We found ourselves with so many questions about so many subjects. What was really behind the Revolution? How did Castro's initial plan evolve? Why in the world would you not take care of your water system? Why does my stomach still hurt?
Then there is Che Guevara. A hero to some, anti-establishment rebel to others.
All these questions and more.......
Okay, story, details, mistakes, money and tips later....
We had arranged to stay in a Casa Particular (a private home) in the neighborhood of Miramar. We stayed in a upstairs apartment with a deck, sitting area, bedroom, bath and kitchen. The cost was $45 CUC (Convertible Peso) a night. I will explain the Cuba Cash in a bit.
The plan was to be picked up at the airport by one of the family members of the home, uncle Walfrido.
After we were "approved" to enter the land of Cuba (immigration & customs) we indeed saw a man holding up a sign with our name. We smiled; waved; hugged and met Walfrido!
It took us about 20 minutes to get to our host's casa, her name is Araceli and she spoke English-yeah! We were first welcomed by her two small dogs, named Champagne and Cognac- these are names I could remember. Walfrido showed us to our room and we settled in a bit. Here is the Casa Particular and me.
I knew we were not to drink the water, so I suggested we go to a store (la tienda) and get a lot of bottled water. At this point, I still thought breakfast was included with our stay.
First mistake- not asking ahead if breakfast was included.
You can reserve Casa Particular's via the internet and many do provide breakfast and meals -
so I assumed wrong.
When we got back to the house, and scoped out the kitchen, we realized there was NO COFFEE! Yaah!! I exaggerate this point, because I become a beast without it, in fact, I did not see a coffee machine or percolator, or anything that we could create a make-shift drip coffee maker. No paper towels or napkins.
I went down stairs and kindly inquired about morning coffee. Araceli thought she had a small pot somewhere and Walfrido whisked out the door to get us some coffee, at this point, I knew breakfast was out, and we should have grabbed a few items at the store. Walfrido returned with a large bag of Cuban coffee and Araceli, did indeed find the coffee maker.
Time for lunch.
Havana proper was about 20 minutes from the Casa. Walfrido took us to a Gringo restaurant in the center of Havana, this means it had Gringo prices $$$. It was good, but not great- our opinion of Cuban food lingered throughout the trip.
PLUS, It was just the beginning of our trip and since charge cards are not accepted there(yet), we had to stick to a budget. Oh yeah, and you can forget about ATM's, they don't work, at least when we were there.
We knew there were a lot of choices for restaurants, so we asked for cheap alternatives "Barato" in Spanish.
Money. There are two currencies.
CUC ("kook") Convertible Peso- for tourists and CUP Cuban Peso-for Cubans.
You can get CUP, it's legal, it is just that most restaurants in tourist areas accept CUC. We just made it easy on ourselves and stayed with that.
At the time of our trip, the CUC was 1-to-1 fixed exchange rate with a 3% conversion charge AND if you are a US citizen you will pay 10% more for the conversion.
If you have other currencies, British Pounds, Euros, etc. you will not have to pay the extra 10%. Just the way it is. A $1 will be worth .87 Cuban cents.
It's worth it!
You should exchange some at the airport, just so you have some with you because Cuba is the only place you can do the exchange. Once outside the airport, you can use Banks, Cadecas (Government exchage houses) or your hotel/resort may have availability to do the exchange, just ask ahead.
Picked up cousin Alexander for an evening of art, culture and early morning dancing!
Alexander spoke English quite well. He would be our tour guide for the evening, and the following day.
He did not have a car, so Walfrido would be waiting in his car while Alexander conducted the tour. This "waiting" was a bit of a surprise also, because we ended up paying "for the wait".
We were happy to have Walfrido take us around, but we did not know he would be hanging out until we were done with our activities, we just assumed he would drop us off, go get other taxi gigs and then pick us up-NOPE!
A Secret Gem! Incredible Art!
Alexander took us to the FAC (Fabrica De Arte Cubano). If you are even a bit interested in art, you need to go to FAC!
They are open from 8pm to 3am, Thursday to Sunday. It cost $2 CUC to get in and it is an amazing mix of abstract art, music, color, video and drinks! Get there early, as the lines can get long, I mean around the corner of the building LONG!
Don't miss it!
I wanted to add a small picture of the outside, so you could recognize it at night. Here is the Facebook page link, from there you can go to their website, link: FAC.
We stayed at FAC about an hour and half. We definitely could have stayed longer, but we had mentioned to Alexander that we wanted to hang out a bit with the "locals" and he suggested a dance club.
