(Vinales, Cuba 2016)
In July 2016, I spent two weeks in Cuba. I think this holiday was the highlight of 2016. I am not a well-seasoned traveller, and prior to my Cuba visit, I had only travelled wealthy first world countries, including Australia, New Zealand, America and Japan, which all have first world travel networks and wifi. Cuba, I guessed, was going to present me quite a few challenges!
I can’t recall exactly the moment I had a desire to visit Cuba. I think it may be when I read of the Obama visit in March 2016, and of the subsequent speculation that Cuba was going to change and become more commercial, and lose it’s timeworn communist charm. As I began to research Cuba and what it’s like there, as I perused pictures of the spectacular landscape, the mountains, the beaches and learned of Cuba’s Latino musical culture, as I read blog upon blog that described traveler Cuba adventures, I grew increasingly excited about going there myself. And for me that meant alone.
Being a single lady, with no friends available to accompany me on my travel adventures, I decided to go alone. Although deep down I was confident I’d be safe, I focused on finding blogs written by solo travelling females such as:
“Cuba was utterly fascinating, and utterly exhausting. I spent 18 months in Asia traveling solo, India included, and Cuba was nearly as exhausting with the constant want of the locals. There isn’t begging, per say, but everyone is trying to sell you something.”
**At the end of my Cuba holiday, I knew exactly what she had meant by “constant want of the locals”.
Reading these blogs that I am so thankful exist and available for people such as myself, gave me peace of mind as well as some idea of what to expect. I learned with some relief that crime against tourists is very rare. This was reassuring and if this had not been the case, I doubt I would have gone there.
As my departure date loomed closer, I grew increasingly quite anxious about the prospect of receiving the kind of unwanted male attention described in the stories I’d read, and wasn’t sure if I was going to handle it well.
In any case, I booked my flight about a month before I was due to fly out, via Canada Air. After I booked my flight, I asked friends who had visited Cuba before for any advice, and set about planning my trip. I came across a website www.Homestay.com, a site similar to Air B’n’b, and began reserving accommodation in the towns and cities that I decided to visit. I made sure to read the reviews for each homestay and only booked ones with positive comments.
My plan was 3 nights in Havana, 3 nights in Vinales, 4 nights in Trinidad and 4 nights back in Havana. In hindsight, I wished I had included Cienfraegos so that I could visit the Bay of Pigs. And also the popular tourist town of Varadero. A day or two spent lying lazily on the beautiful white beaches at the touristy resort would have ended my holiday perfectly. I guess with limited travel planning experience I am bound to have a few regrets.
Whilst preparing for my holiday, further worries started to spin around my consciousness…
There is only one bus service for tourists in Cuba, Viazul. I read many worrying stories on internet forums about this service, about how tourists have to arrive at the bus stations at least two hours before departure, and incidents whereby passengers were turned away even though they had previously reserved seats! I learned of another service, “Transtur”, whose buses are smaller than Viazul but this service seemed more promising as it involves collecting tourists from their hotels rather than collecting and delivering tourists only to and from bus stations, that can be far out of the city centre.
During my novice research, I read a quite a few blog posts that gave me the impression there is no internet in Cuba at all! To clarify, I consulted a friend of mine I know to have visited Cuba in the past, and his response was “Erm, I don’t remember there being any!” What? That can’t be right, surely? In my former travels, internet, and more to the point, email, was essential for me so I could at the very least keep in touch with family back home. Making international phone calls seems so much more hassle. Well, to my relief, I learned later there is internet in Cuba, albeit not available everywhere and not with the best signal. What Cuba has are wifi hotspots for which require wifi access cards with usernames and passwords in order to log on.
**At the time of writing this, Cubans have no internet connection in their homes. Casa particular hosts purchase single use wifi cards and sit in parks to connect just like tourists do.
Cuban currency is not traded internationally. This extract is from the Travellex website, “There are two official currencies in Cuba: the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). The CUC is the country’s major currency and is pegged against the US dollar, …”
The only way to get hold of Cuban currency is once you are in Cuba, either by exchanging cash or travelers cheques at a Cadeca or from a cash machine. A lot of online advice suggested that that cash machines were scarce and prone to running out of money or breaking. I personally found no problem with accessing a cash machine when I needed one. Even the tiny town of Vinales had an adequately stocked and working ATM.
