Cuba has long been a mystery to the rest of the world. A revolution carried out by perhaps two of the most influential rebels of the 1900s – Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to bring down US-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista suddenly changed Cuba forever. This in-turn resulted in the U.S. embargo of Cuba and subsequent armed attempts to oust Fidel Castro. To some people, Castro and Che were ruthless fighters and communist tyrants. To others, they were liberators and stalwart advocates of egalitarianism bringing justice and equality to the poorest sections of the Cuban society. After the revolutionary government nationalized all U.S. property in Cuba in 1960, the Cuban – American relations soured further and resulted in strengthening of the US embargo of Cuba which is still in force as of 2020. Following the American embargo, Soviet Union became Cuba’s main ally developing close military and intelligence ties until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The loss of trade and economic aid from the dissolution of Soviet Union along with the alienation from the rest of the world due to the U.S. embargo brought about unfortunate circumstances which radically transformed Cuban society and economy.
Today, Cuba stands at the crossroads unable to decide what’s best for it. The golden-agers still proud of the revolution and Fidel in their hearts wouldn’t mind living the rest of their days the way they lived their previous 70 years where everyone is entitled to free education, healthcare and limited monthly ration from the government. But, at the same time, an average monthly salary of only US$25 is not enough to sustain a comfortable life and many Cubans feel a change would be better for the country. As a traveller, my aim was to learn about the Cuban way of living and their perspective towards life as their lifestyle was completely opposite to mine. Here is my journey as I backpacked through the northern half of the country for 17 days in January 2020 before returning back home – just in time before COVID-19 conquered the globe.
Life in Cuba is slow. If you’re looking for a digital detox – this is the place to go.
Here’s the route I eventually followed. Havana – Viñales – Playa Larga – Playa Giron – Trinidad. Travellers usually squeeze in Cienfeugos and Varadero but I wanted to take it slow and ended up skipping them.
First things first,
Cuba has two currencies – CUC (above) and CUP (below). CUC or Peso convertibles is for foreigners and its value is pegged at 1:1 with the US Dollar. You would generally use this currency for transactions as the hotels, bars, travel companies and most restaurants only accept CUC. The CUP or Moneda Nacional is for the residents and citizens of Cuba.
The difference? 1 CUC = 25 CUP. So, in-general you would be paying 25 times what a regular Cuban pays at museums and other places. Many people find this discriminating but, this is how the government of Cuba uses tourism to help subsidize the cost of living for Cubans.
Paying in CUC is heavy on a backpackers’ pockets. Cuba could be deemed more expensive than the rest of the Latin American countries. But there’s a way out. Using CUP is not illegal but you would need to give up comfort and dine at an ordinary eatery or use the local buses in order to pay in CUP.
CUCs and CUPs are not available in other countries. Hence, you need to buy them at the airport or at an ATM. ATMs are rare in smaller cities/towns and sometimes out-of-cash. Make sure you have enough before you head to another city. Credit cards are not accepted anywhere.
Long wait times – You would need to take into account the slow Cuban computers from the ’90s and the inefficient staff at most businesses. Be prepared to wait 1-2 hours before you get to exchange currencies or book bus tickets. Guess how long it took me to get a bus ticket? 1.5 hours.
While travelling in Cuba, the government will indirectly force you to use the Viazul bus service. These Chinese buses are more expensive than the regular local buses for Cubans (called guaguas) and is a service for tourists only.
I would rather travel in this. Within a city, a guagua ride would cost you as low as 1 CUP (1/25th of a USD). (Photo credits: cubanfromcuba.wordpress.com)
For long-distance travel, tourists/locals also use shared taxis or Taxi collectivo
For even cheaper rides, you could try these converted trucks called Camiones. A ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba (more than 1000 Km) would cost only 16 CUC and take 14 hours. If you can sacrifice your comfort (keeping in mind the road conditions in Cuba), nothing matches the Camiones.
As of January 2020, tourists are not allowed to use the trains.
My favorite way to travel? Obviously hitchhike.
