Home Cuba Trip Report, Part 1
February 2016

[This was written two weeks into our Cuba trip]

My friend Liv and I arrived 5Feb; she departed 26Feb, while I will stayed another week, leaving 3Mar.
We are Americans—she’s 69 and I am 77. This is my first Cuba jaunt, but Liv was here in 1998 with her then-husband. We both flew through Mexico, Liv through Mexico City and coming to Havana on Cubana Airlines, while I flew through Cancun and came on Interjet. Both flights to Havana were on time and without incident. Liv arrived 3 hours before me, allowing her to buy a map, exchange money, etc.
We were met at the airport by our host’s daughter and her boyfriend. 30cuc for the airport pickup. We had reserved a room through cubacasas.net, which I had found easy to use with good photos and descriptions. Our casa was several blocks from Hotel Nacional, right where Habana Centro meets Vedado, and where Calle 23 begins at the Malecon. The room was 30cuc, with 5cuc each for breakfast. Our hostess Lourdes is fluent in both English and Spanish (and French), and has been a tremendous resource all during this trip (more on The Network later.) She’s the only one of our hosts who speaks English. The breakfasts were ample and delicious. Our room had a balcony with a view of the Malecon.

Santiago de Cuba
Seeing Santiago de Cuba was high on our priority list, so we wrestled with how to do that, what with Liv having only 3 weeks. We quickly decided that giving Cubana $135 each to fly us there was the smartest, so after 3 days in Havana we took what was supposed to be the 5:15am flight. But delays, alas, brought us to a Noon departure. At Santiago we paid 10cuc for taxi ride to the center of town, at Casa Gloria (just two blocks from Parque Cespedes). 25cuc per night.
So we spent 4 days in Santiago, and absolutely loved it. So much music and dancing—daytime, nighttime, in the plazas, in the streets, in the clubs, in performance salons. If I return to Cuba—highly likely—I might well fly directly to Santiago and spent 3 winter months there.

Our favorite venue for salsa was Casa de Queso (House of Cheese), just a couple of blocks from Parque Cespedes, the main plaza. Always a live band there, with people hanging at the sidewalk windows peering in, and lots of great dancing through the evening til midnight or 1am. It’s a great place to mingle with the locals, and that’s exactly what we did. We also heard music performances at Casa de la Trova, just a block off Parque Cespedes on Heredia. They have about 5 different performance rooms, with the times listed on a board at the entrance. Worth checking out.

Neighborhood Walks. Both Liv and I love to walk neighborhoods and meet people. We did that in every city we visited.

Santiago was our favorite city on this trip. Besides the great music and dancing, we loved strolling the pedestrian walkway that extends from Plaza Martes down to water’s edge. And Parque Cespedes itself is quite lovely, acting as a social hub even more than many other central plazas we’ve seen.

Especially enjoyable was an evening we spent in Plaza Martes, where we connected with half a dozen young people who were hanging around the plaza for the internet. We engaged them in animated conversation, and I have exchanged emails with several of them subsequently. They complained about the internet speed being so slow, but I found it quite adequate there. In fact, the wifi speeds have been very good in each of the cities we’ve visited.

After 4 days in Casa Gloria we took the short bus ride (7cuc) to Bayamo, having read from some of the TT regulars that they enjoyed the town. We found it pleasant, but missable. We especially enjoyed our host Vivian at Casa Olga. One evening she invited us to dine (free) with her and her husband Atocha. We paid 25cuc here.

Two days in Bayamo, then we left for Trinidad. We did a 9-hour bus ride to Sancti Spiritus, 21cuc. At that bus station we were approached by a man who offered to arrange a colectivo taxi. There were none waiting, but he found us one across the street. So we rode the 1955 Pontiac an hour or so to Trinidad. Due to miscommunication, we overpaid—what should have been a 5cuc per person ride cost us 10cuc each. Oh well.

In Trinidad the casa we’d been referred to had a guest who overstayed, and so our room was not available. But host Ricardo arranged another casa at the home of his girlfriend’s mother, Mireya. Casa Pedro y Mireya. We had a pleasant 4-day stay here, at 30cuc.

Next to Santiago, Trinidad was our favorite town for music and dancing. The first night we paid the 2cuc cover at Casa de la Trova, and hung out there for a couple of hours, listening to several different performers and seeing some fairly good salsa dancing. It was also enjoyable for meeting some locals at our table.

