After almost three wonderful (and way too quickly passing) weeks in México we found ourselves on a plane from Cancún to La Habana (a/k/a Havana), Cuba’s notorious capital city. So what to expect? We heard about the beauty of the Old Town, saw pictures of impressively beautiful old cars and we knew that there would be two parallel currencies floating on the island: the local Cuban peso (CUP) plus a so-called ‘tourist’ peso, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).
What sounded confusing at first turned out to be rather uncomplicated, though: the CUC is nothing but the U.S.$ in disguise, it’s basically the exact same (because its value is bound to it, like the Danish krona is bound to the euro), but they decided to call it Cuban Convertible Peso. Same thing. I just called it “dólar”. One dólar/CUC is worth about 24 to 25 pesos/CUP and you only really need it to pay for accomodation (prices here are always given in CUC) and transport with either the tourist bus company Viazul or a private taxi (the latter being only slightly more expensive, but much faster).
Everything else you can pay in pesos really and that is pretty much what we did. If anything, it was actually more confusing for the locals; we sometimes got more many back than we should have. All due to their double currency game. It was fun.
Immigration into the country proved straightforward: We paid some 361 Mexican pesos, i.e. about 16 euro, for our Cuban Tourist Visa just before getting onto the flight in México, then sorted out the money situation in Havana and refused to take an expensive taxi to Downtown (basically everyone else did, but we had time). Instead, we wandered around in the area, talked to some security dudes who wouldn’t tell us about the local bus, but it eventually popped up and off we were, paying a mere fraction: 3 pesos (12 cents) each.
The most common thing to do for a budget backpacker in Cuba is to stay in so-called Casas particulares, basically a homestay. They’re as cheap as a hostel in México, but you get a private room with bathroom and usually enough space to spread out even. Sometimes there would even be space for 4 people, so you’d save more in a bigger group. For Havana we secured one for the first 2 nights online and paid 11 $ (in CUC) together per night.
So there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Cuba and also the street food is very affordable – eating-wise it probably doesn’t get much cheaper than on this island really. Water can be an issue, though – you simply don’t easily find big (1.5l) bottles or even 5l containers. And if you do, they tend to be quite overprized.
Now, the biggest deal on Cuba is transportation. As mentioned above, there are mainly 2 possibilities for foreign travelers: Either you take a Viazul bus for relatively little or you hire a private taxi. The buses are cheaper, but definitely take their time. Also, you have to book them well in advance. Since we only had 10 days, we simply decided to pay for all transport beforehand when figuring stuff out at the Havana Viazul Bus Station. And it actually proved to be a good idea, even if it took away the usual freedom of coming and leaving as one pleases.
So our travel schedule looked like this: We’d spend 3 nights in La Habana, then take a taxi to the city of Trinidad (for 30 $ each), stay for 2 nights, bus on to Camagüey (15 $), stay 2 nights, bus to Santiago de Cuba (18 $) and, after another 2 nights, finally head on to Holguín (11 $) – from there we’d take the weekly flight to Montego Bay in Jamaica.
And that is what we sticked to – we didn’t regret it. Now, we considered to see other cities, of course – Cienfuegos and Santa Clara e.g. were hot candidates – but we just didn’t. If we hadn’t had a flight from Holguín, we might as well have substituted that with Baracoa, but well, one simply can’t see it all. Next life! But, well, Cuba is one of those places that one would is excited to see evolve and revisit in, say, 20 or 30 years. Vamos a ver!
I really didn’t know what to expect of visiting a country that is in many regards stuck in the past due to its Communist approach, especially of economics – so that left plenty of room for surprises and we welcomed them! Both of us were born into a Communist state (the German Democratic Republic or GDR/DDR in short), but it collapsed when we were too young to notice anything (I was apparently sick in bed the day the wall came down and hence my parents couldn’t head out to see it just then).
In many ways, strolling through the streets of Cuba and watching buildings of former glory and grandeur having fallen to pieces made me think of the GDR – it basically was how I always imagined Berlin and other cities like Erfurt and Leipzig to look like in the 1980ies (and 90s). Not enough money left to maintain once beautiful houses and living quarters. Also, close to no commercials and no advertisement. Not a great deal cars on the road (but the ones we saw looked both spectacularly beautiful, but also run-down).
The so-called “supermercados” or convenience stores were sparsely equipped, mostly with only one brand per product (no need for competition in a planned economy). As mentioned before, there often wouldn’t even be water bottles left and early in the day people are cueing up in front of bakeries and other shops in order to get their share of bread and (delicious and cheap-as-sugar-hell) cake.
