5 BEST & 5 WORST EXPERIENCES
Havana, Viñales, Trinidad & Santa Clara
27th February 2017
Ever since we started planning our travels I wanted to add on Cuba as a destination.
The bright colours of the buildings and cars, the old men smoking cigars and beautiful Caribbean peoples salsa dancing in the street. I couldn’t imagine a country more photogenic and unusual – modern life, just caught in a time-warp.
With USA and Cuba starting to open their trade and tourism gates to one another, word on the travel street was to get there before it all ‘changed’.
The way the country had been presented via word of mouth and all I could find online was that it was one of the wonders of the world on the verge of being corrupted by the big and bad brand monster that is Capitalism.
I’m sure there will be follow up writing, but to cut to the chase, I thought I would compile a list of 5 best and worst experiences we had in Cuba.
1. LANDSCAPE & SCENERY
The countryside of Cuba is understated and absolutely stunning. I had not imagined what Cuba would be like before stepping foot on it’s soil. I knew there would be some sandy beaches for the resort goers on the north coast and a scattering of sugar and tobacco plantations to accommodate for their key exports. What I had never imagined was the absolutely huge scale of the country and the expansive tropical mountains found over almost all of the country that we visited.
Erupting from the flat plantation filled valleys were huge grey rock formations and deep red soils had become the home for millions of bright green and fruitful plant-life.
Have you ever played World of Warcraft? Viñales, now a world heritage site, and the most striking of all of the terrains we saw, was what I could only imagine being a real life version of Nagrand in the Outlands – just without the floating islands.
The Viñales mountains, Cuba, a UNESCO Heritage Site and a herd of goats graze on the red land with the mountains in the distance.
The colourful city of Trinidad too, lay in the valleys surrounded by the Escambray mountains. Climbing from the town to city’s equivalent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer – their telephone station – you were greeted (not only by the worker of the station who will give you a private tour on to the building’s roof for a small tip) but also to an incredible view 360 degrees around you.
Trinidad Cuba Panoramic from the telephone tower.
2. LEONEL, OUR PERSONAL CHEF
Adrian and I had just one incredibly authentic Cuban experience in the whole 12 days we were in the country.
We had come to the end of our funds in Cuba, reluctant to return again to the painful experience of Cuban banking – we tried to pull our backpacking strings and be as frugal with our funds as possible.
The Casa Particular breakfasts, at a purse breaking $5 a day, were becoming impossible to afford. On arriving in Santa Clara we told our Casas we would not be taking their breakfast and went in search of an alternative.
Laden with the local currency (CUP: 1 CUC = 25 CUP) we found a local cafeteria on the walk from the centre to the Che Guevara Monument. We were greeted kindly and asked to follow the owner into his open doored house and through the kitchen to meet his chef.
With our broken Spanish we arranged to come by the following day for breakfast.
The next day we ate a full breakfast, just as we would have had in the Casa – even with eggs made to order (fresh fruit, coffee, milk, etc). All for the price of $1.20 – a saving of $8.80, which in hindsight is quite a joke when one Casa owner charged us $2 for 2 extra eggs.
A portrait of the chef, Leonel, at El Paraiso, Santa Clara, Cuba.
While enjoying our desayuno, we talked with our chef about our favourite dish: Picadillo – which is minced beef, stewed in tomatoes, much like an Italian bolognese but with less sauce.
Although beef itself in Cuba is not regularly eaten by the locals – and from what I believe – hard to come by as the cows themselves are owned by the government and the produce is usually only purchased by hotels and restaurants that can operate in the tourist currency (CUC), we were surprised that our chef was telling us he would make us the dish for us the following day.
The next day we returned and we were greeted again to the back kitchen where our chef had done the most wonderful thing.
He had pulled out the kitchen table and laid it with plates and our cutlery. A glass had been added to the centre of the table and was filled with green leaves, likely from the garden. A huge salad dish was on the table and the tomatoes had been carved to make a display. A bottle of local wine (although we did not open it) had been added to the table for decoration.
The lunch was exquisite. It was the best meal we had in our 12 days in the country, and it was in the best setting, with the kindest and most ‘real’ of all the Cuban people we had met.
The Picadillo almuerzo, with all the trimmings, fruit, juice, fresh water, coffee and a Cuban cake came to $4 for the both of us. We gave him all of our remaining CUP currency as a tip.
If you ever find yourself in Santa Clara, make your way to meet Leonel at El Paraiso.
Calle Tristá 267
Our Picadillo dish, a Cuban delicacy.
3. THE COLOURS & LIGHT
Other than the iconic cars that are all over Cuba, the Havana Club rum and Montecristo cigars, the next thing you recognise as Cuban is the colours. In contrast to the wet greys of Britain, it was extraordinary to be fully immersed in a battle of the colours.
The charm was not only in the colour combinations, whether clash or complement, but in the textures of the stones and walls, whether this was ever purposeful or general wear and dilapidation – it was overall, strikingly beautiful.
One thing that not many would comment on is the beautiful light Cuba has, all the time. The sun is always producing the loveliest tones, shadows and patterns. The shadows gave each coloured wall or window a secondary darker tone which only added to the vibrancy of the colours.
