Cuba is the perfect place for the last minute, spontaneous traveler who prefers little preparation or planning ahead. Over this past year, with the luxury of time and flexibility, I have opted for one way flights whereby I can decide once in a place where and when I'll go next. Because If I've learned anything from my recent expeditions, if you do have that luxury to change your mind and direction within travel - it can greatly add value to your experience, and not just monetarily.
Cuba for a long time had been a 'Forbidden land' to American tourists, therefore, I’d always been curious about visiting this intriguing, mysterious, and elusive country. The idea to visit Cuba this spring arose when a friend I’d met on my travels last year, suggested it as a meeting place. Because it was so far in the future and thinking by then I’d have a full time job, boyfriend, or both - I didn't commit to anything until a week before the departure (as it turned out I had neither at that point). Booked last minute flights from SFO > CUN > HAV totaled $550. This was the easiest and most affordable route to take via Mexico.
On one of our many Skype conversations about the trip, I threw out the idea of biking around part of Cuba - as a fairly avid cyclist it sounded like the ultimate adventure. I saw a cool YouTube video of a guy who did just that, and and at the end he donated his bike to a well deserving local. Feeling inspired, the day before leaving I decided to bring my beloved road bike of 15 years to use and then give away. I set out to figure out how the hell to pack a bike.
However, after many calls to the airlines and a visit to the bike shop, I discovered it would cost hundreds of dollars and as much of a do-gooder I wanted to be - decided to skip it and rent a bike there. Bike tourism isn’t huge in Cuba at all, but I luckily found one out of two Canadian run rental companies in Havana and it seemed straightforward enough.
Money, Getting in, Staying Connected :
Money exchange - American banks can not be accessed here so you will have to bring all of your cash with you, no use of ATMS or credit cards. With that said, prepare to bring lots of cash. It’s NOT a cheap country overall. It’s ideal if you can get your hands on some euros - you’ll get a much better exchange rate compared to USD, which automatically is charged a 10-13% fee. I went to a Travelex in my local bank to get euro’s and casually mentioned I was headed to Cuba. Do not mention anything about visiting Cuba, they won’t give you money! Learned that the hard way, but honestly it made me even more excited about visiting a country with so many restrictions. Such a rebel.
Having read several examples of people who asked to not have their passport stamped, I felt confident about doing the same so there would be no trace of my travels to Cuba. When I landed in Havana and waited in the cluttered line at border control, I was pulled aside by a woman in plain clothes who asked several questions about my purpose of travel. Already prepared to say “journalistic activity,” one of the 12 government enlisted travel categories, I told her I was there to shoot a documentary. “Yes I worked for myself, here’s my website, contact information, sure you can look through my bag” … I started to sweat and asked a couple times, “is everything OK?”
She nodded and finally ushered me to the passport agent who within 2 seconds stamped my passport. “Nooo...I didn’t want it stamped,” I said. “Well you should have told me, sorry,” she said. I grabbed my passport, quickly found the stamp and the part that said Republic of Cuba was hardly legible. To make it even less so, I wet my finger and tried to wipe it just a teeny bit more. Stupid yes, but I was motivated by the image of being handcuffed and taken to airport jail when I returned home. *I’ve had some bad travel experiences involving airport police.
Shortly thereafter, I rolled into the heart of Havana in a 1950’s chevy (or something like that) and was immediately hit by the sticky heat, crumbled buildings, and a chaos of people filled the streets. I felt as if I was an extra on a giant movie set, full of every mid-century classic American car in every style and color, with once beautifully constructed buildings now cracked, worn, and dilapidated, with weathered tributes to the dream of Americana. Cuba is literally a country stuck in time and desperate for progress, a result from being cut off from modernity by our cruel embargo enforced a half century ago.
Like most things in Cuba, rates are negotiable and if you offer a fair enough price they will usually agree. Just don’t be a cheap arsehole and low-ball too much, be aware that Cubans give over HALF of what they earn to the government and their average salary is a $18-20/month. A MONTH, people! As a culture they are very honest and seem to be government fearing, which as a result Cuba is very safe country with a low incidence of crime.
