Monday, October 8, 2018

CUBA - the complete travel guide

(Update October 2018)

Sharing info on a trip across Cuba is particularly challenging since things were changing so fast. After Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones had left, between us travellers it was consent that Cuba was standing at the dawning of a new era and that we were witnessing the last days of an expiring epoch.


bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Cienfuegos
Child of the Revolution.

But the truth of the matter is that it was only us foreigners having this impression and being all excited and sketching a great change. The local people were very dubious about it, and I can relate to that: when day in, day out you stand in line for the simplest, basic products, when even when you make a little money you cannot basically buy anything, when you don't feel your personal life getting at least a little bit easier, than you probably see no reason to believe in some greater progress.

So anyway, we people from abroad felt witness to a historical moment and came in flocks ("before all the gringos will be allowed to go to Cuba and transform it into some kind of Caribbean Disney World" - everybody said so).

Until now, even after Fidel Castro's death, nothing much changed in Cuba, and in the US Donald Trump is turning back the progress of world's history. Maybe our prognosis was premature and things won't change as fast as we hoped and at the same time feared.

Some facts: Cuba has a population of about 11.25 million people and a size of 109,884 sq km (approx. 42,426 sq mi). The climate is tropical, the official language Spanish (you might brush up yours on babbel) - and this is, of course, because Cuba used to be a Spanish colony.

In the 17th and 18th century, Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves to work on the sugar cane and tobacco fields. Cuba became an independent country, yet not fully sovereign due to the Platt Amendment that granted the USA the right to intervene at any time the interests of the US seemed impaired. This status - am I the only one who finds that bizarre? - was kept till 1934 and infamous Bahía de Guantánamo (Guantánamo Bay) is still part of this anachronism.


bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Santa Clara
More than half a century after the revolution, its heroes are everpresent: Posters of Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara decorating a pharmacy in Santa Clara.

In 1959, Cuban revolutionaries, guided by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentina-born Ernesto Guevara, aka Che, brought down the dictator - and US-puppet - Fulgencio Batista and founded a socialist state.
Although the idea of justice and equality, of health care and education for everybody, was a good and noble one, unfortunately, this revolution, too, was not only fair and square - and particularly the revolution's pin-up Che was in charge of the re-education and the vision of the new man.


bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Cienfuegos
They often overdo it a bit with their honoring of the old swashbucklers: Here, the enduring Che is decorating a rooftop - and the lettering looks like an advertisement for really fast cars. And in all honesty, the slogan 'Gentleman without blemish and fear' does not make it better.

However, it was not the violation of human rights that lead to the still lasting US embargo, but the confiscation of companies and real estate owned by US-citizens and wealthy Cubans who eventually migrated to the US, mostly Miami.


Cash and Cards


There are two official currencies: The CUP (Peso Cubano) and the CUC (Peso Convertible). The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar, but be aware that when changing US$ to CUC, a fine of 10% is deduced. With other than US credit cards, you get money easily from ATMs, and there were ATMs everywhere I went, even in the smallest, secluded places.


byemyselftravelsbye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Santiago de Cuba
People waiting at the bank in an invisible, thus strictly to be followed line.

The fact that Cuba has two parallel currencies makes things a bit more complicated, for travellers more expensive and cheating for locals easier. Still, I don't get it why tourists pay willingly 1 CUC for using the bathroom in a country where it's known that a teacher makes like 20 CUC a month. Aren't these people thinking? How could this ever be the adequate price? I recommend - although it's not legal - you try to get some of the local currency CUP (you get 25 CUP for one CUC). Many things have to be paid equally in CUC or CUP alike (e. g. a small pizza was 18 CUP or  0,70 CUC), but for instance, at non-touristy stores like the local pharmacy and the above-mentioned bathrooms, it's handy to have a couple of CUP.

I need to point out that Cuba is, despite the difficult economic situation for the local people, rather costy, and the tendency of locals to milk the cow called tourists as much as they can make it even worse. So try to bargain, and if you have the feeling of being screwed over, you're probably right. I got mainly cheated by (cab-)drivers, but I've heard all sorts of stories about shops, restaurants, etc. Although it's hardly ever a big amount, for me it's a matter of principle. I don't like the feeling being taken for a moron.


Casas Particulares and Paladares


The best way to rest your head is to book yourself into a 'casa particular' since most hotels are run by the government and the employees are not so very service oriented. A 'casa particular' is someone's private home licensed to rent rooms to tourists. Since the government has a firm grip on these private businesses, all the rooms are nice and meet international standards. The owners have to pay a certain amount to the government whether they rent the room or not, therefore they are keen not to leave rooms empty, hence the service is really good. It's also advisable to eat not only breakfast but also another meal at the casa since the food is always better than what you get at (government run) restaurants. The only exception might be if you eat at a 'Paladar'.


bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Havana
La Guarida where the movie Fresa y Chocolate was shot. You are seated in the original film set, but you also pay the equivalent of a Cuban monthly income for an average lunch; a high Cuban income.

