With travel to Cuba becoming less restrictive recently and round trip flights out of Orlando at $150 we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit while wintering in Florida so we spent the last week of February this year visiting Cuba for the first time! We spent four nights in the capital city of Havana followed by two nights in the farming community of Viñales and ended the trip with one more night in Havana before our flight back.
U.S – Cuba Relations and Complications
Cuba’s communist government and tentative relations with the United States required us to navigate a few complications. First, travel to Cuba for tourist activities alone is still not allowed however a general license covering 12 specific travel categories is allowed. We traveled under the “educational activities” category which must include an itinerary full of educational activities. Our activities consisted mainly of “people-to-people” cultural interaction to learn about Cuban culture and museum visits. If asked upon reentry we would just have to prove that our itinerary met this criteria however we weren’t asked. Second, American banking institutions are not recognized so we would not be able to use any credit or debit cards once in Cuba. This meant we had to plan appropriately and take cash. This means if something horrible were to happen, such as getting robbed or even just over spending each day, we would be out of luck with no way to access our bank accounts. Our contingency plan was giving a blank check to our very good friends with instructions to Western Union us money to Havana if we contacted them, which we could do via the US embassy. Many businesses don’t accept cards at all and lines for ATM machines are very long so taking cash is necessary regardless. Third, if you exchange American dollars in Cuba they charge you a 10% fee. To get around this we got Euros from our bank to take with us. Cuba has two currencies: pesos for the Cubans and CUC for the tourists. One CUC is roughly equivalent to one US dollar, about 24 times more valuable than one peso.
Fourth, our cellular phones do not work in Cuba so phoning home or using our cellular data plan wasn’t possible. Some Cubans do have cellular phones but it is not the norm. Fifth, internet is a luxury and if the place you’re staying doesn’t have it (most don’t) you have to buy an internet card for hourly access and go to a public wi-fi hot spot to access it. This meant we had to plan ahead, bring a map and ask the locals! We ended up getting on the internet once to contact one of our hosts to change our check-in time but other than that we didn’t access the internet for a week! Oh, and sixth, we don’t speak much Spanish! We know a little and downloaded some off-line translators that assisted us in a few situations. Despite all of these complications we never got in a bind and the Cuban people seemed excited to see Americans visiting, and of course, spending money! Most people were quite friendly despite our language barrier. Almost all will smile, nod, or greet you with an “Hola” or “buenas dias” as you pass. Some will try to get you to ride in their friends taxi, sit down in their mom’s restaurant or purchase an internet card from them but a simple no is usually accepted. People were also very helpful to us in finding businesses or bus stops. We actually felt safer walking the streets at night in Havana than we would have in most large US cities.
Cuba has its share of all inclusive hotels and you can easily spend $400 a night at places like the Hotel Nacional de Cuba but there are many other options. A booming business for Cubans is their version of a bed and breakfast called a Casa Particular. These are privately owned homes where the owners rent out a range from shared room to private rooms or the entire home. Some are designated for locals only but many are set up for tourists only. They range from $10 per night to $1000 per night with an average of $90 per night. We wanted a more authentic local experience so we opted for around $30 per night in Havana and $17 per night in Viñales. Cuban’s have been allowed to list their casa particulars on AirBnB so we were able to book all of our stays ahead of time. All of our stays included air conditioning, we see this as a necessity in a tropical climate, and private bathrooms. Many Casa Particulars will offer breakfast for around $5 per person and some dinner. We had dinner at one of our casas for $10 each and it was the best, most authentic meal we had on our trip. At this price point don’t expect the beds or bedding to be top notch but you can expect the hosts to be very friendly and accommodating. There are a couple interesting things about homes in Cuba. Most places have gravity fed water systems from holding tanks on their roofs. They collect rain or have a truck come out to fill it up. We noticed that some don’t have running water – their water tank is in the yard and they come out to get water. The other thing is they don’t seem to have hot water heaters like we do. Most of the showers we used were a version of an insta-hot system where electrical heat tape is wrapped around the steel pipe coming in and you pick from three temperatures. Also, expect to hear a lot of roosters – everyone has chickens!
Much of our time spent in Havana was in Habana Vieja (old Havana). This neighborhood is full of old plazas, forts with cannons and historic buildings with fantastic architecture. We really enjoyed both the architecture and the common use of really bright paint colors.
