Torsten Curdt’s weblog

Backpacking through Cuba

IMG_3117Now it’s already more than three weeks since we got back from vacation. And it took a while to sort my thoughts on this trip to Cuba. To put the verdict up front: picturesque but not really recommended.

I don’t want to say it was a bad vacation …but somehow it just seems that general picture of Cuba is a bit too romantic. Don’t you also think of these friendly people living in this beautiful but worn down buildings, music, cigars, rum and a little “viva la revolution”. All this with some sunshine and some “Buena Vista Social Club” music in the background? Well, some of that is true …unfortunately some is not – and if you continue reading it might destroy what you believe Cuba is today.

So what was wrong? Well, the one thing that really annoyed us so much that we were actually happy to be back was the greed – this unbelievable rip-off mentality that I have never ever experienced before like that. Hustlers everywhere! What I really hated is that they made us distrust anyone! This and the arbitrariness.
We met a girl that lived in Cuba for a while about 10 years ago. She so couldn’t stand the new face of Cuba that she was trying to change her flight and leave earlier. I think that speaks a thousand words.

Cuba must have been the pearl of the Caribbean. But it’s seems many Cubanos are selling out the spirit of their country …until everything is gone. Let’s hope they realize this before it is too late. In case you want to experience it yourself here are a few hints that might have helped us a great deal.

IMG_3137 Be aware that Cuba is more expensive than you might think. Going for dinner in Berlin or in Habana – not sure what is more expensive. Having some peso cubano in your pocket can’t hurt. But essentially you can only use them for some food on the street (which you probably shouldn’t eat – both of us got sick for day) or marketplaces. After all we were not able to spend our peso cubanos worth 10 EUR in 2 weeks. In the city no one wants the old money – they want the peso convertible (=CUC) which was introduced as a replacement for the US dollar. Also note: after exchange surcharges 1 CUC is almost 1 EUR. According to our guidebooks withdrawing money at banks should be no problem. But for us it was. Cash is king in Cuba. Otherwise you might end up paying up to 12% surcharge at the public exchange offices. (Use their machines! They are still cheaper than going to the counter! …if they work)

IMG_3143 In general I have to say that the guidebooks we had were just terrible! I have never ever owned such a terrible “lonely planet” as the one for Cuba. Making boring things interesting or providing just wrong information (phone numbers etc.). One time we ended up heading to what was a suggested jazz club. We found it in an ugly shopping plaza! Terrible! The money for the taxi down the drain.
The guidebook from Stefan Klose was slightly better – but I was missing a proper structure. At least the little Habana map thingy from National Geographic was useful when walking through the city. So in the end the best tips we got were personal recommendations. (cheers Marc!)

Staying in casa particulares is the way to go when traveling through Cuba. Basically they are bed-and-breakfasts. You should expect a double room to be around 25-30 CUC plus another 4 CUC for breakfast per person. Despite what guidebooks say don’t expect a feast. Especially the white bread is not much more than crispy air. Only one casa we staid at had exceptional food.
Although we found the best casa we stayed at through the usually proposed casa-to-casa recommendation method, I even dare to say – this method just ain’t work. Too often people recommended casas because they wanted to help out their friends – not because they wanted to help us. So you get shown this dark little cubbyholes you better know how to say no to. Another problem why this doesn’t work well is availability. We found a couple of nice casas during our travel. And some of them were really fantastic. Marvelous gems …that you have to book at least 2-3 weeks beforehand.

Getting around
IMG_3437 We found getting around in Cuba not that easy. For the big cities there are buses. The Viazul (air-conditioned) and Astro bus lines. Other than that you are left with taxi and local buses. So driving would have been the obvious choice. At least if you are outside the cities. (I would not want to drive in Habana) But street signs are bad in Cuba. Off the big streets you basically have to pick up hitchhikers (a very common thing in Cuba) in order to find your way. We did not always feel that comfortable with that to be completely honest. Plus renting a car is quite expensive. We paid about 70 CUC per day. So we got the car only for a few days.

