A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba

Cuba (part 4): Departure

The future, embargo lift, music bytes, and travel advice.

sunny 38 °C

One more thing before I go....

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I had a really amazing time in Cuba.
It’s a beautiful country with happy, bright people, who are immensely proud of their country and history.

Go Now?

Everyone says to go now, before America gets it's mits on it.
I'm not convinced that Cuba is destined for cultural dilution.....
Cuban culture is strong, and they're embracing the future!

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‘murica’s comin' tah getcha

The US embargo had a long lasting, devastating impact to Cuba’s economy and development.

To try and explain the mood in Cuba about recent embargo softening, I’ll paraphrase what one of my guides said about it…

If a company in China makes a fridge, and one single component is made in Cuba, then the US will not accept those fridges, and probably not work with that company.
The embargo has hurt us so much.
Cuba welcomes re-engaging with the United States.
Every tourist asks the same question..if I dread Starbucks and McDonalds. Why would I?
Cuba has a strong culture. Doing business again with America isn’t going to change that.
Cuban people don’t have a problem with Americans and never have.
They’re our neighbours! We used to be close!!

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Tourism - what to expect

Tourism infrastructure is slowly building in Cuba.
There are two major government owned tour companies; both very efficient with english speaking operators.
English certification is a pre-requisite for working in most tourist jobs.
The guides, transport/buses/etc, general organisation in Cuba is wonderful!
Hotel service is really professional and old school, as Don Draper would have expected.

Lack of internet is a problem, especially for DIY travellers... you'll have to trust in Cubatur, or book transport in person this time around ;-)
If it suits, casa particulars are by far the best option!!!

Many international tour companies also operate in Cuba, employing local people.
One of the most popular way to see Cuba is by bike.
A myriad of tour companies offer multi day bike treks across Cuba… all were booked out six months ahead of time, when I was there!

What to take

1. Everything you’ll need. Don't assume you can buy it there.
I didn’t really see much in terms of clothing shops, pharmacies weren’t stocked, etc.

2. Cash is vitally important. You can't really transact at all with credit card.
It might feel disconcerting carrying massive wads of cash… however withdrawing money can either be painful, or not possible at all.

3. Open ears and eyes, and you’ll have the time of your life.

4. Some Spanish - and you'll make many new friends.

5. Dancing shoes!!

Music

Discovering music was a highlight of my trip to Cuba.
Every venue I visited had live musicians during lunch and evening times.
There was even a Salsa Orchestra playing in Havana Airport when I departed.

Here is a brief summary of snippets I recorded during performances in Cuba; from tiny cafes to larger venues. The variety, passion and energy, unassuming virtuosity and genuine joy was evident at every turn...and really inspiring!!

Adios Cuba.... I can't wait to come back!

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:13 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba havana trinidad embargo Comments (0)

Cuba (part 3): Trinidad

Spectacular, historic, amazing, musical, friendly, beautiful. Everything you need in Cuba is here.

sunny

Trinidad

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Gorgeous Trinidad

Subjective advice for anyone coming to Cuba.... make Trinidad a priority over Havana.
My highlights, in terms of music, bands, nightlife,architecture, food, historic sites, people and (err) vibe, lie squarely in Trinidad.
Cuba is an amazing country, unlike any other and Trinidad is petite glistening jewel.

Every glance.... every corner, every street.... house, church, is picture worthy!
It's beautiful!
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I almost feel guilty writing about it now, in fear of contributing to a mounting crowd of SLR toting hordes lacking self awareness, muddying this pristine example of aural and aesthetic utopia.
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Yes, it's one of those places you want to protect... with a relatively small population (70,000 or so) it is very small, and dutifully protected by UNESCO Heritage.

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Tourist infrastructure, music cafes, superb restaurants and bars are emerging everywhere, yet inconspicuous, blending with the town's ethos.

Gorgeous Streets

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I booked a walking tour via the Cubatur office.

Being the only taker for the day, I had a private guide.
She walked me through all of the major historic sites, and explained Trinidad's controversial history as a wealthy slave trading port.
I was amazed at how well kept and relatively pristine the whole city is.
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The cobblestone alleys, colourful frontages... and the familiar sound of rhumba rhythms and Salsa, everywhere.
Though, for the visual experience alone, Trinidad is amazing!

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Amable Personas!

The folks of Trinidad, are happy, boisterous, outgoing and unassumingly superbly stylish.
I marvel at Cubans... they are not influenced by trends, etc of other countries... blissfully unaware that they eat western fashionistas for breakfast without trying... and the friendliest, happiest, artfully creative bunch I have observed thus far.

