Written by PeaceLoveTravel on 23 Aug, 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…Read More
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. Close
Written by PeaceLoveTravel on 22 Aug, 2012
Backpacking in the Caribbean is both gorgeous as well as costly. With flights being rather on the expensive side of things money saving while being in the country and still having fun turned into my main priority. Most of the things I list here are…Read More
Backpacking in the Caribbean is both gorgeous as well as costly. With flights being rather on the expensive side of things money saving while being in the country and still having fun turned into my main priority. Most of the things I list here are not just great for shoestring travellers but also for everyone trying to get away from the all-inclusive crowds in Varadero and Cayo Coco. Before I start I’d like to say that I am well aware of the Cuban economic situation and the importance of tourism. Spending money obviously improves the lives of people working in these sectors but turning away from the beaten trek can actually bring money into the hands of people without regular access to CUCs.Get CUPsCuba has a two currency system. The CUC is comparable to the US dollar and used mainly in the tourism industry. CUP, the national currency, has a exchange rate of roughly 25CUP to 1CUC. You can get moneda nacional in all banks or ask your casa owner to exchange you a bit. It is always handy to have and will keep the prices down when paying for street food. Most paces will charge you say 10CUP but ask for 1CUC if you only have tourist money. Street foodCuban street food is stunning! Ok, it does not quite hold up in comparison with Thai street food but it is certainly better than the greasy doner kebabs you get all over Europe. Cheese pizzas are available at literally every street corner for as little as 10CUP – that is less than 50 pence. They might give any proud Italian a heart attack but hey are super tasty and very filling. My favourite street food was pan con tortilla – simple fried egg sandwiches beefed up with cheese, onions or ham. My favourite combination was cheese melted in the egg with grilled onions for all of 8CUP. Combine this with a 3CUC glass of freshly made guava juice and you have a semi-healthy and filling breakfast. If you are looking for healthier options you can choose from plenty of fresh fruit including mango, bananas, mamoncillos and of course the tastiest avocados I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Bring a pocket knife and a bit of salt and you are sorted. Bread can be bought everywhere so homemade avocado sandwiches are a real alternative to expensive sandwiches at bus stations. Water is sold in 0.5L and 1.5L bottles. If you know that you are staying for a few days in the same places grab a small bottle and try o get hold of a big 5L canister to refill it. Most supermarkets sell them for only a little more than the 1.5L bottles. Oh, and if water is not good enough stick to big bottles of rum – most local brands are just as tasty but way cheaper than Havana Club. Share, Share, ShareSharing is vital for any shoestring traveller and obviously a quick and easy way to make new friends. Casa particulars generally offer double rooms and even though you might get a discount if it is only you it is still quite expensive for a solo traveller. Finding like-minded backpacker is quite easy and saves heaps of money when you share a room. Also, there is nothing more depressing then sitting in your casa on your own reading your Lonely Planet every night.Taxis are way overpriced in Cuba so try your best to find some travellers at the bus station that want to share a ride to the city centre. Some hotels and casas are really helpful and will ask around if any of their other guests needs to get a taxi to the same place as you. On my last day my casa owner presented me with three other girls al wanting to go to the airport, saving each of us 15CUC.Avoid the crowdsIt does not need to be completely leaving the beaten trek but some of my most rewarding experiences turned out to be the ones away from the tourist trail. Cocktails along the main tourist squares in Havana will set you back up to 4CUC and if you fall into the trap of visiting a Hemmingway bar you can say goodbye to 6CUC for a Mojito. Try the little side streets and leave Havana Vieja – you will be rewarded with tasty 2CUC Mojitos and an extra touch of local flavour. It is much more exciting to eat in a little Palader in someone’s living room then sitting in restaurants that you can easily find in any warm capital of the world. Yes, the food selection might be limited to two dishes but it will be home cooked and if you speak some Spanish you will certainly make some new friends. Consider travelling in monsoon season – there will be fewer tourists and prices drop dramatically. The daily rain shower is something I actually enjoyed thoroughly. It cleared the air and the scenery was lush green instead of savannah brown. People in bars and restaurants are less stressed by all the crowds descending on them and it is much easier to get a bargain. Most hotels and casas offer off-season prices which is the only reason that I could afford staying in Maria la Gorda. Dive offersIf you are into Scuba diving then Cuba is the right place for you. With some of the best dive sites in the Caribbean it sports various reefs, wrecks and caves that make my mouth water just thinking about it. The diving is a bit more expensive then in Central America but still loads cheaper than in Europe. I’d say the average I paid