IMG_3327 We might be spoiled from the trip to Fiji but the Cuban beaches were quite a disappointment. For some reason there are very few cities that are close to the beach. And the (supposedly) good ones are resort style. Well, probably depends whether you like that sort or vacations or not. Varadero at least seems to be the tourist trap. Being at least a little smaller – St. Lucia was a little to hard to get to. From the lonely planet Cienfuegos sounded like a good alternative. Close to the nice city and beach and good diving. Well, too bad that even locals rarely go swimming directly in Cienfuegos. They dispose the wastewater into the ocean. So the actual beach people refer to is “Rancho Luna“. A nice beach – but not spectacular. 15km from Cienfuegos. You need to get a taxi or be lucky to catch the local bus. This is also where I went diving. (Not that I could recommend the dive operator – but the diving itself was quite nice). A beach that also got recommended for diving was Playa Giron. While the lonely planet dissed it being dirty and full of dog poo it was probably the nicest beach we found in Cuba. Seriously! It’s quite remote in the bay of the pigs. The area wasn’t really welcoming …but – obviously beach and diving seems to be OK. (Don’t expect much of the museum about the invasion though). The reason we finally gave up looking for some beach-style relaxation during this vacation was Playa Ancon. People kept calling it the 2nd best beach after Varadero. Well, maybe we catched a windy day so the water wasn’t that clear …but in general we weren’t impressed.

La Habana
IMG_3464 While centro seemed a little more lively at night we enjoyed staying in La Habana Vieja, the old part of town. A taxi ride from the airport should not cost you more than maybe 15 CUC but it seems the widely agreed rip-off price is more around 20-25 CUC. No matter what the meter says. We stay very close to the well known Floridita, a bar Hemmingway used to hang out. The area was perfect Casa Mercedes was not. Well, we just booked it via internet. Looked nice. But in the end these casa owners where the worst we’ve met. Not very helpful. You had to pay for everything! Nothing in life comes for free – but that was just crazy. It was the only casa where we had to pay for a few local calls – big time! We booked a room with own bath – and we had to share. They booked us a private taxi to the Viazul bus terminal in order to save us some money. Well, on the way back we took a proper taxi back to Vieja and realized that is was not that far away at all and we got ripped-off in the beginning. A casa to recommend is Casa Humberto. Unfortunately they were booked out for weeks. But it looked quite cosy. The food was supposed to be good as well. Not exactly cheap (around 30 CUC per person) but probably the best food we had in Cuba was at Paladar La Guarida. World standard in a fantastic setting. You really have to book in advance! When you are tired of walking through Vieja, check out the courtyard of Hotel Florida. It nice to chill out there for a bit and surprisingly they also serve cheap but good sandwiches and good Mojitos. Oh …another casa that looked great and had really nice hosts was Casa Lourdes.

IMG_3175 Is a nice little town that in the south (on the peninsula) feels a little like an US suburb. The old town was also declared world heritage but frankly speaking it wasn’t that spectacular compared to Habana or Trinidad. But still worth a quick stop-over either for the delicious food and the nice hosts at Casa Jorge A. Pineiro Vazquez. Very nice people. A good casa. If you can get a booking for the at Ave 20 esq 35 #3502 Altos Punta Gorda you might want to even stay longer. Probably the coolest casa we’ve seen in during our trip. Huge and gorgeous rooms in big colonial style house with a big garden and balcony overlooking the ocean.

IMG_3256 Just like Cienfuegos Trindad is declared world heritage and when you walk through the streets of this little town you know why. It was the city we enjoyed staying at the most. If only less tourist groups would be around. When we arrived we tried to get a room in the recommended Casa Escobar. Nice but not that great. Sounded better in the book. Next we tried was really nice though. Casa Arandia is a huge colonial style house and has a nice patio. Of course they were booked out. But this time we got recommended to Casa Mercedes Mauri which was one of the best places we stayed at. We really enjoyed the mixture of privacy and integration. The room was good nice situated in a colonial style house with a nice patio. Own bath and the only place where we got proper bread for breakfast. And the parrot was just funny – calling us when it was bored :) Exceptional dinner you can get at the paladares “Sol y Son” and “Estela”. Both really recommended! This time the lonely planet was right.
Near Trinidad there is a nice waterfall. We took a horse riding tour to get there. Well, what can I say. I had a very competitive horse always trying to be first. Quite funny. In order to get to the waterfall they charge you 6 CUC …and for the smart ones they check again that you paid when you arrive at the falls. (ripp off!)