But for salsa, the absolute highlight of our trip was the dancing at Casa de la Musica (cover 1cuc), the open-air pavilion in the main plaza (not to be confused with Parque Central). Here, the crowd of hundreds got to see truly spectacular salsa dancing—by locals, not a professional troupe. The intricate, complex moves of the dancers just kept on keeping on, and were an endless source of delight and amazement. Once, a man even crossed his arms and with his hands grasped his partners hips and executed a perfect flip of her body—the only time we saw such a move. Even she hadn’t known it was coming, and she evidenced surprised pleasure.

Neither Liv nor I are big beach people, but we spent a pleasant several hours at Play Ancon, swimming and hanging out with a woman staying at one of the AIs (all-inclusive resorts), who invited us to share her sun shelter.

Then on to Cienfuegos, bus fare 6cuc,and the casa of Delia and Nelson, our favorite casa of the trip, at 25cuc. We didn’t find much in the way of music and dancing, but the second evening we hit upon a restaurant on the Boulevard, featuring an excellent singer of popular songs, accompanied by a really superb acoustic guitar player. Their group is Isla Bella. I bought my only CD of the trip there. Highly recommended.

After 2 days, on to Matanzas for a night. An ok casa with Reisa, at 25cuc. Caught a gathering of rumba band at an outdoor venue, but not many dancers. I found rumba performance to be far less interesting than salsa, and would make Matanzas a miss in subsequent trips.

Back in Havana

Obviously, Havana has a tremendous amount of music and dancing, but it’s frustrating not to have it more at your fingertips, as it is in Santiago.

You can buy a card from ETECSA (a state-owned telecomm company), which gives wifi access at selected access points in each city—usually in parks and plazas, occasionally along a major street like Calle 23 in Havana. You can buy 1 hour for 2.50cuc (or was it 2cuc?), or 5 hours for 10cuc. You can use the minutes incrementally—that is, use just a few minutes at a time. We’re now 4 hours into our second card. We’ve found the wifi speeds to be perfectly adequate, not at all as sluggish as some travelers have complained about. Here in Havana, at our first casa we could get wifi on the balcony of our room, from access points on Calle 23. At our casa in Centro, we walked to Hotel Deauville (Calle Galiano/Italia and San Lazaro) and simply sat at a table in the lobby, for comfortable access.

The Network
That’s the way I think of the owners of casas particulares (private homes that rent rooms). Upon the advice of the regulars on the Thorn Tree travel forum, we didn’t book anything beyond our first casa in Havana. We simply let each casa owner phone ahead. They each have a prodigious rolodex of contacts throughout the country, and even debriefed us for the names and contact info of the casas we’ve already stayed at. The Network works superbly. They all seem anxious to be helpful.

A year prior to this trip I posted several currency questions ("YAMQ, Yet Another Money Question") on Thorn Tree, and based on those posts I had about decided to not bother with any currency exchanges prior to departure, but would simply let 100usd get me 87cuc. (The CUC is keyed 1-to-1 to the USD, but there is a 3% transaction fee plus a 10% penalty for it being USA-related) But fortuitously, tracking the Canadian dollar vs USD indicated that we could benefit greatly from buying CAD with our USD before leaving, then buying CUC with our CAD. That’s what we did, and it  consistently yielded about 93.x cuc for our 100usd. We were careful not to exchange more usd/cad than we would actually use. (And we will be careful to not have a stash of cuc left upon departure.) We were not inclined to try the black market.

After two weeks here, we calculated that the pair of us had spent an average of $80usd (combined) per day (though I think that figure is closer to $100usd in subsequent days.) We are not big spenders—often eschewing taxis if we can walk, even with my wheelie and her backpack.
Interesting side note. We flew from Havana to Santiago for $135usd per person. The total of bus fares on the way back from Santiago to Havana was $85usd per person.

We used Viazul all the way, except for the colectivo from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad. We found them to be mostly quite comfortable, and never encountered the “brutal” air conditioning that we’d occasionally read about. Only once, I think, did we not get the bus we wanted; but even then we got an earlier one that still worked fine for us. One thing to note is that you seem to be able to buy tickets one or more days in advance, but on the day of, they make you wait until an hour or so before departure time. That is, you can’t show up in the morning to buy a ticket for an afternoon bus. I don’t know how consistent these procedures are, but something to keep in mind.

Cuba. Me gusta mucho!

p.s.  Exiting Cuba

Confirming what I had been told, coming back to the U.S. (through Mexico) presented no problems.  Going through Cuba immigration, I asked to have my passport stamped.  Why? the officer asked.  Because I want people to know I was in Cuba! I replied. And I breezed through U.S. immigration without anyone even mentioning Cuba. 

The word is:  Nobody Cares! Cuba doesn't care; the U.S. doesn't care. Nobody Cares! (So do it: Go! )

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