Six days in Cuba

Two nights in the remote seaside village acros de canasi.img_0720

For Americans the ability to travel to Cuba is a recent opportunity due to the restoration in the relationship between Cuba and the United States in December, 2014. However the first commercial flights for non-Cuban natives began in late 2016. Now, pretty affordably and a 45 minute hop from Southern Florida airports Americans can enjoy what the rest of the world has been enjoying for the last fifty years. Visit quickly because the intrigue of Cuba is the extreme lack of US influence and commercialize. Our visit brought us to a country where time both stopped and continued since the 1960/1961 embargo. The beauty of Cuba at its height of decadence is still evident in the extraordinary architecture but the austerity measures and lack of low-cost trading is evident in the dilapidation of many of these grand buildings. However, growth and rehabilitation are imminent as restoration and infrastructure projects could be seen throughout the country especially in Havana. The Castro administration has developed several restoration projects funded through tourist money to repair the aging architecture. So how did we spend our six days? We had two Casas Particulares (private homes where rooms are available to rent similar to a B&b) booked and a tentative plan to visit Mantazas, Acros de Canasi, Havana and Varadero. img_0551

We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Varadero on Southwest Airlines and shared a cab with another couple to the center of Mantazas. Mantazas is an untouched, working city with a bustling open air market, countless extremely specific vendors in doorways throughout the city and a winning baseball team. The grid system of the city made it easy to navigate and we quickly found our pre-booked casa. A modest room with a double bed and twin bed, private bathroom and private balcony. We quickly changed out of our winter weather clothes and escaped into the sun to catch the second game of a double header of the Mantazas Gators. Arriving at the game we were greeted by dozens of food stalls selling fried chicken, roast ham sandwiches, fried plantains and much more. We purchased some chicken, met an MLB all star home for the off season and paid 3 CUCs to enter the game.img_0560 Games are seat yourself on massive stone bleachers. We sat in the shade with the majority of the crowd behind first base to cheer for the first place Gators. You would think the Gators were in seven of the world series from the passion of the crowd. Observing the heated conversations, cheers and jowls made the very long game extremely entertaining. About three hours in and only the fourth inning we left the game to explore more of the city (The Gators won we later learned). We lived by our Lonely Planet book which had some wins and misses. At this time Cuba is not a food destination and even the nicest restaurants in each city, although very affordable, were pretty standard fare. You are able to cover most of Mantazas highlights in one day. Visiting on a Thursday evening the night life was quiet but a few of the cafes were open for mojitos.

Throughout the country Spanish is the only language spoken. Some of our hosts spoke some English but a phrase book and some basic language skills will help. More comfortable Spanish speakers will be able to enjoy candid conversations with the Cuban people, learn the best places to visit and discover new opportunities making the trip infinitely more meaningful.

We woke up early to make one of the two departure times for the famous Hershey Train to our next destination. The Hershey Train, a relic from the US industrialization of Cuba, is a VERY slow electric train that travels from Manatazas to Havana stopping at every single shed, farm, town and tree. We arrived just on time for our train after some trouble getting exact change for the 80 cent train ticket.

The train unfortunately was too full so we had to “wait for a new train to arrive” which seemed to be code for wait out the other people until there are less people on the train. The total wait was an hour and my travel partner was able to run into town to retrieve a bottle of water for our journey before I died of dehydration ( a common fear of mine throughout travel). I would definitely recommend buying water bottles when you can because there are not as commonly sold as you would hope. We soon learned the stops are not as well marked as one with limited knowledge of the train route would hope. Pre-thinking would have brought a map of the stops with us to better measure our Acros de Canasi stop. We were able to use our jumbled Spanish to ask some local passengers to let us know when we arrived at our destination. In Acros de Canasi we had pre-booked to stay with Natasha after the flattering  Guardian article. We sent Natasha an email asking if she could arrange a taxi for us upon our arrival into town. Much to our surprise and delight our taxi was a horse drawn cart and a young man on a bike to translate.

We very much enjoyed the cart ride through the extremely rural town about five miles into the wilderness to Natasha’s casa. Natasha was every bit gregarious and welcoming as the article described. Her home was incredibly comfortable, her meals fresh and delicious and no lack of adventures to discover. We spent a leisurely evening around the outdoor dinner table eating fresh fish, chatting with the two other guests, Natasha and her novio and the house assistant Dori. We had a restful, moijito fueled sleep to the sound of wild animals and the breeze through the trees. The next day our young horse cart friend took us on a thirty minute walk for a snorkeling adventure. The sea was pretty rough and my good sense should have taken over instead of desire for adventure. We were whipped around through a strong currant, bashed against rocks and unable to see any coral. The experience was very different than you would find in more regulated parts of the world and would have been incredible if not for the choppy conditions.

Evening cliff walk. Maybe a bit easier for the locals

Spanish was very useful when yelling for help a hundred yards from the coast. We were then taken to a much more peaceful snorkeling area which will remain a puzzle why we weren’t taken there first. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon snorkeling and swimming in the bay and finished the day with a terrifying cliff walk and another fresh dinner.