Santa Clara
This town doesn’t seem very spectacular. We manage to get there when the only thing I was interested in (the Che museum) was actually closed. We stayed in the quite horrible Casa Ana Perez Martinez. But if you can get a room in Casa Florida Center just that is worth a stay. That casa actually looked fantastic. One of the best we’ve seen. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky to get a room. Again booking way in advance is required.

Closing note
It’s really hard to squeeze two weeks into even a lengthy blog post. Also I just realized this all probably sounds a little too negative. In fact we had a lot of fun and just the opportunity to take pictures was worth it. I am not saying we know Cuba just after that. No way after 2 weeks. And I bet it’s a totally different experience if you know some locals. I just hope this post might help people to avoid some of the annoyances and helps them to make it a better vacation.

If you are interested in more details just let me know.

  • Taylor
    It's called an embargo. If you want to blame anyone for your bad experiences you can blame the U.S. government. If you think you were inconvenienced or had some bad experiences try being a cuban who has lived there all thier lives. Hustlers, scam artisits, friends trying to help friends, etc. etc. - Sounds like a country filled with people struggling to make ends meet. I find a smile, sharing a laugh with locals and going with the flow works best, no matter where in the world I am. I love to travel and I always expect to pay more than locals and to get "ripped" off from time to time. Big deal. Considering the economic restraints and lack of resources I think Cuba has done very well. With a little understanding, patience and perhaps a little more empathy your trip would have been one of your best.
  • klod1000
    I have been to Cuba twice and going back in two weeks and have to say it is an amazing place. The key is to mingle with locals, you have to avoid the husslers and get to know the good cubans, I know this can be hard sometimes, but it must be tried. The locals know how to have fun and once you have earned their friendship and respect they really will go very far to make sure you have a great stay! If you act like you have money to throw around, you will become a target for husslers. You have to be careful. I think you were just unlucky this time...
  • Hey, Gevin. I can recommend Costa Rica. I heard very good things about Nicaragua and always wanted to checkout Belize. A friend of mine really liked Jamaica quite a bit. But Cuba might still be a good option. Just watch out for the gotchas. Have fun! :)
  • ciao
    I have to go to Santo Domingo, DR to work for 4-6 weeks and I was thinking of backpacking in Cuba afterwards. Do you, or anyone else have recommendations for other locations(Jamaica, Puerto Rico, wherever) for camping/hostel/casa stays and backpacking. I'm a white U.S. citizen with not a lot of money but I speak Spanish and am cozy sleeping anywhere. Thanks, I like this blog and stream of comments.
  • @Simon: Hey, as you can see from the comments this is very controversial subject :) But I think there really is more to it than just Habana and beach resorts. If you really have been to countries hard to travel in - it will not be that hard in Cuba. But I am not feeling comfortable giving out recommendations for what we haven't done. It's not like we got to know Cuba very well in this few weeks. An it really depends what you like. I loved just strolling around and taking pictures in Habana. Don't let the "few days" become too short. Be aware that the good Casa's you might need to book in advance. A good place to stay makes a big difference. And especially judging from the comments on this post - try to get in contact with locals as much as possible. Hopefully at least one of you speaks spanish. That also will make a big difference.
  • My girl friend and I are planning a 3 week trip to Cuba from the 15th Oct. Most of the research i have done says there is very little to do in Cuba apart from visit Havana for a few days and then hang out on a resort (we are not really resort people)

    What can you suggest for a 3 week trip of Cuba? We are the backpacker type who have been to many hard country's to travel in but we are looking to take it a little bit easier this time.My Girl friend is German so feel free to reply in German :)
  • Chris
    Thanks for letting us share your experience. 6 years ago I did the same journey....Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos. I had negative and postive experiences...but could imagine it has changed in the recent years, esp. around Havana.

