6 weeks work & holiday in Cuba
by PeaceLoveTravel on August 23, 2012
For Europeans a Cuban visa will last 30 days with one extension possible while being in the country. My trip was planned for 6 weeks and remembering how easy it was to get visa extensions in Asia I did not really research it much. For "not much" please read "not at all". What was supposed to be a simple morning excursion soon tuned into a two day nightmare so if you fancy a similar experience just follow these tips to be in for a right treat. If however you are looking for a more relaxed holiday not ending in getting deported I’d advise you to do exactly the opposite!1. Do trust the Lonely Planet2. Do not learn any Spanish3. Do not get stamps and a copy of your medical insurance in advance4. Have a lie-in5. Wait politely in line till it’s your turnMy Cuban adventured has been characterized by lazy days at the beach and even lazier nights full of rum and dive talk. This kinda influenced the way I went about this extension. On the last day possible I turned up mid-afternoon at the address listed in the Lonely Planet in Havana Nuovo Vedado – just to be told that I’m completely wrong here. Great, not that I walked for over an hour in the oppressing heat to get there. So instead of saving some money I had to splash out on getting a taxi to yet another immigration office so far away from the city center that it does not really count as Havana proper anymore. Cheers Lonely Planet! Anyway, my casa owner later informed me that he could have told me that the info in the guidebook was wrong. So here comes handy tip No.1: Ask your casa owner regardless of what your plans in Cuba are, they will always know better than any guidebook you can buy.In all Asian countries I went to the visa application forms had been in English. Naively assuming Cuba would be the same; however, I was in for a nice surprise. I actually speak some Spanish but clearly not enough to cope with a long form asking intrusive questions about my private life (that’s what I imagine they were asking anyway) after running around for hours to get there. If you really don’t speak any Spanish bring a dictionary and don’t count on meeting anyone at the office speaking English. Luckily I did meet a Mexican girl that went through the form with me, without her I would have been lost. Having filled in the form and my 25CUC in hand I was ready to get this stamp in my passport – just to be told that I was missing about a dozen important documents. In Spanish of course and not just any old Spanish but Cuban Spanish which has nothing to do with what I learned at school. Trust me, it was a very long half hour until I got everything the immigration officer was on about. Temptation to start crying was certainly there or at least to get a very large bottle of rum and down it! What you need for a visa extension is 25CUC in stamps that you can get from the bank, a copy of your valid travel medical certificate (with dates that you are covered for) and a receipt from your casa that you are staying there. The latter I only found out after a one hour wait at the bank, a trip to Hotel Cuba Libre to print off my medical insurance and another 3 hour queue at yet another Havana immigration office. Queuing will become your best friend while in Cuba, people just love to queue for literally everything and anything. The way it works is that you arrive at the end of the queue, shout as loud as you can "Que es ultimo" – which will probably be ignored – and wait in line till it is your turn. But what line I ask you? At the Havana integration office there was a huge number of people but nothing, really nothing, that would resemble a line. Staff randomly appears shouting random things in a random language (Spanish speakers will have a clear advantage here) and collect passports on an equally basis. Your best bet is to wait at the entrance and be annoying for long enough that someone is going to take your passport off you. Then just sit and wait for the next 100 hours until you are called in the office. At that point I was getting slightly grumpy (granted, it was all my fault but anyway) when the office woman told me that I was missing the casa receipt, she therefore could not give me an extension and to top it all off they were closing for the day. Which meant that as of 12 o’clock that night I was without a valid visa – believe me, not a petty thought when you are very far away from your home embassy. The lady then told me that she’d keep my passport there overnight and all I had to do was turn up the next morning with the receipt. And with a lovely smile she added that I’d either get my extension then or they would deport me. Good night to you too! And what a night it was, filled with random cocktails in our casa to celebrate my potentially last night in Cuba.The next morning I was so prepared, receipt in hand I was at the immigration office (btw, the closest to the city center is Calle 17 y K) just after sunrise just to find myself at the end of another very, very long queue. This time it actually was a sort of orderly queue which unfortunately disintegrated as soon as the office doors opened. Right at the start a woman asked for all foreigners’ passports (pasaporte extranjero) and collected them. Hours went by, empires rose and fell and entire Hollywood trilogies were filmed before I saw that women again. But then finally after literally 12 hours of queuing across 2 days I had the all-important stamp in my passport. And frankly, it wasn’t that bad. I’ve met some super interesting people all in the same situation at me and very much improved my Spanish. To make the whole experience a bit more fun bring a friend or at least a book along. There is nothing as boring as starring at a dirty wall in 35degree heat waiting for the immigration staff to finish their lunch. Supplies are always good and a snack and some cold water will go a long way increasing your survival chances and maybe even make new friends. The most important thing is to keep smiling and do your best to see it as a cultural experience. I did certainly learn more about the Cuban way of life and met some interesting people along the way. Most of the problems I had can be easily avoided and no sane person has to jump through all these hoops to enjoy another month in Cuba. But hey, at least I got another great travel story to tell – and my mates felt sorry for me and bought me a big bottle of rum to celebrate me not getting deported.
