Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cuba through my eyes, part two


Casa particulares are are the most common and also cheapest option for accommodation in Cuba. Most places ask 20-30 CUCs per night, depending on location and time of the year. If you stay longer, you can bargain down the price. Most casas offer also catering, which usually costs less than in usual cafeterias and restaurants and is often much higher both in quality and quantity. The breakfast is often 3-5 CUCs and the dinner 7-10 CUCs. Never got around to ask about the lunch, but i'm sure it's also very available.

Casa particular is usually in a form of room with a double bed / twin beds and a private bathroom. Most of the time family lives in the same house with you, but often you have your own entrance and of course private bathroom. The thing i love about casas is no check-out time. It's all how you arrange with the owner.

The trouble with casa particulars is that while they are an excellent value for two people, they are not so cheap for a single traveler (on the budget). Youth hostels as such are not really common in Cuba and hotels are more expensive than casas. Couchsurfing is illegal, because Cubans are forbidden to accommodate foreigners. That's what casas are meant for.

Interesting thing about casas is that government doesn't allow to accommodate more than 2 people in one casa room. When a person/family wants to open a casa particular, they need an official licence and in order to get it they have to pay a fee of 175 CUCs. They also have to pay 175 CUCs every month for a monthly fee, whether they have clients or not. There is a fair amount of illegal casas, which doesn't right away mean that they are worse. The legal casas write down your passport details with great care, illegal ones don't even ask for your documents. There are said to be very harsh punishments for operating an illegal casa, but i guess the risk is worth taking. Once you have opened a casa you can't just shut it down when there's a low tourist season, the paperwork is supposed to be suicidal and you may not be able to resume ever again. In a dire need you can however convert into a casa meant specially only for Cubans (lower licence fees), but even that was supposed to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Huuuge apartment building complex in Havana


Buses in the cities are usual, but for traveling between the cities Cubans use besides small number of local buses also trucks and government-mandated hitch-hiking. Cars with blue and red plate-numbers are obliged to pick up hitch-hikers if they have any free place in the car. There are special officials who organize pickups by the biggest roads leading out of town. I didn't get to try that system, mostly because of big distances i had to travel and i didn't want to get stuck in some God forsaken village in the middle of nowhere. If i had more time and lighter bag, it would be very much fun to give it a try. But i did hear that it's actually illegal for cars to pick up tourists, because for tourists there is a special expensive bus network, that they are supposed to use. And use only that. If in Mexico for example, the ticket prices are all the same for everybody, then in Cuba there are special foreigner prices and they are quite hefty. The cheapest route i paid was 11 CUCs and most expensive 40 CUCs.

Trucks that drive between the cities at random intervals and pick up locals

Astro buses in the station
In the cities, taxis are of course widely available, but they can be expensive (5-15 CUCs/drive) and if you don't know any Spanish and you are really touristy-looking, some of the drivers try to get you confused and charge more.
For example: i took a taxi to the bus-station and asked the driver about the price before getting in. The driver says 5 CUCs, one the way he starts talking "but if you mean that other bus-station" (which is the one i need to go to and he knows it) then that one is much further and costs 10 CUCs. I started protesting and he says, ok, let's make it 8 CUCs. When i told him that the price is 5 CUC, just as we agreed and if he doesn't like it anymore, he can stop the car and i will get another taxi, he was again satisfied with the initial price. So you really have to know at least a bit of Spanish if you want to be able to stand up for yourself and tell freeloaders to fuck off.

Coco taxis cruising the city, they are cheaper than usual taxis, but also smaller.
Talking about transportation i cannot of course not mention all those super-cool Oldsmobiles cruising the streets, though by now they are being already out-numbered by modern cars. Of all the places i visited, Havana had the biggest % of Oldsmobiles.


It's very cool and funny in travel forums or travel journals to make Cuba out to be this "third world" country, where people haven't gotten out of 50's, think that colorful plastic bags are the height of fashion and of course have never heard of computers. The truth is that people in Cuba dress just as fashionably as for example people in Estonia (in the summer :)), wear the same Dolce & Gabbana fake sunglasses as Estonians do and are generally quite well equipped. Of course it's all very recent and i don't even doubt that there are very many poor people, but all in all we're not talking about a country stuck in the past anymore.

Yes, life in Cuba is in many ways very restricted and limitations in some areas are crippling, but i don't like how well-off tourists make Cubans out to be some wild bushmans who just yesterday learned how to use a fork and are now being taught to read & write.

Shopping is of course in much smaller scale and western-style shopping centres are in rather short supply, but that's not the same thing as "they are stuck in the 50's". Havana has some extensive and lively shopping streets, where the choice is very decent though not of course on the level of over-saturated western countries. Small cities are not so enlightened yet, but i guess it's only matter of time.

There are also "local products shops", where the choice really might seem nostalgic for some: meters and meters of shelves stocked with only one kind of local shampoo or a soap bar etc. In most nicer shops they want you to leave your bag to a special "bag guarding booth", usually operated by random people on the street. I guess it's for preventing thefts, but it became very tiresome for me. I didn't feel particularly overjoyed with the idea of leaving my camera bag along with my documents and money to a random paper-walled booth, specially if i wasn't really interested in shopping, but just walking around with curiosity.

