Sandra and I departed Vancouver on a Friday night, red-eye to Toronto, a four hour layover. Man, the food at Pearson International, secure area, sucks the big one. We could have gone direct or through Mexico City, but we had set our time parameters to get us out and back on certain days, so we paid a price. Still, for three weeks touring Cuba, a small price to pay.
Arrived at the Veradaro International Airport, Cuba, on time. We had received some sage advice from Air Canada personnel in Toronto – there is a visa that one has to fill out before arriving for Passport inspection in Cuba and they want ALL of the blanks filled in. Like, for instance, if you are planning to avoid hotels? Best have a hotel name to enter in the appropriate blank. i.e.: Hotel Pullman, cough, cough. We stepped off the plane with no reservations, no names to call, but with some insights garnered from people that had just returned.
It’s kinda helpful if someone speaks a wee bit of Spanish…but hey, if not…out with the phrase book and you’ll do fine. When you arrive anywhere – airport, bus, train – in Cuba, you will be met by people offering you services. Taxis, Coco-Cabs, Taxi Particulars, places to stay (Casa Particular). The trick then is to already have an address in mind for a Casa Particular. You arrange for transport, always asking how much, in advance. I don’t think you’ll get ripped off, you just might end up paying a buck more than if you bargained.
When you arrive at your Casa Particular, it is a given that you will inspect it first. The taxi driver will wait for you and if you don’t like what you see, no sweat. Being polite and indicating that you are not accepting the room will usually solicit from the Casa owner an offer to call a friend (they are ALL friends), or the taxi driver will know someone, a friend with a Casa. You should be comfy with the offering. If not, move on. You can expect to pay $15-20US for each night. Normally, there will also be an offer of breakfast and supper…these will run about $3 each for breakfast and $7 each for supper. The room ought to have an A/C unit, a private bathroom and hopefully a window or balcony with a view. This isn’t always so…and this is when you say thanks, but no thanks. You HAVE to have a window.
Meals are fabulous, especially supper. You are given choices like fish, lobster, shrimp, chicken and pork. In our experience, they are ALL great. Breakfast will vary, sometimes fruits and juices – all fresh – sometimes an egg, all with toast and usually jam. Some areas of Cuba have more things available than others. Jam and butter, for instance. Oh yeah…queso too…cheese. For lunch you are on your own and that usually means ‘pizza queso’. Street pizzas are 2 or 3 for a buck. You can always find a cold beer or bottle of water.
We eat our breakfasts and are set to wander, but we had the world’s worst guide book. I won’t name it, but starts with an F and ends with an R. Footprint and Lonely Planet, use them ones. We borrowed from others, whenever we could, to make notes and so on…geeeez, how could we have been so dumb? I think we were being cheap.
The streets of Cuba are made to explore. Every town has it’s ‘Plaza Central’ and churches and Municipal buildings. They all have museums, many of questionable merit. The deal here is that you see an interesting doorway or building, in you go. If it’s a ‘museum’ you will be asked to cough up one or two bucks each. No big deal, I know, but after a while it becomes tiresome.
Music and Cuba – the two words are synonymous and rightfully so. Everywhere there are the strains of music. Sometimes it’s the Bee Gees or Eagles and sometimes it’s Pollo Montanez, a current fave. Often enough, it’s live sound coming from a restaurant or from a park plaza. The Cubans really do love music, of all kinds. The plaza’s come alive at night, after ten, and in Trinidad…aaahhhhh…the best place in the world to be on a hot Cuban night. Cobblestone plaza, drinks of your choice and music to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Many restaurants in Havana have live music from lunch time onwards and lets face it, it’s for the tourista’s. But still, the sounds are great and a buck or two in a basket every so often keeps everyone smiling.
Travel is for the most part, a breeze. There are several levels of buses, one for tourists only, ViaZul. It covers most of the country, is cheap enough and is a/c equipped. You make reservations a day or two before in the high season, or an hour before departure during the quieter times. The buses for Cubanos are not a/c equipped and man, they can be crowded. Trains, planes…if you want to go, there are lots of ways. We chose to not rent a car as the cost per day is high and IF you should have an incident, you pay up-front and deal with right/wrong from home. You pay IN CASH, up front or you can’t leave for home…so really, who needs the hassle?
Anyplace in Cuba, you are a sales target, albeit not a hard pressed one. Once you say no, the person goes off in search of another. Whether for cigars, taxi’s, paradors (private restaurants, Gov’t licensed), we have what the people do not. Money in pocket and a ticket to ride. Having said that, we never had a moment’s concern about personal safety. We always felt our belongings were secure when we left them at our ‘Casa’ for a day wander, didn’t need eyes in the backs of our heads when busing or training. Sandra felt so connected that after two weeks at home, she is still having trouble being back in our part of the world.
If the opportunity presents itself…Go!