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Cuba Trip Report

Cuba Trip Report

Old Jan 2, 17, 5:59 pm
  #1  
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Join Date: Feb 2011
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Cuba Trip Report

Rather than go through a detailed day-by-day, I will write about my impressions and experiences.

Type of Trip: As an American, I chose the People to People option. No one asked anything on the way back, though I have Global Entry and do everything at the kiosk. I wanted to go now, since who knows what will happen to Cuba travel after January 20.

Flight: JetBlue from New York - $240 - which is great value. Would have been even less on a weekday.

HAV Airport - Sucks. Out of the 70-80 airports I've been to, this one is the worst. Immigration on arrival was fine, and I got a "bienvenidos" from the immigration lady, but then you must wait in line for security - and why they have security on arrival I'll never understand - complete with metal detectors, x-ray machines and hand held wands. On the way back, there was a 45 minute line to check-in, followed by a 45 minute line for immigration and then another line for security. People kept cutting the lines, yelling at each other and throwing their bags in front of others. And for good measure, the bathrooms have no toilet seats, toilet paper or soap. Everyone seemed worn out by the time we boarded. This is one place where you really do need to get there 3 hours early and bring a lot of patience.

Taxivinales - It was recommended by someone on here. They picked me up at the airport on arrival just as arranged and having paid them online, there was no need to change money at the airport. They also took me from Havana to Vinales for $70 with a friendly driver named Israel. They were supposed to drive me back from Havana to the airport, but didn't show up. Though they confirmed, they had not yet received my email with the cross street and said their policy is not to send a taxi without a cross street, though the address would have been perfectly easy to find without it.

Accommodations: Two Casa Particulares in Centro Habana and one in Vinales. I would recommend them all, though perhaps not for solo women since all are on very dark streets. Booked them easily through airbnb:
"Case Near of the Sea" - about $40 per night - in an old colonial house about 5 blocks from the Malecon. The room is basic, but the family is extremely helpful.
"Descubre Vinales en el Departamento de Artista" - $25 per night. The family was extremely welcoming and the home cooked breakfasts and dinner were great. A bit of a walk from the town but a great opportunity to see how a rural family lives.
"Elizabet Apartmet" - $37 per night - this one I had the whole apartment and it was quite nice and modern. The family lives nearby and will come quickly for any issues and will come in the AM to cook breakfast for $3 to $5 depending on what you want to eat.

Number of tourists: Some of us in the US have the impression that Cuba is an off the beaten track destination, though it is actually quite popular with everyone else, more so than many other places in Latin America. Vinales, in particular, was bursting with Germans, French, Dutch and more Germans.

Money - I got Euros from Citibank before leaving, but the exchange rate was pretty bad. I probably could have found a better rate elsewhere but didn't have time to shop around. I took about 1200 euros for a one week visit and came back with at least 500. If you can get Euros for a good rate, it may be worthwhile, but otherwise with the cost of buying Euros and the selling them back, it's better to just bring US dollars and change small amounts at a time.

Scams - Everything I read said to beware of scams, hassles and getting the wrong change. In reality. I had one guy try to give me the wrong change when buying a WIFI card, but otherwise no issues at all. There are annoying people around the Parque Central trying to sell cigars and taxi rides, but I've experienced much worse elsewhere.

People - Service in many places is not terribly friendly, and a couple of museum employees seemed annoyed to be asked a question, but anyone anyone I asked for directions - which were a lot of people - most of the taxi drivers and of course the casa owners were all extremely kind and helpful.

Smoking - Cubans smoke a lot, including in some restaurants though as far as I know that is banned.

Pollution - Everyone says its bad, but never experienced it.

Connectivity - There are plenty of parks and squares where wifi is theoretically available, but actually being able to connect to it is another question. The big hotels are usually a better bet. Once connected, it works pretty well. I was able to make calls and text with my US iPhone at times in Havana, but not in Vinales.

Food - Everyone complains about the food, but much of it was quite good, at the Casas, at private restaurants and even at state run places. I had a few good ropa viejas, some good chicken dishes, great fruit and juices, a delicious flan (which I normally find very unexciting) and some homemade potato chips. Two places I'd recommend are Castas y Tal and Bellomar, both in Habana Centro. And there is a decent pizza place about a block from the Hotel Ingleterra, though the pizza comes with a bit of second-hand smoke. At any restaurant, be prepared for them to be out of chicken or beef or both.

Favorite Experiences: The Malecon during stormy weather. It rained for two days straight, but the site of the waves crashing onto the shore is spectacular, as is the sunset over the harbor.

Plaza Vieja: It is pretty during the day, and then full of music at night.

The Museo de la Revolucion, the Cuban art part of the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Che museum in one of the forts are all somewhat interesting. Most of the many other museums I saw in Havana were not worth even the minimal admission fees or the few minutes it took to see them.

Walking on my own in Vinales: I hired a guide for $20 who took me on a very rushed tour to a cigar maker, a coffee farm and a cave. Walking on my own along the Aquaticos trail was much more pleasant, with pretty scenery and a chance to try some fresh off the vine bananas.

