Cuban cigars, Mojitos and Hemingway

Blurb

I made it. I got past security, customs and most importantly Trumps regulations. If you’re politically in the know and you like American War history then you probably know a fair bit about Cuba. The country itself has a rich history from the overthrowing of Batista, Bay of Pigs and changes that came about when Fidel Castro was in power.

I didn’t blog about Miami as it was more of a stopover than a full on visit but as a city it does have a lot to offer. I met some cool people in Miami but I think South Beach and its nightlife does attract a lot of party animals there, which isn’t my thing.

Getting from Vegas to Miami then getting into Cuba

I have to be honest though, I actually missed my flight from Vegas to Miami. I woke up at 4am to begin my journey into Vegas to go to the Grand Canyon for a day trip. The journey was long as we headed to the South rim and ended up getting back to the strip at 10pm. I was exhausted!

I got back to my room at 11pm and got into my head my flight was midnight the day after but after checking, I realised it was actually 00:40. I furiously packed within 5 minutes. got an Uber and reached Mccaran Airport for 00:20. I thought I had made it but the door had closed and I had screwed up! Luckily the manager took pity on me and gave me a ticket for the day after without charge and I was so grateful! When undertaking in a big adventure, you will get have problems along the way but you have to get through them so you can progress!

Is Cuba difficult to get to?

We’ve all heard the stories that Cuba is difficult to get to, its desolate, there’s nothing there. No, that’s all lies! Recently Donald Trump, President of the USA tightened laws travelling to Cuba and dissolved ties with Cuba that Barack Obama had created the year before making it more difficult to get to Cuba. If you travel from the USA into Cuba, you have to state a reason out of 12 for why you are doing so and tourism is not one of them (people to people). If you fly via USA to Cuba then you still need to state a reason and also obtain a visa from the USA and not your home country.

However, getting into Cuba was really easy. I picked “Support for the Cuban people” as my reason for flying into Cuba (as I flew from Miami), I arrived at the airport and paid $50 for the visa and off I went. It was really easy! People at the airline desk even gave me some tips and told me to enjoy my visit!

Some people have said if you don’t want to hassle yourself then you can fly to Mexico and then to Cuba and you won’t have to deal with the legislation. A backdoor entry if you want to label it.

Rooms

There are only really two options, you can book a hotel or stay in a Casa particulares. However I managed to book my accommodation on AirBnb but it was just a casa which was advertised online. If you feel like you just want to turn up and see what’s available then if you ask a local or see a blue anchor then it will lead you to a casa. These casas are places where locals live but they rent out a room for vistors. If you see a red sign, this is not a casa but a room to rent for locals who want to run a business. The casas are amazing value for money and you get a private room, usually if you opt for breakfast then meal is substantial. At my casa I got two eggs, 3 pieces of bread, butter, spam, 4 pieces of guava/pineapple/ papaya, coffee and milk. The breakfasts are enough to feel two people!

Dinero

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CADECA outside Jose Marti airport

The monetary system is different in Cuba and you cannot obtain Cuban money outside of Cuba. There is the local money (CUP Cuban Pesos) and tourist money (CUC Cuban convertible pesos). The reason for the different currencies is something to do with when the USSR broke down and Cuba entered the Special period. When you arrive in Cuba, you can exchange your money for CUC (do not buy CUP as it is worth 1/25th of CUC and is local currency – it will only be good on local buses and markets). Ideally you want to not change US dollars because there is a 13% fee on changing it into CUC, people recommended Canadian dollars, british pounds, Japanese yen or Euros as there is not this fee. As I went to Vancouver, I had already planned to take much more CAD then needed.

Another point is that you should change your money at CADECAs or Cambio de monedas. The rate varies but at this point in time it is about 1US to 1CUC or 0.8CAD is 1CUC.

There is actually a CADECA just outside the airport entrance where I would suggest changing some money for a taxi to Havana.

