Cuba is a firework of emotions, it is a different world that will make you smile, laugh, love and hate it all at the same time. Sometimes you will wonder if this is for real, sometimes you will be insanely annoyed, sometimes you will be left breathless contemplating the beauty of this country and its people. It is a unique place that can become one of your most wonderful journeys or one of your worst ones as well… all depends on your attitude. But I would not even know how to describe the right attitude, I guess it’s either your vibe or not and when it clicks it’s an unforgettable adventure.
As we all know the right company is the key to any great trip. My 2,5 weeks in Cuba were spent partially with people that I have not met before. But magically we became a great band of six awesome individuals (yes, I call myself awesome as well =) and we mastered beautifully some short splashes of disagreements. All in all I really enjoyed our company and I am happy we got to explore Cuba together! We only had 2,5 weeks on the island, but in the end of our trip we felt like we had spent at least a month there: we have done so many things, been to so many different places that it felt like a little life had passed. We started by the ocean in Varadero enjoying the blue waters of Atlantic ocean, tasting our first mojitos and getting used to the warm sunrays on our faces. Then we moved to Remedios – a small charming colonial town, our first encounter with Cuban province and colorful facades. The next stop was Trinidad – another colonial town, but with many more historical sights and thus much more touristic. We walked around cobblestoned streets admiring lively city center, tasted amazing cuisine, went for horse riding and waterfall hiking, danced salsa, swam in the Caribbean Sea and enjoyed souvenir shopping. We went to another city Cienfuegos for one night stop and then to Viñales to see tobacco farms. In the end we came to Havana for several days, we walked all around the city center, enjoyed public transport rides and horse carriage city tour, tasted delicious cocktails and meals and finally celebrated New Year on the rooftop of the hotel Inglaterra. But that is just the official route description, our actual adventure was much funnier, crazier, deeper, more diverse, more vibrant and much more fulfilling in the end.
During the whole trip we were staying in casas particulares – homestay options with locals. It is a very common and affordable way to get accommodation in Cuba. You rent a room in the house of local people and get a chance to see a bit of their life. The majority of casas had a motley collection of fabrics (blankets, pillowcases, coverlets, curtains …) – everything was bright, colorful, shiny and flashy. Minimalism? Never heard. White couches with dramatic red cushions, violet walls and pink blankets, floral shower curtains, blue/orange/green/black/yellow all the colors were available and all at once. This abundance was overwhelming, local design preferences seemed to be stuck in the 90s and generously seasoned with radiant personalities of casa owners. It’s not what I would call a nice hotel room, but for the price (around 15 € pp per night) and circumstances it was a good deal.
Together with the colorful house décor you get extremely loud and noisy life of your casa’s neighbors as a bonus. I could not have said it better than the author of Cubaconga guide:
“Your Casa has neighbours, and they have a rooster, a dog and a stereo. The dog barks until 3 in the morning, and the rooster starts at 4. The stereo is always on “full +1”, and the TVs seem to function only on that level too!”
Indeed we have experienced all of the above. We cried, we laughed and in the end we gave up and surrendered. The worst night ever for me was in Remedios, there was a dog that could not shut up for the whole night. I could not sleep at all because this daemonic creature was barking every 15 seconds! At 4 am a rooster joined the dialogue, I guess I finally fainted around 6. At 8 a.m. I woke up with a terrible headache and the desire to kill everyone. Gradually I got used to roosters (we encountered them at every place we stayed), I started using ear plugs (do not forget them when you go to Cuba) and I could sleep more or less fine. It was still pretty far from what I call a restorative sleep, but for 2,5 weeks I could live with that.
Along with dogs and roosters another constant background companion in Cuba is the music. You will wake up with the music and go to bed with the music. Reggaeton will be in the public transport (people watching videos on their smartphones without any headphones), it will be in every taxi, it will be in the cafés, it will be outside on the streets, it will come out of big and small loudspeakers that people take with them for a walk… We met young people, middle aged people and whole families who were gathering around a portable loudspeaker and listening to the music. Sometimes there would be a row of groups with loudspeakers – each 10 meters apart. Each enjoying its own small street party. It seems like in the absence of unlimited internet loudspeakers are the number one thing to have, it´s the ultimate entertainment for young Cuban people. The apex of this endless music festival happened on the 31st of December when literally out every door and window (and all doors and windows are opened to the streets in Cuba) you could hear very loud music. The beats of latino sounds woke me up at around 10 am and on the 1st of January at 3 am the party was still on. Well… when I came back to Munich, entered my peaceful apartment and heard nothing but silence – that was a blissful moment! I remember lying on my bed and saying “silent…it is finally silent… no dogs, no roosters, no stereo… I am in paradise. I am at home.” (But then after 3 days I bought J Balvin album, downloaded another bunch of reggaeton songs on Spotify and could not stop dancing – I guess Cuban sounds are addictive. You like them at first, then you hate them and then you miss them again).