To survive and live comfortably, most people have a side hustle because who the hell can live on that kind a salary? We met doctors who earn much more driving taxi’s, farmers selling fruit illegally on the side of the road, and aquarium workers offering to swim with dolphins for 3 x their salary for an hour. Which brings me to the two types of currency. There’s CUC which equals $1, and CUP which is the locals currency. You’ll see the difference in the two, watch out for the 3 CUP bill with Che Guevara, it's good luck. I’d try and get your hands on the local CUP’s, you can give them CUC and get CUP’s in change.
It’s cheaper in the long run for things and made sense to use in the smaller less touristy towns, and I usually preferred to eat in the local joints anyway. They get a kick out of seeing gringo’s eating in their local spots, and would usually ask us how we found the place. Just ask a local where to go, of course. watch out for the 3 CUP bill with Che Guevara, it's good luck.
For those of us who are addicted to wifi, this country will challenge that addiction and force you to look at your habits a little differently. Cuba just got legal wifi about a year ago, and can only be accessed in public parks. Which seems so counterintuitive, right? A select number of public parks allow access and you have to purchase a card for $2-3/hour. And this is for everyone, not just tourists. You can get the card from guys selling them for a $1 mark-up around the parks or you can wait in long queue. Either way I was so aware of my usage that an hour card was stretched over 3 days sometimes, I didn’t waste any time on social media, or just scrolling through random content and sometimes we couldn’t find wifi for 3-4 days in the smaller towns. I was deliberate, and would write emails or text ahead of time and then just press send.
Honestly, it was a relief not to be tied to my phone, having the option or excuse to not respond immediately, or get lost in social media’s endless web. It was a nice change of pace and kind of fun to resort to setting a meeting time/place, and actually following through. As strange as it was to see huge groups of people sitting in the park with their laptops, skyping with loved ones, and carrying on intimate conversations in such a public space- you didn’t see people aimlessly on their phones outside of the parks, avoiding social interaction like us addicts do so much of the time.
Sure, you have the big fancy hotels (none of the large chains, though) but why stay in those when you can have a more authentic experience renting a room in a local's home or the entire flat? These rentals called, ‘Casa Particulars,’ are everywhere, easy to find, and you can rent them with little to no pre-planning. Perfect!
You will start to see this symbol all over the place on people’s doors, hanging on signs, and on small tiles above the door. Once you see a place that looks nice, has a sweet terrace, or is in a desirable area just walk up to the door, knock, politely say “Hola” and ask if they have availability. It’s that simple.
And If they don’t have anything available, usually the homeowner will cheerily invite you in, offer you a coffee and will call up their cousin, brother, nephew, or some other family member or friend to see if they have space. We even had a woman call ahead to the next 4 towns we were set out to visit and ensured we had a place to stay and negotiated the same nightly rate. The rooms are the same price no matter how many people you have in the room, and usually there are two full beds or a large queen. We paid anywhere from $15 - $35/night and 85% of time included a decent breakfast. If you’re lucky, dinners are also on offer for an extra $6-8 and I have to say some of my favorite meals were in the casa’s. *More on the food in a minute.
We learned that almost every Cuban is given a home by the government, and most of the them have been kept in the family for several generations. Like many other cultures, the entire family can be found living together until the children are well into adulthood. A prime source of income for families with extra space is to turn part of their home into a Casa Particular. As modest and outdated as the rooms can be - with silk bedding, lace doily decor, and fake flowers- they were always clean and had a fan or AC, and tiny refrigerator with cold drinks for purchase. It’s like the old-school mini-bar, and for much less!
You can now also book properties through Airbnb, but only if you’re doing so from outside the country. When I tried to book a room the same day, an error message popped up something like, “we see you are in Cuba and you’re not allowed to book from there”. I received a similar error message when I tried to log into my bank, they put my account on lockdown real fast until I was able to later verify my identity when back in the states. While it may seem things have relaxed a bit in regards to Americans traveling to Cuba, American companies still have a lot of restrictions against spending money there. Hopefully this changes quickly.
