My trip to Cuba started in Havana, where I spent two full days browsing around its many museums and places of interest, including the Capitolio, la Cabaña, the Museo de la Revolucion and its famous Malecon. I then flew to Santiago de Cuba, known for its Caribbean attitude. This is a good starting point to hike La Gran Piedra or to just soak in the sun in Playa Sibonay. From there, I took the bus to Baracoa, where I arrived after an eventful trip which included a flat tire. Known as the city of the 29 rivers, Baracoa is purely tropical. Must dos include a hike of El Yunque, a boat trip around Rio Yumuri and the beautiful Playa Maguana. Baracoa is also the gourmet capital of Cuba: I had some of the most interesting food here, including shrimps in salsa de coco.
On the way to Trinidad (the most touristic city in Cuba), I stopped in Camaguey, which I did not really enjoy due to the tremendous heat and the high presence of jineteros and scams. 5 hours away, Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial city, with cobblestone streets, music playing at every corner, dancing and good nightlife, museums, good restaurants and a huge variety of daily trips in its surroundings. I particularly enjoyed Valle de los Ingenios and the hike from Topes de Collantes to the Salto de Caburnì.
About 90 minutes north, Cienfuegos is also splendid, and is a great port of access to El Nicho, with its natural pools, and to explore the amazingly clear waters and coral reef of the Bahia de Cochinos and Caleta Buena.
I concluded my journey in Viñales, in the North-West side of Cuba, which felt like the cherry on the cake: a valley where coffee and tobacco are cultivated, where mogotes appear just about anywhere. And it is not far from Cayo Jutias, where I spent a perfect day at the beach.
To read more about my adventures in this amazing island, click here!
Yes, I know my first few posts after coming back from Cuba sounded like I was a nerve wreck. I probably was. I admit I did not get much of Cuba while there, and with my “rich white girl” (ok, I am a girl and I am white but I am definitely not rich) it was hard to understand the point of view of someone whose daily life is a challenge to get by. All I did while there was trying not to get ripped off, which made me defensive and not very communicative. I should have relaxed, and live like a Cuban, I suppose. Quite simply, enjoying whatever I could get.
Now, sitting in front of my computer screen all day, living the hectic life, feeling the need to communicate whatever I do, however I feel, and to check what’s happening in the world, now that I have embarked on yet another task which keeps me connected with the world – this very blog – I can say I miss Cuba, and I want to be taken back there. I miss that simple life, where people talk face to face, or by phone. Where computers are not a must-have, where food is bought fresh every day, and there are only local products, where there’s not the problem of having to choose between a million kinds of cereals, shampoos, lotions and what not. Yes, I miss all that. I miss that tranquility.
And the mojito I made yesterday for my friend who celebrated her birthday at a local bar is only a demonstration of that. She’s been to Cuba several time, she is terribly in love with it too. She knew this was going to happen to me too. And when I was acting as a bartender and I handled her the fresh mojito, and told her “take me back to Cuba”, she laughed, knewing this was coming.
If you want my two cents, I think that every single day you spend in Cuba you should try to put yourself in the shoes of Cubans. Try to communicate, try to appreciate their life, try to understand their problems and share yours. Ask, listen, don’t act like a typical tourist, don’t expect to “buy” things as you would do in your own country, don’t expect the same kind of services you’d get back home.
No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy Cuba, Cuba is not for sale.
Taxi, tours, rum and what not: getting ripped off, a lo cubano!
Before trusting someone you have just met in Cuba, think twice! As already explained in other posts about this beautiful island, scams can indeed happen. We learned the hard way that no matter how nice they seem, no matter how friendly you behave and no matter how many times they will suggest that you can trust them, tourist traps in Cuba are just around the corner.
Five episodes tested our patience, and not in all of them we were able to keep our cool. Just learn from our mistakes!
Tourist traps in Cuba #1 –Santiago: we only wanted to spend one night in Santiago and then go to Baracoa. Our vacation had just started and we were yet to understand the real difficulties of driving around in Cuba. After a lot of reasoning with our landlady in Santiago and her trusted driver, we decided that on the day after we’d be taken to La Gran Piedra, then go to Parque Baconao and from there drive back through Santiago (no direct way from Parque Baconao to Baracoa) and then go to Baracoa. Pity we would not get to see La Farola and the Costa Sur during the day, too bad we’d spend a lot of money, but we’d save a lot of time. We agreed to pay 170 CUC for the whole thing – 30 to go to La Gran Piedra, 20 to Parque Baconao and the rest to be taken to Baracoa. The morning after, the driver was punctual at our door. However, he told us that from La Gran Piedra he’d have to get a couple he had taken there the night before, and he’d have to drive them back to Santiago (I have no idea for what price). He suggested that it would then be better to leave the suitcases at the casa, he’d pick them up when he’d drive the couple there, and meanwhile we could wait for him for half hour in Playa Siboney. We agreed. When we eventually got down to Playa Sibonay, we were told that he’d be back to pick us up in 30 minutes. So we rushed to the beach, ate something quickly and jumped in the water. As this was not a planned stop, we did not have our towels, but nevermind. We were punctual to meet him. He was not. We waited so long in the sun as there was zero shade – had we known, we’d have stayed at the beach or in the water. We ended up calling the casa in Santiago and saying that since the driver was over 90 minutes late, and it would get very late before we were able to leave for Baracoa, we’d rather enjoy our time in Parque Baconao and then go back to Santiago and catch the Viazul bus to Baracoa the day after. After all, this would allow us to save a lot of money (the sum of bus tickets for the 2 would be 60, so we saved 50 CUC and we’d have to pay for the casa whether in Baracoa or Santiago) and we’d be able to enjoy the view of La Farola and Costa Sur during the day. When the driver arrived, we realised he had changed his clothes. We figured he had gone home to have lunch, and get changed, leaving us waiting without worrying too much about it. When we eventually got back home that evening, and we had to pay the driver, he complained to us that he had filled in the tank to take us to Baracoa already, so he wanted to get paid. I held my position and pointed out that after all gasoline is not like milk, it won’t go bad within 3 days. We paid him 60 CUC and that was it.
