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Cuba March 2018

Itinerary, season

We spent 3 weeks over the months of February and March. It’s the ideal season for Cuba where the temperatures are moderate, 25°C average, 29°C max, with a few cool evenings at about 18°-20°C. The air is rather dry so it is very pleasant. We had 2 days with rain showers, but nothing really disturbing.

We took a round-trip Paris-Madrid-Havana flight. We had also booked a Havana-Santiago flight before our trip.

Warning: local flights leave from a different terminal, 3km from the international flights terminal.  Be sure to verify before leaving. Local flights don’t have a good reputation as to their punctuality, but we didn’t experience anything of the sort in our case, however, we did see some cancelled flights (I imagine they weren’t fully booked…)

 

 

Formalities

Note that even though we can theoretically buy the tourist card upon arrival in Cuba, the airline in Madrid wouldn’t let us embark without it. So do buy it imperatively before leaving. We bought ours on Novelacuba.com (https://www.novelacuba.com/carte-de-tourisme-cuba) by mail with tracking number. No problems there.

Certain agencies try to sell you VIP Passes to assist you upon your arrival in Cuba. According to our experience and that of other people we have met, this is not necessary.

Leaving Cuba is also very straightforward and simple (make sure you have your tourist card as it is asked)

Money

Not as complicated as it seems.

There are two currencies in circulation in Cuba, like in other countries (Cambodia for example) : The Convertible Peso (CUC) which is worth exactly One American Dollar, and the non-convertible Peso (Monedad Nacional, or CUP, or MN). In theory, 25 Pesos Monedad Nacional make up 1 CUC.

To change your Euros into CUC, there are machines at the airport. Follow the instructions on the screen. Slide your passport into the gap, your bundle of Euros into the machine, pray fervently, and receive your CUCs.

Once you have your CUC, give the teller 20 CUC and ask him/her to change them into Monedad Nacional. After that, keep your CUC in one pocket and Pesos CUP in another. Learn to tell them apart!!!

All you need now is to learn the value of things and to guess if you need to take out CUC or CUP to pay because in both cases you will be asked for Pesos and the $ sign will be posted. In doubt, take out CUP and the person you are dealing with will correct you immediately. Which won’t be the case in the opposite situation. Many tourists have paid 1 CUC just to go to the toilet!

Finally, CUCs and CUPs are perfectly interchangeable. If you don’t have enough CUC, you can complete the amount in CUP, and if you pay in CUC, you might get change in CUP. All combinations are possible (review your multiplication table of 25). And perhaps you will get the famous Che Guevara 3 pesos bill.

Lodgings

We booked all our Casas Particulares ahead of time through Airbnb which offers a large choice. Everywhere we went there were rooms available in our Casa or in the neighboring one.

All the casas where we stayed were very clean and we were welcomed warmly, even at times as one of the family.

Booking ahead of time allows to avoid having to search for a place upon arrival with a taxi who absolutely wants to bring you to his cousin’s, or who is going to ask for a very high price to go around all the casas.

The ideal would be to book a few days ahead on the Internet. The problem is the Internet (see below). If I would return to Cuba today, that is what I would do.

Travelling

As for travelling from one place to another we hadn’t booked anything ahead of time. Again, nothing to worry about.

We chose to travel with Viazul buses when we could. In cases when buses were fully booked or if the schedules weren’t convenient, we used the taxis that wait at the Viazul bus terminals.

Viazul.

Air conditioned buses (cold), comfortable, safe driving.

It is preferable to book at the bus terminal a day or two ahead of time.

Once your reservation is made, come back on the day you are travelling an hour before departure :

·         Go check-in. Your ticket will be exchanged for a boarding pass with a seat number… but everyone sits where they want.

·         Then go check-in your baggage (no one tells you that). This check-in is free, even if some Viazul employee might try to get a CUC out of you. Whether you pay or not, your luggage will go in the bus (because you’ll be vigilant).

You are in a tropical country, remember to sit on the good side of the bus in order to not be in the sun during the whole trip….

Also remember to bring a warm sweater with you!

Long Distance Taxi

At every Viazul terminal, or through your Casa, you’ll find a taxi to bring you wherever you want to go. You will have the taxi only for yourself, or you will share it… Whatever the case, you will pay a special tourist rate, but will be able to negociate to be picked up at your casa and dropped off at the next casa (comfort and savings).

 

 

If you have booked your taxi a few days ahead, don’t be surprised if in spite of your worries, it is on time in front of your casa. This system based on your word is efficient. Which shouldn’t prevent you from writing down the telephone number of the person with whom you have arranged the trip.

The price and the pick-up and drop off locations are best agreed upon when making the arrangements, otherwise…. Note that cars are very (very) old, and don’t have seat belts.

 

 

Eating, drinking

Might as well say it up front, one does not go to Cuba for its food ! The cuisine has little or no spices and is not very varied. However it is always generously served and relatively cheap. We got into the habit of having a hearty breakfast at the casa in the morning and then only eat in the evenings. Sometimes we would snack on something we’d find in the little “cafeterias” – economical (prices in CUP)

If you like flavorful food, bring a few of your own spices.

Surprisingly, drinking is more problematic. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to find bottled water and it is expensive (1 CUC for a small bottle of water). Low quality rum is barely twice that price!

Most supermarkets and grocery stores sell rum, vodka, soda, rum, fruit juice (expensive), rum and vodka, even wine… but not water !

