Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Cuba, Cuba, Cuba….where do we begin.

After some last minute flight planning in Ecuador we secured a one way flight to Havana from Ecuador via Panama, hurrah!
So arriving from Quito we were a little unprepared with what was required to travel to Cuba in terms of information, day to day cost and cash requirements. The reality of travelling for the last 4 months often detracts from future planning. Cuba is NOT the place for backpackers and is NOT the place to just arrive with no GBP, EUR or Canadian dollars in cash. We did arrive into Havana with no substantial currency to exchange apart from some trusty emergency USD (due to being in Ecuador) so we did assume there would be at least 1 cash machine that would take our cards!!!! No such luck.
Cuba is still living very much as a socialist/communist society and tourism is not overly prevalent, and where possible Fidel Castro takes lengths to keep it separate from local activities. Getting out cash is made extremely difficult and VERY expensive as most of the banking infrastructure we take for granted is American owned…not good for a country who don’t want to deal with Americans and vice versa and have trading restrictions in place!
Anyhow, we spent the first 2 days completely flabbergasted that the only option we had was to take cash off our Mastercard (NO Maestro or Cirrus Debit cards accepted) and get charged not only from our bank for cash withdrawal but 12% from the Cuban government as well. So the exchange rate for us was 1GBP to 1 Cuban Peso convertibles (tourist currency) once you took out all the charges we were hit with for not having brought cash. Lesson number 1!
So once we got over the fact that Cuba was so expensive (which took us a lot of time and deep breathing) we decided to do the resort all inclusive package deal in one of the nicest beaches - Varadero as it worked out cheaper than any other way to travel.
Package deals are typically not our thing and we must say that we won’t be jumping at the chance for another one too soon, anyhow we did book for 7 days which consists of buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner and all you could drink…including cocktails.
The days consisted of swimming, reading, sunbaking, eat (average to very bad food) and a small amount of exercise and the evening shows of dancing and singing. The highlight for us was meeting a great group of Frenchies that we spent most of our time hanging with and playing volleyball. They were so much fun and it was nice to speak to people that were under the age of 60 from Germany as these places are mostly packed with these people.
We were well and truly ready to move on when the day came. We booked a bus to Trinidad where we spent the next 5 days.
Trinidad is historically picturesque with its cobbled stones, old churches, plazas, local dancing and horse and carts as one of the main transports for businesses.
We were lucky to have stayed in a beautiful casa particular (rooms rented in family homes) it was a stunning 6 bedroom home with high ceilings, European architecture, fishpond in the middle and life size statues of Mary. The house has been in the family from day 1. The family originally had 9 properties in Cuba before the government reduced property ownership to one per family. Three generations were currently living in the house and the Grandma would make us breakfast most mornings of scrambled eggs, mango juice, fruit salad and fresh pot of coffee…YUM. For dinner we would have traditional Cuban food of chicken, rice and salad and one night we had lobster…nice but still not as good as Australia (naturally!).
The plan for Trinidad was to hire a car for a day and take drive around the country side but nothing so far had gone to plan so either was this. We were finally getting to understand the Cuban mentality a little more and were ready for anything…so we thought. Off we went to check out what car hire choices we had, as it happens there was only one. Government run Cuban Car Hire…this didn’t really surprise us but what did was the fact that no one in the 3 offices could offer us a car, today, tomorrow or the day after for that fact as no one knew when there would be a car available. We couldn’t believe this was the case so every morning we would go again and see if there was a car, but to no avail. We had met another 2 girls traveling Cuba (there were not many non Cubans in Trinidad) so they also helped us try to make this happen. Eventually we found a man willing to chauffeur us in his car for the day around the Trnidad region - Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. We started by driving through the Escambray Mountains, had coffee at the Rio Negro view point and saw the Che Guevara Monument and revolution memorial museum that was erected 20 years after the revolution when Che’s remains were returned from Bolivia……Your impression of Cuba when you see Che’s pictures plastered everywhere is that everyone must love him with many people having his tattoo on their arm, and it appears they do but his use as a military/political symbol is strong which to us failed to symbolize freedom but rather an oppressive government.
Cienfuegos (named after another military revolution figurehead) is listed by UNESCO but we didn’t think much of it, just another basic town with basic facilities. We spent lunch there having read how beautiful it was but were bitterly disappointed with the town and very much the food. We ate the worst meal EVER.(see picture)
The day overall was good, certainly nothing to brag about but it was nice to see some more of Cuba and get out of town as were really starting to feel trapped and counting down the days. Cuba really makes you feel completely isolated from the rest of the world. (little to no internet, newspapers, phones, own opinions, etc.)
Due to the swine flu we hadn’t’ booked our flight out of Cuba prior to arrival. Everyday things were changing with flight restrictions (Fidel didn’t want Cuban Air flying to Mexico), therefore everyday we would go into the agency and were told to come back tomorrow when they would know more. It worked out that only 4 days to go and we still didn’t have a flight out. Panic started to set in as Cubana Air and Mexicana were no longer flying to Mexico so they were no help to us. We ended up emailing trusty travel agent Michelle in London and got her to get us a flight out of Cuba….and fast. She did succeed in this at a fair expense but we were well and truly used to being robbed of our money in Cuba.
Due to the cost of Cuba we only spent time in Varadero, Trinidad and surrounds and back to Havana to fly out. Having another 2 days at the end of the trip in Havana, it was great as we knew our way around and got to see things we didn’t see the first 2 days.
Havana is packed with Mango trees, Tropical palms, vintage cars consisting of Chevrolet, Lada (Russian - mainly taxi’s), Fords and pretty much any other car that was built before 1950. It really is what makes Havana as well as Cuba so unique. People in Havana are generally friendly but have little interest in helping or going out of their way to help. They love their Cuban music and dancing which was great. We had a night in a local bar where there were some great bands and locals getting up dancing and singing. Rations are still used in Cuba so it was common to see people lining up for the weekly…tough to see and in Cuba you really do feel people are poor. We gave a lot of our clothes away, unlike other countries that receive aid, you really notice these people don’t receive it nor have the chance to earn money that is not government owned.
For us Cuba was one of the hardest countries to have travelled, due to a few reasons, being a backpacker, coming from a capitalist society where almost everything is possible and people are able to express their opinion, animal welfare and having few choices in most things. Having said this, looking back we were lucky to have experienced a culture that we have not experienced before and appreciate the society we live in.
If you are ever thinking of going to Cuba, we suggest you book everything through a travel agency prior to arrival, have as much cash on you before you arrive and don’t use CC at all if possible, be prepared for traveling in a militaristic government controlled country, leave behind your culinary preferences and be prepared to be harassed daily by the locals for cigars, money, food amongst other things. On a positive note Cuba is one of the safest places to visit as getting caught for stealing, robbing or violence can and will certainly lead you to jail. Additionally, Havana truly is a vibrant city with lots of quirky historical pieces and music culture that make it unique.

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