Walfrido took us to Palacio de la Rumba. Great fun! Of course Alexander knew everyone and we all danced until 3am. The website is in Spanish, so you can connect to the Facebook Page HERE. Jonathan had a bit too much Rum, but Walfrido took us home safely. The day and evening "WAIT" charge for Walfrido was $110! Yeow!
Friday was our Havana city tour with Alexander.
We were to meet at 10am, well, we rolled out of bed at 10:30am, so that didn't happen. We made some strong Cuban coffee, showered and headed down to greet the family, Walfrido's son was there, his name was also Walfrido!
He was about to walk to work, so it was really nice to meet another family member. We found out later that he was a lawyer; paid by the government, about $25 a week. Wow!
We really needed to talk to Araceli about the co$t of transportation, regarding Walfrido's wait time charge, and to see if he could just drop us off and pick us up. We were afraid we were going to run out of money.
Jonathan had a friend who ran out of money in Cuba a few years back and he had to sell his computer to have money for the rest of the trip. We didn't have a computer with us and my Android was not going anywhere!
Third mistake. We Didn't Bring Enough Cash. Maybe a couple hundred more than you think you will spend, just in case you see something else you want to do.
The breakfast stop turned out to be only 5 blocks away....
and it was a pleasant walk. The building was old, the menus were new, but like much of Cuba, the food was in a "Time Warp". I am sure there are varied opinions here, but don't go to Cuba for the food and we didn't, so that was fine. I was surprised by the lack of spices and the amount of oil on the eggs- No Chewing Required.
Be prepared for lots bland beans and rice. I did catch a glimpse of a plastic bottle labeled "Salsa", but it was near the bathrooms, not near the tables for the offering.
Here is the view from our table. It is one of many of Che Guevara, under the mural, the translations is: "Man of Action and Courage".
Walfrido had a plan for us before picking up Alexander.
He took us to the Plaza de la Revolution -another great stop! You will find some outstanding landmarks including the Jose Marti Memorial, Cuba's largest library, and the Government ministry offices.
One building is bearing the image of Che Guevara, and the other is Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel's right hand man and confident.
This is a huge square and one of the areas where Fidel Castro addressed the Cuban people. Below is a picture of part of the square with Jose Marti Memorial in the background and a line of classic car taxi's lined up in the parking lot.
Above, I'm taking in the space (I'm in the hat and green shirt) while Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building. Below the steel sculpture of his face are the words "Hasta La Victoria Siempre", meaning Until Victory, Always..........or Always till the Victory, one of his well known slogans.
Now....... on to pick up Alexander.
Alexander gave us a walking tour starting with Plaza De Armas. This is oldest square in Havana, laid out in the early 1520's. The connecting park is beautiful and the square itself is filled with restaurants, art, bars, museums and hotels, all located in stunning historical buildings from the 16th to 20th century. Visit Museo de la Ciudad if you love history or just check out the lush courtyard.
Even though many of the buildings are deteriorating, Havana is teeming with color, energy and constant activity.
There are also a lot of taxi peddlers! Probably good, the roads & sidewalks can be a challenge. No heels ladies!
As we walked, I felt comfortable enough to ask Alexander if he had ever attempted to leave Cuba and how he sees his life here.
Without hesitation, but in a lower than normal tone, he said, "There are a lot of opinions, but I live in a society where my children are safe on the streets with no fear of rape or trafficking, there are no guns or drugs on the streets". "It's not perfect, and there are some bad people, but my children and I have free medical attention; education and Fidel has taken care us".
We continued down the road.......
You never know what you will find in the side streets.......
We enjoyed the wonderful bronze statues throughout the city symbolizing prominent citizens, musicians or political figures.
On to Plaza Vieja, another lovely stop, the Architecture is outstanding. You will find 20th century Art Nouveau buildings, to Art Deco, to Spanish influences. If you have time, check out the art galleries in the Casa de los condes De Jauco building, in fact there are galleries on most corners.
Time for a beer, Jonathan's favorite type of corner! Sit outside and enjoy the live music at Factoria Plaza Vieja, (below) one of Cuba's microbreweries. They serve pints of light, medium and dark brews with a full menu of food. The beer is VERY good!
Just catty-corner from the beer garden, you will find Camera Obscura (see tiny hut outside for the tickets, $2 CUC).
It is the only Camera Obscura in Latin America, and is one of 74 worldwide.
Camera Obscura is latin for dark room and that's basically what you enter on the top level.
After being shuffled into the small dark room, the presenter entered and we gathered around a concave platform. There is a periscope above, that projects onto the concave screen, giving everyone a live 360 degree view of the city of Havana, very cool! The presentation was good and took about 10 minutes, then you can step out on the roof (picture below) and roam around seeing the rooftops of buildings, underwear flapping on clotheslines, balconies, Jonathan's beer stop below, churches, etc.
