I arrived in Havana with no idea of what I was going to experience, only to expect the unexpected. First impressions of the airport were interesting to say the least, the baggage claim decided it didn’t want to work for over 40 minutes and the bathrooms were not up to a Western standard. However I decided to take all of this in my stride and write it off as a Cuba-ism – where there are ‘no problems – only situations’. Thankfully there was a driver waiting for me with an Intrepid sign; as I arrived at midnight I was very thankful for a nice clean bed and a good night sleep.
As has been true for most of my trips since I’ve been in Flight Centre, the first traveller I meet is a fellow Flightie so we get chatting over breakfast about first impressions of Cuba. Lauren had just come off a week sailing around Cuba so was now doing the land based part.
Roaming around Havana didn’t feel intimidating at all, the souvenir sellers were respectful and left me alone after a ‘No, Gracias’ combined with a smile. The streets and buildings are bit dingy but colours are amazing and the locals genuinely wanted just to have a chat with me – ‘Oh you are from Australia, Skippy!’. After getting a few souvenirs (rum), an intriguing insight into the History of the Cuban Revolution at the Museo de Revolution and a few refreshments (more rum), I met up with the rest of the group to go over the basics of the tour and grab some dinner as well as a few more delicious cocktails (again, rum).
The next day (with a few sore heads), we started our long driving day from Havana to Trinidad. We stopped in Santa Clara for lunch and to visit the Che Guevara Mausoleum. Santa Clara is a beautiful city in the centre of Cuba with a lot of history relating to the Cuban Revolution, and a central park where music is played and the locals catch up for a drink and a game of dominos. Unfortunately the mausoleum was closed due to a power outage (a frequent occurrence) but the view was spectacular over the Villa Clara province. Our group arrived fairly late into Trinidad, so we just had dinner and hit the hay.
Our first full day in Trinidad was spectacular, bussing out to Sancti Spíritus to admire the spectacular view of central Cuba and to get some pictures for the ‘gram. Whilst the view was magnificent over Embalse Zaza, the highlight was the fruit-seller who had a very friendly pet Tarantula that the girls were more than happy to get photos with. After being scared silly by our new 8-legged friend, we headed back on the bus to Parque Natural Topes de Collantes – a beautiful nature reserve park with hiking trails, waterfalls and scenic views. After a refreshing sugar-cane juice (made even better with a splash of rum) we hiked 2 ‘Cuban’ Kilometres (about 3.5 actual kilometres according to my Fitbit) to Salto Vega Grande waterfall. A refreshing swim and another 500 photos for the ‘gram later, we hiked back up to the bus and were off to the beach for a true Cuban experience, rum-tasting.
The beach was not as pristine as the photos had me believe, but having a bar on the beach was an absolute necessity after a long day and the ocean was a beautiful temperature. We tried 3 different types of rum (silver, gold and dark) discovering the differences between each and the effects of 3+ full shots of rum on the body after strenuous exercise. After a disco nap, dinner and a few more drinks (you guessed it, rum) we headed off to the best party in Trinidad: a nightclub in a cave.
After a few days in Trinidad, we were back on the bus for the long drive to the Western tip of Cuba and the town of Viñales. With the weather being as beautiful as it could be, we were able to stop at the famous Bay of Pigs. As well as being home to one of the most famous failed invasions in history, it is also home to snorkelling and diving with pristine reef and aquatic life galore. There is a small museum nearby with artefacts from the invasion and a unique perspective on the Cuban side of this military fiasco; sadly we weren’t able to go with the time constraints. After more hours through the spectacular scenery of Central and Western Cuba, we finally arrived in our destination.
Viñales Valley is one of the main areas in Cuba for agriculture and tobacco growing, and a great way to get some very cheap yet very good cigars. The valley surrounding it was picturesque, with limestone cliffs and grassy knolls surrounding the lush fields of tobacco and crops. We explored a tobacco farm; discovering the full process of how the tobacco is grown, cured and then rolled in beautiful cigars.
Havana welcomed us with open arms after a few days relaxing in Viñales, where we discovered more of the turbulent history of Cuba, visiting the Havana Cathedral, Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and the Plaza De La Revolucion. However, my favourite by far was the collection of classic American cars gathered at the Plaza from the 50’s and 60’s. These beauty’s are seemingly kept alive by the spirit of the local people, with no official spare parts available due to the USA embargo they have used some inventive methods to keep them on the road. The locals take great pride in the cars, with many using them as private tour vehicles for tourists but are more than happy for you to take photos and chat about their pride and joy.
Cuba left me with many impressions: rum is not an alcohol but a way of life, there are no problems – only situations and that driving rules are more considered guidelines than actual laws. Most importantly it showed me the spirit of the Cuban people: an amazingly positive group that are inventive and never let the outside view of their country get in the way of welcoming every tourist with genuine warmth.
Tips and tricks:
True to form, Cuba is very different to the rest of the world. There aren’t many hotels (the vast majority are government owned) so the main form of accommodation are Casas Particulares – privately owned and government regulated homestays. These range from very basic to quite fancy, but are unique and your hosts are always a great source of information. You can book most of these through Airbnb and similar websites!
- There are two official currencies in Cuba: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP). Some of the notes and coins can look similar so make sure when you are getting change you check the currency!
- Convertible Peso is the currency most tourists will experience, it is tied to the US Dollar at a 1 to 1 rate (1 CUC = 1 USD)
- Tourists may get Cuban Pesos in regional areas, 1 CUC ~ 25 CUP depending on the exchange rate
- You will need your passport when exchanging currency, it is recommended to take out Canadian Dollars or Euros to exchange into CUC as US Dollars attract a 10% government tariff when exchanging
- US based credit and debit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba (includes all American Express and Westpac cards). Visa and MasterCard’s are usually accepted, depending on the issuing bank, it’s recommended to bring multiple cards from different banks just in case
Internet is heavily regulated by the government; you can only find paid access points in public squares and high-class hotels. To access the internet you will need an ETECSA card (from the telecommunication centres), prices are currently at 1 CUC per hour and you can buy multiple cards for however long you need the internet for.
Food in Cuba can be a bit hit and miss, embargos from the USA mean that there are often shortages on key ingredients so restaurants have to make do with alternatives.