In 2013, one week before my flight to Cancún and eventually to Havana, I got so sick that ended up canceling my ticket and I’m glad I did. More than four years later, I finally made it and was actually happy I didn’t rush going in 2013 because I got to explore the country more in depth now that I speak better Spanish. If you know me at all, you know that Central/South America has always been so dear to my heart. Cuba is my 9th Latin country and going there felt like going home in a way. But Cuba is not just any other Latin country, it’s one of the kind and it made me feel like traveling back in time. This post breaks down all activities I did during my 10 days in Cuba.
Día 1 -¡Hola Cuba!
My partner and I landed soundly at Havana’s José Martí international airport. It’s a small airport and we didn’t have any check-in baggage so the getting out didn’t take much time. The first thing we did upon exiting the airport was exchanging money. The process was rather simple, the rate was 1euro to 1.12CUC. (By the way, CUC is currency for tourist / luxurious item and CUP is the national currency, 1 CUC = 25 CUP).
Knowing that the official taxi costs some 25-30CUC, we tried to look for a more economical alternative. We have read on an online guide that shared taxi or taxi colectivo is an option. However, at the airport it wasn’t easy to find one that’d ride to close to Habana Vieja where our Airbnb is at. The public bus had already stopped running by the time we arrived so we had no chance to verify if they’d actually be an option for the tourists. We ended up splitting acab with a group of three semi locals. I say semi because not everyone was Cuban. The Cuban guy who was in charge of calling the taxi told us that the taxi would cost 20CUC and that we split in half. We arrived to the airbnb/hostel to Osniel (Cubans have interesting names, not so typical hispanic) and his family who are very friendly hosts. Along the rising waves of tourists, many casa particulares or local houses are now official accommodations in addition to hotels, resorts and a few hostels available and more affordable too! We only booked the place for one night but ended up staying two nights. The place was clean and the neighborhood was authentic. We had a chat with the hosts rested up.
Día 2 – Havana
We had breakfast at home for 3CUC (omelette, bread, butter, AMAZING guava juice and coffee). Every house will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner as additional services. By the way, I did my best to journal (almost) every meal I had in Cuba.
My task for the day is to find internet because I need to summit a report I did for a freelance project. And as you should have guessed, there was no internet at the hostel which was common. You want Wifi, you pay for a Wifi card and then go to a specific spot in town in order to have access to the internet. The process was a lot more time consuming than what we expected. The line was long and moved slowly. The place sells WiFi cards but is not a WiFi hub itself. We waited for half an hour to our turn. We was advised to not buy 5-hour cards because if the Internet is lagging you might not be able to log out and thus would waste the time you don’t actually use. So we bought five one-hour cards and paid 1CUC for each. It’s like an old phone card where you have to scratch the silver covered part where the log in password reveals. Anyway, although it took a while, I did everything I needed to.
The second purchase I made was a hat for 4CUC after haggling, of course, in the Mercado de Artesanía on Avenida del Puerto because I forgot mine and because Cuban sun burns heartlessly (doesn’t matter if it’s November because winter in the Caribbean is somewhat non-existential). This market is probably the best bet to buy souvenirs. It has a large art collection of different styles and sizes if you’re planning to buy a painting or two ranged anywhere from a few cuc to a few hundreds cuc. Many are commercialized cheap paintings, others are very intricate and original.
We went for lunch at a low key high quality local restaurant called Doña Alicia that we had been recommended by our airbnb host. It was a very interesting experience, there was a ventallita for taking orders and receiving food. There were a few stools to sit down but a lot of people do takeaway including bringing their own containers. We had grilled shrimps, stir-fried ground beef, fried plátano and two plates of rice and beans for 5 CUC which is a bit less than 5 euros. The value was so unbeatable that we kept coming back!
After the meal we went for a tip-based walking tour, meeting point at Calle San Rafael and Consulado. Notice how I didn’t call it “free”, I never left not tipping so yeah, nada es gratis! I chose Spanish over English because the group was smaller and more personal. The guide was pro-revolution and refused to comment so much about the government. He explained how it functions on a basic level and ignored all my questions regarding to his personal intake about voting and elections. Well, it seemed familiar to me coming from Vietnam so I couldn’t blame the guy.