per dive including equipment was 35CUC ranging from 25CUC in Playa Larga to 42CUC in Maria la Gorda. If you know that you are staying for a few days definitely book a dive package. In Maria la Gorda I managed to get 6 dives for the price of 5 which was ok but still rather pricy. In Playa Larga we paid 150CUC and got 4 open water and 3 cave dives out of it. Generally I would recommend Playa Larga for the best dive sites and pest prices in Cuba. Try to get a package upfront as some places refuse to credit you for dives you have done before negotiating a package. Bargain There is nothing wrong with asking your casa if they can include the price of breakfast in the room price or charge you 5CUC less for single occupancy. Most people are happy to help if you don’t bargain too hard and always remember that a smile goes a long way. Taxis are the one places where bargaining is a definite must if no you will be paying through your teeth. Try to figure out the standard prices in advance or ask your casa owner to book you a taxi. On a rainy day a taxi driver asked for 15CUC from the Viazul bus station to central Havana; a ten minute trip that normally costs between 5 to 7CUC. Do your homework and you will save heaps of money. If taxis are still too expensive try local transport. It is a bit daunting at first but once you figured out the way it works you can get to the Hemmingway house for a few CUP instead of 20CUC. There is also a CUP bus to the airport but I might be a bit hesitant trusting local transport when I got a flight to catch. Bring Mosquito repellent and sun creamBoth are hard to get and ridiculously expensive in Cuba. Make sure you have a large enough stash before flying out. Same goes for conditioner and toothpaste. I love to travel light but did regret (and so did my hair) that I only brought a tiny bottle of conditioner with me. You can obviously buy it but for the quality you get you are paying over the odds. Cuba is a stunning country and as long as you stay away from the all-inclusive places you can have a great time while still travelling on a shoestring. My budget was 10 Pounds a day for accommodation and food. Add 20 Pounds amusement money to that and you are guaranteed a good time. To be honest, if it wouldn’t have been for all the Scuba diving my amusement budget would have been less than 10 Pounds a day. Anyway, regardless of what your budget is just enjoy Cuba! Close
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…Read More
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. Close
Written by PeaceLoveTravel on 13 Aug, 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…Read More
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. Close
Written by Niiko on 27 Mar, 2010
Just as Havana looks, feels and smells like the epitome of "faded grandeur", the town of Trinidad, on the southern edge of Cuba's elongated finger, could well be the encyclopaedic entry for "colonial charm". Today part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the…Read More
Just as Havana looks, feels and smells like the epitome of "faded grandeur", the town of Trinidad, on the southern edge of Cuba's elongated finger, could well be the encyclopaedic entry for "colonial charm". Today part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the surrounding Valle de los Ingenios, its elegant architecture and easy-going pace make for a welcome antidote to the capital's brashness and bustle. Loaded with fine, affordable places to stay, Trinidad occupies a nice position in that it's well on the tourist trail, with amenities to boot, but is untainted by its influxes of visitors and retains its inherent charm. It's also nicely-positioned in a more literal sense; situated between the Escambray mountains and beaches of the Caribbean, both are easy to reach and make for a varied, fascinating destination. The town's cobbled streets and pleasant facades - regularly drenched by passing tropical showers in summer that alleviate the humidity a fraction - hide some wonderful residences; there are no end of Casas Particulares here, which chosen carefully can be quite exceptional value. These Casas (guesthouses-cum-homestays) are comfortably the best way to see Cuba, offering some attractive, welcoming accommodation and home-cooked meals that belie the country's modest culinary reputation - guidebooks will make some good suggestions, but ask around and you'll find some equally pleasant places on arrival if these are booked up. Expect to pay around 30 Convertible Pesos (CUC) for a room (£20 or so), about 8 CUC for a tasty, filling dinner and 4 CUC for breakfast. Fresh fruit, a choice of meats, beans and rice tend to make up the average meal. Trinidad expands outwards deceptively far, although it slumbers in a thoroughly small-town atmosphere, and its principal attractions are all within a half-kilometre or so radius of the Plaza Mayor, a charming, quiet square lined with palm trees and surrounded by a pretty church and arched, tiled buildings. This colonial architecture (alongside the enveloping lush countryside) prompted UNESCO to add the town to their extensive list, and the whole historic centre could well be posing for a photograph. Touring, persistent cigar-sellers are perhaps a less welcome part of the picture. One block to the north of the main square (head left as you face the church), an attractively-situated museum recounts some of the area's history and cultural significance in a series of fairly dry displays - nonetheless, the 1 CUC entry is more than justified by the stunning views from the tower which survey the town's mass of tiled