Spending the dinero

Most of your money will go on transport, if you are planning to explore Varadero, Trinidad, Vinales and Cienfuegos then you will spend a lot. There are collectivos (bus ride-share service) or viazuls (bus services) which are cheaper but the drive to these places can take over 8 hours. One of my regrets was not visiting Trinidad but I will return to Cuba to exclusively visit the UNESCO labelled city.

The casas will offer breakfast options and I paid 5CUC ($5 US) each day for my breakfast which is amazing value considering the amount of food you’re getting. If you are taking a taxi to and from Jose Marti airport then budget 20-25CUC, I took out 50CUC and kept it in my passport holder to guarantee I wouldn’t spend it on other things.

 

Internet

There is no freely available internet, if you want to use data then you will rack up a massive bill. Instead you will have to go to shops with the government run ETECSA sign, buy an internet card for 1 or 2 CUC. You will have to locate a wifi hotspot and then log on. Remember, the ETECSA hotspots will always be unlocked and you log in using your username and password then turn off your wifi to log out. The difference in prices reflect which vendor is selling it, if it is 1CUC then you will have queued an hour or more to obtain it, if it is 2CUC then you may have bought it off a local but the upside of the increased price is there is usually no queue. The wifi hot spots are usually found in establishments or park areas, keep your eyes peeled for areas where people are sitting down or have their phones out – it’s a wifi hot spring! El Floridita has wifi inside its bar and a lot of the parks will have wifi too.

If you are spending a while in Cuba then purchase 2/3+ ETECSA cards

Sites

  1. Obispo Street
  2. Capitolio Building
  3. Havana Club Rum Museum
  4. Museum of revolution
  5. Ernest Hemingway Spots
    1. El Floridita
    2. La bodeguita del Modeio
    3. Alto Mondo
  6. Old Havana and Plazas
  7. Revolution Plaza
  8. Malecon Beach
  9. Havana Hop on bus
  10. Morro Castle
  11. Casablanca / Regla Daytrip
  12. Vinales
  13. Veradero
  14. Trinidad

 

Obispo Street – Plaza Vieja – Plaza de Armas

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Obispo is always busy

Obispo is a famous walking street and you will get heckled by restaurants and bar staff to come and enjoy a meal or drink. The street translate to Bishops street as they once believed a bishop lived on the street but it is now a very touristy street, so expect inflated prices. If you keep walking down it then you will hit Plaza de Armas and laterally along this plaza, all the other plazas are interconnected.

There is an actual microbrewery which serves homemade Cuban beer called Plaza Vieja. Each beer costs 2.5-3 CUC and they even have beer towers, the beer was really good but be warned, the head on each beer is big.

Capitolio Building – Chinatown

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Majestic and one of the newest buildings

I lived very near to Capitolio building and it is reminiscent of the Washington DC Whitehouse building and the tour guide said the tower stood 7m higher than the one in Washington. However people say it is not a replica. The building itself is was home to the Cuban government but it is now home to the Cuban academy of sciences.

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If you walk around Capitolio then you will find yourself in Barrio Chino which is Chinatown, a local told me a lot of Chinese used to live in Cuba but then emigrated out. There are still some Chinese restaurants around and a grand Chinese grand near the disused cigar factory. I hope one day that they will rejuvenate the area so we can enjoy a Cuban-chinese fusion culture.

 

Museums

Havana has so many museums that you will probably not have the chance to visit them all. I only visited two. I went to the rum museum to learn about the rum trade in Havana at the Havana Club museum and the Museum of the revolution. Both were great experiences.

The Rum museum was 7CUC and included an English speaking guide. The exhibition was small but each room was well decorated and depicted how rum was made and has become a Cuban staple. At the end of the tour you even get to taste a Havana Club 7 year blend.

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The museum of the revolution was very interesting and showed the Cuban Revolution against Batista and how it carried on from there. The Cuban military showed some real genius and also perseverance to rise up against the tyranny of Batista. However there were some tragedies in the Cuban-American wars, which is well documented in the museum. Although information-rich, I think it is important to pay a visit and educate ourselves on the history of Cuba and how it came to be in the present.

