertible pesos - as a convertible peso is worth many times a standard peso. It probably goes without saying, but never change money on the street. In Havana particularly, tourists are approached by people offering to change money at good rates - they may well be genuine but there are plenty of horror stories of people finding afterwards that they have been conned into accepting standard pesos (which are worth a fraction of convertible pesos).
There are plenty of banks that will change your money safely, it is best to take GBP in cash or GBP Traveller's Cheques (NOT American Express as these won't be accepted). Also note that SWITCH cards are not accepted in ATMs only Visa Cards and be prepared for a small commision charge each time you withdraw so it is worth doing this a little as possible. When you arrive at the airport try going upstairs to departures you will find the queue for money a lot shorter than in arrivals!
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On arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport you can get a taxi for CUC25 from straight out the front, either someone will come and order you one or just go outside and you'll get attention. The journey to Central Habana takes about 35 minutes.
We hired a car to travel between cities. Hitching is part of everyday life for Cubans, as many people don't own cars. While our copy of the Lonely Planet guide book says that picking up hitchers is safe, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of rental cars are shiny and new - and, as such, mark you out as wealthy tourists with no local knowledge. From a safety viewpoint, bear this in mind when deciding whether or not to pick up hitchers. Some friends of ours who visited Cuba around the same time had a very uncomfortable experience with a hitcher, which left them unharmed but shaken.
The roads in Cuba are not very well signposted, and gasoline stations are nowhere near as regular as in the UK . Havana is particularly difficult to navigate out of - it took us many tries, and many stops to ask for directions, before we managed to get onto the motorway out of Havana ! If you are going to hire a car try and get hold of a proper road map (there is a map shop in Havana mentioned in the Lonely Planet or get one at the airport) as the hire companies don't tend to provide anything of any use.
If you are not staying in Cuba for a very long time hiring a car is probably the best way to get around to ensure you are able to see plenty of Cuba
Viazul is an air-con people carrier service for tourists and is your best bet if you don't the hassle of driving. The buses are normally always on time and it is possible to buy tickets on the day. You are advised, though, to book your tickets a couple of days before. This can either be done when you arrive at the airport, look out for the Viazul desk at the arrivals hall, or in one of the Infotur kiosks around Havana. It is also possible to book online (www.viazul.com) or to telephone, but you will still need to queue up to collect your tickets on the day of your trip. Allow at least 30 mins to queue up and get/collect your tickets and to put your luggage in. It is also worth bringing some food supplies as the cafe at the Viazul bus station in Havana is terrible. The bus does make at least one stop for refreshements and toilets. One other thing to note is that the bus terminal in Habana is a little way out of the centre, allow about 20 mins (CUC8-10) in a taxi.
At the time of our trip, rail travel had a bad reputation in Cuba for being unpredictable and unreliable. There are also some standard buses that the locals use however these have a similar reputation to the trains
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We stayed two nights in hotels, and the rest of the time in casas particulares - state-regulated bed and breakfasts in private houses. We found the casas to be much more friendly, far better value, and more comfortable, plus it is nicer to feel that you are contributing directly towards a family's income, rather than a company. The Cubans are very friendly, and very hospitable, and in one casa, we were included in conversations, mojitos and domino games in the evenings. Some casas will offer to serve dinner - our experience of this was excellent, with the food being the most delicious and freshest we ate in Cuba , and considerably cheaper than in restaurants. Several companies specialise in finding and booking casas particulares for UK tourists - this is the one we used:
We found them very helpful and friendly, although it is worth bearing in mind that Cubans do not share the sense of urgency that most people in the UK are used to, so be prepared to be persistent! Also, do leave plenty of time for booking your accommodation, as you need proof of initial accommodation in order to obtain your visa.
Hotel Inglaterra - Old well maintained hotel with clean rooms (Doubles £90 a night) good views of Central Park, the restaurant here is best avoided
Casa Felix (Trinidad) - Lovely, welcoming Casa in an old colonnial house offering tasty meals, info about guided tours, patio area out back to relax. Ensuite bathrooms and aircon.