TIPS: if you have a driver, make sure in advance that you are the only ones on the tour, or that if there are other people, they are doing your same route. This will avoid long waiting times. If you can, whenever you are just going from one city to another, take the bus. Sure, it may take longer and it is not as comfortable, but you get to meet other travellers on the bus and make new friends, something which is not easy to do in Cuba as casas particulares do not really allow much socialising.
Tourist traps in Cuba #2 –Camaguey is a nightmare – the city itself is a real maze. You will get lost, no matter how carefully you look at your map. But, what is worst, it is very difficult to leave the city, as it is in the middle of nowhere, taxis to reach other (more interesting) cities are very expensive, and buses leave at impossible times. We wanted to go to Trinidad, and the only bus that would take us there would leave at 2:15 am, meaning we would definitely lose one night of sleep and yet we’d have to pay for the room. It was so hot that surely we’d want to shower before leaving. We decided to go to the Viazul station and see if we could get to share a taxi. After much negotiation, we found a driver who agreed to take us for 40 CUC (20 each), provided he’d find 2 more persons to fill up the car. In any case, he showed us the car and it was big enough to fit all. We gave him our address and he agreed to pick us up at around 1 pm. By 2 pm he had not arrived. At 2:30 pm he called, saying he had not found other tourists who wanted to go to Trinidad, but that if we agreed he could take us there for 60 CUC. We did and so we started waiting. All the while, the landlady (Caridad) kept saying that her son would take us there for 80, that he was a reliable driver, and what not. By 2:45 pm a car (a tiny Fiat Punto) stopped by and three dodgy men got off. One of them told us that his friend’s car broke down and so his father could take us to Trinidad on his car, but for 80 CUC. We did not like the look of the guys and we refused. We ended up having to wait 3 more hours for the son of Caridad to get back and drive us to Trinidad for 80 – but at least we knew we’d be safe. We were so exhausted by then, tired of waiting, that anything would be ok as long as it was safe.
TIP: go to the bus station in search of a cab to take you to your destination only shortly before the bus is supposed to leave – like 2 hours at most. This way, you will have more chances to meet other tourists and with a bit of luck they won’t have tickets yet and you will be able to share a taxi for a reasonable price. We made the mistake of going there in the morning and obviously we would not find any other traveller. It is better that you take the time to look for other passengers rather than leave it to the driver – you can bet he won’t find one.
Tourist traps in Cuba #3 –Trinidad: by the time we made it there I was so sick and tired of negotiating prices with drivers and what not, that I begged my sister to take part in an organised tour to Cayo Blanco, with a set price, transportation, meal and drinks included. Of course, the agent at Cubatour was eager to sell us the tour, and would say anything so that we fell in the trap. We paid 59 CUC (yes, 59!!) and were meant to have: transportation to and from Marina de Ancon, catamaran to and from Cayo Blanco, a stop over the coral reef with 1 hour snorkelling and equipment included; lunch and any drink we’d like (according to the agent, cocktails such as mojitos and pina colada were also included). As we arrived at Marina de Ancon, we were asked whether we wanted paella or chicken for lunch. As we both suffer from a number of allergies, we ordered chicken. On the tour with us, there was a big group of very polite British and French people; an even larger group of very loud Germans who almost immediately, even on the catamaran, started drinking rum and beer. For some unknown reason the catamaran did not stop at the coral reef. As we landed in Cayo Blanco, the crew pointed us to a place, gave us snorkelling equipment, and told us to be back by 2:30. We then realised we were not going to see any coral reef. The Cayo itself is very small, the beach tiny and with not even enough beds for all the people on the tour. Overall nothing special. Nevermind this. Lunch was a buffet, but our chicken was nowhere to be found. The people at the Marina had failed to communicate this to the crew and to the people working at the Cayo. So we had to demand to have it, and explain all over again we were allergic to ingredients in the paella, but the workers did not like that. We then asked for a cocktail, only to find out that there were no cocktails and all we could have was rum, coke, and beer. We decided that we’d go complain and ask for a refund (even if just partial) at Cubatour, as we did not enjoy our day at all. 59 CUC for it was a total rip off. We then went to the agency, only to be sent to the central office, where we explained what happened (in English) to the person at the desk, who then called another person to whom we had to explain things all over again, and who eventually called the chief (or so we thought). This was a truly horrible man, who did not speak a word of English, was rude to us from minute one, and looked threatening to say the least. I had to make my very best effort to explain what had happened all over again with the coral reef we had not seen, the problems at lunch time, the drinks and what not, this time in Spanish. The chief argued that nobody on that tour had gone back to complain (which, to us, was not an excuse), that we did not see the coral reef but we saw the aquarium (which we did not see, of course) and that in any case Cubatour was not responsible for anything, as it merely acted as a vector selling the tours – the responsibility laid in the Marina de Ancon. Incidentally, two more guys who were on the tour arrived a few minutes later, and they confirmed our version. But the chief was not moved. He kept saying we had seen the aquarium, I kept saying we had not. Things got so nasty that he told me he had called the police (on what grounds I had no idea), I supposed in an effort to scare us off. Of course, we were not scared: we said we’d stay there and wait for the police. Needless to say, this never arrived. We kept discussing for a bit – all of this in front of other customers, who were properly warned by us not to take the tour to Cayo Blanco. Eventually, we agreed to write a letter which would be sent to the Marina de Ancon, in which we asked for a refund, and where we detailed what had happened and explained we demanded a monetary refund as we had already paid for other tours and we would be leaving Trinidad 2 days later. We did not get a refund. All the Marina offered was an hour of snorkelling at the coral reef, although we had many times insisted that we would be on a tour the day after and then leave. They simply took it for granted that we’d stay in Trinidad forever. Overall, complaining was a big waste of time and effort, and it stressed us out and drained us off our energies.