A 'Paladar' is a legal, privately run diner. It can be a single table in a back room of a private home or a large, fancy and pricey restaurant. The food at Paladares is always better than at a restaurant run by the government, and since the owners have the interest to get and keep customers, they are friendly and attentive while waiters at the regular restaurant rather slack.


My plan was to see in three weeks at least the below-described places, visit sites and venues of historical and cultural importance, meet the people, hike, and bike a little in nature and hang out on the beach. Most travellers go from the Western part around Viñales to the center and end up in Trinidad. I managed to go all the way from West to East by busses but eventually did fly back to Havana.

I organized and booked everything - like accommodations, buses, flight - beforehand, which made travelling really easy and avoided problems, delays, and disappointments.



This is the route I've travelled....





....and these are the places I've visited

(click on the caption or the picture)








TRINIDAD
bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Cuba Santa Clara
SANTA CLARA





CAMAGÜEY
PLAYA SANTA LUCIA





SANTIAGO de CUBA




RATING


























And if you choose to pin this post, please use one of these pictures:


















22 comments:

  1. Cuba I have heard is a lovely place.Two of my friends went there. And your review confirms it too.

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  2. Oh our in-laws have just returned from Cuba and they loved it! I have never considered it before and yet it is definitely somewhere I am curious to visit !

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    1. It's very interesting and different from other places - yet sometimes a bit more complicated.

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  3. I loved my visit to Cuba right after Prez Obama opened it up and it was beautiful!We changed to CUC and it was accepted everywhere. Funny enough, we never got the tourist shake down; in fact, some people (guys lol) offered to help us with things for free. Sure, we bargained for taxis & souvenirs but when converted to dollar, we were literally bargaining over $5 split between 4 of us. Cheap! They needed the money more so we lightly bargained but not as much as we normally do.

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    1. Of course, not everybody is the same! I saw a Cuban lady getting really mad at a vendor who asked to much for some cake from tourists. But people there are in a difficult situation - practically everybody - so some try to take advantage; although I don't like it, I understand it. And you are right that the amount is not big, but I do not want to emphasize the impression that because I'm not from Cuba, money is growing from my ears. And I hate being taken for a moron. Not only in Cuba, by the way.

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  4. This is a brilliant resource for anyone looking to visit Cuba. You have noted so many great tips and advice here!

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad it's being appreciated - and I hope it will help many of you guys to have a great trip to Cuba, too.

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  5. I have never been there but many said that Cuba is really a beautiful place to visit and as I can see here in your stunning photos that your really enjoy your trip.

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  6. I love how you gave information about Cuba's currencies and history. They were very interesting to read! Cuba looks quite scenic and beautiful! What is the best place in Cuba you visited?

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    1. Glad you like it! Best place - difficult to say since they were so different. I think my favorites - in no specific order - were Vinales, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Santiago, and Baracoa.

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  7. I hear that Cuba is really beautiful and I'd love to visit! Seems like you had a great trip...such a beautiful place with lots to see and do. Wonderful photos!

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  8. I will be traveling to Cuba in a few months, so I definitely needed to read this! Thanks for the tips and beautiful photos!

    www.officiallychic.com

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    1. Good for you! If you need any further info: I'm here!

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  9. I think Cuba is such an intriguing place to visit just because of the people that made it known. I would love to travel to this place!

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  10. I didn't know there was any country that had two local currencies. Fascinating. I think a trip to Cuba would be really interesting. I've never been there.

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    1. Things are very different from other countries. I felt like I travelled back in time when there still was the Eastern block in Europe.

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  11. Very informative piece, Renata. How about the budget of travelling in Cuba? What sort of prices we should expect to pay for accommodation, food, transportation? Thanks!

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    1. As always, it depends. For a decent room at a casa particular up to 30 CUC/USD plus 5 CUC each for the breakfast. Food at the casas are around 8 to 12 CUC depending on what you're having; in general it's very recommendable to eat at your casa. Entrance fees are usually not expensive. Beware of cab and other drivers, they tend to demand fantasy prices. And at some places that are free, you'll find people who ask for some fees. I told them I wanted to see their permit that they are entitled to take money from me respectively I asked for an official receipt - then all of a sudden I didn't have to pay.
      However, it's nice there - you just have to be a bit street smart.

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  12. It's really interesting to know from your post that nothing has significantly changed in Cuba after the end of the US trade ban. Thanks for sharing so precious info

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    1. Yes, but the relations are still very limited, as far as I've seen. I think that things are changing - but really, really slowly.

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  13. It is strange to know that how they manage to have two parallel currencies. Undoubtedly it would lead to confusion to travelers. But thanks for your tips.

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  14. It is very interesting to read about the history of Cuba and how it was under the grip of the US for so long. Despite the things having changed now, it is a pity that the locals aren't as hopeful for a bright future as it'd seem. As a tourist, it's helpful to know that staying in a casa particular is better than a hotel due to service standards. I'm surprised that there are two currencies that exist in parallel, of course that'd make tourists confused and locals easy to fool them!

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