by PeaceLoveTravel on August 22, 2012
Playa Larga and Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba are well known for their political and revolutionary history. Most tourists opt to visit the Bay of Pigs museum on a daytrip from Cienfuegos. They might stop off at the seaside for a quick lunch but most people miss out on this stunning area. The Octopus dive Club located at Playa Larga offers some of the most exciting scuba diving in Cuba. Although the open water dives are fairly standard - for standard read amazing as it is the Caribbean - the cave dives are what makes this dive school truly stand out. Prices are the cheapest in Cuba and the deals are great. 5 dives for 100CUC (roughly 85Pounds) including equipment and transport is a real bargain. Cave dives, night dives and Nitrox dives are 40CUC each and all standard dive courses are available. Please not that as Padi is an American company you can only get SSI licenses here but they will recognize Padi as a dive qualification.The first dive site we went to was opposite the main outlet next to the Cueva de los peces with others being down all the way to Playa Giron. All open water dive sites are in this area start within a few meters off shore. The shallow water areas are great for beginner but the guides never failed to find us more challenging bits like tunnels, canyons and of course the stunning drop off running along the coast. Corals, gorgonians and sponges are plentiful and varied supporting an abundance of marine life. We saw the usual reef fish as well as some big barracudas and rays. As it is a Bay don´t expect any sharks or turtles though. The reef is in good condition although not as pristine as the Punta Frances dive area.As much as I love open water diving I could not wait to try cave diving! The pictures at the office look stunning and even the slightly higher price tag of 40CUC could not stop me from booking a couple of cave dives for the next day. Cueva de los peces is a tectonic fold around 500meters away from the beach. You walk through the forest to a bar next to a natural pool surrounded by trees and rocks. Tour groups stop here and it can get very crowded with loads of people jumping from the rocks and taking family pictures. The best way to escape the crowds is to go cave diving! The cave itself is more of a cavern, meaning that there is always a hint of natural light. Don´t be fooled by this though - cave diving is a serious sport and it would be very, very stupid to be anything than highly alert. Pay attention to your instructor leading the way and never shine your light directly at other people. The dive was absolutely stunning. We jumped in from a small platform right outside the bar. There were heaps of mosquitos making the pre-dive briefing a bit uncomfortable and I could not wait to finally go down. We descended to about 20m depth crossing a thermo and halocline. This is the area where the top layer of freshwater mixes slightly with a darker bottom layer of saltwater. The different densities caused by the gradient in salinity keep the two layers firmly separated and diving through this border is rather bizarre. The top layer is quite warm from the sun’s radiation but as soon as we entered the salt water we could feel the cold.The entrance to the cave is located at 20 meters and it is way darker here than it was on any of the open water dives I used to do. But all this was forgotten when we noticed the huge, black hole in the side of the shaft. The entrance is rather big opening up to a large cavern. Diving here is fairly simple with plenty of space in all directions. We all had our own torches and trust me, it does get very, very dark very quickly. Although there was always a tiny bit of natural light we are talking about an actual cave – please do not go on this dive if you are uncomfortable in the dark or small spaces. There were a few very narrow passages that we had to squeeze through and my dive buddy nearly lost his reg once when he need not see a particularly long stalactite. The walls were all covered in strange stone formations and stalagmites and stalactites. On one of the deeper dives we did in the Cueva de los pesces we went right to the end of the public access area. Stunning, absolutely stunning. The ground here was covered with flat rocks and very fine sediment looking almost like dust in a room that hasn’t be used in hundreds of years. The one thing we did not see where fish though. Inside the cave we did not see any signs of life and in the actual shaft were maybe a handful of reef fish. Diving was certainly great but I imagine snorkelling to be particularly boring here. A layer of alga under the surface blocks out all visibility and if you are looking for cute fish you are better off snorkelling in the ocean.
