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Independent travel in Cuba is easier than you think

Cuba is an attractive vacation option for North Americans and Europeans alike. It’s safe, flights are regular and available, the weather’s fantastic, the people are charming and the countryside is unspoiled.

One of the first decisions you have to make as a prospective visitor is whether you want to sample the country or just lie on another gorgeous beach. If the white-sand-and-turquoise-water aspect is the only thing about Cuba that attracts you, book a hassle-free resort package and you’ll have a great time, surrounded by dozens of (other?) friendly, polite Canadians. If, on the other hand, you want to meet real Cubans, explore the natural wonders of the interior as well as the coast, experience the colonial charm and pulsing local nightspots of Cuban towns, or sample delicious Cuban home-cooked meals… you could book a simple return flight to Havana or Santa Clara or Holguin, and tour the country from there.

Cuban B&Bs, called casas particulares or hostales, are now listed on websites like Trip Advisor and AirBnB, so you can and should book your room before you leave home. These places are where you’ll meet your first Cubans – your host family. They’ll arrange for a pick up at the airport, serve you better food than in a restaurant and help you arrange long distance taxi rides that are more flexible, faster and usually cheaper than traveling in a crowded tourist bus. Talk to them, trust them, and they’ll make your visit memorable. Other possible modes of transport are car rental and organized bus tours, but they’re much more expensive.

Many Cubans now have email and cell phones, so it’s much easier to arrange accommodation and transport today than it was even 3 years ago.

Havana Landmarks – some tips

This post features tips about places you will probably consider visiting in Havana, whether you are travelling alone or with a guided group. Your guide book (or my book Travels in Cuba) will have more background information, but my insider tips will hopefully help you get more pleasure out of your visit.

Tip #1 Take photos in the Cemetery of Colon (Necropolis de Colon)

cuba-habana-cementerio-de-colon-y

If you like taking dramatic black and white photographs, you should visit the Cemetery of Colon in Vedado, which is overflowing with extravagant white marble statues and mausoleums from the 19th and 20th centuries. The cemetery is vast and park-like and contains the elaborate tombstones of famous as well as not-so-famous Cubans.

 

One tomb you shouldn’t miss is that of Amelia Goyri, a well-to-do lady who died in childbirth and was buried with her child. Her fame is based on two miracles connected with her burial.  The grave is marked by a life-size statue of Amelia holding a baby in one arm and a large cross in the other. Local people – mostly women – visit the grave to pray for the health of mothers and babies, leaving flowers at the feet of “La Milagrosa”, the miraculous one.

 

Tip #2 Visit restaurant El Patio in Cathedral Square

El patioFor me, this is the most beautiful restaurant and outdoor café in central Havana. It’s located in the Plaza de la Catedral, right in front of Havana cathedral.  You can sit at  metal tables under its hallmark white umbrellas and sip your freshly squeezed juice or coffee for hours.

El Patio is my favorite place for people-watching. What can you see? Well, scenes like: a photographer posing fashion models on cars, tables and steps, Creole ladies dressed in colonial costumes planting big kisses on male tourists’ cheeks, a man pushing a bike loaded down with an entire ice-cream store, several 80-year-old locals dancing to the rhythm of musicians who have installed themselves on the opposite side of the plaza.

My extra tip: the restaurant toilets are located on the other side of the  gorgeous inner courtyard or ‘patio’ for which the restaurant is named. Take your camera. As you walk through the courtyard, admire the elegant fountain of cut stone decorated with flowers, admire the windows of the floor above (featured in the photo at the top of this post) and, finally, bask in the balm of silence and splashing water.

Tip #3 The Hotel Nacional for vintage 40s and 50s atmosphere

Hotel NacionalThe Hotel Nacional oozes with pre-revolution tradition. From a distance it reminds me of a giant Spanish mission as seen in cowboy movies. Closer up, as you walk down the palm-lined driveway,  you’ll enjoy the vintage cars, and as you enter, you’ll feel like you’re in a 1940s film with uniformed bell hops, cigar-girls, grand ballrooms and many other hotel features of yesteryear.

But don’t let the layers of tradition scare you away. If you go through the lobby to the back veranda, you can sink into one of the comfortable couches and enjoy a (very reasonable) drink or snack. Even the indoor bars and cafés are reasonable. (In my book I describe my first drink in Cuba, consumed in the Churchilmojitol room with signed photographs of the formerly glorious and gorgeous looking down.) Last but not least, the hotel’s back garden, which overlooks the bay bordered by the Malecon, offers vast and inviting scope for visitors who just want to sit in the breeze and talk, or read, or discreetly sip a very fresh mojito. 