We went to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, most expensive investment we’d had in Cuba thus far. 7 CUC for taxi each way, again after haggling. The entrance of 8 CUC caught us off guard. Meanwhile, the locals pay 8 CUP which is 25 times less which somehow very “reasonable” for the government; and to keep things “transparent and fair”, let us also have two types of currency! I mean, what other choices we had, pretending we’re locals for cheaper price? So was the cannon firing worth it at the end? No, unfortunately it wasn’t. The salutation in Malta is a lot more impressive and it costs nothing.
Día 3 – Viñales
We made two Spanish friends Fran and Elisa during the walking tour who were also headed to Viñales (180km westward from Havana) on a rented car so we tagged along. It happened to be on the Sunday that daylight saving started (or ended – I never seem to make out how it works) and the clock is shifted one hour backwards, in other words we had an extra hours to sleep and meeting hour was a bit mismatched but it all worked out at the end.
The Cuban highways weren’t all smooth but in decent conditions and had little traffic. We arrived in Viñales in the afternoon, Fran and Elisa checked in their already booked homestay. Hilario and I went to Casa de Ernesto y la China, the house recommended by our previous host and located on a small hill. Wow! What a view we had, our room was right by the balcony so we literally woke up to beeeautiful clouds draping on mountains, worth every dime of the 20 CUC/night we paid for a room of technically 4 pax but split between two. Best stay in Cuba yet!
We had lunch at Olivo which was unfortunately not so impressive, in my opinion. Okay to be fair it wasn’t bad, it was just… forgettable and definitely not worth the hype and the price. To make up for it, we had dinner at a lowkey local restaurant cost 3,5 CUC. We finally tried this traditional dish called ropa viaja, which is literally translated to old clothes in English, and really like the shredded meat and pepper combination.
We took advantage of the daylight we had left and made a stop at the Mural de la Prehistoria in the Valley of the Two Sisters (Valle de Dos Hermanas) but didn’t enter. 3 CUC was a ripoff; plus, you could already see everything from outside. It’s basically a mural… of giant dinosaurs on a big rocky cliff, I really don’t have better words to describe it. The highlight for me was the small relaxing hike afterward to a mirador (a panoramic viewpoint) nearby as we chased the sunset. I couldn’t be more complacent.
At night we went to check out this fabulous salsa bar called Centro Cultural Polo Montañez (1 CUC for tourist to enter) where people played live music and danced all night long! Like many places in Cuba, Viñales is filled with good music and good vibes in every corner!
Día 4 – Viñales
Exploring day!!! There are many options for you to do in Viñales and surrounding valleys and beach towns. We four each got a bike at 8 CUC which was expensive but we failed bargaining this time. On our way to the Indio Cave (Cueva de Indio), Elisa fell off her bike and got hurt so we first went to the closest medical center which was a maternity clinic but they didn’t have the necessary medicines to treat the wounds so Elisa and Franc had to go to a bigger hospital. We departed from each other from there as Hilario and I continued the journey. The road was narrow and filled with frequent trucks and tourist buses but the scenery was rewarding enough. The entrance ticket to the cave was 5 CUC for tourists (and you guess it, 25 times less for the locals at 5 CUP), boat ride included. However, we chose not to do it because it looked very average and Vietnam has some stunning caves.
I got back the WiFi spot trying to call to the US for my second round of job interview with an industrial company (my first round was at the representative office in Spain). Skype couldn’t be connected so I had to call landline from a local Cuban cellphone. 1 minute costs 1 CUC and I ended up paying 18 CUC (the guy did who lent me his phone show me how his credit got deducted). The interview went well I thought. They said they only wanted to get to know a bit of the candidates’ personalities on the phone.
Elisa has gotten better so we biked to the Silent Valley (Valle de Silencio). We could only admire the sunset on the road because it was already the dark by the time we got there and boy, it was faaar from silent. The rest stop cafe was banging regaeton music like there’s no tomorrow. So that’s that.
Día 5 – Bay of Pigs
Travel day! We departed from Viñales and arrived at Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) five hours later (350km from Viñales). We stayed at Casa Silvia & Homero, recommended by our previous hosts. Yeah, it seems like everyone in Cuba knows each other somehow. You can totally survive a house-hunt without the world wide web.
Hilario and I shared a lobster tail for lunch at Tiki (15 CUC) with a nice view of the water and fishing boats. We also split a combo plate of fish – lobster – shrimp for dinner at Chuchi el Pescador (15 CUC) which was vouched by many locals.