So in my opinion you might as well go a bit crazy when you are in such a random place as Havana and start your day with some ice cream. The Coppelia in Vedado (Havana’s modern part surrounding the hotel Havana Libre) is allegedly the largest ice cream parlour in the world serving up to 30000 portions of creamy deliciousness a day. A favourite with locals and tourists alike we did prepare ourselves for long queues even though we went rather early in the morning. As expected we did have to queue but it was all well worth it. Not only did we get to experience the real Cuba there but we also got a lesson in the way things work here. Oh and ice cream, cannot forget the awesome ice cream served in a Space Shipy looking building!The Space Ship/Ice Cream parlour is located in a small park right opposite Havana Libre; there was no way we could miss such a random building in a city characterised by old, crumbling colonial buildings. We joined the astonishing large queue consisting of Cuban families with loads of hyper excited children and the occasional other traveller. Surprisingly the crowd consisted mainly of locals as most foreigners choose to buy their expensive CUC ice cream outside instead of waiting to get in. For a few seconds we did contemplate it but no, we wanted a true cultural experience so waiting it was. Once inside we found a free table in the very futuristic interior. Round walls and psychedelic glass panels everywhere mixed perfectly with Fidel Castro quotes and the obligatory Che Guevara shirts most people were wearing. After what felt was an eternity a waiter arrived asking us if we wanted strawberry or vanilla ice cream. I asked for chocolate to which he only answered "No, strawberry or vanilla". We then tried for both but getting the standard "No, strawberry or vanilla". Right then, vanilla please. Choice is clearly not something rated overly high here. I just imagined taking my spoiled niece for an ice cream and giving her only two flavours to choose from – she would go crazy. We on the other hand loved it as it meant more time enjoying the ice cream instead of worrying what to get. After the waiter left quite a while passed again with us getting more and more confused. Had they forgotten us, had we done something wrong, had we even chosen the wrong flavour and therefore failed a secret test? When the ice cream finally arrived we realised that we must have passed the test with flying colours – the portion we got was massive! Four scoops of creamy deliciousness topped with a sticky sweet sauce, chopped nuts and cookies. What more could we ask for? The ice cream was stunning with a rich, natural flavour if a bit runny in the Cuban heat. Absolutely worth the wait and we were seriously considering seconds. The atmosphere in the room was amazing with huge families sitting around the tables getting three/four servings and topping them up with shop bought sundries like chocolate sprinkles and cake. When it came to paying we were in for another surprise. Four CUC sounded quite alright for two massive portions of ice cream but the waiter just handed me my notes back to me and asking for CUP – Cuban Pesos National. So four CUP equated to around 10 pence. I mean, what in this world can you actually buy with 10 pence in the UK? Certainly not eight scoops of ice cream with toppings and if they were to offer it for that price it would almost certainly not be as tasty as the one in Havana. This price did explain the massive splurging done by the Cuban families. Not that we came back every day for the rest of our stay in Havana at all. The Coppelia is a place that should be on every traveller’s itinerary in Cuba. For me it was a true highlight and a cultural experience that was so similar to the way things seem to work in Cuba. If you want to save money you’ll have to wait, wait, wait, take what you get given and enjoy it. If you have the money you can skip the cues but you are also missing out on the great community spirit that Cubans seem more than willing to share with foreigners.
Havana is a stunning city but it is loud, hectic and the air quality is about as bad as the one in the men´s changing room after a football match. The city sprawls endlessly towards the horizon without giving any hints of what lies behind. Only 200km away we found our perfect city break – the Vinales Valley. Some people might say that all it is is a touristy town surrounded by mountains but nothing spectacular. But believe me, after 4 days in Havana any tiny bit of green would have made us happy. My newly found Australian friend Ellen and me took the early morning Viazul bus, leaving at 9pm from the Viazul station just outside of Havana city centre. The best way to get there is by taxi – expect to pay anything between 5 to 7 CUC (roughly 5 Pounds at the time of writing). The bus to Vinales tends to get very busy in high season so it might be a good idea to book ahead. There is one in the morning at 9am and one at 3pm costing 12 CUC. As advertised the drive can take anything between 2 ½ hours and 4 hours. In my experience they never take less than 4 hours but it is a lovely drive that I enjoyed thoroughly. Vinales lies on the North coast of Cuba to the west of Havana, with Pinal del Rio it is the last easily accessible tourist spot in the western part of Cuba. Only Maria la Gorda is further west but going there is only worth it if you are into Scuba diving and have your own transport. Anyway, back to our bus journey; Viazul busses are top-notch modern long distance busses with toilets o board and air con. There are two stops during the drive; the first one was after about two hours at the park of La Terazzas where we had a twenty minute rest. There is an overpriced bar serving drinks, clean toilet facilities and a stunning view over the lake and the outcrops of the mountain ranges. The road then leads through green forest into the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio. There is literally nothing