Trinidadians are curious about visitors. Keep in mind...we need them more than they need us ;-)

Santería

During my tour and beyond I learned a great deal about Santería.
When Africans were brought in as slaves they were forbidden to practice any of their homeland traditions.
Eventually they developed a hybrid blend of Yoruba mythology with Christian and Indigenous American traditions, formalised in Santería.

Here is Google's explanation
Santeria (Way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added.
The religion is also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha. Santeria is a syncretic religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba.

I visited many gorgeous Santería churches in Trinidad.

The formal dress is all white, and looks magnificent.
I also saw the presence of Santaría in Cartagena, Colombia... more on that later

Musica

Local Magic

Cuba has a wealth of music options. Music is the national passion is very much in flight here.
I saw many bands at every scale and was duly impressed... mesmerised... everywhere.
What I like about Cuba again, is how unassumingly talented they are.

At a small rooftop cafe, where I was the sole patron, a young band was rehearsing.
The songs were solid yet whimsical, with a really interesting and subtle groove.
During their break, I spoke with the singer.
They write all of their own songs together, from rhythm up to lyrics and vocal melodies.
I watched them work through a new piece... their calm, inclusive and very technical nature of collaboration... progressing bar to bar was astounding.

After 30 minutes, they had two minutes of musical magic.

Casa de la Musica

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Casa de la Musica sits at one of Trinidad's major squares at the top of a hill, overlooking the gorgeous town.

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The venue is open air, and free to join in the fun.

Every night a schedule of bands/performers fill the evening which truly mesmerises.

Before the shows....
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Locals and tourists alike packed in the the tiered area for a view of the acts and to dance.
This is a gorgeous, fun, festive and welcoming evening.... and was a highlight of my trip to Cuba!
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Casa de la Trova

Outside the venue...
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This small venue has a very homely and welcoming feel.

Band warming up in the afternoon...
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The house band are incredible, and audience members are invited to take a clave to learn the rhythms participate in the rhumba!!
Some folks sat with their cocktails to really take in the band, whilst many danced in the lovely courtyard.

...otros

I passed by many, many other music venues in Trinidad that I will have to visit next time!!

Salsa love

What amazes me about Salsa is that it really, really plays with aspects of music; melody, tempo, cadence, emphasis, volume, rhythm... in very unique and skillful ways, largely absent in other forms.
It's the most dynamic form to listen to. I can listen to songs for hours and not get bored trying to dissect or simply marvel!
Seeing proficient Salsa musicians interact and work together is really something special!!

Accomodation

Lessons learned and advice...

I stayed at a hotel on the beach. In hindsight, winging it and looking for a Casa Particular would have been a much better option.
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Advice for anyone going to Trinidad, Cuba.... avoid the beach at all costs and stay in Trinidad town... either at Iberostar, or a Casa Particular.

Further, with the beach hotels being so far from town, and taxis being expensive, you will eat through CUCs and time ferrying back and forth.

Thanks Trinidad!

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Trinidad was absolutely a highlight of my time in Cuba, and highlight of this trip so far.
I can't wait to go back and explore, listen, dance and learn more there.

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba playa trinidad salsa casa_de_la_musica Comments (0)

Cuba (part 2): Viñales, Varadero.... and understanding Che

Out to the valleys, through the mega resorts, then stopping in Santa Clara to understand Che's journey.

sunny 35 °C

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Viñales

I jumped on a tour through the Viñales; a gorgeous, lush, hilly region of Cuba with many tobacco farms and rum mills.
We first stopped at a local tobacco farm where they also make cigars on site.

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The proprietor took us through the journey… from tobacco leaf to cigar... and rolled some right in front of the group to sample.
As with all production businesses in Cuba….90% of his output goes to the government.
The rest he keeps for himself for consumption or to sell on for extra money.
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Same deal for the rum factory where we stopped.
It was deliciously sweet stuff!

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Our next stop for lunch was in the lovely countryside at the foot of The Mural de la Prehistoria, where the cliffs had been painted in a huge art project in ancient times.
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Finally we stopped at the famous cave systems with rivers running through it; for a superb journey by foot and boat through the amazing stalagtites
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This day trip was arranged by a government owned agency (one of only two in the country).
Quality is pretty much assured here because of rigorous standards....
Further, in Cuba, every guide has to pass rigorous English, German and/or Russian exams...I'll babble/gush about Cuban education later ;-)

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Varadero

Varadero sits upon a truly magnificent coastline, with enormous mega all-inclusive hotels.