roofs and offer extensive vistas beyond over the countryside and out to the azure Caribbean. A number of other small museums dot the centre of Trinidad, and simply wandering the streets, the wealth the town soaked up from its past position at the centre of a valley booming in sugar industry is evident. So too, though, is the time that has passed since those days of white, fine gold being pulled in (by slaves, naturally) from the plantations - but then every Colonial Gem (copyright, I'm sure, every guide to Cuba) needs a bit of charming decay. The Brunet Theatre, south-west of Plaza Mayor makes for one of the most striking expositions of this withered wealth - the ruined shell of a former playhouse which, less its roof has become a café-cum-restaurant with occasional live music; one of the distinct pleasures of eating out in Cuba. Actually, given the food, the only pleasure. If you do choose to eat outside your Casa - and it's not something that comes highly recommended - Trinidad does at least have a good variety of eateries offering a fairly predictable fare. Better, eat in your Casa and head out for some drinks; the steps leading upwards away to the right of the church are surrounded by some bars which also often overlook live performances. As established, the town is one half of UNESCO's designated heritage zone - the other part, the aforementioned Valle de los Ingenios, alongside the rest of the verdant countryside is invitingly accessible from Trinidad. The lack of traffic on Cuban roads - something I read about, but still found quite astounding - encourages exploration by bike. Flat, quiet roads and the off-limit-to-cars centre of the town make it wonderfully easy to get out to the beaches or valley; just expect to make leisurely progress, as bikes are deliciously cheap (3 CUC a day), but don't necessarily work so well. Playa Ancon presents something of a contrast to Trinidad, a row of resort-hotels lapping at a long white sand beach, itself met by a limitless Caribbean horizon. Half an hour's cycling will take you there, where you can grab one of the free shades and some food and drink from a beachfront bar. Further round to the west of the narrow finger of land that forms Playa Ancon, La Boca is an earthier, less polished, more Cuban beach village. For a view of Valle de los Ingenios, go for a wander up the hill behind the main square's church, where twenty minutes' walk and a couple of hundred metres' ascent brings you to a television-transmitter station with some wonderful views. When we wandered up there, the implausibly friendly employee manning the station insisted on taking us up a worryingly homemade ladder to the rooftop, where great views became greater. We declined the offer of mojitos, though. Given the walk takes you through the edges of town and some isolated areas, it's perhaps one to make before dusk - although why would you go vista-gazing in the dark? The Valle itself is well worth a visit - again, biking it is an option, although such is the wealth of history in the area, a guide (plenty will volunteer) is a good choice. Westwards of Trinidad, the Topes de Collantes is a large natural reserve offering considerable hiking and exploration. From beach to bar, sand to sugarmill, a visit to Trinidad is a perfect complement to Havana's melting-pot madness, and offers a chance to see some of the best of Cuba's beguiling riches, natural and manmade. ~ Regular buses depart Havana bound for Trinidad, costing around 25 CUC and taking five to six hours, stopping in Cienfugos and passing the Bay of Pigs. Close
Written by Niiko on 22 Feb, 2010
Thanks to the dual-currency (one for locals, one for tourists), Cuba is deceptively hard on the wallet. Wildly unlike other Latin American nations, basic services and rustic surrounds don’t equate to cheap living. If you are intent on getting the most out of Cuba, the…Read More
Thanks to the dual-currency (one for locals, one for tourists), Cuba is deceptively hard on the wallet. Wildly unlike other Latin American nations, basic services and rustic surrounds don’t equate to cheap living. If you are intent on getting the most out of Cuba, the following advice is a mixture of sound tips and common sense; $ Leave Havana.It can be hard to believe that cheap Cuba exists when you’re paying a fortune for bottled water and taxis in Havana, but beyond the capital’s city limits, there’s an island that’s infinitely gentler on the wallet. Westwards of Havana, Pinar del Rio makes an appetising destination, while Cienfuegos is an interesting stop-off to the east, and Trinidad is a deservedly popular destination. In these smaller towns, accommodation is considerably cheaper, food likewise (and rather better) and budget-shredding transport is largely unnecessary. Havana’s certainly an interesting place to be, but you’ll get much greater value for money the moment you leave.$ Stay in Casas Particulares, easy to find either in guidebooks/internet or in person. The familiar blue logos that signify Casas Particulares mark accommodation that is really the only way to stay affordably in Cuba. Fortunately, they’re also the best way; exercise a bit of choosiness in deciding where to stay and you can find some absolute bargains – elegant colonial villas built around lush gardens and terraces, with an inevitably warm welcome to boot. Expect to pay around 25-30 CUC for a decent room, often with en-suite bathroom. All up-to-date guidebooks will give you some nice options to start with, but if these are full – and thanks to their printed prominence, this is often the case – there are plenty of other, often equally agreeable options. Look and/or ask around, and you’ll find somewhere decent.