We later learned that under beloved revolucionero Fidel Castro (who died in late 2016) Cubans weren’t even allowed to own computers, cell phones or DVD players (until Fidel’s brother Raúl took over the island’s reigns in 2008).
Now, what does and did all that do with the Cuban people and what do they think of their country and the general situation? I happened to have some interesting conversations with some people (mostly our hosts) and their opinions were are pretty much unanimous: “We’re anti-imperialist, what the U.S. do is wrong, what Putin does is right (the E.U. is basically Trump’s wagging tail and can’t be counted on); there is lots of violence in countries like México and Colombia and our kids are safe here in Cuba”. There is something to all that, of course, but I don’t want to dig too deep at this place (it’s a travel post after all). It makes one think, however.
There seems to be a general tendency of painting things black and white – it’s either/or. We also noticed an unequivocal tendency to reduce the country’s history to basically two events: the fight for independence from Spain (under heavy influence from beloved national hero José Martí, political theorist, writer and poet – similarly idolised like Abraham Lincoln or México’s Benito Juárez) that was finally achieved in the late 19th century. And then, of course, the notorious revolutionary struggle in the 1950s that led to the abdication of the corrupt military (and U.S. backed) government under authoritarian leader Fulfencio Batista and its 1959 replacement with a socialist-turned-Communist regime headed by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl plus a 31-year old doctor and revolutionary from Argentina named Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (who finally died on just another attempted revolution in the Bolivian jungle in 1967).
From 1965 on, Cuba has been governed by only one political force, that being the Communist Party of Cuba, under factual rule of only two individuals (until this day), one of them becoming a world-wide icon for the anti-imperialist cause, beloved by many, despised my many others.
Having said all that, Cuba is a very interesting place to travel to and the more Spanish you speak the better (as is probably true for anywhere in Latin America) – we met people of all kinds and characters, some of them being seriously annoying and frustrating; others absolutely enchanting (like our last host in Holguín). We met the sweetest and most charming people, e.g. in a food stall in a small village near Playa Ancon (south of Trinidad) or in the Museo Histórico 26 de julio in Santiago de Cuba.
There were people with a great amount of wit and humour and then there were some lads who lacked all of the above completely, but nevertheless giving us an interesting insight into a generally still deeply conservative society. And that was probably to be expected from an island that deliberately ignores calls for gender equality and, generally, a more relaxed and laid-back view on things – among other things being isolated by the U.S. travel embargo that seriously needs to be removed (something sadly not bound to happen under the current mean joke of a president in the White House).
One last word about the bookshop situation: it was depressing! Communism definitely does not make for well-sorted bookshops – you might still want to check out how a Cuban bookstore looks from the inside. In case you’re already oversaturated with stories about Fidel Castro, Che and the glorious 1950s, you’re unlikely to linger for long.
While the capital, La Habana, was by far the most interesting place to explore, it was also the most touristic and that had consequences for the locals’ attitude: it wasn’t exactly laissez-faire. Also, everything from fruits to snacks was much more expensive in the Historic Quarter than at the more local area we stayed at (west of the Paseo del Prado/de Martí).
Trinidad turned out to be equally filled with tourist groups (considering its compact size), hence we were happy to rent out bikes and spend a considerable amount of time at Playa Ancon, some 12 km south of town. In case you happen to end up here and read this: Make sure you don’t miss on the Loma de la Vigía viewpoint (we sadly did).
The friendliest and most sympathetic places to us were Camagüey and Holguín, both situated on the island’s Western side. Our host in Holguín confirmed: “Oriente es lo mejor. También, todos los presidentes son de aquí.” – well, it’s true: the Castro brothers have been born some 70 km west of Holguín, in a village named Birán,
Finally, Santiago de Cuba was an interesting mixture of everything. Even if it sometimes says, it would be in competition with the capital – it’s not; Havana is much bigger and plays on a completely different level. However, Santiago was an essential stepping stone for Castro’s Communist revolution (it is also here that he first attempted to overthrow the Batista regime on July 26 in 1953).
Cuba can be an expensive place to visit, but it absolutely doesn’t need to. Accommodation and especially street food are incredibly cheap and even transport doesn’t have to be an issue if you plan accordingly (and are okay with paying a little more for a taxi in case you missed the bus). Stay away from tourist places and eat where the locals eat. There is e.g. pizza for 5 to 10 pesos (less than 50 U.S. cents).