As a fairly new to solo traveler, who mostly enjoys it because I never feel completely alone, I personally didn't feel the country is yet designed for this adventurous soul. Here’s why: after spending the first two weeks with a guy by my side, I had a contrasting experience when my girlfriend came for a short visit. While it’s one thing to get the occasional eyebrow raise, head turn, or whistle --being completely eye f*cked, followed, constantly approached by groups of men who asked “where are you from,?” was overwhelming. But once we were again in the company of a guy, all the oogling and oggling practically came to a halt. So ladies, take this into consideration and team up with a male travel partner if you are able to!
Also, because there isn’t a hostel culture there (yet), the chances of meeting fellow solo travelers are slim. I primarily spotted couples or groups of guys, and the occasional group of two or more woman. I do think Cuban culture oozes sexuality in its music and dance, so it's an ideal place to spark the fire between you and your significant other.
Unfortunately Cuba isn’t a foodie haven. A fairy delicious mash-up of black beans and rice is a huge part of their diet, as well as fried chicken, fish, pork, plantain, salad (tomato and cucumber) and potatoes. As a meat eater you’ll be hard pressed to find beef, as it’s really expensive for them to produce. When on the road most of the time I fueled up on jamon y queso sandwiches, it’s the easiest thing to find everywhere you go. Breakfast is typically an omelette, bread, coffee or chocolate milk, and fruit (pineapple, papaya, banana). Some of my favorite meals were in the hole in the wall restaurants set in someone’s home, offering heaps of quality food for a around $3.
Being a vegetarian here could be tough, and you’ll probably get tired of the limited veggie options in restaurants. I recommend hitting up the fruit and vegetable stands which are always separate from grocery stores, and getting creative. Beware nothing is more depressing than the government run grocery stores - everything is canned, packaged, and unhealthy. We literally couldn’t find water in most grocery stores, only several aisles dedicated to all types of soda, rum, and beer.
Which brings me to Mojito’s and Cuba Libre’s - the national drinks! Super sweet with lots of mint, you can find a variation on these classics that will either make you fall in love with rum or you’ll never want to look at a bottle of Havana Club again. To complete the whole experience, channel Ernest Hemingway who lived in Cuba for 20 years - sit at an outdoor cafe, sip your mojito, spark up a cigar, listen to the sounds of live salsa music billowing out into the streets, and take in the charm of Havana before you...
Nightlife is also a national pastime, especially in Havana where there are several clubs playing all styles of music, live or otherwise, with some specially catered toward the gringo crowd. Like most other Latin cultures, nights begin here after midnight and go well into the early mornings.
One of my favorite dance spots was with some locals who took us to a small reggaeton club off the tourist path, and while it had it’s shady side with prostitution clearly on offer, I prefered this type of spot over the crowded version with cheesy music and tourists. Plus, in these types of places you’re guaranteed to dance with someone who will want to teach you proper Cuban style salsa. And if you want to feel like a total baller, do like the locals do and buy the whole bottle of rum with mixers for less than $20.
After getting acquainted with Cuban culture for a few days, It was time to leave the confines of the big city and head onto the open road. After spending an entire day to get the bikes rented and back to our casa - nothing seems to be that efficient - we left around 5pm with a couple hours to our first destination. The heat was oppressive, and thick smog followed us in a consistent black cloud. Roads in Cuba aren’t terrible, but they are not yet equipped with much of a shoulder for the cyclist, and just about anything with wheels can be seen rumbling down the busy road from Havana - which stretched on for what seemed like forever. I quickly caught a glimpse of what we were really in for on this two week two wheeled adventure.
Over the next couple days we both gained our bike legs, and slightly adjusted to all of the elements at play which made the journey that much more rewarding. We got a kick out of the waves and funny looks from locals, and almost every casa owner shook their heads in disbelief when we rolled up on our bikes. They’d say, “you’re biking all the way from Havana to Trinidad, are you crazy,?!” Yes, pretty much. I’ll never forget the look on our host’s face when we asked if she could make us sandwiches for our 4am departure the next morning. We had one long final stretch left to Trinidad and I couldn’t bear the idea of doing it in the heat like we’d been doing the past week.