$ Likewise, eat in your Casa; the food is likely to be substantially better and cheaper than in a restaurant.Alongside the pleasant lodgings, Casas Particulares also offer the chance to eat extremely well for a modest supplement; 8 CUC or so for dinner, half that for breakfast. In a country not especially well-noted for its cuisine, eating in your Casa makes for a cheaper and better alternative to so-so restaurants. The abundance of fresh fruit from the surrounding countryside typically features prominently on the menu, along with a simple, tasty meat or seafood dish and some variation on a rice/potatoes theme on the side.At the particular Casa we chose in Trinidad, the owner also served up some delicious soup whenever it rained – which, tropical showers being what they are, was just about every day. Although we normally ate outside, rain meant being ushered inside and having piping hot soup dished up to chase away the chilly airs. Even if it was still thirty-five degrees outside. $ The more Spanish you speak, the better - the ability to negotiate is crucial. As black and white as the Cuban/Foreigner cleavage may appear to be, there are considerable shades of grey seeping in-between, and as a rule, the more Spanish you speak, the easier you’ll find this muddy, beneficial stream. Although, as a visitor, you’re expecting to use only the Convertible Peso, there are some circumstances when this can be side-stepped – see below.Of course, speaking Castilian Spanish is no guarantee of being able to comprehend the Cuban variety with any great ease – mixed with a rapid-paced, lilting Caribbean influence, everything seems to run together and blend into an indecipherable mess. Still, the more you can communicate, the more you’ll get out of Cuba. As much as this is true of any destination, it’s doubly applicable for a country as complex and multi-faceted as this.$ Carry some normal Pesos alongside your Convertible Pesos, useful for spending at food stalls/markets. That current of grey that runs through the tourist rules can at times be exploited, and where possible, this saves a fortune. Although most places will only accept Convertibles from visitors, individuals, market stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops will often accept the national currency, of which there are currently 27 to the foreigners’ currency. If you can use the Peso for small purchases – water, lunch on the go and the like – it’ll make your CUCs go a little further.$ Try to avoid using the internet - likewise taxis drain resources at an astonishing rate; bikes are cheap to hire, and Cuba's empty roads (outside Havana at least) are ideally suited. In a country where telephones are a luxury many don’t have – we witnessed the low-cost alternative for ourselves when a message was relayed down to the other end of the street by a series of neighbours lounging in doorways – the internet is both difficult and prohibitively expensive to access. It’s possible in a number of locations in Havana, if pricey (six pounds an hour), but outside the capital, it may be next to impossible. Save time, bother and money by arranging anything you need before arriving in Cuba.With taxis little better value, get on your bike to explore Cuba. For all the cars in Havana – some the celebrated American classics, most not – there’s barely any traffic on the island’s roads, and cheap-to-hire (3 CUC per day) bikes enable you to get around at leisure. They may not be wonderfully-maintained – check your brakes before agreeing to take your ride – but provided you’ve got the time (and why shouldn’t you; adapt to the local pace!) it’s a relaxing way to see the surrounding sights. In Trinidad, for instance, the beach is comfortably reached on two wheels.$ Be careful where you change your money The maxim of money-changing may be "Never, never, never use the airport!", but Cuba is characteristically happy to buck the trend. Unusually, the airport offered one of the better rates of exchange we found, and was a refreshingly hassle-free experience. Hotels are likely to offer the worst rates; we got a fraction of the value from ours, and it’s a theme which seems to be repeated. Debit Cards, contrary to popular belief - and there seems to be much heated debate about the issue - do work in Cuba - Cadeca Banks will certainly allow you to draw money out, but be prepared to queue. The banks don’t do things quickly, and you’ll want to keep withdrawals to a minimum, such is the difficulty involved.$$$Although it’s a challenging place to see on a budget, it’s worth making the effort. Staying in Casas Particulares makes for a great way to see the country and get some sort of feel for the reality of Cuban life – and it’s all to easy to miss out on this the longer you spend in Varadero (the distinctly un-Cuban beach resort on the north coast) and, in a way, Havana – especially if you’re sheltered in a luxury hotel. There’s something to be said for these comforts, though – insomuch as they allow you to explore the curiosities of the capital from a pleasant base – and perhaps the best option lies somewhere in the middle; that wonderful grey area again. Close
Written by Niiko on 09 Feb, 2010
Faded Grandeur could almost be trademarked by Havana, so consistently is the concept reflected throughout the city. In the well-worn Old Town and the peeling facades of the centre, this is an attraction in itself; a colonial heritage left to decay that has taken on…Read More