Finally I did visit an art museum opposite the Museum of the Revolution, the creativity that went into Cuban art is on another level. The vibrant colours and slight surreal style were a refreshing look into Cuban art and there wasn’t any Cuban modern or contemporary art!

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Havana Hop on Bus – Malecon Beach – Fusterlandia

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Walking down Malecon

The Havana Hop on/off bus varies in price, I believe there are three buses. T1 costs 10CUC and T2/3 cost 5CUC but of course you can get off or on these buses anytime and they run until 6pm. If you don’t fancy walking down the Malecon beach then you can take the T1 bus which will drive down it. If you want to stop off at the famous Hotel Nacional, you can do so and even book tickets to see a Cuban Cabaret (Cabaret Parisien) or go even further and book the famous Tropicana Cabaret, it is further away and costs even more.

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Viewpoint of El Morro from Malecon

Malecon beach is a lovely walk after dinner, since the sun goes down and you won’t fry in the sun. Some people may walk with you and want to chat to you and practice their English but some people may try to sell Cubanos (Cuban cigars) or even lady services to you.

I also wanted to mention Fusterlandia, I read first about it on DIY-Travel which was a very useful blog talking about exchanging money in Cuba and also gave a one week itinerary. Fusterlandia is a creation by a man called Fuster, he wanted his house to be grand and so one day he decided he would create sculptures and mosaics which is how his house looks today. I would highly recommend a visit. Here’s how to get there.

  1. Get on the T1 Havana Hop on bus for 10CUC then take it to stop 12 – La Cecilia restaurant and then transfer to the T2 bus, the one I got on said Transtur and you will be charged 1CUC for a return ticket
  2. Request to get off at Casa de Fuster and they will tell you what time they will come back to pick you up – usually one hours time
  3. Casa de Fuster is located down a side road and it is extremely safe. It is open from Wednesday- Sunday from 9-4pm, it is free to enter.

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Alternative ways to get there would be to take the local buses for 0.5 Pesos or even get a taxi there. I saw a lot of people in classic American cars, so you might be able to organise a classic American tour which will take you to different locations. A fellow traveller I met said he booked a Classic American car tour for $30US on AirBnB experiences.

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Casablanca

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Definitely holding a cigar and mojito

On one of the free walking tours, the lady took us on a ferry to Casablanca. The price was 0.5 pesos and we didn’t get hassled by the toll man.The Christ of Havana is located on top of the hill and was sculpted by Jilma Madera, the statue is said to look as if Jesus is holding a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other, very cuban. If you continue walking then you will reach the army barracks, where you can actually purchase a ticket to watch them perform their nightly march if you want.

Day Trips

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Pre-historic mural in Vinales

I took day trips to Vedado, Vinales and Varadero. The one city I wanted to visit was Trinidad but as I had created a tight time schedule for myself, I didn’t want to miss my next flight to Peru. I originally booked a tour with Havana journeys which had some amazing reviews online, but my casa host said he could get me a deal to go Vinales and Varadero for 200CUC. The cost of a single tour to Vinales was 170CUC, so I cancelled my tour and went with the local drivers. I guess that the prices from an actual tour company will be much more expensive because they pay heavy taxes to the Cuban government and these local drivers charge a cheaper price because its off the books but better for the budgeting traveller!

My driver took me to Vinales and toured around the Cuban cigar factory, Indian Cave, Prehistoric mural, national park and then took me for a meal at a paladar.

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Car shot in Vinales Mountains
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Indian Cave or Cueva del Indio

The day trip to Varadero was nice, I had a different driver and he picked up other passengers on the way and gave free lifts to the police. Varadero has amazing beaches but other than that, there wasnt much to see.