We continued the walking tour, visiting the Museum of the Revolution, which used to be Fulgencio Batista Palace before the revolution, Cathedral of Havana and Castillo de la Real Fuerza - a fortress which is considered to be the oldest stone fortress in the Americas (not pictured).
The Museum of the Revolution includes an inside area and outside area (above) .
This impressive display of military vehicles, boats and planes from the Bay of Pigs, and Fidel's Revolutionary attempts. Definitely worth a look!
There is SO much to see & many guided tours available that you can book before you head there. We did some research before we went, and took two days just to explore on our own. See my link at the end (In the TIPS area) for a free Cuba travel guide.
If you are interested in hearing some Cuban music, you will see and hear it all over the city. We did not visit Buena Vista Social club as it was out of our budget. No big deal, really, there is music everywhere. Feel free to dance in the streets, or alongside the open air restaurants with the bands- I did!
When we travel, we try to visit, donate, or volunteer at animal organizations in need.
There is only one animal protection organization that is officially recognized by the Cuban government, however they have no monetary help from the government.
The name of the organization is TAP Project and it depends exclusively on donated funds in order to operate. Here is a link for Aniplant, Love the Animals. If you would like to donate items (on your visit) or money, it would be GREATLY appreciated.
We were not able to coordinate times to visit the facility, as it is not always open, however we were able to connect to another organization called the Spanky Project.
Walfrido had recently assisted with volunteers who had come from Canada to Havana for a mass sterilization, so he knew the project manager, Susana Hurlich. We took our donation, (new collars, leashes and canvas dog food bags) to her home and she gave us an overview of the organization and current state of animal care and protection in Cuba.
Many of the volunteers, both workers and vets are Cuban, American and Canadian. The Spanky Project is a not-for-profit Canadian organization dedicated to the welfare of cats, dogs and coach horses. Their services are free and they provide education, supplies and mass sterilization campaigns in Havana and rural areas.
Sunday had arrived and so was our Vinales trip! Horses! Tobacco! Rolling hills! Internet Card!
Quick Note: You can get online in some of the major hotels in Havana, no one cares if you step in and connect, but you might want to buy a beer or cocktail, remember to forgo the ice! You can also find buildings bearing the name ETECSA, purchase a internet card, called a NAUTA. One hour is around $2.75 CUC and you have 30 days to use it.
Walfrido's brother, Tito, picked us up in his red 50's Chevy. The trip to Vinales took about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Many farmers and families still ride small horse drawn carriages along the side of the highway. I couldn't get a picture because of their speed AND ours, however, I was so happy to see healthy looking horses pulling skinny people or light loads, I'm sure this not always the case, but we saw at least 20 horses and they were in good condition.
We had given Tito the phone number and address of our Casa Particular in Vinales, but he still had a hard time finding it. There was a festival crammed into the main road, so he asked for help, took some back roads and we arrived. We reserved this room online and it turned out to be very nice, no one spoke English, so everyone just points, smiles and plays a bit of Charades. The cost for one night was $35 CUC and breakfast $5 CUC each.
Our tobacco tour/horseback ride started at 1pm, so we needed to grab some lunch. Tito showed us where the nearest lunch spot was and a way he went to where ever he was staying for the night.
To the right is part of our menu in Vinales, for lunch.
They had a wide variety of meat and veggies however we were told there was no fish (pescado) today, but they had tuna.
That was a bit puzzling, but not as much as the description for Aporreado de Atun "Beat the tuna" I usually love tuna, but decided to pass on the tortured tuna before the horseback ride.
Beans and Rice was just fine.
Jose', the Cuban cowboy, met us at our Casa at 1pm sharp, and we went a-walkin down the road, right through the middle of the festival.
Jose' only knew a few words of English, so we never found out what the festival was for?!?
Our answer was always "Festival"! "Festival"!
The "Festival"! had those kind of rides that screamed 80's music in your face as you waited in line, some English, some Spanish, we walked faster........
We headed down a long path with a beautiful view of the hills and farms ahead. See tobacco plants below. A bit further, we met our horses who were parked in the shade.
The ride to the Tobacco huts was very nice although a bit hot. The horses appeared healthy and happy and Jose was great! Below is Jose, Jonathan and a horse butt.
By the way Jose' had no supplies; waivers or water, so you might want to bring something to drink and plenty of sunscreen. There are a few tobacco tours to choose from, so maybe just ask ahead of time if they supply bottle
About 30 minutes down the road we arrived at the tobacco hut and greeted the farmer. He did not speak English.
BUT, it was then we realized Google translate worked on my Android without wifi!
It was great!! I asked the farmer questions and it translated perfectly.