to do and see here and the stop is quite short. The occasional tourists are picked up at the station after realizing just how boring Pinar is and that they should really be in the 40km further north Vinales. The rest of the drive is stunning. Ellen and I were literally glued to the window trying to absorb as much of the view as possible. The narrow mountain road leads down into a green valley that looks like something from Jurassic Park (minus the awesome dinosaurs of course). The road is modern and leads straight from Havana to Vinales. Many people chose to come with a rented car but you might struggle finding suitable parking once you arrived. If you choose to go by taxi do not pay more than 50CUC for a one way trip. My friend got it down to 40CUC but that will depend on how good your haggling is. There are usually enough other travelers hanging around the Viazul station willing to share a taxi. The drive should not take much longer than two hours and you will have the added bonus that you can stop at the various look-out points dotted along the main road. Vinales is the Las Vegas of Cuba when it comes to casa particulares. Almost every house offers one or two bedroom that can be privately rented for a price of anything from 15 CUC to 30 CUC. We booked our room in Havana as our host there recommended us to stay with his friends. I found that this is incredibly common in Cuba, just mention to your host your future itinerary and they will happily set you up with other casas in these places. We were incredibly lucky and thoroughly enjoyed the place we stayed at. Jorge picked us up at the bus station with a sign with our names on – talk about being made feeling like a VIP. Villa Sara y Jorge is off the main road in a quite side street. They offer one room with two double beds and en-suite bathroom for 20CUC a night. Both of them speak English very well and are kind and welcoming hosts happy. The second time I stayed in Vinales we pre-booked a room in Maria la Gorda; as we needed two rooms we stayed at a different casa. Maria & Louisa were very gracious hosts and there was always a lively bunch of relatives and friends around. The two rooms they offered had two double beds each and en-suite bathrooms for 20CUC for double use and 15CUC for single occupancy. A delightful breakfast was included in the price. Both families made me feel welcome and almost more like a long lost friend than a paying customer. Staying in casa particulares was what made my Cuba holiday so special.Yes my fellow traveler, rest assured that there are indeed cheese pizzas available here. If your budget it getting stretched by all the great things to do in Vinales. Eateries catering to all tastes can be found along the main road running through the town. There are various restaurants offering the standard Cuban meals of rice, beans, salads and your choice of meat starting from 5CUC for dinner which often includes a drink as well. We never used any of these places but most did look lovely from the outside and some were advertising live music as well. What got us through the long hours between breakfast and dinner were the cheap as chips cheese pizzas offered along the road. These 15cm goodies are greasy, cheap and full of salt – but a right present from heaven when you are starving and not willing to pay more than 50 pence. The on restaurant we tried is fairly new in town and owned by a German – Cuban family. The hosts were very gracious and entertaining. The made us feel welcome even after we asked if we could share a pizza between us to save some money. We were given some bruschetta type bread as a free starter which was delicious and some fried plantain to nibble on. However, nothing compared to the pizza we got. It was absolutely huge and jam-packed with all kinds of vegetables. The base was thin and crispy and even after living in Italy for a year and being a pizza snob I still have to admit that this was the best pizza I had in a long while. Even though the many restaurant options look tempting we decided to have dinner in the casa particulares we stayed in. And boy, this was certainly the right choice. Our first host, Sara, was an amazing cook that prepared us a meal worthy of serving gods and plenty enough to feed an entire family. All three of us were amazed by the sheer amount of food she prepared for us and instantly gave up on the idea of losing weight while being in Cuba. We had a stunning but very filling spicy black bean soup followed by rice and black beans, white rice, fresh salad, bread and the most gorgeous chicken dish I have ever tasted. Cuban cooking might be simple but if it is made right it turns the most humble ingredients into a stunning dish. None of us managed to touch the fresh fruits served for pudding and we retired full but happy to the porch for some Cuba Libres. Miriam & Louisa were equally good cooks and treated us to two unforgettable evening meals. Although the basics were the same the flavours were completely different as each chef in Cuba adds their little individual touch to the standard dishes. Louisa’s fish dish with maize parcels was my culinary highlight of this trip. Since coming back home I have tried to re-create it but never even come close to its delicious flavor. Both casa charged 6CUC for dinner which is more than reasonable given the amount of food offered and the quality of the dishes served. And that is it already – Vinales is a great place in stunning surroundings that attracts loads of tourists every year but still manages to keep its charm. I can highly recommend it to any Cuba traveler. Even if you are rushed for time you can chose to come here for one night from Havana. It is the perfect city break and allows you to see the workings of rural Cuba in convenient distance to the capital. Locals have been lovely throughout and everyone working in the tourist industry speaks English. All facilities like banking, internet and car rental are available and easily accessible.