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Food

A lot of blogs I read said that Cuban food is bland, so when I was in Miami International airport, I nabbed packets of salt and pepper. However I didn’t find Cuban food tasteless, they do add seasoning and the food is generally healthy. During my trip to Vinales, the driver took me to a Paladar where the cost of the meal was 15CUC, initially I thought it was a lot of money for one meal but he said I wouldn’t have to eat after this meal, he was right!

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They gave me cassava chips as a starter then I had the choice of chicken, pork or beef. I decided to go with pork as the driver took me out back to see chat to the chef cooking the Cuerca al Carbon, it came with a large dressed salad, bowl of rice and black beans, roasted squash, roasted white sweet potato, roasted cassava and a plate of fruit to finish it all off. The meal itself was excellent and I ate it all except for two pieces of sweet potato.

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Another dish I tried was Ropa Vieja, I know Vieja means old but when I translated it online, it came out as old clothing. I asked a local what it was and it was a stewed Cuban beef dish which he regarded as their national dish. I only had 7CUC left and another local took me to a Cuban spot where I tried it, it was rich and delicious – I wished I had more money so I could get more!

I also tried pork and fried rice at a street stall after being sweet talked by the vendor to get some for 3CUC and although it wasn’t awful, I wouldn’t recommend it. However if you want something tasty and cheap then you have to try the Cuban pizza. It’s a large flatbread topped with cheese and maybe a splash of tomato sauce, add a topping like ham or pineapple and it is really tasty. I must’ve bought this for lunch on 3 or more occasions and it cost 2CUC each time.

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Meal at Varadero – Pork off the BBQ – al Carbon

Top tips

  1. Exchange some money at the CADECA outside the airport, a local said exchange rates do differ and to change when you are in Central Havana
  2. You should spend no more than 25CUC to go from Airport to Havana vice versa – agree on the price beforehand but 20CUC is probably the lowest they will go, if you have Alan Sugar-like bargaining skills
  3. Try to avoid the tourist dinner spots, the prices go up to 12-15CUC for average portions. If the casa offers dinner or another local spot then not only will the price be cheap but the portions will be very good. However try out a tourist spot just to see what it is like
  4. If you are taking a long break in Cuba, don’t stay in one place. I highly recommend spending two days in Vinales, two days in Varadero (chilling at the beach), a visit to Trinidad and also Cienfuegos. I didn’t visit Trinidad on this occasion due to distance but another time.
  5. Try the local food like Ropa Vieja, Cuban Pizza, Pollo con arroz and lechon but avoid the fried rice (that was pretty bad – lucky I didn’t get food poisoning)
  6. If you decide to take a day trip to the locations above then you can either pre-book beforehand – they usually take cash on the day – or take a private taxi (I paid 200 CUC for trips to Vinales and Varadero). However you can ask the Casa owner if he can help book a collective bus (or you can book a viazul online), it will be much cheaper.
  7. Learn a little bit of Spanish, I had been learning for 6 months and although I could understand abit and form toddler sentences, it is difficult to talk to someone unless you know some words. I recommend Youtube and Quizlet as resources but others recommend Duolingo, but the best practice you can get is to actually use it – so any Spanish friends or teachers you know will improve your Spanish within a matter of weeks.
  8. Please get a daiquiri from El Floridita and a mojito from Bodeguita then dance like a nut on the bar table. These are famous locations where Ernest Hemingway liked to drink and they are now popular tourist spots, the drinks are abit more pricey but the atmosphere is very lively.
  9. Visit Trinidad!
  10. Get some Cuban cigars in Vinales, the tour guide will show you around the cigar factory which is a series of huts and then offer you a Cuban cigar for free then run through the prices. He recommended the Cohiba cigars as these were famously smoked by Fidel Castro and Che. The prices ranged from 4-6CUC per cigar or you can buy them in wrapped packs of 15 or 60 cigars in a humidor box. I only bought 5 cigars as gifts as I didn’t want to lug a box of Cubans across the world for 6 months but the price was reasonable for what you’re getting. Dare I say you could even bargain the price abit.

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