TIPS: well, first thing first. Do NOT go to Cayo Blanco!!! There is nothing to see there, really. It is much better to spend 5 CUC to go to Playa Ancon than 59 to go to Cayo Blanco (54 CUC savings!!). Do not waste any time complaining: Cubans are very good at declining responsibility. Did you have a bad day? Live with it: there is no such thing as explaining customer service and satisfaction to a travel agent in Cuba. The best thing you can do is to go have a decent drink and forget about it. Or to drink yourself stupid while on the tour (of course, only valid if you are ok with beer or straight rum), as soon as you realise that you won’t get to see anything on the tour itself.
Tourist traps in Cuba #4 – Cienfuegos: ok, this one we really asked for, I admit it is our fault… after coming back from a day at El Nicho, we decided to take a stroll on the Malecon and go see the Palacio Azul and other interesting buildings at Punta Gorda. As it was a bit of a walk and we wanted to enjoy the sunset at the Palacio and have a drink there, we got on a bici taxi, previously agreeing on a 3 CUC tariff to be taken there AND back. The taxi driver was a young fellow, who spoke decent Italian and claimed his sister lived in Rome and he was going to go there in 2 months – he had already purchased the ticket. He seemed nice enough. As we got to the Palacio, he parked the taxi, and my sister and I got up. We then decided to have a drink and we thought it would be nice to offer him one too, to celebrate his next trip to Italy. Baaaaad decision! Cubans can hold their alcohol, we can’t! We were so tipsy on the way back that we had a huge laugh as I suggested I would drive the bici taxi (which I did for a while, and I can promise you it is hard work!). We then made the second biiiiiig mistake: we asked the driver (Yordan) if he could suggest where to buy rum at a good price. Surely he saw an opportunity to make a little extra cash. He then stopped by what looked like a fastfood kind of place, told us we could get rum there, and suggested he could go get it for us. Sure. We gave him precise instructions on the bottle we wanted and we had the brilliant idea of not going with him, so we could guard the taxi and he could explain in Spanish, and faster, what we needed. He came back with different bottles than what we had asked, claiming that was also a very good rum. I demanded to have that changed. He ran to the shop before I could also reach it, and he and the lady at the counter kept saying the bottles could not be changed as she had already passed it through the counter. Of course, no bill was shown to prove this. We gave up, I felt no urge to have a huge argument with Cubans all over again, after my experience in Trinidad. And I was too tipsy to think fast and call the police. My mistake. We got back on the taxi, he drove us home and kept saying the day after he’d take us to the cimitery for “amistad” (friendship, he meant he would take us there for free). We then paid him 4 CUC (1 more CUC than what we had agreed), gave him a Euro coin for good luck when he was going to Italy, and he had the guts to tell us that he could not use the Euro coins in Cuba and that he wanted 2 more CUC, suggesting that the price for the taxi would be 3 CUC to go and 3 to take us back. I suppose he gave up as he did not want to play with his luck, because by then we had found out from our landlord how much the bottles of rum really normally costed and if he tried to argue with us we’d have a row.
TIP: never ever let your guard down. Never drink when you then have to deal with taxi drivers. Never trust any cab driver to get anything for you or do you a favour. You can trust people in the casas particulares (you can ask them for favours: we asked our landlady to get us toothpaste in Trinidad, as we could not find it, and she bought it and did not even charge us for that), and that is it.
Tourist traps in Cuba # 5 – Vinales: by the time we were in Vinales, we had learned how to get by. On our last day, we were meant to go from Vinales to Las Terrazas. We had booked the Viazul bus, which was meant to leave at 2:15 pm. We thought the bus would cost 12 CUC each. We then started looking for a taxi. The first jinetero asked us to pay 50. The second one 40, and the third one 30. We agreed to be picked up at 1pm, but when we got home, the landlady told us that the bus was actually 8 CUC each and called the station to get confirmation of this. As the taxi arrived, we demanded to be taken to Las Terrazas for 20 CUC. The jinetero did not like this. We told him it was ok, as if the driver would not take us, we could actually take the bus in one hour, for cheaper. The driver then stepped in and agreed, which left the jinetero emtpy handed and yelling at us saying we could not keep our word.
We used the price we paid in Vinales to negotiate a good price for a cab from Las Terrazas to Jose Marti Airport. We were told that a public taxi would cost us 60 CUC, a taxi particular 50, but when we told the driver (which we actually looked for – no jineteros were involved) we had paid only 20 to come from Vinales, he agreed to take us there for 30 CUC.
TIPS: make sure you know the exact price of the bus before you negotiate the price of a taxi: this will save you some time and will give you enough leverage to negotiate. Do make sure that you always have a plan B (ie taking the bus), as again this will give you more leverage. Make sure you directly negotiate with the driver. The more people involved in the negotiations, the higher the price, as more people will want to make money out of it. Do not really trust people at hotels receptions (yes, even they will want to make an extra buck by interfering in the negotiations and they will raise the price so that they can share the money with the actual driver).
And as always, do keep your cool. People seem to enjoy it when you lose it!!
El Malecon, in Havana: walk along at sunset to spot locals
I have just returned from a 3 weeks trip to Cuba where I have travelled with my sister, and as with any our trip, we carried our Lonely Planet with us which we read throughly before and whilst travelling. I have several comments/tips which you may want to take into account for your trip and which I hope will help you enjoy your trip better than we did. I will describe our adventure in order of location visited!
