Remember back in Nicaragua, when we woke up one morning and spontaneously booked flights to Cuba? Well, that trip has officially been and gone – where is the time going?! We’re back from a week of exploring Havana and Trinidad with tons of stories and photos to share with you all…
While we were in Belize, we heard news about a hurricane headed towards the Caribbean. Santiago de Cuba was affected quite badly and we were worried that our flight might be cancelled. In the end, we didn’t have any problems and the cities that we visited showed no remnants of hurricane damage – the weather was great too, no rain, all sunshine!
Although we only had a week in Cuba, we wanted to see as much as possible and decided to split our time between 2 cities. We spent 4 days in Havana and 3 days in Trinidad. To make this post easier to write/read, I’ll split it into two separate parts:
We flew from Cancun airport in Mexico and were all ridiculously excited by the prospect of an aeroplane journey after 3 months of ground transport.
We’d been told that we would need to get a tourist card/visa to enter Cuba and feared the worst when we Googled how to get one and read stories about people visiting embassies or waiting days for them to arrive in the UK. It’s a bit simpler when you fly from Mexico because there is a counter in the airport that sells Cuban visas – easy.
The flight was smooth. Our plane even had personal TV’s despite the fact that it was only a 40 minute flight – we were able to squeeze in an episode of ‘Glee’ (we have an addiction ever since San Juan del Sur)
When we arrived in Cuba we were not prepared for the dreadfully slow service we were about to encounter. It took us 4 hours to get out of the airport… I’m not even kidding. The queue for immigration control was a mile long, then when we did finally reach the front of the queue it took 15 minutes for the man to stamp our passport. This was mainly because he was hitting on Abbie. Instead of checking my documents he asked ‘Is she your sister? She’s beautiful. I love her’ – this went on for a while until the woman next to him nudged him to get a move on and we were allowed to go.
The next part is where they check your landing cards and there isn’t really a queueing system in place so you just join the huddle of people and hope for the best. When we fought our way to the front of the crowd we were asked ‘Are you Mexican?’, said ‘No’ and were sent straight though without any questions. The people that said yes were stopped and interrogated… Racism is alive and well, people.
We waited another hour for our luggage to come through (Alice’s didn’t arrive until the very last minute either) and then, you guessed it, we got into ANOTHER queue. We needed to change our Mexican pesos to Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). We had no idea at this point that there was another currency called CUP which is exclusive to locals. To put it simply, Cuba has a ridiculous system in place to get more money out of their tourists:
1 CUC = 1 dollar but 26 CUP = 1 dollar
Prices in restaurants, museums and shops will usually be the same in CUC and CUP (there are some exceptions to this rule). Therefore, a tourist will pay 26x more than the locals. If this doesn’t fill you with outrage then there’s something wrong with you – it sent us in to a frenzy!
Apparently, it is possible for tourists to get their hands on CUP but we’re not quite sure how because banks will straight out refuse to give you anything other than CUC and there are no cash machines in the country that accept foreign cards. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery then PLEASE let us know – we need to prevent people from being ripped off!
We caught a taxi from the airport (which we now know we paid far too much money for). They only allow certain taxis into the airport and because they know most people are foreigners they charge a higher set price. There’s nothing you can do about it – unless you have a Cuban friend who will come and pick you up/are willing to walk a few miles out and catch a taxi/bus from the street. I’m guessing you’re noticing a recurring theme here: Cuba = RIP OFF. It only gets worse, I promise you…
The hostels in Havana are more like houses and although the one we chose (‘Casa de Ania’) was probably good by Cuban standards, it certainly wasn’t great by general standards. There wasn’t any atmosphere, it was small and cramped and the food was terrible.
We soon learnt that food is awful everywhere in Cuba. There are a few places that are slightly better than others but, on the whole, everything is very bland and slimy. We think this is because chefs get paid the same wage as waitresses or farmers, so nobody has any motivation to do their job well. This also explains why there is no such thing as customer service here. There was supposedly a change to these egalitarian wages back in 2008 to give Cubans an incentive to work hard and reward more difficult jobs with a higher pay. After speaking to locals, we don’t know exactly how far this idea was implemented but we do know that the salaries are extremely low and poverty levels are high.