With age and a struggling economy however, also come crumbling facades and buckled streets. You really have to watch where you’re walking in this area of town so you don’t twist an ankle or get run over while walking in the street because the sidewalk is a no-go. You can walk to most of the sights in the area and we really put on some miles! The nice thing about walking is getting a glimpse of average Cuban life watching people at the markets, seeing in to their first floor flats with doors wide open during the day and seeing the children playing in the parks in the evenings. We even saw the a few groups of men playing dominoes like you see in movies! In this area of town many people are selling a few home made goods or commodities right out of their homes so every block has a glimpse of Cuban life.
One of the best sights of the city of course are the classic cars. It is true that the streets are filled with cars from decades past. Some are patched together but some have been meticulously restored. Many are operated as taxi’s but some are just people’s cars.
We walked the “Malecon” which is the main street along the sea wall and waterfront and heard the “cannon blast” that they shoot every night from La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. We went on another day to visit the fort for some history and viewing of artifacts from the Spanish era. We hired an English speaking guide for a few extra dollars and he really enriched the experience. From here you get an amazing panoramic view of the city across the river.
We also toured the Musèo de la Revolution (museum of the revolution) housed in the old presidential palace which still has bullet holes in it from the revolution. The museum was really informative, albeit very one sided, but strangely un-kept by American standards.
In Havana we also toured the rum museum and tobacco factory – see section below. We went on one of the “hop on, hop off” double-decker buses to get an overall view of the city. It was a bit odd because our expectation was that there would be a narrator giving information along the way – apparently not in Cuba. You get on the bus, don’t know where it’s stopping and just look haha.
We did hop off to walk around the city cemetery with its huge crypts – similar to what we have seen in New Orleans.
One odd thing we really enjoyed about Havana were the street animals – yes, the dogs and cats that just roam around. They were the most relaxed and confident animals, roaming in and out of shops like bosses, sat and stared at people dining outdoors and were a fixture of the streets. Even Cuban people would just walk around a dog sleeping or eating a chicken bone in the middle of the sidewalk like they had just as much right to be there as they did.
Viñales is a town in the prime tobacco growing region of the country. It is a beautiful contrast to the city with jungle covered granite “mogotes” mounding up from the valley floor. One of the coolest sights we saw here was a spectacular sunset against the mogotes behind the town baseball field where children were practicing both baseball and fútbol (soccer).
The town has become quite touristy although still quite small. Almost all of the homes are casa particulars and the main street is lined with restaurants of many price points. There are so many casa particulars in fact that the locals stand in a crowd waiting for the bus to arrive holding signs advertising their casa.
Our main activity in Viñales was a horse back tour of the nearby valley. One of the fun parts was that it wasn’t a company with a hundred horses that we went with. We booked with a tour company but they set us up with a single guide with four horses from his family farm. He spoke fairly good English and could tell us what all of the crops were and translated for us at the different farms we stopped at. We saw many vegetables, fruits, coffee and tobacco being farmed, in many cases with a oxen and plow. Our tour included a stop at a cave, tobacco farm, coffee farm and cafe. See sections below for more detail.
In the town there is a main square at the site of a historic church that has a hot spot and is a gathering place for tourists and locals alike. Here you can pay a local for personal Salsa dancing, drum playing lessons, view local artists work and learn some local history.
We also visited the botanical gardens. It was a little strange, but beautiful. There was a large variety of tropical plants, but also strangely mixed in were creepy doll heads.
Transportation around the island has it’s quirks. We decided to not rent a car since we read that if you are involved in an accident you can be held in the country until the issue is resolved. In addition to the classic taxi’s, which are the most expensive, there are 80’s model year black and yellow cabs. We usually used them to get a better fair. All fees must be negotiated up front as they do not have meters.
In the taxi category there are bicycle powered versions and three wheeled motorcycle versions.
There are “collectives” which are mostly used by Cubans – larger cars with multiple seats. These can be anything from a Chinese van to a 60’s model Land Cruiser with 7 people in the back. There are tourist buses (Viazul) that can take you from city to city or out to the beaches – we used this option to get to Viñales and back. These buses are nice, air conditioned and out of the price range for most Cubans. The Cuban people stand in very long lines to board old worn down metro buses in Havana that are standing room only. To get to another city they may be riding in what looks like an old cattle truck converted to a people mover. We were shocked to see what people were riding around in actually!
Along with cars, many Cubans ride motorcycles and sometimes you even see wagon pulled by a horse or oxen, even in Havana. The small wagon pulled by horses were very common in Viñales.
We encountered a few craft markets in both Havana and Viñales. It is interesting because they all seem to have the same items: jewelry made with the same beads, hats, small leather purses, wooden figures, etc. These must be the few things available to them or they are government approved. What was unique were the variety of paintings and prints.