El rincon de los cretinos
1) La Habana: we arrived on the night of 3 February and left again on the early hours of 6 February with a flight to Santiago. We stayed at Abalidia, a casa particular in Vedado, Calle 15 entre E y F. We went to this house as it came highly recommended by some friends and we read excellent reviews of it on tripadvisor. As we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by Lidia and Felix. The house is a nice colonial house in Vedado. Our room was big, although dark and a bit old, and although we had a private bathroom, this was not in the room, which meant we had to walk across the hallway, even at night, if we needed the bathroom. It was a bit uncomfortable. As we arrived, Felix made us sit for a chat and gave us some rum. He gave us a number of recommendations, such as the need to watch out for Cuban men trying to get paid or offered drinks (he called them jineteros) etc. When we eventually went to shower, we found the bathroom was not very clean (something that actually has not happened again to us in Cuba), and that the shower was cold (despite the fact that all houses claim to have hot water, most of the time we only got lukewarm water). We were too tired from the flights in order to complain, but the day after, when we again had to take a cold shower, we did complain. As it was Monday, Lidia told us she’d be able to cook her famous lobster only on a Tuesday night. So we decided to go to see the cerimony of the Canonazo (during which a group of soldiers dressed in traditional clothes from the 18th century re-act the cerimony of the closure of the walls of the city and shoot the cannon) at La Cabana fortress. Felix offered to come with us and we welcomed the offer, as he is very knowledgeable about Cuban history. However, when we came back in the afternoon he told us he had to work till late as he was teaching the day after, so he offered the company of Lidia’s cousin, who agreed to come along although he seemed to be extremely shy. When I asked what time he’d come to pick us up, it emerged that he does not have a car, so we’d have to ride a taxi with him, pay for it, pay for his entrance fee at La Cabana, and eventually, on coming back, since we had not had dinner and we’d want to eat, offer him dinner and a drink. In exchange, he was meant to protect us. In practice, we were warned against jineteros but then one was forced upon us. We were so infuriated, we decided to tell them we were tired and left the house saying we’d go have dinner and not go to the cerimony. Instead we went, we negotiated a very good price for the taxi on the way there and back, we enjoyed the cerimony and that was all. No protection needed for sure. The day after, we tried breakfast outside the house. As the coffee was bad, when we got back home to shower we asked to have some, and also some tea. Lidia gave me the only tea she has (green tea, which I hate, and which I drank anyways as it was offered to me as it seemed rude to refuse). She claimed the tea had been actually brought to her by some Italian friend. In fact, the brand was Italian. That night we also had dinner at the house, and Lidia went above and beyond to make sure to cook a lovely lobster that did not contain any ingredients to which we may be allergic (we had warned her in advance). She was very kind indeed. We then asked Felix to call the house we were meant to stay in Santiago to confirm our arrival. Of course he had his own opinion on where we should stay, and instead of saying that the phone call was from Claudia to confirm our arrival on 6 February, he just asked whether there was a room available. The obvious answer was no. Needless to say, I did make a phone call myself from outside, I told the house in Santiago I had made a reservation, and indeed they said they were waiting for me. The best surprise was the bill. You can make sure NOTHING we had in the house was free, not even the green tea I had, for which I paid 1 CUC (yeah, you heard me!!) and which was something the owners never even paid for as they were simply left over bags from other people who stayed in the house. I am sorry, but this is not hospitality to me. I should have been told from the beginning that I was going to have to pay for that – but we learned our lesson and from then on we just asked the price of every single service. Overall, we found the house ok, the room ok although uncomfortable to have the bathroom all the way across the hall, we thought Lidia was sweet but her husband overly pushy towards us.
La Habana is an interesting city. We loved the Malecon, enjoyed drinks at the Hotel Nacional (which has a nice view of the Malecon). We walked through the Habana Vieja and the Barrio Chino. It is safe, although you often have insisting jineteros or taxi drivers calling you in the streets to offer you rides.
We had mojitos at Bodeguita del Medio – which were ok – and daiquiris at Floridita – which were expensive but 100% worth it. I still think the best drinks though are those you get at Hotel Nacional.
The city has a number of churches and squares to visit, but the best thing is to just roam around and enjoy it.
Overall, we spent there 3 nights and 2 full days, and I think unless you really are into big cities and old cars this is sufficient to take a good view of it. We were ready to move on afterwards.
Santiago’s main square
Decadence in Santiago
Camionetas – a cheap way to travel around
2) Santiago (6 and 7 February): we stayed at Maruchi Colonial House (the first casa particular in Santiago on the listings of Lonely Planet) and the house was simply amazing. The only thing is that I did not find Maruchi particularly friendly. The rest of the staff was, but she and her daughter seemed almost too busy with their daily life to really bother even chatting with us. We loved this house. Santiago is a very noisy, polluted city and this house, despite being in the heart of town, was a very peaceful place. Our room was spacious, and we had a huge bathroom: both were spotless. The house is overall very beautiful and nicely decorated. The garden is lovely. Maruchi has two cats, a parrot, a dog and two acquariums, so if you love animals this is a plus. The breakfast was the best we had in Cuba – the coffee was delicious. We also had dinner there, and both times it was very good, just as the cocktails. Maruchi and her daughter are very informative and the people working at the house all very kind too. I can highly recommend this place.
overall, we found Santiago to be extremely polluted, and a nightmare to walk around for tourists in general but even more so for women, unless they are prepared to hear all sort of harassing comments, or to have men asking to sleep together or offering company. We literally could not stop in the street without having men and women coming forward to ask for pens, pencils, soap, shampoo and even the clothes we were wearing.
On the afternoon of 6 February we went to visit the cathedral of El Cobre: we loved it. It has some magic to it, seeing it from a distance is great. Here you find the small statue of the Madonna Mulata, which is all covered in gold clothes, and you can make an offer of flowers. There are many vendors on the way – make sure you do negotiate a good price. I think we paid 1 CUC for a bunch of sunflowers.
On 7 February we went to La Gran Piedra and the Cafetal nearby: a must see, but make sure you get a decent car as going up can be very difficult. It takes a while to get there, as the drive is very steep and very slow. You have to count 479 steps till the Gran Piedra, so be prepared, and it then is a little walk to the cafetal. On the same day we also went to Playa Siboney: not sure how it was before, but after Sandy it is so-so, and of course we got harassed there too. On 7 February we were meant to go to Baracoa by taxi after also visiting parque Baconao, but since the driver left us waiting in the sun for an hour and a half (YES!!) we decided to take our time to visit the park and then go back and take the Viazul the day after.
Parque Baconao: I really do not think it is worth seeing. The Criadero de Cocodrilos is sad, to say the least: you see crocodiles living in 3 meters x 3 cages. Not my idea of nature. Also the Acuario is very small, although we did get to swim with the dolphins (after some hard negotiating!) which is nice.
A tire exploded on the way from Santiago to Baracoa
The wall – casas particulares owners looking for guests at the bus station in Baracoa
Load it up!