Only those relying on tips from the tourist industry are likely to be able to afford luxuries. We even learnt that owners of ‘casa particulars’ (houses with rooms to rent out to tourists) tend to be rich people and even though you might think you are supporting the local people by staying there, you are actually just making the rich richer… It’s a difficult situation.
The first thing we did was take a tour of the city with a guide called Ramon. He took us to all the main sights and gave us a history and culture lesson entirely in Spanish. We noticed that there were no supermarkets in the city, nor were there any adverts. Branded products were nowhere in sight – unless they were Cuban branded products of course. We visited Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar and drank piña coladas together with famous Havana rum. When we were walking through the streets we were catcalled non-stop – not pleasant. Ramon said he was shocked because he’d never experienced it from a woman’s perspective before. I think it really riled him up at one point.
Seeing as he was being so friendly and helpful, we decided to ask Ramon about the CUP currency. He told us that it was a fake currency and if people offer it to us not to take it. This was one of many lies we were told by locals in the tourism industry – they absolutely don’t want you to get hold of CUP because they will lose money. So frustrating! Although Ramon was a nice guy, he was still very much part of the corruption due to his profession.
We realise that if you don’t speak Spanish you can probably go to Cuba, have a fantastic time and just think that everything was a bit more expensive than you expected it to be. We actually wished that we didn’t understand what was going on because then we’d be ignorant to the situation and ignorance is bliss. The fact that we could communicate with people and eavesdrop the conversations around us, meant that we got the full story. Great for this blog. Not so great for us.
We finished the tour in Parque Central and set off to find somewhere to eat (a crappy overpriced) dinner. About 2 seconds after we said goodbye to Ramon, we bumped into 3 local Cuban boys who wanted to know where we were from. We ended up speaking to them for quite a while about all sorts of things – 2 of them were very pro-Castro and thought that communism was the best thing to ever happen to the country. The other one spoke about how it had caused so much poverty and how he struggles to be himself because of the amount of restrictions they have. They revealed the truth behind the CUC and CUP and how clever Castro was for milking the tourists for all they are worth. When we mentioned that we wanted food they said they would take us to a local place, where all prices were in CUP.
We would never have been able to find a restaurant like this without their help. All three of us ate for under $5, which is insane and there wasn’t another tourist in sight. After dinner, we went to the Malecon – a hotspot at night time, where people drink and dance all night long. We stayed for an hour or so before saying goodbye and heading back to our hostel.
The next day we bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus. It’s a nice ride and you could easily just stay on the bus without getting off. We chose to hop-off at the Museo de la Revolution and the Plaza de la Revolución. ALL of the revolution.
The museum was really interesting but I’ll warn you that most of the exhibits are in Spanish so I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It was also a classic case of 8 CUC/CUP entry fee. Meaning that tourists pay $8 and locals pay 30 cents… Great.
The plaza is one of the most iconic Cuban spots. You’ll see images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the Ministry of the Interior on one side and the huge Jose Martí memorial tower on the other. It’s absolutely massive and not somewhere that you’ll want to stay for too long in the scorching Summer heat.
We decided to trek back to the hostel after our day of sightseeing, which took us 2 hours. Along the way, my dress caught on a metal pipe sticking out of the road and ripped down the middle. This is now the THIRD item of clothing that I have destroyed on this trip. I HAVE A PROBLEM.
I had time to get changed quickly before we hopped in a taxi to Morro Castle on the other side of the bay to watch a show. I have no idea what the show was about because I sat on a fire ant nest and spent the whole time jumping around whilst shouting; ‘My ass hurts so much I can’t concentrate’. Alice also sat on the same nest but she has a higher pain threshold, so I think it was just me that missed what was going on. I remember cannonballs and men dressed in old English costumes with guns…. that’s about it really. Would I recommend it? I don’t know. I’m thinking about writing a book called ‘Useless travel blogging 101’, let me know if you guys would be interested in something like that…
When most people think of Cuba, they think of old school American cars. I hate to crush your dreams but they are all a massive tourist trap. No-one really drives those cars other than taxis or tour guides and they charge a small fortune just for a 30 minute ride.