by PeaceLoveTravel on August 13, 2012
Maria La Gorda is literally in the middle of nowhere. You are closer to Mexico than Havana. This is as far away from everything as you can get in Cuba and due to the inaccessibility still off the beaten trek. The hotel is the most westerly tourist facility in Cuba and is considered one of the nicest beaches in the entire region. Frankly, the beach is not as great. Yes, it is a lovely white sand beach with leaning palm trees and crystal clear waters. However, there are rocks along the entire coast making swimming rather difficult. I don´t think it is worth going there just for the beach – if you are into diving it is well worth it but if it is beaches you are looking for try Varadero or Playa del Este instead. The easiest way (and sometimes the only way to get there) is by using your own transport. Rental cars are fairly cheap in Cuba so it is worth considering getting one of you are with a group of people. Don’t rely on public transport, there are supposed to be daily busses from Vinales and Havana but I know no one who ever managed to get one and minibus service is only available if enough people book it a day in advance. If you don´t want to drive yourself your best bet is to get a taxi. Expect to pay 40CUC to/from Vinales and 80 to/from Havana. Trust me; it is not fun getting stuck in Maria La Gorda because you haven’t sorted out your return trip as it is fairly expensive to stay here. I speak from hindsight as I sort of hitchhiked with a tour group to Maria La Gorda. They offered to take me back to Vinales but there was more diving that I wanted to do so I stayed longer. It took me 2 extra days to find someone that took me back to civilization in their rental car. All was good in the end as I made some great new friends that way. The one and only hotel in Maria La Gorda is a fairly nice resort with space for around 70 people, I was there on low season so only few rooms were filled. Our tour guide told me that rooms sell out very quickly in high season so book online or phone ahead, nothing would be more frustrating than driving 3 hours and being turned away. There are no other accommodation options around and please don’t listen to the rumors of casa particulars or anything. The next village is over 30min by car away and there is no accommodation available in the national park. Prices range from 29CUC to 60CUC depending on room size and season. It is usually possible to book a two day trip from Havana with a one night stay at the resort. Checking in was very straight forward and the staff was lovely. There is no ATM but you can exchange Euros into CUC (although at a very bad exchange rate). Hotel reception can help with organizing you a taxi and even helped me to find a ride-share with some other people staying at the hotel back to Havana. My room was absolutely lovely and obviously way over my budget. Even though I booked a single room I had two single beds to choose from. There was also a table, TV with some English channels, a fridge and a fairly large bathroom. Hot water was sporadically available and water pressure seemed to be somewhat on the weak side during the daytime. My absolute highlight were all the fresh towels and the little toiletry selection that I found in the bathroom. If I take a break from backpacking then I might as well take it in style. For 29CUC per night not a bad deal especially if you can share it with another person. The 29CUC is for an off-season room without any meals. Usually they will give you a room for 33CUC which includes breakfast but you can ask without is as well. I´ve had some great nights in that bar but others were absolutely boring. Maria La Gorda seems to be a resort frequented by middle aged couples, which is by no means a bad thing, but don’t go there expecting crazy party nights. We did have one great night getting very drunk on expensive rum with a Dutch couple that had just gotten engaged. It all ended in a midnight swim and a hangover from hell the next morning. Unsurprisingly nobody turned up for the 9am dive the next morning. As a solo traveler you might struggle meeting people and for me nothing is more frustrating than diving without a buddy that I don’t know/trust.The seafront restaurant is a typical resort buffet place were decent food is served that will fill you up but not really excite anyone. Breakfast is with 4CUC reasonably priced and the selection is quite good as well. As long as you stay away from the horrific scrambled eggs you can enjoy the usual selection of fruits, bread and jam, sweets and sausages. If you are planning to join the 9am dive maybe try not to eat too much – I spend 10 very long minutes feeling very full and very motion sick on the dive boat. Dinner is again your typical unimaginative buffet style grab for 12CUC. It is all you can eat and you can dine on everything from salads to fresh fish, chicken and rice. I only had dinner once and it really was not memorable. The thing is that your only alternative are cheese sandwiches with mustard and there are only so many of those that you can eat. So you will properly end up eating at the restaurant anyway at some point during your stay. Maria La Gorda is supposedly one of the finest dive spots in the Caribbean. With sites located at depths from 6 to 40 meters and most of them being only a quick boat ride away from the shore it does indeed sound stunning. With 42CUC per dive including equipment hire it is an expensive fun compared to other dive sites but they offer packages for six up to twenty dives. If you know that you are staying longer it is definitely worth booking a package right away.The trip starts with a short boat ride and an even shorted briefing. Sometimes the briefing was literally "Just enjoy it" and questions regarding depth, visibility and difficulty were ignored. There was never any explanation of the dive sites or which buddy system would be used. Dive signs were not explained and no emergency procedures mentioned. Scuba diving is a very safe sport if you know what you are doing – not having proper briefings introduces a very unnecessary element of danger. The actual dive sites were of varying quality. If you have dived before refuse to go to Garden of Gorgonians, it is a shallow dive site that is rather boring. In my opinion they go there when the instructors cannot be bothered to do anything more challenging. There are stunning tunnels and drop-offs so make sure to ask for specific things that you want to see and don´t waste that much money on a boring shallow water dive. My favourite sites were Moby Dick and Between two Waters. The instruction was so-so. There were several dive instructors and dive masters. The centre is generally Spanish spoken but some of the staff speak ok English as well. Personally I was not very happy with the instructors. The lack of pre-dive briefings was shocking and there was no de-brief either. Before going on a dive one should be aware of things like depth or dangers. Diving through tunnels at a depth of 30m is not something everyone enjoys – although I loved it!As much as I love Cuba I don´t think that Maria La Gorda will be on my travel list again. There is nothing really wrong with it and I can perfectly understand while people spend their entire holiday there. It is just simply not my type of place. For a start it is far too expensive and even if I wasn´t a student I would much rather stay in casa particulares than this rather anonymous place. What puts me off is the difficulty in getting there and then of course the complete lack of anything to do. You can´t really go swimming due to all the rocks in the water, the National Park is difficult to reach and does not offer much in terms of hiking and there are only so many times that you can walk along the beach without going crazy. Personally I did not enjoy the diving that much which very well has been clouded by my experience with the people in my group. As far as diving in Cuba goes I much prefer Playa Larga and Punta Frances.