We also want to go for a walk
Old style gym in Baracoa
El Yunque – a must hike in Baracoa
3) Baracoa 8-11 February: we took the Viazul on the early hours of 8 February. As we arrived on the Viazul station in Santiago, a wall of taxi drivers came forward to tell us the Viazul was full and offered us taxi rides to Baracoa. Of course this was not the case, so we managed to get on the bus, which is very slow as the street is bad and the bus stops very often. It stops in Guantanamo so that people are put in line to wash their hands in chlorine – a measure against cholera, I suppose. Then the bus stops every so often to pick up and let off friends of the driver, or to make sure the driver can say hi to other friends on the way, can shop for lunch, can drop off the shopping and what not. Of course, there are strategic stops to tourist traps – ie in the place where tourists are promptly offered the terrible cucuruchu, a super-sweet thing made of coconut, candied orange, nuts, honey and what not. At some point, we heard a huge noise. I thought a dog or sheep had been hit, but it turned out the bus had a flat tire. In fact, a tire had actually exploded and by the look of it, it was going to happen soon as it was completely smooth. The driver changed it and on we went.
In Baracoa we were meant to stay at Nilson (first choice on the lonely planet) but he claimed there was a problem with the toilet and sent us to Elvira, in Frank Pais. However, we hardly slept at night as there was too much noise in the street so as soon as we woke up we went to Gustavo y Yalina, which is the second choice on the Lonely Planet. Yalina is VERY nice, she is one of the kindest persons we have met in Cuba. We also ate at Nilson’s paladar, La Terraza, and I can easily say this is by far the best food we have had in Cuba. Highly recommend it. On the other hand, avoid the Casa de Chocolate. By European Standars, their chocolate is simply nasty!! Read here why.
On the 9th we went to Rio Toa and Playa Maguana: Rio Toa is a very clean river. We got a boat passage and were able to swim in the river. Playa Maguana: tourists should be warn that the minute you step off the cab you are literally surrounded by jineteros of paladars. You end up asking for a bocadito, they do say they will bring you one to later come back and tell you they are out of bread and make sure you eat what THEY want you to. And the food was bad. We found hairs in our fish. Disgusting – we only paid for the drinks.
On 10th February we hiked El Yunque, which seems to be a must do in Baracoa: calling it muddy is understating it! We were prepared, but it was very hard and the guide we had was close to horrible. He was rude, barely spoke to us, made sarcastic comments if we were slow walking down due to the mud. All in all an awful person. And then again, we had to negotiate the price to see the waterfalls and he seemed uninterested in making a little extra.
Restaurante La Punta: we attempted to eat there, but the combinations seemed bizarre and it was very touristy, so we left and instead went to eat at Paladar El Colonial, also mentioned on the Lonely Planet: Paladar El Colonial: this is good, but La Terraza is waaay better!!
On 11th February, before taking the bus back to Santiago, we went to Rio Yumuri. The ride is very nice and the canyon too, but it was about to rain when we went there.
When we got back, we took the bus back to Santiago and then from Santiago the 7:30 pm bus that goes to Trinidad, which also stops in Camaguey. It was hell. We froze on the bus. We protested so the air conditioning would be put off but the driver did not. I begged my sister to hug me so that I could be warmed up! We arrived in Camaguey at 2 am.
Camaguey – Che Comandante Amigo
Anybody wants cake?
Shopping in Cuba is a serious business
Side cars are very common
4) 12th and 13th February: Camaguey: can’t say much about it, except that we hated it. We felt trapped in it, the people were ever so harassing, both men and women. My sister was sunstroke (do pay attention in Cuba: it can get VERY hot even in “winter” and you may dehydrate quickly: drink a lot and stay out of the sun in the hottest hours) and we could not take the night bus (which is the only bus) to Trinidad, so we were stuck there for 2 nights, and we risked having to stay a third. From Camaguey we wanted to go to Moron to see the Cayos, but it was so expensive (no direct buses, and the taxi was so expensive) that we gave up. Even our landlady (we stayed at Casa Caridad) was very pushy, it was a nightmare to me. This is a nice, big house in the centre of Camaguey. We arrived at 2 am from Baracoa and found Caridad was waiting for us, and we immediately went to bed. We had a spacious room (but do forget a wardrobe, which anyhow seems to be a luxury in Cuba) and a very nice, big, clean antique (yet perfectly working, I must say) bathroom. We had a lovely breakfast, thanks to the lovely lady who works at the house during the day. Dinner was also good – Caridad cooked a very good soup which really helped my sister overcome her sunstroke. However, despite saying she made the best mojitos in Cuba, I must say I have a different opinion. Caridad is a very caring person, she makes sure you always understand what she means, and indeed constantly asks “entiendes” when she speaks (I do speak almost perfect Spanish, by the way). She always gives you her opinion on anything, and lots of advice – from tours, to drivers, to casas where to stay on your next stops in Cuba. She is so popular in Camaguey that her phone rings day and night and she has to attend to business almost 24/7. She is so busy that she has to send other people do her errands – ie her shy husband or her sons who do not live in the house. And I really do hope you can read between the lines. We hated the city so much that we did not even eat out once. We had food at Caridad and that was it. Also, I tried the (in)famous Coppelia icecream. I suppose if you keep in mind that it is only 5 cents a bowl you can appreciate it better, but I have to warn you that the hygienic conditions of the place are less than good. Eventually we decided to escape Camaguey and since the bus was at 2:30 am we asked the son of Caridad (who incidentally is a driver) to take us to Trinidad, which is a 4 hours drive. We paid 80 CUC. I suppose that if you are lucky enough to find other travellers you can go for cheaper, but we did not and we could not take one more minute in Camaguey. Cubans will tell you it is less than 3, but really it isn’t and he did speed a lot. Caredad insisted ever so much so that we’d stay at her friend’s house in Trinidad but we made it a point not to tell her where we were going to stay and not to listen to her.
I need to get my hair done!
