I’ve been fascinated by Cuba since I studied it for A-Level history – one of the essays I wrote for the exam was about the future of the island after the death of Castro.
That was over 20 years ago. And of course Fidel is still (apparently) alive, and brother Raul presides over a country that has already seen huge changes, with many more to come. President Obama arrives in Cuba next week, the first serving US president since Coolidge in 1928, and the Stars and Stripes are already flying over the US Embassy.
If he manages to lift the 60-year trade embargo and starts flights from the US, I can guarantee that Cuba will never be the same again. But the good news is that you’ve got time to see it now – and despite a lack of published information on how to travel there independently it is perfectly possible (and indeed easy) – and a great place to have a cheap and authentic holidays with the family. Here’s how we (and my still intrepid parents, one of whom I must thank for the terrible pun at the beginning of this blog), spent two weeks seeing and loving Cuba – and how you could do it too.
- Don’t panic about getting in
Doing Cuba independently looks hard from the outside but really isn’t. There are still few flights from London to Havana (more to Varadero but that is more for resort lovers). There are lots to Cancun however, and it’s a skip and a jump from there to Havana on Mexican budget airline Interjet (which has a lot of sales). If you fly from the UK your ‘tourist card’ is included, and if you go from Mexico you just buy it at the counter before you go. It’s not an India-style visa process – they really don’t care where you come from and it costs between £10 and £15 – cheaper in Mexican pesos than dollars.
There’s no interrogation at immigration either – the usual fascination about whether the girls are twins was as bad as it got (though I always want to answer ‘yes, they’re identical, I just only feed one of them’, as there’s quite the size difference). Print out your health insurance certificate – they may ask to see it – and could force you to buy their expensive insurance if you don’t. You’ll need an address for the first night to put on the tourist card, so you will need to book this in advance – more on that below.
- Stay in a casa particular
Cuban hotels are expensive and few and far between. However, there’s a family-friendly alternative. Since 2011, families have been allowed to rent out their spare rooms to tourists under a (heavily regulated) system known as Casas Particulares (private homes). These are fantastic value, vary in quality and can be booked in advance – but must be paid in cash once you get there.
Casas Particulares are great for families for several reasons
- They will usually put a child bed in a room for free
- They are usually family homes, and Cubans love children – the girls have been thoroughly spoiled with sweeties
- They do dinner and great cocktails in many cases, so you can stay in once the children have gone to bed. In many places the dinners in the Casas are better than the restaurants.
- You put your money in the pockets of the Cuban people – not just the people in whose room you stay, but those they employ.
- They always have airconditioning or a fan, and often have televisions too.
- They are great value at around £18 a night for three without breakfast.
Because most Cuban families do not have internet at home, finding a Casa before you go can be tricky. Most people suggest you find them when you get there, but that’s not very practical when there are six of you, or you have children with you – and you’ll need an address for your visa. Instead I’d recommend the following websites
www.bbinnvinales.com – which gave me by far the best booking experience –but be sure to check the casas on tripadvisor first – they vary.
www.hostelsclub.com – you pay a deposit with these guys and I don’t think the casa owners receive it, so just be aware of that.
www.mycasaincuba.com – for direct contact with casa owners
www.cuba-junky.com – great site for casas
Our Casas varied from the professional – complete with uniformed staff, to family homes with a few rooms. We loved nearly all – it was the people that made them so special. Of course it helps that we speak Spanish, but most had at least one English speaker and many spoke English very well – also, it’s amazing what can be achieved with sign language.
- Get around relatively simply
Most guidebooks advise you to use the Viazul bus, a tourist-oriented bus that runs to most major cities, is air-conditioned and can now be booked online (www.viazul.com). However, we found that demand mostly outstripped supply – we just couldn’t get tickets.
With six of us, booking private transfers proved almost as cost effective, and sometimes cheaper, especially as they picked us up from the door of one casa and deposited us in another. We booked private transfers through www.bestcubaguide.com and www.taxivinalescuba.com.