While I loved every minute of my stay in Cuba I have to say that it is a difficult country for solo travelling. From Southeast Asia as well as from Central America I am used to meeting people in hostels, hanging out and making friends. Cuba is a bit different, your choice of accommodation are casa particulares (guesthouses with one or max. two rooms) and hotels. Both can be great but if you are on your own both options make for a lonely and expensive trip. What saved my trip and actually made it way better than I expected was Rolando's Backpackers Hostel in Havana. Rolando's is a special place where people meet and friendships are made. The price for one night is 12CUC which is roughly 9 Pounds. Within ten minutes of moving I made friends with an Israeli guy and joined an Australian girl for Salsa lessons - my big Cuba adventure could begin!The hostel is located on the first floor of an old house in Havana Centre. Calle San Miguel is a typical Cuban street where kids play baseball on the street and old ladies offer you cheese pizzas and pan con tortilla directly from their living room. It is not a touristy area which means that you get to see some of the real Cuba. That does include some rubbish on the street but at least nobody will hassle you for a taxi or city tour. However, I want to stress that Calle San Miguel is a main road in a very safe area. As a solo female traveler I never felt threatened even when walking back alone during the night. For me it was the perfect mix between feeling safe and being far enough away from the tourist town that Havana Vieja is.The location of the hostel is great. If you exit the door and turn right it is a ten minute walk straight down until you reach the city center with all the bars, shops and sights. Although I do like tourist town I would recommend having a look around Havana Centro as well. There are many street vendors selling fresh fruit and veggies and the cheese pizzas are unbeatable. The closest bars are in the area of Hotel Inglaterra and here starts the area where you have to pay on CUC (the tourist currency) rather than CUP (the local one) for food and drinks.If you turn left outside the hostel and follow the road up a small hill you reach the University of Havana. The building is stunning and well worth a visit. In walking distance are also bigger hotels with internet connection (6CUC per hour) and the Copellia - the biggest ice-cream parlor in Cuba.You can reach Roland´s by taxi as well; just remember the full address which is Calle San Miguel # 567. Entre Gervasio y Belascoain. From the city center I would not pay more than 3CUC but it is an easy walk so it is not really necessary to get a taxi. From the Viazul station be prepared to pay anything between 5CUC to 7CUC, never more than that. From the airport it will cost you 25CUC while it is usually only 20CUC to the airport. The hostel itself occupies the first floor and the rooftop of a lovely old building. There are four rooms with 6 to 4 beds. The beds are comfy single bunk beds and the high ceilings make the room more spacious. What I really like are the big lockers (big enough for an 80L backpack) in the rooms. You can lock them with your own padlock or ask for a spare one if you - like me - don´t carry one around with you. When I was there the rooms were clean and a member of the family mopped the floor and cleaned the bathroom every day.Oh yeah, very important, there is an aircon and an electric fan in every room. Cuba gets crazily hot and believe me that a night without fan or aircon is not much fun if you are more than 500m away from the ocean. There are several power sockets in each room but be aware that they are only the standard Cuban 110 volt and you will need a Central American adapter for UK three pin appliances. In some sockets you can use mainland European plugs but bring an adapter just in case.All but one room have en-suite bathrooms. They are all very spacious and very clean. As the hostel was renovated at the beginning of the year the bathrooms are absolutely up to scratch. Hot water is available all day which is something that you don´t find everywhere in Cuba. Given that it is the Caribbean it is not actually needed but still a nice touch especially if you want to do your laundry as well.When I first arrived Rolando set us down, brought us some fresh mango juice and gave us a very detailed introduction to Cuba. He explained us the two currency system, showed us a city map of Havana and told us all the best spots to go to and which sights not to miss. He is a real character and knows heaps about Cuba, and as a bonus is English is very, very good! Within a few minutes he organized Salsa lessons for me and my Australian friend and even found me a Spanish teacher.The main focus point of the hostel is definitely the rooftop bar! It´s a lovely place with chairs and tables sitting around 20 people and Leo the bartender is a genius when it comes to making drinks. One night we would just tell him a flavor or a colour and he just made up very delicious cocktails for us. He´s also very interesting to talk to and knows loads about Cuban history and politics.One of the things that make this hostel so special is that you are allowed to consume your own drinks/food there. Many nights we would sit on the rooftop, have a street