Sometimes I would find a 1950s beauty, sometimes a water tanker and sometimes a horse cart. Not being able to speak Spanish was a big challenge for me. It was difficult to understand what they’d say when they stopped for me. And once picked up, I couldn’t really strike up a conversation.
Hitchhiking is not only legal in Cuba and but it is mandatory for cars to stop for you (that doesn’t always happen though). Back when Soviet Union broke down and the import of crude oil stopped due to the U.S. embargo, the Cuban government made it mandatory for car owners to stop and pick up any person needing a ride to ensure that the people could still reach their workplace.
There are pick-up points on the outskirts of the cities called Punto Amarillo (Yellow point) where a man in yellow jacket employed by the government will stop cars for you and help you hitchhike. In my case they were always dressed in blue rather than yellow. Their fee is 2 CUP and the money goes to the government and not to the driver or the owner of the car. So, I would recommend tipping the driver at the end if possible. Most of them will refuse to accept money though.
Since, we are talking about vehicles and transportation, let me show you the real Cuban jewels –
American cars were imported into Cuba for about 50 years, beginning near the early 20th century. After the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. embargo was erected and Fidel Castro banned the importation of American cars and mechanical parts. That’s why Cuba is the way it is today—essentially a living museum for classic cars.
The old American autos are often kept running with parts and pieces that were never intended for them. It’s not uncommon to find a beautiful 1950s Chevy with a Russian engine—something that would be considered sacrilege to serious car collectors.
Are we in 2020?
Imagine the police in a hot pursuit.
I did find my favourite car. Only if I could bring it back home.
No table? No problemo. Part of being a traveller in Cuba is sorting out the puzzle of its ideology and its struggling economy. With the country opening up to tourism, softening its controls on society, and preparing for the inevitable end of the Castro era governance model, traveling here is filled with fun and curious insights.
Havana is a beautiful city struggling to find a balance between its past and future.
Parts of central Havana look like European cities with old churches and cobblestone pavements from the Spanish colonialism.
But as you walk away from the center into narrow and busy streets, you start seeing authentic Cuba.
Neighbourhoods outside the tourist areas are very run down and in disrepair.
The houses from the inside.
The government interference is so high that you will only get 5 bags of cement to repair a house and 10 bags of cement to build one. Obviously, you cannot build a house with 10 bags of cement and hence you’ll be forced to access the black market where prices are 3-4 times the actual price.
To see in Havana –
The revolution square is a nice spot to visit for a couple of hours. You can go all the way on top of the 109m tall monument and get a nice view of the city. Every year Fidel Castro used to address the country from this spot.
The Vedado neighbourhood takes you away from the crowds of Old Havana and has comparatively modern (1970s) and bigger houses.
Street names in Vedado neighbourhood.
Until 2019, you could take the Hershey train which toured the Cuban countryside from Havana (Casablanca) to Matanzas. It was the oldest surviving electric train in Cuba having built in 1916 by The Hershey company to transport sugar to the port of Havana. But there has been no repair for years and is not running anymore. (Image by – Gabriela Milian, https://archives.rgnn.org/2017/02/03/a-historic-train-trip-to-hershey-cuba/)
The fort of Che Guevara was my favourite as it had an entire collection of Che’s life and what he stood for. You could easily end up spending 3-4 hours exploring the fort. The last remains of Che Guevara can also be seen here.
Although he was born and grew up in Argentina, his hunger to explore the world and his desire to overturn the capitalist exploitation of Latin America took him to Mexico where he met brothers Fidel and Raul Castro who were preparing a rebellion against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Che (right) soon rose to prominence among the rebels and was promoted to second in command after Fidel Castro (left). He played a pivotal role in the victorious two-year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime.
After the Cuban Revolution, he went on to work on his vision of a united Latin America – travelling and spreading his Marxist ideology to countries all over the world such as China, Soviet Union, Angola, Algeria, Mozambique, Vietnam, India and even took part in armed rebellions in Congo (now DRC) and Bolivia where he was eventually killed by the CIA. Here, Che can be seen with Chairman Mao of China.
Che and Fidel rule the streets.
The revolutionary propaganda billboards can be found throughout the country as well.