Before that we took a walk along the Caletón beach – packed of tourists accommodations. The water is shallow, calm and warm and was coated with the prettiest sun color! I will write a more in-depth post about everything I’ve learned about Play Larga.
Día 6 – Bay of Pigs
We didn’t have breakfast at our homestay this time and went to a local cafeteria instead to exchange 2 CUC for 4 hamburgers. We took a tour to a tiny section of Ciénaga de Zapata with Mario (the tour guide for this excursion in town, apparently) because the place is rather hidden and you’re not advised to go alone. It’s true, my maps.met didn’t read any of the spots Mario took us. Our attempt at birdwatching wasn’t a total failure although I didn’t understand enough to appreciate it. The birds were so small and always moved so fast. We did see a cool chameleon that barely moved so it was easier to spot him. The caves were the cool part of the tour, I think. I hadn’t seen so many fruit bats in my life before! There were giant spiders and tiny owls too!
In the afternoon, we went snorkeling in Cueva de los Peces. There’s no sandy beach here so you can’t really spend the whole day laying down and relaxing. Tourist groups waved in and out for independent snorkeling, group scuba diving or just not getting into the water at all. There were a few other cool diving spots.
We went back to the relaxing playa Caletón and got 4 coconuts por 2 CUC. Dinner had to be again at Chuchi el Pescador: 2 seafood soups, ceviche of some queen conch and crab combined plate, dessert copa lolita (flan y caramel ice cream), 2 glass of lemonade for the total of 24 CUC for two.
Día 7 – Trinidad
Hilario and I took a taxi collectivo to Trinidad (15cuc/person), shared with one Polish guy who was doing “reality check” in Cuba (his words). We could have saved a little more money with Vinazul but risked waiting for ever as it’s very unreliable.
We arrived to Trinidad after 3 hour ride, checked in to Casa Dafne de Ninfa 35 CUC for two nights double room, with some negotiation of course. We found this place on AirBnb but didn’t make any reservation, we just showed up at door. We walked around town and had late lunch at a small restaurant called Mimi as it was pouring rain outside. The streets were flooded afterwards but thank goodness for it because the heat was getting really unbearable (and I’m from Vietnam!).
We hiked the cero de Vigía and once more time chased the sunset, quite literally. We actually missed it but still enjoyed the journey.
At night we just walked around and checked out a few music places.Here are a few places I noted down from my two nights wandering around town. (There are many other restaurants that have their own bands and music sets):
– Casa de Música: a must for every visitor I guess, they start charging 1 CUC entrance at 7pm so if you come earlier like we did, you save a bit of money. It’s outdoors, the stage is large enough for 10+ musicians and the audience sit on the stairs. They turn classic songs into incredible melody. Most of the audience are tourists, the only locals seen here were accompanying other tourists.
– Patio Becquer is my personal favorite, this is somewhere local Cubans actually hang out and have a good time. The atmosphere and the energy is indescribable. There were 10-15 musicians just as many as Casa de Música but instead of playing classic songs, they got us hooked on music I’d never heard before jammed in the most dynamic and engaging way. By the way the people from the bar told us a mojito cost 3CUC, we bargained and they accepted at 2 CUC. You have to be a little thick-skinned in Cuba.
– Jazz Cafe: a tourist spot, they told us we’d be getting a buffet salad bar and jazz music. We didn’t eat at the play but peaked over the window for the music. It was good but wasn’t mind-blowing. I would have done it if I had felt like spending some extra bucks.
– Los Conspiradores: right next to la Casa de Música with its own style, people can sit down properly for a good meal. The band is a lot smaller and they play songs you can sing along, not necessarily always salsa and jazz.
– Palenque de los Congos Reales: Their music shows are exclusive to diners, I had to peak in to the see musicians getting ready but that’s about it. I’m quite curious because the band looked very professional.
– Taberna de Barracon: live music in the terrace on a rooftop one floor up. Again I didn’t enter but I enjoyed everything I heard from below.
– Disco Ayala: a disco club in a cave, I passed by it when it was still early so unfortunately I don’t know what kind of music they’re playing here. It sure looks cool.
Día 8 – Trinidad / Playa Ancón
Hilario and I rented two bikes at 5 CUC each for a full day. The 14km ride to Playa Ancon wasn’t difficult but required certain level of fitness. The scenery was beautiful although watch out for the sun because it’s BRUTAL, I was already tan but got a few shades darker from the Cuban sun. There were few people at the beach, the bike path led to even quieter parts of the beach since most people came in taxi or bus and they got off at a different spot.