The lovely cathedral of Trinidad
Donkeys are allowed in Trinidad city centre
Carts are not allowed
Valle los Ingenios
5) 13th-17 February: Trinidad: we were meant to stay at Hostal Nelson which is right next to the Viazul bus station, but as we were booked for the 14th, there was no place for us and we had to go find a room. In any case, I had a glipmse of the Hostal. We did not actually stayed at this house as when we arrived, a day earlier than expected, the house was full and the owners wanted to send us somewhere else to then move there the day after. We did not want to do this, as packing and unpacking means a huge waste of time for us. However, we got a glimpse of the house and it seemed ok, although they were doing construction works and on top of it the house is right next to the Viazul Bus Station. I would then expect it to be very loud in the morning. We ended up staying in a casa particular in a street nearby – Calle Francisco Gomez Toro 21. The rooms are actually right behind a jewelry atelier. We loved Israel and Zoila. We were the third people staying at the house, so the house was actually brand new, with a huge bed, nice clean and plain furniture. Zoila claims she is still learning how to be a host, so she is really helpful but never pushy.
Trinidad is a lovely city. It is the only one where we found a market, so get your shopping done here, but always negotiate a lot. The city requires little over half a day to visit. We also booked our tours from Cubatour (there are several offices in town).
On 15th February we went to Cayo Blanco: I cannot recommend this AT ALL. It is a real tourist trap. This was the most expensive tour we did, and the one we liked the least. They promised they’d take us to the coral reef, and they did not. It was a mere transportation to the Cayo on a catamaran, with an open bar serving rum and coke and beer, louzy and loud music, and rude people. We complained at Cubatour, and asked to be refunded at least partially, but they declined responsibility and all we got was a lot of yelling and the suggestion to be taken for 1 hour snorkelling the day after (although they all knew we were booked to go to El Caburnì). Read more about how to avoid tourist traps and scams.
On 16th February we went to Topes de Collantes and Caburnì: this was super-nice. If you can, I recommend you get Leo as a guide: he is really great, caring and explains a lot of the secrets of the forest. The hike is farely easy, all the way down you get to the Salto de Caburnì. The water is so cold, but it is so rewarding to get there, and you know it will be so hot on the way back (uphill!), that you will want to jump in this amazing natural pool.
In Trinidad almost all the nightlife takes place in the steps near the Casa de la Musica. That is where we went to meet friends and have drinks and a chat. It is more expensive than in other places but the atmosphere is very nice, especially on Saturdays.
We ate at the Paladar Sol y Son is very good but terribly expensive. For 1/3 of the price, 3 of us ate in Baracoa.
Taberna la Canchancara: this is a tourist trap. The drinks are already made, and of course the minute you step in a band starts playing – for a whole 5 minutes! and then demands 10 CUC for a CD.
Valle Los Ingenios: this is a half day tour. Our guide was Ada, also very nice and really into her job. She does explain a lot of the history of sugar industry and takes you to hidden and less touristy places too.
Amazing sunset in Cienfuegos
El Nicho natural pools
Coral reef in the Bahia de Cochinos
Crystal clear waters
6) On 17th February we took the Viazul bus to Cienfuegos, where we stayed until the 20th (when we left to go to Vinales), it is only 90 minutes drive: in Cienfuegos we stayed at Olga y Eugenio, which is listed in the Lonely Planet. This is the best house we had in Cuba, by far, and the cheapest: great value for money and very good atmosphere. The owners are not pretentious, they are simple sweet people who want to have a chat and who often have friends coming over. They are very modest and friendly people, the ones most interested in chatting with us, helpful and never pushy. Olga is shy (odd for a Cuban!) but Eugenio is so sweet and friendly.
On 17th February Eugenio recommended we eat at Las Manparas, which is on the Paseo. The food was DELICIOUS, freshly made and VERY cheap (16 CUC for the 2 of us, with cocktails included!). Lots of Cubans there too, so you know it is not a tourist trap.
On 19th February we ate at Dona Nora, also on the Paseo and also very tasty (I had lamb) amd cheap, and they also have live music and tables on the terrace.
On 18th February we went to Bahia de Cochinos, which is great: through Eugenio we managed to get a ride for 70 CUC (a very good price, although I must admit the car was a bit rotten!) which took us to Playa Giron, Bahia de Cocinos, Criaderos de Cocodrilos AND Caleta Buena. We did not see the Laguna del Tesoro as there was a LONG wait (I suppose reservations are welcomed) and it is very touristy (lots of tours from those big organised trips). Our driver was very very friendly. We then had dinner at the casa, and it was A LOT of very good food (lobster AND fish for 8 CUC, plus salad, rice, beans and icecream).
On 19th February, with the same driver we went to El Nicho. Given the beauty of this place, we would have expected a much longer description of it in the Lonely Planet. This place is paradise! The water is VERY cold, but it is totally worth a swim and the water is clear, clean and the surroundings gorgeous. Definitely a must see (one of those “worth the trip” kind of places). On the way back we also went to the Jardines Botanico. In the evening we went to have drinks at the Palacio and got totally ripped off by a bici-taxi. I am still thinking that if I ever meet that guy, I will give him a piece of my mind!!
Vinales daily life
Tobacco plantations in Vinales valley
Bulls are used to cultivate the land
Who wouldn’t want to snorkel in these waters?
7) 20th-23rd February: Vinales: we went there straight from Cienfuegos, with a Transtur bus which we took outside the Hotel La Union and took less than 7 hours. There are lots of houses in Vinales, some of them good, some others quite bad. We stayed at a very nice one right next to the bakery, called Casa Dovales, where the ladies of the house are friendly and helpful, the breakfast was very good and the dinner excellent. But before going there we had a very bad experience at some other house (which I will explain later). We ate at El Olivo, which was ok, but expensive (insanely expensive for Cuban standards) and at Don Tomas, which was truly terrible (warmed up, tasteless food with cooked vegetables out of a can!). From Vinales, we did a number of daily excursions:
Cayo Jutias: top! Once there we did the snorkelling trip to the coral reef and it was 100% worth it, although we had to pay an extra price! The guide showed us lots of fishes too – you won’t regret it.