He showed us the tobacco fields, the drying hut and explained that the tobacco took a year to grow; dries for a month, then cures in the hut.
Okay, I know, I look like a Circus Clown in this picture below, but I totally forgot my riding pants and long sleeve shirt-ugghh, this was the only clothes left that could "filth up", I even matched the chairs and counters, how weird, but we had a great time, so who cares!
He also showed the process of rolling a cigar. He put a tiny bit of honey on the end and it was ready to smoke! I don't smoke, but I love the taste and smell, then he handed us each a small glass of rum as we chatted via Android. It was very nice and Jonathan bought 3o cigars for $60.
After the ride, Jose walked us back through the festival, all the way to our house. The rest of the evening we sat on the front porch sipping rum and tasting the fresh honey tobacco.
The next morning, the hosts served breakfast which consisted of a round cheese sandwich (with or without meat), toast with mango preserve, oily eggs, fresh mango juice fruit and coffee. It was nice.
Tito arrived at 9am sharp to take us back to Havana. We asked him if we could get an internet card, which was just 6 blocks away. No problem.
Arrived safely back in Havana. We ate leftovers in the fridge might have been my Fourth mistake.
THEN, onto my Fifth mistake. I totally spaced, and brushed my teeth with the water.
Monday morning, I had a rush of internal activity and it wasn't from the coffee. Something was in me, causing a rukus in the bathroom, I was SICK.
Soooo, it was either brushing my teeth with the water OR the leftover fish.
Jonathan was fine, he did not eat fish or brush his teeth with the faucet water, so we'll never really know where I adopted the Cuban bacteria.
Here's what's weird, I grabbed some immodium and with the exception of being a little tired, we were able to walk around most of the afternoon and explore the streets of Havana on our own.
We ate light and the next day, was not too bad. Walfrido took us to the airport early as Aracelie told us we could eat there, Uh, No.
If you want ice cream, a can of Pringles, Or a nasty looking bread and meat sandwich, you are good to go, so NO.
Anyway, I felt a little floaty, but no sprints to the Bano(bathroom), thought the "Cuban" had left my belly.
WRONG! A day after I got back I realized I was still with CUBAN, I had Dehli Belly, a seriously protruding pot belly; severe headache and pretty much could not put a sentence together. I'm sure you don't need the details, but the headaches, dopiness and stomach problems lasted for 13 days, hence the title of this article- With Cuban.
Now let's get to the tips about going to Cuba and having a great time! You can get sick anywhere and I have, here at home.
**Check out our 10 tips below and THEN our 5 highlighted mistakes above.**
1. We flew on Jet Blue out of Fort Lauderdale. You can purchase your Visa at a booth near your out-going gate, the cost is $50 for each person. The line was long, so make sure you have enough time between flights, it took about 40 minutes there, maybe you will get lucky.
2. We felt privileged to be able to visit Cuba on 2017! The Cuban people are extremely friendly, just smile and say "Buenos Dias"! We felt perfectly safe walking around with cameras and phones in sight, just use the same "common sense" security measures that you would on any trip.
3. Not ALL bars and restaurants have great Mojitos in Cuba. The Bar/Restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio is where the Mojito was born, our favorite for Mojitos And Daiquiris was Floriditas --oh my, so good. Easy to find, Great Drinks click for their website.
4. If you are not traveling in a tour group and decide to stay in a Casa Particular, ask your host about the distance and cost of the taxi. I will tell you from Miramar, which was a safe quiet neighborhood, the cost was $30 CUC to the airport and $20 CUC into the city for a drop off~ We finally got that worked out with Walfrido. Our trip to Vinales was $200 CUC round trip, some tour companies charge $250.
5. Great book, before, during and after your trip, answered most of my questions above. The Cuba Reader: Get it HERE
6. It is possible to exchange your money at the airport before you leave Havana but.... Departure lines can be long. After standing in line 40 minutes our clerk decided to go to lunch, OFFICE CLOSED, until he returned. Our flight was leaving in 35 minutes, we never exchanged our last $40 CUC's. So, please get in early and don't bother looking for food, eat before you go to the airport.
7. As mentioned above, take a little more money than you think you might need. We had scheduled a Havana City bike tour on our last full day and did not have enough for that~next time.
Best Cuba Street Map StreetSmart Havana--You can get it here *LINK*
9. Bring Toilet Paper, if your traveling outside Havana and need to stop before another major city, there is a good chance that you will either have to tip someone to get a handful or it just ain't there!
10. BEST website for a free Cuba travel guide, is HERE from Wikitravel.org/Cuba. Tons of information including money exchange, transportation, places to see, history, fake cigars and much more!
Have you visited Cuba lately? Would love hear your experiences!
Please comment below.
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