The Gran Teatro de Habana: Saw a decent dance performance for $30, about a quarter of what similar seats would cost in New York. The theater is surprisingly clean and modern, completely unlike anything else nearby, and it is interesting to see how the Cuban elite interact and dress.

Frustrating Experiences: Started one day by going to the Camera Obscura for a view of the city. Though it opens at 9 and the door was open, I was told it was closed and no one knew if or when it might open. Went next door to the Fototeca which had, by my count, about 14 photos in all. At least there is no entrance fee. Decided to take to tour bus at 12:10 only the 12:10 bus didn't show up and the next was only at 12:40. Got out in Vedado and then had a long walk in the rain to find the Tarabish Russian restaurant recommended in LP, only there was no restaurant at that address or anywhere near it. Maybe it was once there, but it ain't now. Took a cab to one of the forts where I was told that I could enter for $6 but the power was out and wouldn't be able to see anything. That night, I took a cycle taxi to the boxing gym in the old city where LP says there are boxing matches every Friday at 7. There aren't; The next day, took a cab to the Centro Cultural el Gran Palenque, where LP says there are Afro-drumming music performances every Saturday from 3-6. There aren't.

Conclusion: If I could do it again, I'd probably choose Trinidad over Vinales, and may go back one day. To me, Cuba is more a place to experience than to actually see the sights. I'm glad I went and glad I got to go at this point in history.
trebex is offline  
Old Jan 3, 17, 2:23 am
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Join Date: Oct 2016
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thanks for the report, just returned from a 12 day trip to Cuba myself. my experiences are largely the same as yours. didn't bother with trying to get online, which was actually nice and quiet not checking your phone every 5 minutes. only spent one day in Vinales, as a day trip from Havana. did drive to Cienfuegos/Trinidad/Sancti Spiritus/Santa Clara/Varadero, which all had their charm in their own way, as did driving to and from those places in a dingy Geely.
completely agree with you on your conclusion, it's the experience that matters more than the actual sights.
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Old Jan 4, 17, 3:06 pm
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Join Date: Jan 2017
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Very cool report, my experience is Cuba was very similar.
Connectivity is a major issue in Cuba, the internet for me was very slow and i couldn't log into Facebook because it said that I was in an "unusual location", but most people I asked never had this problem.

I think the best idea is to hire a cab driver to show you around the city, I stayed for 5 days and it was like having a private chauffeur. Cuba is a relatively safe country for foreigners, but take the basic safety measures anyways.
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Old Jan 5, 17, 11:54 am
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Join Date: Jan 2017
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Thanks for the detailed report! I'm glad to hear that there's some good food to be had.
NYwriter86 is offline  
Old Jan 5, 17, 12:40 pm
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In Cuba I have eaten food as low as 1 CUC and the most I will pay is 8 CUC nothing more than that and have never gotten sick. All I can say is avoid fruit juices that do not come out of a packet or can. Also no soup!
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Old Jan 6, 17, 7:34 pm
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I just spent the week between Christmas and New Year's in Cuba as well. Thanks for sharing the report. A few thoughts on your posts:

Originally Posted by trebex View Post
HAV Airport - Sucks. Out of the 70-80 airports I've been to, this one is the worst. Immigration on arrival was fine, and I got a "bienvenidos" from the immigration lady, but then you must wait in line for security - and why they have security on arrival I'll never understand - complete with metal detectors, x-ray machines and hand held wands. On the way back, there was a 45 minute line to check-in, followed by a 45 minute line for immigration and then another line for security. People kept cutting the lines, yelling at each other and throwing their bags in front of others. And for good measure, the bathrooms have no toilet seats, toilet paper or soap. Everyone seemed worn out by the time we boarded. This is one place where you really do need to get there 3 hours early and bring a lot of patience.
I'd agree that HAV airport kinda sucks. It clearly hasn't been able to expand fast enough to cope with the influx of tourists. I got lucky though, with no lineups either way except at currency exchange on arrival... and I realized once I got close to the front that there's an ATM machine hidden inside the currency exchange booth that was open and free and clear the whole time... I'm Canadian so my ATM cards work fine in Cuba, and I could've skipped the whole thing. Oh well, live and learn.

I did meet people later on who spent a couple of hours lining up for customs and immigration. So perhaps I just arrived at a good moment. Also, I met people who waited ages for their checked baggage, making me glad I travelled carry-on.

As for no toilet seats, paper or soap in the bathrooms, that's everywhere in Cuba and fairly standard for travelling in many countries around the world. Pack your own.

Taxivinales - It was recommended by someone on here. They picked me up at the airport on arrival just as arranged and having paid them online, there was no need to change money at the airport. They also took me from Havana to Vinales for $70 with a friendly driver named Israel. They were supposed to drive me back from Havana to the airport, but didn't show up. Though they confirmed, they had not yet received my email with the cross street and said their policy is not to send a taxi without a cross street, though the address would have been perfectly easy to find without it.
$70 sounds steep. I paid 30 CUCs for an airport taxi on arrival from the dispatcher. I paid 35 CUCs for my return to the airport with a local driver, but that was only because it was 4am on New Year's Eve. Most of the the time the going rate seems to be 25-30 CUCs per direction.

