Come me with me, let’s time travel through the 50s! Cuba
Cuba has always been on top of my list of countries to visit for many years. It’s a fascinating country after it was politically abandoned by the rest of the world, although it is a popular destination for most holiday makers. Finally in 2nd quarter of 2014 we sorted out our flight tickets and then we were set to go.Oh, wait! Why I can’t find any hotel accommodation anywhere? I’ve only used booking.com to book my accommodation in all places but this time Cuba as a destination doesn’t even exist. Nor could I find it in any other big hotel booking websites, as they are all run by the American based companies. After reading Trip Advisor, I managed to find couple of good websites to book the casas (guest house) in Cuba.
To stay in a Casa Particular is a great way of knowing how a normal Cuban family lives. Although in Havana, most Casa Paticulars are very commercialised but in comparison to a large hotel or hostel, a Casa Particular is much smaller as usually they can only receive 2 – 3 couples. Almost all casas would provide their guest breakfast and dinner at extra cost. A big but, to book your casa can be a little pain as all the accommodation websites can’t take online booking, you will have to email the agencies or directly to each casa to book your stay. If the owner of the casa isn’t very organised, they can easily double book their place and you will end up staying at their “friend’s” place. Not really a big deal, but I believe most people would prefer to stay where they have done enough research about the region. Right?
Well, here is our overall itinerary:
4 people, 12 days / 12 nights in Cuba
3 days / 3 nights La Havana – Casa Don Malecon
2 days / 2 nights Cienfuego – Casa Azul
3 days / 3 nights Trinidad – Hostal Noel y Nury
1 days / 1 nights Santa Clara – Hostal Vista Park (the best casa)
2 days / 2 nights Varadero – Casa Roberto y Martha / Casa Rompe Olas
1 days / 1 night La Havana – Casa Amanecer
Transportation between the cities:
In Cuba, there is really good bus links between cities. However if you are travelling as a group of 4, you should be able to negotiate a private taxi at a price that your single journey bus fare would easily cover. As we were 4 travellers, we moved place to place in a taxi to give us flexibility to stop wherever and whenever we wanted.
Arrival in La Havana
Havana used to be one of the vacation hot-spots in the Caribbean before the communist revolution, and the government reopened to tourism in the 90s. In here you don’t meet many Americans, due to the US government ban on travel to Cuba. It’s actually quiet weird not seeing so many American chain restaurants and hotels. Obviously no Starbucks, McDonalds, KFCs etc that you see almost every corner in other cities.
After travelling approximately 10 hours from London, we arrived José Martí International Airport. The first thing we had to do was to change our pounds to Cuban CUC. In Cuba, there are 2 currencies used: CUC and CUP. For foreign travellers, you will have to use CUC and it’s equivalent to USD (1:1). You can only exchange the currency within Cuba as it’s not traded outside the country. There are ATMs in Cuba but do not rely on it as it would never work and if you don’t want your bank card to be swallowed by the machine.
That’s it, got ourselves enough CUC and we are on our way to the center of La Havana in a very modern car (the only modern car we had through the entire journey). We checked into Casa Don Malecon. The casa owner was very nice with a very strong American accent although I made him talk to me only in Spanish.
The next day we just strolled around the city, from Casa Don Malecon we can pretty much walk to everywhere in the tourist areas. Paid our 5 dollars to get on the hop-on hop-off open roof double deck bus to explore the city. In the old town of Havana every building is more than 150 years old. As the bus went through the town, we suddenly felt that we had time travelled into the 50s, perhaps even earlier than that. I am amazed how well most buildings and cars were maintained.
I am also amazed about the relationship between Cuba and China in history as until now China is the 2nd largest trading partner after Venezuela. Cuba and China had a very interesting history together, to make it short of what I’ve learnt, Chinese migrants were imported into Cuba as slaves during the Spanish colonial period. The unendurable slaving life in Cuba provoked the people to an uprising against the Spanish empire until it was they were able to claim their emancipation. Grateful for help from the Chinese slaves, the Cubans built a memorial in the middle of Havana’s centre to appreciate the Chinese contribution in the final years of colonial rule. You can check out the Chinese cemetery either on the bus tour or on your own whilst touring the city.
We spent a day in Viñales, I would wholeheartedly suggest that you to stay a night there as our friends did at the end of their trip as there is so much to see if you are not in the day tour from Havana.