Viñales is a small town in western Cuba and is really scenic with lush green mountains and a number of activities to do around.
You can visit the renowned tobacco farms in this region. All tobacco farms are owned by the government and the farmers working on the land need to return 90% of their produce to the state. The remaining 10% can be sold by the farmers at a higher rate in the market or keep it for themselves.
Fun fact from the farmer – There are 4 tiers to a tobacco plant. The smaller leaves at the top (also known as Cohiba) are the best and that’s what Fidel Castro used to smoke. The second tier is also very good and Che Guevara preferred cigars made from these leaves. The third is not-so-great quality and was something that the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had a taste for and the big leaves at the bottom are called “Romeo and Juliet” as it’s the lowest quality and doesn’t really correspond to a Cuban’s taste and they end up selling to the tourists.
Tobacco seeds. One seed is enough to grow a plant.
You can take a complete tour of the farm and you are also shown how the cigars are made.
You can get to the tobacco farms either on a horse back (3-5CUC/hour), or by walk or by renting a bike.
I ended up taking a horse but be careful and inspect the health of the horse before you get on top because they could be suffering from malnutrition or infested with ticks. You definitely don’t want to carry them on you. Please carry a DEET spray with you if possible.
I spent 4 days in Viñales and ended up taking the bike to explore the countryside.
Only to have my chain broken in the middle of the jungle 9 Km away from my starting point. These kids came running after me with hammers and nails once they saw me walking with my bike chain in my hands and fixed it for me in no time with whatever tools they had! This was my first-hand experience of Cuban hospitality otherwise I would have to walk back home.
The next day I rented another bike to visit the 2nd largest caves in Latin America which is about 17 Km away from Viñales. The entrance fee for these caves is 15 CUC/person and you are provided with safety helmet, headlamp and accompanied by a guide.
Came across some spiders but also this plant growing in pitch darkness from the nutrients in the soil.
Accomodation in Cuba –
You could stay in state-owned hotels which are no less than any resort you’ve ever seen with swimming pools and spas. State-owned hotels start at around 100 CUC a night.
The other alternative could be Casa Particulares. The Cuban government allows the people to open up their homes to tourists and host for a small fee. This fee ranges from city to city but could be as low as 10 CUC a night to 25 CUC a night. Your hosts would have to give a share of what they earn to the government. Would definitely recommend Hostal Emiliana y Martin in Trinidad. See their room below. Couchsurfing is illegal in Cuba.
What do you get in return? A room big enough to host 2-4 people. The room rent remains the same – 10CUC if you’re one or four occupants. So, travelling in groups could be cheaper for you in Cuba.
You don’t need to book any Casa in advance. When you reach a bus station,a swarm of people (usually women) will be waiting for you there and trying their best to find a customer.
If there is nobody at the bus station, just walk in the streets and look for this sign. You can knock on their doors, take a look at the room and decide if you’d like to stay there or look somewhere else. The blue and white sign is for tourists and similar orange and white sign is for local Cubans. Do NOT stay at a place without this sign as it could lead to trouble for you and the owner of the house (even if they are your friend).
Electric cables in smaller towns (such as Viñales) are not durable to endure the current passing through a Type-C to Type-C phone charger. Luckily, I had a Type-C to USB cable and my USB port on this plug was not damaged. I met other travellers who had gone through similar problem in Cuba.
Washing machines are a luxury in Cuba. If you see one at your Casa, your hosts are rich. Haha.
You can get a big breakfast like this at your Casa for an additional 3-5CUC. It includes large servings of tropical fruits, pork, eggs, bread, coffee, juice, milk, cheese and butter.
Get to know your host family. Talk to them. They are really helpful and can arrange a lot of necessities for you during your stay and provide valuable information. My poor Spanish skills really made it difficult for me to understand them. This is my host family from Viñales.
What is real Cuban food? A question I didn’t get an answer to throughout my journey. Is it rice and beans? If yes, it is not something that’s available at every street corner. There is not much variety in Cuban food since it is mostly dominated with meat. Spices and veggies are usually missing from the food.