That said, we were still determined to get a good Instagram picture in one of them and tried to negotiate a cheap ride to the beach. We had a mare trying to haggle with the drivers and they all kept lying to us about which beach was the closest and how much other modes of transport would cost. Yet again, it was all just one big money making mission and the lowest price we were offered was $50 AMERICAN DOLLARS. No, thank you, sir. After more interrogation we discovered that the open top American cars are not legally allowed to leave Havana and so they have to charge more in order to pay off the police (this country is nuts).
We caught a taxi to the beach instead for (a still extortionate) $20. The beach was lovely and a nice way to forget about all the extra money we’d had to spend just because we were tourists.
While we were sunbathing we were approached by a local guy – he was a salsa instructor and wanted us to come to his club. We ended up chatting with him for a while about our money woes and he insisted that he would help us get back into the centre when we were ready to go and handed us some CUP currency! Finally, we had struck gold!
The guy was a bit creepy (he told us about all the European girls he had gotten pregnant and said he would be happy to spend a night with Alice if she was up for it) but we brushed that off and insisted that we just wanted help getting back to the centre. He walked us to the bus stop which was SO far away from all the tourist parts of the beach. On the way there a few taxis pulled up and offered a ride to the centre for just $7! Just goes to show, when you’re with a local the prices are lowered significantly!
The locals waiting at the stop were confused to see us standing there but when they saw that we were with the Cuban guy they stopped caring so much. The buses here are crazy – people play music and twerk out of the windows…. I LOVE IT. It cost less than 1 CUP for all 3 of us to catch the bus back, yet we paid $20 to get to the beach in the first place. Let’s take a moment to let that sink in.
Now we knew more of the local secrets, we decided to plan our trip back to the airport. We’d heard from some people that it was possible to get there for just 1 CUC each in a colectivo. One guy said ‘Castro isn’t stupid you know. If you think he’d let tourists get around for the same price as locals, you can think again’. Our hostel had been telling us that there was a set price of 30 CUC to the airport but once we told them that we knew they were lying they started to let on that there were other alternatives. Nobody seemed keen to give too much information away – it’s almost like people are scared that they are going against the establishment. Apparently there used to be a law against not charging the appropriate tourist CUC prices… so messed up! Unfortunately, we couldn’t seem to crack the airport transfer mystery but we decided to spend our last morning EMBRACING the corruption. So we went to the nicest, most touristic cafe we could find and ordered every cake and coffee in sight.
Overall, our time in Havana was strange. I probably should have called this post ‘Havana ok time’ but I don’t think that would have been as catchy. Don’t get me wrong, we loved the city, we just hated the lies. It was a frustrating yet eye opening experience and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life!
We left our hostel in Havana to see an old, blue American car waiting outside. At first, we were all elated to finally get a ride in one of these bad boys but it didn’t take long for us to realise they are not the best mode of transport for long distances. The vehicle was super cramped – there were 8 of us inside plus the driver – and there were no headrests so it was impossible to sleep. Well, I’ll use the word impossible lightly… It was impossible for normal people to sleep but, of course, I conked out anyway. Alice filmed me while I was asleep, my head is swinging from side to side and the guys behind me are in tears laughing. I would put it on the blog but I can’t find it (Ok fine, I can find it, I’m just too embarrassed to share it)
The journey took about 5 hours. We drove past miles and miles of sugarcane and coffee farms and the motorway was absolutely empty. The weirdest part was that we didn’t see a single sign the whole time – I can imagine it would be difficult for tourists to navigate these roads! There weren’t any service stations either but we did stop off at a tiny cafe on the way. There were only 2 sandwich choices available and, as always, the food was pretty rubbish.
When we finally arrived in Trinidad we headed for some accommodation that had been recommended to us by our hostel in Havana. There aren’t any real hostels in Trinidad (not that the hostels in Havana are very hostel-y either) so we prepared to stay in a ‘casa particular’. Our casa was called ‘Hostal La Juliana – 41 Frank Pais’ and honestly exceeded all of our expectations. We had a gorgeous private room with a roof terrace and the owner was very helpful (albeit quite strict and traditional).