The ride out of town at 4am was by far one the most memorable and insane things we did. At first I was amazed by the amount of light we had as we rolled out, I stupidly forgot as soon as we left the street lit village, we’d be in absolute darkness. The kind of darkness where you feel as if you’re floating in the middle of an abyss, I couldn’t see anything. Through a nervous laugh, I tried to stay calm and made casual conversation like, wow it’s still really warm even without the sun ...ha ha.
And then the dog. All I know is it charged out of nowhere and chased me, barked like a crazed lunatic inches from my foot and my laugh quickly turned into shrieks. The visual in my head getting pulled off the bike and dragged to the woods where I’d be attacked by a more vicious dogs, propelled me faster.
My bike partner on the other hand, couldn’t stop laughing through my screams of terror. OK - maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but this is how I felt it went down. And on top of that, the day before we’d driven the same way in order to get an idea of what we were in for. At the bottom of one of the steep hills we come down, were several cows just chilling in the middle of road. Pedaling as fast as I could, the fear of running head on into a cow was also on my mind.
The forethought to bring a bike light never crossed my mind, but then I remembered my iPhone had a flashlight! We quickly pulled over, dug out tape and strapped that bad boy right on the front of my bike. Now with enough light to see a few feet in front of us, we relaxed a little and took notice of all the shooting stars. It was awesome. We then rounded a corner to witness the most beautiful orange colored moon rise above the mountains. Truly an unforgettable experience, as was the sunrise hours later as we ate our sandwiches.
Besides the bike version as a way to see Cuba, you have many other options. Most popular seemed to be renting a car for the obvious freedom, but this isn’t the most economical option. Buses and collective taxis are fairly affordable, easy to find, and are a great option for the last minute journey. The country isn’t relatively that big, although to be time efficient a flight is recommended to places like the south east to Guantanamo Bay for example.
For those of you who have asked if you should visit Cuba now, I don’t think it will change overnight, there is plenty of time before we see the positive and negative effects of our inevitable American influence. But to answer the question to visit or not, the answer is absolutely yes.
Favorite places to visit:
Varadero - Two hours east of Havana, known for it’s endless stunning beaches on the Caribbean sea and is a very popular tourist destination. We found it to be mellow despite it's popularity and definitely worth a couple nights stay. Plenty of nice casa particular’s close to the beach along with several hotel options, and a wide range of restaurants. Very sleepy town though, you’ll be hard pressed to find any decent nightlife.
Vinales - Two hours west from Havana, this gem is beyond charming and is surrounded by stunning scenery. Soon as I arrived into town I knew my two nights planned were going to extend to four. Again a very touristy destination, we found that it was quiet for the most part and we could escape the crowds which there wasn’t much to avoid. Taking a walking tour with a local guide was a major highlight even though his whole “I just want to make new friends, I’m doing this for free” turned out not to be true (obviously), the all day event was so worth it. We swam in a never ending cave for almost a mile in pitch dark, sampled the high quality cigars where the tobacco was dried, danced to live music and drank beer with locals in the middle of nowhere, and
We rented scooters and headed to the coast, this I highly recommended to get out of town to enjoy the crystal blue water and white sandy beaches. The views are absolutely stunning along the way as well!
Trinidad - All the way to the south of Cuba, this city was a highlight and our final biking destination! Arriving into town I immediately felt at ease and loved the cobblestone streets, horse and buggies, and quaint restaurants, shops, and bars. There is a club in a cave here too, and goes off on the weekends - it’s huge and an experience not to be missed. While there are heaps of tourists in town, you can easily avoid them by opting to not gather in the ‘hot spots’ or take a crowded tour on a bus with AC. We did our own version of some of the touristy things in a private taxi and found that what they boasted as the ‘best view in Cuba’ was in my opinion not the case. But explore for yourself, there are many things to do here and I think we barely scratched the surface.
“Cuba - a country stuck in time and forever in my heart.” - WM