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PLACES TO VISIT
Our Habana highlight was really just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere. The city itself is full of beautiful impressive buildings, half falling down, and there is music everywhere. There is a fabulous book market in the Plaza de Armas, which is definitely worth a look. Jineteros (hustlers who try to befriend you and steer you towards their friends' bars, restaurants and accommodation, for which they will receive a commission, paid for by you) are common in tourist areas in Cuba , but they are very prevalent and persistent in Habana . The best way to deal with them is a polite but firm "no gracias" (no thanks) - they are generally non-threatening and good-natured, but it's best not to get caught up in a conversation otherwise you may find it difficult to extract yourself. That being said Habana is pretty safe compared to some South American cities we never at any point felt threatened or in danger.
Camera Oscura - For CUC2 you can take a lift up to the Camera Oscura which offers impressive views of Habana from the rooftop and the Camera Oscura allows intriguing close ups to some of the cities architecture and the guide speaks good English and will teach you a little about Habanas' history.
The Maleceon - The fabled sea wall is a popular spot for evening walks and hanging about. In the 'colder' months the sea can crash over the wall and over the street making it quite an impressive site, the floor though, at this time can get a bit slippery so keep an eye on where your walking.
The Market - Sprawling souvenir market which is only open certain days, a good place to buy paintings and souvenirs
Plaza de Revolucion - This impressive square is where Castro does his big speeches and the memorial to Jose Marti is also worth a look, when its open good views can be had of Habana.
Laid-back Cienfuegos is a perfect balance after busy Havana . This coastal town has plenty going on. Our highlight was the Casa de la Cultura Benjamin Duarte (5401 Calle 25, on the western side of Parque Marti). This former palace is splendidly decayed, and for around 1 convertible peso, you can wander around to your heart's content. The views from the mirador (viewing tower) are incredible.
It's also worth having a drink at the rooftop terrace of the Palacio de Valle (Calle 37 at Av 2) - this Moorish style palace is very impressive, and the views from the terrace are great.
Remedios is famous for its Christmas Eve fiesta, complete with floats, fireworks and dancing. For the other 364 days of the year, it ' s a lovely sleepy little town, well worth a day's visit. But it is worth knowing that all the museums, including the exhibition of the Christmas Eve fiesta, are closed on Mondays.
Trinidad is a fabulous colonial town, with cobbled streets and beautiful architecture. An old pirate haunt, it is full of atmosphere. There is a lot to do here, you should allow at least 3 days to explore. The nearby beach Playa Ancon is very beautiful, but it is about 12 km away from the town, so a car does come in handy, but a taxi is very cheap, there is a set fare of CUC2 per person in Trinidad. Also a car drive away is the incredible Valle De Los Ingenios, the ruins of 19th century sugar plantations and mills. The sinister slave-watching tower offers splendid views, as does the nearby Mirador.
In the evenings take a wander down to the main square, as most nights there is fantastic music and dancing. A Cristal (one of the local beers), listening to the music and watching the professionals dancing is a great way to end a day!
The Crab Road
Along the road from Trinidad to Cienfuegos , there is a stretch known as Crab Road - named for the millions of crabs that cross it on their route from the cliffs to the sea. It is a very surreal experience, which inevitably ends badly for quite a number of the crabs. I'm sure it must be a seasonal migration, but the crabs were certainly present in force in mid-March! The crabs themselves are fabulous - brightly orange and red - and it does feel a bit like being in a David Attenborough documentary, complete with vultures feeding off the remains of the ones that didn't scuttle quickly enough!
La Julia (506 O'Reilly, Old Habana) - A private eating house (Paladar), staff are very friendly and welcoming, large helpings of local food (Rice, beans, chicken) at cheap prices, a good budget option.