Faded Grandeur could almost be trademarked by Havana, so consistently is the concept reflected throughout the city. In the well-worn Old Town and the peeling facades of the centre, this is an attraction in itself; a colonial heritage left to decay that has taken on a greater, charming life of its own, infused with daily bustle and vigour. The appeal isn't universal, though. There are classic cars, and there are plain old ones. Whilst Havana certainly has its fair share of the iconic variety, every taxi we found ourselves in was a decaying 1970s Lada, far removed from the glamour of their pin-up cousins. Two of the four doors worked, none of the windows did, the seats were sprung like old chicken carcasses and the tyres were as bald as I feared I'd be the next time the driver attempted to drift round a corner. This relationship between the polished minority and the crumbling majority is multiplied exponentially throughout Cuba's capital. Crap transport has its place. Specifically, a cheap one - but not in Havana. Like just about everything else in the city, it's stunningly expensive for what it is (but only for outsiders, mind). For Cuba, thanks to its peculiar double-currency, is certainly a land of riches; although most of these are those assumed to be in every tourist's pocket. By the standards of any traveller on a budget, Havana is expensive. A combination of the aforementioned two-tier currency (one for Cubans, one for foreigners) and a pervasive perception of visitors as cash-cows to be milked at every opportunity combine to make travel here a frustrating experience. Although there is a stream of Cuban life that is accessible to those without considerable resources - and indeed, a desire to spend less tends to open this up somewhat - it can be hard to find, and in the capital, this is doubly true. ~ Orientation ~Havana is a sprawling city unlike anywhere else in Cuba for scale and intensity. Getting one's head around this mass can be trying, but there are really only a few areas of significant interest to visitors. Havana Vieja is the side of the city most often broadcast to prospective tourists, and contains the most appealing aesthetics; narrow, balcony-lined streets opening up into countless little squares with their crumbling edifices. Whether this is charming decay or a reflection of what is a very poor area is a matter of perception, I suppose. Vieja is bordered by the Bay of Havana to the east and the Straits of Florida to the north, while Central Habana sweeps around from the west. Centro is substantially less attractive than Vieja; a noisy, heaving grid of streets whose main attractions can be found on its outskirts. Towards its western extremities, the Plaza de la Revolution, vast Necropolis and City Zoo occupy an approximate border with Vedado ("Be-dow"), a leafier suburb that offers something of a retreat from the chaotic atmosphere and close heat of the central districts. North-west of here, and beyond the western extremity of the Malécon - the mile-long seawall (a lively, suprisingly safe place for a night-time wander) - Miramir is a similarly more agreeably-paced area. Transportation between these areas is best done by taxi or Coco-Cab - the tuk-tuk-style yellow pods that hang around the Capitol Building. It's a pricey way of getting around, but it's probably the best option. Officially, it should be around 2.50 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos; roughly £1.50 to a CUC) for a ten-minute journey, but unless you're especially charming or good at negotiating, expect to pay around twice that. If you're especially uncharming, or bad at negotiating, take a roomy wallet. Public transport exists - for the brave - and walking reasonable distances is uncomfortable in the hot, dusty city. ~ Chocolate, Rum and Imperialist Pigs ~ Mostly located on or near El Prado (or Paseo de Marti), the thoroughfare dividing Old and Central Habana, one can visit a host a museums - those of art, chocolate, rum and music. The most impressive, however, has to be - what else? - the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former Presidential Palace. Visually striking - especially the tribute to Versaille's Hall of Mirrors - and overflowing with information and memorabilia, the constant 'look at the wonders of socialism' rhetoric becomes a little tedious, but it's a fascinating visit. Look out the south windows of the museum to see Fidel's yacht, La Granma, housed in a glass fortress and under the watchful eye of a host of guards. Out of the north windows, you'll see Fidel's tank, on which he rode victoriously into the capital. Fidel's hoover isn't currently on display. ~ Filling Mouths and Resting Heads ~ Cuban food has a pretty bad reputation, and it's only partly deserved. Granted, the diet of meat, rice and beans quickly becomes a little bland and repetitive, but such is the reality of a society which severely limits the goods its citizens can buy. Better food is available, mostly in the prime spots around the most picturesque squares or in the higher-end hotels. La Dominica, on Calle O'Reilly, near the Plaza del Armas, is a good Italian restaurant worth trying when Cuban fare loses its charm. They do, though have a tendency to "run out" of all the cheaper items on the menu, and will try to steer tourists towards the most expensive dishes, which can be irritating, and is a practice not uncommon in the city. A good bakery is nearby on Calle Obispo if you fancy a cheaper lunch, while various stalls and shopfronts around Vieja sell cheap, if basic sandwiches and slices of pizza. Hotels, as with everything else in Havana, are pricey. If you've got the money and the