I spent two weeks in Cuba in 2017. It was the first South American country I have ever visited. Alright, but why Cuba? I have been always fascinated with this Caribbean island where time has stopped, and Havana was on the top of my list of places to see. Here is a short photo story to give you a brief look at Cuba with a few trips ideas and some observations based on my personal experience.
IS CUBA STILL WORTH VISITING?
I have heard many times that the best time to visit Cuba was before 2015 and this place is changing rapidly and losing its uniqueness due to tourist’s bad influence. The “real” Cuba is gone forever or will be gone soon, some travellers complain.
Although it is hard to argue that the tourism industry keeps spoiling many countries and it makes people greedy, all the other changes make the people of Cuba more free and more independent. Not yet wealthy, but finally some of them have a chance to escape poverty by starting their own businesses (even if incomes are controlled by the government).
It is still a long way for Cuba to democracy and normality, but I was happy to see the slowly opening box with opportunities. Therefore people complain that Cuba is losing its uniqueness are really complaining that Cuban nation is getting more rights and is chasing a better life. They are disappointed because seeing poor people living simple lives was supposed to be an attraction for them. They do not want to see too many tourists, foreign investments and new cars. I’m not sure if it is their ignorance or just lack of ability to see the bigger picture?
THE BIGGEST ATTRACTION IN CUBA
Arguably the biggest attraction in Cuba is the country’s capital city, Havana. I went there with high expectations and I must admit that they were met and probably exceeded!
Havana has a very beautiful, renovated part for tourists, full of cafes and restaurants. It is called Havana Vieja. Historic squares or buildings are literally shining during the day and glowing at night. I found this part of the city… the least interesting. It is simply too similar to other cities I’ve seen in Spain or different parts of Europe.
The most fascinating, unique and intriguing – in a completely other way – is Havana Central. I spent hours there walking around the streets, often watching ruined places, abandoned houses and real people who live there. It is a shame that authorities do not even try to save these buildings. Hopefully they will before it is too late. These areas of Havana cannot be missed for the experience, local life, fantastic bars and cafes and authenticity. What to visit in Cuba outside Havana?
WHAT TO SEE IN CUBA OTHER THAN HAVANA?
You will find some recommendations based on my itinerary below. Obviously there are many more places and areas worth visiting in Cuba, but due to limited time I could not manage to see all of them.
Trinidad is a charming, picturesque town over 300 km on the south from Havana. Sightseeing, wandering around colourful streets and exploring a nightlife in restaurants and cafes with live music is recommended. Trinidad is a touristy town and I usually avoid them, but for me it was touristy in a pleasent Cuban way!
From there you can easily get to Ancón Peninsula. This is a great place to get some relaxation on beautiful and mostly empty beaches with crystal clear water. I actually cycled to Ancón from Trinidad, passing many beaches and some small villages.
Guanayara National Park is yet another stunning and pretty quiet place for nature lovers near Trinidad. Hire a driver who would take you there in a vintage car! You can trek in a wild forest to see the magnificent El Rocio waterfall, among other waterfalls, cascades and small lakes. A trek to Salto De Caburni mountain is also recommended. Do not hesitate if you are not an experienced trekker – paths are easy, not too steep and perfect for beginners.
Playa Larga should satisfy ocean lovers and travellers who wants to hire an accommodation on the beach. This area has also some good diving and snorkeling spots. From Playa Larga I took an excursion to Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, which is a huge attraction for bird watchers. The park is only accessible by jeep with guides hired in the tourist office. You will see flamingos, among many other birds, in their natural environment!
Viñales National Park is a stunning destination that more active travellers will find quite enjoyable. If you like walking, horse riding or cycling around hills and Tobacco fields, this place must be on your itinerary.
From Viñales I took a bus to Guanahacabibes Peninsula, a paradise for nature and animal lovers. I enjoyed the guide tour on beautiful wild coast to spot iguanas, alligators, and even some tiny hummingbirds! Guanahacabibes was a very quiet, little visited place but perhaps it has changed now due to a new bus connection with Viñales.
While being in Guanahacabibes I decided to chill two days in María la Gorda. It is a government-run resort by the sea in rather remote part of the island. The best years are far gone but somehow this place still pretends that nothing has changed in the last few decades. Communist-ish customer service seems to be funny in the beginning, but for me was rather frustrating after a while. Perhaps it is worth going there if you are a fan of snorkeling or diving, as it is one of the best spots for these sports in Cuba which offers great snorkeling sights straightfrom the shore!
CUBAN PEOPLE KNOW HOW TO SOCIALIZE AND ENJOY LIFE
Cuba is a country where people for obvious reasons do not have a wide access to the internet and are not up to date with modern technology. Instead of staring at the screens, they actually spend time with each other, socialize, go out or party in their homes every night. They are constantly playing rhythmic music, dancing and simply chilling! It is important to state that music you hear in the streets of Cuba is mostly Latin. I love that vibe! If you hear songs that you know from Western radio stations, they come most likely from tourists.