A mix of beautiful colours around Trinidad, Cuba.
4. HORSERIDING IN VIÑALES
The best ways to see the Viñales landscape is either by bicycle or horse. Having never been on a horse, we opted for the latter.
The trip consisted for 4 hours of horseback riding ($5 per hour, per person) through the farms and plantations at the foot of the Viñales mountains, with only our guide and another tourist – Roberto.
We were guided through to a cigar plantation where they explained (in perfect English – or Spanish if you wanted) about the year long process that goes into making every Cuban cigar from the differences in the seasons, drying methods and the classifications.
The guides dipped our cigars in honey and lit them. To be honest, this was more just a photographic opportunity, as once the honey had run out I couldn’t take any more of the burning hell in my mouth and tried to give it away.
The cigar plantation hand rolled and dipped the cigars in honey before lighting.
Another stop at a coffee plantation and then on to a cave where we walked through tightly following the only guide with a torch. This pleasure was an extra $2 and allowed for Aid to have a freezing cold dip in a pretty dirty looking natural pool in the cave. To save any wet chaffing on the saddle, I decided against it.
All in all, the trips to the caves and plantations were good, but the best bits of the morning were the beautiful landscape and our fantastic guide (who I cannot remember the name of). He was incredibly attentive, knowledgable, and tried to teach us as much Spanish as he could in the time available. He was a local and had taught himself English in the last few years purely through tours. It was impressive as he was largely fluent.
If you ever go, look out for this man!
Our guide for the horseback riding through Viñales, Cuba.
Did you know:
- The top of the plant is the highest quality down to the bottom which is the lowest.
- The stalk of the plant holds almost all of the nicotine of the tobacco.
- The plantation gives 90% of their produce straight to the government for their use, with the remaining 10% for the family and their additional income.
Something that the Cubans say with pride, and that was very noticeable in the easy-going attitude of the peoples, was that it is exceptionally safe in Cuba for tourists. I have read that this may have something to do with the Cuban government giving harsh punishments to any crime against a tourist, but, as the country was swimming in police or additional security around banks, cambios and the phone company – it did feel as safe as they claimed.
Arriving directly into Havana Centro did feel intimidating at first, with the ruined aesthetic and everyone either hanging out of their windows through metal grates or congregated in the streets, you soon became acclimatised to this being the Cuban way (I suppose, with next to no internet, no TV and no PlayStation, more people come together to hang out? …How extraordinary.)
One thing of note is that, although it felt safe, use your brain and always keep valuables out of sight. Centro Havana has been known to be a location for muggings.
As Aid and I were in a couple we didn’t experience any problems (other than day-light robbery by the colectivos, casas and almost everyone else), but some solo female – or female groups – did receive a lot of unwanted attention from the Cuban men.
*Traveller safety but not ‘health and safety’. There was little to none of that. No seat belts, meat hanging from windows in the sun, welding on top of open markets without protection, etc.
From our experience, everyone in the country wants your money. We did not have one conversation with anyone in the 12 days (other than fellow tourists) who we hadn’t already paid, or on the verge of paying, to have the pleasure of speaking to. We were constantly bombarded by people trying to get you to use their car, peddle bike, horse, or whatever they can find that moves, as a taxi. We were not able to walk more than 20 paces without someone asking us. We were in transit on bikes once and still being shouted at asking if we wanted a taxi by about 10 different touts all at once.
The price is never the price. We suffered this an uncountable amount of times over the trip.
Two key occasions:
1. A casa who claimed the price was more as we checked out
In fairness, we should have double checked the price before staying. We had stayed at another casa, around the corner, and decided we wanted to stay an extra night in Trinidad to reduce the days we would have in Havana.
We asked our Casa if she could find us somewhere to stay, she came back with her friend and stated the price at $25, so we agreed. During our price debate with our secondary casa, we rang the former to state this, and she refused that it had been the case. Our two against one was pretty fruitless in Cuba. Rookie error. Check and double check all prices!
2. A colectivo who agree to a price the day before and on collection tried to double the price
The day we left Trinidad our colectivo came to collect us. He said that due to 2 other people dropping out due to sickness he would need to make back the price. We flat out refused – now pretty pissed off, as the room price situation had just happened too – he eventually came down to just an additional $5 instead of the $20 he was asking for.
In order to meet this middle-ground we were told we had to either lie or keep our mouths shut to the fellow passengers. He then asked for a tip – if you had seen the man, you wouldn’t have refused.
We had noticed on a previous colectivo that everyone was paying different prices, ranging from 30-50$ for the same distance. So, make sure you’re getting the best deal but expect to pay more at the end.
With no problem spending all of our money for services that are now double the price of those stated in recent guidebooks and online resources/blogs, it is an absolute ballache to get hold of any money!
We Brits are not alone. The Cubans love a queue too! Just, not in the most pragmatic of ways.
For most key services, expect a queue. And, expect that queue to be 45 minutes to an hour long, no matter what it is, or when you get there.
You arrive at the bank and find a horde of people sitting on curbs across the road from the bank, clumped together talking with neighbours and friends or just standing in a random and non-logical format.