My arrival in Cuba!
My flight arrived late at night in Cuba at 10.30pm at Havana Airport. What I had previously read about how everything runs very slow in Cuba, and to expect lots of queuing, were immediately proven true. My suitcase took no less than 1.5 hours to arrive on the baggage claim carousel! And when it finally arrived, I noticed my padlock had been broken open, and had been locked up again using another padlock, which struck me as rather weird. Luckily for me I had made friends on the flight with a Chinese man who entertained me during our wait, showing me pictures of his dog on his phone.
I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize my host Susana who I expected to be waiting for me in arrivals. However, to my surprise it was a dark skinned man holding a placard with my name on it who awaited to greet me. I had been expecting Susana herself to meet me at the airport. Oh well, my new companion was very nice and as it transpired, barely spoke a word of English. He gestured us outside where I explained in limited Spanish that I wanted exchange some of my money.
Emerging from the airport was the moment I was hit with the first taste of the hot July Cuban climate. The air was stifling, humid and gritty. In the air I smelled an intoxicating mix of cigarette smoke and deet, billowing off the queues of tourists waiting leisurely for their turn in the money exchange booths (Cadecas).
There were two money exchange offices outside the entrance to the airport; we queued at one that had the shorter queue. We had queued only a minute when abruptly it closed! So we moved swiftly to join the other. My host was not pleased,”cardo” he kept saying, making a square shape with his hands and started pointing. I guessed what he was referring to was a credit card. There was a card machine somewhere in the airport but by this point I was determined to get some of my cash exchanged. In total, we had to wait an hour and a half. After I had finally acquired some CUCS, my host guided my across the road, where a man approached us. “Taxi“, said my host. We got into a battered old vehicle (apologies for having no knowledge or interest in cars), and off we went with the taxi driver and my host chatting in Spanish at the front, while I sat tired, jet lagged and slightly scared in the passenger seat. After 40 minutes, we arrived at the accommodation that resembled the picture on the website. Once inside, my host shouted for Susana, where she appeared, a smiley warm lady. To my amusement, it became soon obvious she too barely spoke a word of English!(I had exchanged a number of English messages on the homestay app with Susana, her messages perfectly grammatically correct, which lead me to assume Google translate or a translation book was behind them..)
After I paid the taxi man, Susana communicated to me she assumed I must be very tired and needed to sleep. She showed me to my room, and demonstrated how to use the facilities by pointing to each object and saying it’s name in Spanish. I learned shower was “douche“, key, “llave“(ya-ve), room, “habitiatión“.
I was expecting Susana to ask me for the remaining payment for my stay, but I soon learned that as a rule, casa hosts take payment at the end of a guest’s stay.
On my first day, I had set myself the mission to get to infotur office (Tourist Information) in Central Havana to get a ticket on a transtur for 3 days time.
In the morning however, things did not go quite to plan. When I ventured from my room downstairs, I was delighted to find a feast of a breakfast; omelette, bread roll, lots of crisp breads, blended guava juice and a plate of chopped pineapple, mango and guava. Whilst I ate, Susana and I talked for two hours to communicate things that would normally take 10 minutes if we both shared a common language. Fortunately I had brought a Spanish phrase book with me and it came very handy in that scenario. I quickly scanned through for key words to assist me. We bumbled along and it was quite amusing.
Eventually I left the casa, and after some directions from Susana I embarked on my walk to the centre, using my view of the El Capitolio to direct me. I must have taken a wrong turn as I had got nearer the centre I had in sight the Capitolio roof emerging behind buildings but then at some point I couldn’t see it anymore and became lost. I somehow ended up at a square of some sort, where a local man who could see I was lost accosted me and asked if I needed help. After he gave me confusing directions to the “Capitolio”, he then asked for money for “leche”, to buy from a nearby shop. I felt quite scared and intimidated at this point and replied “no, sorry” and tried to leave. He started to feign tears, “my baby, for my baby”. I felt terrible but I left and made my own way.