However, we did find some bottled water in a smoke and perfume shop

If you find some, the best is to buy 5 liter bottles, little more expensive than the 1,5 liter bottles

Another solution is to drink fresh fruit juices which go from very diluted to mixed fruit smoothie juices (2-5 CUP a glass). You find them in the little drinking shops or booths in the streets. Choose the “jugo natural”. Fruit juices that come in cartons in the supermarkets are expensive and really don’t taste good.

You can also have sodas (descanso gaseado) that come in cans (lata), lemon, orange or cola flavours (10-20 CUP depending on where you are).

Cocktails usually cost 2-3 CUC. Cubans don’t really drink cocktails. They prefer to drink their rum (or Arguadiente) straight, and in impressive quantities. “One liter per person to have a good evening”. You can get a bottle of Arguadiente for the price of one Mojito.

Internet

Today there is only one Internet provider in Cuba that sells access in terms of time use. WIFI access takes place in public areas (plazas) that are easily identifiable – everyone is handling a smartphone or a tablet.

To connect you need to have a prepaid card (1 CUC/hour) that you have to wait on line for about 2 hours to buy. Or you can buy this card from a street peddler for 2 CUC/hour. Do not buy a card if the password has been scratched !

Then it’s easy, in a WIFI area, connect to ETECSA (often the only one available) a window will ask you for your login (Usario =  card number), and the password (Clave = it’s the number you have scratched). And then it connects…. Or doesn’t….. or very very slowly….  In any case be patient and modest, because if you get 1Mbps, you are a lucky person!

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about SMS. I didn’t have any problems texting with France. Be careful, I said SMS not MMS which need an internet connection. You also need to know that in order not to clog the SMS network, SMS that are too long are converted into MMS and so don’t go through. So be sure you text small SMS without any smileys or accents.

Security and little scams or swindles

Cuba is one of these countries where you feel safe. Of course, always use standard precautions, do not leave your smartphone lying around, don’t take out gigantic wads of cash. Common sense as for everywhere, but Cuba is really a safe country.

However, little scams or swindles if you can call them that, are common. If you give CUCs instead of CUPs, no one is going to tell you (you just have to be careful). Mistakes on rates in restaurants, on the bill or in the change. Confusion CUC/CUP…

Also be aware of people who come to you to talk and then accompany you a little everywhere and finish by asking you for some money (in general large amounts,  that you divide by 3…. But that remain colossal in Cuba where a doctor earns 50 CUCs a month). It’s up to you to recognize a genuine nice person who wants to simply talk with a foreigner (the most frequent scenario), from this type of little swindler.

The most classic scam (especially with taxi drivers) is lack of change – it’s a pity. Remember to always have small change with you.

In fact nothing very bad, and actually relatively rare, but after a while it becomes annoying.

Town to town

Havana

A magical city.

Old Habana (Habana Vieja) is beautiful, partially restored, shows tourists a concentrated and a little artificial view.

The Center of Havana (Centro Habana) is the heart of the city with its magnificent buildings from end of 19th – beginning 20th Centuries,  that are in ruins or divided into as many lodgings as there are rooms. Here is the real live of the people of Habana. Do not hesitate to lose yourself in there,  you will most surely have interesting encounters. Remember to look up, you will find marvels of architecture, and Havana lifestyle.

It’s a pity to stay only a day or two in Havana and to stay only in Havana Vieja. We stayed 5 days total and were never bored.

Santiago

Former capital of Cuba, second biggest city of the country and yet you have the impression of being in a big village. The tourist zone is limited to the Cathedral plaza and Heredia street. You will hear wonderful music in the 4 or 5 little clubs close to the Carnaval Museum (50 m from the Plaza).

Again, leave this comfortable zone, and go lose yourself in the streets and meet people who will be pleased to talk with you.

Holguin

A little town where there isn’t much to do, but cute and very welcoming. The atmosphere is good and people are happy to see foreigners. We only stayed one night but we regret not staying longer. Our personal favorite in the “off the beaten track” category.

Camaguey

The total opposite.

The city is nice but all the scams and rudeness we encountered in Cuba took place in Camaguey. Not to mention the psychotic taxi driver who took us there.

Anyway, all our bad experiences in Cuba were concentrated in Camaguey, but the city is pretty and it’s worth it to leave the touristic center and to go walking on the other side of the river towards the Viazul terminal.

Sancti Spiritus

A small pleasant town with a popular center near the old bridge.

Trinidad

Very touristic. The center is pretty small, and the visit lasts a few hours with all the other tourists. Don’t hesitate to go up in the town above the center. A day’s visit is largely sufficient.

Cienfuegos

The central plaza is very nice. The rest of the town is not extraordinary, namely the southern part which is relatively dead and doesn’t offer much interest in our opinion.

The excursion to the Jagua fort is not worth it. The bay and the zone of the fort are not very pretty, scarred by the abandoned cement buildings for the nuclear plant project.

The fort in itself is expensive and doesn’t offer much interest.

Matanzas

The town in itself doesn’t offer much interest. We went there to take the Hershey train to Havana…. But it was not running when we were there. To have followed a parallel road by car, in the end, I’m not so sure about the train ride.

The pharmacy museum is very interesting, if you go to Matanzas, but there is a similar one in Havana Vieja.

 

 

 

In General

All the monument s have relatively similar styles. Therefore, touristic cities offer only a more concentrated vision in regards to more “ordinary” towns.

The real pleasure in Cuba is to meet the people, to see how they live, to share some moments.

My advice would be to stay in an “ordinary” town a few days where there are less to no tourists. You will be welcomed warmly, without any little scams and you will establish ties more easily.

 

One last thing. It would be a good idea to have basic knowledge of Spanish. It makes for easier communication.

 

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