Vinales Valley: I have a story that sums up how I felt: we have stayed at Casa Boris and Mileidi house in Vinales and ever so regret it. I was asked to write a review so here I am making sure I recall exactly the facts. When my sister and I arrived in Vinales we went to the local tourist information desk to book a number of daily tours in the area. One of them was a biking tour of the entire valley. The guy at the desk immediately called our local guide, Boris, who as soon as he saw me suggested we’d dance salsa together. I just ignored him and we booked the tour, that was all we wanted. he also mentioned that we could stay at his casa particular, and since we were yet to find a room, we did. The rented rooms, I must say, are ok and large and clean. The house is nice, it has a nice patio. Boris has a car (a yellow Lada, which must be some 35 years old but which, as with all Cuban cars, must have been fixed several times: as of right now the car is being fixed). Boris claimed he speaks English. In fact, I think he knows a few words of it and I spoke Spanish to him all the time, even on the tour. Two days later we had the tour. We met at 8:30 outside Boris’ house so we could get the bikes. He started working on the seats, to adjust them, as we are quite petite girls. After a bit of work, my sister tried the bike and decided she was not going to do the tour after all, as she was too afraid of biking. After that, I set off with Boris, who almost immediately started asking whether I had a “novio” in Italy. I told him I was engaged (I am not, in fact) and made up a story about how my boyfriend and I met etc, but this did not stop him from making sleezy comments, such as that it was a real pity I had a fiancée, that otherwise he’d want to be with me, and then it was all about telling me I am a linda italiana, linda chica, guapa and what not. I kept ignoring. Boris had his own camera, so he’d take pictures to put on his “website” (he claims to have studied computer science at university, but who knows if this is true) so he could show pictures of the tours for future customers. This came out handy in the end, as my camera ran out of battery soon after starting the tour, but there is a part of the story which is yet to be told. As we arrived at the Cueva del Palmerito (which, by the way, is currently closed for “inspections” and nobody can tell when it is going to be opened again) I met other tourists and we exchanged a few words. One of them was a Mexican guy who spoke perfect English. We met him again at a farmer’s house, where we were offered some coco loco (we were asked for an offer in exchange of it, so I gave 1 CUC which is what I had on me at the moment) and we could sit on rocking chairs. There, I immediately sensed a change in Boris’ mood and attitude. He seemed irritated about something, and in fact almost jealous of me speaking English to the Mexican guy. But this is not the best part yet. At some point, in Spanish, he asked the Mexican guy whether he had any intention to sleep with me, coz if not, he was gonna try to. All of this in front of me. I guess he did not realise I understand Spanish much better than I speak it (and I do speak it quite well), and less than anything he did not guess that in any case the Mexican guy would refer all of this to me. I knew I’d be safe, as Cubans are usually afraid of the police and as soon as you mention the word they back off. As we left again, we kept going on our tour. His mood had switched, he biked in front of me, I’d even say far from me. He alternated moments in which he was very caring and helpful to others in which he was distant, distracted and unhelpful. Anyways, we kept on biking. He then received a number of work phone calls, and some from his friends who were apparently celebrating something at a camping nearby (Campismo Dos Hermanas), where we’d pass by anyways as it is right in front of the Murales de la Preistoria, which I also wanted to see. As we arrived at the camping, I decided I was going to “jump” in the pool (big word, as the pool was half empty anyways) as it was way too hot. So Boris sat with his friends and I went to the pool. His friends were a number of girls and boys, who were all busy drinking rum (I was offered some too) and listening to music, which to me was at real odds with the environment (we were in the Valley of Silence). The Mexican guy and his guide arrived soon after (they were doing a walking tour), so we sat speaking as the rest sat drinking. Then we heard the group – both men and women – encourage Boris to “try me out”, saying I was surely ready for him, and challenging him to see if he could make me fall for him. This, of course, was all done in Spanish, in the midst of drinking. Whenever we got closer to the group, they’d start whispering to their ears. At that point, Boris told me we’d leave again in 15-30 minutes, so of course while he was meant to keep on showing me around, he instead could sit and drink with his friends. I did not mind, we had the entire day after all. However, knowing the flexibility of Cuban timing (15 minutes usually means 45 minutes) I told him I’d want to go in 15. He then stood up and told me he’d go horseback riding and he’d be back in 2 minutes. Of course, he came back much later than that. Anyways, we set off again. Our tour kept on, we visited Los Aquaticos, we went to see a view of the Valley from Loz Jazmines – where Boris was again encouraged by the guys at the bar to show me he is a real man (and again I could understand that) and we finally went to a lake. When we got back, seeing I still was not giving in to his charme (I made sure to keep my distance), Boris asked me to meet him at night, after dinner, so he’d offer me a drink. I agreed to that and told him I was going to meet him at the square with my sister and he made sure to point out where exactly I should meet him. He then transferred the pictures from his memory card to one I gave him. After having dinner with my sister, I tried to look at the pictures and realised that I could not see any, so I absolutely had to get them from Boris!! Soon after that, my Mexican friend showed up. I asked him to stay with me till Boris would come and I would retrieve my pictures. Boris finally showed up, but he was not happy to see me with the Mexican guy and see that he’d walk with us at his place, and in fact he took a much longer way home and several times he told him “goodbuy” as if he was inviting him to leave. After retrieving the pictures, we took off to go back to the square, and Boris made a turn to go to a different bar and again shook the Mexican’s hand to make sure he’d leave me alone with him, finally. I told him I was gonna go to bed and he then asked me quite insistently what I was doing the day after, since he had no tours in the morning. I told him I’d make sure to let him know in the morning, and he then stood there, expecting a kiss goodbye I suppose. I just walked off with the Mexican friend, who made sure to walk me home. Boris called me again, and again asked me what I was doing the day after, and again I told him I did not know and had to speak to my sister yet. Overall, I would not recommend him as a guide, nor would I recommend his house, because with the lovely house you also get his insults in the price. He is just an improvised guide, who takes you to places to see but can hardly give any real explanation of what is going on. I enjoyed the ride anyways, as Vinales Valley is incredibly beautiful and has some magic to it. But trust never to stay at his house alone, make sure you travel with male friends or at with other friends at all times if you wish to avoid him making a move on you. This is a real pity, because the house is actually nice, but I felt uncomfortable and observed all the time and this ruined my mood and my sleep as I was really angry for treating me like an object. I guess this sums up how Cuban men treat women, both theirs and foreigners. I found it unacceptable and I was utterly disgusted, and it would be better if tourists travelling to Vinales were informed about this.