**This request to buy “leche” (milk) for somone’s baby happened on a few more oaccasions after this. Later in my trip I mentioned this incident to some tourists I spoke with and they said it was a scam, that after a tourist buys the milk for a Cuban from a government supermarket, the milk gets returned for cash. I was never sure what the real story was! I think there are no right or wrong ways to react to this situation; if you are happy to pay for milk, do so, but if like me you are made to feel uncomfortable then don’t.
I inquired at the hotel ingleterra about getting a bus to Vinales in a few days time. I was told the transtur bus I required was was booked up and 4 days notice was required. So instead, I booked a “collectivo”, which is a taxi that is shared by tourists heading for the same destination. They can be booked by the “infotur” desk or by asking your casa host. Travelling by collectivo is convenient albeit sometimes uncomfortable (some taxis don’t have air conditioning, and some cram as many tourists in as possible). Collectivos collect tourists from their respective casa particulars, and drop them of at their casa addresses at their destination.
Impressions of Havana….
In general I found Havana exhausting. I was constantly approached and talked to by Cubans, all mostly saying the same things. “Hola! where are you from?”, “Do you like Cuba?”, “where are you going?”. For this reason, I did not make the most out of my stay there. I was physically grabbed a couple of times which overwhelmed me as I am used to the British attitudes regarding personal space.
I was often overwhelmed of the environment. Crumbling, dilapidated buildings, music blaring out (mostly local Cuban music, or Cuban versions of Western tunes namely Justin Beiber), old ladies sitting idly at doorways. Lots and lots of wild cats and dogs. Spanish being shouted across the streets but due to my ignorance I had no idea what was being said. Once I saw a dead dog lying upside down with his legs in the air as I was returning to my casa. I was quite distressed by this and looked away. The following day the dog has been moved. Some Cubans looked very leathery skinned, emaciated and their bodies crooked somehow. Cuba is a poor country you see, locals live on only $20 a year and on basic rations such as oil, beans and rice.
(El Capitolio and a room inside Teatro de la Habana, Cuba 2016)
On one occasion I felt tired and caught a taxi to the china town in Barrio Chino to get some dinner. The journey took 3 minutes and cost $10! I learned later $10.00 is the standard fare, it’s what most taxis charged for any distance within Havana. Good advice is always establish the fare before you accept the taxi ride. The meal I chose was classic Cuban, a black bean soup, a Cuban meat stew and banana cake things. The banana things were very dry. The waiter, who looked about 20, sat with me sometimes to have a chat.
On another occasion, near my casa, a group of young boys aged about 10, surrounded me and bombarded me with questions. Among the throng of voices, I heard “candy, do you have candy for us?“. I had read somewhere some advice to take chocolate with me as a gift but I had forgotten. I felt bad.
In one of my first days in Havana, I made a very brief friendship with a solo travelling American girl I met while we both staring at an urban street map. She was, interestingly, on a cruise from Miami and was only in Havana for one day! She was trying to locate the Museum of Contemporary Fine Arts..which turned out to be closed as it was a national holiday. So instead we did a quick paid tour of the Gran Teatro de la Habana. It was marble inside and we got to see the main hall and stage where artists were rehearsing. One downside was the toilets were broken and in a disgusting state as there was no water in the building.
On another occasion, I ventured to the Malecón (sea front). I had read somewhere that it’s best to sight-see early before 12 when it was too hot, but I struggled to wake up early so I was at the Malecón at the hottest part of the day.The air smelled of urine.
On my second from last day staying with Casa Susana, I discovered there were two other guests staying in the house. I found them eating a late night lunch at the table with Susana. They were two young Belgique ladies, who had been travelling far and wide in collectivo taxis to all the best places in Cuba, including Baracoa. I was relieved after some time wandering alone to have some English conversation. One of the ladies guided me somewhere off Hospital to an internet park. After 3 days I was finally able to communicate home!
Want to know what happened on the next leg of my holiday? Read Part 2 – Vinales and Cayo Jutias