cheese pizza and drink cheap Cuban rum with even cheaper tu cola - and the family happily gave us glasses, ice and plates. At first we completely expected them to tell us that we have to buy all our stuff there but indeed they were perfectly fine with it and even showed us the cheapest place to buy more rum & coke in the middle of the night.Breakfast for 3CUC is served until lunchtime. Just get up and ask for it. It usually includes juice, coffee, bread with jam, fruits and sweet pasty like things. It´s a nice way to socialize with people and a better way to start the day than cheese pizza. Not being a huge breakfast person I generally skipped it and invested my CUCs in Mojitos later that night.Dinner starts around 7ish and is served on the rooftop if it isn't raining. You have the choice between vegetarian, chicken, fish, shrimp and lobster. Dinner includes a soup of the day and pudding. For 4CUC (6CUC for the lobster) it is ok value but in my opinion you can find tastier options in CUP eateries. What you can expect is a tasty soup that is usually vegetarian and (which is rare) is not the generic black bean soup so popular here. The main course is a plate of white rice with side salads (cucumber, beans, cabbage and tomatoes) plus your choice of meat or fish. I only tried the vegetarian dish so I cannot really comment on the quality of the meat dishes but the general opinion was that albeit tasty they were fairly boring. The pudding was generally a generic fruit salad with come cookies if we were lucky.Drinks are a whole different level! Leo the bartender is not only a super nice person but also he really understands how to make good cocktails. Ask him for a Mulata and you won´t be disappointed. The drinks prices are quite steep with 3CUC for a Mojito but at least it is only a short work to your bed and not a ten minute trek from the city center. We had some great nights on the rooftop and I met several people there with whom I travelled with for days or even weeks. It is the perfect atmosphere to ask "Hey, I´m leaving for Vinales tomorrow - anyone wants to join?" and hey presto, you found a new travel buddy.Rolando´s Backpackers made my stay in Cuba one of the best trips I had. Some of the people I met there will be friends for many years to come and I will cherish the rooftop memories forever. The family made all of us feel very welcome and mostly it felt more like a homestay than a normal hostel. They were so helpful and lovely and always ready for a chat - be it from football to the best black bean recipe.
HikingMountains are what people come for and the unusual karst mountains are well worth a look. Imagine Halong Bay in Vietnam with rice paddies and fields instead of the ocean. The huge boulders are dotted along the valley giving the whole area a slightly mysterious look and in places where they go over into the mountain range surrounding the valley they offer fantastic outdoor sport activities. Although there are no proper hiking trails and rock climbing is still in its baby shoes there are a few walking trails out of the valley leading to viewpoints with stunning vistas. The most popular one is the one leading to the only two hotels in Vinales. The way follows a main road and can be done by anyone capable of walking for longer than a TV advertisement break. It does get steep at some point but the 2km walk flies past as you are rewarded with great views and friendly locals thinking that you are a bit crazy to walk up the hill instead of getting a taxi. Once you reach the top you are allowed to walk into the hotel and enjoy the viewpoint at the pool. It is a lovely walk and apparently you get great sunrises there but I´m not sure about walking along the road without streetlights. Cuban driving can be adventurous at the best of times and switching on the lights does not seem to be compulsory. Horse RidingTravelling with Australians is great – they are a bunch of super nice, extrovert people all into heaps of different outdoor activities. My two friends Ellen and Diana were no exception as they were experienced horse women. I have never been on a horse nor felt any need to do so but as it turned out Cuba was a country of many firsts for me. Our casa hosts suggested a horse riding excursion and not wanting to hold the other back I gingerly agreed. 6CUC per hour per horse seemed reasonable and we were looking forward to get to see more of this beautiful area. So off we went on our first morning here looking for the stables – which are hidden in the middle of some fields right at the edge of town. Once we arrived there were some issues about the price as they wanted to charge us more. We agreed on a flat rate of 20CUC for the three our trip and everyone was happy. With the Australians on their horses in seconds all eyes turned to me. My little horsie turned out to be tiny, old and looking rather donkey like but she was the perfect choice for a beginner. Our guys followed us on foot holding onto the rains of my horsie for the first half hour until I stopped shaking. He was absolutely lovely and very knowledgeable about the area, pointing out various plants and stone formations. Obviously he was also great taking care of the horses and the followed his command without hesitating. Now I really don’t know anything about horses but both