The town of Trinidad is completely different to Havana. It doesn’t feel as big and it’s definitely not as busy or as touristic. There are some similarities though – the food is still bland and the men are still creepy. We were catcalled for 40 minutes by the same guy here… no joke! 😒
One day we were roaming the streets of Trinidad in search of a tour guide who would take us to the waterfalls. We bumped into some young guys – one of them was taking a picture of two Cuban kids on the street and turned to take one of us as a joke. They turned out to be from Spain and Germany (our common language was Spanish) and we spent the rest of the day exploring the streets with them.
They showed us good places to eat and told us stories about different locals that they had spoken to…. we were really enjoying their company! That all changed when we noticed that one of them started to talk down to us. He implied that we weren’t seeing the real Cuba because we weren’t knocking on local people’s doors and asking them for chats and that we needed to get our hands on the local currency of CUP to really get a feel for the place.
Alice, Abbie and I all have a mutual dislike for people who think there is a right or wrong way to travel. I try to emphasise on this blog that it doesn’t matter if you’re a backpacker, a luxury 5* hotel guest or a bit of both – as long as you’re enjoying yourself and feel that you’re getting the most out of your experience then why the hell does it matter what you did and didn’t do. It’s ridiculously hard to get hold of the CUP currency and we are happy to chat to locals in the streets but are apprehensive of invading their personal space. We’d already been feeling a bit low about getting ripped off in Havana, we didn’t need to be reminded in a condescending way. To make matters worse, we went back to the hostel that night and realised that we hadn’t managed to book a tour to the waterfall.
Moral of the story? DON’T LET BOYS DISTRACT YOU FROM YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS. (To clarify… that’s a Kanye West reference. For my Mom ’cause she doesn’t always understand these things)
The next day, the owners of our casa called a tour guide to take us to the waterfall. We paid 20 CUC each, which was actually quite expensive – served us right though for not checking prices in town the day before.
I was a bit conflicted about going to the waterfall because I hate using horses for transport and this was literally our only option because you can’t drive there. Our horse seemed happy enough and the tour guide was a very kind man who was just trying to make a living but I couldn’t help feel guilty that we were sitting in a wagon whilst the horse was doing all the work. The ride was so uncomfortable, too. Every time we went over a bump in the road we were smacked against the sides of the wagon. At the end of the day I had approximately 25 bruises and slight whiplash in my neck… If there was ever time to believe in karma, it would be now!
We stopped off at a sugarcane farm before the waterfall to see how sugarcane juice was made – it’s way too sweet and I can see why they don’t have any demand to sell it in bottles at a supermarket… Not that they even have supermarkets in Cuba! That said, we did find a sort-of-supermarket in Trinidad. There was a limited supply of items (one brand of spaghetti, one brand of sauce and one brand of biscuits, for example) but I still don’t understand how they survive like this?!
Back to the waterfall, we had to trek for 20 minutes through some seriously sticky mud. I’d chosen to wear flip flops that day and they kept falling off so I reached the waterfall absolutely covered in dirt. This was fine on the way there because I could just wash off in the water but on the way back I had to accept that I was going to be dirty for the rest of the day.
It’s quite a popular attraction and there were a lot of people there swimming, diving and sunbathing. I can see why people love it so much, though – it’s always nice to escape to the countryside every once in a while.
We returned to Havana afterwards (in a shuttle, not an American car, thank God) to catch our flight back to Mexico. Abbie still had some left over Cuban money so we went on a frantic spree trying to spend it in the airport because it’s not traded internationally. Too bad Cuban airports have NO shops or restaurants…. well they have 1 or 2 but nothing worth spending your money on.
The flight itself was easy but, upon landing in Mexico and reconnecting to WiFi after 7 days away, we realised that all our friends and family thought we were dead due to lack of communication. Scary how important social media is these days!
We have mixed opinions about Cuba – we loved it and, at the same time, we hated it. It’s not very easy to explain… The corruption and the attitude to tourists make it very difficult to appreciate the unquestionable beauty of the country but we are so glad that we had a chance to visit before all the changes start kicking in. It will be interesting to go back in a few years and see if anything is different – for better or for worse? Who knows! We’ll just have to wait and see…
👋🇨🇺 –> 📍🇲🇽