 

Tip #4 El Convento de Santa Clara de Asis

I’ve already devoted a full blogpost to this hidden oasis of tranquility in the old town of Havana, with its extensive  gardens and beautifully restored 350-year-old buildings.  My tip is that this restored convent is also a hostel, where you can book a room for your stay in Havana, e.g. with TripAdvisor. Lots of atmosphere, lots of space, centuries of tranquility.Convent Santa Clara

What is it about vintage cars? 

Is it the sumptuous inefficiency of those exaggerated fins and curvy bumpers? Is it the friendly smile of an old front grille? Or the dignity of really heavy metal? Is it the innocent joy in colors other than black, white and silver?Blue Plymouth

A short stroll around any Cuban town – especially Havana – reveals a  Buena Vista Social Club of aging Pontiacs and Chevvies, Plymouths and Fords (to say nothing of long-lost DeSotos and Packards, Studebakers and Nashes). You see them parked along the sidestreets, waiting patiently to be admired by an enchanted photographer. You see them rolling past in the form of taxis trawling for fares. It’s like finding the certainties of your childhood again. And these solid certainties of yesteryear have survived for so long in Cuba.

Chevvy backI don’t really like cars, but I love the well-tended museum of vintage cars that is Cuba. Besides overwhelming you with a serious case of nostalgia, they beguile you with possible back-stories. Did  that Cadillac maybe belong to the mob? Or to a movie star? What romantic evenings has that Buick witnessed?

They are relics from an innocent and unreflecting past: the “good old days” (which of course were not really that good) before complicated thinking and guilt about the environment started to cloud our enjoyment.

Vintage Cadillac

Cuba on a shoestring?

Let’s talk about money. How much do things cost in Cuba? Well, prices can vary considerably.

Luxury beach hotels are certainly not cheap. You can pay from $100 to $300 a day for a double room with meals. But, as this blog keeps telling you, touring Cuba doesn’t need to be wildly expensive. You can stay at a clean and welcoming casa particular (a room with bath in a private home) for about US$25 a night. Food is not expensive either. Main meals are anywhere from $8 to $20, depending on the type of restaurant. And you can even eat at your casa particular, enjoying some of the best meals available in Cuba.   Fruits like guavas, pineapples, papaya etc. are tasty and reasonable. Even fish and lobster aren’t expensive.  When you go out, a fruit juice in a café is $2; a beer is $1.50. A taxi ride through Havana starts at $5. By North American or European standards those are not high prices. Plus, they have the added advantage of giving Cubans jobs and a decent income.

On the other hand, some people – often Cubans – will tell you that those are high prices. They’ll argue that you don’t have to pay the “standard” tourist prices because Cubans themselves pay much less for rent, meals, transport, drinks, and so on. For instance, Cubans only pay 2 cents for a city bus ticket, 4 cents for a movie ticket, 25 cents for a concert ticket, 20 cents for a meal in a subsidized restaurant, 10 cents for a cola, 20 cents for a mojito in a Cuban bar. But here’s the thing:  Cubans only earn $20-$25 a month. Ten cents for a cola seems very low to us, but not to Cubans, who have less than a dollar to spend each day. And those “low” prices are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government. As a tourist you shouldn’t be claiming a Cuban government subsidy that you didn’t earn. You shouldn’t expect Cuba to subsidize your vacation!

Cubans themselves will often encourage you to take advantage of the subsidized Cuban prices. “Why should you pay $25 for a concert ticket when my ticket only costs 25 cents?” they’ll say. “It’s the same ticket.”

The answer is that paying the subsidized local price means cheating Cuba, and it’s just not honorable to cheat one’s host. If you love Cuba, you won’t want to live on a shoestring. Prices are reasonable enough without that.

 

Cuba’s kids

Wherever you walk or drive in Cuba you see school kids. Whether they’re walking hand-in-hand with a grandparent or with a group of other kids, they’re always dressed in clean uniforms: maroon and white for elementary school pupils, ochre and white for secondary students.
In the countryside, there are no school buses in the North American sense. School kids have to find another way to school. On my travels I’ve seen 6-year-olds riding on the back of their father’s bike or sitting in a horse-drawn cart, being brought out to the highway. Once there, they are eventually picked up by one of the trucks or tractor-drawn wagons that take country kids to school every day.  So, if you’re driving along Cuban highways, you’ll often see 20 school kids standing in the back of a dump truck or wagon, their little hands holding on to the rim, their eyes peeking over their hands. But even then they’re  dressed in crisp, clean uniforms in the regulation colours.

