What comes to mind when you think of Cuba? Cigars, rum, old American cars, right? Wrong! This stereotypical Cuba does exist, in Havana and other touristic cities. Elsewhere in Cuba, there is a much more interesting story, a much truer story. If you want to go, check out our page on Tips for traveling Cuba before you leave 🙂
Before we get started, this outline shows where we went in Cuba, so you can get a grasp of the travels we managed in our time there:
Cuba is one of the most intriguing and communist place we have ever been. The street life in Havana has been described as ‘cinematic’, and we’d have to agree. The old cars, crumbling façades, people fixing cars right on the street and good looking, stylish Cubans make it seem as though you are an extra in a film. On the other hand wifi zones you identify not by signs, but by 100s of Cubans skyping, and staring into their phones, a cafeteria on every block (selling the most terrible burgers), 1 peso espressos (0.05 euros), 50 peso mojitos (2 euro).
As we started to peel back the layers of Cuban society, through discussions with Cubans on the street, our Spanish language teacher and our own experience, we found that Cuba is a place of dichotomies. The real and the unreal. The cars, money, society, ideology and food all have their twins.
The cars. Old soviet trucks ply the highways, belching fumes alongside the Buicks and Plymouths which operate generally as taxis (restored cars for tourists, non restored for Cubans). Of course, you also see new chinese buses and new European car brands. The first of many dichotomies in Cuba. The Americans getting tours of Havana in the old American cars, when their continued presence on the roads is a direct results of the American government’s 57 year long stranglehold on the Cuban economy through sanctions, as they don’t approve of socialism (neither do most of the Cubans, but that is a different story).
Two currencies. How can there be two currencies? Well, you have the National Peso (peso), which was originally intended for just the Cubans. Then you have the Cuba Peso Convertables (CUC), which was originally intended for just the tourists. 25 pesos = 1 CUC. But they also look the same. Both are called pesos. And also everyone uses both. Often prices are not marked as differently, so you will see signs saying: $1 coffee or $8 rum and it is up to you to figure which currency they are talking about (and this of course depends on which area you are in, as tourist prices are at least 10x higher than Cuban prices). It seems designed to help ripoff tourists, which it does rather well. People will often tell you it is 1 CUC for something which you know is actually 1 peso (national). Confused yet? Well, head over to our page ‘Tips for Backpacking in Cuba‘ to understand more about this confusing situation.
Cuban society. A person working in a supermarket will earn about $8 USD per MONTH. A Cuban high school teacher will make about $15 USD. A university lecturer, $25 USD. A doctor $40 USD. You can’t survive on the wage provided for you (because unlike India, which has similar wages, at least for rural teachers, the prices in supermarkets are not correspondingly low). So, how do people in Cuba really make money, apart from working several jobs? David spoke with a man who used to be a university lecturer, who became a taxi driver because, in his words (fluently spoken in English) “In one day as a taxi driver, I earn as much as I used to earn in one month as a professor”. Insanity. We created this simple diagram, after discussions with a few Cubans, as it shows a little bit how the country “works”.
Ideology. So, officially Cuba is a single party communist state. They have largely succeeded in erasing class boundaries (by making everyone equally poor), achieved world class health care and top quality education. Great. But, how does this ideology operate on an everyday level? It doesn’t. Cubans are more victims of communism then supporters of it. Cubans are left to struggle to feed their families on their government wage, so they turn to capitalism to make up the gap. Of course, private enterprise is banned (apart from casa particulars, taxis and a cool bicycle company in Havana), so what is left?
Food. Tourist food = high prices (like in Holland) and average quality (although you do have the possibility of flavours). Cuban food = cheap (as cheap as India, if not cheaper) and average quality (although some are quite excellent). Everything you read about Cuban food tells you that there has been a food revolution since 2011. Complete rubbish, from our perspective. Perhaps this food revolution has taken the upper level restaurants by storm, but the effects have largely left the majority of Cuban food unchanged. Typically, costs go up in tourist areas, whilst the quality stays the same or goes down. The casa particular that you stay at will offer food (sometimes quite insistently), that is the same price as a tourist restaurant, but better quality and bigger portions. You don’t come to Cuba for the food.
But enough reading, look at these pretty pictures that David made during our time in Havana:
Havana to Santiago de Cuba Camagüey
“You are taking the train in Cuba? Seriously? Whaaaaat? Why on earth would you do something so stupid?” Without exception, every single Cuban reacted with horror to our proposed method of transport. Not exactly the desired response. But having taken the train through 8 countries already on this trip, we laughed off these responses. But we knew better should have listened.
After leaving one hour later than scheduled, we finally pulled out of Havana station. The train conductor greeted everyone with a polite ‘buenos noches’, which everyone (apart from the 4 tourists on the entire train, which are placed next to each other. Only 4 seats are allocated for tourists) returned with a ‘buenos noches’, in a tone reminiscent of a kindergarden school. Weird. Anyways, the train stopped about 5 times in the first hour, for no discernible reason. Hmmm, not the best start. The seats were reasonably comfortable and they did recline somewhat. The fragrant scent wafting from the toilets (no flushing, no locking doors, no sinks), was somewhat less welcome. For the next 12 hours. With the lights left on. So it goes…
Waking up, we realized that we were not moving. David got out for a walk in the dawn light, checking out what could be the cause. Reporting back, “Ummm Tamar, there isn’t even an engine at the front of the train”. It only took another 3 hrs for an announcement to inform the (long suffering) passengers of that ‘there is a technical fault and we haven’t the faintest idea why there is no longer an engine attached to the front of the train’ (at least what we think they said).