inclination, there are plenty of options in the city with all the usual offerings. More appealing, though, in terms of budget and experience, are the Casas Particulares. These Guesthouses are dotted around throughout the city and the rest of Cuba, and offer decent rooms for around 15-25 CUC, with meals available for another 4-10 CUC. Identified by a blue double-headed arrow symbol, these residences are an appealing option not only for the rest they'll give your poor wallet but also for the chance you get to meet Cubans in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The Casa owners are inevitably welcoming, chatty and exceptionally generous, and you'll find some surprisingly luxurious accommodation hiding behind unexceptional exteriors. ~ The Waggle of the Cuban Tongue ~Cubans speak Spanish. Kind of. However, Cuban Spanish is to Castilian Spanish what Geordie is to the Queen's English. Heavily accented, speckled with all manner of influences and dialectal expressions and rattled off like the speaker fears losing the ability to do so, having come from slow-and-easy Mexico, I felt like I was hearing another language. You get used to it to an extent, but it's still pretty tricky to comprehend. Also, probably best not to ask for Papaya Juice in a restaurant. Fruta Bomba is the alternative name, and the one that doesn't refer to female genitalia. ~ Havana is certainly a fascinating place, but I'm not sure I found it an especially pleasant one. Noisy, polluted and expensive, it's in no way a relaxing stay, at least not if you're on a budget. However, the rest of Cuba is pleasingly a different story; much more laid-back and accessible to foreigners. For me, there are two ways to enjoy the capital; either find a nice, conveniently-located Casa to stay in, and take your time exploring the different areas of the city on foot, exploring the museums, open spaces and countless cafes and bars - or simply have a fair bit of money, and stay somewhere high-end. In truth, though, the latter is effectively blocking out much of Cuba, making the effort of getting there somewhat questionable. The same goes for staying at the mega-resort that is Varadero, away to the east of Havana. Cuba is often characterised as a land in a time-warp, and this is to a great extent true. Just try to get internet access, or buy anything but the most basic toiletries. It's easy to romanticise this 1950s-throwback image, but the reality is less idyllic. Nonetheless, as an experience the country is well worth the trouble, although in my eyes at least, the capital isn't the best exposition of Cuba's very individual charms. Close
Written by airynfaerie on 17 Dec, 2009
Earlier in the year I traveled with a licensed, non-profit, humanitarian group that "strives to foster better awareness and understanding between the citizens (of Cuba & the US) through a relationship of mutual concern and respect, and to provide self-help projects...that relieve suffering, bring relief,…Read More
Earlier in the year I traveled with a licensed, non-profit, humanitarian group that "strives to foster better awareness and understanding between the citizens (of Cuba & the US) through a relationship of mutual concern and respect, and to provide self-help projects...that relieve suffering, bring relief, ease tensions, aid learning, brighten lives and bring happiness to individuals and groups in a situation of stress, isolation, illness, poverty, deprivation, scarcity and meager resources."For the past several years I've helped on the States-side of the operation, loading shipping containers of donations, doing graphic work for the environmental campaign posters and books, but this was my first time being able to actually go to meet the people for whom the work was being done. After one night in Miami, we flew into Santiago and visited one of Cuba's renowned artists, Lawrence Zúñiga Batista, as one of the projects this trip was to finish up a cultural book on Cuban artists originally from Baracoa.After a quick stop to view his pieces, we continued on to Guantanamo for dinner with Irania Garcia, who was one of CNN Heroes for environmental efforts as she turned a trash dump into a garden after her daughter died of cancer related to environmental poisons stemming from the dump. It was amazing to meet her and hear about the work she's been doing, but we still had a 4+hour drive ahead of us, so we had to get going. Before the night was over, we finally arrived in Baracoa, and rested for the week ahead.The next morning, I woke to a beautiful view over the town, mountains, and the ocean. We quickly went to work and over our 4 days in Baracoa had a busy time meeting several more artists, visiting galleries, putting on a business seminar, distributing books, doing inventory of the last donation shipping container to make sure supplies got to where they were meant to, meeting with a handicap center, and viewing some of the recent hurricane damage and restoration efforts.The people of Baracoa treated us like special guests, always greeted us in the streets, and even put on a cultural event for us complete with an art exhibit, local music, poetry readings, and a local traditional dance show. Before we left Baracoa on the way to Havana, we worked on a few more projects including visiting a seaside village completely destroyed by Hurricane Ike and doing some work in a UNESCO national park. Over all it was a lovely unique experience. Close
Written by mjulie555 on 14 Feb, 2008
As a graduation present I was able to go to Cuba, finally. Let me tell you right now that it was definitely a worthwhile trip!Make sure if you're flying in from Mexico to get to Havana that you have plenty of time between flights because…Read More