On one of our walks we encountered a street fair with local artists and bought a linoleum print of two stylized stove top style espresso makers – it’s perfect because I make my coffee every day at home with the same type!
We really did enjoy the variety of very talented artists. In fact, there are many galleries throughout Havana. I really only took pictures of the street art, and the piece I bought, because I think it’s kind of rude to take a picture of someone’s work if you’re not buying something.
In addition to artwork, musicians are everywhere. It is not uncommon to find live music at cafes or bars on any day of the week starting mid-afternoon. Some evenings we just walked the streets and stopped to have a drink wherever we heard music we liked. The most interesting thing we saw was a trio where the man playing the bass had created his instrument with a bucket, piece of wood and one string! It was impressive how he could vary the sound by tilting the bucket with his foot or varying the pressure on the string. At this particular place the wait staff would come out and dance with the band between customers. If you want to hear some music follow this link YouTube.
Cuba is famous not only for rum and cigars, but also cabaret. They feature lots of sequins, feathers, ruffles and crazy hats! The most famous of these is the Tropicana. We decided not to go to that one due to the outrageous expense. The tickets are $90 each, plus it is on the outskirts of town. That means you have to take a cab there and you have to pay for them to stay throughout the show in order to take you back. We opted for the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel National. It was only $35 a person. The show was a lot of fun, but not really up to Vegas standards. The acrobats were by far the best part of the show. To see some clips from the show follow this link to YouTube.
There are two types of restaurants in Cuba. There are government run restaurants and private paledars. The government run places are far more prevalent, but the paledars tend to have better food. We had tried Cuban food in Miami and weren’t impressed, finding it bland. We were impressed with the options in Cuba however. We tried to stay on the traditional side despite many of the more expensive restaurants trying to cater to tourists with lobster or Italian dishes. One of our favorites was ropa viaja but we also tried such dishes like ox tail and lamb shanks.
It appears that Cubans eat a lot of chicken and the chicken we had while there was seasoned deliciously! In fact, the wonderful meal we had at the casa particular was chicken with onions and peppers, rice and black beans. Even just the rice and beans were so flavorful!
We found that we liked the Cuban beer, Bucanero. We don’t normally like lagers, but this one had a great flavor. Perhaps the 5.4% alcohol content may have had something to do with it.
All of the breakfasts we had came with lots of fresh sliced fruit like actual ripe bananas, guava, papaya, pineapple and mango along with fresh juice, usually guava or papaya. Eggs always come with slices of tomato and cucumber.
We purchased a variety of pastries and empanadas from street vendors whenever we could. The best were guava flavored (with paste they can get from the government store) purchased from a man with a box on the back of his bike. We loved the price 8 for 1 CUC! We even bought little bananas a man was selling from his back yard.
We also tried chocolate while we were there. It has a unique flavor. It was different then American or even Mexican chocolate. It is hard to describe, but it wasn’t our favorite.
We tried to seek out the Cuban sandwich but discovered that it’s more of an Americanized thing you can find at hotels and in Miami. Sandwiches at most cafeterias are simple ham and cheese, no pickles.
Something we were not prepared for is the service at restaurants, or the lack thereof. You could literally sit at a table for fifteen minutes, in sight of a server, at a lot of places without them acknowledging you until you flag them down. And when you want the check you often have to get up and find someone to get it for you. Very strange by American standards but apparently the norm in Cuba.
Rum and Cigars
Two commodities Cuba is known for are rum, made from sugar cane, and cigars. Being true connoisseurs of the Cuban experience we had to try both! We tried a few different brands and ages of rum settling on Havana Club brand Ritual, which is a spiced version in the same realm as Captain Morgan’s, as our favorite. We went to the Museo del Ron Havana Club (rum museum) but it was not well put together with a few props and a diorama that led to the sale room.
The cigar experience was interesting because we know nothing about cigars, in fact Megann had never smoked anything in her life before Cuba. We first purchased some from one of our hosts – some small sized “chicos” from Partagas. They tasted…smokey? Then we tried some small Cohiba’s that we bought from a cigar shop. They also tasted smokey haha. We went to one of the tobacco factories, Fabrico de la Tabaco Partagas, which is actually where they train new cigar rollers. We were not allowed to take pictures but got to watch through the rolling room windows while people were making cigars.