Regrettably we joined the one day tour departed from Havana, Viñales is located approximately 2 hours away from La Havana and the day tour usually costs you 60 CUC.
Here is a little trick for a cheaper tour to Viñales…
Our casa host was very kind, they suggested not to book the tour but to stand at the tour departure place 20 minutes prior to the departure time and to negotiate with the tour guide to hop on the bus for only 20 CUC. We then paid for the entrance fees and other expenses separately. This way was so much cheaper! The next morning our host even accompanied us to where the tour started and negotiated with the guide for us. Of course if you could just use the bus from Havana to Viñales the bus fare should cost 20 CUC.
Like every other organised tour group you are rushed around places and don’t really get to learn about the places properly.
Viñales is a small town and municipality in the north-central Pinar del Río Province of Cuba. The town consists mostly of one-story wooden houses with porches. The municipality is dominated by low mountain ranges of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico such as Sierra de los Órganos.
The reason you need to stay over night is because you can see all these hill formations in the early morning when their appearance immersed in the thick fog, a view which is spectacular as we were informed by our friends who were able to experience it.
In the evening in Havana we met up with our just arrived friends after their long journey from London with flight connection via Paris. We had dinner near our casa and their casa at a restaurant just 2 blocks away.
Next morning we rented the glorious 50s Pink Ford Fairlane car to tour around the centre Havana in 1 hour. The car rental cost 30 CUC for 1 hour. At the end of our tour, we convinced our guide / chauffeur to have a drink with us. We would continue to hear more stories about his hometown.
We were off to Cienfuego…
The same day in the afternoon, we were to set off again in a taxi to transfer to Cienfuegos. Emotional moment alert: although we hadn’t really spent so much time with our hosts, their kindness and hospitality made us feel that we were at a home away from home. I enjoyed hearing about their life in Havana (as well as their complaints about the country). We gave each other a huge hug before we were loaded onto a modern mini van and on our way to Cienfuegos.
Another interesting discovery during our stay in Havana was that I was so desperate to find out what “carne de perro” mean ons almost all menus in the pizzerias. I initially thought the Cubans are like the Koreans and eat dogs, but our host laughed at this when I raised my suspicions and she tried to explain what it was obviously in Spanish but at the time my Spanish level was not so great so the mystery remained until I got back to London and had the access to Google. I then subsequently verified that “carne de perro” meant sausage, similar to “hot dog”.
After 3 hours jolting on the road, we, the 4 travellers arrived in Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is the capital of Cienfuego Province, is a city of on the southern coast of Cuba. It’s the only city in Cuba that was founded by the French. The streets are a little different and wider than other Cuban cities. There are 2 main interesting areas for most tourists: the city centre with many colonial buildings and Punta Gorda, a peninsula with lots of 50s homes. The city is dubbed La Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South). Cienfuegos literally translates to “one hundred fires”. The historic city centre is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city is small enough that you will only need a day to explore. After logging into our 2nd casa in the country – Casa Azul, we decided to try the amazing cooking our host made us (writing until here I feel really bad not remembering our hosts’ name). The casa has a bit of history itself, almost every piece of furniture under the casa’s roof is more than 150 years. In their kitchen I touched a fridge that is older than the owner of the house and it still in its good condition – how amazing!
Our host from Casa Azul booked us a taxi to take us visit the sights nearby Cienfuegos, full day drive plus transferring us to the next destination -Trinidad- at the end of the journey and we only paid 70 CUC total. We can’t argue with that price. We were able to stop in various places along the journey to Trinidad. We went passed Guanaroca Lagoon to see so many Flamingos, we spent 1 hour in Jadin Botanico Soledad de Cienfuegos and learnt there are more than 250 types of palm trees in that little botanico garden, we saw El Nicho Waterfall which you shouldn’t miss if you are big nature lover, bird watching. The park offers 1.5km trek trail, when you reach on top of the park you will be able to jump into the natural pools, but be careful as the water can be super cold regardless the outside temperature. The pool is completely covered under the lush tree shadows.
Many of the cars in Cuba are very old and whilst they owners do keep them in relatively good condition sometimes they are less than spritely. Going uphill in with 5 people and a few suitcases on board was a struggle and it may seem a joke but it would have been genuinely quicker for us to get out and walk beside the car to get to the top sooner.
Post to be continued in part 2 where our journey continues to Trinidad, Santa Clara and Varadero.