As a graduation present I was able to go to Cuba, finally. Let me tell you right now that it was definitely a worthwhile trip!Make sure if you're flying in from Mexico to get to Havana that you have plenty of time between flights because you never know how long Mexican customs will take! We missed our flight to Havana so we were forced to spend the night in Mexico to make the next day's flight. Cubana Airlines is pretty bad but it's the only option. (Warning, confirm all flight reservations within Cuba or to Cuba the day before!!!!) HAVANA'S AIRPORT: Don't be afraid of the cold, dark airport when you arrive in Havana. They sure don't do much to welcome tourists there but once you walk through the baggage claim doors into the modern airport you're relieved to see that they're not as behind as you had thought. (*Note: the long line near the baggage belts are for Cubans or Cuban-born people only). Taxi drivers only accept CUC (Cuban currency) & euros (a standard rate is charged, the equivalent of $20). Try to get these euros before your trip so you won't have to wait in the long line at the airport. HOTEL: I enjoyed our stay in a hotel called CASA VICKY in the Vedado neighborhood. Vedado is generally safe & one of the more modern areas of the city with beautiful buildings everywhere. We were lucky and were able to have a whole house to ourselves...living & dining rooms, bedroom, bathroom & a kitchen. The man who takes care of the guests was pretty cool, too. Just $25/night. TOUR GUIDE: Our special ingredient for fun in Havana was our tour guide JESUS. You must get this guy to give you a tour (write me for his & Casa Vicky's information)...he charges $20 a day but it's worth it because he speaks english and is a historian so he knows what he's talking about. He was also a diplomat who speaks Russian fluently and has been to Russia a lot (however, not since they became a democracy)...he's an interesting guy. ****JINETERO ALERT****Jineteros are people who try to become your best friends and force you to go to a restaurant or hotel they know about. You might meet some who take you to a great little place but it's best to stay away from these people. You never know their true intentions or how much they're cheating you so ignore them. It was hard for me to do this because I felt rude but you know where that landed me? Stuck eating lunch in a bomb shelter in the middle of an apartment! The food was great, a massive serving of which I only ate half of, but it was a little too scary I must say! MONEY: AMERICANS, YOU CAN'T USE YOUR CREDIT CARDS OR ATMs here so you must take all of your money that you will be spending with you! If you haven't already been told, Cuba has 2 currencies...one for the Cuban people and one for tourists. Yup, Fidel knows how to use his toursists. When you change your dollars into CUC (Cuban Convertible currency, also called convertible or even divisa) they keep 20%! Yes, 20%! But that's the best deal you'll get so hand it over. You can change some of your CUC into the national Cuban peso that the locals use if you wish (for the few items that can be paid with them) but be aware that not all (a small percentage) will let you use it. They might tell you that you can only use CUC but they just want more money from you because it's not illegal for tourists to use the national Cuban peso. TAXIS: With Jesus as your tour guide you'll hardly spend money on taxis. Maybe to get yourself to the main area of sites and then home later will be the only taxi fares you'll pay for all day! That's a good thing because taxi rides become expensive quickly. Each ride is between $4-$8! SITE-SEEING: As long as you see Centro Havana and Havana Vieja you're good. You'll see everything from the capital building, all sorts of museums for you to choose from, Havana's Chinatown, el malecon (their seawall), numerous plazas, etc. I enjoyed el Mueso de la Revolucion and it took us at least 2 1/2 hours to see everything in it. At the end of the tour, walk along the malecon for a while and enjoy the beautiful view before you take a taxi home. VIA AZUL BUSES: These buses are for tourists only (they discriminate like that...these buses are the nicest they have). Make sure to reserve any trips you want to go on at least 2 DAYS IN ADVANCE!!!! Any less and they'll write your name on a waiting list and there's nothing worse than the anxiety you'll endure the next day of not knowing if you'll be traveling! If you can't make it onto a bus, haggle with nearby taxi drivers who are offering to drive you to other cities. You'll get there and probably much faster than on the buses, you'll just have to pay more! FOOD: I don't want to offend Cuban food but the food we ate wasn't too great. The Cuban food I've found in the U.S. is much better. Nevertheless, you'll usually find that every meal comes with arroz montado (white rice mixed with black beans so the whole thing looks brown), salad and the beverage is usually a soft drink. Don't let people push you into ordering lobster. They know they can charge a lot more for it so they love to talk up their lobster dishes. We weren't too adventurous about eating in Havana...we were too busy touring but I sadly must admit that my favorite was the heavily air-conditioned, American-esque cafe LA RAMPA next to the Trypp Hotel on "Calle L". They surprisingly had good, cheap food though. THE INTERNET: This is hard to finally get in Cuba, of course! They usually have internet access in nice, big hotels. When we finally