Me enamoré…de Cuba

During Corona times, I have done some tidying up and fell on an old Cuba calendar from 2003 and my guidebooks standing on the bookshelf have been edited in 2009. So I can really say that I had really longed for that trip and seriously wanted it.

2019 was the year to offer myself this trip as my birthday present to myself to celebrate my round birthday…

Betty, Naisyul, Olga, Andres, Carolina, Alexis, Dariel, Juan, Maria-José, Ronaldo, Deivys, Dago, Roibel, Vito, Juliesky, Ana, Giraldo, Maricela, Fernando, Yudel, Paquito, Carmen, Miguel, Flora, Cachita, Daymarelis, Miguel, Daylis, Caridad, Geraldo, Antonio, Maria, Arturo, Saimi, Anika, Elena, Carlos, Eliany (and I am forgetting many more)…were the essence of our Cuba trip and made me fall in love with this country and above all with its people. And obviously meeting other travellers is also made easy when you travel the way we did, taking a taxi colectivo or a Viazul bus.

It’s been now almost 10 months since our return and not one day passes without me thinking about that trip and all the unforgettable moments we had there. This also made me delay the blog entry as this trip was so overwhelming. Obviously I cannot write down everything we experienced but I will try to give you a general impression and a few advices. And a refresher for our memory.

And during Corona times I am thinking now even more of all the Cubans we met. We had to learn how to queue in front of a shop, like they have been doing for ages unfortunately, but once we get into the shop, we, in Europe, have a big choice of products to buy, which is not the case for Cubans.

If you chose Cuba, do it for the people living there and take your time. Of course the beaches are fantastic, but don’t go only for this. Don’t miss out on the people. Cubans are still kind of cut off from the rest of the world. But even if this is undoubtedly sad and unfair, I have been wondering if this could be one of the reasons that makes them so much more lovable.
Maybe, if we, ourselves, were not constantly with our eyes on our phones, having some remote exchange via WhatsApp, FB, Instagram or whatever other application but were instead giving our fellow citizens in the bus, supermarket or on the street a friendly smile, some attention and a genuine “buenos dias mi amor” or a “hola mi vida”, tourists visiting our countries would maybe also find us more approachable?

Cubans are curious, well educated and incredibly warm-hearted. They strike a conversation in no time and are happy and eager to learn about where you are from. The hardship of their daily lives and lack of money (a doctor’s wage is around CUC 60 a month, slightly less than EUR 60) also taught them to make business with the tourists who, after all, could buy a flight to Cuba costing in general more than the average yearly minimum salary of approximatively 200 CUC. Cubans you meet might also ask straight forward for concrete help if they have nothing to sell and no business can be concluded. But whenever you decline with a smile, they return your smile and ask god to bless you.

So, all this to say, if you want to meet Cubans, forget about staying in hotels and go for Casa Particulares. The money goes straight to the Casa owners and their families and whatever else you bring (clothes, shoes, notebooks, paracetamol, toys, pencils, USB sticks – here is one of the best pages I found to give you more ideas, in Spanish -use google translator if needed) and leave it to the persons who are not lucky house owners with enough space to rent out rooms and make money this way.

Make sure all the phone applications you might need are downloaded before you go to Cuba. On iPhones you cannot download most applications once you are in the country (my phone had a swim accident, yes it did, and the second phone was not Cuba ready, so I know what I am talking about). So these are the main applications I recommend you have:

Airline application (to make your check in) (to find your way around, off-line maps)
AirBnB (to reserve your Casa)
WhatsApp or any other message application you use
Weather App
A translator App if you don’t speak Spanish yet
Guitar Tuner (it can be useful, there is music everywhere and you might touch a guitar)

Before you leave to Cuba you have to get your tourist card or they won’t let you board the airplane. We got ours at AVS – allvisumservice GmbH , recommended by the Cuba consulate in Switzerland. I realized after that you can get the tourist card for cheaper through other channels on the net or in travel agencies. If you stay longer than 30 days, you can renew your tourist card in the country. We had to get an extension for only one day. We did not want to take the risk to be stuck at the airport and miss our flight. Avoid to take care of this in Havana where immigration seems to be extra busy and will make you waste a lot of time as a German tourist told us. We took care of it in Varadero. Once they opened the office 45 minutes later than the sign at the entry said (with a nice excuse and smile) due to a work meeting that took place before the opening, the paper was ready quickly. Get your stamps (sellos) beforehand at the post office for the value of the 30 day extension (25 CUC in November 2019). That is how you pay for the visa, with stamps.

Forget about credit cards. I have not used it once, but maybe only because we have not stayed in big hotels? Cash is still king in Cuba. Change your currency (avoid USD, there is an extra charge) at any Cadeca (the exchange offices). Don’t forget your passport and be prepared that only one person is allowed at the counter. We have read about standing the queue for hours, but apart from the airport Cadecas, it was all pretty straight forward each time.

Cuban bank notes

The CUC, which is the Cuban money for tourists has images of buildings. The CUP, Cuban pesos also called moneda nac

ional,  which you might also use (tiny local restaurants might only take these) have got a famous Cuban on the notes. Martí, Guevara,  Maceo, Cienfuegos, etc. The Che Guevara note of 3 pesos can be bought for 1 CUC – around twenty times its worth, but you get a lovely souvenir and someone who needed it, made a small affair.

Quick outline of our roundtrip:
La Habana – Vinãles – Playa Larga – Cienfuegos – Trinidad – Santa Catarina – Varadero – La Habana

It actually does not look like enough places for an entire month’s trip but it was just perfect.
We went from one town to the other by cab and bus, which takes time, and we stayed several days in each place to get the real feel of the city and its people. And we spent the entire first week in La Habana and then another 4 days almost at the end of our trip as we totally fell in love with this city, its bustling, its Malecón and its people.

I would travel to Cuba immediately again and would visit now the east of the island, but I would have one big problem: I would also feel so much like going back to the same places to see again the people we met the first time. So I guess I need to plan a future two months’ trip.

What I would do differently: I would do research on the Casas particulares before and choose one or two in each place I plan to visit, keep them ready but then book it only two days or the day before once the destination gets firmly confirmed.
AirBnB works perfect in Cuba if you have it already installed and it avoids you to pay by cash if all your payment details are set up too. As internet connections are a bit tricky in Cuba, doing research for places can be a bit too time consuming and narrowing places down before, is definitely a plus. But if you are not the preparing kind at all…you will find more than enough Casas anyhow even upon arriving in the different cities you visit.

Here are the Casas we stayed in, all simple, budget priced but very clean and with nice owners:
La Habana – Casa Suarez, close to the Malécon in Centro Habana. Betty, Olga and Naisyul are the most lovely persons you can imagine and we really miss them
Viñales – Stay at Casa Flora if you want to taste some delicious food. Flora cooked the best food for us during this trip, we still dream of her fish
Playa Larga – Ana and Geraldo have the most beautiful garden
Cienfuegos – Maricela and Arturo were a pleasure to talk to but also had the best Casa room (with a rooftop terrace) we stayed in during our trip
Trinidad – We recommend Hostal Arli Day, right in the middle of Trinidad. You’ll have the pleasure to get to know Daymarelis and her mother
Santa Clara – Miguel and Dailys and little Miguel; Miguel gave us a great Santa Clara tour and recommended FUSIONe
Varadero – Cachita Caché. Meet Cachita and her big family at 3 minutes’ walk from the beach

I’ll be back soon with some more souvenirs, infos and pictures.

Happy to get a feedback in case you found some useful inputs here.