The water was again warm, clear and calm. There was not much to see under the water, so wasn’t ideal for snorkeling but perfect for chilling. When we were there, two Cuban men were hiding a big bag of live lobsters and trying to sell them to us. We didn’t have any intention of buying but the price they offered was too attractive. 5 CUC per lobster they said and we eventually paid 12 for three, one was huge and two others were smaller. We brought the lobsters back and the host helped cook them for us with some compensation of course. It was one of our best meals in Cuba. So amazingly fresh! The wikivoyage says that Cubans are forbidden to eat lobster which is not entirely true. Cubans are forbidden to catch and consume lobsters, they can however purchased cooked lobster at the restaurants at tourist price. We verified this information with a handful of local Cubans.
On our way back, the bike chain of Hilario came off and no matter how many times we managed to put it back on, it would not stay. Good thing we were at our last 2km to reach town and therefore, we walked the whole way. Walking along the highway was quite nerve-wrecking for me but anyway we made it back safely eventually.
We also stumbled upon this juice stall and we had so much juice for so little money: two mango shakes, one pineapple juice and four tamarind juices for 16 CUP which is roughly .60CUC/50 cent. We liked the tamarind juice so much we ended up filling up our 1.5L empty water bottle for the price of 14 CUP, 1/3 the price of water! I’m not quite sure how it works. There is such a big difference between local places and tourist places. There are no chance a local with normal salary could set foot to a touristy restaurant where they charge 10 – 20 CUC per meal. An office workers make somewhere from 20-30 CUC per month, doctors and lawyers may earn a bit more at 40-45 CUC. That’s why people have to hassle and do extra work for the extra bucks, many are now switching to work in tourism. However, with the current system, Cuba makes it hard for tourists to integrate to the authentic Cuban life and vice versa, Cuban locals cannot afford most of the things they tourists are spending on.
Día 9 – Havana
We left Trinidad our homestay at 8:30 for Havana on a taxi colectivo, paying 25cuc/person. Just an observation, not every car has seat belts and it didn’t seem like people need them anyway. Less than 5 hours later, we got to Havana and the first place we stopped at was Doña Alicia. Doña Alicia, if you ever read this, your food is well missed!
Osniel’s house didn’t have vacancy so we’re staying at Alameda Habana with Madelyn who was friendly and never stopped talking. She watched a lot of TV so we learned that television during weekends is a bit better than weekdays. She has a nice 20 something inch flat screen TV instead of a 10 inch boxes we’ve seen throughout the country. And also thanked to the host’s over-sharing personality, we learned that she was once a chief accountant who made 45CUC per month and that she and her husband had to hustle by selling pastries and cakes for an extra income. Stories like this we heard repeatedly in Cuba. That also explains the incessant growth of tourism in all aspects: accommodation, food & beverage, guide, tour agency, etc.
We took the ferry to Casa Blanca for a small walk to see the Christ statue El Cristo roughly at 5pm, thinking we’d catch the sunset. It cost 1CUP (yup, C-U-P) for two pax on the ferry. If you go alone, I think it was even less than 50 cent CUP. The panoramic view at El Cristo was nice but I reckoned it would have been nicer in the morning when you’re not looking directly at the sun. Next to the statue was some military zone and a Che museum, 6 CUC for foreigners and 6 CUP for locals. There’s really no proper system with the money it seems, tourists pay 25 times more than Cubans, let’s just keep it simple but undeniably stupid.
At the end we caught no sunset. We then went to Dos Hermanos bar where a band called Luz Latina was playing. A musician talked to us before his set and was so happy to learn that I’m Vietnamese. We sat right in front of the band so it seemed like they were performing exclusively for us. We also spent some time sipping a big o’ beer at la Plaza Vieja while listening to another live band. We met a Romanian couple who was celebrating their 25th anniversary by going on a three week MSC cruise ship along the Caribbean coast of Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, etc. Less than 2,000 euros per person for a two week trip, they said. My parents would love it, I bet.
Día 10 – ¡Adiós Cuba!