El Mercurio (Plaza de San Francisco de Asis/Oficios) - Elegant European style cafe restaurant serving tasty breakfasts and good coffee. The Omelette with Chorizo, Ham and Cheese is recommended.
La Patio (Plaza de la Cathedral) - A large mid Range to expensive restuarant with stunning views over the square and the cathedral. The food if OK and the service is rather slow and forgetful, this is, however, made up for by location and ambience.
El Gringo Viejo (Calle 21 between Calles E & F, Vedado) - Lovely gem of a family resturant tucked away in the leafy suburbs of Vedado. The food is tasty, although the meat is more of a speciality than the fish. The staff are friendly and helpful.
La Domenica (O Reilly) - Up market Italian restaurant which provides a good break from rice and beans. Good atmosphere sitting outside with live band. The food is good depending on what you order and what ingredients they have. The putanesca was good but their spaghetti bolognese was very bland, avoid the bruschetta. The pizzas are highly recommended and come in decent sizes. Wine is quite expensive here.
La Lluvio de Oro (Obispo) - Expansive beer hall with lively cuban music every night, a popular place with travellers, this place can get busy. Good Mojitos (2.75) and cheap food.
Cafe O Reilly (O Reilly) - Bar on two levels, the upstairs has a balcony in which you can people watch the street below. They often have live music and watch out for the charicturist who will almost certainly start drawing you if you are there long enough!
Taberna de la Muralla (Plaza Vieja) - Austrian run pub with its own micro brewery, a great place to sit out on the square and people watch. The Maleceon Social Club are regular entertainers here and the kebabs also come recommended.
Cafe Paris (Obispo) - Popular traveller hangout serving good mojitos and pino coladas, they also serve Pizzas. Live music most nights from the excellent in house local Cuban band.
Cafe Fiat (Maleceon) - Modern oasis of a cafe/bar that is a welcome refuge from the searing heat of the Maleceon in the summer.
Meson de la Flota - Spanish Music Hall with live flamenco music although they seem to take more breaks than play. Tapas was pretty ordinary and they had not potatoes when we were there. The main courses did look more appetising though.
La Bodega del Medio - Nice old bar that would be a good place for a drink if it wasn't for Ernest Hemingway whose past visitations here have led the place to become a grossly expensive tourist trap. Pay $4 for a Mojito and get blinded by flash cameras in the process. The signed wall is worth a look though it makes you wonder how some people signed so high!
La Casa del Escabeehe (Obispo) - Great local bar with a good local band, this is a good place to come for cheap drinks and a dance with Cubans. Watch out for the Mafia boss style owner and intermittent coke dealers.
La Floridito - Another famous Hemingway haunt in more plusher surroundings than La Bodega, here you can get an overpriced (but arguably excellent) Dacquiri for $6 served by the waiters in red coats. This is a very touristy place.
Monseratte Bar - Cheaper alternative to La Floridito, spit and sawdust style bar with cheap drinks and good live music, a good mix of Cubans and foreigners.
Casa Musica - The only place to be for live music and a party, on the steps leading down to the Plaza Mayor, this open air place fills up quickly, but you can watch or join in with the salsa dancing or chat with the locals.
La Canchachara - Traditional Son Music Taverna with an interesting house cocktail made from Rum, Honey, Lemon and Water (CUC 2.50) , the banjo player in the house band here is amazing.
Palenque de los Congos Reales - Free live Son music in an open patio style environment, open late.
Guachinango Farmhouse (Sugar Mills Valley) - Pretty ranch in the Cuban countryside where you can get a light lunch, beer and listen to the local band. Horse riding is also available from here.
Casa de Cultura - The hub of live music in Vinales popular with locals and tourists alike. The centre was built as a memorial to Marina Azcuy, one of Cubas' most revered musicians who was sadly killed in a car crash. Its worth noting here that before the excellent live music you have to sit through some excruciatingly poor Latin American MTV! A great place to watch the Salsa masters!
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Info supplied by Andy Webb and Zoe Wales