A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

Ernesto at el NichoThat’s Ernesto above – the Santa Clara taxi driver who made my visits to Cuba so much better. He took us to the most picturesque places in Central Cuba: to national parks with hiking trails, lakes and waterfalls, to the northern beaches, to colonial towns like Trinidad, Remedios and Sancti Spiritus, to cultural treasures like Cienfuegos and the Harvard Botanical Gardens.

Every morning, at whatever hour we’d set the evening before – 8.00, 8.30 – Ernesto would honk the horn of his precious white Peugeot in front of the door of our casa particular and sit there patiently till we’d gathered up our stuff and piled into the car.

And all the while he was driving, Ernesto was thinking of ways to make our trip better. It could be anything, from stopping at a little mountain café where they grow, roast and serve their own delicious coffee, to taking us on an impromptu bird-watching walk in the forest, to finding out where peasants serve a multi-course lunch in their own home for $3 per person. To locate such places, he’d stop a farmer on horseback or maybe one cycling home from his fields and just ask: “Is there a good place to eat around here?” Most of the time people would know about where to get home-cooked meals or meals of grilled fresh trout from a nearby lake. Here he is, waiting for our order to be served and showing a  local child how to work his phone.

Ernesto shows a local girl

 

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

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.

 

My landlady in Havana

My very first ‘casa particular’ was on the tenth floor of a Havana apartment house, right across the street from the well-known Hotel Nacional, with its spacious garden, bars and restaurants, currency exchange, and email room. Living so near meant I often used the Nacional’s infrastructure: I could read in the breezy garden overlooking the sea, or send expensive emails back home to Switzerland and Canada. 

My 75-year-old landlady, Magdalena, lived alone in a four-room apartment, with me as her only guest. Every morning at breakfast, she treated me to freshly pressed papaya or guava juice and lots of Spanish conversation, which sometimes turned into a cross-examination on my private life. Anyway, it did my very elementary Spanish a lot of good, and I learned all about Magdalena and the conditions of daily life in Cuba: where she shopped, where her three grown-up children lived, what to see in Havana, where I should be careful.

Later in the day, when I returned from one of my many sightseeing trips to Habana Vieja, there’d be some small treat waiting for me from the dinner Magdalena had cooked for herself and her granddaughter: maybe a slice of flan, which she called ‘poodeen’, or a dish of sweet potato chips.

On the evenings when I didn’t go out, Magdalena and I would sometimes sit side by side in the living room, watching her little old Sanyo TV. There were only five channels, two of which were monopolized by talking heads. That left the Cuban dancing channel, a Brazilian soap opera or news reports. The TV content may not have been scintillating, but we found lots to talk about anyway. Magdalena was refreshingly critical of all government announcements.

Cuba travel in 2018/19? Some useful links

If you’re a US citizen and want reliable information about legal trips to Cuba…

Cuba is there, unspoiled and waiting to be discovered. Don’t let Donald’s tweet-launched edicts get in the way of your travel plans. For a quick factual update on the current US government’s Cuba policy you can read this NY Times article.  The ViaHero website also has ultra-clear and up-to-date information about what you can and can’t do.

Briefly, the once most popular travel category for US citizens, “People-to-People”, has been scratched, so would-be US visitors to Cuba have to find another reason for going. That reason is “Support for the Cuban People”. Americans can support the Cuban people by staying at a BnB (called a casa particular or hostal), by eating in small restaurants and by avoiding the big beach hotels (which tend to be run, wholly or in part, by the government or army).

Alternatively, you could enter and exit Cuba via Mexico. ExpertVagabond can tell you how and has lots more ideas about what to see and do.

You can also volunteer to help the Cuban people physically. If traveling with groups of volunteers appeals to you, see Globeaware, which offers vacations in Cuba for volunteers.

And for help with ideas on independent travel… 

To explore Cuba on your own, it’s best to use casas particulares rather than hotels, which are overpriced and often not very good anyway. You can eat very well at casas too, or go to small local restaurants recommended by local people. To travel around the country, take comfortable Cuban Viazul buses or cheap and friendly shared taxis, which travel city-to-city as well as along agreed routes in bigger towns. Use the network of casa owners and taxi drivers to advise you on where to go and what to see next, but also consult a good guidebook like Lonely Planet’s Cuba. If you want to travel independently, with a local Cuban planning and organizing your trip for you, why not check out ViaHero for that, too? The service only costs $25 a day.

It’s best to book at least your first BnB before you go to Cuba. Trip Advisor has hundreds of reviewed listings and discussion groups. Cuba-junky is a Cuban site where you can also book rooms, etc.. And if you want  to rent a larger accommodation for a while, there’s always AirBnB, which now serves Cuba, too.

If you want honest and enticing descriptions of beautiful places to experience, check out ytravelblog, which offers good information and advice. The same goes for Goats on the Road‘s recommendations. There are actually dozens of informative and inspiring travel websites to choose from, but here are two more: Borders of Adventure, and Where to next, darling?.

Finally for tips and an overview of the whole experience of touring Cuba on your own, you might like to read my book, ‘Among Friends: Travels in Cuba‘.

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.