What I would have done differently in Cuba

I had a blast in Cuba. I fell in love with this beautiful country. Before I went I had read a lot about this country. But it is ever changing, especially now, and you can’t be prepared for everything. There are a few things I would definitely do differently if I would go again.I felt like I was super prepared for certain things and not prepared enough for other.

Mi casa es su casa…

Take casas for example. I had no clue what it would be like and had booked accommodation in the first three places I visited. This was completely unnecessary. It worked out for Vinales, but then I was stuck to my accommodation in Havana, where I really wanted to change it. After Havana nothing was booked and even though I managed to find places everywhere, I think I could have found better places if I’d put some effort into it beforehand.

So don’t book accommodation ahead. It might be nice to have something for your first destination, when you are tired from travelling, but you are fine without planning too much otherwise. There is a casa around every corner! If you book accommodation ahead you might be paying double the price of what you could have negotiated on the spot. Only book ahead if you absolutely want to stay in a certain casa and are not on a budget. The advantage of booking ahead is that some casa owner will walk to the bus stop to meet you there. I had a lovely experience with this in Vinales. If you don’t book ahead, there are two things you can do:

Option 1: As soon as you hop off your bus you’ll be greeted by a bunch of people holding signs with accommodation or asking you if you know where you are going. Often these are the people that have new casas or haven’t had enough people stay with them yet. You can always go with them to check the place out and decline politely if it doesn’t live up to your expectations. Before you walk off with them, make sure you know what they are offering and for what price. It also helps to know which area they are taking you to and if you can walk there.

Option 2: Just ignore all those people shouting at you and keep walking. As soon as you see a casa you like (they all advertise being a casa on their front door or gates) knock on the door and enquire about prices. If the price suits, they’ll be happy to show you the room. Shop around until you find something you like. It might take you a bit longer, but you’ll probably get the best deal.

My advice is to do a little bit of research. Have a list handy of accommodation options you liked from guidebooks, heard about from other travellers or trip advisor. Also, know which area you want to stay in and if you need a taxi to get there. This way you are not stuck to anything yet, you can negotiate about the price and find a good match for you.

Food at the casa in Vinales. And this was only one of the dishes!

Food at the casa in Vinales. And this was only one of the dishes!

Food

Eat at your casa frequently. I’ve had great dishes in restaurants, but I’ve also had some pretty average food. In some places there just wasn’t a lot of choice and I wish I would have eaten in my casa. Every casa owner will do it and often they ask if you would like to eat there. You often get a choice of what meat or fish you would like that evening. You can be sure that it’s tasty and you will try things you might not get in a restaurant. Also, dinner at a casa is a lot of food! Drinks are usually not included so bring your own if you would like a cheap drink.
Find peso (CUP) places, especially if you like hamburgers and pizza. I found having a few CUPs very handy for things like snacks. In some towns you could get nice nut bars and pastries at little stalls in the streets. You’ll also find popcorn and ice cream sold from people’s windows. It is much cheaper than the supermarket and it’s a bit more adventurous! I read a lot of blogs where people live from the cheap pizzas you find everywhere, but I wouldn’t recommend that. If you are on a very tight budget you can save a lot of money, but you also miss out on a piece of Cuba: its food! You may have read the food is not that tasty, but I’ve had some delicious meals!

Dinner in the casa in Baracoa

Dinner in the casa in Baracoa

Activities

Cuba has so much to offer and a lot of it is free! Just wandering through towns is like walking through a gigantic museum. Some things you have to pay for, so really think about if it is worth it or not. I ended up walking to the Cristobal Colon cemetery in Havana, only to find out they charge a 5CUC entry fee. It’s a nice place to explore, but not for 5CUC! In Havana you can also visit the La Cabana fortress. I was a bit disappointed with this as well. It’s a place with a gorgeous view over Havana, but other than that there was nothing to see. There were no exhibitions or anything. After 6PM they add another 2CUC to the price too. I found prices were very easily changed anyway. We entered quite a few places where the price had suddenly gone up. Also, always check if there is a way you can do an activity by arranging something with the local taxi drivers.
For more ideas on where to go and what to do, check out Cuba, making an itinerary.

The cemetery

The cemetery

Travel guide

In Cuba the tourist information is minimal. Sometimes you can get a map at the local information office and you can book tours, but that’s about it. Where I would usually turn to google, this is an expensive and time consuming thing in Cuba. So do yourself a favour and buy a guidebook before you go. I had done quite a bit of research and thought this would be enough. When our plans changed a bit, it turned out it would have been great to have a guidebook. I ended up taking photos of other people’s guidebooks so I’d have the information. just keep in mind that even the most recent guidebook is probably outdated, especially when it comes to prices. Another thing that is useful is downloading maps of Cuba onto your phone before you go.

And the first beer I see is actually Dutch

And the first beer I see is actually Dutch

Budgeting

I thought I’d done a great job budgeting and in the end I made the full trip within my budget. Cuba can be done on a budget as a backpacking trip, although it is not super cheap. The one thing I underestimated is the money you need for drinks. A bottle of water costs between 1 and 3 CUC and even though a pina colada can be only 2CUC, after a few of them it all adds up.
Think about what you want to spend for food and accommodation before you go and stick to it. Find a good deal for a casa and negotiate. Get some of the CUP currency and eat snacks or lunch at local places to save money. Restaurant prices are not cheap. You pay 10-15CUC for a meal in an average restaurant. Eating at your casa can often be cheaper, around 7-10CUC. You can also try to find the snackbar type restaurants that often do sandwiches and pasta dishes for 3-5CUC.

Yeah, all this water adds up

Yeah, all this water adds up

Spending your CUPs

  • Ferry in Havana 1CUP
  • Ice cream 2-6CUP
  • Cuban brand/home made pop 5CUP
  • Hamburger 10CUP
  • Pan con chorizo 5CUP
  • Lemonade 1CUP
  • Chocolate 3CUP
  • Mueslibar 5CUP
  • Pineapple 15CUP

Spending your CUCs

  • Casa 15-35CUC
  • Water 0,70-1,50CUC
  • Crackers from supermarket 3-5CUC
  • Bread 0,25-1CUC
  • Refresco nacional (Cuban pop) 1-2CUC
  • Rum cocktail 1,50-3CUC
  • Dinner at restaurant 8-18CUC
  • Cheap eats/lunch 3-7CUC
Always a good feeling to hold all these notes

Always a good feeling to hold all these notes

Transport

Next time I would like to use some more adventurous modes of transport. You can take a train or a truck that transports people. It is much cheaper to travel this way and also a more unique experience. It is however more uncomfortable, but so were the collectivo taxis I’ve been in. If the bus time is not too awkward I would recommend bus over collectivo. I’ve only had one collectivo that was actually comfortable! If the bus station is well out of town, a collectivo is a good way to get from door to door though. We had the rule that the collectivo could not cost more than 3CUC on top of the bus ticket. You can find more about transport here.

So yeah, travelling in Cuba I came across some challenges. I could have done some things differently to have a more relaxed or better experience. At the same time it was all a bit adventure and however you do it, it will be something you won’t easily forget.

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