Before going to Cuba I kept on reading, “go without expectations”. A setting of rich dichotomy there are too many contrasting and curious elements to the Island that you shouldn’t assume anything about this fascinating destination. So, I managed to arrive with zero expectations and I completely agree that this is the best way to visit. However, my advice would be….go without expectations but with preparation and bookings!
It is so easy these days to travel making day by day and last minute decisions. The internet and smart phones have allowed us to feel like we have a tiny travel agent in the palm of our hand, who is there to sort out any issues, book the next hotel, find out train times and almost anything else we might need to know, day or night. This is the mentality I arrived with in Havana. I had done some research in to what to see and do and the best day trips from the city, we also had an Airbnb booked in Trinidad for the second half of our week but had chosen to leave all the decision making for once we were there, including how to get to and from Trinidad.
You arrive in Havana airport and it is quickly clear that you are in for a new and exciting experience. With no air-conditioning, low-ceilings and a throng of confused tourists, the baggage carousels quickly descend in to over-heated chaos. With, apparently, only one truck ferrying the bags from the plane to the airport, baggage claim can take anywhere from one hour to four hours, we have been told. For both mine and my Dad’s bag to arrive I was in the windowless, wifi-less airport for two and a half hours.
Once free and out in the open air we decided to avoid the queue for the money exchange, we had friends who waited for a further two hours in the airport to get their Cuban dollars, and pay for a cab with either American or Canadian dollars. We were told before arriving that Cubans are happy to accept either currency, particularly Canadian because of the exchange rate but no-one would touch a Canadian dollar and the problem with paying American is that whoever you are paying will give you their own, slightly inflated, exchange rate. Other options for changing money are the money exchange offices in Havana centre, these can have very long line-ups as Cubans use them as well as tourists. Any bank, which can have the same long wait times and certain hotels. The upmarket hotels that line the Parque Central can become a refuge from the dusty, humid frenzy, offering air-conditioning, possible wifi and a calm interlude. However, not all the hotels will exchange money for visitors not staying at the hotel and if they do, they often don’t receive the Cuban dollars to exchange until the afternoon.
On our first full day in the city we decided to book our travel out to Trinidad and this was when we discovered the confusing contrast of this laid-back Caribbean Island and the need for everything to be booked and prepared days in advance. The first option would be a 6 hour bus but the bus has to be booked three days in advance, if we booked that morning we were told we could just make the cut off. As we were about to hand over the money we were told that Monday is May 1st, an important date in Cuba and there is a parade that will run through the city and because of this there is no guarantee that the bus will run. Not that the bus definitely won’t run but that no-one could guarantee if it would or would not. We didn’t want to take the risk so the bus was out. Secretly pleased that the bus wasn’t an option, we moved on to rental cars. I had already envisioned driving passed the tobacco fields in an open top Cadillac, sunglasses on and scarf blowing in the wind. However, we were told that there is a limited amount of cars available to rent in Havana and all the cars were reserved for people who had had the fore-sight and sense to book them weeks in advance before arriving.
Our last option was a private taxi, this would be the expensive option but we had saved money staying at Airbnb’s, so we decided it would be worth it. Unfortunately, due to my return flight being changed to an earlier time we had to be back in Havana at 11am, which would mean leaving Trinidad at 5am. At this point we got a similar response to the bus dilemma, no-one could guarantee if we would be able to get a private taxi back at that time of the morning. It wasn’t a definite no but it most certainly wasn’t a definite yes. With this now being a pricey option and the looming risk of not being able to get back in time for my flight, we had to finally admit defeat and curse our foolishness. We managed to stay on at our Airbnb in Havana and cancelled the trip to Trinidad.
A quick transportation tip for if you are travelling to the local beaches, which are around half an hour outside of Havana, shared taxis are the quickest and easiest option. If you have 4 to a car it is the same price as the bus and we managed to find people to share with every day in the long line-up for the bus in Parque Central.
We were extremely happy with our decision to stay at an Airbnb, rather than a resort or hotel. The family we stayed with were lovely and it allowed us to thoroughly experience the Cuban culture in a relaxed and welcoming environment. As hardy as we felt choosing the ‘true Cuban’ experience, we definitely savoured those moments sipping cold beers, on air conditioned hotel patios, having fleeting connections to wifi and contact with the outside world. Some of the hotels sell wifi cards to non-guests of the hotel, each is a slightly different price ranging between $3-$8 per hour. Unfortunately, these cards are not always successful and can take a long time to get connected to wifi, you can be dropped off at any time and the connection is often weak. It is better to not leave anything relying on the internet. I would recommend downloading the free app Maps.me and the Havana map before you arrive. If you have a terrible sense of direction like me, you will be saving yourself from wandering lost countless times, as you can often walk for about 10 minutes before coming across a street name.
‘This is Cuba’
While waiting for a bus in Parque Central we heard an American tourist lament ‘Nobody here knows nothing!’, this made us smile as we heard similar cries in a variety of accents around the city. Somehow it only adds to the charm of this remarkable city. Trying to book a day trip out to Varadero we were told by one tourist agent that the trips only happened if enough people were booked on to them, the next told us that no trip would be running the next day regardless of how many people requested it and the final one told us that the trip was always running and booked us on to it. We were told different information every time we asked a question and you often have to decipher some very vague answers but this intriguing city makes you feel like the hard work is worth it. We were told to arrive 15 minutes early for our bus out to Varadero, and when it arrived an hour late the hotel concierge who had been stood with us merely shrugged and said ‘This is Cuba’.
Captivating and stimulating, the city will definitely test you and you should not expect things to work like how you have come accustomed to but don’t let any of this put you off. Embrace the confusing charm of Cuba and just remember to be prepared!