Both worked well, but in retrospect I think it was unnecessary. Instead, we should have relied on the fantastic network of taxi drivers with their 50-plus year old American cars that seat a family (even a family of six) comfortably. More fun, and more stylish. And much better pictures. But no seatbelts – just as well most of the other traffic is horses and Cubans don’t drive fast. There are horse-drawn taxis in the cities too (not put on for tourists, for everyone!)
- Remember the beaches
Cuba is an island, right – so when you’re fed up with seeing the sights (and children will find this wearing) there’s usually a beach you can head to with a quick taxi ride. We tried the beach just outside Cienfuegos, which was virtually empty but very clean, and the more popular beaches at Ancon – outside Trinidad, and Varadero, 40 minutes from Matanzas. All were lovely. Again, finding a taxi to take us there and back was no problem.
- Take a break from the internet.
Do not expect constant wifi in Cuba, unless you are staying in a five-star hotel. Instead, print out the confirmations from the casas that you are staying at (including their phone numbers, since you will need to call ahead to reconfirm your stay in many cases – the casa owner before is usually happy to do this for you). Also take a guidebook or three, even if you usually do without. We had the Lonely Planet and two more local guides (all on Kindle), which really helped.
When you do really need internet, there are hotspots outside in each city (spot the huddles of Cubans on their phones) but speeds are slow. You need to buy cards from state-telco Etecsa (two CUC an hour) which you can sometimes arbitrarily buy from posh hotels and sometimes have to queue for hours with half of Cuba. So buy plenty when you can- the posh hotels in Cienfuegos were the best for getting them with ease. And print out this – a list of every wifi hotspot and hotel offering the service in Cuba. Also, do warn people you won’t be in touch a lot, though internet in Cuba is improving fast.
- Do your money homework
Getting hold of money is tricky in Cuba, but not as tricky as you might believe. Do your homework. Cuba has a dual currency system at present. Tourists mostly pay in convertible pesos – which are worth about the same as a US dollar and are known as CUC. Locals mostly deal in non convertible pesos, known variously as Moneda Nacional or CUP. Confused yet? There are 22 or so CUP to the CUC so you need to know which currency your meals are priced in – or the surprise may be painful.
You can’t get CUC outside Cuba or take them out. Instead you can convert your cash at exchange places called Cadecas, or at the bank if you’ve got all the time in the world. You can also get money out of ATMs. Cadecas have long lines, and (at the time of writing) penalise you if you have US dollars. Pounds are fine, and Mexican pesos have a poor rate. We took pounds. If you want CUP, you can ONLY get them from Cadecas. They are good for street food and local restaurants, if you’re wondering why you’d need them.
ATMS work more reliably than we had expected but don’t rely on your Mastercard. Although there has been a lot of fanfare about the cards being unblocked for use in Cuba at the end of 2015, this doesn’t seem to have translated to any practical change on the ground. Hence the cautionary tale of the man my parents met on the plane who had to spent the whole of his time in an all-inclusive resort in Varadero booked through an agency once he arrived because he couldn’t get any money at all. He hated it. Don’t get caught out. Our Visa debits worked fine.
Also, just to warn you, they frequently close the Cadecas so they can fumigate them against Zika (something they are doing everywhere, weekly, so that we were constantly followed around by men with smoking blaster things) – which is frustrating if you need cash.
- Leave your foodie pretensions at home
Cuban food has apparently improved massively of late. However, Paris this ain’t. It is still very hard to get most type of produce and it takes a very talented chef to make the most of what’s there. Even if the chefs you meet are talented you will get sick of the following; eggs (all ways), rice, beans, fried bananas, and papaya – because it is ALWAYS papaya season…
Cuban pizza is very doughy, but the kids liked it. They also liked a lot of fried chicken and in a pinch would eat the always-available cheese sandwiches. There’s not a lot of spice, which is good for kids but may be bad for you – bad for us after months in chile-loving Mexico – take your own Tabasco. But you didn’t come to Cuba for the food, right? Some places in Havana were particularly excellent, including Castas Y Tal (Cuban Spanish fusion) and 5 Esquinas (for pizza). Most other places were standard fare done more or less well.