It’s our last day! We packed up and left our backpacks at home then walked along walled seaside of the Malecón where there were few tourists, most of them opted for a fancy classic car ride or horse cartridge either of which I cared so much about. There were more Cubans fishing as the matter of fact. Certain parts of the Malecón caught us off guard as the ocean waves raged so high they poured down the pavement and wetted us. At one point I was walking in wet shoes, yuck!
We reached the Coppelia ice cream an hour or so after. This place is quite huge. Upon entering, we were stopped by the guard asking if we would be paying by CUC or CUP. This was one of the rare places that separate the currencies this way; most places allow you to pay with both currency interchangeably. The people here are really good at converting it and we also got quite good after a few days in Cuba. Well anyway back to Coppelia, we had some CUP but weren’t sure if they’d be enough so we asked how much the ice cream cost. The guard refused to tell us, advised us better to pay with CUC. So we went to the “tourist line”, 2.75 CUC for two scoops of ice cream out of four flavors available: tiramisu, strawberry, chocolate and pieces of chocolate. We devoured everything in a blink of the eye. Not satisfied and convinced that this is what the famous Coppelia was for, we lined up for the local version risking the fact that we might not have enough CUP. We soon found out, 5 scoops cost 5 CUP, 34 times cheaper! 34 times! We didn’t have to wait for too long until we got seated. The place was packed, we asked if we could share table with two Cuban men and they said yes. We originally wanted to share a 5 scoops of mixed flavors for 5 CUP but the Cubans ordered one portion for each of us on top of a shared portion of tocinillo de cielo (a flan type of cake) and they ended up paying for EVERYTHING which was 25 CUP exactly 1CUC. Of course I tried to pay my share but they would not let me. I couldn’t wrap my head around how nice they were and we just knew each other for 10 minutes. And now that the expectation had shifted, the ice cream tasted 100x better!
We also walked to the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución), didn’t make it to the Ho Chi Minh monument like I planned to. We were short in time and still wanted to get some souvenirs. We took a cab to the airport, paying 25 CUC for the 17km ride which might have been a bit much. Check-in the airport was relatively simple and did last minute shopping of cigars at the departing gates. And that wrapped up another trip to remember.
A few things I’ve learned:
My trip to Cuba was indescribably gratifying in a way as what I saw reflects the Vietnam I never got to see. Growing up in the 90s in the biggest city of Vietnam – Saigon, I’ve only heard stories from my parents about the post-war pre-reform planned economy thời bao cấp in Vietnamese we say when everybody was granted an equal share of everything. For example in Vietnam during this time, everybody would get fixed 300gr of meat (you can roughly make 5 tacos with it) for the whole month. Any further consumption out of the Government’s control would be considered illegal. In Cuba, the guide told us that each Cuban is granted 5 eggs per month. They have certain freedom to consume more if they could afford it but you can’t deny the limitation they encounter, considered how much they earn. On the contrary, here we are living in more developed countries and over-ordering food all the time without thinking twice about it.
Cubans know a lot about Vietnamese history. I was particularly impressed by a seventy-something-year-young street poet in Trinidad who remembered Vietnam was separated at DMZ 17th during the Vietnam War.
I always complain about how difficult it is to travel as a Vietnamese citizen, but for Cubans, it’s even harder. Not only because their passport is more restricted but their money value is so low that traveling abroad costs an arm and a leg.
Cuba felt really safe regardless of what time of the day, as long as you have common sense. Certain people may approach the tourists selling you a service or just trying to get that extra cash but for the most part they leave you alone if you ask them to. They never once reacted rudely when we turned down their proposal. Many even responded with “Have a nice day!” or “the most important thing is that you enjoy Cuba.” Saying the people are the best part about Cuba is not an overstatement.
The growth in tourism is becoming disruptive to Cuban equal earnings. The current tourism system seems to prevent tourists from integrating to the local lifestyle. Now that has nothing to do with Cuban’s hospitality because Cubans are friendly af! However, there is this “tourist bubble” where foreigners are expected to take certain transportation, eat at certain restaurants and pays at least 25 times more than the locals. And therefore to many locals, all tourists are filthy rich which is not always the case.
Shout out to my travel buddy Hilario who have been the best travel partner and endured all my spontaneity It’s interesting for me to travel to Cuba with Spanish peeps as Vietnamese because Spain was once a colonizer and Vietnam was a fellow revolutionary comrade.
If you look at the map, we barely covered the west of the island and will have to come back next time for the east. ¡Hasta luego, Cuba!