Our final experience was at a farm in the Viñales Valley. The farmer showed us the live crops, drying buildings and then proceeded to hand roll a cigar in front of us. The tobacco he used had been cured with some rum and pineapple juices. He used honey as the glue and before lighting one he dipped the end in honey. We each got to sample a free cigar that he hand-rolled. These tasted a little sweeter than the others and became our favorites. We did find that the rum and cigar actually pair nicely together. To see the farmer rolling the cigar follow this link to YouTube.
Another Cuban staple is coffee – yum! I fell in love with strong Cuban coffee last year while visiting Miami and now make my own at home. Coffee here is served as espresso in small cups with the option to add milk. I prefer the espresso with a touch of sugar but Meg is cafe con leche all the way (with milk)! We got to visit the coffee farm on our horseback trip in Viñales but also made a point of trying coffee from a variety of cafe’s around town.
We even purchased some freshly roasted and ground beans from a shop strangely named Cafe O’Reilly that has been a fixture in Havana since the 19th century.
A half hour bus ride from Havana are the Playas de Este (eastern beaches). We spent a day walking the beaches and enjoying the surf. These particular beaches weren’t white like some of them are but the water color was a spectacular turquoise! We had some piña coladas and watched both locals and tourists enjoy the water. You can rent a chair or umbrella at any beach from a government run stand. We would love to spend more time at the beach if we return to Cuba. We’ve heard wonderful things about beaches all around the main island, along with some off shore islands you can take a boat to. Follow this link to see some clips of the ocean on YouTube.
Our Overall Impression
We really had a wonderful time in Cuba and it was fascinating to see their version of communism in action. Personal freedoms are restricted although loosened in recent years. The supply chain is also restricted in a lot of ways and the standard of living is very low for almost everyone, but a very few elite. The average monthly income in Cuba is around 30 US Dollars. Some basic needs are provided for them including food rations (although not nearly enough to subside), healthcare (although it can be difficult to get some basic items such as asprin) and all levels of education. Despite it being an impoverished country there is a lot of beauty to behold, it is safe and very inexpensive by our standards.
A few interesting facts and observations:
- Most Cubans live in multi-generational homes and home ownership is up around 85%. Housing rates are kept low through government subsidies however there is a lack of housing available.
- Cubans are given rations for food and other staples although they are meager and not consistent.
- Cuba has a socialized healthcare system. Their infant mortality rate is as good as the United States. Some reports indicate a lack of facilities and supplies however.
- We didn’t see any homeless people. We hypothesize that this is due the multi-generational homes, rations and healthcare.
- We rarely saw infants and if we did they usually belonged to a tourist. We think it is also due to the multi-generational living style where there is likely someone home to watch the children while others go out to run errands.
- Education is very important in Cuba and they claim a literacy rate of almost 100%.
- People still gather after work in parks and streets rather than go home and watch TV, play video games, etc. This is most likely due to the lack of TVs and video games.
- Cubans stand in a lot of lines – for transportation, banking, food rations and many other things I’m sure. There are not a lot of resources so they have to be willing to wait.
- Littering is a thing – I’m not sure there are laws against it because everyone just does it, like all the time.
- There are no billboard style advertisements like in the US. If you see a billboard it will have some type of governmental propaganda on it. Propaganda is everywhere.
- Chickens are everywhere – even on rooftops in the city – be prepared to wake to the sound of a rooster.
- Only tourists wear white linen shirts and fedoras. The only Cubans you see wearing them are those playing to tourists like waiters and some musicians.
- BYOTP – yes, bring your own toilet paper and a few pesos for public restrooms. Most public restrooms don’t have toilet paper but there’s someone standing outside ready to sell you some. Also, there won’t be a toilet seat. Really. We weren’t quite prepared for that.
- Money matters: If you’re a tourist you’re probably paying more for an item than a local, regardless of the peso to CUC conversion – if you’re generally wise to what things should cost it won’t be too bad but it’s good to be informed. Also, the bus may be “full” but if you have a few extra CUC you can probably get a seat.
- Don’t drink the water. Our first hosts even told us to not drink the water. That being said, be prepared to spend $2 CUC per bottle unless you really seek out a cheaper option in a local market. We should have taken our Steri-Pen to sanitize the tap water.
- Instead of boy scouts and girl scouts and other such youth groups almost all children belong to the Young Communists League or Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas .
- Cattle and horses are often tied out with long leads where ever grass can be found, even in the freeway median.
- There isn’t graffiti like we know it – street art yes, but gang type graffiti no.
- Some businesses aren’t as professional as we are used to. One tour company told us the cigar factory was closed for a national holiday and tried to sell us a different expensive tour. We went across the street to another place and booked the cigar tour. All of the tickets you get are just hand written pieces of paper as well.