got to a computer in Havana we had to go to 2 hotels and then buy a card that had 30 minutes of internet usage on it. Be patient about this because a lot of times they say that they run out of cards. PHOTOGRAPHS: Man, I took more pictures here than anywhere else before! There's a kodak moment everywhere you look, seriously. Don't be camera shy or too embarrassed to whip out that camera. You'll be so glad you did when you get home and scrapbook that trip! ****EXTRA TIPS****GET FROMMER'S CUBA BOOK! It was pure gold throughout our trip. A lot of people in Cuba aren't the best at customer service. Many times you will be treated very poorly. For example, a waitress will look at you like she has no idea what you want when you're sitting at a table in a restaurant, looking at the menu, trying to order! Just breath in and out and try to not let it get to you. They're not going to change and once you get to know them they are actually nice...they're just forever pissed to be stuck with their government and making such little money every month so think about it from their point of view. Cuba is generally a safe place for tourists. I felt more safe there than in any other Latin American country I've been to before. I think the fact that the Cuban government severely punishes those who disturb tourists is the one and only reason! GIRLS, Cuban men love to gawk and yell at you haha. Just ignore them and keep on walking. A lot of times they try to guess where you're from. If you are American, try to pretend like you're European because once people know that you're American they want to interview you! Since not many Americans travel there, Americans are hounded more. I'm latin so I just lied and nodded my head when they'd guess I was Italian, Spanish or Mexican! MAKE SURE TO GO TO CUBA WITH A SPANISH SPEAKER. Anything and everything will go wrong or be delayed in Cuba, ok? At the end of your trip you'll be wishing you could stay longer but while you're there, fighting your battles along the way, you'll think to yourself how much of a pain it is. They might run out of toilet paper, water, candy, ice cream, tell you that you can't get on a bus or plane, be rude, etc...all in all though, it's a must-see for adventurous people who want to see Cuba, especially before Fidel is gone. I recommend it to anyone who can handle disturbances and who want to see Cuba for themselves, not to mention get to know its people and what they have to say...which is a lot and very refreshing! I shall return one day soon. Close
Written by MichaelJM on 03 May, 2007
At the back of Cathedral Square towards Havana’s promenade is Tacon, a permanent street market, that is well worth checking out. It’s not the biggest in the world, rather compact, but absolutely crammed with work of local artisans. Instinctively you know to hang on…Read More
At the back of Cathedral Square towards Havana’s promenade is Tacon, a permanent street market, that is well worth checking out. It’s not the biggest in the world, rather compact, but absolutely crammed with work of local artisans. Instinctively you know to hang on to your valuables as the passage between stalls is tight and it’s difficult to stop to browse without obstructing other shoppers. In the end, we had to accept that people needed to maneuver around us otherwise we wouldn’t have stopped to view anything. Within seconds, a guy brushes past us muttering meaningfully "Sir, do you want fine cigars?" before disappearing into the hoards of shoppers. This approach became all too familiar as we wended our way around the market and several salesmen suggested if I didn’t smoke that they would make ideal presents for family. In fairness, the cigars looked pretty good, but I was reminded that it was always dodgy to buy on impulse on the street and secondly that such deals were frowned upon by the local police.
There were a lot of carved wooden automobiles in the market and, of course, much to do with smoking. Fine-looking cigar boxes at a fraction of the shop price, ash trays, cigar cases etc.
Rum was another theme with mock advertising memorabilia and other, often tacky, decorative ware. Momentarily, we were tempted with some fine ethnic statues around 10 inches tall with a fine ebony finish at a price of three for 10 pesos. I heard my wife utter those dreaded words "they’d just go with…" and decided it was time to find a distraction somewhere else in the market.
"Look at these handbags," I uttered. This was a suitable distraction but a close call as she handled the cheap leather bags considering that they "might be good enough for work!"
The Cuban stalls carried straw sun hats by the score and I did hear a Canadian voice offering to negotiate his baseball cap for some items off a staff. Now that’s proper bartering for you! Unfortunately, I was whisked away and never did find out how well he’d done.
Leaving the cluttered stalls of t-shirts behind us, we take time to gaze at one of Cuba’s ancient fortified ditches where barrels of old cannons appear to have been ceremoniously laid out. It’s a bizarre but interesting sight
Just opposite the market is a street café, D’Giovanni’s, where we went for a mid-morning snack and coffee. It really was nothing special and the baguette was "not a patch on" the one we’d enjoyed at El Floridita, but the service was friendly enough and it was well positioned for a spot of "people watching". As is standard with Cuban cafés, there’s no hurry so you’re not discouraged from sitting and watching the world go by. What better way to rest those weary feet and restore the batteries before the next bit of sight-seeing?