Cuba Diary #1: First Impressions

While I was planning for the Cuba trip, sometimes I had to wonder why I chose to go there. After all, Cuba is best known for its cigars, rum, salsa, and beaches, but I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t dance, and I don’t swim, so what is left for me to do in Cuba?

The answer is, a whole lot. During our 10 days in Cuba, we have gone on city tours and nature hikes, ridden in classic cars and on horses, chased the sunset from the mountains to the beach, and seen the faded grandeur of the cities, the tranquility of the countryside, and the untamed beauty of the jungle. It is truly a marvelous country, and my photos and words cannot do it justice.

These pink cars are only used for tours. Everyday cars are a lot less flashy

Our itinerary is Havana (3 days) – Viñales (2 days) – Cienfuegos (2 days) – Trinidad (2 days) – Havana (1 day). While I would’ve liked to stay for a little longer, I think this is a good amount of time to get to know Cuba. If you want to relax more or spend more time at the beach (we only went to the beach once), 2 full weeks would be my recommendation.

Onto the technical side of things, there are plenty of Cuba travel guides online already, so I’m not going to get too much into that, only to give you my own experience:

– Accommodations: casa particular (private home) is the way to go. Don’t bother with the hotels. I mean, why would you, when you can stay at places like these?

Our casa in Havana

Our casa in Trinidad

Most of the casas are available on Airbnb so we booked ahead to save time, but if you’re in the mood for an adventure (and you should be while in Cuba), you can just show up to a town, look for a house with this symbol on its door and ask if there’s a room available. The price is by room, not by bed, so it’s best to travel with a friend.

Casas also provide meals (though usually not included in the price). We ate breakfast every day at our casas. It’s a huge amount of food – fresh fruits, pastries, bread, butter, jam, juices, tea or coffee, and eggs cooked to order – all for $5/person, and delicious. The casa hosts are more than happy to help you with anything you need; just ask!

Breakfast at one of our casas

– Money: yes, Cuba has two currencies, the peso nacional (CUP) and peso convertible (CUC). 1 CUC = 1 USD, and 25 CUP = 1 CUC, roughly. Yes, tourists can use CUP, but I find that small CUC changes can do just as well, so keep them on hand for things like entrance fees, taxi rides, street foods, and tips. Our budget came to about $50/person/day, including accommodations.

– Getting around: the casas we picked are all close to the centers of towns, which means we walked everywhere, except for one taxi ride in Cienfuegos when we were caught in the rain. From city to city, there is the Viazul bus, but we just took shared taxis with other travelers going to the same destination. It’s much easier (the casa hosts can book it for you), quicker, and costs about the same as the bus.

Our life-saving taxi in Cienfuegos

– Food: traditional Cuban food may be unimaginative – just meat or fish, usually grilled, with rice and some raw vegetables – but it’s very filling. In fact, the portion is so big that we just ordered one starter and one main dish and split it (that saved us plenty of money!) There are also street foods like “peso” pizzas (so called because they’re so cheap), ice-creams, fried tortillas, and churros (which we tried, delicious).


Churros and a “peso” pizza place – the prices are in CUP

This guy was selling pulled pork sandwiches for $1 each!

– Internet: there is no free wi-fi in Cuba. You buy an Internet card and log in at a hotspot. You can always find a hotspot whenever you see a bunch of people gather in one place glued to their phones and computers, and there are usually some guys nearby offering you Internet cards. We bought our cards from one of these guys for 2 CUC/1-hour card (the normal price is 1.5 CUC, but you have to stand in line.) During our trip, we only used up two cards each, mostly to email home to let our parents know we were still alive.

A wi-fi park in Havana

I quite enjoyed being unplugged and realized how much time I was wasting on social media and all that nonsense. That’s another thing I love about this trip. Elsewhere, you have to make an effort to stay disconnected from the rest of the world, but here, life is so slow-paced that you can really focus on the experience.

– Other tidbits: English speakers are easy to find, but knowing basic Spanish definitely helps. I did a course on Duolingo, and even though I couldn’t have a conversation with the locals, I could kinda tell what they were saying.

In touristy places, you will encounter touts offering you everything from tours to taxi rides to discount priced cigars, but a firm “No, gracias” and they’ll leave you alone. We never had any problem. It is perfectly safe, and the people are friendly and always quick to say hello.

More details and photos to come in later posts!


Belles

I’m back from my Cuba trip! There are a massive amount of photos to sort through, and I’m still recovering from the looooong flights, but rest assure that there will be a lot of travel posts in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, here is a teaser and an SIA post, all in one.

Before I left for my trip, I asked Jen to send me the inspiration for the upcoming challenge so I could plan ahead. The inspiration, which is the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, turns out to be perfect, as I was traveling with a friend, so I decided to recreate the painting if we could.

We finally got a chance to take the photo at our casa (homestay) in Trinidad, as it has a nice little cove with plants and chairs. There wasn’t a plate of fruit for us to use as props, so we had to make do with an ashtray, but it looks pretty close, doesn’t it? Here are some more photos of my full outfit during our sightseeing of the town:

Don’t forget to check Jen’s blog for the full round-up on Wednesday!