The food choices in Cuba are very scarce. No, there is no one starving there, but the availability and variety are depressive. As a tourist though you will be totally fine, in restaurants you will get chicken, fish, seafood and pork served with rice and sometimes vegetables. I have read many people complaining about the available menues, but from my side I would say it was quite good and sometimes even delicious! What was truly sad was the choice that local people had in their daily life. Or better said almost no choice at all. We entered many supermarkets throughout our trip across the country (mainly to buy water) and every time I was asking myself: where is the food? There were long rows of alcohol, some rows of canned tomatoes, some rice and some cookies. That was it. We have been travelling for more than a week when we finally could buy some fruits (before there was just nothing in sight). And even that was an adventure: Dasha saw someone carrying bananas across the street. As it was such an extraordinary occasion she ran to the other side of the street to stop the guy and ask him where he had got those bananas. He explained her where that magic spot was and we rushed right there to the guy with a carriage. We ended up buying all the bananas he had, cause you never know when you will get the chance to eat bananas in Cuba again =) Once in Havana we found a market (after 2 weeks of travelling!) and we finally saw some more vegetables and fruits. But then again all that was available were yucas, carrots, onions, bananas, papayas, pineapples and maybe 2-3 more other kinds of vegetables. For a tropical country I found it discouraging.
Meals in restaurants
Nowadays it is quite easy to get internet in Cuba. At least it was present in all the touristic places we have been to. The quality was poor, but it was enough to chat with the mainland or to upload pictures to Instagram. In order to access internet you need two things: an internet card and a Wi-Fi hotspot. There are ETECSA kiosks (state internet provider) where you can buy the cards or you can buy them in hotels or even pharmacies. Maybe somewhere else as well. Actually you never know where the card can be available… just ask. To find a hot spot is relatively easy as well: if you see a bunch of people starring at mobile screens, you know you found it. Otherwise just try the main square. The cost of one hour was ranging from 1,5 CUC to 2 CUC or even 3 CUC if you buy from “resellers”. I felt like being in the year 2003 again: opening several windows in the browser and then disconnecting from the internet to read in peace and save internet time. Here it was slightly different: you do screenshots of all the pages you need and download whatsapp messages, you disconnect and then read/answer at your convenience. Me personally I found this internet detox just perfect! We are so attached to our smartphones nowadays that it makes me sick sometimes how people spend their time together starring each at its own screen. I used internet to check restaurants on TripAdvisor and to send occasional greetings to my friends – that was perfectly enough.
Rum and Cocktails
Once you go Havana Club 7 años you never go back =) We had some self-made cuba libres on the beach in Varadero and they were amazing! We just bought rum and cola and went to the beach to see sunset. Precious! We had mojitos in bars all over Cuba, sometimes they were really good sometimes just ordinary. We tried different types of rum and I can say you really do notice the difference when it is 11, 7 or 3 years old. I was never a fan of rum before, but now when the quality is good enough I can even drink it raw =)
Before going to Cuba we were thinking about renting a car or two (as we were six people). But as the whole process of renting a car was pain in the ass (forget about Sixt or Hertz, nothing like that exists in Cuba – everything has to be done via some local agencies) and as the prices were extremely high, we decided to go for taxis. We found many reviews on the internet suggesting that it was a much cheaper and a more convenient way to travel around the country. I did not do the proper aftermath, but I guess all our taxis were at least twice as cheap as the rental car would have been. And we did not feel any lack of freedom or mobility restriction at all. We were finding taxis at the bus stops, main squares or by talking to our casa owners. Every time it was a little bit of effort to negotiate the price, but it was not that difficult. In the beginning we were not that picky and our first ride was all together on the Ford 1958. Later on we raised our standards and were taking two “modern” cars for the six of us for long distances. It was not always possible, but we had some good negotiators on the team and mostly it worked. The roads were bumpy and horse carriages were everywhere – driving in Cuba really requires some rural area driving skills. Honestly, I think that nowadays taking a cab in Cuba is the best option, unless you are a devoted driver or have a very uncommon route.
I guess I have to stop for now and break it down into several posts… too many things to tell you! 🙂