    Anyway I am now planning to see the East bit of the country. ie. Santiago. Anyone who has been there...is it still different down there?
  • Nat

    Loved reading this post. Really helpful as we are planning 2 weeks in Cuba in May. Do you have any contact details for the Casa's in Trinidad you mention as I am unable to find anything on the web about them.
    We are planning on taking buses down the country and staying in Casa's along the way.
  • plan gerade mit einer freundin ne kubareise für juli. wär für ein paar tipps zu den fantastic casa particulares dankbar.
  • Vanessa
    Well, I must say I totally agree with Andy Woodspot, after spending 2 and half months in Cuba backpacking, living with a Cuban family and living the 'real' Cuban lifestyle, that is quite tough I came away from my experience a much happier person. Of all the places in the world Cuba is the one I would highly recommend to anyone looking for an experience that is on the path of "least travelled". I would ahve to disagree about the beaches as las Playas del Este were devine, there is plenty of nightlife if you are willing to take everything with a pinch of salt put on your salsa shoes and get on the dance floor and learn. I think you take from Cuba what you put into your Cuban experience, I put in loads of energy, loads of enthusiasm and that is what is exactly what I got in return. Anyone thinking of going to Trinidad pleae, please, please make sure you go for a dance on the famous stairs just past the town centre behind the church and after that go vist La Cueva the most sensational nightclub you will experience, it is literally in cave hence the name. If you speak spanish and look hispanic, or Cuban even better, I think that's what helped me I am South American so I have a distinct advantage.

    I loved it so much I am going back there next year to get married!!!

    Make Cuba your next destination!!!!
  • Andy, be sure it was not the potential eye of the rich that was the problem here. We haven't been traveling just rich countries before. And my girl friend knows Russia and the eastern parts of Europe quite well. A few things in Cuba reminded her a lot of some the annoyances you find there. The point is: we met good people! We know Cuba can be great! Unfortunately some people in this country do not seem to care. They just see the $$$ in the tourist. More than we have experienced in other countries. And this made our stay unpleasant at times. But more important it made us angry that we ended up with a general distrust in Cuban people. Which we know is not fair! I think if you have the time and get to know more locals the experience will be much better - as you can confirm. But let's face it - it is no longer "Buena Vista Social Club". Times have changed.
  • My, oh, my. Quite a downer. I can only think you're looking at the country with the eyes of a rich westerner. Recently returned from a year's cycling round Cuba, and I've never been happier. The welcome is unfailingly friendly and genuine. Found a Cuban wife! Going back for good soon.
  • Tanya
    I read your blog as my partner and are going to Cuba for 3 weeks in August. It is always good to get different perspectives of the place you are visiting before you go. I find your view of Cuba a little negative, which you yourself admit to. I hope that besides the few experiences you had which were a little less than positive, you managed to enjoy the majority of the trip.

    Negtivity aside, I appreciate some of the points you make and the reccommendations for casas particulares. Wish us luck.
  • Ann
    I came to your blog looking for a Joost invite and stayed for an hour. I live in Seattle-my husband has a friend who 'commutes' to Cuba 3 times a year to live with the woman he met and married who still lives there. We've gotten into lots of discussions about that country and instead of just getting the USA media input (bad Fidel/bad Cuba) I've come to understand how things are down there from an insiders point of view. I'm not surprised you had to pay for everything....they have so little. When our friend Eric comes back to the states he comes with a list of things to get (from medical supplies, car repair items, basics like soap/shampoo items). He says his job when he is there with his wife and her son is 'to find, that day, who is making and selling bread in the neighborhood so I can line up to buy a loaf; or who is baking cookies so I can buy 6;" its a subsistence existence that I just can't imagine. So when he is back in the city here he wallows in the availability of food...which we all take for granted. Your travel descriptions and photos are great. Thank you for sharing them. Ann
  • Was a good blog to read when one is contemplating a trip to Cuba. How much should one budget for two weeks backpacking in Cuba?

    It seems like you are quit involved with Joost as well. Where can one get one of these precious invites?
  • Really enjoyed reading this post.

    Palin's Hemingway Adventure covers some of Cuba at the end, definitely worth a look.
  • Michael Melhem
    Good Post TC.

    Perhaps you should try your hand at travel writer! Great photos too.
  • Great photos and super site! - keep it up n keep on travlin'
  • dan
    Wirklich sehr sehr schöne Aufnahmen und Motive, Torsten. Fast zu schade für flickr ;)

    Sieht aus, als hättet Ihr eine gut Zeig gehabt.

    Gruss aus Zürich
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