Our first glimpse into life in Cuba and the prominence of the import/export bans enforced by the U.S.A on Cuba was at the airport check-in line-up in Cancun. There were at least a hundred large boxes being checked-in by various passengers: air-conditioners, microwaves, TV’s, chairs, etc. Other than that, everything we had been told by fellow travellers and travel blogs we read beforehand about Cuba was dead wrong.
When we arrived at the Havana airport there were, of course, no ATM’s thus forcing us to exchange cash. To exchange USD to CUC* there was the typical 3% service charge plus an additional 10% fee purely because it was USD. The second fee did not apply to any other major currency. We gritted our teeth and exchanged 100 USD for 87 CUC (a currency that is tied to the USD at par). Everyone told us to bring USD cash, but as we learned, this is the worst currency to bring (CAD or EUR would be the best option).
*CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso – is the currency used by tourists throughout Cuba. Cuba has a second currency, CUP – Cuban National Peso, which is used primarily by the locals. From research, it appears that in the past if tourists could get their hands on CUP everything would be much cheaper; however, from our experience prices were about the same with either currency. Stores usually had two prices listed and most street food stalls accepted either currency at close to the legal exchange rate.
2. The People
Havana, while beautiful, was also the place where we were heckled and harassed more than anywhere else we had been in Latin America. At first, the constant “Where are you from?” we received from locals walking down the street was welcome and we took as friendly. However, once we had had the same conversation a few times – where the friendly turns into trying to sell us cigars, car rides or walk us miles out of the way to an over-priced restaurant – it got annoying, fast. We tried not responding when people talked to us, which felt rude, even more so when the response we got was “What?! You don’t want to talk to the locals?”
Surprisingly, most of the heckling was done in English proving yet again our fellow travellers were wrong: many Cubans do speak English – more so than most of the other countries we visited.
3. The Food
We really believed this one “the food is terrible” – to the point where we even treated ourselves to a few especially good meals in Mexico before leaving for Cuba and arrived with a full stock of granola bars, just in case. Oh how wrong everyone was – the food was delicious. We had some of our best meals of the trip in Havana and by far the best price to quality ratio in Latin America. Due to the fact that the Casa Particular’s didn’t offer use of their kitchens, we ate out every day for lunch and dinner and had breakfast at our Casa’s. The breakfast (which was always an additional fee, but well worth it) included fresh fruit juice, coffee, bread, jam/butter, meat, scrambled eggs and a massive plate of fresh fruit. We had a range of delicious meals at restaurants in Havana and Trinidad while Varadero fit the stereotype of terrible food.
Three nights in Havana
We managed to get a taxi into the city for 25$ which was a lot cheaper than other offerings. Thinking we were getting in one of the many yellow taxi’s lined up, we were quite excited when our driver took us to his classic Soviet Union limousine (GAZ-M14 Chaika). There was sooo much room in the back!
When we met our host at our Casa Particular (which we had pre-booked online) we were pleasantly surprised. She toured us through her home and upstairs where our bedroom was immaculately made-up, beautifully decorated, included an en-suite washroom with hot water and to top it off our room had an air-conditioner. Impressed, we settled into the room cooling off before heading back out into the sweltering heat.
Our first evening in Havana, we wandered the streets admiring the old-fashioned cars and crumbling colonial-style buildings. The contrast of beautifully renovated government buildings to the side streets where barely any concrete is left supporting the houses was shocking.
Cigars, Cigars and more cigars; everyone in Havana wants to sell you cigars. We had no idea if the cigars on the street were the same quality as the ones in the government run stores (some probably were) but in this case we caved and bought a couple cigars from the store instead of the streets. Dan made sure to get the complete experience and spent a hour in the VIP smoke room with a nice Cohiba one afternoon.
A collection of our classic car photos:
Once we’d had our fair share of cigars, rum, crumbling buildings and old cars we asked our Casa Particular to arrange us a taxi to Trinidad where she also arranged for us a place to stay (at her sisters). The taxi was only 5$ more than the 25$ bus which seemed worth it as they drove us door to door. What we weren’t told was that, of course, it was a shared taxi and five of us were to cram inside a car for 5 hours.
Two nights in Trinidad
Trinidad turned out to be completely different from Havana, with much less to do than we expected given how touristy we heard it was. Our first night we had dinner on a rooftop patio restaurant and enjoyed a beautiful sunset accompanied with the slowest and worst service we had ever had anywhere in the world. Frustrated, we walked around the town and we were happy to be left alone much more so than in Havana. The next day we enjoyed wandering through the cobble stone streets and found a great tapas place in town to eat lunch (and later, dinner) at.
Once again, we had our Casa arrange our transportation to Varadero along with another Casa to stay at.
We arrived in Varadero in the early afternoon and after setting our bags down (and lying in the AC for a few minutes) we walked across the street to the beach. Given we were in the Caribbean we had high expectations for this beach – and they were blown away! Varadero skyrocketed to the top of our list for most beautiful beaches in the world.
As far as the eye can see in either direction was white sand with crystal blue waves crashing up against it. Given it was in the middle of the day (and roasting hot) most locals and tourists were hiding from the sun and there was barely anyone on the beach. The angle the sun had been hitting it dead on from above made the effect even better as when we returned that evening – and the following morning for one last dip in the ocean before flying home – it wasn’t quite the same.
*Side note: Yes, we got back to Vancouver and were thoroughly enjoying the ease of living at home for a few weeks and forgot all about travelling and got quite lazy with up-keeping our blog. But, we’re back on the road in less than a week and can’t leave with an unfinished post from the last trip.