Every cafe, or corner store does have spaghetti and pizza available though. They are as cheap as 10 CUP ( less than 50 cents) and does not contain anything more than tomato puree and solid cheese. Surely, it doesn’t look appetizing but it’s something worth trying when in Cuba. In order to avoid searching for food early morning, I would recommend arranging breakfast at your Casa Particulares.
Visit a local vegetable/fruit seller and find some fresh fruits that you could always carry in your backpack. Fruits are so cheap in Cuba, a kilogram of guavas would cost you less than 1 USD.
Cuban rum is another delicacy which is usually served in the form of cocktails.
My favourite was Canchanchara which contains, rum, lemon, honey and ice. It is usually served in glasses made of clay.
Corner stores look something like this with Reggaeton blasting on their radios.
Cuban “supermarkets” are usually empty (not in this case). This is because the government controls the import of products and it could be weeks or months before the stock is replenished. Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, toilet papers, tampons and condoms are also hard to come across and expensive, so stock up before you leave.
But once the stock replenishes, the entire aisle is filled with the same product from the same brand.
Pharmacies are similar. Usually empty.
But the cigar stores are always stocked.
“Not for sale today”. Water is not always available in supermarkets. Even if it’s available in the store, they might not sell it as they need to ration the amount of water being sold daily so that they don’t run out of bottled water for tourists.
I used my Sawyer 0.1Micron water filter that I had utilized in Ethiopia and I ended up saving a lot of money and reducing plastic waste. I would really recommend buying such filters as it helps save the environment from the excess plastic waste since developing countries like Cuba do not have recycling systems and these water bottles end up in landfills or oceans.
Every house in Cuba has rocking chairs in their verandah. Cubans like to spend their evenings sitting together with their families since they don’t have access to the internet at home.
Every city has two to three Wi-Fi parks where everyone would get together to stare at their phones. I found these parks really funny because there could be hundreds of people sitting together but everyone is silent and wired to their phones.
You will not have regular internet access in Cuba. You need to buy such scratch cards from an ETECSA store (usually near the Wi-Fi park). There are 1 hour, 2 hours and 5 hours cards available at ETECSA stores. Make sure to “Forget the network” if you do not complete your entire duration so that you could connect to it the next day. 1 hour Wi-Fi in Cuba costs 1 CUC.
Pay-phones are widely used in Cuba as cell-phones are still a luxury and not affordable by everyone. Since the internet is not readily available, I would recommend installing Maps.me app on your phone in your home country for offline maps.
A site not often seen anymore in our developed countries.
Cubans love baseball.
CD stores are still very much a reality.
There are only 3 main channels on state-owned TV broadcasting cable service in Cuba – News, Movies and Educational programs.
Live music and random dancing in the streets is common in every town or city you would visit. They are usually playing music from the famous Buena Vista Social Club which originated in Havana.
Gas station in Havana. Gas prices during my visit in January 2020 were USD 1.55/Liter
This is the biggest hospital in Cuba. All Cubans receive free healthcare from their government.
An OPD in a Cuban hospital. There is a doctor for every 150 people in the country (highest in the world). In fact, doctors are one of Cuba’s major exports — helping countries all over the world in times of crisis. At the time of writing this article, I can confirm that Cuba has sent a team of doctors and medical practitioners to Italy to combat COVID-19.
U.S. Embassy in Havana. The relations between Cuba and the U.S. improved under the Obama Administration and they opened an embassy in Havana to improve diplomatic ties but things have gone back to worse under the current U.S. president Donald Trump.
Policemen watching over the streets.
Playa Giron is generally not on travellers’ list but would recommend to stay a day to visit the natural swimming pool called “ Caleta Buena” about 9 Km away.
For 15CUC you are entitled to unlimited food and drinks and unlimited snorkelling and swimming in these clear emerald waters. Bus leaves the town for Caleta Buena at 9AM every morning and returns at 5PM.
Trinidad was perhaps my favourite city in Cuba because of many activities and things to do in and around the town.
Founded in the 16th century by the Spanish invaders, Trinidad is the most colourful town in Cuba and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. People owning houses in the center of Trinidad are not allowed to paint their own property. The government selects colours for their homes and paints them whenever required.