8) 23 February: we were meant to take Viazul to Las Terrazas but we managed to get a taxi for 20 CUC. Originally we negotiated for 30 (the first price they told us was 50). But when we found out the bus was only 8 each, we decided we would not go for more than 20 CUC. The driver agreed but the jinetero was not happy about it. Las Terrazas: we stayed at Hotel Moka. This is the first and only hotel we stayed in Cuba. And thankfully, if I may add so. Casas particulares are much better. If you want to know why, read here. It is supposed to be a close-to-luxury ecoresort. Yeah, rights! First thing first: we had read the entire village of Las Terrazas was built to be in line and as much hidden in the nature as possible. I suppose to Cuban standards white condos with blue shutters means hidden in the nature, then? The hotel, built in the 1990s, has spacious rooms with a view over Las Terrazas. On arrival, a maletero promptly took our suitcases, although we protested we were happy to carry them, and once we were in the room he did not leave until we tipped him. When we left, we did stated we had no money to spare, just in case he would offer the favour again. Our room had two large beds, and a nice balcony, which however needed a good deal of cleaning. The furniture in the room looked a bit old, and like it needed a bit of refreshing. There was a fridge, but it was CLEARLY stated on a sign on it that nothing in it was included in the price we paid for the room. Same thing with the safe (again, it stated “not included”). Satellite tv meant we had the luxury of 4 channels and swimming pool was, in fact, little more than a dirty bath tub. We had a large bathroom, with a bathtub that had a HUGE window in case we wanted to take a bath and at the same time enjoy the view. Pity that the water would not get any warmer than barely lukewarm, so that no bath was really possible. As Cubans seems to have no appreciation for silence and the sounds of nature, loud music was played until late at night, strikingly at odds with the tranquillity one would expect from an eco-lodge. The best part of the eco-lodge is that it is so clean that it is in fact cleaned with BLEACH, which is sweeped over the plants, quite literally. So much for environmental respect. Breakfast was included in the price. It was ok – except for the pancakes which were more similar to chewing gum. The place is somehow isolated, which means that travelling options are scarce. We were asked for 60 CUC to go to the airport, and we eventually negotiated down to 30 when we told the driver that we had arrived the day before from Vinales having paid 20. However I have a feeling the driver was not an authorised one. Overall, I regret even going to Las Terrazas and I would much rather have stayed (for much cheaper) in Vinales.
General recommendations: it is always better to eat at Paladares (privatly owned restaurants) rather than restaurants – they are cheaper and the food is fresher and made to the order rather than warmed up. Casas particulares are better than state owned hotels, much better value for money and they are generally clean, although watch out as the owners will definitely try to sell you their guides, their taxis, their dinners etc and make you feel guilty if you say no. However, do speak your mind and do whatever pleases you. After all, you are there to enjoy it and not to make them happy. Always be tough when negotiating the prices, especially with taxis. You can be sure that no matter what, you will get ripped off! Breakfast is always better at the casas. If you do not like eggs for breakfast, you will have a hard time as it is close to impossible to find yogurt and cereals in Cuba. We were often warned against street food, but we still had churros, pina coladas, fruit and even the pizzas. Ok they may not be Italian pizzas but they were actually ok and for 20 MN (moneda nacional) each they are a real bargain. Churros are also delicious. Try guarapo – sugar cane juice. But get ready as it is SUPER sweet. Never accept anything in the streets, such as cigars or rhum. Buy it yourself in shops. You can be sure that if you trust people in the streets you will get ripped off.
I would recommend that Lonely Planet authors take more of a female approach in their guide. We found it really REALLY hard to deal with people in Cuba, both men and women. We felt we could not trust anybody, and that is how other travellers we met also felt. For the vast majority, men were harassing, aggressive, they would never take “no” for an answer, they insisted and they made sexist comments which were unwelcome. Nobody was willing to help, really – not unless you paid something. I have come to realise, through other male travellers, that men are treated much better, to the point that they were welcomed in houses “for free”. We did not even get a glass of water for free, ever. From the first to the last person we met, they all expected something from us – sex, money, favours, clothes, whatever. It is much better to travel in a group, together with male travellers as well, to minimize the risk of harassment. And NEVER for one second say that that is your first time in Cuba! Always negotiate things very strongly – in any case, you can be sure that the price you are paying in the end is much higher than what it would normally be. And hardly trust anybody: we found we were generally told what Cubans thought we wanted to hear.
If I could go back in time, I would rent a car from Europe, through the internet, because you can be sure that if you go to a rental car in Cuba they will make excuses, they will not show you a fee booklet, you will have to negotiate the prices, you won’t find anybody at the office and will eventually give up. Renting a car saves a lot of money in terms of having to pay excessive amounts of money for a “chauffer” who is most likely going to show up when he feels like it (we were left waiting in the sun for 90 minutes in Siboney) and who is going to make crucial stops at his friends places so that you end up paying for the guides he recommends (when maybe you did not even want a guide), paladares he recommends (when you may not even be hungry) etc. Also, the buses are bad. Viazul is terrible – on the way to Baracoa the tire exploded and when the driver stopped to change it we could see it was completely smooth, ie not safe to drive around in that. Furthermore, Viazul is very dirty (we had a nest of cockroaches on one of them, and it was hell), very cold (air conditioning is kept so high even if it is cold outside!) and very slow (the drivers stop every 5 minutes to drop someone off, to go shopping to say hi to friends). If your time is limited it is much MUCH better to rent a car and get a very good road map and have to do with poor signals etc. Finally, tourists should be warned that paying a fee (low or high) does not actually mean getting a service. In fact, in Cuba there seems not to be anything such as “customer service” or “customer satisfaction”.
It is overall a beautiful place, with interesting cities and amazing nature. Just a pity that you are only allowed to see so much and that there is hardly any cultural exchange with the locals.
If you would like to know more about my Cuban adventures, read here.
HELLO, NICE TO MEET YOU!
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…