So, after quizzing the slouching, disinterested ticket attendant, we realized our chances of reaching Santiago del Cuba by 7pm that evening were at best described as ‘fair’. Deciding to cut our losses, we left the train and headed into the city, in search of a casa particular. We found one right in the middle of city, but still quiet. Perfect for a pair of weary travellers.
Our days in Camagüey were filled with wandering and we found the town to be pretty much free from touts, if not to many tourists. So a mixed blessing. We tried mojitos (successfully), went to a cabaret (awesome) and had one of the best meals of our time in Cuba (delicious).
Camagüey would be a town that we didn’t fully appreciate, until we had travelled more in Cuba. Whilst not that most exceedingly rare of travel destinations ‘undiscovered gem’, it still is worthy of inclusion on your Cuba itinerary.
Camagüey to Playa del Santa Lucia
Ok, so we had been in Cuba for while by this point. We had figured out that you could eat a whole meal at Cuban restaurants for 1 euro. Time now to get the cheap transport. Time for the camion. A camion is a truck with seats in the back. About 1/5th the price of the tourist bus. A hot, uncomfortable experience but very much worth it! As an added bonus, they stop in the little Cuban towns with the food sellers offering very cheap food, unlike the buses, which stop at dedicated tourist traps far out of town, attempting to force you into paying high prices for low quality. This is currently Cuba’s understanding of tourism.
We found a casa, not far from the beach and quickly realised that Santa Lucia was even sleepier than we had imagined. So, in order to fit into the image, we went down to the beach, set up the hammock and promptly fell asleep. Some snorkelling to wake up and the day was nearly done. There was a lovely section of reef just 50m out from the shore, with crayfish, colourful fish and some coral to be seen.
Declining the over priced meal from the casa (10x what we had been paying), we dined at a local restaurant nearby. This is something that bothers us, as every single casa owner offers the exact same meal for the exact same (too high) price. We would rather eat for 1 euro on the street for the both of us, than for 10 euros at a casa. But, that is just us, we have noticed we were an exception to the norm. Probably due in part to our budget for the world trip but also in large part to our cheap ass thrifty nature.
We wandered the resort section of Santa Lucia, very unimpressed. Their ‘glory days’ (if they ever did exist), were long ago in a misty, half-remembered past. All-inclusive resorts, with the inmates forced to wear colour coded prisoner identification tags on their wrists. Aggressively loud music blasting from the speakers in their poorly built and decorated bars (watering holes for drunk westerners). We were rather happy to be located kilometres away.
Coconuts (harvested ourselves, of course 😉 ) for breakfast, pollo for dinner and some snacks in between. Walking, swimming, snorkelling and chilling. We enjoyed our time there 😉
We bussed and then caught a Cuban taxi (an old American station wagon, for the Cuban price) all the way into Trinidad, no problems. Only our third city in Cuba and we were astounded by the number of tourists (chagrined to realise that we also contribute to this number) clogging the streets. Realising that to see UNESCO listed Trinidad in anything resembling normality we decided to get up at dawn the following day. This paid off big time. We saw only one other tourist and had only to share the streets with a couple of Cubans.
The colours were beautiful and soft in the morning light, the pastels of the houses matching with the light blue of the sky, streaked with clouds. A calm day of sporadic exploration followed by resting and gathering energy for the next travel day. We finished off the day with some mojitos and salsa at casa del musica.
All of the best bus departure times were fully booked (as we discovered the day before), so we decided to hitch hike the 60km to Cienffuegos. Having read about Cuba being something of a hitchhiking paradise, David in particular was quite keen to see what the reality of the situation was. We arrived at the edge of the town, at 10am, ready to hitch. So were 20 cubans…
To be honest, most people who travel by car in Cuba and pick up a Cuban have a story of thinking they were doing a good deed, but in reality the Cuban person just directs you to a store (selling cigars, of course) and also asks money for providing this service. So, it is not like tourists are rushing to pick them up. Thus, we had some difficulty standing out from the rest of the Cubans. David eventually managed, by stint of his many 1000’s of kms of hitchhiking to flag down a ride with a French couple. Who, it rather quickly transpired were actually driving in the wrong direction. When we pointed this out to them, they were not in the least perturbed, continuing to drive us along and chat. Becoming fast friends, it was suggested that we stop for a refreshing drink by the seaside, before they headed off to their intended destination. Several refreshing drinks later, we were all great friends. Having swapped details, agreeing to meet up and go to the Rolling Stones concert on the 25th, they headed off and we started to hitch hike the remaining 40kms. Excitingly, a Cuban bus (the really cheap ones that are illegal for foreigners to take), stopped and let us on. Once it was known (ie, after we said the first (poorly pronounced) Spanish word), they were less eager but still agreed to let us on. We felt like we has slipped through the glass wall separating us from Cuban society and thoroughly enjoyed the bumpy ride.