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I booked two nights at an all inclusive for a bit of chilled beach time, and also out of curiosity.
Upon arrival I was issued a wristband, which gave me licence to eat/drink wherever/whenever across the four restaurants, and several bars in the megaplex.

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They even had barbecues scattered around the beach making burgers to order.

I met mostly Canadian and Russian visitors….
It's worth highlighting Cuba and Russia's very close, long standing relationship.
Whilst there are huge personality and cultural differences, their greater good ideologies are largely aligned, and for this observer, there is an evident kinship.
Russian's have been visiting Cuba for a very, very long time, and also aid their comrades in many ways.

Back to the resort.... everyone was drinking and eating to the max, seemingly for the entirety of their (for many) two week stay.
I joined the hotel pool games, politely declined the drinking games, but had a great time in very luxurious surrounds.
Nothing was too much trouble!
My laundry was crisply ironed, and steaks, pasta and mocktails made precisely to order.

No internet of course, but I called home with the dedicated aid of the hotel's very courteous operator.
Yes, Don Draper would have loved this place.

At the enormous pool, there were games which I, and most of the other guests participated.
It was a nice platform to socialise.

The service and facilities across the board at this place was absolutely incredible.... for the equivalent of AUD$80 per night.
At home something like this would be ludicrously expensive.

The hotel sat upon the west facing beach.. and was absolutely incredible.
Perfect warm blue water, and flawless sand....

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One evening, I went to see a band billed as the Buena Vista Social Club.... which was a bit of a con, as only 3 of the members were actually affiliated with the group.... beware if you're considering this.

Nonetheless this band were absolutely incredible, with ace dancing too!

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After 30 minutes the 400 strong crowd were also up dancing for the remainder of the show!

Sanda Clara & Ernesto "Che" Guevara Mausoleum

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I boarded and very early morning bus bound for Santa Clara.

During the 3 hour bus ride the guide explained the Ché and Fidel's revolution in amazing detail, from inception, planning, rationale, key battles, and Cuba's transition and evolution.... after the revolution.
She also talked in great detail about Che Guevara - as we approached the mausoleum, including:

  • Growing up in Argentina
  • Education in medicine
  • Journey from Argentina to Mexico,
  • Joining Fidel in planning and executing in the war
  • Life thereafter as head of Cuban Bank
  • Involvement in the Congo ...and ultimate capture and murder in Bolivia by the CIA.

Ché's mausoleum has a very detailed museum with comprehensive documentation, photos and artefacts,and also acknowledges the fallen guerrillas who were captured and killed along with him.
It is a fine tribute to the Argentinian, who became saviour and hero to Cuba and international inspiration.

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Bound for Trinidad

I farewelled the tour group from that point and changed transports, bound for Trinidad, along with two Danish couples in their late 50’s.
They had travelled most of Latin America and gave me all of their contacts in Colombia…

Stay tuned for Trinidad!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 19:46 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches caves vinales trinidad salsa varadero che_guevara mausaleum Comments (1)

Cuba (part 1): Havana

Stepping back to the good ol' days - amazing music, awesome cars and hand-rolled cigars.....magnificent and potent culture...

sunny 35 °C

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I had a totally amazing time in Cuba... it is an unashamedly charming, stylish, welcoming, musical and wondrous place....
Here's part 1 in Havana....

Visas

Visitors to Cuba will require a tourist card/visa.
Visas can be arranged through through embassies, or if travelling from within the region a tourist card, issued at the airport suffices.
I flew with Interjet from Cancun, and they had a separate tourist card stand next to the check in counter.... where I arranged mine in minutes.

Arrival Havana

As soon as I left the plane at Havana Airport, it felt like stepping back in time - to the good ol' days of formal smiling service, pay-phones and paper forms.

Money Exchange

The money exchange is outside of the airport. As you leave the arrivals section, turn right.
Note that foreigner used currency (CUC) is not traded outside of Cuba. You need to buy them after arrival.
In hindsight I underestimated how much cash I would need, and found it very difficult withdrawing money thereafter... so be warned... cash is king in Cuba, and you can always change surplus back to Euros/Pounds on your way out of the country.

The best rates seemed to be or Euros. GBP/USD can also be exchanged, though AUD cannot.

Taxis

Just like almost anywhere outside of the "west" meters are not used in cabs, so negotiating price before setting foot is essential.
The first driver I met wanted 30CUC to my Casa, and we finally agreed on 25.