All of the above will certainly change in years to come but again – technology itself is not something bad, it’s societies who misuse it and choose gadgets over interactions with other human beings. Perhaps Cubans, once they will become a more democratic country and catch up, will be smarter than us?
Good company, nice food, rum and loud music… It’s a simple things in life we treasure, right? Cuban people seem to understand that very well, despite being poor and controlled by the government. They want to be happy as everyone else and they do not need much to achieve that, even if they are not satisfied with the standard of their lives. For that ability I envy them.
HAVING A RIDE IN A VINTAGE CAR IN CUBA IS A MUST
This is obviously one of the biggest attractions in Cuba even for people like me, who are not at all interested in the motor industry. Therefore tourists pay a lot of money for expensive rides around Havana in beautiful, shiny vintage vehicles. This is a mistake that I would consider as a tourist trap.
If only you want to leave Havana and discover more places outside, you will need to hire a vintage car anyway due to lack of other (reliable) options. You can find them by “taxi” sign or a piece of paper with the destination in the window or you can simply ask a random driver and negotiate the route and price. Usually they want a full car to go, so be prepared to travel with strangers (but you share the cost, so it’s cheaper!).
Another option is to hire the entire car for yourself for the full day and then the driver will go wherever you want. You may also book them in advance, so next morning there will be a car waiting for you at your accommodation.
That way you will enjoy the ride in a vintage car for less money and with some surprises. These cars belong usually to private people and may not be in the best shape. Be prepared for holes in the floor, driver using a screwdriver to open the window or seats with no foam left. Sounds like an adventure? It must be an adventure then! Also, it is much cheaper than arguably lame drive in a fully renovated car in Havana.
IS FOOD IN CUBA REALLY THAT BAD?
Before I went to Cuba I was reading in many sources that local food is terrible due to lack of ingredients, spices and good chefs. At some point I was just expecting to eat rice every day with some greasy sauces and maybe some tropical fruits. This is not what happened.
Everywhere I went I could easily find some decent food to choose from. Cubans have pancakes or rolls, coffee, fruits, fruits and even more fruits for their breakfast. Fish, seafood or chicken for dinner? No problem. There are even some hipster cafes and fancy bars or restaurants. The sad truth is that the majority of Cuban people cannot afford to eat in those places (although they work there), which hopefully will change some day. If you go to a local diner for Cubans you may not get the best dish, but the vibe and authenticity will be rewarding.
Cuban people may not have the best cuisine in the world, but they definitely have the best rum cocktails!!! Daiquiris and Mohitos are delicious but for me Piña Coladas were mind blowing! I found it interesting that people who can afford eating and drinking out, usually order “boring” local beer. They explained to me that everyone knows how to make an amazing cocktail at home, which is not an option with beer!
12 QUICK FACTS – THE REALITY OF CUBA:
1. Time has stopped in Cuba due to the U.S. embargo (fully effective since 1962) and decades of communism regime which both had a devastating impact on the economy.
2. Before the embargo almost 100% of Cuban exports came from the USA. Due to restrictions Cuba gained a partnership with the USSR but when soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, the country was in its biggest crisis.
3. After 2008 several restrictions were loosened in Cuba. Now people can own mobile phones, farmers have rights to own the land (which opens possibilities to foreign non-US investors), American tourists can “unofficially” visit Cuba and Cubans can go abroad (although it is very expensive) to list the most important.
4. Cuba has a world class and free healthcare and education systems. Thousands of Cuban doctors work worldwide and the country is known for effective cancer treatment.
5. However, there is a shortage of modern equipment and very low salaries in the medical sector. While doctors can earn around $30 per month, they decide to move or have an extra shift in the tourism industry, among many other qualified professionals from other sectors.
6. Music concerts, art venues and other cultural events are very cheap or totally free, so everyone can have easy access.
7. Homelessness does not exist in Cuba. About 85% of citizens own their own houses, unfortunately the majority of them are in deplorable condition with furniture decades old. Rents do not exceed 4% of the tenant’s income.
8. Despite extremely low incomes and empty shelves in shops, there is no starvation due to a very basic government’s food rations assisted monthly to all Cubans.
9. Cubans are very resourceful, looking for incomes from alternative sources, trades or borrowing from each other. They are also kind and hospitable, however eventually they will see and treat you as a potential buyer and source of an extra income (and I do not blame them for that).
10. I have noticed that Cuba is a very safe country, also for solo travellers and women. Crime is supposed to be on a very low level.
11. There are two currencies: CUC for tourists and Peso for locals. 1 CUC = 25 Pesos. In practice, tourists pay several times more compared to locals.
12. Although there are foreign hotels in Cuba, the best way to experience the country is to stay in Casa Particulars (homestays or B&B). They provide home made food and drinks. If interested, they will help with bike rentals, horse ridings, guide services, coffee or cigars to buy etc.
If you decide to go to Cuba for your next vacation, you may find these articles from Nomaddiction and The Conversation very helpful. In addition I recommend a great documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman” available on Netflix in selected countries.
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