As it turns out, Cubans rarely queue in a line.
When you get to somewhere with a queue – ask who the last person to join was (¿Quién es el último?) and someone will point you in the right direction. Now you have 2 jobs to keep the queue working:
1. Remember that person and make sure you’re near them when you get to the front of the queue. 2. Listen out for the person to follow you and make sure they are aware you are the person they need to follow. Then, you can stand, sit, dance, do whatever.
Queues for the banks, cambios and the internet took around 45 minutes a pop. So make sure you’re comfortable.
Once you get into the bank, you’ll be given a ticket, and you’ll get the chance to queue again.
Queuing for an internet card in Trinidad, Cuba
3. ADRIAN’S BLOCKED CARD
Annoyingly it is kind of a waste of time telling your bank you’re going abroad. The security triggers still happen – all the time.
The worst time for this to happen was at Cancun airport, about to get on a flight to Cuba. Both our cards were blocked trying to buy internet to triple check we could convert GBP in Cuba as the currency exchange in the airport tried to hoodwink us and told us you couldn’t (you can, ignore anyone who tells you otherwise!).
I got the block text straight away, so I was able to reverse call the bank from a payphone in the airport. Aid didn’t. He also had no signal in Cuba – at all – so did not receive any notice it had been blocked until his Mum Facebook messaged him to say the bank had called a few days later when we had internet.
We tried every single pay phone we could find to contact the bank. None worked.
As it turns out, none of the payphone in Cuba do reverse calls – or international calls for that matter. We tried every single one we could find. Our casa owner said her phone could not do international calls. Although I had signal, as I am no longer on a contract and my PAYG sim will not do reverse calls and we had no credit. We tried to call on Skype, but the Cuban internet system went down with no way to get online.
The absolute last resort was calling Vodafone customer services and explaining the situation. They kindly forwarded our call to the bank where we were able to fix the situation. The bank’s response was that he should have text back to the text he never received. Ideal.
The infrastructure in Cuba is not developed enough to handle the mass boom in tourism. Where guidebooks say you can book your bus one day in advance and travel the next day, is no longer the case. Almost every Viazul bus is now booked 3-4 days in advance**.
This lack of buses pushes most tourists to use the colectivo taxi service throughout the country.
The first colectivo we got was from Havana to Viñales. It was an enjoyable ride in a ‘normal’ taxi and 2 other passengers in addition to ourselves. False confidence!
The second we organised from Vinales to Trinidad was supposed to take 6 hours. It took 9 and a half.
We were picked up in a rather romantic looking vintage people carrier. Bags wrapped to the roof, we set off after the driver had a heated argument with a family and ended up dropping them back at the bus station before leaving the town. Two hours later we get to a service station where we are told we need to change buses as the one we were on was heading to Havana. After a shit tonne of confusion it turned out, due to the driver’s argument the bus we were supposed to be changing to had left without us.
First stop on the Viñales to Trinidad colectivo. At this moment we thought we were just stopping for a visit to el baño, not changing buses.
At this moment we thought we were just stopping for a visit to el baño, not changing buses.
Everyone else who was travelling to Cienfuegos was siphoned into another bus. We were told we would need to join them and they would meet up with our driver in a further 45 minutes. We looked into the bus and turned back to the driver and told him he must be joking. The bus was already exceptionally overcrowded. But, what do you do? Get in or stay at the service station. We got in. 20 adults and 1 toddler. In a bus made for 12.
2 hours later and we finally meet up with our driver (lol, “45 mins”). He tells us he isn’t sure if he has space for us.
His bus is more like a cattle van that has been modified into a coach.
The fellow passengers laugh when we tell them we’re joining their bus as in their eyes it was already overcrowded.
It did have 2 remaining seats.
My seat was behind a broken reclined seat that was so far reclined that the woman in fronts hair flapped in my face for the remaining 5 hours. I had to sit so wide legged that the lady next to me had to turn to sit sideways into the aisle.
Aid’s seat wasn’t much improved. It was set backwards so he faced the rest of the bus, and.a girl who threw up into a clear plastic bag for the majority of the journey.
What an adventure, eh?
** Try Cubacan travel – they cost a little more and do not cover all routes, but for Havana they are based in the city centre which saves a trip to the out of town Viazul station, we found less people know of them so more likely to have availability and the buses are newer and better quality.
5. GRIME & DELAPIDATION
The beautiful old cars that have been lovingly kept together and the walls that are brightly painted but decaying are still beautiful, but are they as romantic as we expected?
In places, the towns are stunningly kept in pristine condition. These places felt purpose built for the tourists. Walk 50 metres away from the tourist landmarks and restaurants and the paths fell away to mud tracks and the houses started to fall apart and become less permanent in structure. The cars were great to look at, but painful to move in. We imagined the Peugeot 306 taxi we saw would be the equivalent of choosing UberLux.
I’ve always been a glutton for derelict buildings as much Dad would attest, driving me around in my mid-teens so I could photograph falling apart lorries and factories. But, the realism of looking at a town and see people living and breathing in buildings on the verge of non-existence was more upsetting than beautiful.
SAY HELLO, HOLA, CIAO, BONJOUR!
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