Portions were usually huge, particularly at breakfast. Always remember (and remind your kids) that pulling together a breakfast like that has probably taken your Casa owner hours when it comes to queuing for and finding ingredients. This will help you to be more appreciative when faced with yet another fried egg and the knowledge that there are no chips, (no potatoes) or limes (not the right season). Instead, it’s fried bananas again.
While I’m on the subject of food, there are shops that tourists can’t shop in. They are called Bodegas, and these are where Cubans can use their ration books (libretas). Anywhere else, you’re fine – though don’t expect there to be much available.
- Get off the beaten track
We didn’t remove ourselves much from the tourist trail – which is populated with older people – UK Saga tours and the German and French equivalents in the main I think. We went to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara and Matanzas – but that didn’t mean we couldn’t get away from the busyness.
In most places the centres are thronged with tour groups (particularly in Trinidad), but the crowds thin out quickly away from the centre. Find your own Cuba by getting lost and talking to the locals. It’s far more rewarding.
Sancti Spiritus was the least touristy place we visited– the central square at night was full of locals going to poetry readings and dancing to live music. Havana, too, is big enough that outside the very centre you can find your own space . Thankfully this is a country where culture isn’t put on for the tourists, so you don’t have to walk too far to find Cubans enjoying a great night out.
- Listen and interact
From playing Monopoly with a university professor (who’d learned the game from a clandestine set handed down by her grandmother) to discussing politics with the taxi drivers and doctors – most Cubans are keen to share their stories. They don’t all speak English though.
We watched, with some disbelief, the state English teaching on Cuban telly, which was teaching apparently common English subjunctive phrases including ‘Perish the Thought’, ‘God Save Our Merry Band’ and – perhaps most surreally – God Save the Alpacas. With teaching like this, you can see why a few words of Spanish will go a long way.
There’s no Peppa Pig, but the children can enjoy Cuban state telly, which seems to be mainly biopics of Hugo Chavez and long news programmes with few graphics (in lieu of a backdrop the news presenter was required to hold a baseball in his left hand during the sports news, to demonstrate what he was talking about). If you want to know what the weather is doing at home, forget it, as the forecast only covers Venezuela, Russia and other old allies – the sun always shines on the Socialists, it appears.
The Cubans have lived through astonishing times and have astonishing stories to tell. I can’t pretend to understand the conditions they live in, or the discrepancies caused by their dual monetary system (which led to doctors coming off their night shifts cooking our breakfast – because state-paid consultants earn the equivalent of $60 a MONTH for their work). But I know a little more than I did – and I asked a billion (badly grammatically phrased) questions. People were pleased to answer them.
So that’s Cuba. I hope I haven’t put you off. Will you love it? Well, that very much depends on your point of view. If beautiful decay is your thing, then you’ll adore it , but my Mum thinks it will be ‘nice when it’s finished’.
Whatever you think, you can’t go anywhere else like it. Drive down the main motorway of the country in a vintage car overtaking horses as you go, watch people dancing in the central square at night (and join in), and sample the remarkable community spirit that has got the Cuban people through decades of hardship.
Don’t expect to dip your toe into this particular river twice. The Americans are coming, and everything is about to change. Do consider that this may be your last chance to experience a country with no advertising (except propaganda), no Coca Cola (except the local sort, which is much better – it’s the cane sugar, apparently) and almost no violence – I’ve never felt so utterly safe at night.
Will change be a good thing? Again, it depends on your point of view. After all how can I, from the comfort of my western lifestyle, begrudge hard-working Cubans an easier ride?
But after another UK Budget (warning, soapbox alert) that neatly distributed cash away from the poor to the rich, and seems set to ruin the free education and health systems that are the jewels in the British crown – I can’t help thinking that the price of shiny new appliances and Coca Cola in every shop might turn out to be very high indeed for Cuba, just as it is for us.
Rather like the British public, the Cubans might found out that they didn’t know what they had till it’s gone for good. And (with apologies, once again, to Joni Mitchell) paradise it may not be, but the world doesn’t need any more parking lots.
Hasta la victoria siempre (as they say). Towards victory, always.