The drive from the airport was nothing short of spectacular....
Cadillac after Chevy after classic car traversing the palm tree lined motorway... each car full to the brim of people.

We passed through bustling Habana Centro in all of it's original 50's glory to my Casa Particular, the border of Habana Veijo.

It felt like the beginning of a Mad Men episode... Don Draper would have loved Cuba.

Homestay

I wanted an authentic experience, so opted to stay in a Casa Particular in Havana i.e. family home.
There are many advertised on Tripadvisor, or you can take your chances by walking the streets, as families have signs posted outside of their homes.

Casa Pablo Menses was recommended to me by a travel compadre, and it was a solid, solid choice!

I was warmly welcomed to the home, and to my lovely room; complete with a brand new air con system, glistening bathroom, comfy bed, fridge and TV.... opening out to the casa's lovely courtyard.

Welcome dinner at Casa Meneses
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Casa Pablo Meneses is a grandiose, immaculate family home which surrounds and enclosed open courtyard with a lovely garden and latticed furniture. Their tiny pseudo restaurant is also renowned in the neighbourhood.
On several nights during my stay, a group of French tourists visited for a banquet, favouring Meneses to their posh hotel around the corner.

This intrepid group, all had disabilities of varying forms, some travelling with dedicated carers, some in wheelchairs, etc.
They had bonded over the internet and joined together for a self managed adventure traversing Cuba... determined, jovial and absolutely adventurous!

The patriarch of the Meneses house, Cesar helped arrange a private guide/spanish teacher for me, and taxis when I needed.
I had many broken Spanglish conversations with everyone in the family, and I really can't recommend their hospitality enough.

There is a pedestrianised walkway near Meneses, leading from the main square down to the coast.
People trade, hold group discussions, sell art and have performances along here....
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Habana

Havana is a dynamic, festive, musical, friendly and relatively safe city.
The old city is particularly amazing, and absolutely gorgeous!

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I booked a private guide though Saint Cristobal, and she took me to all of the squares, explained the history of Cuba and significance of landmarks; from Spanish arrival, to the independence revolution and ensuing abolishment of slavery.... right through to Che and Fidel's revolution and beyond.
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Havana was of course home to Ernest Hemmingway. He lived in Hotel Ambos Mundos....
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His hotel room is now a museum, and atop the hotel you will finds some of the best views of Havana
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....and most delicious mojitos.

Music is everywhere in Havana!!!
You won't hear much recorded music playing in the old town.
Instead, almost every venue has a band playing during all hours of trade!

Casa de la Musica is definitely worth a visit, however I was most impressed by the bands at smaller venues!

The small bars are ace at night!!
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My favourite band were at Cafe Paris...
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Walking the back streets of central Havana, I stumbled upon a massive block party.
They had set up massive speakers in the middle of the street, and guys were rapping in heavy Español Cubano with an enormous, rapturous crown encircling them. It was MEGA!!

During my time a huge public concert took place to celebrate Independence Day.
It felt like most of Havana came for it. It was a spectacular setting, with musicians from all over the world including China visiting to perform.

Setting up....
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During the show...
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Cubans take music very, very seriously and it is their national passion.
I haven't seen virtuosity, unassuming talent or genuine interest in music like this anywhere else.
Lone pianist... twinkling the ivories
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The big hotels are worth visiting even if you don't stay in them.
They are relatively unchanged since the 60's and all have working banks, salons, etc, and are immaculately kept.
The Museo de Revolución took 4 solid hours to pass through, and documents Che and Fidel's revolution in meticulous fashion!
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Revolution Square is also well worth a visit!
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Havana at night is also magnificent.....
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Just like any tourist destination, there are sharks, but harmless if you politely catch them out and decline their game.
There is a visible police/military presence especially at closing time...but not perturbingly so.

Pimps are everywhere, and they will make it their business to convince every male they meet (single or not!) that their providers can make your Cuban stay more authentic.
I was out with a lady friend from Colombia one night, and still had to shoo a cheeky pimp and one of his ladies away!

Resources

I definitely recommend taking a guidebook.
You can find (slow) wi-fi at the big hotels, however you need to purchase an exorbitantly expensive login card, which aren't necessarily available at the hotels themselves.

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I also used a fantastic offline app called Havana Good Time which contains many user reviews.

I'll be back....

...more from Cuba shortly.... Viñales, Varadero, Cinfuegos and Trinidad.

'luego!

(sad to leave Havana...)
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Posted by SkinnyFists 14:59 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba music havana salsa havana_veijo casa_particulars Comments (0)

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