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.