Schools in Cuba don’t always look like the ones we’re familiar with either. They aren’t surrounded by lawns and playgrounds unless they’re located in a public park (which some are). In fact, elementary schools often consist of just a few classrooms on the ground floor of an apartment building. While walking down the main shopping street in Havana once, I happened to peer into the narrow open window of an apartment house, only to find 30+ pairs of young eyes staring back at me. The teacher ignored me. The little girls above go to a school that’s on a major boulevard in Havana. They normally have recess on the boulevard “island” in front of their school until it’s time to go in for the next lesson. Despite a bit of friendly shoving, they seem to be enjoying their environment.

Once in the classroom, Cuban kids are lively participants in discussions, unafraid to speak their mind. If you don’t believe me, try to see the Cuban film Conducta, which is about a disadvantaged boy, his classmates and his retirement-aged teacher who goes to a lot of trouble on his behalf.

But not all Cuban kids are disadvantaged. These two 12-year-old pupils let me take their picture at an English teachers’ conference, where their teacher had them perform an English dialogue in front of a roomful of teachers. When I talked to them alone afterwards they were shy, but happy to try to answer my questions.

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Havana kids on their best behaviour

The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana

While wandering down Obispo in Havana’s picturesque pedestrian zone, Julian and I came upon a hotel with considerable character called ‘Ambos Mundos’.
“What does that mean?” I asked my Cuban friend.
“Yes, it’s a strange name,” he answered, “It means ‘both worlds’, as in the best of both worlds.”

It turns out that Ernest Hemingway, the American author most closely connected with Cuba, lived at the Ambos Mundos from 1932 to 1939. It’s where he started writing his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls Continue reading The Ambos Mundos: Hemingway’s hotel in Havana

The Bay of Pigs and tropical fish

Ernesto, our private taxi driver, let the car glide along the southern coastal road towards Cienfuegos. Behind us was the Great Zapata swamp, where we’d just spent the whole morning visiting the crocodile farm and boating to islands in Treasure Lagoon. I didn’t realize we were driving around the infamous Bay of Pigs until I noticed humongous billboards blaring slogans (in Spanish) like:

A decisive battle in the victory of socialism was fought here
or:
This is as far as the mercenaries got
and best of all:
Giron: First defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America

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Deep in conversation, Ernesto and Julian let the billboards slip by without comment, but I could scarcely believe my eyes. I’d certainly heard of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, but never thought I’d be driving past its patriotic commemoration.

Shortly afterwards, Ernesto pulled into the driveway of a free-standing house and got out to chat with a friend who was busy mixing cement for the walls of the new tourist bedroom. The friend directed Ernesto to “the best and cheapest restaurant”, where we found a table in the shade and enjoyed another great, late lunch of very fresh fish, rice and beans, vegetables and salad, accompanied by beer and coffee. Price for the three of us: $18.

Speaking of fish, the Caribbean is famous for its colourful tropical fish, and Cuba has some of the most unspoiled  reefs. I’m a bit nervous about scuba-diving but enjoy snorkelling,  so I was really delighted when Ernesto stopped off at the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) a little way beyond Playa Giron. A short path inland from the road leads to what looks like a small lake.Cueva Peces

Except it isn’t a lake, it’s a limestone sinkhole that goes down 72 meters and is full of salt water. Yes, due to a geological anomaly, sea water enters the cave underground, bringing with it schools of tropical fish from the nearby Caribbean. This means that lily-livered divers like me can rent equipment lakeside and happily snorkel on the deep blue surface of this salt-water lake, gazing down at dozens of yellow, purple, turquoise and blue tropical fish. It was paradise and there was almost nobody there.

 

 

The Cuban national bird and how to find it

Cuba is home to many exotic-looking birds, so it’s not really surprising that the Cuban national bird is colourful. It’s called the tocororo (to co RO ro).

The tocororo’s plumage may be exotic, but the bird can be found in forests all over Cuba. I came upon my first tocororo in a dry jungle in the Escambray mountains, near Topes de Collantes. Ernesto, our taxi driver, guide and friend, had taken us there for a refreshing walk before swooping down to sub-tropical Trinidad on the Caribbean coast.

You hear a tocororo before you see one; its call is a low, bubbling warble. Ernesto knew right away and stopped me in my tracks, whispering “Tocororo!” He then silently led me to within ten feet of the bird, which was sitting on a branch over the path. Fumbling with my daypack in excitement, I somehow whipped out my camera and took as many between-leaf shots as I could before the bird flew away. One of them is posted above. As you can see, tocororos are dark blue, white and cherry-red, with navy and white polka-dot wings and a very attractive forked tail. What you can’t see is that they also have an iridescent blue-green back.

For a better idea of the back, check out this much more professional photo.