Ellen and Diana said that the horses were well behaved and in very good condition. One could see that they are well fed and bight and alert. The trek itself was great, slowly leading up a mountain towards a lake hidden away why the stone formations. There we had a little rest before riding back into town. The three hours passed like nothing and we enjoyed it very much. The horses were great and I was incredibly happy by how calm my horsie was. I could see her choosing the safest way to step and never did anything stupid like suddenly running away with me screaming and falling to my certain death (slight exaggeration here). Ask your casa owner and they will gladly help you to arrange a horse riding excursion. The people we were with were lovely and definitely cared well for the animals. They were also very understanding about our different abilities which I was very grateful for. CavingMy second time in Vinales was jam-packed of sporty outdoorsiness which was great fun but also incredibly exhausting. Well, more exhausting at least than spending all day at the beach, drinking rum & coke and going for the occasional Scuba dive. With my new friends Vera and Claus we took off on a day of caving, something Vinales is famous for throughout Cuba. The first one we went to was the Cueva de los Indios; a tourist magnet 7km from the town centre. Taxis and mini busses go there all day long delivering tourists and day trippers. The cave itself is a show-cave, meaning concrete paths, electrical lighting and a speedboat tour on an underground river. It was fun and the 5 minute boat ride was actually really nice but it had nothing to do with proper caving. We were the only group in hiking gear whereas most of the Cuban women were wearing high heels. For 5CUC it was a comfortable way to spend the morning but nothing I feel the need to do again. Cueva Santo Tomas was a different thing and please, please, please do not wear high heels or even ballerinas when getting there. Although the area you can visit is not dangerous we are still talking a 90min walk through sharp rocks in the dark with a slippery floor and no handrails. The 17km drive leads you into the middle of nowhere and we nearly missed the turn to the cave. Signs are spars in this area which surprised me a bit given that we are talking about the second largest cave in Central America. Would Cueva Santo Tomas be in North America or Europe it would be a huge tourist magnet. With it being in Cuba we were the only ones there and had our guide to ourselves. Parking is available and free and if you are brave enough there is also a very dodgy looking bar. Our guide spoke perfect English and asked for 10CUC per person for the tour. Sounds a bit steep but well worth it in the end. The tour started with an 18 meter climb to the entrance of the 6th level of the cave. As long as you wear proper shoes you will be fine, just avoid looking down. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb up but were even more grateful of the natural air con inside the cave. Here it was time to put on our helmets we were given, switch on the head torches and start exploring. Our guide led the way through some narrow passages into great halls full of glittering stalagmites and stalactites. The walking was not hard but the floor slippery and the rocks have very sharp edges. If you are particularly tall you might not enjoy this part of the tour too much. My personal low-light was the climb via a dodgy looking (but perfectly sturdy and save) ladder into the next level of the cave. Here we entered another great dark hall containing a natural pond and various creepy looking cave spiders. Our guide told us heaps of interesting stories and could answer all our questions about the geology of the cave. I´m not sure if I believe it but he said that once he spend an entire week climbing around in the lower levels of the cave that are not open to public access. The Muriel de la PrehistoriaWe all know that artists can be a bit crazy but as it turns out that Cuban artists can be both crazy and slightly delusional at the same. At least this is the only way I can explain the Muriel de la Prehistoria – a gaudy Technicolor painting covering an entire rock face of a karst mountain. Some twenty years ago a couple of artists tried their luck in depicting evolution – and succeeding in creating something that looks like a mix of cave paintings and a child’s drawing with water colours. I´m not going into the details of how it looks as you should really keep that element of surprise. The easiest way to get there is follow the road leading out of town the way the bus came in for 3km, and then a sign will direct you towards the Muriel following a smaller road through the mountains. 4km did not sound that bad but Vera and me chose to do it after Scuba diving at 9am and a 4 hour drive to Vinales – by the time we reached the Muriel we were starving like a pack of wolves and really did not appreciate the questionable artistic talent on offer. There is a 1CUC entrance charge if you want to get close and overpriced bars and a restaurant are at your service. Don’t miss it, although it sounds a bit boring it is a Cuba must see and even if it is just to say that you finally found dinosaurs in Vinales.
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