Accommodations: Two Casa Particulares in Centro Habana and one in Vinales. I would recommend them all, though perhaps not for solo women since all are on very dark streets.
I'm a solo woman, and had zero qualms about any dark streets in Havana. Cuba's very safe and I never felt concerned about anywhere I was. Nor did I worry at all about casas in small streets. Neighbours look out for one another in most places, and while you do have to use usual amounts of city smarts, I'd say Havana is easily much safer than most major US cities ... by far.

Booked them easily through airbnb
AirBNB is fairly new to Cuba and a lot of casas aren't listed there. Cuba-Junky.com is a great resource for booking casas.

Number of tourists: Some of us in the US have the impression that Cuba is an off the beaten track destination, though it is actually quite popular with everyone else, more so than many other places in Latin America. Vinales, in particular, was bursting with Germans, French, Dutch and more Germans.
*Sigh* We Canadians have been overruning Cuba for years. Luckily I managed to avoid most of my fellow compatriots on this trip, since most of them stick to the all-inclusive resorts. In the cities I visited -- Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos -- I met a lot of Brits, Europeans and even some Aussies and Kiwis. A few Americans here and there, easily identifiable since they felt that going to Cuba was some kind of big deal.

Money - I got Euros from Citibank before leaving, but the exchange rate was pretty bad. I probably could have found a better rate elsewhere but didn't have time to shop around. I took about 1200 euros for a one week visit and came back with at least 500. If you can get Euros for a good rate, it may be worthwhile, but otherwise with the cost of buying Euros and the selling them back, it's better to just bring US dollars and change small amounts at a time.
Remember that if you're American, you will pay a 10% penalty on exchanges in addition to the commission charged by the cambria. There are also long lineups in most banks to exchange foreign currency. If you can get ahold of a bank card that works in Cuba, that's better, since ATMs rarely had lineups.

Scams - Everything I read said to beware of scams, hassles and getting the wrong change. In reality. I had one guy try to give me the wrong change when buying a WIFI card, but otherwise no issues at all. There are annoying people around the Parque Central trying to sell cigars and taxi rides, but I've experienced much worse elsewhere.
Agreed. These warnings are fairly overblown. Use reasonable common sense and you won't have issues.

People - Service in many places is not terribly friendly, and a couple of museum employees seemed annoyed to be asked a question, but anyone anyone I asked for directions - which were a lot of people - most of the taxi drivers and of course the casa owners were all extremely kind and helpful.
A bit of understanding goes a long way here, I find. By that, I mean, understanding that many highly educated, skilled Cubans are taking menial jobs in the tourism sector because the CUCs they can earn go much further than the CUPs they earn from their salaries. If you were a doctor or an engineer and you were waiting tables to make ends meet, you'd be a bit disgruntled about it too, no? Having said that, I found most people perfectly friendly and nice, too.

Smoking - Cubans smoke a lot, including in some restaurants though as far as I know that is banned.
I didn't find it particularly noticeable. In places like Eastern Europe, people smoke a LOT more.

Pollution - Everyone says its bad, but never experienced it.
Me neither. Then again, perhaps I'm just comparing to India, which I visited the month prior. Next to India, Cuba is clean and pristine.

Connectivity - There are plenty of parks and squares where wifi is theoretically available, but actually being able to connect to it is another question. The big hotels are usually a better bet. Once connected, it works pretty well. I was able to make calls and text with my US iPhone at times in Havana, but not in Vinales.
Internet works with ETECSA cards, which you can either line up to buy at the offices for CUC 1.50/hr (just dropped from 2 CUC/hr)... or, more likely, buy at a slight markup from a random guy near the hotspot selling them like a ticket scalper at Madison Square Garden. (Make sure it's sealed.) Some fancy hotel front desks sell them too (and have hotspots in the lobby), but I found they would only sell to their own customers.

To be honest, I only got online once, on the first day to send a quick message to say I'd arrived. I never bothered trying after that. Too much hassle. The digital detox was nice.

Food - Everyone complains about the food, but much of it was quite good, at the Casas, at private restaurants and even at state run places. I had a few good ropa viejas, some good chicken dishes, great fruit and juices, a delicious flan (which I normally find very unexciting) and some homemade potato chips. Two places I'd recommend are Castas y Tal and Bellomar, both in Habana Centro. And there is a decent pizza place about a block from the Hotel Ingleterra, though the pizza comes with a bit of second-hand smoke. At any restaurant, be prepared for them to be out of chicken or beef or both.
Memo to vegetarians: It's really tough to be one in Cuba. The veggie options are somewhat less than appealing. There's nearly always rice and beans as a backup, mind you.

Conclusion: If I could do it again, I'd probably choose Trinidad over Vinales, and may go back one day. To me, Cuba is more a place to experience than to actually see the sights. I'm glad I went and glad I got to go at this point in history.
Yes, definitely go back and see Trinidad! Easily my favourite place that I got to see on this trip in Cuba. Mind you, I didn't go to Vinales, so I can't compare. But I loved Trinidad. So much music everywhere. So pretty. So much life.
segacs is offline  

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