An old slave lookout. Spanish invaders wanted to exploit the great weather and fertile soil to farm sugarcane and hence brought slaves from Africa to work on the fields. Manaca Iznaga is the tallest watchtower every built in the Caribbeans sugar region.
View from the top of the watch tower.
Cuba’s population is diverse. 64% of the population is white (Spanish colonial descendants), 26% Mestizo (mixed race, with some European and some native ancestry) and 9% Afro-Cubans (descendants of slaves brought from western Africa).
There are several such watchtowers and sugarcane factories in the region where the slaves would work and live. The farthest one is 18 Km away from Trinidad. You could get a private taxi to keep things simple or you could be a bit adventurous and rely on your thumb.
You could also take a horse ride to several hidden waterfalls in the region. They are slowly becoming famous with tourists and you’d need to be lucky to get a pool to yourself like I did. Head over to my instagram account to checkout a video of this place.
La Playa Ancon (Ancon beach) is another way to spend a day in Trinidad soaking up Vitamin-D.
Tour guides in Trinidad will always be there if you can’t figure out what to do next. Negotiate with them. They might ask for 20 CUC for a horse ride but in reality you could get one for 5-8CUC.
The cowboy look is omnipresent in the Cuban countryside.
If you’ve been to Trinidad, you probably know this man.
A game of dominoes being played at 10 PM under a streetlight.
People especially in Trinidad are really social and get together every evening to play Dominoes or dance in the streets. (Photo by my friend Julie)
Salsa dancing is massive in Trinidad with the town-center transforming into a dance platform every evening. Take some dancing lessons while in town.
While in Trinidad, you need to checkout the biggest party place in Cuba. It’s basically a nightclub in a cave and it gets really crowded on weekends.
What communism? Am I in Cuba?
A public library in Trinidad.
Stumbled into an empty school during a walk around the city. Every Cuban is entitled to free education in Cuba.
The school infrastructure is a bit out-dated to be honest but definitely better than the schools I visited in Ethiopia.
School kids out on a visit to the national telecommunication company – ETECSA.
Mass production in progress at a clothing factory in Cuba.
It is common to see caged birds outside houses in Trinidad. A young bird is usually caged next to an older bird so that it could learn to “sing” and then it is sold at a higher price once it can sing.
Also, almost every house in Trinidad has grilled windows which act as balconies in the evening. But there’s a story behind their existence.
Back in the day, younger, unmarried women were not allowed to leave their houses and would generally sit here looking outside until they would find an attractive man walking by. The man would be allowed to talk to the girl from the outside for the first few months until they made up their minds and wanted to marry each other. This was not the end. The man could then take her out for dates accompanied by someone from the girl’s family. They were only allowed to hold hands during this time. After more than a year of such dating, dowry was discussed between the man and the girl’s family and once the man had paid the discussed amount, he was allowed to marry the girl.
Art screaming out of a broken door.
If you’d like to support the Cuban economy, buying their souvenirs could be a great way as Cubans are really skilled artists and craftsmen. Also, rather than buying from Havana, I would recommend buying out in the countryside to directly support the people. Art like this could cost you as little as 30$.
Revolution magazines and posters could be great souvenirs to bring home as Cuba is slowly changing and they might not be as easily available in a decade or so.
Or send postcards to your friends and family with pictures of Che and Fidel from the revolution.
So, here it is! Cuba is known for its cars, cigars and communism and I tried to show you as much as possible. I was only able to visit the northern half of the country and I’m pretty sure the southern half would have a much different lifestyle and culture. Havana was a busy city just like any other capital city in the world where everyone wants you to see the pretty side of the town. But you’ve got to head out to the countryside to witness the real Cuban culture. I was lucky in always finding fellow travelers who could speak Spanish and I hung onto them making it easier for me to strike up conversations with the locals. Cuba is fast changing with more and more small businesses being given permits by the government and some tax benefits. Who knows how Cuba would be ten years from now.
Do let me know what you think about Cuba and your favourite part of this post.
Until next time!