Everything worth "shopping" is sold in tourist currency, in CUCs. In Havana i couldn't find a simple notebook, but for example a computer shop was fully stocked, and not with 486's i have to add :). Sport department had everything from bicycles to baseball bats and the ladies area had also a decent choice of perfumes, clothing and other trinkets. I was walking around in Adidas representative shop (there are very many of them in Havana, btw) and the choice was very good and prices cheaper than in Estonia. Of course the value of money for locals is not the same as for us. With an honest job a Cuban will earn about 12-15 CUCs a month. But if the shampoo costs 1-3 CUCs, a computer 600-1000 CUCs, modern fridge about 800-1000 CUCs, Adidas shoes for men minimum 50 CUCs etc, then you can imagine that with prices like these, most modern amenities are out of reach for that honest-working Cuban. This is where the inventive nature of Cubans kicks in. All kinds of interesting services and offers. Sometimes they go too far and their behaviour turns into harassment, but it generally seems that you can live quite ok in Cuba if you have some entrepreneurial thinking.

One of the shops selling the "local stuff"

Display window for "new stuff"


But all in all i'm wondering if i'm accidentally in a wrong country or something, because the Cuba i see is almost totally different from the one i was warned against or what forum posts described. OK, i understand that things changed and some of these forums posts were couple of years old, but society, attitudes, behaviours etc, they don't change so quickly. And i can very well believe that there's a considerable number of people who have opted not to go to Cuba based on that very same misleading and even inflammatory information given. Who wants to be harassed by prostitutes and sales guys while being ripped off in every restaurant you eat in and charged double with every other service. When every contact you have with locals is later billed accordingly and nobody is just nice for being nice. Where food is terrible and country is still living in the past. Can't really blame those people who read that and think "I don't need that grief!" and decide to go to France instead.

And it's sad because most people are very friendly and helpful, music cheerful and captivating, mojitos wonderful and food very decent. Just get out of big cities and you see & experience quite a different Cuba. So i must be in the wrong country or in the "other Cuba", because i like it and think it's definitely worth a visit.
Leave your bodyguards home!


1. When you arrive in Cuba, your first step is to exchange money into CUCs or withdraw from ATM. I recommend to exchange about 10 CUCs also into local cuban pesos, this way you can pay for street food, shop on the market etc. For exchanging money use only CADECA offices.

2. It was useful for me to keep my cuban pesos and CUCs in different pockets (i always carry money on me as opposed in the wallet in my bag). Don't hold money in a bundle so that if you have to pay for something you have to take out all of it at once and count in public. For me it was very comfortable to fold my money so i could take every bill out separately.

3. Do not make the mistake i made of assuming that there should be at least one ATM in every town. Havana gives an illusion that ATMs are quite available, but in reality they are not. I didn't find one neither in Pinar Del Rio, Viñales nor in Trinidad. I had with me some euros for backup and exchanging those was the only way i managed to finance my trip until the very end.

4. Try to buy your bus-tickets before hand. Viazul (main busline catering foreigners) takes also reservation by phone, but min. 24h before departure. Your casa owner can help you with reserving a seat.

5. Bus air-conditioning varies from slightly chilly to fucking freezing, so take always something warm with you in the bus. And it's not a joke, i saw plenty of tourists trying to huddle together to get some warmth.

6. Bring your own toilet paper, wet napkins and every other tissue paper you need.

7. If you are a tourist, you will encounter many situations where you are being asked to pay for something you're not really supposed to pay for.

For example, in the bus-stations there are often special guys who take your luggage, "check it in", put in under the bus and give you a numbered receipt for that. Some more entrepreneurial ones of them will ask you to pay for that service, by pointing to a small pile of money next to his papers or saying stuff like "propina" (tip) or "regalo" (gift). You can tell him to go to hell, because that's his job and you don't have to pay extra for it. For example in Trinidad i refused to pay and the guy got really pissed at me. And not so much because i didn't give him money, but because people in the line behind me also heard the argument and decided not to pay as well.

The toilets are often paid as well, there's no particular fee, they will just point to a pile of coins. This is the place where i usually got rid of my cuban peso coins, instead of tipping 1-2 CUCs, which was definitely expected.

8. The time when Cubans were lacking toothpaste or shampoo is over. No doubt there are very poor families, but you're not likely to meet them. And people who manage casa particulares seem to be generally very well off, at least so were the families i stayed with. Trying to buy yourself a dicount or something with a nailpolish or a shampoo isn't going to work anymore, so don't burden your luggage.

9. If you know any Spanish, turn to people always using Spanish. Speaking in English will right away "mark" you in their eyes and i've personally seen how the service quality/fee changes, and not for the better. Besides the usual phrases like "how much costs .. ?" and "where is .. ?" i also recommend to learn how to say "speak slower/clearer", because Cuban Spanish is anything but slow and clear :).

10. If you must take with you "Lonely Planet" or some other guide-book (though in my opinion you can very successfully travel also without those expensive bricks) don't walk around with them. Lonely Planet in the hands = stupid tourist.

And so on so forth.

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