Locating a casa quickly and in a nice location, we set out for strolling and walking, finding the city to be pleasant enough but not so interesting.
Hitchhiking again. To cut a long story short, we saved a couple of pesos, but still had to pay people to take us. Hitchhiking in Cuba is not the utopia that David imagined. Nevermind. Arriving in Playa Giron under a dreary sky, the town felt like the invasion of the Bay of Pigs just happened a few years ago. We found a casa with trees on two sides, nice and quiet. Some desultory wandering through the ‘town’ and resort (for which it was exceedingly difficult to imagine that it had ever had better days), did little to lift this mood. The resort. It had an average beach, which faced a crumbling sea wall, which serves to both depress you and keep greenish seawater close to the beach, all by the same ineffectual design. Sprinkled liberally both to the north and south of the resort were many, many completely abandoned villas. Peeling paint, and smashed windows.
This would be our first impression of Playa Giron, but not our last. For the following day, the clouds cleared and we discovered that just a little further to the south lay a lovely beach called Playa Los Cocos. Due to our inability to organise anything (tried scuba diving but the shop was closed, tried to go on a bird watching tour but got put on another boring tour which we quit, tried to hire a scooter but there were none left), we would spend the next three days here. It had everything we wanted: a place to hang a hammock, a place to hang a slackline, nice water for swimming, nice coral for snorkelling, coconut trees full of coconuts ready to pluck, a stall selling mojitos and a stall selling freshly cooked fish. Paradise.
One other thing of note from Playa Giron: CRABS! Due to the full moon, the land crabs were out in full force. Creepy little bastards, climbing the walls. One even fell off the roof. So, it actually rained crabs. In general they disappeared during the daylight hours, which was a small relief.
We met a lot of nice fellow travelers with whom we shared good conversations and coconuts with rum. Thus, we had a very relaxing time (despite the crabs) and were very much looking forward to seeing the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones
We hitched a lift back to Havana with a couple of young Swiss doctors, who had offered a couple of days before. A relaxing drive, listing to reggaethon that the guys had bought recently in Cuba. We passed Australia and stopped in Matanzas, to check out the city briefly, before continuing along the coast to Havana.
Arriving to at our old casa (which was fully booked), they called a few other places to find somewhere for us to stay the night. And then a few more. And then a lot. Then we started to worry, maybe not booking a casa for the historic Rolling Stones gig was a mistake. One hour of wandering the streets, searching unsuccessfully for a casa, confirmed this. Eventually, we got lucky and found one. Upon arriving, we found out it was the first time that they had ever had people stay. Plus it was just the daughter, her boyfriend and some friends all having some drinks, in preparation for going to the concert. Perfect! They all spoke English and were great fun (Thanks Juliette, Leo and Dennis!).
We arrived at the concert just as the band was starting, having timed it perfectly (much to our surprise). Much dancing and partying and enjoyment was had. 500,000 to 800,000 other people joined in. The Rolling Stones were totally awesome, totally great and totally worth seeing live. We are even bigger fans than before!
We had a very relaxing weekend in Havana, following the Friday evening concert. Consisting mainly of beaches and bars 😉
One of the most beautiful areas that we have seen in Cuba. Gorgeous limestone formations (called mogotes) surround the area. This makes Vinales the 3rd most popular location for tourists in Cuba (after Havana and Varadero). And it shows. Crammed to bursting with mainly Europeans (making the dash to Cuba before the Americans arrive en mass and drive up the prices even more), Vinales is more a town of casas than a real town. Happily, we were able to hire a scooter for three days (which did break down at one point), so we largely escape the madness.
We actually drove more than 400km in those three days, visiting idyllic beaches, climbing abandoned lighthouses,explored limestone caves,
have nice dinners and watch people in the rural communities going about their lives,
watching the sun both rise and set over the mogotes. The sense of freedom and enjoyment provided by the scooter really made us so happy and we had so much fun.
Pinar del Rio
Just 25km to the east, but a world away, lies Pinar del Rio. This is the first town in Cuba that we have visited, which is not reliant on tourism. We breathed a sigh of relief, and decided to just relax in the city (ok, we were forced to after finding out that we couldn’t rent scooters here). It has much impressive architecture, plus many Cuban priced restaurants with good food. Additionally, they were staging their celebration for 57 years since the revolution. 6 peso cups of beer ensured that David was also supportive and in a celebrative mood, ideological concerns swept aside. We edited our pictures, got our blogs up to speed and just lazed around, stepping outside for food and drinks as the mood took us. A little escape from dealing with the world.
A collectivo, a public bus and we arrived successfully in Havana. Where we enjoyed our last night in Cuba with some nice moijito’s.
We cunningly caught the Cuban bus out to the airport, 1/600th the price of the taxi, dodged some more scams and boarded out plane. Cuba was interesting, there is a lot of beauty, but it is not an easy place to travel. We don’t know if we will be coming back, but we have many memories of Cuba that we won’t ever forget.