We decided to spend another night at Natasha’s house and leave for Havana in the morning. We arranged for a taxi in the morning to take us to Havana about 60 CUCs. Every taxi is a an antique car making the drive an event in itself. We drive down the coast enjoying the views for the hour drive. We were dropped off around lunch in San Francisco square and aimed to find a hotel. Unfortuantely, we soon discovered most of the hotels were booked but a consierge was able to help us find  a near by apartment to rent. Most casas and apartments will run you anywhere from 30 CUCs in Mantazas to 70 CUCs in Havana and about 5 CUCs per meal per person. We spent the day walking around the city spending most of our time in Old Havana and finding our way to city hall. The building were beautiful and the city was bustling. Havana has the most tourist vibe of our destinations. It was difficult to walk more than a few steps with out being asked if we needed a taxi or a guide. It was hard to decipher deals versus scams and the streets were packed with tourists from all over the world. We didn’t have any great meals in Havana while following the Lonely Planet book but there are definitely more choices than the other towns we visited. We walked around the city the whole day but decided we much preferred the countryside and planned to take the 6 AM bus out of Havana the next day back to Varadero to spend a beach day before our flight the following day. The bus itself was convenient, it is important to book in advance.

The station however was about thirty minutes outside of the city and an expensive cab ride, especially at 4 am when negotiating was not in our favor. We slept through the bus ride and arrived in Varadero bright and early in time for breakfast. We did not have a place booked so we walked around old Varadero ( the non resort end) identifying casas from the Lonely Planet book. Everywhere was full and finding the internet hot spot was time consuming.

Sunset at Varadero Beach

We ended up booking a small hotel for 80 CUCs just to have somewhere to put our bags and start to enjoy the beach. The sand was white and the ocean was blue, warm and calm. We spent the whole day swimming and relaxing after the rapid travel days. A few restaurants were closed because it was Monday but we enjoyed our best meal (bar Natasha’s cooking) of the trip at Salsa Suarez. The nightlife was filled with rowdy groups going to the kitschy touristy bars but we enjoyed ourselves with a long walk up and down the main street. Funny enough the NFL was playing in Mexico that Monday night so we were able to catch the Raiders play at our hotel bar. Sleep was a bit interrupted by the unknown nightclub downstairs but we were able to wake up early and enjoy a few hours on the beach before our afternoon flight. At this point we were more confident in our negotiating skills and coordinated a 30 CUC taxi ride to the airport. We arrived earlier than necessary but with a new flight route we were more cautious than a normal sprint to the jet way. Sad to leave Cuba but happy to be back to the comforts of home. So after six days we are complete experts on everything Cuba so here our take aways:

  • The Cuban goverment regulates all of the wireless access in the country through ETECSA. ETECSA sells WiFi access cards (Tarjeta de Navegacion) for 2 CUC/hr (e.g. 5 hours for 10 CUC, valid for 30 days from initial use). This access can be used at any of the WiFi access points ETECSA (aka Nauta, Cubacel or Telepunto offices (Tripadvisor). You will use the code to access WiFi at designated hotspots across the country. We had the most luck in hotel lobbies and public parks. There was no wireless access in Acros de Canasi and limited in old Varadero. This leads to the second point..
  • It was harder than anticipated to book good places to stay while in Cuba due to limited internet access (not impossible, just more difficult). The flexibility of deciding the journey upon arrival is appealing but it was frustrating (for me more than my partner) to walk around looking for places to stay when we could be bag-less and enjoying the sites. Have a good idea of your route and see if you can gauge availability of different places.
  • Public transportation was generally good. We didn’t get to use the public bus system but on our next trip we will definitely try to navigate it. Taxis were our most expensive indulgence of the trip but with more negotiating could have probably been more affordable.
  • Print and bring with you bus schedules, train schedules and a maps since they are not very publicly available and you can’t rely on wifi.
  • Bring water bottles and a few snacks but generally food is easy enough to source
  • Meals are inexpensive, take advantage of your Casa’s offerings for dinner and breakfast because they will often be better than the restaurant offerings
  • Rum, cigars and coffee are a great deal and negotiating is permitted in the shops. Look around for the best deals and don’t get tricked by those selling cigars on the streets.
  • Try to convert some of your CUCs (Cuban tourist money) to the local money for small purchases at street carts and shops. You will get a much better deal on street food.
  • Talk to other travelers and locals to learn about places to visit. We were disappointed to miss out on Vinales after hearing terrific things from other tourists but will plan to visit on our next trip.
  • The island seemed small to me at first but it actually takes quite a bit of time to travel between places so don’t over extend yourself to visit the different cities. Stick to a region if you only have limited time.
  • Pack light especially if you are travelling around. It makes it all much easier!

Our trip to Cuba was an incredible adventure and won’t be soon forgotten. I feel lucky to have visited the country on the cusp of what is bound to be some major changes and can’t wait to return!

Author: catontheroadblog

Excessive business traveler, leaving east coast-semi urban life for rural, over seas adventure.

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